Henry Kissinger to Nixon Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

President Nixon began phased withdrawals of American armed forces in 1969; South Vietnam needed to assume responsibility for its defense in a process called “Vietnamization.” As national security advisor, Henry Kissinger worked with Nixon in the goal of preserving the United States' credibility as a military giant in global leadership, while satisfying the antiwar proponents who called for withdrawal. However, Kissinger noted in this private memorandum from Nixon's first year as president that the present US plan for de-escalating the war and winning was too optimistic. Domestic political divisions and corruption in South Vietnam were providing the North Vietnamese ample opportunities to entrench themselves in their positions. Kissinger recognized that there was no middle ground in American policy: unilateral withdrawal meant defeat; continued military operations could preserve the South Vietnamese government only if President Nguyen Van Thiêu improved it. Kissinger's early concerns in this memorandum would prove true by 1975, when North Vietnam captured Saigon.

Summary Overview

President Nixon began phased withdrawals of American armed forces in 1969; South Vietnam needed to assume responsibility for its defense in a process called “Vietnamization.” As national security advisor, Henry Kissinger worked with Nixon in the goal of preserving the United States' credibility as a military giant in global leadership, while satisfying the antiwar proponents who called for withdrawal. However, Kissinger noted in this private memorandum from Nixon's first year as president that the present US plan for de-escalating the war and winning was too optimistic. Domestic political divisions and corruption in South Vietnam were providing the North Vietnamese ample opportunities to entrench themselves in their positions. Kissinger recognized that there was no middle ground in American policy: unilateral withdrawal meant defeat; continued military operations could preserve the South Vietnamese government only if President Nguyen Van Thiêu improved it. Kissinger's early concerns in this memorandum would prove true by 1975, when North Vietnam captured Saigon.

Defining Moment

In 1968, Richard Nixon portrayed himself as a candidate with a plan for negotiating “peace with honor” in the Vietnam War. Not only would Nixon bring the troops home, but he would also keep US promises to their South Vietnamese allies to preserve their sovereignty. The idea to have “phased withdrawals” of US armed forces did not begin with Nixon, but it would be inextricably tied to his administration under the name “Vietnamization.” Compared to policy after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, the United States would take a less active role in preserving Southeast Asian peace.

Henry Kissinger, an academic and defense strategist until Nixon's presidency, was essential to this new state of US policy. Even before Nixon appointed Kissinger the national security advisor, the intellectual German immigrant wrote articles in the journal Foreign Affairs about how a government's interests justified the means used to accomplish those interests. Kissinger was willing to use this philosophy before Nixon was sworn in as president. In an event known as the “Chennault Affair,” Kissinger and Nixon cooperated in legally dubious contact with President Thiêu in South Vietnam: if Thiêu delayed peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese, the Nixon administration would negotiate better concessions for South Vietnam. The counterpoint to Kissinger's pragmatic philosophy, however, was a willingness to abandon allies after they became a liability. In this private memorandum to the president, Kissinger illustrates all the features that would define the Nixon administration in subsequent years: a disdain for the antiwar movement, pessimism, and pragmatism.

This memorandum is an outline of the dangerous political game that the Nixon administration needed to play domestically and globally. Antiwar protestors are sentimental opponents in this scheme, and the North Vietnamese are cunning manipulators, who knew that they could exploit South Vietnam's overdependence on United States armed forces. Time was on the side of the Politburo, the collective leadership that replaced Ho Chi Minh after his death on September 2, 1969. Kissinger's memo late in 1969 is proof that he had significantly tempered his expectations that American diplomacy could accomplish a victorious peace quickly. As early as Nixon's first year, Kissinger doubts that Vietnamization will provide the leverage he needed in negotiations.

Author Biography

Henry Kissinger came from a family of immigrant Jews who escaped Nazi Germany in 1938. As a private in World War II, Kissinger entered politics when he administered the city of Krefeld. After the war, Kissinger attended Harvard and received his PhD in political science in 1954. He would go on to assemble a network of contacts in the US government, while also publishing frequently. Kissinger's Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy was a bestseller in 1958; the book established his credentials as a respectable defense specialist. The Harvard intellectual became an important figure in the Nixon administration. As national security advisor, Kissinger made changes to the National Security Council system that made Kissinger the principal foreign policy advisor to the president. Both Nixon and Kissinger subscribed to a realist ideology: they believed strongly in the importance and maintenance of power at any cost in domestic and foreign relations. Despite charges of being a courtier, chameleon, and flatterer, Kissinger has remained an important and visible figure in American foreign policy for decades after the Vietnam War.

Historical Document

SUBJECT

Our Present Course on Vietnam

I have become deeply concerned about our present course on Vietnam. This memorandum is to inform you of the reasons for my concern. It does not discuss alternative courses of action, but is provided for your background consideration. You know my recommendations.

While time acts against both us and our enemy, it runs more quickly against our strategy than against theirs. This pessimistic view is based on my view of Hanoi's strategy and the probable success of the various elements of our own.

I. U.S. Strategy

In effect, we are attempting to solve the problem of Vietnam on three highly interrelated fronts: (1) within the U.S., (2) in Vietnam, and (3) through diplomacy. To achieve our basic goals through diplomacy, we must be reasonably successful on both of the other two fronts.

a. U.S.

The pressure of public opinion on you to resolve the war quickly will increase—and I believe increase greatly—during the coming months. While polls may show that large numbers of Americans now are satisfied with the Administration's handling of the war, the elements of an evaporation of this support are clearly present. The plans for student demonstrations in October are well known, and while many Americans will oppose the students' activities, they will also be reminded of their own opposition to the continuation of the war. As mentioned below, I do not believe that “Vietnamization” can significantly reduce the pressures for an end to the war, and may, in fact, increase them after a certain point. Particularly significant is the clear opposition of many “moderate” leaders of opinion, particularly in the press and in the East (e.g., Life Magazine). The result of the recrudescence of intense public concern must be to polarize public opinion. You will then be somewhat in the same position as was President Johnson, although the substance of your position will be different. You will be caught between the Hawks and the Doves.

The effect of these public pressures on the U.S. Government will be to accentuate the internal divisiveness that has already become apparent to the public and Hanoi. Statements by government officials which attempt to assuage the Hawks or Doves will serve to confuse Hanoi but also to confirm it in its course of waiting us out.

b. Vietnam

Three elements on the Vietnam front must be considered—(1) our efforts to “win the war” through military operations and pacification, (2) “Vietnamization,” and (3) the political position of the GVN.

(1) I do not believe that with our current plans we can win the war within two years, although our success or failure in hurting the enemy remains very important.

(2) “Vietnamization” must be considered both with regard to its prospects for allowing us to turn the war over to the Vietnamese, and with regard to its effect on Hanoi and U.S. public opinion. I am not optimistic about the ability of the South Vietnamese armed forces to assume a larger part of the burden than current MACV plans allow. These plans, however, call for a thirty-month period in which to turn the burden of the war over to the GVN. I do not believe we have this much time.

In addition, “Vietnamization” will run into increasingly serious problems as we proceed down its path.

Withdrawal of U.S. troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public: The more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded. This could eventually result, in effect, in demands for unilateral withdrawal—perhaps within a year.

The more troops are withdrawn, the more Hanoi will be encouraged—they are the last people we will be able to fool about the ability of the South Vietnamese to take over from us. They have the option of attacking GVN forces to embarrass us throughout the process or of waiting until we have largely withdrawn before doing so (probably after a period of higher infiltration).

Each U.S. soldier that is withdrawn will be relatively more important to the effort in the south, as he will represent a higher percentage of U.S. forces than did his predecessor. (We need not, of course, continue to withdraw combat troops but can emphasize support troops in the next increments withdrawn. Sooner or later, however, we must be getting at the guts of our operations there.)

It will become harder and harder to maintain the morale of those who remain, not to speak of their mothers.

“Vietnamization” may not lead to reduction in U.S. casualties until its final stages, as our casualty rate may be unrelated to the total number of American troops in South Vietnam. To kill about 150 U.S. soldiers a week, the enemy needs to attack only a small portion of our forces.

“Vietnamization” depends on broadening the GVN, and Thiêu's new government is not significantly broader than the old (see below). The best way to broaden the GVN would be to create the impression that the Saigon government is winning or at least permanent. The more uncertainty there is about the outcome of the war, the less the prospect for “Vietnamization.”

(3) We face a dilemma with the GVN: The present GVN cannot go much farther towards a political settlement without seriously endangering its own existence; but at the same time, it has not gone far enough to make such a settlement likely.

Thiêu's failure to “broaden” his government is disturbing, but not because he failed to include a greater variety of Saigon's Tea House politicians. It is disturbing because these politicians clearly do not believe that Thiêu and his government represent much hope for future power, and because the new government does not offer much of a bridge to neutralist figures who could play a role in a future settlement. This is not to mention his general failure to build up political strength in non-Catholic villages. In addition, as U.S. troops are withdrawn, Thiêu becomes more dependent on the political support of the South Vietnamese military.

c. Diplomatic Front

There is not therefore enough of a prospect of progress in Vietnam to persuade Hanoi to make real concessions in Paris. Their intransigence is also based on their estimate of growing U.S. domestic opposition to our Vietnam policies. It looks as though they are prepared to try to wait us out.

II. Hanoi's Strategy

There is no doubt that the enemy has been hurt by allied military actions in the South, and is not capable of maintaining the initiative on a sustained basis there. Statistics on enemy-initiated activities, as well as some of Giap's recent statements, indicate a conscious decision by Hanoi to settle down to a strategy of “protracted warfare.” This apparently consists of small unit actions with “high point” flurries of activity, and emphasis on inflicting U.S. casualties (particularly through rocket and mortar attacks). This pattern of actions seems clearly to indicate a low-cost strategy aimed at producing a psychological, rather than military, defeat for the U.S.

This view of their strategy is supported by our estimates of enemy infiltration. They could infiltrate more men, according to intelligence estimates, despite growing domestic difficulties. The only logical reason for their not having done so is that more men were not needed in the pipeline—at least for a few months—to support a lower-cost strategy of protracted warfare. It seems most unlikely that they are attempting to “signal” to us a desire for a de facto mutual withdrawal, although this cannot be discounted. There is no diplomatic sign of this—except in Xuan Thuy's linkage of points two and three of the PRG program— and I do not believe they trust us enough to “withdraw” a larger percentage of their men than we have of ours, as they would be doing.

Hanoi's adoption of a strategy designed to wait us out fits both with its doctrine of how to fight a revolutionary war and with its expectations about increasingly significant problems for the U.S.

III. Conclusion

In brief, I do not believe we can make enough evident progress in Vietnam to hold the line within the U.S. (and the U.S. Government), and Hanoi has adopted a strategy which it should be able to maintain for some time—barring some break like Sino-Soviet hostilities. Hence my growing concern.

Glossary

GVN: Government of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam)

MACV: US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, a group overseeing advisory and assistance efforts in Vietnam

PRG: Provisional Revolutionary Government, an underground government opposed to President Thiêu in South Vietnam

Document Analysis

In this memo, Kissinger illustrates to the president that Vietnamization is an idealistic and likely unsuccessful program for ending the Vietnam War. These doubts were a rationale for the president to delay an immediate unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam in 1969: South Vietnam simply was not ready to defend itself. Kissinger divides his concerns into three interrelated topics: domestic divisions, problems within the power structure in Saigon, and Hanoi's advantages. Kissinger wanted to chasten any optimistic notions the president had of a quick solution to the war through de-escalation and diplomacy. This memo also foreshadows Nixon's significant compromises with Soviet Russia and China in 1972. From the beginning of Nixon's first term, Kissinger advocated a multifaceted approach to a conflict his predecessors tried to solve only by military force.

First, Kissinger points out that Vietnamization will not mend the division between pro- and anti-war contingents in the US government (“the Hawks and the Doves”). It was very possible for Nixon to suffer the same backlash of public opinion that destroyed the public's faith in his predecessor's administration. Instead of addressing that the crisis of faith originated in sentiment, Kissinger compares this desire for troop withdrawal to a trivial craving for unhealthy food. He says, “withdrawal of U.S. troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public.” Opponents have used such statements to condemn brutal pragmatics of Nixonian foreign policy.

Next, statements about Saigon's efficacy reveal Kissinger's political philosophy further. For Kissinger, utility and expediency are more important than ethics. Vietnamization was only the appearance of a united front, as the Presidents Nixon and Thiêu wanted to portray between their countries. Kissinger characterizes Thiêu's government (GVN) as a series of “failures” and “disturbing” in its lack of action. Yet, Kissinger does not advise abandoning Thiêu to his fate: supporting an ally, even if he is a poor leader, is more important for US diplomacy than self-determination for Vietnam.

Finally, Kissinger addresses the enemy's strategy. The war is “psychological, rather than military.” Bombings were only useful as long as the enemy did not have a more powerful communist ally. The third and last part of Kissinger's memo advises Nixon that he needs to recover their ideological losses on the ideological front of the Vietnam War for an effective diplomacy strategy. Kissinger's statement that “barring some break like-Sino-Soviet hostilities” is prescient for this ideological combat. Tensions ran high between Soviet Russia and China already, and Nixon would use this as leverage when he reopened contact with Chairman Mao in 1972. As a result of cooling relations with Hanoi's former supporters, Kissinger was able to finalize the Paris Peace Accords soon thereafter.

At no point in this memo does Kissinger express a positive belief that the United States can maintain both the moral high ground and victory in Vietnam. This memo exemplifies the early pessimism about the war that would eventually devolve into the “decent interval” practice. Diplomacy, for Kissinger, was a waiting game: either for the enemy to give in, or for the home front to forget about the losses it suffered.

Essential Themes

It is difficult to avoid psychologizing the national security advisor when examining the ideas he promoted in Nixon's government. As a result, opinions about Kissinger span a spectrum from “hero” to “war criminal.” As well, the divisiveness between the growing voice of the American media and the revelation of White House secret memoranda served only to heighten the disjunction between Kissinger's realist ideology at a time when the United States wanted to portray itself as ideologically superior. The crisis of faith in American leadership did not begin with Kissinger and Nixon, but their partnership provided the most evidence for pessimists.

In Kissinger's “salted peanuts” memorandum, however, there is a clear impression that the men in the executive branch recognized the difficulty of maintaining the moral high ground in a proxy war. “Vietnamization” seemed like the ethical compromise for the United States against an unethical enemy. In theory, extricating American soldiers and assisting the South Vietnamese government to support its own defense was morally expedient: Vietnamization allowed the Nixon administration to protect its interests at home and abroad. Kissinger's pessimism regarding the “ethical solution” to the Vietnam War would play out in the increasingly manipulative and secret strategies of the executive branch. Covert bombings over Cambodia and Laos were already occurring at the time of this memorandum; the United States had to ease relations with Russia and China three years later in order to gain some leverage over Hanoi in the stalemate negotiations in Paris. Although Kissinger's dedication to realpolitik in diplomacy seemed effective on paper, it showed an inability to comprehend the reality of human behavior in war: Americans would not tolerate deception from their leaders, and many in South Vietnam did not favor the government in Saigon.

Parallels been the Vietnam War and the Iraq conflict in the early 2000s were inescapable, in part because Kissinger continued his participation in White House affairs after Nixon. The advice that troop withdrawals would become like “salted peanuts” has been used, as it was in the 1970s, to increase bipartisan conflict in the United States at the expense of human suffering abroad.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Dallek, Robert. Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power. New York: HarperCollins Pub., 2007. Print.
  • Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Penguin, 1991. Print.
  • Kimball, Jeffrey P. Nixon's Vietnam War. Lawrence, KS: U of Kansas, 1998. Print.
  • Kissinger, Henry & Clare Boothe Luce. White House Years. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979. Print.
  • Prados, John. “Kissinger's ‘Salted Peanuts’ and the Iraq War.” National Security Archive. National Security Archive & George Washington University, 2006. Web. <http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/news/20061001/>.
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