Sunday, November 2, 2008

Kissinger's latest pronouncement on Vietnam

In the current (Nov. 3) issue of Newsweek, Henry Kissinger reviews Gordon M. Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. Bundy was Kennedy's and then Johnson's national security advisor from 1961 until April 1966, when he resigned and was replaced by Walt Rostow. Along with Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk, Bundy was a key contributor to the decisions that led to the Americanization of the Vietnam War in 1965. Perhaps not surprisingly, this review tells one as much if not more about Kissinger than about Bundy.

Newsweek's decision to have Kissinger review the book, which was written by Bundy's former research assistant, is a bit peculiar. For one thing, most Americans born before, say, 1960 cannot read the words "Kissinger" and "Vietnam" together without being assailed by a host of largely bad memories. Yet Kissinger makes only glancing references to his own extensive involvement with the Vietnam War and adopts the tone of a dispassionate and compassionate observer: dispassionate in apparently trying to rise above the controversies associated with what he calls "the traumatic event [for America] of the second half of the last century," and compassionate towards Bundy, whom he views as someone who did his best in difficult and somewhat novel circumstances.

Kissinger briefly recounts the history of Vietnam policy-making under Kennedy and Johnson, and toward the end of the piece he distills some general lessons (for lack of a better word). Some of this is unobjectionable; who would quarrel, for instance, with the statement that "when the President is asked to consider going to war, he must be presented, above all, with an analysis of the global strategic situation on which the recommendation is based"? (In fact, of course, Kennedy and Johnson were presented with such analyses: the problem was not lack of analysis of the "global strategic situation" but that such analysis was often based on faulty assumptions.)

While some parts of Kissinger's review are unobjectionable, other parts raise hackles. For instance, he criticizes the commitment of U.S. combat troops in large numbers in 1965 "on behalf of a general notion of credibility...." Yet Kissinger himself, after coming to power with Nixon, refused to quickly terminate all American involvement on the grounds that that would have been "immoral" because it would have damaged American credibility in the world! (Michael J. Smith has a good brief discussion on this point in his Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger, pp.213-214.)

Kissinger observes that Bundy hoped a diplomatic compromise would emerge "once Hanoi's efforts to dominate South Vietnam were thwarted." This approach wrongly sought stalemate rather than victory, Kissinger maintains, and he goes on to say that "the effort required to bring about a compromise was indistinguishable from the requirements of victory -- as the administration in which I served had to learn from bitter experience." This, I suppose, is a veiled way of saying, among other things, that the "Christmas bombing" in 1972 of Hanoi and Haiphong was necessary to bring about the settlement that was reached in January 1973. Without rehashing the depressing saga of Vietnam policy under Kissinger and Nixon, suffice it to note that
"the effort required to bring about a compromise was indistinguishable from the requirements of victory" is a highly tendentious statement, at best.

Finally, consider Kissinger's last paragraph. It is written in Kissingerese -- a blend of the orotund, the unctuous, and the epigrammatic -- and runs as follows:
"Throughout history, every problem [sic!] America had recognized had proved soluble by the application of resources and idealism. Vietnam proved obdurate. Mourning the assassination of a president with whom it had identified, and perplexed by an impasse to which its own theories had contributed, the intellectual establishment ascribed its traumas to a failure of the American experience and the moral inadequacy of its leaders. This turned the national debate from an argument over feasibility into a crusade increasingly settled by confrontations designed to demonstrate a moral indictment. In that sense, Bundy was victim as much as cause of the forces unleashed as America was obliged to adapt its history to a changing world."
Of course, there could not have possibly been any prior "failures" in "the American experience." There could not have been even one deep flaw or failure. Nor, needless to say, can there have been any flaws in the approach pursued by Nixon and his national security advisor/secretary of state. The flaws lay elsewhere -- in a narcissistic intellectual establishment determined to indict "the American experience" rather than rationally conduct an "argument over feasibility." Never mind that this confuses one element of one segment of the anti-war movement's critique with the whole. Never mind that it implicitly whitewashes every less than glorious moment in the American past. In this last paragraph Kissinger reveals his true colors: as a student of history who apparently fails to comprehend that questions of war and peace are not simply about "argument[s] over feasibility," and as a public servant who has never fully come to terms with his own part in prolonging "the traumatic event [for America] of the second half of the last century."

P.s. I recognize that some people believe "war criminal" is a more apt designation for Kissinger than "public servant," but I think the latter is defensible if one considers his whole career rather than particular, admittedly despicable episodes.


Sverre said...

Interesting comments!

Firstly I disagree with you that it's strange to get Kissinger to review this. I'd say it is a scoop. There are many (like me) that find Kissinger to be a more interesting topic than the Vietnam war. By getting him to review the book, Newsweek have gotten people like me to be interested.

Secondly, it's interesting what you write about Kissinger and the thoughts on moral obligation. It made me get "Diplomacy" down from the shelf and look up what Kissinger has to say there. It is of courser written much later, but here he does seem to contradict what you say about his moral convictions even if he is deliberatively vague in describing his own views.

He argues that Nixon's policy of "Vietnamization" was wrong, but on strategic grounds, not moral (pp. 682). He also expands on the thoughts of America's credibility in the world. It's not so much a question of honor as it is of maintaining a strategic position as world leader to be able to complete American goals(p. 675).

This is, however, obviously a difficult point for Kissinger. He is a bit vague about what he believes was the alternative. He defends a peace agreement on the grounds of being able to start a national healing process, but not on moral grounds (p. 692).

Lastly, he argues that USA had to enforce the peace agreement, again not on moral grounds, but because anything else would mean that it really was a surrender (p. 696).

Even if Kissinger may have compromised with his realism as you point out, it seems at least like he has become more consistently realist in hindsight...

And just to point it out: This should not be interpreted as an endorsement of Kissinger. I don't agree with him...

LFC said...

Thanks for your response.

In the past I had a copy of Kissinger's 'Diplomacy' on my shelf, but (for reasons it would take too long to go into) I no longer do. What he says about Vietnamization in 'Diplomacy' -- that it was wrong, but on strategic not moral grounds -- is not necessarily inconsistent with what he says in his memoir 'White House Years,' written earlier, where he writes that U.S. "humiliation" in Vietnam [i.e., U.S. defeat or "dishonorable" withdrawal] would have been "profoundly immoral and destructive of our efforts to build a new and ultimately more peaceful pattern of international relations"
('White House Years' p.228 as quoted in M.J.Smith, 'Realist Thought,' p.213).
I think his point about 'Vietnamization' is that it deprived the Nixon admin. of leverage in negotiations, since Hanoi realized that U.S. troops were going to be gradually reduced regardless of conditions 'on the ground'.

Anyway, the main point I was trying to make had less to do with realism and morality and more to do with the credibility rationale and Kissinger's inconsistency with respect to it. In the Newsweek piece, Kissinger criticizes the credibility rationale for getting involved in Vietnam in the first place, writing: "In Vietnam, America sent combat forces on behalf of a general notion of credibility and in pursuit of a negotiation whose content was never defined. The credibility point was reflected in an amazing Bundy statement quoted by [Gordon] Goldstein: that it would be better for America's credibility to lose after sending 100,000 men than not to have resisted Hanoi at all." Yet Kissinger refused to apply this logic when he took power in January 1969 with large numbers of U.S. troops in Vietnam: rather than saying "the credibility rationale was flawed then, and it's still flawed," he *embraced* the credibility rationale as a justification for pursuing 'peace with honor' instead of a quick withdrawal. As Andrew Z. Katz has noted, almost half of the roughly 58,000 U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam died "in the quest to achieve 'peace with honor.'" (A. Katz, "A Constructivist Understanding of the Legacy of Vietnam," paper presented at the 2000 annual mtg. of American Political Science Assn., Washington, D.C.).
So "credibility" cost a lot of lives after 1969, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and American. That was the main point I was trying to get at.

hank_F_M said...


Thanks for the link and the excellent review of the review.

One essential point the Kissinger makes is that the Kennedy/Johnson administrations Vietnam policy was very much outside the expectations of how international situations should be handled. Even with a perfect briefing of the general and specific Diplomatic/Strategic situation; I am no sure it would have been understood well enough to mange the policy.

Another good point he makes is that the over through of the Diem regime was major self-inflicted wound.

A shortcoming is that he does not tie the diplomatic action to the military situation. But it is the ongoing military situation that created the political crisis’s. I think that “credibility” is mostly PR to provide explanations for reactions to the battlefield. Those events seem much more explainable by the actual situation at the time, credibility being an easy way to explain things in the US.

"the effort required to bring about a compromise was indistinguishable from the requirements of victory" is a highly tendentious statement, at best.

From the pen of Henry Kissinger it is a highly tendentious statement, but it is also true. The North Vietnamese government was determined to reunify Viet Nam if it cost the lives of every non-party and even every low level party member. (A little hyperbole, but not much.) I doubt any action we could have taken short the Red River bombing campaign in 1972 would have led to the 1973 peace accords. This is the strategic reality that the Kennedy/Johnson administrations did understand and they would have found unacceptable if they did. Even many of the “hawks” in the administration did not think it would take that much force.

Any way, my longer
Narrative in part where I try to tie the negotiations and military actions of the latter part of the war together.

LFC said...

Thanks for the comments. I was also struck by what Kissinger said about the Diem coup, and I think he's probably right about that. Not that Diem, who among other things was a Catholic in a mainly Buddhist country, was popular or had much legitimacy, but his successors turned out, arguably, to be even worse.
I've had a bit too much wine this evening to make any further substantive comment, but I will look at your narrative of Tet.