As congress debates the war in Iraq, it's becoming clear that many lawmakers want to bring the troops home while avoiding the likely consequences -- a ruinous civil war and a calamitous victory for Iran and Al Qaeda. This has led to much pining for some kind of negotiated solution -- what the Iraq Study Group called a "new diplomatic offensive" -- that might allow us a graceful exit.
Enter Henry Kissinger, the octogenarian "wise man" who is an advisor to President Bush. While rightly stressing that a "precipitate withdrawal" of U.S. forces would result in a "geopolitical calamity," he suggested in a recent syndicated column that "a sustainable political end to the conflict" can be achieved not through military action but through "wise and determined American diplomacy" that engages everyone from internal Iraqi players to Iran and Indonesia.
He didn't mention it in the column, but there is little doubt that Kissinger had in mind his own actions in negotiating the 1973 Paris peace accords that ended direct U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War. Indeed, some of his previous essays -- including one that ran in this paper in May -- have been explicit in citing his own experience as a model to learn from.
How seriously should we take him? Is it really possible that a super-skilled secretary of State -- someone like, umm, Henry Kissinger -- could deliver "peace with honor" today? It didn't work the last time around. Why should it work now?
Only in Kissinger's own telling was his Vietnam diplomacy a great triumph. As he described it in The Times, "a breakthrough occurred in 1972" because of the defeat of North Vietnam's Easter offensive and the U.S. mining of Haiphong's harbor -- and because of his own efforts to cut a deal with North Vietnam's sponsors. "When the U.S. mined North Vietnam's harbors, Hanoi found itself isolated because, as a result of the opening to China in 1971 and the summit in 1972, Beijing and the Soviet Union stood aside."
The result, Kissinger claims, was that North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho had to accept America's terms: "an unconditional cease-fire and release of prisoners; continuation of the existing South Vietnamese government; continued U.S. economic and military help for it; no further infiltration of North Vietnamese forces; withdrawal of the remaining U.S. forces; and withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces from Laos and Cambodia."
But this account conveniently overlooks some facts that have come to light as documents from the period have been declassified. In recent books such as "The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy" (2004) by the historian Jussi Hanhimaki, a very different picture emerges from the one painted in the former secretary of State's self-serving memoirs and articles.
Although it is true that Kissinger used the "opening to China" to pressure North Vietnam, he also gave private assurances to Chinese Premier Chou En-lai in June 1972 that all he really wanted was a "reasonable interval between the military outcome and the political outcome." What kind of political outcome did he have in mind? According to Hanhimaki, Kissinger told Chou: "While we cannot bring a communist government to power, if, as a result of historical evolution it should happen over a period of time, we ought to be able to accept it."
In other words, Kissinger informed Chou that the communists could have Saigon as long as they didn't humiliate the Americans on the way out.
He made that dismal outcome even more likely by agreeing to one of North Vietnam's key demands, which he now fails to mention. Even as the U.S. withdrew all its troops, the Paris peace accords left at least 150,000 North Vietnamese soldiers occupying 25% of South Vietnam. This gave the North an invaluable beachhead from which to complete its campaign of conquest. No wonder the president of South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu, had to be bullied by Kissinger and Nixon into signing off on a document that, he knew, meant "we will commit suicide."
Kissinger later blamed impeachment proceedings against Nixon and the subsequent debilitation of the presidency for the fall of South Vietnam. But the communist violations of the peace accords began immediately after they were signed, and Nixon and Kissinger scarcely protested to Hanoi, much less to Moscow or Beijing, for fear of jeopardizing other treasured initiatives, such as the SALT II nuclear arms reduction talks.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung didn't lift a finger to restrain their Southeast Asian allies, because it would not have served their interests to do so. In fact, even as the U.S. was cutting off aid to South Vietnam, the Soviet Union was increasing the flow of supplies to the forces of North Vietnam, and China was doing the same with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Both groups seized power within weeks of each other in April 1975, with horrific consequences.