Reckless: Henry Kissinger and the Tragedy of Vietnam
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This event took place on Thursday, October 18, 2018
JAMES KETTERER: Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the Carnegie Council. I'm Jim Ketterer. I'm the dean of international studies at Bard College, and I'm very pleased that Bard and the Bard Globalization and International Affairs (BGIA) program is able to continue its partnership with the Carnegie Council. We do an event every semester together and have had a very nice track record of wonderful events, and I'm glad we're going to continue that this evening with this discussion.
I just want to mention briefly what the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program is. It's a program that allows students to come to New York City for a semester or a summer to take classes with great faculty members including the president of the Carnegie Council, Joel Rosenthal, who is one of our faculty members, also to do internships here in the city, and to just revel in all the things that New York City has to offer.
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I should also mention that this lecture series from the BGIA perspective is named after James Chace, who was the founder of the BGIA program. He is the former editor of the World Policy Journal, of Foreign Affairs magazine, which is also a sponsor of this event for us, and a longtime Bard faculty member. He left us too early, and we miss him, but we carry these on in his memory, and I'm sure that he would very much like this program tonight.
I don't want to take up too much time. I just want to introduce our speakers. We have as our interviewer and discussant Suzanne Nielsen, who is a professor of political science at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the head of the social sciences division there. She also happens to be a colonel in the U.S. Army, and so anything that she is talking about tonight does not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
We have also with us the author of the book, Professor Robert Brigham, who is a professor of international relations and history at Vassar College. They're going to talk for about 40 minutes or so, open it up to question-and-answer, and then we will adjourn to a reception and a book signing, and there will be books for sale at the reception.
So, over to the two of you.
SUZANNE NIELSEN: Thank you very much.
Bob, I wonder if I could start with just asking about your motivation for the book. This is clearly not your first book about the Vietnam War. You've done extensive field research, and you've written about the war from a variety of perspectives, so I'd like to start by just asking what made you want to go back to the Vietnam War now and to do so through the lens of the role of National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
ROBERT BRIGHAM: I think Vietnam is still casting a long shadow over American foreign policy. I think my research agenda is pretty well settled for the rest of my career on Vietnam.
On Kissinger, The Washington Post asked me to review his book called Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America's Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War, which was actually just the parts of his memoir that dealt with Vietnam. He pulled those out, put them together, and edited them a little bit.
I gave the book a pretty favorable review in the Post, but as I was going through it I was making margin notes: "This doesn't sound exactly right to me. I want to know more about this." Reading his book and reviewing his book set up a lot of questions for me that I wanted to answer.
That was in 2003. Then the Iraq War happened, and my one deviation from Vietnam was comparing Iraq and Vietnam, two books with PublicAffairs press. After I got those done, I returned to this project on Kissinger and the negotiations.
SUZANNE NIELSEN: It probably won't be a surprise to the audience given the title of your book that it is a very wide-ranging and multidimensional critique of the role of Henry Kissinger in the Vietnam War. What I'd like to do on my next few questions is get at the various dimensions of that critique.
One of them is the fundamental strategic approach. As you characterize it, his goal was to bring the North Vietnamese to the table through a combination of military escalation and coercive diplomacy that would change their incentives to get them to come to the table and be a little bit more likely to agree to terms that would achieve his stated goal, which was "peace with honor."
I wonder if I could ask you to reflect on what you saw as the fundamental challenges with that approach, that reliance on military escalation and coercive diplomacy to try to bring the adversary to the table.
ROBERT BRIGHAM: This was classic Kissinger and for that matter classic Nixon. Kissinger came into the office of national security advisor totally believing that the war would end in Paris, not in Saigon or Hanoi. He believed that negotiations had to end the conflict. But he also believed that he could incentivize those negotiations with military power and threats.
Very early on he developed a strategy with the president sometimes and without the president many times in which he outlined what he called "peace with honor," and what peace with honor would look like. It would mean that South Vietnam had a reasonable chance to survive after the United States withdrew; it would mean that the demilitarized zone at the 17th Parallel would become a recognized international border; it would mean that North Vietnamese troops would be out of South Vietnam; it would mean that Laos and Cambodia would be neutralized and that North Vietnamese troops would leave there as well; and it meant that there would be some kind of political negotiation between the various parties in South Vietnam that would still leave the Saigon administration in power.
He understood that 580,000 U.S. troops didn't move Hanoi very far. What he really thought was, What I need to do through negotiations is end this conflict honorably with Saigon having a reasonable chance to survive. That was the overall framework.
To get those goals, he thought he had to apply military pressure. No one else in the administration except the president thought that. Everybody else had a different take on how to execute that overall strategy. So it's in the tactical level that Kissinger and his associates differed greatly.
SUZANNE NIELSEN: Yet you have time and again these various escalations, whether it be Cambodia or Laos or various bombing campaigns and incredible domestic and international backlash that ended up shaping the prospects for Henry Kissinger's strategy to succeed.
ROBERT BRIGHAM: One of the many things I learned in doing this project—and authors always learn a lot; they have questions, that's why they write books, I think, to get answers to those questions—is Kissinger absolutely had no political instincts. It's remarkable. He's a theorist. But he had no political instincts, and this is something that Nixon got angry with him about several times.
Let me set this up for you. Immediately, Kissinger and Nixon, when they first met to talk about Kissinger joining the administration, agreed that the foreign policy establishment in Washington was corroded, that it needed a dramatic overhaul, a bold bureaucratic revolution. Kissinger and Nixon agreed that foreign policy had to be centered in the White House. They both hated the State Department and wanted to see it marginalized to the sidelines. That's why William Rogers, a little-known lawyer, was chosen to be secretary of state.
Kissinger thought the same thing about the Pentagon and the Defense Department, and Kissinger did execute this bureaucratic revolution on Nixon's behalf. While Nixon was doing the inaugural address, Kissinger was sending out letters to all the embassies saying that all serious foreign policy would now have to go through his office in the basement of the White House and not through the State Department at the exact same time Nixon is giving his inaugural address.
So there was this bureaucratic revolution that they shared, but in his first political battle over strategy and tactics on Vietnam he lost. Mel Laird from Wisconsin was I think a wise choice to be secretary of defense. He had been a long-term member of the House, he knew how to count votes, he knew about procurements, he knew what the American public's tolerance for pain was. He really understood the role of the press and Congress in a democracy, and he thought that the only way the United States could achieve these strategic objectives that Nixon and Kissinger had laid out was actually to withdraw American troops. Laird called this, unfortunately, "Vietnamization," implying that the Vietnamese hadn't been doing any fighting and dying all along.
But the idea was that you would slowly, in a very phased and methodical way, bring American troops home from Vietnam beginning in the summer of 1969, and this would quiet domestic critics, and it would take the pressure off Congress to pass resolutions to end the war and bring troops home and the budgeting for the conflict. In Laird's mind it was a long-game strategy. If you brought these troops home and buoyed American public support and therefore Congress could stay onboard, then Congress would also be amenable perhaps to sending lots more money and technical material to Saigon so they could stand on their own against the communists.
There are some holes in this strategy, but given the circumstances—Nixon and Kissinger were dealt a bad hand. I think they played it worse, but they were dealt a bad hand, and this was Laird's strategy. Nixon loved it. Kissinger hated it. But Nixon went with it because he could see the political upside to this. So in April 1969 this plan was announced, and in the summer of 1969 the withdrawal started.
For Kissinger, who always thought that the war would end in secret negotiations in Paris, those negotiations had actually started in the Johnson years. After the Tet Offensive in April 1968 secret talks started in Paris. What Kissinger had in mind, though, was secret talks inside the secret talks. Nobody but Nixon knew the talks were going on.
Kissinger eventually in later 1969 met with Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy in a working-class suburb in Paris and had secret talks. It's in those talks that Kissinger thought he was handicapped by the withdrawal of American troops. He thought that was his biggest asset, the biggest lever he could push, and that's one of the reasons he thought he had to turn to the course of military measures.
SUZANNE NIELSEN: Let me follow up on that for a bit. This basic strategic approach comes through as flawed, but another recurring theme is this desire to keep the policy centralized in the White House with regard to the president and Henry Kissinger and in some cases only Henry Kissinger, as you just mentioned.
I wonder if you could say a bit more about—some might argue that diplomacy needs to be conducted in secret because you need to make trade-offs that are going to be politically unpopular, yet it's clear in your account that there are significant costs due to the fact that it was pulled so much into the White House that the secretary of state and secretary of defense were deliberately excluded from important meetings, and there was not an interagency process to speak of. What would you say were the costs of that?
ROBERT BRIGHAM: I think the costs were South Vietnam and American public support and the hangover of Vietnam that we still all feel, a distrust of government. Everything that makes Vietnam a tragedy came, I think, because of the failure to integrate a successful and sustainable peace process.
When we look at ending deadly conflict we know from crunching all the various peace agreements that we can get our hands on—University of Ulster has done a good job of putting all the peace agreements that have ever been written down into a database, and when we crunch those databases we can come up with a good list of best practices. At the top of the list of best practices is have a big team, a big-tent approach. You're going to need lots of different people with many skill sets to make a sustainable peace.
In the class that some of the students here have had about week six I hand out the Vietnam peace agreement. Sophomores at Vassar College can figure out this is not how you negotiate. This is not how you negotiate at all. There are no enforcement mechanisms built in.
By having it concentrated in the hands of one person, that meant Kissinger could not build a coalition of supportive allies inside the national bureaucracy. That means that he had nobody from the Pentagon and nobody from the State Department, and nobody could go to Congress. Congress had no idea these secret meetings were going on. The Defense Department didn't have any idea. The State Department didn't have any idea. That's not how you run a democracy, and it's not how you run peace negotiations, and I think South Vietnam ended up paying—and nobody in Saigon knew this was going on either. Their fate was being determined by Kissinger in a small room in Paris, and they had no idea this was going on until it was too late.
SUZANNE NIELSEN: I'd like to follow your lead on that point. In the ways that this policy was isolated and run by a very few, primarily Henry Kissinger and the president, another very important stakeholder that you describe as not being very much part at all—no collaboration, minimal consultation—is the government of South Vietnam.
On the one hand, Henry Kissinger had as a solid tenet of his negotiation that the current government of South Vietnam would survive under President Nguyen Van Thieu, and yet on the other hand as you describe in your book he didn't seem to invest in trying to understand exactly what political coalitions, what forces were in play in South Vietnam.
I'm curious as to your thoughts. You seem to suggest that perhaps in that understanding may have led options that would have led to a better peace, a different peace, and earlier peace. I wonder if you might—because so many of us are tempted to look at that conflict and argue that it was fundamentally unwinnable at a certain point that it's hard to imagine a different outcome. I wonder if you could speak to was there a possibility in South Vietnam that the United States did not pursue.
ROBERT BRIGHAM: That's a great question. One of the major discoveries for me at least was looking in the Vietnamese-language documents and realizing that there was a civil society in South Vietnam that existed that wanted to be an active agent in their own history. Henry Kissinger had contempt for almost anything Vietnamese. He did have as a major tenet that this Saigon government had to be intact because the Hanoi negotiators kept insisting that the United States overthrow the government before a peace agreement could be signed in Saigon.
Kissinger, to his credit, said no, we'll never do that. But he knew those three people who headed the government. He knew nothing else about South Vietnam at all. He didn't care to learn anything else about South Vietnam. If he did, he would have learned that there was a majority of South Vietnamese who weren't already in the National Liberation Front's (Viet Cong) camp and were probably anti-communist and anti-Saigon government, so a third force. There was a sizable population there—lawyers, doctors, professionals, and students—that could have been mobilized. In any other negotiation situation, you would mobilize that force. The Good Friday Agreement was built on the back of mobilizing that civil society that existed where there were non-partisan relationships, and that's what good negotiators do. [Editor's note: For more on the Good Friday Agreement, check out the recent Carnegie UK Trust/Carnegie Council program, International Seminar on Wellbeing in Northern Ireland.]
But that's not at all what happened here. Saigon wasn't consulted about its future, its needs. Their political dreams were not taken into consideration, and at the end of the day the United States withdrew and threw Saigon under the bus. I think this is the tragedy of Vietnam. Fifty-eight thousand Americans, 3.2 million Vietnamese died for the preservation of South Vietnam, and it wasn't taken that seriously at the end. That to me is tragic at the least.
SUZANNE NIELSEN: Let me turn again to a recurring theme of Henry Kissinger's role in that tragedy. You describe a man of great ego and great ambition. In fact, I think you argue the way those traits manifested themselves in the conduct of policy often produced outcomes that simply were not by many measures in the overall national interest of the country.
As I read that I thought about how to think about the question of ambition. On the one hand, if you don't have great ambition, you're very unlikely to have great accomplishment. On the other hand, there is a whole host of potential negative tendencies that come with great ambition. As you think about that particular figure, how do you reflect on the role of ambition in public service?
ROBERT BRIGHAM: I agree with you. I think ambition is a necessary quality in public service. It's when you cross the line to arrogance that I think you get into trouble, and I think that Kissinger crossed that line early and often.
Let me give you some examples. Very early on in 1969 Kissinger went to the president and said, "If you're withdrawing troops, you have to give me something to buy time for the Saigon government to be able to stand on its own." Kissinger advocated the secret bombing of Cambodia, and this was something that Nixon had long thought was a good idea. The joint chiefs and the staff thought it was a good idea in the abstract.
Mel Laird did not think it was a good idea to do it secretly. He thought you should go to the American public, get Congress onboard, and then do it. Bill Rogers knew nothing about it. For a year Kissinger managed this campaign of the secret bombing of Cambodia without the air chief knowing it until the bombs hit the ground. To me, that crosses a line from ambition to arrogance.
There's also in that episode some subchapters that I think are quite disturbing. One is how easy it was for Kissinger to manipulate President Nixon's weaknesses. Kissinger knew that Nixon was personally insecure. He knew that Nixon desperately wanted to enact his large foreign policy vision but didn't know how to do it without a Kissinger, and when Kissinger cut Rogers and Laird out of the Vietnam decision-making in the White House what he also did was get closer to the president by telling Nixon, "Only you would have the guts to do something as brave and as bold as bombing Cambodia to save South Vietnam." This played with Nixon every time, and Kissinger became quite good at this over time until he started to rattle at the end of 1971 himself. This to me is a classic example.
Was there strategic value? Yes, perhaps there was. But it also was some value of Kissinger to be the one national security lieutenant who favored a policy that the president favored that everybody else thought was too rash and then tell the president, no, you're the one bold enough. Same thing in Laos, same thing with the mining of Haiphong harbor, the same thing with the B-52 bombings in Hanoi in 1972. This was a familiar refrain: to have no one else in that immediate national security team support the policy except Kissinger and the president and Kissinger constantly using Nixon's insecurities to get that policy that he wanted to see done. That's a polemic. You can rant on that.
But in the long run, I think it does the democracy a disservice, but it also I think affects policy and strategy in Vietnam because the whole game in the Nixon administration was to buy Saigon enough time to stand on its own, to give Saigon a reasonable chance to survive, and Kissinger thought these different military escalations were actually doing that. He said invading Cambodia in April 1970 bought Saigon 18 months because it destroyed the North Vietnamese sanctuaries and North Vietnamese troop encampments along the border inside Cambodia and that the bombing of Cambodia in 1969 and 1970 had bought Saigon time.
I think the reality is he sped up the clock, he didn't slow the clock down. Because Congress immediately when things had quieted down—Nixon's November 3 "Silent Majority" speech did just what he wanted it to do. November 3, 1969, Nixon went on television and spoke to the great silent majority: "I'm going to bring troops home. I'm going to increase pressure here and there, but we're going to extract ourselves with honor from Vietnam."
The American public, the voting public, was with him, and Cambodia undid that, and that was on Kissinger's watch. I think the time, the clock, actually sped up. From April 1970 on, Congress tries to pass and comes very close to passing one amendment after another, Cooper-Church, Hatfield-McGovern, all these efforts to limit the American involvement in Southeast Asia. To me it's a classic example of Kissinger talking tough, appearing tough, taking tough stances and tough action, and then producing the exact opposite desired result for the long-term health of South Vietnam.
The invasion of Laos was even worse because that involved not American troops at this point because Congress said no, you can't do that, through Cooper-Church, but it involved the South Vietnamese Army, and it was a disaster. They achieved their objective for about 15 minutes and then retreated, and the press was there to catch that retreat.
It undercut everything they were trying to do with this military escalation. All the time, North Vietnamese troops are pouring into South Vietnam down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
SUZANNE NIELSEN: In the book recurrently and in the account that you just shared, it is true that we don't often think of the national security advisor as having first and foremost a portfolio that is about domestic politics. Yet by your account the extent to which Henry Kissinger wanted to not think about domestic politics as he thought about U.S. strategy when many in other places have argued that the center of gravity for the United States in the Vietnam War was domestic political opinion comes across as a major strategic weakness.
ROBERT BRIGHAM: Yes. I think that's perfectly stated.
I think one of the themes of the book—I hope one of the themes of the book that people pick up—is that policy in Vietnam was always about the United States and very rarely about South Vietnam or any Vietnamese or anybody from Cambodia or Laos. It was all about domestic considerations and political credibility and even some international credibility, but there was always this domestic component to it, and that cut several different ways as well.
Kissinger sets the timeline for the secret negotiations. He wants to deliver a peace agreement to Nixon before the 1972 election even after Nixon says, "No, I don't want it." Kissinger still pushed it, and would go into meetings in Paris and say, "We've got to have this before October 15 so that I can give this to the president. He wants it very badly." Then you look in the notes and the dialogues back and forth between Kissinger and Nixon, and Nixon is saying: "I don't want it. That's the last thing I want." There is a disconnect through this all.
There is another area that I want to make sure I get this in because it's the most important I think of the book perhaps, and that is Kissinger met secretly with his North Vietnamese counterparts dozens of times. We have transcripts written by Kissinger's associates, notes taken by Kissinger's associates, verbatim. We also have the Vietnamese version of those meetings. I've translated that. I compare them. They are remarkable for how similar they are.
We now have a very good solid record. John Carland, who works in the Historian's Office at the State Department has just published a volume in the Foreign Relations Series that captures the Kissinger and Le Duc Tho negotiations. We have that. It picks up on some of this and adds a little bit in other places. The record of what was said in these secret meetings is clear.
What's remarkable is that after each one of these Nixon received on his desk a summary from Kissinger, and these summaries do not reflect at all what was said in the meetings, and Nixon makes strategic decisions based on what Kissinger is telling him. Classic Kissinger lines about these in the summaries are: "The North Vietnamese are finally ready to negotiate"; "This is the best meeting we've ever had"; "They're getting really close to agreeing to withdrawing their troops"; "Le Duc Tho said X, Y, and Z," and it's always very foggy. Usually with Kissinger it's that his counterparts left out an attack, and that gave him the evidence he needed that they were softening their position.
Then you go to the transcript, and no such conversation ever took place. I don't know how far down the line readers will want to go with that, but for me deceiving the president of the United States—even if it's Richard Nixon—deceiving that office with summaries of negotiation when Americans are fighting and dying, and the president is going to make decisions based on those conversations, that gives me pause.
The only thing that maybe squares that circle a little bit is that Nixon never had much faith in Kissinger or the secret talks. So I don't know how much policy he was making from that, but if I heard that the North Vietnamese were interested in a mutual troop withdrawal, I might behave this way.
The North Vietnamese—the Vietnamese Communist Party—would never admit that their troops were in South Vietnam to begin with because they didn't recognize the political legitimacy of South Vietnam. To them their troops didn't need to go anywhere; their troops were on home soil. At no point—I can say this with extreme confidence—did Le Duc Tho or Xuan Thuy ever even remotely hint that People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) troops would be removed from South Vietnam before an agreement, during an agreement, or after an agreement. In fact, in the end Kissinger conceded on that point and not only allowed the infiltration to stay where it was but allowed 10 main-force infantry divisions of the PAVN, the North Vietnamese Army, to stay in South Vietnam after the Easter Offensive. They pour tens of thousands of new troops in, and Kissinger, by agreement in a document, allows those troops to stay there.
That causes Hanoi to say: "Well, look, the only sticking point we have now in an agreement was the South Vietnamese government. We wanted them out. You insisted they stay. But now that you're letting our troops stay here, we'll take them out ourselves. You get out, and then we'll run over Saigon." And that's the agreement Kissinger signed, and that's what happened.
SUZANNE NIELSEN: Let me follow up on that a little bit and maybe even push back on the title a little bit. The title, Reckless: Henry Kissinger and the Tragedy of Vietnam, obviously ascribes a lot of responsibility to the figure of Henry Kissinger. I understand the argument about tragedy. The argument is: Did we get much of a better peace in 1973 than we could have gotten in 1969? And in the meantime tens of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died and billions of dollars were spent.
I still would like your thoughts on how much we can lay at the feet of Henry Kissinger when Richard Nixon was the president.
ROBERT BRIGHAM: Reckless is a title that I went around with with PublicAffairs for a while. I kept coming back to it because I think Kissinger's behavior in the negotiations and in his insistence on escalation in Laos and Cambodia and his insistence on changing the coordinates of the bombing and then changing the logbooks on the bombings so it looked like American pilots were hitting targets in South Vietnam was part of the purposeful creation of dummy logbooks, then the mining of Haiphong Harbor and the bombing of Hanoi after they had a workable peace agreement in October 1972, I think all of that is definitely reckless.
I do think Henry Kissinger was dealt a bad hand. He came into office with incredible odds against him. I think he made a bad situation worse.
I do think at the end of November 1969, after Nixon did through the Vietnamization policy—which wasn't Kissinger's; it was Mel Laird's and Nixon's—I think after the Nixon Silent Majority speech Vietnamization already had a few months under its belt and had done everything they wanted it to do.
Look at the protests. After the Fall Moratorium, Nixon times the November 3 speech for the Moratorium Against the War in the fall of 1969. It comes after. At that moment, the voting public is with him. You could have gotten a deal right then.
If you're going to throw South Vietnam under the bus at the end and you allow 150,000 North Vietnamese troops, and you're not going to have the border be permanent, and you're not going to pressure Hanoi in any way, and your pressure on China and the Soviet Union to intervene on Hanoi's part isn't going to go anywhere—and anybody who knew anything about the Chinese and the Soviets and the Vietnamese would have told Kissinger in 1969, "That's not going to work"—given all of that I think he does deserve a lot of blame, and I do think his behavior as a policymaker in a democracy was reckless.
SUZANNE NIELSEN: Let me ask you a couple of questions about his reputation. In some ways, Dr. Henry Kissinger is known as being perhaps the master strategist. One of the interesting elements to that is, as you have recounted, at the core of the Nixon administration's policy toward Vietnam in its first term was Vietnamization. That was Melvin Laird's approach, not that of Henry Kissinger.
It looks like a fundamental bureaucratic battle that shaped the administration's approach. Henry Kissinger was not on the winning side of that argument. Is that fair?
ROBERT BRIGHAM: That's more than fair, that's an accurate statement, that he lost that battle, and he carried the scars from that political battle with him.
One of the things that he wanted to make sure of was that Laird was cut out of almost every important decision on Vietnam after that. He is always saying things to the president. We have this enormous treasure trove of sources. We have I think over 300,000 pages of telephone conversations. The Nixon Library has just released almost everything that is not a national security issue from this time period, and Kissinger's own papers are now available at Yale, his pre-government and post-government. From those sources—and then I can use Vietnamese sources as well—we get a very clear understanding of the dysfunctional relationships in this relationship. It's clear. Conversation after conversation with the president, Kissinger will say things like: "Don't tell Laird. He'll chicken out"; "Don't tell Laird. He won't support that"; "Don't tell Laird. He'll never get behind this military policy." That's the way the administration was on Vietnam.
I don't know about other areas. I do Vietnam. There are other people who may say: "You know, in the Middle East he was right on target. He did this right. He did that right"; or with détente with the Soviets and Chinese outside of Vietnam. Détente with the Soviets and Chinese inside of Vietnam was a disaster in many ways, and it was about Vietnam in many ways.
There were political rivalries that drove a lot of this. That's not saying that strategic considerations didn't come first, but these political rivalries were a factor. So much so that Nixon formed what he called the "Henry hand-holding committee," because Kissinger threatened to quit almost every day over this dysfunction and this rivalry with Rogers and Laird. Nixon wanted to get Kissinger away from him, keep him out of the office. So he set up a little committee that when Henry got in "one of those moods," as Nixon called it, they kept him out of the Oval Office.
SUZANNE NIELSEN: That brings me to my next question about reputation. I think many of us in this room if asked, or if we were to guess among Americans who follow foreign affairs who are interested, if there was a question raised, who was the foremost American foreign policy expert or wise man in the United States alive today, probably the name Henry Kissinger would come up more than any other. How do you explain that disconnect between the individual character that is in your book and that sterling reputation?
ROBERT BRIGHAM: He would come up on my list, too, as a theorist. I think Henry Kissinger is very smart, he's witty, he's charming, he understands grand strategy. He just didn't practice it well in my view, especially in Vietnam.
I do think that much of his time out of office has been spent editing his time in office. No one has cared for their legacy more than Henry Kissinger. No one who was in government has published as many pages about their time in government, and Kissinger is brilliant. He's an absolutely beautiful writer. You combine those—and he's charming, and who doesn't want to sit next to him at dinner?—and he has plugged himself into social scenes and the places he needs to be plugged in. I understand that completely.
But when it came to being close to the people who were doing the actual fighting and dying, he was removed. He was a theorist who stuck to theorist dreams, and I think it cost the country in Vietnam. It cost the country dearly. That's something I take very seriously. If you're going to put men and women in harm's way, you have to give it more than your theoretical best. You have to be able to look parents in the eye and say, "We were pursuing a policy in national interest, and we took this path, and this is the full debate we had about that, and Congress got on board, and we came to you, remember, and you said yes." None of that took place, and in a functioning democracy I think you have to have those full and frank discussions.
I still assign Kissinger to my students. He is a brilliant theorist. But in Vietnam in practice, his practice was very different than his theories of statesmanship.
QUESTION: Hi there. My name is Mark Duncan. I'm a graduate student at the International School of Economics in Moscow.
Thank you for a very interesting panel on a very controversial topic. This follows on from one of Suzanne's earlier comments, but it's particularly from my own experience when I read Diplomacy for the first time. I thought it was a very interesting book but that Kissinger had a very irritating tendency of focusing on great men and thinking that foreign policy hinged on great personalities like Wilson versus Roosevelt.
Is there a similar strand in this discussion when we talk about if it wasn't for Kissinger, would there have been peace in Vietnam in 1959 rather than in 1963 or even earlier than that? Are we not ascribing far too much responsibility to one man for a strategic quagmire that successive administrations failed to extract themselves from or at least trying to find some limited achievable objectives?
ROBERT BRIGHAM: Thank you for your question. I think it's a great question. I'm someone who is very concerned about this notion of "great man history" as I don't believe in it at all. In fact, I would love to explore with you more my idea that there was this civil society in South Vietnam, a field of people no one who has ever heard of, that actually the negotiation should have gone through. That I will be pursuing in another work.
The reality for me is that, yes, all that's true. Every single administration before the Nixon administration struggled with the Vietnam dilemma and what to do about it. But it was always about this domestic political issue.
Johnson couldn't get out because he couldn't be the first president to lose a war; Kennedy didn't know whether to get in or get out because of domestic politics. After the 1964 election, my co-author Bob McNamara would say, yes, he was going to get out. Well, maybe. But it was always in this domestic contest.
Why Kissinger gets in my view to sit here in this book in the powerful role he has is because he is the one in the room. He is making decisions without the full consultation of the national security bureaucracy. I don't think that's a great man theory to history, I think that's a tragic man theory to history. He's not even employing the assets that he has available to him. I think his own actions—and he would love this—he described himself in a 1971 interview with an Italian journalist, "I love being that lone cowboy who's courageous enough to act." It is in a sense that lone cowboy in that room given enormous power to negotiate in the name of the United States. Enormous power. Some of it he created, and some of it he took.
I think what I would do with your question, which I think is an excellent question, is agree with you completely on one hand, and try to suggest that Kissinger and Nixon created this world where he did have that kind of authority, and then flip it back and say what was needed is the world that you're talking about, this big-tent approach where you brought in all sorts of people to fashion out a negotiation that involved anthropologists and economists and all the kinds of things that you're going to have to do if you're going to create a political process as war is political and the end result has to be political. You have to start with some kind of political process that replaces the conflict.
To do that you need a big-tent approach. Your agreement has to have enforcement mechanisms in it. It has to point some kind of new political reality that all parties agree to. None of those things took place, and I don't think they will take place with a singular figure ever in the room.
I think American diplomacy in general is handicapped with that. I think the United States thinks that a Richard Holbrooke or a Henry Kissinger or even a Senator Mitchell can come in, but Mitchell's role was timekeeper, and that's what the United States could be good at, being the honest broker or the timekeeper. [Editor's note: For more on Senator Mitchell and his role in the Good Friday Agreement, check out his recent Carnegie Council talk, part of the International Seminar on Wellbeing in Northern Ireland.] But the actual negotiations have to involve a multitude of people and interests and specialties to work. I think Kissinger did create this world for himself with Nixon's approval, and that's why he's in that room alone with Xuan Thuy and Le Duc Tho.
Hanoi created a similar world, which is interesting. They invested an awful lot of authority in the people they sent to Paris. I think there's a narrative that we're just starting to hear from Vietnamese voices, that this war was maybe too long and too costly for what we got out of this.
Yes, I agree with the tenor of your question completely but the reality of the situation was that Kissinger with Nixon's help made this singular in a way.
QUESTION: Don Simmons.
The relative charges against Nixon and Kissinger are different from what I believed for quite a long time. I wonder if it really is true that Kissinger both altered the logbooks for the military bombing and misrepresented the proceedings at conferences in Paris.
Your statement that he's a great strategist but didn't implement policy very well seems rather soft, letting him off. Did you ever consider the T word?
ROBERT BRIGHAM: There's a wonderful exhibit at the Met Breuer right now that I would encourage you all to see on art and conspiracies, and they have a whole room dedicated to Henry Kissinger.
That probably goes a little further than I would go. There have been lots of polemics aimed at Kissinger, calling him a war criminal and a traitor, and seeing treason. I do take lying to the president as a serious charge. The documentary evidence is overwhelming that he sent Nixon summaries that were "inaccurate statements"—that's the softest language I can use—of what was said.
This gets back to one of Suzanne's questions: How has he maintained a reputation? Because he takes partial responsibility for that. In his memoir he'll say: "I committed the cardinal sin of a negotiator. I became an advocate for my own negotiation."
What Kissinger would say in this situation is, "If I wasn't telling the president that there was hope in Paris for a peace agreement, a half-cocked Nixon was going to go and bomb them back to the Stone Age, so I was actually the brakes." That's how he explains this.
It's not how I see it. I think the president of the United States, no matter who it is, the office deserves, if you're serving at the pleasure of the president as the national security advisor does—it's not a Senate confirmation; the president hires you, and you are it—then you have to give the president a full and frank description of how you discharge your duties. There is no other way to see it than that he misled the president on the content of the secret discussions in Paris.
On the bombing in Cambodia, this is something that is widely accepted now. We have Colonel Ray Sitton, who did the bombing coordinates, who has gone on record with the Air War College of Montgomery, Alabama, saying that he was the officer charged with coming up with the coordinates, that he went to the basement of the White House, he handed Kissinger envelopes with the coordinates, that Kissinger actually changed the coordinates sometimes to strike even deeper into Cambodia, and that he and Kissinger then created phony logbooks to make it look like the pilots—and at the last minute the relay stations in South Vietnam would give them the right coordinates, but the logbooks were dummy before that.
That's been accepted for quite a while. Seymour Hersh broke part of that story a long time ago, and now we have the Sitton interview, so scholars who look at the bombing of Cambodia have all used that in the last two years.
QUESTION: Following on from that question, given what you know and other aspects of American policy and the war in general, do you think that there should have been either a national or international accounting in terms of morality and justice for Kissinger, for Nixon, and for others involved? I'm not necessarily exempting those on the other side, but I'm thinking specifically of our side.
ROBERT BRIGHAM: That's a great question. A war crimes tribunal like Bertrand Russell called for in 1967—we didn't even know about some incidents by 1967. At that point, given the state of international law—Richard Falk has written a lot about this, and Bernard Fall has written a lot about this—there wasn't much meat to international law. You had the Nuremberg principles, but after that there was nothing like Responsibility to Protect (R2P) or an International Criminal Court (ICC) or anyplace where this could have been adjudicated. Finding commissioners just to oversee a just peace was impossible given the Cold War. Finding a UN mandate to do it, the mechanics of it I think are difficult.
In a lot of ways—and I love your question—I think that's what's happening now in the literature that is coming out of the second generation, especially of Vietnamese. If you look at who's winning prizes in fiction right now, it's Vietnamese children who were born in South Vietnam in 1974 and 1975 and who came with their families as refugees to the United States, and they're writing what their parents' generation could not articulate as a civil society vision, that in a sense does what you're saying. It places the whole war on trial, all the sides on trial, and comes to, through thinly-veiled fiction, a recognition that a lot of humanity was lost in this tragedy. If you haven't read Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, his book The Refugees, Andrew Lam's work, Thi Bui's work The Best We Could Do, you could spend your entire reading year reading Vietnamese voices from Saigon army officials' children that place the war in this civil society context I'm talking about. They do a little of that cultural work, even though none of the legal work was ever done.
QUESTION: I'm just wondering, as you say in Vietnam there was a rather reckless exit strategy executed by Dr. Kissinger. Is there any good example we can examine for an exit strategy in a military intervention particularly after World War II? Is there any?
ROBERT BRIGHAM: That's a great question. Is there any model for how to do this correctly?
History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme, so I do think that we can draw lessons from the past, especially when we're looking at what are the attributes that go into a peace agreement that we know work. I'm seeing four students here who had this as their final exam. Give me the 14 best practices that must exist. This Vietnam peace agreement has none of them, by the way, that are recognizable.
The U.S. Institute for Peace that does some of the work that I think you're talking about is a bipartisan organization funded—well, at least it was the last time I checked—by Congress, and it brings practitioners from around the world together to come up with these negotiating ideas, and they always come back to the same model, which is the Good Friday Agreement because it involved all the different aspects that we know must be present: to decommission armies, to release political prisoners, to integrate economies, at least until Brexit.
We're seeing in the news now that that hard border in the North of Ireland is going to be the issue. I sit on a commission in Dublin that oversees this, and this is what we're tackling right now is looking at if Brexit goes through in March, what happens to that border? Do you have to build a wall?
But the Good Friday Agreement checked a lot of the boxes on best practices. Those of us who teach courses on ending deadly conflict, that's the model that we look at on how to extricate nations and subnational groups from intractable conflicts.
This one in the end as Senator George Aiken said from Vermont, "You went home." When Suzanne says, "Could you have gotten this in 1969?" Well, if you're going to go home and leave North Vietnamese troops in the field of battle, facing down Saigon, you can do that whenever you want.
That's what the North Vietnamese kept saying. Kissinger would come back and say, "We've got a 23-month withdrawal process."
Le Duc Tho says: "It took you five months to get them here. Surely you can get them out quicker than two years."
In the end, if that's what you're doing—if you're in the end going to trade American prisoners of war for a complete unilateral U.S. withdrawal, do it.
QUESTIONER: Can I follow up on the Good Friday Agreement? Why do you think that is preventing the treaty, for many would say today in Northern Ireland there is basically no government? It's a failed state. What's the problem?
ROBERT BRIGHAM: I wouldn't characterize the Stormont in that way. I would say that there is a huge civil society in the North of Ireland. This gets back to my point exactly and to your question that started it off.
The most important people in the immediate post-Good Friday Agreement period were the architects, literally architects, who were going to take all that EU investment money and build a completely non-identity downtown in Belfast. They were going to build a new riverfront and new buildings that were going to be non-sectarian, and that's what they did. Belfast gets a complete makeover, so there is not east of the river and west of the river anymore. There is the riverfront.
That's exactly what I'm talking about here that's needed. None of that kind of vision is going on in the Paris peace talks. None of it.
It gets back to something else that Suzanne said. Your very first question was about strategy. Doesn't this seem like an odd mix? You're going to believe in negotiations, but you're going to supervise and continue the heaviest bombing in the history of mankind, 8 million tons of bombs? How do you reconcile those two things?
It's because they could never give up the ghost. Nixon and Kissinger always secretly hoped that Hanoi would bend the knee. Kissinger said to Nixon: "That raggedy ass country, fourth-rate country, has a breaking point." Contempt and wrong.
That's in the macro. There are lots of things that we need to do in peace agreements. The United States needs to get much better at being an honest broken and an architect in peace agreements. Hopefully the U.S. Institute of Peace helps. Kissinger can be a theorist, but I don't think we want him constructing that kind of a world. I think we need a lot of the young people who are here today. Stay in your majors, whatever they are, and work on these kinds of issues.
I do think at the end of the day Good Friday is a good model forward, but Vietnam continues to offer us incredibly important lessons on how to conduct our foreign affairs, how to conduct the United States' footprint in the world, how other powers see us, and how small countries react to us.
"At the end of the day, you can always find out that there is no political corollary to your overwhelming political power." A great theorist said that, Henry Kissinger.
SUZANNE NIELSEN: Unfortunately, we only have about four minutes left. What I'd like to do is give you a moment to offer some final reflections that are along these lines, which are it's hard not to read a book and think about what is going on in the world. What to you—and I know I should have left more of a half-hour than three minutes—resonates? What did it leave you thinking about that resembles something going on in the world today?
ROBERT BRIGHAM: I'm very nervous anytime we concentrate power too closely and don't allow our national security bureaucracy to function in the way it has to.
We're going to get bad policy if we have bad fundamentals, and I think we have horrible fundamentals right now. You can't attack the intelligence community, you can't attack the State Department. The press plays a vital role in the construction of American foreign policy because it's the link between the public and the policymakers. You need all of those elements of a functioning democracy running at high gear, and I don't think we're there today. We were not there in Vietnam.
To me the tragedy of Vietnam and the lessons of Vietnam speak to the dangers of allowing power to be concentrated in the basement of the White House. You want all three branches, which are rival branches on purpose.
The national security advisor position that Kissinger held until he became secretary of state too, the only person in U.S. history to be the national security advisor and the secretary of state at the same time. That shouldn't happen. The State Department's job is to find diplomatic solutions to the world's toughest problems. The Defense Department's job is to listen to its civilian commanders and to come up with military solutions to the world's toughest problems. The national security advisor's job is to mediate that natural tension and provide advice to the president.
When you cut those two elements out of the national security decision making and you just consult the president, that's bad for democracy, and things that are bad for democracy I think are bad for the American people, and an awful lot of Americans paid the price and a lot more Vietnamese paid the price and continue to pay the price. If you think this war is over, go to Vietnam or go to Orange County. It's still alive and well. Even in Washington it's casting long shadows.
SUZANNE NIELSEN: Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in thanking Professor Bob Brigham for his wonderful book and for his comments here tonight.
ROBERT BRIGHAM: Thank you.