Kissinger’s foreign policy legacy tainted by Vietnam

Kissinger’s foreign policy legacy tainted by Vietnam

As secretary of state, he helped Richard Nixon delay withdrawal from Vietnam to win re-election

History caught up with Henry Kissinger. I’m not referring to his death, but to the damning evidence of how he spent the pinnacle of his life, when he was Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, Secretary of State, and foreign policy alter ego. 

For decades, Kissinger carefully curated his record, starting with strategic leaks to reporters and culminating in a string of memoirs that were endless in more than one way. For a long time, the web he spun held, but then the U.S. government began declassifying the records of his time in power—most damningly, Nixon’s secret White House tapes. Nixon didn’t tell Kissinger about his concealed recording system until it was too late. In the end, the greatest threat to Kissinger’s reputation turned out to be his own words on tape.

History must, of course, note Kissinger’s many public triumphs. The Nobel Peace Prize for the Vietnam settlement. The televised moment of glory, two weeks before the 1972 election when he stood before the cameras and said, “We believe that peace is at hand.”

But history should also note that he realized that the deal he made was not peace. Weeks before the “peace is at hand” press conference, Kissinger told Nixon that their settlement terms would lead to a Communist takeover of the South Vietnamese government, the one that more than 50,000 Americans had died defending. “I also think that [South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van] Thieu is right, that our terms will eventually destroy him,” Kissinger said  on Oct. 6, 1972, the day before he flew to Paris to make the deal with the Communist North Vietnamese.

That deal would give Nixon a “decent interval,” a face-saving delay of a year or two between his final withdrawal of American troops and the Communists’ final takeover of South Vietnam.  “We’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which—after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater,” Kissinger said on Aug. 3, 1972. “If we settle it, say, this October, by January ’74 no one will give a damn.” He underestimated America’s ability to continue to give a damn.

But the deception worked at election time. Nixon had been promising Americans “peace with honor," and the “decent interval” deal gave him an excuse to claim that the promise was kept. But it was only an illusion of peace, and Nixon and Kissinger forfeited their honor to get it. 

History must give Kissinger credit for negotiating “An Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam.” But we must remember that the deal neither ended the war nor restored peace.

Kissinger and Nixon knew almost from the start that South Vietnam couldn’t survive without American troops. The Pentagon, State Department, and Central Intelligence Agency told them this at the start of Nixon’s presidency. Even when America had finished “Vietnamization,” the training and equipping of the South Vietnamese army, the Saigon government still “would not be able to survive without U.S. combat support in the form of air, helicopters, artillery, logistics and major ground forces.” On this, American military, diplomatic and intelligence officials agreed. Leaving Vietnam meant losing Vietnam.

But losing Vietnam before November 1972 would have meant losing Nixon’s reelection campaign. There was only one way for Nixon to avoid paying that political price. It was by keeping American troops fighting and dying in Vietnam until there was no chance of it collapsing before Election Day.

At times, Nixon considered bringing the last American troops home before 1972. Kissinger talked him out of it.