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 United States, Cuba, and covert action in the early 1960s, including assassination plots against both Castro and Kennedy) is stored on Excel spreadsheets, which not only enable me to find half-forgotten data within seconds, but also creates the text of footnotes to order. Meanwhile, in an even more important trend, huge collections of data such as Foreign Relations of the United States are becoming available online. Inevitably this trend will go on until entire archives can be accessed instantaneously from anywhere in the world, opening up undreamed-of opportunities for scholarship.
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 University of Pennsylvania), and many very bright students pass through college history programs without learning basic historic political facts. (About fifteen years ago a colleague told me she had met a graduate student who could not identify the Weimar Republic.) Never have we had so many opportunities to learn, and so little enthusiasm for learning.
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 Vietnam experience (and perhaps this memo) to argue that we must not even begin troop withdrawals from Iraq, so as not to set off an irresistible momentum. Intrigued, I went right to the State Department website, opened the correct chronological portion of the on-line volume of Foreign Relations, searched for “salted peanuts”—a featured phrase—and found the memo. It is a great deal more interesting than Woodward let on.
Vietnamization was, of course, an exact parallel to our supposed current strategy in Iraq—that of training Iraqi forces to take over for us. President Nixon had already adopted it as a pillar of his strategy, although when Kissinger wrote his memo Nixon had announced only one entirely trivial troop withdrawal. (The main pressure for troop withdrawals came from the Pentagon, where military leaders knew the war was wrecking the American military. Donald Rumsfeld may in fact still be Secretary of Defense for a related reason—that the President and Vice President know that only he would hold out against the advice of our military leaders to wind the conflict down.) What is truly striking about the Kissinger memo is his recognition that the strategy was not going to work, that our allies were fatally weak, and that, implicitly, Hanoi was almost certain to win the war.
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 Hanoi’s next huge offensive, which during the next two months nearly brought down the Saigon government. Only the remaining American advisors and a huge infusion of American air power halted that offensive, although the North Vietnamese emerged in a much stronger position than before. Kissinger, however, could not have been very surprised by all this. As he wrote in the same memo:
“The more troops are withdrawn, the more Hanoi will be encouraged—
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 North Vietnam would successfully wait the United States out. In an effort to find a way to win, his staff, just weeks later, proposed a new military option, Duck Hook, whose major feature was a bombing campaign against North Vietnamese agricultural dikes. (The National Security Archive, with the help of historian Jeffrey Kimball, has recently released important documents on this plan. Nixon eventually rejected it, perhaps recognizing that its results would not justify the domestic and international outcry it provoked.) But perhaps Kissinger’s worries about time related to the 1972 election—what he really wanted to do was to preserve South Vietnam until then. In that, he barely succeeded.
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
that the Saigon government is winning or at least permanent. The more
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 Saigon’s Tea House
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 U.S. troops are withdrawn,
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 South Vietnam. (While US aid to the South had been reduced—not cut off—in 1973-4, it has been shown by scholarship and even by a contemporary Pentagon report that the South Vietnamese had not even received all the equipment they had been promised. They collapsed from political weakness, not from lack of supplies.) And as I pointed out yesterday, the only purpose I can see to holding the course in Iraq for two more years is to blame President Bush’s successor for whatever happens afterwards, rather than accept that we have made one of the worst strategic miscalculations in American history. Meanwhile the violence in Iraq will get worse.
Let us not, however, mince words. The net effect of the invasion of Iraq will indeed be negative, because two-thirds of that country will almost certainly wind up under the control of militant Islamists of one kind or another. Like the Egyptian nationalist government that still survives, the Ba’athist regime in Iraq (and in Syria) was a relatively modern form of government for the Arab world, but the tides have been running against such regimes for at least thirty years. Our invasion may only have accelerated something that was likely to happen anyway—but the map of the Middle East will be worse, from the American point of view, when we do, inevitably, leave. Kurdistan may easily remain friendly, but it is already causing problems in neighboring Turkey. The negative result, however, is no reason to continue staying the course, because staying the course will not in the end stave it off. It is more likely to make it worse.
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 Iraq—or perhaps, even, three states. Reconciliation among Sunnis and Shi’ites was never likely, as Peter Galbraith has argued, and now seems utterly impossible. We should try to write some human rights guarantees into any new constitutions, and we should try to make any movements of populations as peaceful as possible. We should also stand ready to rebuild Iraq, but only after Iraqis have once again stabilized their country sufficiently to allow reconstruction to take place. We are three and a half years into this war, a moment corresponding to the fall of 1968 in Vietnam. By then, as now, the American people had realized that this latest military adventure was a mistake, but successive American governments still sacrificed tens of thousands of American lives, and hundreds of thousands of others, to a hopeless vision. We still do not have to do that again.