By Jussi M. Hanhimäki
American media has been exercised in the last week over “newly released” documents from Henry Kissinger’s archives that reveal his position on Vietnam. Specifically, reports have appeared on NBC news and on the pages of The New York Times about how Henry Kissinger told Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai in 1972 that the United States was prepared to accept the unification of Vietnam under Communist rule. Kissinger’s only proviso was that he wished there would be a time interval between the American exit and South Vietnam’s collapse. In short, Kissinger offered Zhou En-lai U.S. withdrawal in return for a “decent interval.” Brian Williams of NBC News called these revelations “shocking” and reminded his audience that almost 60,000 Americans had died in Vietnam. (He did not bother mentioning the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians that also perished.)
While it warms a historian’s heart to see archival revelations make it to prime time, one needs to ask: how new are these “newly released” documents? I analyzed the same “newly released” documents for my book – The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy – which came out almost 2 years ago. Indeed, I also pointed out that Kissinger was “selling the decent interval” not only to Zhou En-lai. He made similar comments to Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko and the message got passed to the North Vietnamese. In addition to The Flawed Architect, excerpts of these “newly released” documents, also appeared in the 2003 book The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts (which I edited with Odd Arne Westad). Most of the documents were, in fact, released in April 2001.
There are two points worth stressing. First, the documents (“not-so-newly-released” as it turns out) do indeed reveal that Kissinger made statements that, on the face of it, ran completely counter to the Nixon administration’s public assurances. They certainly do not reveal a diplomat confidently pursuing a “peace with honor.” And yet, as Kissinger himself was quick to point out in an interview last week, the apparent selling of the decent interval may well have been simply part of Kissinger’s negotiation strategy; a way of getting the Chinese and the Soviets to use their influence in the stillborn peace talks. The decreasing US support for South Vietnam later on may well have been a result of factors not envisioned in 1972 (the decline of Congressional support, Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, the outbreak of such other international crises as the 1973 October War in the Middle East).
Second, one is left wondering why this set of Kissinger’s documents is suddenly big news? Somehow, it does not seem that Kissinger’s diplomatic shenanigans are obvious headline-grabbers today. The decent interval debate still fascinates many Vietnam War historians. But it appears more the stuff of academic conferences than prime time news.
The answer seems straightforward: given the mess of the occupation of Iraq, analogies are easily drawn between the current situation and Vietnam. We can see this in discussions about the declining support for the war and in the soon-to-be irresistible pressure towards the ‘Iraqinization’ of the war. Americans will have to come home from Iraq sooner or later but, as in Vietnam, they have to come back “with honor.” Kissinger and his diplomatic efforts eventually succeeded in getting Americans out of Vietnam. But they also show the sheer desperation that had clearly overcome the Nixon administration by this point. Vietnam had to end, virtually by any means necessary, including sacrificing the initial goal of American intervention.
Kissinger may not have hoped for a decent interval, but in the end he was willing to accept it as the price for ending a war that had lasted too long, cost too many lives, damaged America’s international image, and caused deep political divisions within the country. Kissinger’s hardnosed realpolitik (if that is what it was in 1972) may at first seem shocking. But they are also a reminder that there always comes a time when even American leaders need a “reality check” and have to accept that they are engaged in a losing cause. They did so in Vietnam, all the while trying to mask the reality of defeat.
Perhaps the point that the media is making in bringing out this “ancient” history is therefore simple: keeping your word, staying the course, may be “honorable.” But it can also be a recipe for continued quagmire. Before going too far down that self-defeating path, it may be better to accept whatever face-saving mechanism – however “immoral” – there may be for withdrawal. While expressing shock at Kissinger’s tactics, the focus on his role does highlight a simple fact of the current situation in Iraq. It can only be solved if the current administration – as Kissinger did in the 1970s – accepts the fallibility of current policies and accepts the possibility that in the short- and medium- term, Iraq may well be ruled by forces not closely allied to the United States. Or, as Kissinger put it in one of those “newly released” documents: “We will agree to an historical process or a political process in which the real forces in Vietnam will assert themselves, whatever these forces are.”
That might not be a far-fetched notion in the current situation. After all, in Iraq – as in Vietnam – most of the ultimate sacrifices that will be part of the historical and political process in years to come will not be made by Americans.
Jussi Hanhimäki is Professor of International History and Politics at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, and won the 2002 Bernath Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.