Henry Kissinger's Indochina Obsession: Will He Bomb Again? - Rolling Stone
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Kissinger’s Indochina Obsession: Will He Bomb Again?

After secret attack on Cambodia, it is time to critically review the once-celebrated bombing of Hanoi at Christmas 1972

Henry KissingerHenry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger

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Where is Henry Kissinger? In the hundreds of transcribed pages of the White House tapes, Kissinger never makes an entrance. He never offers his president an opinion about the effects of the Watergate scandal on foreign policy, nor a suggestion to his president on what he ought to do, nor, in fact, a word on their policies in foreign affairs that we now know to be so closely woven with the desperately fought reelection campaign of 1972.

What are the White House tapes without Kissinger? Will these portions ever be heard? Will it take another generation? Does anyone in Congress care? During the Judiciary Committee hearings on impeachment, the members missed the chance to subpoena tapes of any and all Nixon/Kissinger discussions to determine if the secret bombing of Cambodia was indeed an impeachable offense. The truth was that they did not want to investigate Kissinger.

Two years after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement, it is time to review critically Henry Kissinger’s once celebrated achievement of bombing Hanoi at Christmas 1972, thus claiming a “peace with honor” settlement and maintaining his ally Thieu in power.

Kissinger is losing his “fig leaf,” as he once described the South Vietnamese government which had to be kept standing while the U.S. withdrew its troops.

Today it is all falling apart in Indochina again. Since fall 1974, in a scenario reminiscent of 1963, demonstrators have been taking to the streets to topple Thieu. A limited but devastating military offensive is being carried out in the countryside where vast amounts of rice and land, including all of Phuoc Long Province near Saigon, are falling into revolutionary hands. In Cambodia, revolutionary troops are at the outskirts of Phnom Penh and are choking off sea supply routes to the capital. As in a nightmare replayed, the administration has sent ships steaming toward Vietnam, alerted U.S. troops in the Pacific, intensified reconnaissance and airlifts, threatened Hanoi with “consequences” and proposed emergency military aid to Saigon and Phnom Penh.

Kissinger’s policy also invites review because 1974 ends the “decent interval” he so often requested: a two-year survival of Thieu after the U.S. withdrawal in order to protect the American image of success.

The “interval” has not only been indecent–more South Vietnamese have died since the peace agreement was signed than the total number of Americans during the entire war–but Indochina has not faded as a Kissinger priority. “To lose gracefully is still to lose,” he was quoted last December by Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, who writes that “the obsession with Indochina continues to grip Mr. Kissinger.” His fiscal 1975 aid requests would give more tax dollars to Thieu and Lon Nol ($3.7 billion) than to the rest of the world combined ($3.3 billion). Fully 50% of “food for peace” money in 1974 went to the Indochina war economies while, by comparison, only 0.7% went to countries of the African Sahel, where hundreds of thousands are dying of starvation. And recently the administration sent the highest ranking U.S. official to Saigon since the Paris Agreement was signed, Texas oilman and deputy secretary of defense, William Clements. On his return Clements warned that North Vietnam could be bombed again by the hundreds of planes poised in Thailand if the status quo in the South collapses.

Kissinger has bluntly written Senator Edward Kennedy that in his interpretation of the Paris Agreement, “It is important that we continue our support as long as it is needed.” In reply, Kennedy was properly “distressed” by this new rationalization “on the basis of ‘commitments’ under the Paris Agreement, which was not submitted to the Senate as a treaty.” The peace agreement, far from ending the war in Kissinger’s view, has committed the U.S. to “strengthening the conditions that made the ceasefire possible.” These conditions are not enumerated, but from Kissinger’s past record it would seem to include everything from covert aid to B-52s.

For those who wonder why the war continues after the peace agreement, the answer will be found in reexamining Kissinger’s political theories as well as the historic events leading up to the signing on January 27th, 1973. There already is a myth of American power to be demolished, a myth reinforced by the recent publication of two studies: a critical one by Tad Szulc in Foreign Policy* magazine and a pro-Kissinger book by Marvin and Bernard Kalb.** All three writers believe that the 1972 bombing of Hanoi “succeeded” (however gruesome it was). Of all the Vietnam myths, this is perhaps the most dangerous, justifying massive air power and bombing civilian populations.

To appraise this “success,” one must measure the reality today against Kissinger’s original declarations of intent. He laid out his position on Vietnam many times in the first months of the Nixon administration – especially in a January 1969 essay in Foreign Affairs. Kissinger insisted on several aims which he was finally forced to abandon four years and four million tons of bombs later:

1. He demanded a North Vietnamese troop withdrawal. But in 1973 he had to acknowledge that 150,000 of those troops were left behind in the South as the Americans withdrew.

2. He opposed any cease-fire which would leave the instability of “enclaves of conflicting loyalties” (what the military calls “leopard spots”). Yet that was precisely the situation in 1973, as it is today. No separation of revolutionary troops from rural population was achieved, as it was at the 1954 Geneva Conference when Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh troops were regrouped north of the 17th parallel.

3. Kissinger rejected in 1969 any form of coalition government because it would “destroy the existing political structure of South Vietnam.” But the Paris Agreement which he signed specifies that a National Council of Reconciliation be formed of the Saigon regime, third-segment neutralists and the Provisional Revolutionary Government.

4. He promised to protect and maintain not only Thieu but South Vietnam as a distinct entity, perhaps like South Korea or West Germany. But the agreement he accepted prohibits the U.S. from imposing “any political tendency or personality on the South Vietnamese people” (Article 9-c). The reunification of Vietnam is assured with the formula and words long advocated by the other side: “step by step through peaceful means on the basis of discussions and agreements between North and South Vietnam, without coercion or annexation by either party and without foreign interference” (Article 15).

5. Kissinger hinted broadly in early 1969 that the U.S. would be out quickly. “Give us six months and if we haven’t ended the war by then, you can come back and tear down the White House fence,” he told visitors. Yet he was privy to national security memos, some put together by Daniel Ellsberg, which concluded that South Vietnam might not be “pacified” in less than eight years and certainly not for at least five. The memos, reflecting the varied views of government agencies dealing with Vietnam, unanimously concluded that the Saigon army (which was being “Vietnamized”) could never withstand a North Vietnam/PRG military offensive without massive American air-and sea-based strikes. The only way Kissinger could ignore these warnings was by secretly planning an unprecedented escalation of the bombing (“Kissinger was always a believer in the persuasive power of bombs,” the Kalbs write), by placing exaggerated hope in diplomatic power plays with the Russians and Chinese, and by hiding the war from the American people. Not only did he wind up with a settlement in four years rather than six months, his policy of massive deceit contributed to the White House atmosphere exposed by Watergate.

Who can forget the rush of hope accompanying the announcement that “peace is at hand” on October 26th, 1972? Yet in his press conference on the draft agreement, which had been unexpectedly released by the North Vietnamese, Kissinger managed to distort the heart of the agreement without the adulating press taking notice. He listed briefly every chapter of the agreement except the first, the most important one in the eyes of Hanoi, which affirmed the unity of Vietnam. Moreover, in his careful 3,000-word statement, as well as during questions and answers, Kissinger never acknowledged the existence of the PRG, an equal signatory to the agreement, whose struggle for legitimacy in the South was the central political issue of the war.

Kissinger repeated this technique on December 16th, 1972, two days before the bombing of Hanoi, when he suggested that the agreement was “99% completed.” The remaining percentage point, however, was still the essence of the controversy: Discussing the U.S. position, Kissinger said, “We wanted some reference in the agreement, however allusive, however indirect, which would make clear that the two parts of Vietnam would live in peace …” When the agreement was finally signed, President Nixon took up Kissinger’s tactic of allusions in his message summarizing its contents:

“The United States will continue to recognize the government of the Republic of Vietnam as the sole legitimate government of South Vietnam….

“Now that we have achieved an honorable agreement, let us be proud that America did not settle for a peace that would have betrayed our allies….”

What really happened? To set the historical record straight is an urgent task. In a war, victory is decided not only on battlefields but in the consciousness that succeeding generations receive. To destroy the myth of “peace with honor” requires a new look at 1972, including what the Vietnamese as well as the American side expected, and what each got.

The key factors in 1972 were the Vietnamese military offensive and the American election. The U.S. escalated the bombing and mined Haiphong to stave off the offensive, while deciding to accept a minimal settlement which would appear honorable. Then, having gotten through the election with a peace image, the president would have a free hand if necessary to resume military intervention to impose a settlement more favorable to the U.S.

The April 1972 offensive broke by surprise. Tanks burst through the U.S./Saigon defense lines in Quang Tri in northernmost South Vietnam. One division fell back while a whole regiment surrendered. In a few days’ time, Saigon troops and U.S. advisers were tied down in conventional battle all over the South while guerrilla combat was breaking out in the populated deltas. The U.S. “Vietnamization” strategy was in shambles and “re-Americanizing” the war with B-52s was going to be necessary to avert total and humiliating defeat. The political effect of the offensive was decisive. Tad Szulc writes that “the 1972 Communist spring offensive, if nothing else, had convinced [Kissinger] that the Vietnam war must be ended as soon as possible, and the U.S. finally extricated from it.”

One track of American response was military. According to the new accounts, Kissinger at first “argued for heavier B-52 bombing as an alternative” to the proposed mining of Haiphong which he feared would jeopardize the coming Moscow summit. When Nixon decided on both bombing and mining, and the summit was still secured, the Kalbs say, “Kissinger began to parrot the most optimistic Joint Chiefs of Staff assumptions.” For those who cannot understand the effects of any B-52 bombing, not to mention the “heavier” attacks Kissinger wanted, picture this: Three of the giants fly at 30,000 feet (five miles up) and drop 90 tons of bombs into an area one-and-a-half miles by one-half mile wide. “Heads and arms and legs and blood and guts, zombies walking around concussed out of their minds,” is the way one U.S. officer described B-52 victims for readers of the Wall Street Journal. In the spring of 1972 the U.S. sent 250 B-52s into action, twice the number Johnson ever used.

A second American track was diplomatic concessions given through Moscow. Szulc interprets this bargaining as a successful splitting of Russian and North Vietnamese interests by Kissinger. But if there was a Russian betrayal of North Vietnam, it came with accepting Nixon in Moscow just after being challenged by the mining against Russian ships in Haiphong. If the summit had been canceled by Brezhnev, Nixon would have been criticized for sacrificing détente, demonstrations would have continued to mount and McGovern’s campaign fueled with a powerful issue. However much it helped the Nixon campaign, though, the summit in retrospect involved basic American concessions on Vietnam, concessions which Nixon and Kissinger had refused to make until the 1972 offensive and presidential election.

Szulc has pieced together much of what happened in Moscow. Kissinger rushed there on April 20th–after the offensive but before the mining on May 9th – to offer the concession which Szulc calls the “first major turning point in the history of the Vietnam negotiations.” Kissinger indicated to a surprised Brezhnev that the U.S. finally would accept a cease-fire leaving North Vietnamese troops in place in the South. The offer was passed to Hanoi.

Then at the May 1972 summit Kissinger made a political concession of equal magnitude. The Nixon/Brezhnev talks had hardened. “Nixon turned to Kissinger to whisper, ‘God, this cannot go on like this,'” Szulc reports. So the following day Kissinger conceded an American willingness to “back a tripartite commission in South Vietnam, including elements from the Saigon regime, the Vietcong and the neutralists.” To Szulc, “Kissinger was edging closer and closer to the Hanoi views – except for the immediate removal of Thieu – and was laying the foundation for what would become the ultimate settlement.”

Having won these major promises, the Hanoi side wanted something more substantive – release of political prisoners in Saigon and the creation of the “tripartite” regime in roughly the same time frame as the Americans would withdraw troops and get the POWs back. They suspected another betrayal of the promise of an election such as happened at Geneva and cost them 18 more years of fighting. But eventually they had to settle for Kissinger’s promise of a shift from war to political competition. It was a major compromise, though not as great as Kissinger’s. They could fight again, from a stronger base, if the promise went unfulfilled, while the Americans would be hard put to resume direct military intervention. Without that, the Saigon army could not stand for long. In effect, Hanoi gave Kissinger his “decent interval” and let the Saigon “fig leaf” cover the decline of American potency.

In summary, the American escalation on military and diplomatic fronts saved the Thieu regime temporarily. This has now been acknowledged by the North Vietnamese editor of the paper Nhan Dan who said in April 1974, “We would have been able to continue with bigger victories if the situation had remained as before April 1972. But detente between the U.S. and China and the U.S.S.R. created a better situation for the U.S. to intervene strongly and carry out its blockade. It gave a freer hand to the U.S. The balance of forces was changed. That’s why in the South we could only develop partially and fell short of expectations.”

The 1972 break came October 8th with a Hanoi diplomatic initiative (Hanoi had indicated for months in internal documents that a diplomatic settlement would be the outcome of the offensive). A draft peace agreement, embracing the compromise formula, was handed to Kissinger: The U.S. would accept the military status quo in the South, legitimize the PRG in a political settlement and the Hanoi/PRG side would accept their enemy Thieu transitionally in office. Kissinger has tried to spread the notion, through Louis Harris and other pollsters, that Hanoi decided to settle as soon as they saw McGovern had no chance. In this way he has continued the administration habit of blaming American military setbacks there on critics here. Hanoi no doubt wanted the settlement before the American election so as to lock Nixon into peace before his second term, but the content of the agreement reflected the actual balance of military/political power in Vietnam itself.

Kissinger concurred with Hanoi’s urgency at first. He and Le Duc Tho settled on a whirlwind finalizing schedule. Kissinger was to initial the peace agreement in Hanoi on October 24th and the U.S. secretary of state and North Vietnamese foreign minister would sign in Paris October 31st, one week before the American election. Kissinger promised Tho a “major effort” to follow the timetable, and on October 21st Nixon himself sent Hanoi a cable saying “the text can be considered complete” and could be signed October 31st.

The magnitude of Kissinger’s negotiating retreat can be seen in the response to the draft agreement from Saigon. Kissinger traveled to Saigon October 19th, less than one week before he planned to initial the agreement in Hanoi, to tell Thieu for the first time of its contents. Thieu reacted with “undisguised fury,” opposing most of the clauses in the draft, particularly the allowance of the North Vietnamese troops in the South and the tacit recognition of the PRG, the National Council of Reconciliation.

Why did Kissinger wait so long to confer with Thieu, the ally for whom America was fighting to keep free and independent? Kissinger certainly knew that Thieu distrusted him. In fact, the Kalbs say it was Thieu who leaked comments to the Saigon press such as, “The Jew professor comes to Saigon to try to win a Nobel Peace Prize.” Kissinger in turn had started to “hate” Thieu, Szulc writes. Yet both Szulc and the Kalbs believe that only Kissinger’s “arrogance” led him to believe Thieu could be persuaded in so short a time.

But could any level of arrogance, however bloated and fantastic, have expected Thieu to agree to a document such as this three days before it was to be initialed? Szulc insists that Kissinger’s ego is large enough. But a more realistic, though circumstantial, interpretation is possible: that Thieu’s ranting objections were “allowed” by Nixon and Kissinger to gain a delay in signing until after the November election.

In 1968 the Republicans and Thieu had done exactly this to the Democrats. Nixon urged through intermediaries in the old China lobby, like Mrs. Clare Chennault, that Saigon not attend the Paris talks which Johnson had begun in the last week of the campaign. It was suggested that Thieu hold out until the Republicans were in office. Now in 1972 Kissinger had essentially the same opportunity. He had an approaching election victory as well as a “stubborn” Saigon ally to confront Hanoi with, while himself acting as the reasonable but helpless party. He even added hints that he was more reasonable than the president, who might go back to bombing after November 6th.

An earlier Kissinger/Thieu conversation, reported by Szulc, is revealing of intentions here. It was in July 1972, after the final round of diplomacy had begun but before any draft agreement was circulating. Kissinger told Thieu that the election in America made it necessary for Nixon to “come forth with seemingly attractive proposals knowing full well that Hanoi would reject them.” Presumably the concessions on North Vietnamese troops and the tripartite commission were the “attractive proposals” which Kissinger may well have expected Le Duc Tho to reject as long as Thieu was to be kept in power. Kissinger also told Thieu that the U.S. “would not hesitate to apply all its power to bring North Vietnam down to its knees.” Szulc has difficulty understanding this discussion in his framework, since Thieu rather than Kissinger was supposed to be the hard-line figure. He regards it possibly as a placating lie by Kissinger to his worried ally.

But Kissinger had speculated on massive bombings, invasions and other means of getting Hanoi to its “knees” before. By the time of the early 1971 Laos invasion, the Kalbs report, Kissinger had wholly adopted military assumptions he once had doubted. In a private report to Nixon, he seemed to “enjoy the whimsical thought that one day a ‘fighting ARVN’ would be unleashed against North Vietnam.” As early as 1969, according to Szulc, Kissinger came to the “unshakable belief” that a “breakthrough in negotiations could come only after a final paroxysm of battle.” Both Daniel Ellsberg and Morton Halperin, a former Kissinger aide, believe that Kissinger was projecting the 1972 mining of Haiphong to Soviet ambassador Dobrynin in 1969, and the Kalbs quote Kissinger himself as telling the Russian that if his government “didn’t produce a settlement” that the U.S. would “escalate the war.”

One person who has meditated hard on Kissinger’s curious addiction to military power is Pham Van Dong, the prime minister of North Vietnam. “He is not a normal type of man,” Pham Van Dong says of Kissinger. “He is the type who just wants power, just wants to impose on other people. But that type is easily scared and defeated. This we knew well from his negotiations with Le Duc Tho. He always attempted to impose on us. But it was impossible. When the peace agreement was going to be signed, he said, ‘If the Vietnamese people only had courage this work would have been much easier.’ But the Vietnamese people were also intelligent, and so his work was impossible. On many occasions he had to yield and then he was fearful. When in difficulty, it became clear he was a type who was cowardly. Just like many pilots who, when in the sky, thought themselves powerful, then whey they hit the ground put their hands up even before a child.”

Nothing better illustrates Kissinger’s personal stakes – the “Indochina obsession,” as Anthony Lewis calls it – than his alleged behavior in the first great escalation after 1968, the spring 1970 invasion of Cambodia. This seems to have been the point when Kissinger’s doubts about escalation, whatever they were, were overcome by a new fanaticism bred of personal involvement. He supported a “massive” sudden U.S. attack” and fired four of his aides who objected, calling them “bleeding hearts” who stood for “the cowardice of the Eastern establishment.” Accroding to a sympathetic historian, Henry Brandon, Kissinger even had to pull Nixon together during this crisis. “Nixon did not crack,” Brandon carefully notes, “but at times he did not seem altogether in control of himself or the situation.” But as the demonstrators swirled around the White House and failures mounted in Cambodia itself, “Kissinger stood like a rock. He never left the White House.” The president kept watching private screenings of Patton, it seems, while “time and time again in this period of despair, Kissinger rose at the morning get-together of top White House officers to deliver an old-fashioned pep talk.” It was in this period that Kissinger took to declaring at the top of his lungs, “We are the president’s men!” Has anyone speculated on what kind of mentality would remain rigidly enthusiastic about an anticommunist crusade which was bringing despair and breakdown to the likes of Nixon, Haldeman and Ehrlichman?

Given all this, not to mention Kissinger’s firm support of every escalation, why is it unreasonable to believe that Kissinger meant every word of his promise to Thieu in July 1972? The unexpected emergence of the draft agreement one month later may have prohibited the invasion of the North but not the attempt to bring Hanoi “down to its knees” during the Christmas bombing.

Whatever Kissinger’s plans, the North Vietnamese were apprehensive about any stalling of a settlement until after the 1972 election. They were right to worry.

I went to Hanoi just before the 1972 election with a small group of American peace activists who wanted to know the Hanoi position during the critical talks then going on. In three previous trips there, and in several European meetings, I had played a minor role in “amateur diplomacy” (as LBJ’s press secretary, Bill Moyers, caustically described it). With others I had investigated suspicious LBJ “peace feelers” in 1965, experienced a POW release fall apart in 1967 when the U.S. bombed Hanoi’s environs, and finally participated in several POW releases which involved discussions with Averell Harriman and other U.S. negotiators. I was familiar with what antiwar scholars have called the “politics of escalation,” the pattern of U.S. escalations to keep retrieving sinking situations, always covered for public relations purposes by outward gestures toward negotiations. It was rather simple to sense the faking, as in 1965 when LBJ offered to go “anywhere, any time” for peace while he prepared for greater bombing.

But even my skepticism was lowered by the October 26th “peace is at hand” announcement and the release of the draft text. It was difficult to believe that the war was verging on its heaviest escalation yet, because after months of the most savage attacks a temporary lull was in effect, supposedly to enhance negotiations. Hanoi was peaceful, tense but hopeful. Wandering around the palm-covered, bicycle-filled capital, I wrote in my notes: “Only a few days ago this country was being bombed more heavily than any place in the world. Now no sign. How to comprehend? All our rhetoric is true, the bombing is literally ‘unimaginable’ unless you are under it.”

We spent November 6th, 1972, among national minority people in the caves where they live during the bombing. When we arrived in Hanoi late that night, the Agence France-Presse ticker was announcing the results: “Richard M. Nixon swept to the greatest landslide in American history, carrying 49 out of 50 states. . . .” We were shocked. None believed McGovern had a chance of winning but none were prepared for the scale of his defeat.

Contrary to the belief of many, the North Vietnamese showed no surprise at Nixon’s landslide. One close observer of American affairs came to breakfast November 7th with the news, but stressed that “the Democrats gained two seats in the Senate,” proof that no major change in the balance of power had occurred. They expected Nixon would encounter new difficulties with Congress. One Hanoi journalist said prophetically, “Nixon will be intoxicated with his victory but eventually his hangover will come.”

At the same time the children of Hanoi began to be evacuated. There was no rethinking of the essential content of the draft agreement in Hanoi during that period, as Kissinger would like to suggest and Szulc thinks happened. Hanoi officials wanted the original draft to be signed. Otherwise there would be a new round of fighting and negotiations. One spokesman, who said Kissinger had “thrown diplomacy in the mud” by backing out of his promise, stressed the government’s firmness at making no further compromise: “We have sacrificed many lives for many years and we cannot let those sacrifices lead to nothing. Now that we have reached a winning position in the South we cannot forsake our compatriots there, we cannot accept neocolonialism again. We have a responsibility toward the history of our people, toward future generations, toward civilization.”

The Hanoi diplomatic community at the time was hopeful for a settlement, but some expressed doubts. The Swedish ambassador, whose prime minister would be comparing Nixon with Hitler only two months later, was predicting the draft agreement would be signed by December. The Cuban ambassador expected the same result but added a significant cautionary note: “There is an objective need for the U.S. to end its role in the war,” he said, “but the U.S. wants to leave a civil war behind. Nixon has to give proof of support to the reactionary elements in Saigon. He has to get out but his main problem is to keep up the morale of the puppets in Saigon while doing it. He wants out, but also wants more concessions to Saigon first: a cease-fire in all Indochina, DRV troops out of the South, a weakening of the National Council of Reconciliation.”

Immediately after the election, the U.S. did toughen its position. An airlift called Operation Enhance, followed by Operation Enhance II, rushed at least $1 billion in military equipment to Saigon. Kissinger returned to Paris two weeks after the election and by all accounts reopened issues of substance. Kissinger later told friends that on November 20th he “did put Washington’s demands on the table.” In other versions Kissinger says he presented both Thieu’s and Nixon’s demands to Le Duc Tho. The Saigon demands numbered 69 in all, according to Szulc; the North Vietnamese say 126 changes were proposed, most of them substantive. What most upset Hanoi were Kissinger’s demands for a withdrawal of DRV troops, a massive supervisory force which they thought could become a “new occupying army,” dilution of the National Council to a meaningless shell and the lack of any recognition of the PRG’s existence.

Kissinger’s account of the period seems evasive. The new demands, he has said, were placed only as an “exercise for the record book” – an interesting reversion to academic life just at the critical moment of a long war! The Kalbs dutifully reported that Henry said Le Duc Tho could not have taken his escalated demands seriously. Szulc accepts this not as a blatant cover story but “probably a mistake” in Kissinger’s judgment.

Hanoi’s negotiators in fact say Kissinger threatened the resumption of bombing on several occasions, including six times in one day. At the very least Kissinger was displaying a willingness to increase the pressure to see if new concessions would be forthcoming (a conservative Soviet affairs expert, Victor Zorza, wrote at the time that Nixon really wanted a four-year guarantee of Thieu’s survival in Saigon). In short, the underlying compromises that made the original draft agreement possible were now being undermined by Kissinger.

Amidst growing suspicion, Kissinger flew home to tell a December 16th press conference that the talks were “99% completed.” At that time I was in Scandinavia, having just written the Vietnamese negotiators in Paris requesting an interview. The night of Kissinger’s Washington press conference I received a phone call from the Vietnamese, asking that I come as soon as posible. The tone was urgent. Still I delayed for two days, thinking it could wait that long, but when I arose the morning of the 18th preparing to leave, a friend burst into the room to tell me that Hanoi was being bombed.

Five hours later I was sitting in a small house in Paris – sparsely furnished, one room having a long table lined with chairs – where only days before Kissinger had been negotiating. An enraged Vietnamese negotiator asked: “Why do the American people still believe military power will solve problems even though it always fails? Do Americans feel like Nixon that this bombing brings peace with honor?”

He was an old friend who had participated in both the public and private Paris talks. He said Kissinger wanted to “change totally the principles on which the peace agreement is based.” The draft agreement showed “our maximum good will,” he said, referring to the compromise on Thieu. But the U.S. interpreted that gesture as coming from weakness. “Nixon wants peace, yes, but a Pax Americana retaining the Saigon regime, forcing the Vietnamese people to accept his terms.”

My most important recollection of the discussion was that even then, at the beginning of the bombing of Hanoi, the Vietnamese were adamant that the terror would not work. They dismissed B-52 bombing against guerrillas as “using forks to eat soup” and claimed that the primary victims would be the civilian population. As the first two days passed, they spoke of the rising toll of downed B-52s as a “Dienbienphu of the sky.” Xuan Thuy, deputy to Le Duc Tho, said: “The Vietnamese people are not afraid of the B-52s and we have the means to resist them. This proves that the B-52s are no longer formidable weapons of the U.S. armed forces. It is a strategic defeat for the U.S.”

Hanoi claimed 34 B-52s shot down; the U.S. acknowledged 20. Ninety pilots were missing or captured. International opinion grew to a greater level of anti-U.S. feeling than at any time in the history of the war. Olof Palme, Swedish prime minister, called the bombings “a form of torture and an outrage similar to those linked to names like Guernica, Lidice, Babi Yar, Sharpsville and Treblinka.”

The U.S. stopped the bombing, the talks resumed and the agreement was signed in January. The popular impression was that the B-52s had won “peace with honor.” Szulc feeds this notion: “Evidently Hanoi felt that it had taken all the punishment it could take and proposed the resumption of negotiations.” But the circumstantial evidence is that the U.S. agreed to what Hanoi had demanded all along: a resumption of talks, on the condition that the bombing be stopped.

If the conventional wisdom is correct, that the bombing forced Hanoi to the table, it would be reflected in pro-U.S. changes in the final agreement which was reached in mid-January. Yet there is no evidence of any basic changes from the October draft.

Kissinger claimed the new agreement, as compared with the October draft, protected the “sovereignty” of South Vietnam, but could only point to three relatively minor changes in the text to prove his case. The first, in Article 14 on South Vietnam’s future neutral foreign policy, was little different from what the National Liberation Front had advocated from its inception. The second, Article 18-e on the supervisory commission respecting South Vietnam’s sovereignty, was precisely the PRG position. Szulc adds that a compromise was reached between Hanoi’s demand for a few hundred on the supervisory force and Kissinger’s demand for 5,000. In any event, the 2,500 finally agreed upon have proven themselves certainly to be less than an “occupying” force as Hanoi feared. The third, Article 20 on Indochinese countries respecting each other’s independence, was again no different from the PRG position.

And what of Kissinger’s role in the Christmas bombing? According to the Kalbs, he left rumors among Washington liberals that he had reservations. But few believe it. “There is no question that he favored the escalation,” says former aide Halperin. “He was the architect of the strategy of threatening escalation to get the North Vietnamese to negotiate.” The most interesting allegation comes from Charles Colson, a man not always known for reliable leaks. For whatever reason, Colson has told a skeptical and prominent Washington correspondent that he saw a cable from Kissinger to Nixon on December 14th, the day the Paris talks broke down, advising Nixon to “bomb, bomb, bomb.” But even if this were one of Colson’s little tricks, there is no doubt Kissinger approved the saturation bombing strikes.

The Kalbs make the bombing decision sound like a spontaneous one arising out of pure anger two days before it was carried out: “Nixon, angry, was ready to resume the bombing; so was Kissinger,” who later told the Kalbs, “‘I was in favor of bombing the North.'” But to a friendly European diplomat, who recounted the story to the Times‘s Flora Lewis (December 12th, 1973), he made this more chilling comment:

European: “But Vietnam wasn’t much of a cease-fire.”

Kissinger: “I know, but it could have been. I wanted to bomb the daylights out of Hanoi, but Congress wouldn’t let me. That would have made it stick.”

Having made the bombing plans, the Kalbs note, Kissinger was off “to Palm Springs to visit with his Hollywood friends who weren’t likely to ask him about the bombing of North Vietnam.”

What emerges from this bleeding history? Not so much a sense of U.S. defeat as a sense of U.S. frustration with the final settlement. Therefore, it should be no surprise that Kissinger continued the war by proxy after 1973. He may even have been planning a direct escalation. It is hard to recall that frightening period of Nixon’s seeming preeminence immediately after the signing of the peace agreement. But he staged the POW return with special congratulations for those who bombed Hanoi, threatened North Vietnam with resumed bombing if they continued “aggression,” kept up the B-52 bombing of Cambodia and made contingency plans to reopen direct U.S. intervention if necessary in Vietnam.

Kissinger was no different. For months “he continued to court Congress,” write the Kalbs, “hoping to win more bombing time in Cambodia.” As far as Vietnam was concerned, they write, “Kissinger wanted the option to resume U.S. bombing of the North if Communist violations intensified.” He declared, “It is a brutal fact” that Hanoi was violating the peace agreement (while the U.S. was rushing planes, bombs, shells and technicians to Saigon), thus raising the “profound problem” of whether the U.S. should consider its signature to the agreement “irrelevant.”

What stopped Kissinger, in retrospect, was Watergate, economic crisis and congressional reaction – not a change of heart. The Watergate affair – which began coincidentally with James McCord’s letter to Judge Sirica a week before the last POWs returned – especially undercut his plans. The Kalbs conclude, “The successive Watergate revelations that kept the president on the defensive emboldened a growing number of legislators to shed their frustrations and speak out against the bombing in Cambodia. . . . Overnight the Watergate scandal created new allies for the senators and representatives who had been against the war for many years.”

In this context it is easy to see why Kissinger and the Pentagon remain permanently dissatisfied with the peace agreement, why they freely violate or avoid its provisions for a political settlement today. Kissinger will try to help Thieu or, failing that, try to find a new client and, if necessary, may urge the unleashing of bombers – if Congress and public opinion do not discourage him. At stake for Kissinger is not simply the “loss of Indochina,” not the loss of America’s power image, but a loss of personal power for himself as the mighty guarantor of world peace.

Recalls Prime Minister Pham Van Dong: “I told Kissinger that the U.S. must contribute to heal the wounds of war here. It was the one way for America to regain its honor. He told me, ‘You talk too much about honor.'”

*Tad Szulc, “Behind the Vietnam Ceasefire Agreement, Foreign Policy, Summer, 1974

**Marvin and Bernard Kalb, Kissinger (1974, Little, Brown and Co.)

In This Article: Coverwall, Vietnam


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