Peace in Our Time

Peace in Our Time


The twin towers had barely toppled before the ubiquitous Henry Kissinger was on TV proclaiming the gravity of the assault and the urgency of American retaliation. The Forrest Gump of international disaster, Kissinger has been repeating the identical commentary for thirty years: Other countries commit inexplicable crimes against the United States; our national will is being tested; military power must be relentlessly employed. No matter how ponderous the tone or predictable the message, the networks never seem to tire of him.

Why is this guy still on the air? We can set aside the irony of an individual who has caused so many civilian deaths in the world moralizing about “terrorism.” The fact remains that when Kissinger and Richard Nixon were in charge, their biggest military project–the war in Vietnam–ended in humiliating defeat. Although this enterprise devastated three countries, produced upward of a million casualties and left 20,000 American soldiers dead on their watch alone, it has never diminished Kissinger’s stature as a pundit.

As is well known, during their tenure in office both Nixon and Kissinger were obsessed with matters of secrecy. And it turns out that they were wise. Without nosy reporters on the ground, the two benefited from those government regulations that have kept the important records of their international activities concealed for all these years. For extra insurance, Kissinger carefully stashed his official papers in the Library of Congress, with instructions that they not be opened until five years after his death.

But now the relevant documents and tapes are finally being declassified. And since Kissinger’s transactions involved more people than himself, copies of his hidden papers are turning up in other collections. It is on these rich materials that Larry Berman has based No Peace, No Honor, his provocative new study of the 1968-73 Vietnam peace negotiations and the final treaty, for which Kissinger and his North Vietnamese adversary Le Duc Tho received the Nobel Peace Prize.

It is hardly a revelation that this agreement was a failure, but what Berman makes clear is that it was also a fraud. The North Vietnamese had no intention of abiding by its provisions, having dedicated their lives to reunifying their country. Nor did Kissinger and Nixon intend any halt in the hostilities: Once the remaining American troops were home and the POWs released, they expected Saigon to continue the fight, while the US government would return to bombing.

In the President’s address to the nation on January 23, 1973, he exhorted his listeners to “be proud that America did not settle for a peace that would have betrayed our allies, that would have abandoned our prisoners of war, or that would have ended the war for us but would have continued the war for the 50 million people of Indochina.”

This was gross deception. As finally drafted, the Paris accords made no mention of the more than 150,000 North Vietnamese soldiers remaining in the South. Their presence virtually guaranteed continued warfare. While a central feature of the agreement was “a cease-fire in place,” Berman demonstrates in painstaking detail how nonsensical that provision really was.

For a cease-fire to have worked, there would have to have been a mutually accepted definition of who controlled what area. Yet this task was never undertaken. Instead, the responsibility was left to a future Two-Power Joint Military Commission, composed of the Saigon regime and the communist Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) in the South. Yet neither side had accepted the legitimacy of the other, nor given the slightest indication that it would cooperate on anything. This flawed procedure reflected the “total disinterest at the highest levels in any of the details for securing the peace.”

Indeed, US officials had signaled their true expectations by rushing millions of dollars of new military equipment to South Vietnam, transferring to it the title of US bases and assisting the South Vietnamese Army to gain as much territory as possible before US troops withdrew. Despite these efforts, there was fury in Saigon when the provisions of the accord became known in mid-October 1972. President Nguyen Van Thieu assailed Kissinger: “The South Vietnamese people will assume that we have been sold out by the United States and that North Vietnam has won the war.” His country might be “scarcely more than a dot on the map of the world to you,” but “for us, the choice is between life and death.” To sign the agreement “would be accepting a death sentence.”

From the South Vietnamese perspective, the crucial point was that the United States was withdrawing its troops while leaving in place the soldiers of North Vietnam. The United States was also accepting the principle that Vietnam was one country, that the PRG was a valid entity with the right to negotiate with the Saigon government on the basis of equality, and that a tripartite Committee of National Reconciliation would be created to oversee the elections. In Thieu’s assessment, this latter body was tantamount to a new coalition government.

Faced with Saigon’s recalcitrance, Kissinger was beside himself. For years, Le Duc Tho had been insisting on Thieu’s removal as the condition for peace, and now that position had been abandoned. Yet the South Vietnamese leadership was ungrateful. Kissinger warned that “if we have to, the United States can sign a separate peace treaty with Hanoi,” but “as for me, I’ll never set foot in Saigon again. Not after this. This is the worst failure of my diplomatic career!”

Had the choice been his alone, Kissinger would probably have held Thieu’s feet to the fire. But in the weeks preceding the US presidential election, Nixon did not want to be perceived as betraying an ally, especially when more than 50,000 young Americans had laid down their lives for the alleged purpose of saving it. However, by temporizing with Saigon, the Administration provoked Hanoi into withdrawing some previous concessions.

Using the new documents, Berman does an exemplary job of showing how the peace negotiations fell apart in December 1972, and how Nixon chose to bomb North Vietnam “in order to pressure the South, yet happy that the American public would believe that he had succeeded in pressuring the North.” He also makes clear how, in the aftermath of the famous “Christmas bombing,” Nixon forced Thieu to sign an agreement that the latter believed would destroy his country.

Several of these points have appeared in earlier works, by Seymour Hersh, Walter Isaacson and historian Jeffrey Kimball. Berman’s special contribution is to show that both Kissinger and Nixon recognized that the Paris accords were inherently unworkable; that they took no serious steps to insure their implementation; and that they were primarily concerned with circumventing the newly elected Congress, which was expected to cut off all funding for American involvement in Vietnam, come January 1973.

By completing the peace settlement and freeing the POWs, they hoped for public acquiescence in their resumption of the bombing. This was a recipe for “permanent war (air war, not ground operations),” a program of “indefinite stalemate by using the B-52s to prop up the government of South Vietnam” until the end of Nixon’s second term.

Along with other writers, Berman acknowledges the resemblance between the final Paris treaty and proposals offered by North Vietnam as early as 1969. From this standpoint, “we can only conclude that many tens of thousands died for very little, or simply while waiting for Thieu to give in.” And there is the obvious implication that, had Congress permitted, Kissinger and Nixon would have continued to use the B-52s for four more years, yielding even more destruction and human suffering.

Had Berman stopped here, No Peace, No Honor would have stood as a tightly argued, clear contribution to the literature on the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, he muddies the waters by his repeated suggestion that Kissinger and Nixon betrayed the South Vietnamese regime by bludgeoning it into a disadvantageous peace agreement. He actually concludes his book with the sorrowful reflection of Gen. Vernon Walters: “We let 39 million people fall into slavery.”

For decades this has been the outlook of former South Vietnamese officials, as well as that of some US military people. But it is curious to find it here, since the entire thrust of Berman’s narrative is to show the exact opposite, i.e., that Nixon and Kissinger did not plan to abandon South Vietnam. Though deceiving the American public that the war was finished, they were never planning to leave.

Indeed, Berman clearly demonstrates that the main obstacle to an early peace treaty was the US insistence on keeping Thieu in power. One motivation was Nixon’s dirty deal back in 1968, when in order to win the election he encouraged the South Vietnamese leader to undermine Lyndon Johnson’s peace efforts. This had left him in Thieu’s debt. But what was more important, Thieu was needed for the guaranteed return of American air power. Any one else was “likely to move toward a coalition government and would reject B-52s,” propelling South Vietnam into the neutralist camp.

In dealing with Saigon’s officials, Kissinger could be insulting and inclined to treat them like lackeys, but he was understandably frustrated by their inability to grasp the real situation. Nixon was giving them the best deal they could get. As Kissinger lamented, “Haig and I, who have saved you before, are in despair about you.” Of course, the North Vietnamese would cheat, but with a peace treaty, the United States would have the legal basis to strike back. Without one, “all our aid will be cut off, that is why we who support you despair of your short-sightedness.”

By illogically endorsing the notion that the Nixon Administration handed South Vietnam to the Communists, Berman has given fresh grist to the American right. He has also neglected the point that South Vietnam was never a country in any ordinary sense of the term, that the regimes in place during the period of US involvement were always artifacts of American power and that South Vietnam’s governing class was corrupt, incompetent and cruel.

Berman expresses no curiosity about the fact that as of January 1973, Saigon had an estimated 38,000 political prisoners in its jails; nor does he wonder why it was that despite an army of 1 million men, equipped with the most modern American weapons, it was afraid to face a much smaller enemy.

Had this book been written thirty years ago, one might say that all this was widely known and did not bear repeating. But the majority of Berman’s readers will have little information about the Saigon regime, nor will they necessarily understand that three US administrations, including that of Richard Nixon, had used unprecedented levels of firepower to expel the Communists from South Vietnam, with the perverse result that they grew stronger.

From this narrative, one could even gain the impression that it was the US peace movement that was at fault, since it narrowed White House options. What Berman does not adequately explain is that the peace movement was itself the product of a brutal, ineffectual war that by 1972 appeared to millions of Americans, and indeed to many of Kissinger’s and Nixon’s most prominent colleagues, as pointless murder.

It is true that in their conduct of the Vietnam War, Nixon and Kissinger were continuing many of the appalling practices of their predecessors. Yet it matters that they came later, when there was strong political support for withdrawal. While previous administrations clung to the illusion of victory, theirs did not. Moreover, with the opening to China and the improved relations with the Soviet Union, any geopolitical rationale for the war had evaporated.

And yet they persisted. There is betrayal in this story. However, it was the betrayal not of the puppet regime in Saigon but of the people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and the United States who lost their lives needlessly.

At the controls of an overgrown national security state, Nixon and Kissinger had become unhooked even from their own bureaucracies. Indifferent to the human costs and with no practical objectives to be achieved, the two were indulging their own predilection for violence while asserting the power of the United States as a goal in itself.

From the presidential tapes, Berman quotes Nixon: “I’m not worried about bombing pauses, I’m, we’re gonna take out…the power plants, we’re gonna take out Haiphong, we’re gonna…level that goddamn country!” And Kissinger: “Mr. President, I think, I think the American people understand that.”

Sometimes fanatics wear business suits. Why is Henry Kissinger still on television? Because as a society we have denied our own history, and we confront the frightening present in a state of ill-founded innocence.

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