Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The World of Henry’s Orient

Recently having finished a history by Mark Kurlansky (see January 13 blog) written from the perspective of a ‘60s New Left activist, I plumped for one by Henry Kissinger written from (needless to say) a very different perspective.

Henry Kissinger, who in 2014 remains influential at age 90, stirs a visceral reaction among many. Google his name along with the word “evil” and pages of rants will turn up. He is widely reviled as an unprincipled practitioner of Realpolitik. This isn’t an entirely fair portrayal. He is not and never was without principles, but it’s true he didn’t always let them get in the way: “While we should never give up our principles, we must also realize that we cannot maintain our principles unless we survive.” He never really objected to the charge of Realpolitik, but then why would he? (What exactly is the alternative: Fantasiepolitik?) His basic position always has been that diplomacy can succeed only if it reflects the actual balance of forces.

Americans always have been uncomfortable with unabashed power politics. They prefer to couch policy in seemingly selfless terms (defending freedom, promoting democracy, or what-have-you) even though this makes foreign policy incoherent – for selfless terms inevitably clash frequently with practical national interest. Kissinger admits that what he “tried to do was unnatural,” and therefore encountered domestic political difficulty.

Whatever one thinks of his analyses, policies, and legacies, Kissinger’s books are always fascinating reads; whether he is writing about diplomacy in general, the 1815 Congress of Vienna, or recent history of which he was a part, they are intelligent, insightful, and full of dry humor. As National Security Advisor to Richard Nixon and Secretary of State to Gerald Ford, he was an engineer of rapprochement with China, détente with The USSR, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and numerous other successes. (Discussing his memoirs, he quipped, “I am being frank about myself in this book. I tell of my first mistake on page 850.”) There was, however, a colossal failure – the source of most vitriol aimed him from (for very different reasons) both political directions. He dedicates a full book to it: Ending the Vietnam War. It is worth a read not just for historical value but for the relevance it has to a war-weary US polity today – and to our allies overseas.

The Nixon Administration took office at a time when 540,000 U.S. troops were fighting in Vietnam with no clear objective and no exit strategy. The only terms for ending the war on offer from the North Vietnamese were immediate US withdrawal and the overthrow of the Saigon regimen on the way out – a position to which they stuck until October 1972 after a ground offensive involving 12 of their 13 combat divisions had failed and bombing of the North had resumed. (They did propose on several occasions a coalition government in the South to negotiate a final settlement, but since they always insisted on a veto on who would be in it, this was just an offer to negotiate with themselves.) There basically were three options in 1969 for ending the conflict. One was to do precisely what the North Vietnamese demanded. There were then (and are now) many people who thought this the right and moral thing to do: the end result would have been no different and additional years of war averted. It’s hard to prove them wrong. The second was to escalate the war. There were then (and are now) many people who thought this the right and moral thing to do: they argue the terms obtained in (ultimately) January 1973 thereby could have been had in 1969 and an ally would not have been abandoned. It’s hard to prove them wrong. The Administration opted for a third strategy which they believed matched not just the strategic but political realities: a staged withdrawal of US troops over several years coupled with a build-up of ARVN (South Vietnamese) forces – the inelegantly named “Vietnamization” – so that the US could disengage independently of any diplomatic settlement while giving Saigon a reasonable chance to survive on its own.

In the event, Vietnamization strained the patience of an increasingly war-weary US public. Still, after the Paris Accords of 1973, it might have worked; it depended, however, on open-ended and open-handed resupply of the South Vietnamese (and Cambodians) for the indefinite future. (I’m not addressing whether this would have been a proper or moral course, only stating that its aims were plausible.) This, however, was something Congress by mid-’73 was no longer willing to provide; patience had run out. Mired in Watergate, the Administration had lost all ability to influence Congress or the public on the matter. Congress cut aid to the South to a small fraction of what was needed for the strategy to have any chance at all, and soon forbade any re-intervention with air power. When the final offensive from the North came in 1975, Saigon was rationing ammunition; the outcome was no longer in doubt. The frantic evacuations from South Vietnam, and, to a much lesser degree, Cambodia are images most Americans like to forget. Not everyone at risk chose to leave. Sirik Matak, former Prime Minister and member of the Cambodian government, sent this reply to US Ambassador Dean during the evacuation of Phnom Penh:

Dear Excellency and Friend,

I thank you very sincerely for your letter and your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection and there is nothing we can do about it.

You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is no matter because we all are born and must die. I have only committed this mistake of believing in you.

Please accept, Excellency and dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments.

S/Sirik Matak

When the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, Matak was shot in the stomach and died three days later. 2,000,000 more people died in the next few years as the new regime implemented its utopian vision.

I don’t wish to rehash arguments over who was right and who was wrong about what in the whole debacle, or about who was a war criminal and who was a patriot. Fierce opinions abound. They were unreconciled at the time and are no more reconcilable now – the mainstream ideological divide that impedes everything in the US today retains deep roots in them. (Since none of us, try as one might, is inhuman enough entirely to escape “spin,” to help the reader judge mine, I’ll mention only that I belong to a minor third party that opposed the Vietnam and, from the outset, both Iraq wars.) I don’t know whether or not things fundamentally would have been different in Southeast Asia sans Watergate, and Kissinger himself admits to doubt, but it is clear he underestimated just how much the domestic public wanted to be completely done with the whole business once US troops were gone from the scene.

Though published in 2003 when the national mood was much more belligerent than today, Ending the Vietnam War perhaps is more relevant now. There is a war-weariness in the land after a dozen years of war that is very reminiscent of that period in the mid-70s. It has not escaped the attention of our partners and those who are… well… not our partners overseas, as recent events make clear. In the current mood there is a risk of making promises (or threats) that the public no longer is prepared to keep. Another letter like the one from Phnom Penh is not something anyone wants.

As mentioned in an earlier post, there is value in going outside our comfort zones in our reading material. Including authors with whom we know we’ll disagree among the mix is as rewarding as it is (sometimes) upsetting. Love Henry or hate him, there’s no better expositor of Henry’s point of view than Henry.

Hugo Keesing taught psychology classes to troops near Saigon and compiled a 13 disc set of Vietnam War songs: “By the early '70s, as troops were arriving in Vietnam, they were singing I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag. It was an indication, not only of how divided the nation was, but there was almost a gallows humor in singing, ‘Whoopee, I'm going to die.’” 


  1. Yeah Kissinger is one of those folks that always sparks a response. Mention him around my dad and you'll get dark looks. :)

    That letter is something else. I've never seen it before. Ouch!

    1. Henry, oddly enough, sparked in another way with the ladies, including Diane Sawyer, Candice Bergen, Jill St. John, and Shirley Maclaine, none of whom shared his politics. Liv Ullman, whom he also dated, called him, “the most interesting man I have ever met.” Back in 1972 a poll of Playboy bunnies selected Kissinger as the man with whom they would most like to go out on a date. Go figure. Looks really aren't everything.

  2. My mother always liked Kissinger, I'm not sure why. Perhaps she felt he was earnest, or at least tried negotiation or maybe he just appeared better among the rest at the time. I'm fairly indifferent to him, and always found him a tad boring. Timely topic, however, with the current Ukraine struggles.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. Kissinger provoked more response when his views had real world consequences, of course. Nowadays, he is relegated to armchair analysis. They’re still pretty sharp analyses though.