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Cold War Confusions:
Kissinger and Vietnam Policy to 1969

Following Japan's defeat, it was Ho Chi Minh – a Communist – who announced Vietnam's independence. In 1941 he had organized the coalition called the League For Independence of Vietnam – the Viet Minh. And it was the Viet Minh that opposed the re-occupation of Vietnam by France and had humiliated the French military at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, after eight years of fighting.

At an international conference at Geneva Switzerland in 1954 the Viet Minh agreed to a temporary division of their country with the French remaining in control of the south and planning to pull out completely in 1956. Niall Ferguson writes:

It was the Eisenhower administration that opted not do sign the 1954 Geneva Accords and, for fear of a Communist victory, winked at the South Vietnamese government's decision to cancel the election that was to take place in July 1956.

Thinking Cold War, the Eisenhower administration backed an anti-Communist in the south who also didn't want the elections to unify the country. Vietnam had a Catholic minority (today 6.7 percent) and those who had been soldiers for the French, with many officers having converted to Catholicism to better their prospects. Ferguson writes that the Eisenhower administration's

... goal was to "support a friendly noncommunist South Vietnam. but in practice that meant open-ended military and economic aid to the Catholic, conservative, and corrupt president Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother and chief advisor, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who between them had ousted Emperor Bao Dai after a rigged election. (p 584)

Some see this as another instance of the Eisenhower administration violating the sovereignty of another country, as it had in Iran and Guatemala 's blatant in interference in Vietnamese affairs as "imperialism." It was different, however, from US involvement in Korea. In Korea it was the Communists who had opposed elections to unite North and South. This had antagonized the United Nations, and it had been a United Nation's force that the US had led against the North, and world opinion largely with the US. Now, in Vietnam, the United States was heading for a conflict with popular opinion that would be arrayed against it. The US was becoming involved in Vietnam with a strategic flaw.

Professor Kissinger didn't see it as such. In 1962, during the Kennedy administration, Kissinger wrote a paper expressing support for US interference in Vietnamese affairs with the following complaint:

The present US military program seems half-hearted and inadequate and may combine the worst features of every course of action. It may get us slowly into a war that a decisive effort now might prevent."

There are risks involved in stepping up our military effort in South Vietnam. However, it is likely that if we do not use our strength here we will have to fight somewhere else in South East Asia under worse circumstances. p 589.

President Kennedy recognized that the regime in what Americans were calling South Vietnam was failing to win support among the Vietnamese. In 1963, shortly before President Kennedy's assassination, Kissinger wrote:

No American can take pride that our government should have been associated with events leading to the assassination of two leaders with whom we were formally allied. I do not like our country to be thought of in terms of the cynical use of power. Our strength is principle not manipulativeness. Our historical role has been to identify ourselves with the ideal and deepest hopes of mankind. If we lost [sic] this asset, temporary success will be meaningless. (p 595)

Kissinger was still associated with Nelson Rockefeller. At the 1964 Republican convention, where Rockefeller was competing with Barry Goldwater for the presidential nomination, Kissinger was disgusted by what he called the fascist-like behavior of there by Goldwater's supporters. That year he voted for Lyndon Johnson for president. In March 1965 he wrote to his friend "Mac" Bundy, a Johnson security advisor concerning what was about to become Johnson's war.

I think our present actions in Vietnam are essentially right and to express my respect for the courage with which the Administration is acting. (p 623)

Soon Kissinger was in South Vietnam examining conditions there for the Johnson administration. He interviewed Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky, the former flamboyant airman, and, according to Ferguson, Ky told Kissinger that,

the government had not yet worked out how to "compete with the Viet Cong in many parts of the countryside."

Kissinger interviewed the regime's foreign minister, Tran Van Do, who told him that regarding negotiations,

The South Vietnamese government could not stand facing the Vietcong in a political contest. (p 653)

In appears that Kissinger made no connection between the lack of Vietnamese support for its cause in Vietnam, the military violence as compensation for that lack support, and the democracy for which were supposed to be fighting. That violence was on an escalation track. When Prime Minister Ky became a refuge in the United States following the war he would write a book titled How We Lost the War in Vietnam, and in it he describes the US role in Vietnam as naive concerning the opinions of the common Vietnamese.

Heading toward the end of the Johnson administration, Kissinger did see diminished support for US policy in Vietnam at Harvard University. He held to the view of the withdrawing from Vietnam would be a sign of weakness – rather than a sign of acquired wisdom.

Kissinger held to his idea that peace would come to Vietnam through negotiations. His views on Vietnam were compatible with the winner of the 1968 presidential election: Richard Nixon. Nixon would take office with a plan he said that would end the war. This was a plan to turn the war over to the South Vietnamese (Vietnamization) and a withdrawal of US forces. He appointed Kissinger as his National Security Advisor, and, in August 1969, Kissinger was to begin secret meetings with North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho.

A Personal Note

Kissinger's biographer, Niall Ferguson, writes:

The government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was very far from being an innocent victim of American aggression, as its propagandists – and its leftist apologists - liked to claim.

Ferguson would probably consider me one of those apologists, although I never apologized for anybody's brutalities in that conflict. But I'll do so now, for both sides: Wars breed hatred and over-reaction.

During the 1963 fall semester at UCLA, while Kissinger was gung ho about the US military in Vietnam and I was a 29-year-old Korean War veteran undergraduate, I attended a gathering of 100 or more campus Young Democrats at which a visiting representative of the Democratic Party described Kennedy's Vietnam policy. I questioned that policy – the only one to do so. Some heads turned and I received a friendly reply. It won me the affection of a coed She transferred to the Berkeley campus. I joined her there and we both joined Berkeley's movement against the war in Vietnam (not anti-war in the abstract). As a friend and acquaintance of many in that movement, I don't remember any of them approving anybody's brutalities, and disgusting as the brutalities were, I can't say that they justified support for the flawed war policies of our government.

in my opinion, sending our military people into a war that was a mistake was to mistreat them. The US military liberating France: good. The US military in Korea: good. The US military in Vietnam: bad.

I don't know enough to make a case against Kissinger regarding the overthrow of Allende in Chile. But there is also his alleged support for the "dirty war" in Argentina that has damaged his reputation. It involved the disappearance (deaths) of an estimated 30,000 Argentinians. According to the Guardian (5 December 2003), declassified US files expose the 1970s backing for Argentina's military junta. According to the Guardian:

Mr Kissinger, who was America's secretary of state, is shown to have urged the Argentinian military regime to act before the US Congress resumed session, and told it that Washington would not cause it "unnecessary difficulties".

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.