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.