Kissinger on Vietnam: A few mistakes, saddest moments, no regrets

Kissinger

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger speaks Tuesday night during the LBJ Presidential Library’s Vietnam War Summit.

“Why don’t you get out of Vietnam?”                                                           “Because a sudden withdrawal might give us a credibility problem.”        “Where?”                                                                                                                                                                         — French President Charles de Gaulle to Henry Kissinger, March 1969

Henry Kissinger was President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and later his secretary of state. The peace deal Kissinger negotiated with North Vietnam in January 1973 lasted long enough for the Nixon administration to finish withdrawing U.S. combat troops from South Vietnam and cynically claim it had achieved “peace with honor.” Kissinger won the Nobel Prize for his efforts — which famously prompted humorist Tom Lehrer to quip, “Political satire became obsolete when they awarded Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize.” Two years later, South Vietnam fell to communist North Vietnam.

Kissinger, 92, was at the LBJ Presidential Library Tuesday night for a conversation with Mark Updegrove, the library’s director, as part of the library’s Vietnam War Summit, which ends Thursday. Kissinger described the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 and the evacuation of Saigon as “one of the saddest moments of my life.” He talked about President Lyndon Johnson’s anguish at failing to achieve peace in Vietnam — Kissinger, a Harvard professor at the time, had advised Johnson — and he noted what he thought were some lessons learned from the war. (One of them: Don’t go to war unless you can describe an aim you can sustain.)

Just as Johnson inherited American commitments to South Vietnam from his predecessors, and then tragically escalated America’s military presence there in the mid-1960s, Nixon inherited Johnson’s escalation in 1969 and tragically expanded it to Cambodia and Laos. Though Nixon began a gradual withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam soon after taking office, he and Kissinger were determined to prosecute a lost war without losing American “credibility.”

They implemented a strategy known as “Vietnamization”: Slowly remove U.S. forces from South Vietnam, train and equip South Vietnamese troops to take their place, and bomb the hell out of the enemy in the meantime. More than 21,000 Americans and perhaps as many as 1.5 million Vietnamese would die while Nixon and Kissinger kept up appearances for allies and enemies, as David Milne wrote in his 2015 book, “Worldmaking: The Art and Science of American Diplomacy.”

Tuesday night at the LBJ Library, Kissinger admitted “tactical” mistakes were made but said he had no regrets about Vietnam. Asked by Updegrove how he thought history would judge him, Kissinger shrugged and said his extensive record was in the hand of others to judge and that history’s judgment wasn’t an obsession for him. “I tried to do the best I could, and that’s all I can say,” he said.

Myopia and hubris mark America’s involvement in Vietnam. History’s judgment probably won’t rest on whether Kissinger tried the best he could. It likely will rest on whether he ever acknowledged that what he thought was right might have been terribly wrong. Tuesday, he gave no indication he will ever consider such a thing.