Kissinger in Vietnam and China

Carolyn Eisenberg

In Vietnam, Henry Kissinger had no principles whatsoever. There’s nothing to suggest that he had qualms about people dying or suffering.

Henry Kissinger (left) meets with South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu (right) in August 1972. (Bettmann via Flickr)

Interview by
Jonah Walters

Jonah Walters

Kissinger took his first official government job in 1969, as Richard Nixon’s national security advisor. What kind of administration was he sliding into?

Carolyn Eisenberg

The war in Vietnam was the most prominent issue at the time. There was a lot of pressure on Nixon — who claimed to have a secret plan for ending the war, but didn’t want to tell anyone what it was — to find some kind of resolution on that issue. So he was walking into an administration which was immediately consumed by the war.

It’s relevant to note that Kissinger didn’t have any governing experience at that point. He had consulted for different administrations — he had even been a consultant for peace talks in Vietnam — but he had very little idea how the government really functioned. In that one respect, it was similar to the situation with the Trump people in 2016. As far as Kissinger was concerned, the actual practice of government was not a field he paid much attention to.

That becomes quite important as he goes through those four years — not only that he’s inexperienced, but also that he doesn’t particularly care very much about normal procedures, which made him extremely useful to Richard Nixon. For Kissinger, there was no sense of the way things had been done in the past, that there were precedents you had to be guided by. These kinds of things were highly relevant to Secretary of State William P. Rogers, to Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird — they were even relevant to the CIA director, Richard Helms — but they were not relevant to Kissinger. There were no norms that governed Henry Kissinger’s behavior in the Nixon administration.

But despite his inexperience, Kissinger does know enough to do one clever thing: in setting up the National Security office, he is very careful from the outset to maximize his personal power. He sets up reporting relationships designed to force cabinet officers and other people to go through him in order to reach the president. Now, there is some pushback on that, but it’s fair to say that when Kissinger starts out within that administration, he’s already created a kind of structure which would enable him to influence policy to a degree disproportionate to his official role. From the outset he had a very high level of control.

Jonah Walters

How did he manage that? He was just a meddling Ivy Leaguer, surrounded by generals and career politicians.

Carolyn Eisenberg

With Nixon’s consent he set up reporting relationships that enabled him to monitor Cabinet officials and others. As for Vietnam, when Kissinger came in, he created a comprehensive survey about Vietnam, which went out to all these different government bureaucracies. Daniel Ellsberg, who later leaked the Pentagon Papers, was a consultant on that. Using that survey, Kissinger was able to zero in on disagreements between various government agencies and personalities, and really exploit them — not only to create tension among his rivals, but to present himself to Nixon as the only person in the administration capable of managing the massive wartime bureaucracies.

Jonah Walters

Did Kissinger even have a strategy for winning in Vietnam?

Carolyn Eisenberg

In the beginning, he really just deferred to the military. There was a strong feeling in the military that the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (NLF) had taken a huge beating during the Tet Offensive the year before. They were exaggerating that to some degree, but it was certainly their perception that the guerrilla networks had been rounded up and a lot of fighters had died. Remember that the military still thought they could win this thing. At MACV [Military Assistance Command, Vietnam], many believed with more resources and greater freedom of action they could end the war with a US victory. That was coming from high-ranking military officers.

The most obvious example of this is the bombing of Cambodia. People often chalk that decision up to the personal peculiarities of Nixon and his sidekick. There is a strongly argued “madman theory” that says they wanted to show the enemy they could be tough and unpredictable and to convey that message they did crazy things like bombing Cambodia unilaterally. But the military had been advocating bombing and invading Cambodia for years. During the Johnson administration, they had been held back by Robert McNamara. But by the time Nixon came in, the military had a free reign and more influence in the White House.

This calls attention to the institutional underpinnings of the president’s decisions, which sometimes people ignore by attributing everything to the personalities of Nixon or Kissinger. In a lot of ways, especially at the beginning, Nixon and Kissinger took their marching orders from the military.

This kind of military thinking can be very powerful. You can still see this dynamic at work today, in the War on Terror — whether it’s in Afghanistan or in Iraq or elsewhere, the military can exercise a huge amount of influence simply by saying, ‘we can win if we just do this, or we’ll end the war if we just do that.’ I think on the Left there’s a tendency not to take seriously the influence of the military in shaping foreign policy. But it’s there. Sometimes the commander-in-chief serves at the pleasure of his generals, not the other way around.

Jonah Walters

But what interests was the military defending? Was it just a sort of institutional inertia, keeping the war going?

Carolyn Eisenberg

I don’t know if I would say it was institutional inertia… but obviously there had already been a massive effort by the military to win the war. You already had 30,000 Americans who died there, you had huge numbers of people coming back with injuries. There were half a million Americans in Vietnam at the point that Nixon takes office. So, yes, if you’re a general, this is what you do — this is what your business is, to wage war and of course buy expensive weapons systems. There’s always going to be a disposition in that direction, especially when you’ve been fighting the war for four years and so far the situation is inconclusive.

Maybe Kissinger and Nixon rethought things later, because eventually they started hating the military and blaming them for failures, but at first they were quite happy to accept that guidance. Then, by the time they can even catch their breath, 10,000 more Americans were killed in 1969, their first year in office. So as Nixon and Kissinger move into 1970, they already have to take responsibility for a huge proportion of the casualties that have occurred. And that’s significant.

Jonah Walters

Take responsibility how? Neither Nixon nor Kissinger ever seemed especially concerned about loss of life.

Carolyn Eisenberg

Well, we’re missing a whole side of the picture here: the role of the peace movement. On one side of it, you have a very influential military proselytizing to the president about what should be done in Vietnam. But on the other side, there was a growing, mobilized peace movement. And after Tet, suddenly this peace movement gains more credibility with the public at large, which has all kinds of political ramifications in Washington.

It certainly had a big impact on secretary of defense Melvin Laird. If you were in the peace movement in 1969, he could seem like the worst person in the world. His face was on the signs, his name was in the chants. And he clearly hated that, if only because it put his old relationships from his time in Congress in jeopardy. In reality, from practically the first minute he came in, Melvin Laird’s primary concern was to get as many Americans out of Vietnam as fast as possible. I suppose you could say that reflects the influence of his family — his own kids were at peace demonstrations during this time — but it also shows the tremendous restlessness in Congress, as legislators worried about their own constituents’ anger over the war issue.

Now, Kissinger didn’t want to pull troops out. He didn’t have the same political concerns as Laird or members of Congress. He just wanted to win, and was not overly concerned about the harm this effort would cause. Nixon was caught in the middle. He agreed with Kissinger — ‘we have to win this war’ — but also acquiesced to Laird by saying, ‘okay, we’re going to start bringing troops home.’ It was a paradox. That’s where “Vietnamization” came from —the idea that US troops would pull out slowly while building up the military in South Vietnam.

In recent years there has been a tendency for scholars to minimize the role of the peace movement. But it was a big part of the reason Nixon listened to Laird and some members of Congress, even though Kissinger didn’t want to. The president was very, very worried about the American public and how people were going to respond. If you were in the peace movement, the whole idea of Vietnamization seemed a total fraud.

It certainly seemed that way to me. We couldn’t stand hearing people say Nixon was ending the war by bringing some troops home. He was expanding the war, bombing and sending troops to Cambodia in 1970 and Laos in 1971. But in fact the steady withdrawal of US troops from the summer of 1969 on was enormously consequential. Because by the time we got to 1973, there were almost no boots on the ground — which made signing a peace treaty not only feasible but necessary.

The Vietnam War was a great tragedy, a huge waste of human life — no getting around that. But in reality, it would have been a whole lot worse if there were not a mobilized citizenry in the United States. The peace movement created a situation in which the Nixon Administration was forced to end the war. It should be added as well, that the extraordinary discipline and dedication of enemy forces made its continuation extraordinarily costly.

A striking experience: When I was working on my book, I did a couple of phone interviews with Melvin Laird. I didn’t tell him much about what we were going to talk about, but he agreed to talk to me. On our first phone call, the very first thing he says is, “Do you know how many American kids I got out of that place?” First sentence!

His outlook illustrates the internal conflict — that during those years there was a policy being driven by the military, on one hand, and a policy being driven by the peace movement, on the other. And Kissinger’s thinking — which was certainly not stupid, only cynical — was to keep the war going long enough to negotiate secretly and get an agreement, if only to ensure that the United States didn’t lose too much ground in Asia.

I want to say one other thing about Kissinger during this period. I mentioned that when he was setting up the NSC he created structures that marginalized other players in the administration. But forget about formal structures for a moment. Another thing that happened is that Kissinger tightened his personal bond with Nixon. Kissinger constantly plotted to weaken and discredit the other relevant people around him and the president. In the course of doing so, he accumulated tremendous personal power.

People still talk about Kissinger as this traditional cold warrior — well, he was until he wasn’t. Truthfully, Nixon had more of a vision than Kissinger did. The fact is that Kissinger was simply able to worm his way around all of these other people in the administration because he was willing to indulge those qualities of Nixon that others were not, including his grandiosity, jealousy and rage. He could make himself useful to Nixon in a way that other people couldn’t, because they had institutions they represented. Kissinger didn’t represent anything except himself — and maybe the Harvard clique of pro-war intellectual elites that, even then, was shrinking and fragmenting under the pressure of the war.

Jonah Walters

But he must have had some motivation of his own, right? What about his allegiances outside of government?

Carolyn Eisenberg

On that item, my views have changed after reading the documents. During that period, I was a graduate student at Columbia, and I can remember a ton of conversations about Kissinger. Among peace activists, we were quick to point out how Kissinger was tight with the Rockefellers; ‘he’s a pawn,’ ‘they hired him to do their dirty work,’ et cetera. Obviously, that was exaggerated.

It’s true that Kissinger was, in some ways, a political face of the cohort of upper-crust East Coasters — including the Rockefellers — who orbited Harvard and Wall Street and Washington. But that group was hardly a unified political entity with a consistent program. And the Vietnam War, as it went on, threw that group into confusion.

This more complex relationship can be seen in the transcripts of Kissinger’s telephone calls and talks to business groups. In at least one conversation with David Rockefeller (I think it was after Cambodia), Rockefeller keeps saying, “Henry, this is bad.” But Kissinger keeps telling him, in effect, “This is going to work out fine; Nixon knows what he’s doing.” Remember, for people like the Rockefellers, who were very tied into elite colleges and universities, there was a lot of restlessness. They couldn’t go to a Yale graduation without it getting disrupted.

There’s one very dramatic moment I wrote about in my book — just a little story, but to me it’s very symbolic. One of the students who was killed at Kent State was from Long Island. He was shot during the first week of May. The funeral was a Friday, and that Sunday was Mother’s Day. And, interestingly, who spends Mother’s Day with the boy’s mother? Nelson Rockefeller. His condition of going there was that there would be no publicity at all — he just went and spent the day with her.

During this time, Rockefeller was talking to Kissinger every day, but he never told Kissinger that he went to visit that household. Then, the next day, on the Monday after Mother’s Day, Nelson Rockefeller spoke out against the war. He later backpedaled a thousand times, of course, but it just highlights the ambivalence of the business community, or at least a certain wing of it. At some point, the alienation of young people became so intense that it became a factor for the economic elite, as well. When Kissinger gave occasional talks to business groups, he was selling the war to them, they weren’t selling the war to him.

Jonah Walters

So, the civilian leadership of the Defense Department wants its soldiers out, the business community is vacillating, the anti-war movement is scaring the hell out of the president… What’s the final straw for Nixon and Kissinger? What finally breaks the war effort?

Carolyn Eisenberg

A critical moment in this process is the spring of 1971. That’s when thousands of South Vietnamese troops were sent into Laos in a campaign called Lam Son 719. They were supposed to get to the crossroads town of Tchepone, stay there for two months, and kill enough people and disrupt enough supply routes that there could not be an offensive in 1972, because that was when Nixon would be up for reelection. Now, American ground troops can’t enter Laos, because of a congressional restriction — all they can do is escort South Vietnamese troops to the border — but the Americans use a tremendous amount of airpower and artillery to back up the campaign.

Nixon and Kissinger saw this as their last chance to end the war on their terms. But the whole thing was a total failure, to the absolute mortification of Nixon and Kissinger.

Casualties were so heavy that the government of South Vietnam pulled its troops out after just a few weeks. Soldiers on the ground were so desperate to leave that some of them clung to American helicopters as they flew off — it was chaos; South Vietnamese soldiers trying to flee Laos. The television cameras picked up on this, of course — showing pictures of those troops retreating back into South Vietnam. It was a nightmare for the White House, especially since they’d been pushing this whole Vietnamization thing as their exit plan.

Remember, this was 1971. It was a very dramatic time, on all sides. The veterans’ protests in the United States were becoming larger and more visible. John Kerry testified in Congress before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Vets were up on Capitol Hill throwing away their medals. It was the worst moment for the White House since Nixon took office.

This debacle was at a turning point, and ultimately lead to Nixon and Kissinger accepting a relatively unfavorable peace agreement in 1973. But the South Vietnamese failure to hold Tchepone — which showed Vietnamization to be a joke, and all but guaranteed there’d be a major North Vietnamese offensive in 1972 — also shaped the White House’s diplomacy with China in very profound ways.

Jonah Walters

Nixon is famous for being the first president to visit the People’s Republic of China in 1972. And he traveled with his sidekick in tow. It’s one of the weirder episodes in twentieth-century diplomatic history — Kissinger and Mao reportedly drank whiskey together, while Kissinger and Zhou Enlai discussed continental philosophy in the evenings. (Or so it was said.) How did that visit come about?

Carolyn Eisenberg

There had been a lot of discussion during the Johnson years, including by Nixon himself, about the need to change the White House’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China. It had become absurd that the United States was pretending it didn’t exist. So from the time that Nixon took office, some members of his administration had put out feelers to the Chinese about an opening. But then the United States invaded Cambodia. Things froze, and Nixon’s overture to China, which had looked like it was going to bear fruit, suddenly failed.

Then, in 1971, the American ping-pong team was invited to China, and their visit went well. Soon after, Mao sent a message making it clear that China was prepared to welcome an American emissary. Nixon and Kissinger were ecstatic; it was like receiving a coveted invitation to the senior prom. Kissinger saw right away that this could be fantastic for Nixon — he would go visit China, it would make a splash in the media, it would resurrect the administration’s public image. As Kissinger said to Nixon more than once, “This will take Vietnam off the front pages.”

The second advantage, which both Nixon and Kissinger see right away, is that an opening with China will put pressure on the Soviet Union to be more forthcoming on a variety of issues. The president really wanted a summit in Moscow, especially before the reelection campaign. Kissinger and Nixon thought the China opening and possible presidential trip to Beijing might compel the Russians to accept a summit. And they also thought, if things went really well, maybe China could help them get an acceptable peace treaty with Hanoi. This was the beginning of an idea that would get bigger and bigger until January 1973, when the peace agreement with Hanoi was finally signed: how can the Chinese help with this?

But in July of 1972, when he and Zhou had their first meeting, Kissinger’s main concern was marginalizing the State Department. Not just Rogers, but the whole State Department. He didn’t want them to know what he was saying. There was a very high premium on secrecy. Kissinger even developed the habit of only using a Chinese translator. He thought secrecy was indispensable, even between government offices. The American “bureaucracy” would only interfere with his “great power diplomacy” — that was his philosophy. In a prefiguration of Donald Trump, he told Zhou Enlai that his problem with the “bureaucracy” was similar to the problem the Chinese government faced.

Jonah Walters

You mentioned that the Lam Son debacle impacted the administration’s dealings with China. Can you elaborate?

Carolyn Eisenberg

Throughout his time in office, Nixon’s need for something positive to happen in Vietnam shaped his diplomacy with the Chinese. At first, he just needed distractions. That meant visits to China, television crews at the Great Wall, et cetera — Nixon and Kissinger got fantastic mileage out of spectacles like these. But as time went on and the situation became more desperate, they tried to get China — and the USSR, to an even greater extent — to help them pressure Hanoi to accept their terms for ending the war.

Kissinger led this effort, making promises to China that he kept from the State Department. The way he behaved in these negotiations was actually pretty shocking. If the American public back then could have seen some of these transcripts, they would have been amazed. They’re just so absurd.

This was Kissinger’s importance: he had no principles whatsoever. If American kids are dying, it didn’t make any difference to him. If POW wives are in anguish because they want their husbands released, he didn’t care. If thousands of people get killed in Pakistan, it wasn’t going to bother him, as long as it brought him closer to some abstract diplomatic goal with the Chinese. Other people in the government actually get bothered by these things. But as for Kissinger, he was just the implementer. There doesn’t seem to ever be a single human situation in all of the Vietnam-related transcripts to suggest that he had qualms about people dying or suffering.

Jonah Walters

Ultimately, though, Kissinger ended up taking some flak for this, right? His opponents in the GOP were able to outflank him on the right, calling him untrustworthy because of his relative friendliness with the Chinese and what they viewed as his “appeasement” of the Soviets.

Carolyn Eisenberg

Well, what Kissinger did with the Soviets was to intervene in the arms control negotiations. Behind the scenes, he essentially took them over. There was an official delegation in Helsinki doing this work, and Kissinger didn’t bother to tell them he had a parallel negotiation going on in Washington.

To people like Ronald Reagan, who became one of Kissinger’s biggest detractors later on, this looked like selling out the United States. To summarize a complex subject: the final arms control deal with Moscow, which Kissinger had largely engineered, put the United States in a somewhat disadvantaged position on offensive nuclear weapons like intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Many experts defended this agreement — known by the acronym SALT, for strategic arms limitation talks — saying the particular numbers didn’t matter. But others at the time viewed it as a sell-out. Some of those others — like Paul Nitze — would later become strong opponents of arms control.

But it’s important to understand how all these diplomatic spectacles with the communist superpowers completely undermined the popular justification for the war in Vietnam. And it wasn’t just China. Nixon spent hours and hours with Brezhnev, too. He even went to Moscow and addressed the Soviet people.

Have you heard of poor little Tanya? There was this little girl, Tanya, in Leningrad during World War II, whose diary ended up in a museum there. In this diary, she recorded how everyone in her family was dying from starvation. Her last entry says something like, ‘Today my mother died and now only Tanya is left.’ So, in 1972, when Nixon went to the Soviet Union, he visited the museum where the diary was kept. On the wall of the museum it said that Tanya had died four months after that final entry. Then, Nixon delivered this incredibly emotional address to the Soviet people about all the Tanyas of the world and how we should all work together to prevent the Tanyas of the future from experiencing this cruel fate, and so forth.

But you have to understand that Nixon was making this speech at the same time that the war in South Vietnam and Cambodia was raging out of control, with American B-52s and fighter-bombers striking these places, as well as North Vietnam. So, on the home front, there was a kind of dissociation taking place. The American public was conditioned to think of Vietnam as a war to stop the Soviets from taking over the world. Meanwhile, it seemed like the president was getting along with the USSR just fine. So the question became, ‘Why are you still killing American kids in Vietnam?’ ‘And what about our Tanyas?’ the North Vietnamese negotiators inquire. It was very sobering.

Jonah Walters

I have one more question for you, Carolyn. You hear a lot of people, on the right and on the left, say that we’re living in the world Kissinger built — that Kissinger ushered in a new paradigm in American foreign policy. What do you think of that?

Carolyn Eisenberg

I don’t entirely agree. Kissinger would have certainly made that claim. But when you read his books, there is a tremendous amount of pretentiousness — a habit of dressing up unoriginal ideas to sound like a new conceptual framework.

But I do think that Kissinger’s disposition to favor military force had effects that continue to reverberate. We see this in many situations, including his absolutely terrible advice to George W. Bush about Iraq, many years later. There was always a militaristic edge to him, but crucially that militarism was always directed at lesser powers — small, relatively weak countries. I guess that did set a tone for what came after. But that’s hardly a new paradigm.

This is what we should be really concerned about: somehow, amid this whole mess of swirling interests and priorities, with a hot war in Vietnam and a Cold War everywhere else and an anti-war movement at home, the US government solidified its identity as a national security state. I don’t know if we can really call that a transformation — probably not — but it was a kind of hardening of a pre-existing condition. A national security state involves an obsession with threats, a mistrust of the public, a strengthening of the executive — all things that should be intensely familiar to us today.

One of the dangers of a national security state is that it ultimately empowers people like Nixon and Kissinger—who may be lacking any kind of moral compass—to make hugely consequential decisions, almost unilaterally, even when there is no democratic mandate. The two were embedded in a whole network of national security institutions. Yes, there were people at the lower levels — Daniel Ellsberg is an example — who opposed the president, who went home to their families every night anguished by what was happening, and some of them quit. But for the most part, government officials behaved as “enablers,” rendering Nixon and Kissinger almost untouchable.

Excerpted from The Good Die Young, Jacobin and Verso Books’s book-length anti-obituary for Henry Kissinger.

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Carolyn Eisenberg, a history professor at Hofstra University, has written extensively about the Cold War and US foreign policy. She is the author of the book Never Lose: Nixon, Kissinger and the Illusion of National Security.

Jonah Walters is currently the postdoctoral scholar in the BioCritical Studies Lab at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics. He was a researcher at Jacobin from 2015 to 2020.

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