By Niall Ferguson


On December 10, 1967, Clare Boothe Luce decided to bring together Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon at a pre-Christmas cocktail party in her elegant apartment at 933 Fifth Avenue. It was the first meeting between the two men who, more than any others, would bring the Vietnam War to a conclusion. Kissinger arrived early and (as she later recalled) “with his limited talent for small talk, the ‘objective conditions,’ to use a favorite phrase of his, indicated a hasty disengagement.” Just as he was about to leave, Nixon appeared. They spoke for “no more than five minutes”—not about politics but about Kissinger’s writings, specifically his book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (which, as we have seen, Nixon had read and admired at the time it was published).[i] This was their one and only meeting before November 25, 1968, when Nixon (somewhat obliquely) offered Kissinger the job of national security adviser. What is not recorded is whether the two men also discussed Nixon’s writings, specifically the article he had just published in Foreign Affairs. It is inconceivable that Kissinger had not read it or appreciated its significance.

“Asia After Viet Nam” was published in October 1967 and is more frequently cited than read by people who see in it a harbinger of Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to China in 1971–72.[ii] That is not at all what the article is about. Nixon’s main point is in fact that China represented a mortal “danger” to the rest of Asia, and that, in the wake of Vietnam, the United States could not contain that threat single-handedly. “During the final third of the twentieth century,” wrote Nixon, “Asia, not Europe or Latin America, will pose the greatest danger of a confrontation which could escalate into World War III.” The “American commitment in Vietnam” had been “a vital factor in the turnaround in Indonesia . . . [and had] diverted Peking from such other potential targets as India, Thailand and Malaysia.”[iii] As Nixon put it, in an incongruous comparison, “Dealing with Red China is something like trying to cope with the more explosive ghetto elements in our own country. In each case a potentially destructive force has to be curbed; in each case an outlaw element has to be brought within the law; in each case dialogues have to be opened; in each case aggression has to be restrained while education proceeds.”[iv] True, Nixon wrote the famous lines “[W]e simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.”[v] True, he spoke of “the struggle for influence in the Third World [as] a three-way race among Moscow, Peking and the West.” But Nixon’s proposal was not diplomatic engagement with China. The United States should not be “rushing to grant recognition to Peking, to admit it to the United Nations and to ply it with offers of trade—all of which would serve to confirm its rulers in their present course.” Rather, China had to be “persuade[d] . . . that it must change” by placing the other nations, backed by the ultimate power of the United States[,] . . . in the path of Chinese ambitions.” And that meant building up the Asian and Pacific Council (ASPAC), a grouping of countries that already included Australia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand—not forgetting South Vietnam and Laos. All were acutely conscious of the Chinese threat, and all except Malaysia had military ties with the United States.

ASPAC sank without a trace. But in one crucial respect Nixon’s argument was brilliantly perceptive. As he said, the spectacular growth of economies like of Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, represented “a new chapter . . . in the winning of the West: in this case, a winning of the promise of Western technology and Western organization by the nations of the East.” The rapidly industrializing Asian economies had indeed “discovered and applied the lessons of America’s own economic success.”[vi] And this was the key reason why—though Nixon did not say it explicitly—ultimate American failure in Vietnam did not really matter that much. Communism had won in China, North Korea, and North Vietnam. South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos still hung in the balance. But everywhere else it had lost. Not only that, but capitalism was succeeding in what would come to be called the East Asian “tigers” as it had never succeeded anywhere before, as Western technology was combined with an Asian work ethic to generate some of the highest growth rates ever recorded. The dogmatic anti-materialist Henry Kissinger could hardly ignore the statistics Nixon cited. Rapid growth might not translate into spiritual fulfillment, especially for teenagers; but for their parents, who remembered the miserable poverty of the entire region in 1945, it was vastly preferable to the alternative. Nixon was right: this was the fantastically good news about Asia that their fixation on Vietnam was causing Americans to overlook.

A year later, if Kissinger had been remotely aware that, if elected, Nixon might invite him to join his administration, it seems unlikely that he would have written another classic article on the subject, “The Viet Nam Negotiations,” which appeared in Foreign Affairs in the very month of Nixon’s inauguration, and which must therefore have been written at around the time of the 1968 presidential election, during which—for the third time—Kissinger served as a foreign policy adviser to Nixon’s rival for the Republican Party’s nomination, Nelson Rockefeller. Indeed, when he realized that Nixon wanted him in the White House, Kissinger tried vainly to stop the article’s publication, for the obvious reason that it would be seized upon by the media as a blueprint for the new administration’s policy.[vii] In fact the article had the unanticipated effect of validating Nixon’s decision to hire Rockefeller’s adviser. For it proved to be one of the most brilliant analyses of the American predicament in Vietnam that anyone has ever written.[viii]

Written with a brio Kissinger had seldom achieved since the publication of his classic dissertation, A World Restored, the article began by defining what he called “the Vietnamese syndrome: optimism alternating with bewilderment; euphoria giving way to frustration,” based on the fundamental problem that “military successes . . . could not be translated into permanent political advantage.”[ix] Why was this? Partly, he acknowledged, it was because of a “vast gulf” in cultural terms: “It would be difficult to imagine two societies less meant to understand each other than the Vietnamese and the American.”[x] But mainly it was because American strategy had all along been misconceived. From the outset of military intervention under Kennedy—as Morgenthau had seen, but he had missed—there had been a “failure . . . to analyze adequately the geopolitical importance of Viet Nam,” by which Kissinger subtly implied its relative unimportance.[xi] Then there was the fundamental problem that the American military had sought to wage a conventional war against guerrillas, following “the classic doctrine that victory depended on a combination of control of territory and attrition of the opponent.” The generals had reasoned that defeating the Vietcong’s “main forces would cause the guerrillas to wither on the vine.” They would achieve victory by “inflicting casualties substantially greater than those we suffered until Hanoi’s losses became ‘unacceptable.’” But this strategy was doubly flawed. First, it misunderstood the nature of guerrilla warfare.

Guerrillas rarely seek to hold real estate; their tactic is to use terror and intimidation to discourage cooperation with constituted authority. . . . Saigon controlled much of the country in the daytime . . . the Viet Cong dominated a large part of the same population at night. . . . The guerrillas’ aim was largely negative: to prevent the consolidation of governmental authority. . . .

We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process, we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win. The North Vietnamese used their main forces the way a bullfighter uses his cape—to keep us lunging in areas of marginal political importance.[xii]

Second, the “kill-ratios” of U.S. to North Vietnamese casualties, while pleasing to the systems analysts in the Pentagon, were “unreliable indicators. Even when the figures were accurate they were irrelevant, because the level of what was ‘unacceptable’ to Americans fighting thousands of miles from home turned out to be much lower than that of Hanoi fighting on Vietnamese soil.” [xiii]

The line about guerrillas winning if they do not lose has justly become one of Kissinger’s most quoted. But his article made an equally telling point about the nature of American assistance to South Vietnam that repeated a point he had made often enough in the past: economics is not everything.

In Viet Nam—as in most developing countries—the overwhelming problem is not to buttress but to develop a political framework. Economic progress that undermines the existing patterns of obligation—which are generally personal or feudal—serves to accentuate the need for political institutions. One ironic aspect of the war in Viet Nam is that, while we profess an idealistic philosophy, our failures have been due to an excessive reliance on material factors. The communists, by contrast, holding to a materialistic interpretation, owe many of their successes to their ability to supply an answer to the question of the nature and foundation of political authority.[xiv]

Kissinger also exposed the principal defect of American diplomacy, showing how “our diplomacy and our strategy were conducted in isolation from each other”—Johnson’s mal-coordinated left and right fists in the prizefight of his imagination. Hanoi, by contrast, did not “view war and negotiation as separate processes.” Misunderstanding that war and diplomacy form part of a continuum, the president had made multiple unforced errors. First, Johnson “had announced repeatedly that we would be ready to negotiate, unconditionally, at any moment, anywhere. This, in effect, left the timing of negotiations to the other side.” Then he had got sucked into point-scoring: “Hanoi announced Four Points, the NLF {National Liberation Front, i.e. the Communists in South Vietnam] put forth Five Points, Saigon advanced Seven Points and the United States—perhaps due to its larger bureaucracy—promulgated Fourteen,” as if lengthening the agenda for talks would somehow help get them started.[xv] Third, in putting out his peace feelers, Johnson had failed to anticipate how the North Vietnamese would coquette with him—“many contacts with Hanoi which seemed ‘abortive’ to us, probably served (from Hanoi’s point of view) the function of defining the terrain.”[xvi] Fourth, the United States had failed—partly for its own systemic reasons—to formulate a coherent negotiating position. “Pragmatism and bureaucracy,” as Kissinger put it, had “combine[d] to produce a diplomatic style marked by rigidity in advance of formal negotiations and excessive reliance on tactical considerations once negotiations start.” Americans prepared for talks by engraving preconditions in stone; but as soon as they sat down at the conference table, they began splitting the difference. Fifth, Johnson had simply been too unsubtle to appreciate the significance of changes of tense and mood in Hanoi’s communications. Sixth, Johnson had agreed to suspend the bombing of North Vietnam on a condition—never accepted by Hanoi—that the talks would be productive. But if they were not, could bombing actually be resumed without a domestic political uproar? Finally, by bringing Saigon into the talks, Johnson had inadvertently exposed “the potential conflict of interest between Washington and Saigon,” a new weakness for his foes to exploit.

What now? Kissinger ruled out unequivocally a unilateral withdrawal, using terms that would define the next four years of American foreign policy:

[T]he commitment of 500,000 Americans has settled the issue of the importance of Viet Nam. For what is involved now is confidence in American promises. However fashionable it is to ridicule the terms “credibility” or “prestige,” they are not empty phrases; other nations can gear their actions to ours only if they can count on our steadiness. The collapse of the American effort in Viet Nam would not mollify many critics; most of them would simply add the charge of unreliability to the accusation of bad judgment. Those whose safety or national goals depend on American commitments could only be dismayed. In many parts of the world—the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, even Japan—stability depends on confidence in American promises. Unilateral withdrawal, or a settlement which unintentionally amounts to the same thing, could therefore lead to the erosion of restraints and to an even more dangerous international situation. No American policymaker can simply dismiss these dangers.[xvii]

One can readily imagine the joy with which those words were read in Saigon—though it must also be recognized that they were read with considerable enthusiasm in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, too, as well as in Israel and at least some quarters in West Germany. This much, then, was clear: Kissinger would not cut and run. He also indicated that he would favor bilateral negotiations rather than involving the NLF and Saigon (to keep the vexed question of South Vietnam’s political future off the agenda); that he would not agree to a cease-fire that, given the “crazy quilt” of current territorial holdings, would “predetermine the ultimate settlement and tend toward partition”; and that he would not be “party to an attempt to impose a coalition government” including the NLF on Saigon, as this would likely “destroy the existing political structure of South Viet Nam and thus lead to a communist takeover.”[xviii] He did, on the other hand, favor a “staged withdrawal of external forces, North Vietnamese and American”—a position that he had already set out for Nelson Rockefeller the previous July. He at least implied that he would be reluctant to resume bombing. And he also repeated Rockefeller’s recommendation for “an international presence to enforce good faith” in South Vietnam as well as an “international force . . . to supervise access routes” into the country, ideally equipped with “an electronic barrier to check movements” across its borders (McNamara’s old and characteristically technocratic fantasy).

The most positive recommendation Kissinger made, however, was to step back and locate the Vietnamese negotiations in their broader context, taking account of the world’s other crises in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Here there were at least some grounds for hope: “[T]he Soviet doctrine according to which Moscow has a right to intervene to protect socialist domestic structures [has] made a Sino-Soviet war at least conceivable. For Moscow’s accusations against Peking have been, if anything, even sharper than those against Prague. But in case of a Sino-Soviet conflict, Hanoi would be left high and dry.”[xix] The fact that hostilities broke out along the Ussuri River within just two months did much to confirm the strategic direction Kissinger and Nixon would take. “However we got into Viet Nam, whatever the judgment of our actions,” Kissinger concluded, “ending the war honorably is essential for the peace of the world. Any other solution may unloose forces that would complicate prospects of international order. A new Administration must be given the benefit of the doubt.” [xx] Kissinger little realized as he wrote those words that he was requesting that benefit for himself and Richard Nixon.

(From Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist)

Photo: Richard Nixon being briefed during his visit to Da Nang Air Base, April 1967.



[i] Marvin and Bernard Kalb, Kissinger (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974)., 14f.

[ii] Richard M. Nixon, “Asia After Viet Nam,” Foreign Affairs (Oct. 1967), 111–25.

[iii] Ibid., 111f.

[iv] Ibid., 123.

[v] Ibid., 121.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Hedrick Smith, “Kissinger Has Parley Plan: Nixon Adviser’s Article Asks 2-Level Talks,” New York Times, Dec. 19, 1968.

[viii] Henry A. Kissinger, “The Viet Nam Negotiations,” Foreign Affairs, 11, no. 2 (1969): 38–50.

[ix] Ibid., 211f.

[x] Ibid., 220.

[xi] Ibid., 218.

[xii] Ibid., 213f.

[xiii] Ibid., 214.

[xiv] Ibid., 215.

[xv] Ibid., 216.

[xvi] Ibid., 221.

[xvii] Ibid., 218f.

[xviii] Ibid., 227f.

[xix] Ibid., 230.

[xx] Ibid., 234.