The Long Shadow of Vietnam
By Henry A. Kissinger
May 1, 2000
THE LEGACY: The former secretary of State on the war's end, the controversial strategy he helped make and how the conflict shaped the foreign-policy thinking of three generations of Americans.
Not too long ago, former president Gerald Ford and I were reminiscing about his presidency and our experiences in government service. We agreed that the high points have a way of becoming blurred with the passage of time. But we shared one experience that will never lose its immediacy: the pain and anguish of the day when the last Americans and a pitiful band of refugees were evacuated from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Movies and television present great crises as times of frenetic activity, with officious aides ripping telephones off the hook and shouting instructions to scurrying subordinates. In reality, crises are distinguished by a stillness born of the awareness that choices are disappearing. The number of decision makers shrinks to those still in a position to affect events, their solitude magnified because, the more severe the crisis, the fewer the volunteers who are willing to assume responsibility.
On that final day in April 1975, Ford and I were quite alone: he in the Oval Office, I in the security adviser's suite down the hall, interrupted only by periodic phone calls as the Pentagon reported the departure of each helicopter. For a month we had refereed the interdepartmental debates that marked the end of the tragedy: whether to speed up the withdrawal of the last few Americans to avoid needless risks or to stretch it out to permit the maximum numbers of Vietnamese to escape; whether to give up on requests to the Congress for aid that would never reach Vietnam or maintain the request so that America would not compound defeat with the dishonor of stabbing an ally in extremis in the back. Ford and I had fought for slow extrication and keeping the aid request alive. The president had prevailed, and Ford's staunch support enabled 130,000 Vietnamese to flee the catastrophe. Now that debate was overwhelmed by events. We had become spectators of a drama we were no longer able to influence, suspended between a pain we could not still and a future we were not yet in a position to shape.
For those who lived through the final day, any account must appear as fragmentary, dominated by the perspective from each protagonist's vantage point as chaos consumed two decades of sacrifice. For those who were spared the anguish, the passions will seem incomprehensible. And historians are no help, since their accounts generally replicate bitter schisms of the period. Radical critics conjure up bloodthirsty American leaders pursuing a war to satisfy their twisted psychologies. The right either ignores the war as a liberal aberration or blames the defeat on lack of ideological zeal (the mantra of "neoconservative" converts who, in reality, were on the antiwar side while the war was going on and have their own reasons for avoiding its memory). Reluctant to come to grips with the most traumatic experience of the past half century, Americans find it difficult to draw the real lessons from what was done to this country—and what we did to ourselves—during that sad period.
That will be my subject here. For one of the most important casualties of the Vietnam tragedy was the tradition of American "exceptionalism." The once near-universal faith in the uniqueness of our values—and their relevance around the world—gave way to intense divisions over the very validity of those values and the lengths we should go to promote and defend them. And those schisms have had a profound impact on the conduct of U.S. foreign policy ever since.
ENTERING INDOCHINA & LEAVING IT
It was the so-called greatest generation that entered Indochina in the heyday of American exceptionalism. It did so in pursuit of the strategy that had already stabilized the post-World War II world, rebuilt Europe, restored Germany and Japan to the community of nations and arrested the Soviet advance into Europe and in Korea. A mixture of the experiences of World War II and a philosophy drawn from the New Deal, this strategy concentrated on stopping Soviet aggression and removing communist opportunities for internal upheavals by promoting economic and social progress in regions under U.S. protection.
Though the American conduct of the cold war is often presented as reflecting a nearly unanimous consensus, there was always significant dissent during this period, especially in the intellectual and academic communities. They argued either that the communist threat was exaggerated or that the United States was associating with too many questionable regimes to sustain its claim as a defender of liberty. But their critique was confined to the wisdom of specific policies, not to the validity of the values on which it was based.
With the advent of the Kennedy administration, this policy was given its most sweeping formulation in the new president's Inaugural Address—his promise that the United States would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to ensure the survival and success of liberty." At the time there was virtually no opposition to this open-ended commitment, or to the conventional wisdom that Indochina was an essential outpost in the defense of liberty.
As Kennedy was preparing to take office, President Eisenhower recommended that America give military support to Laos if North Vietnamese intervention there continued. Within two months of his Inauguration, Kennedy sent Marines to Thailand, adjoining Laos. He recoiled from intervening directly (though the CIA undertook covert measures). But by December 1961, when Hanoi opened a supply line to South Vietnam through Laotian territory and intensified the guerrilla war, Kennedy sent U.S. military "advisers" to South Vietnam, whose number rose to 16,000 by the end of 1963. President Lyndon Johnson escalated this commitment until it reached more than 500,000 combat troops by the time he left office. Once again, there was no significant opposition, either within or outside the administration, to that massive deployment. Though the decision was blamed on Johnson later on, it was in fact Kennedy's closest advisers—McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk—who urged the escalation.
By the end of the Johnson administration, frustration had set in. The strategy that had worked in every previous American war—of wearing down the adversary by attrition—could not succeed against guerrillas defending no specific territory and who were therefore in a position to choose when and where to fight. Nor did the non-communist countries of Indochina live up to the standards of democracy of our European allies, throwing into question the moral purpose of the war. For those who had made the decision to send American troops, growing self-doubt compounded despair triggered by Kennedy's assassination.
While America's leaders were seized by emotional turmoil, their critics challenged the very essence of American foreign involvement. The argument that the war was unwinnable and that its cost exceeded its benefits escalated as rapidly as the U.S. deployment. At first the doubters dwelled on how to find an honorable way out. But within months, American exceptionalism itself was called into question. The protesters increasingly argued that the ultimate cause of the crisis was not errors in judgment but moral rot at the core of American life. The victory of the communists in Indochina, which administrations of both parties had sought to prevent for nearly two decades, became for the radical protesters a desirable national catharsis. Critics moved from questioning the worthiness of America's allies to challenging the worthiness of America itself, and of its conduct not only in Vietnam but around the world. Vietnam became the first war in which prominent Americans paid highly publicized visits to the enemy capital to oppose their own country.
By the time Richard Nixon became president, the battle lines had been drawn. The demoralized establishment, which had launched us into the quagmire, abdicated from the task of extrication. They left the field to the protesters or joined them in attacks on the alleged shortsightedness and warped mentality of the Nixon administration. The radical protesters, certain of their moral superiority, saw no need for restraint in the methods they used to pursue their ends. Through street demonstrations and deliberate subversion of all authority, from universities to the U.S. government, they sought to wreck any policy designed to vindicate the values on which America's post-World War II policy had been based.
Nixon, who inherited this impasse, lacked the human qualities to transcend it, if indeed it was possible to do so. Still, for all his railing against the establishment, he, too, was a product of the "greatest generation." And he sought to implement what he understood to be the demand of moderate critics for an honorable withdrawal. Starting with the first negotiations with Vietnamese Politburo member Le Duc Tho, Nixon offered a timetable for American withdrawal and a variety of formulas to permit the people of South Vietnam a genuine choice. What Nixon would not accept—and what, until the end, Hanoi never ceased demanding—was the forcible imposition of a communist regime on the millions who, relying on the words of our predecessors, had thrown in their lot with the United States.
When a negotiated solution proved unattainable, Nixon proceeded unilaterally to implement his campaign promise to extricate America from Vietnam. In the process, he reduced U.S. casualties from 1,200 a month at the end of the Johnson administration to 30 a month at the end of Nixon's first term. And he unilaterally reduced American troops from 550,000 to 30,000.
Many of the stages in this process were highly controversial, and they deserve fuller treatment than this article permits. But it is symptomatic of the schism Vietnam created that so much of the literature focuses on the charge that Nixon needlessly prolonged the war and sacrificed American lives, implying that there was some honorable way out that he refused to take.
The political divide was sharpened by a similar split in the intellectual community. When I was in graduate school, intellectuals rarely achieved high positions in government. If they wanted to affect policy, they had to write lengthy papers on longer-range issues. The Kennedy administration awakened their taste for political power, and they sought to shape immediate policy discussions first within the government and after Kennedy's assassination from the sidelines. In the process they divided into two groups—job applicants and revolutionaries. The job applicants replicated the debates of policymakers; the revolutionaries, the arguments of the protest movement. In either case, they accentuated America's schisms rather than help overcome them. A balanced judgment on Vietnam remains our challenge—not as a question of historical justice toward individual presidents, but of historical truth about a national tragedy.
Vietnam broke the fusion of ideology and strategy that underlay American exceptionalism. Though its principles continue to be affirmed by all sides, its application is now subject to profound dispute. Since the Vietnam War, there have been three main schools among American foreign-policy makers:
Advocates of adapting the cold-war strategy of the 1950s and 1960s to new circumstances.
Members of the Vietnam protest movement, who came to high office in the Clinton administration.
And a new generation that does not remember the Vietnam schism and now faces a world radically different from the one that formed either the cold warriors or the Vietnam protesters. Shaken by the Vietnam experience, many liberals and intellectuals retreated from the field of strategy and redefined exceptionalism in terms of "soft issues" which could be achieved without the use of military power. As a result, traditional American strategy became largely the provenance of conservatives and neoconservatives. Always uncomfortable with commitments on distant battlefields, the American right concentrated on rigorous anti-communism and vigilance in maintaining the strategic balance, especially with respect to arms-control negotiations. And during the Reagan administration, against a Soviet adversary weakened by decades of over-extension, this group achieved great successes.
Yet with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the need for a national strategy adapted to the post-cold-war world has baffled many conservatives. In the aftermath of Reagan, some of his disciples continue to emphasize his rhetoric while neglecting the hardheaded strategy with which he pursued the 1980s equivalent of containment. They seem torn (especially in the neoconservative group) between searching for a new danger to replace the Soviet Union, in opposition to which all foreign policy can be organized, and the redefinition of American exceptionalism as a global crusade for democracy. China is the target for much of this effort. But it is as yet too weak, its ideology too national and its potential danger too distant to allow foreign policy to be organized around it, especially if we wish to bring allies along with us. To be true to itself, America must always stand for democracy; but to shape the world, it also needs to understand both its interests and their limits, and not recoil from defining either.
The conclusions that many in the Clinton administration—and in the liberal community—have drawn from the Vietnam War present a profound challenge to traditional American foreign policy. They treat the cold war as a misunderstanding, if not an American creation. They recoil before the concept of national interest and distrust the use of power unless it can be presented as in the service of some "unselfish" cause—that is to say, as reflecting no specific American national interest. On many occasions and many continents, President Clinton has apologized for actions of his predecessors that stemmed from what he derogatorily describes as cold-war attitudes. But the cold war was not imaginary; profound issues of survival and national purpose were involved. And this denigration—generally quite inaccurate—of the actions of U.S. presidents from Eisenhower to Bush must raise doubts about American constancy, even on the part of the administration offering the apology.
Apologies for 50 years of U.S. history are matched by uneasiness with the use of American power. In Kosovo, for example, the idea that NATO's actions elevated traditional national interest into universal humanitarian principles was invoked by all leaders as the distinguishing feature of the enterprise. But six months later the same leaders recoiled from applying the Kosovo principles to Chechnya—where civilian casualties were far greater—for fear of Russian power. The foreign policy of the self-proclaimed moralists had returned full circle (and with a touch of hypocrisy) to the famous maxim that foreign policy is the art of the possible and the science of the relative.
Or consider the difference between the Clinton administration's attitude toward Iraq and toward Kosovo. In December 1998, Iraq inflicted a strategic defeat on us by expelling U.N. inspectors placed there as a condition for ending the gulf war. The administration responded by bombing for four nights. But three months later it bombed Yugoslavia nonstop for 78 days in pursuit of what was perceived as a humanitarian interest. In each case, the conduct of operations was undertaken with a reluctance to accept casualties that ultimately conveyed to the American public, and to our adversaries, the absence of any vital interest. Yet paradoxically, the fear of domestic convulsions and ambivalence about the decisive use of American power end up making crises more frequent and more difficult to resolve. That is perhaps why the Clinton administration has been drawn into more inconclusive military operations than any previous administration.
In the globalized economic world, the post- cold-war generation looks to Wall Street as mine did to Washington. This reflects not only a difference in financial remuneration but, in part, a reluctance to enter a calling more and more marked by vicious personal attacks and the prospect of political disputes that all too often end in criminal investigations.
Vietnam bequeathed a new generation divided into two camps: one in search of riskless applications of our values, another in an erratic quest for a focal point for our national strategy. It is not that this generation is obsessed by the debates over the war in Indochina, with which it is largely unfamiliar. Nor does it have feelings of guilt about a doctrine of self-interest, which it pursues strenuously in its economic activities. But it has little knowledge of history or of national policy and hence lacks a sense of direction in the international political arena. It is tempted by the Clintonian concept of riskless global gratification and the belief that the hardheaded pursuit of economic self-interest will ultimately produce global reconciliation.
Such an approach is possible only because our world has been freed to a large extent from the dangers of general war. In such a world, the post-cold-war generation of American leaders (whether graduated from the protest movements or business schools) finds it possible to imagine that foreign policy consists merely of instructing the rest of the world. This turns our diplomacy into nothing more than demands for compliance with an American agenda. When vast economic and military power is coupled with condescension and righteousness, dominance grows grating and leadership comes to be perceived as hegemony. But hegemonic empires almost automatically elicit universal resistance, which is why all such claimants have sooner or later exhausted themselves.
Economics will not provide a substitute for a national strategy. The globalized world will emerge only through dislocations and tensions, both within and among societies. The nation-state, which remains the unit of political accountability for solving these crises, is itself in a process of transition. In many regions of the world, it is breaking down, either into hitherto ethnic entities or by joining larger regional groupings. And the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction represents a political challenge faced by no previous society.
If our new generation of national leaders is embarrassed to elaborate a concept of national interest in dealing with these problems, or to invoke the unapologetic use of power as a last resort, it will achieve not moral elevation but progressive paralysis. Certainly any concept of national interest would not be American if it did not flow from our democratic tradition or concern with collective security. But we must also be prepared to face up to some hard questions imposed by reality. What, for our survival, must we seek to prevent no matter how painful the means? What, to be true to ourselves, must we try to accomplish no matter how small the attainable consensus, or, if necessary, on our own? What wrongs is it essential that we right? Which are beyond our capacity or not consistent with the national interest?
We will not have overcome the shadow of Vietnam—or be able to meet our new challenges—until we can achieve a national consensus on these issues. And this requires mutual respect among the disputants and a conviction, nearly lost in the Vietnam period, that we are engaged in a common enterprise rather than a fight to the finish. Our political leaders may skirt these issues during the presidential campaign that is about to begin. But the winner will not be able to escape them once he enters the Oval Office.