T en year ago Wednesday, the war in Vietnam ended with the fall of Saigon. Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger was recently interviewed by Jack Burby, assistant editor of The Times' editorial pages, and Art Seidenbaum, editor of Opinion, about the events leading up to the defeat and how it has affected U.S. foreign policy, including the current dispute over U.S. conduct in Central America.
'On Nicaragua, we are in danger of repeating the same sort of domestic debate--an Administration request hard to reconcile with a definition of vital interests.'
Q: In January, 1973, you and Le Duc Tho signed an agreement in Paris that led to a cease fire in Vietnam and the withdrawal of American troops. You have written that you thought the Paris agreement would provide an "interval" for the South Vietnamese government. Stanley Karnow wrote that you told him a "decent" interval.
A: I didn't tell Stanley Karnow anything of the sort. He is simply repeating a myth he picked up somewhere.
Q: Does the use of the word "interval" mean that you thought in 1973 that the fall of Saigon was inevitable?
A: My associates and I believed that with prudent management the agreement could be maintained for as long as we could see in the future. We never expected Vietnam to collapse.
Q: When, then, did the fall of Saigon first seem inevitable to you?
A: Again you have to remember that outsiders can isolate an event and treat it as if it were the only thing going on. Policy-makers do not have that luxury. From October, 1973, on, we were in an almost non-stop negotiation in the Middle East, we had an oil embargo, we had Watergate and a new President. So there were other things going on and, frankly, in early 1975 we were primarily preoccupied with the Middle East.
In retrospect, what started the ball rolling was a North Vietnamese attack on a provincial capital called Phuoc Binh.
It was in total violation of the agreement. They took this provincial capital and then the question was what were we going to do about it. Well, it turned out that the War Powers Act had been passed and that act prohibited military action.
The new Congress was a heavily McGovernite Congress as a result of Watergate so when we put up a request for a supplemental Vietnam appropriation of $300 million, a huge debate started in the Congress, it must have been early February. And everybody was saying: Will this go on forever? To which the correct answer was: Yes, it will go on forever, as it has gone on forever in NATO, as it has gone on forever in Korea, as it has gone forever in Israel. But then people were saying you have to bring an end to the war.
We were caught in a dilemma. If we said we wanted victory, we would be accused of being intransigent; if we said we wanted a stalemate, we would be accused of an endless war. Then the idea took hold that we should make a terminal grant. And it was very similar to what we now see in Nicaragua, that you start with too little, then you begin compromising in order to get something and pretty soon you forget what it was you set out to do and the passage of this piece of legislation becomes the primary thing.
In March, the South Vietnamese decided that they should hunker down to get through our 1976 elections. All of these divisions had their families with them so there was no tactical flexibility. They were very good when they were defending their dependents. But if you moved them to another area, they became very poor because they wanted to get home. This was a terrible problem because the frontier was very long. South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu attempted to solve this problem by withdrawing from the central highlands and setting up a more defensible line. But the South Vietnamese had no sense of how to move two divisions from the central highlands over back roads with their dependents. So a horrendous traffic jam developed. In the end, all the units in the central highlands disintegrated. From their own accounts, all the North Vietnamese intended to do in 1975 was to improve their position for a big offensive in '76. But when the central highlands collapsed and then Da Nang fell they decided to send their entire army into the south. The rout was on.
At that point, I was in the Middle East negotiating and on the way back I was told that Quang Tri, the northern provincial capital, had fallen. Then I knew we were in deep trouble. By late March, I knew Vietnam was lost.