Henry Kissinger and the post-Vietnam War legacy of U.S. military defeat

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk, May 23, 2023

The following by WorldTribune.com columnist Don Kirkoriginally appeared in The Hill.

The defeat of the American-equipped, American-advised South Vietnamese forces in the first four months of 1975 invites comparisons to today’s American support for Ukraine against Russian invasion.

In contrast to the approval of vast amounts of aid provided thus far to Ukraine, Congress in early 1975 refused to provide more funding or arms for South Vietnamese forces, and the American president, Gerald Ford, said he could not authorize air strikes. By that time the invaders were rampaging southward on the newly paved Ho Chi Minh trail, fueled by a new pipeline.

North Vietnamese Politburo Member Le Duc Tho,with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during peace talks on the Vietnam War at Gif-sur-Yvette near Paris, France, Nov. 23, 1973. The Nobel Peace Prize for 1973 was awarded jointly to Kissinger and Tho. Tho declined the prize, the only awardee to ever do so.

American opposition to the war was so intense that Ford, the vice president when Richard Nixon was forced to resign in the Watergate scandal in August 1974, was powerless to stem the tide. But Stephen Young, an American aid worker at the height of the war, blames defeat of the old Saigon regime largely on one man: In “Kissinger’s Betrayal: How America Lost the Vietnam War,” he outlines step by step the sad tale of the role of President Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.

The process began in January 1971, Young explains, when Kissinger, in a conversation with the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, “proposed withdrawal of American forces while leaving North Vietnamese forces inside South Vietnam to continue their war of conquest after the disengagement of the Americans.”

Kissinger did not tell either Nixon or the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, about what would be a totally impossible scheme. The idea of letting the North Vietnamese stay where they were, Young relates, led finally to the terms of the peace that was signed in Paris two years later.

Compare that now to the refusal of either President Biden or Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to agree to concede the southeastern Donbas region or Crimea even though the Russians already occupy the areas.

It was only later in the Paris talks that Nixon and Thieu got the idea of what Kissinger was putting over on them. Throughout, Young says, Kissinger was influenced by a former French colonial bureaucrat, Jean Sainteny, who persuaded him the Americans could not win where the French had lost.

Sainteny, according to Young, gave Kissinger the notion that a “‘decent interval’ tactic would let the Americans leave South Vietnam without losing face immediately but would give Hanoi the victory it craved after ‘a number of years’ had passed.”

Nixon’s assurances to the dubious Thieu that America would fight for compliance with the Paris peace were meaningless after Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment in the Watergate scandal. Soon the North Vietnamese were able to attack from the bases where they remained, thanks to the terms agreed to by Kissinger and the adamant North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho in Paris.

Young has never gotten over the sad ending in 1975 that culminated in a decade of American military support, billions of dollars propping up the old Saigon regime and, most importantly, the loss of 1.6 million lives, including combatants on both sides and hapless civilians caught in-between. A lawyer who later strove to make sure thousands of Vietnamese who escaped the cruelties of North Vietnamese “reeducation” camps got to America, Young conveys his rage and frustration in delineating how Kissinger betrayed the cause for which 58,000 Americans died in combat.

What was Kissinger thinking? Has there ever been a case in history in which the target country agreed with the invaders? The debacle in Vietnam was paralleled years later by the American humiliation in Afghanistan. . . .

Young cites two quotes that came back to haunt Americans. “Peace is at hand,” Kissinger said in October 1972, announcing he had reached a deal under which the North could leave its troops where they were in the South. And then, in January 1973, after ordering the bombing of portions of Hanoi in a futile attempt to persuade the North to ease the terms, Nixon said we had achieved “peace with honor” in the Paris accords.

It is difficult, in Young’s telling, to know whether Kissinger honestly thought it would be a great idea to let the southern wing of Hanoi’s forces — that is, the Viet Cong — settle matters in talks with the South Vietnamese. That was his general idea when he said the warring parties could settle their future “among themselves.”

What was Kissinger thinking? Has there ever been a case in history in which the target country agreed with the invaders? The debacle in Vietnam was paralleled years later by the American humiliation in Afghanistan; we can only hope Ukraine turns out to have a much different story.

That’s assuming, of course, no negotiator is keeping secret what he or she is really doing. Opportunistically if not deceptively, Kissinger was guilty, as Young contends, of tricking Presidents Nixon and Thieu into thinking he had come up with a formula that could work when all he wanted was to get the Americans out of the war.

That doesn’t mean Kissinger’s scheming was without justification. One must ask how the Americans could have sustained the Vietnam war amid incredible “anti-war” pressure on the home front, not just from massive protests but also from influential senators, including the man who ran for president against Richard Nixon in 1972, George McGovern. Was Kissinger right, then, in extricating America from the Vietnam nightmare by falsely claiming to have found a face-saving way out?

As Kissinger approaches his 100th birthday in several days, we can only hope those around President Biden won’t be urging similar concessions.

Donald Kirk has been a foreign correspondent for more than 60 years, focusing on Asia, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea.