Kissinger then and now
For exactly 35 years I have been plying my trade as a professional historian, teaching, doing archival research, and writing. My work has usually (although not always) concentrated on great questions of war and peace, the questions that dominated professional history at its inception in the mid-nineteenth century in Germany and elsewhere, and which have produced in my judgment most of the greatest works in the western historical tradition. In recent years I have been able to improve my efficiency considerably with the help of contemporary technology. Most of the research for my current project (on the
Paradoxically, however, while these opportunities have grown, my own profession has lost interest not only in questions of war and peace, but in how governments make decisions. My contemporaries in academia decided around the time I was starting my career that the state in general, and war in particular, were evil—largely because they were dominated by white males—and that one might make such evils atrophy by ignoring them. Diplomatic and military history are extinct in many major departments (although they still have beachheads at Harvard, Yale, and the
Because young reporters learn, or fail to learn, basic research tools in college, this trend is having an effect on the media as well. Today’s media stars have no time for sustained analysis—they want sound bites that they can read on 60 Minutes. This brings me to Bob Woodward’s new book, in which he evidently turns on the Bush Administration with the zeal of an apostate. Much could be written about the data that has already emerged from it, but I am going to focus on one small point—a memo from Henry Kissinger to Richard Nixon, written in September 1969, raising questions about American troop withdrawals. According to Woodward, Kissinger has been citing our
Vietnamization was, of course, an exact parallel to our supposed current strategy in
With extraordinary accuracy, Kissinger outlined the probable course of Vietnamization in September 1969:
“’Vietnamization’ must be considered both with regard to its prospects for allowing us to turn the war over to the Vietnamese, and with regard to its effect on Hanoi and U.S. public opinion. I am not optimistic about the ability of the South Vietnamese armed forces to assume a larger part of the burden than current MACV plans allow. These plans, however, call for a thirty-month period in which to turn the burden
of the war over to the GVN. I do not believe we have this much time. “
In fact, the Administration did have that much time, but the 30-month period Kissinger foresaw took it exactly to March 1972, the eve of
“The more troops are withdrawn, the more
they are the last people we will be able to fool about the ability of the South Vietnamese to take over from us. They have the option of attacking GVN forces to embarrass us throughout the process or of waiting until we have largely withdrawn before doing so (probably after a period of higher infiltration).”
Kissinger went on to predict that
The memo is also surprisingly acute about the political weakness of the South Vietnamese government.
”’Vietnamization’ depends on broadening the GVN, and Thieu’s
new government is not significantly broader than the old (see below).
The best way to broaden the GVN would be to create the impression
uncertainty there is about the outcome of the war, the less the prospect
“(3) We face a dilemma with the GVN: The present GVN cannot
go much farther towards a political settlement without seriously endangering
its own existence; but at the same time, it has not gone far
enough to make such a settlement likely.
“Thieu’s failure to “broaden” his government is disturbing, but not
because he failed to include a greater variety of
politicians. It is disturbing because these politicians clearly do not believe
that Thieu and his government represent much hope for future
power, and because the new government does not offer much of a
bridge to neutralist figures who could play a role in a future settlement.
This is not to mention his general failure to build up political
strength in non-Catholic villages. In addition, as
Thieu becomes more dependent on the political support of the
South Vietnamese military.”
Kissinger, in other words, knew everything he needed to know in September 1969. We had not won the war (although he pointed out that repeated North Vietnamese offensives over the last eighteen months had left the enemy at a temporary disadvantage and in need of regrouping.) The South Vietnamese could not cope with the enemy, and the Thieu government was weak politically. A similar appreciation of Iraq today, it seems to me, would note that the insurgency was continually getting stronger; that its real political rival was Shi’ite fundamentalism, closely allied with the U.S.-supported government; and that our vision of a united, pluralistic Iraq clearly had no future.
But neither then nor now, apparently, was Kissinger willing to draw a reality-based conclusion. Since South Vietnam was almost certain to fall eventually anyway, we might have given the North Vietnamese the coalition government in the South that they demanded and at least spared the Indochinese people six more years of heavy fighting and millions of tons of American bombs. (Peace in 1969 might also have preserved Prince Sihanouk in power in Cambodia, and we would never have heard of the Khmer Rouge.) That, however, was politically unacceptable, both domestically and, in Nixon and Kissinger’s eyes, internationally. In the same way, facing reality—that Iraq will never turn out as we had hoped and that continued insurgency and civil war are further strengthening extremism—is not an option, apparently, in the Bush Administration.
As I mentioned yesterday, Kissinger’s real betrayal came in 1975, when he decided to blame the American people for the loss of
Let us not, however, mince words. The net effect of the invasion of
What should we do? In my opinion, we should convene a regional summit and invite all the Iraqi parties, including the insurgents, to discuss the boundaries of a new federalized