Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America's Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War

Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America's Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War

by Henry Kissinger


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The Definitive Account
Many other authors have written about what they thought happened — or thought should have happened — in Vietnam, but it was Henry Kissinger who was there at the epicenter, involved in every decision from the long, frustrating negotiations with the North Vietnamese delegation to America's eventual extrication from the war. Now, for the first time, Kissinger gives us in a single volume an in-depth, inside view of the Vietnam War, personally collected, annotated, revised, and updated from his bestselling memoirs and his book Diplomacy.
Here, Kissinger writes with firm, precise knowledge, supported by meticulous documentation that includes his own memoranda to and replies from President Nixon. He tells about the tragedy of Cambodia, the collateral negotiations with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, the disagreements within the Nixon and Ford administrations, the details of all negotiations in which he was involved, the domestic unrest and protest in the States, and the day-to-day military to diplomatic realities of the war as it reached the White House. As compelling and exciting as Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, Ending the Vietnam War also reveals insights about the bigger-than-life personalities — Johnson, Nixon, de Gaulle, Ho Chi Minh, Brezhnev — who were caught up in a war that forever changed international relations. This is history on a grand scale, and a book of overwhelming importance to the public record.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743215329
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 02/04/2003
Pages: 640
Sales rank: 791,533
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Henry Kissinger was the fifty-sixth Secretary of State. Born in Germany, Dr. Kissinger came to the United States in 1938 and was naturalized a US citizen in 1943. He served in the US Army and attended Harvard University, where he later became a member of the faculty. Among the awards he has received are the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Medal of Liberty. Dr. Kissinger is currently Chairman of Kissinger Associates, Inc., an international consulting firm.

Read an Excerpt


This book deals with the way the United States ended its involvement in the longest war in its history, the one fought at the greatest geographic distance from America, with the least obvious relationship to previous concepts of national security, and the only war in which well-known Americans traveled to the enemy's capital to express solidarity with the enemy's goals and, on occasion, to broadcast from there.

No war since the Civil War has seared the national consciousness like Vietnam. The controversies surrounding it tore the country apart while the war was raging, and its legacies shaped the national approach to foreign policy for a generation. Absolute distinctions between moral values and the national interest, between ideals and power, were invoked and, in time, supplanted the previous policy disputes of the Cold War period. This near civil war constrained American policy for long after the war itself was concluded.

But history presents unambiguous alternatives only in the rarest of circumstances. Most of the time, statesmen must strike a balance between their values and their necessities or, to put it another way, they are obliged to approach their goals not in one leap but in stages, each by definition imperfect by absolute standards. It is always possible to invoke that imperfection as an excuse to recoil before responsibilities or as a pretext to indict one's own society. That gap can be closed only by faith in America's purposes. And that was increasingly challenged during the Vietnam war and its aftermath.

The domestic divisions that grew out of Vietnam were generally treated in the public discourse as a clash between those who were "for" the war and those who were "against" it. That, however, was not the fundamental issue. Every administration in office during the Vietnam war sought to end it -- nearly desperately. The daunting and heartrending question was how to define this goal.

For Richard Nixon, who inherited the task of extrication from Vietnam in 1969 in the fifth year of a massive overseas deployment, the overriding issue was how to keep faith with the tens of millions who, in reliance on American assurances, had tied their destiny to ours. Too, he sought to maintain American credibility toward allies and America's deterrent posture toward adversaries, attributes on which, in the judgment of four successive administrations of both major parties, the peace of the world depended. The critics thought the quest for credibility illusory and draining of America's substance. They saw the key issue as salvaging America's moral core by scuttling a doomed and allegedly immoral enterprise on almost any terms.

In this manner, the war in Vietnam became for the United States the defining experience of the second half of the twentieth century. Even for those who lived through it at the center of events, the mood of that period is nearly impossible to recapture: the brash confidence in the universal applicability of America's prescriptions with which it all began and the progressive disillusionment with which it ended; the initial unity of purpose and the ultimate divisive trauma.

It was the so-called greatest generation that entered Indochina in the heyday of American self-confidence. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations involved the United States in Indochina in the aftermath of the Berlin blockade and the Communist invasion of South Korea. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations sent combat troops to South Vietnam when North Vietnam occupied portions of Laos and Cambodia and engulfed Vietnam in a guerrilla war backed by regular North Vietnamese forces. The four Presidents from both major parties were applying -- with wide public support -- the strategy that had achieved the historic transformations of the decade following the Second World War: the Berlin blockade had been overcome, Europe had been rebuilt, Germany and Japan had been restored to the community of nations, the Soviet advance into Europe had been arrested, and Communist aggression in Korea had been checked. This strategy drew from the experiences of World War II a faith in the ability to deter aggression by building military positions of strength and from Roosevelt's New Deal a belief in economic and social progress to remove Communist opportunities for internal upheavals. At the time, there was virtually no opposition to this open-ended commitment to a global mission or to the conventional wisdom that Indochina was an essential outpost in the defense of liberty.

But, by the end of the Johnson administration in 1968, 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, in a position to choose when and where to fight, and possessing supply lines through Laos and Cambodia. These countries became sanctuaries because of a bizarre interpretation of their neutral status that proscribed retaliation against North Vietnamese military bases from which Americans and South Vietnamese were being killed daily. Nor did the non-Communist countries of Indochina practice anything like the 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, mounting self-doubt about the American role in Indochina compounded the despair caused by Kennedy's assassination.

National comity and mutual respect gave way -- at least in intellectual, media, and policy circles -- to a rancorous and clamorous distrust. (General public support remained well above 50 percent throughout the war years.) The once near-universal faith in the uniqueness of America's values -- and their global relevance -- was replaced by growing self-doubt. Successive administrations became the target of critics who increasingly challenged the moral essence of American involvement abroad. Early doubts as to whether the war was winnable and concerns lest its cost exceed any possible benefits escalated into the proposition that the frustrations of Vietnam were caused by moral rot at the core of American life. Critics moved from questioning the worthiness of America's allies to challenging the worthiness of America itself, assailing its conduct not only in Vietnam but around the world.

Nixon, who inherited this cauldron, held values which, for all his railing against the Establishment, paralleled those of the "greatest generation." He would not consider the unconditional withdrawal and overthrow the Saigon structure on which the North Vietnamese insisted until the end of his first term in 1972 and toward which American critics of the war were moving gradually but relentlessly. He was eager to end the war but not at the price of imposing a Communist government on the millions who had cast their lot in reliance on the promises of his predecessors. Nixon's motives were a mixture of moral and geopolitical conviction as he sought to reconcile America's postwar policy based on alliances and deterrence with domestic passions which, in his view, threatened the long-term American ability to build a world order based on free societies. Nixon feared for our alliances if America abdicated in Indochina; he was concerned about the impact on Soviet restraint if the United States simply abandoned what four administrations had affirmed, and he believed that a demonstration of American weakness in Asia would destroy the opening to China based in part on America's role in thwarting Soviet moves toward hegemony in Asia.

But as he entered office, he found that by the end of the Johnson administration, the goal of victory had been abandoned and a commitment had been made to end the bombing of North Vietnam and to seek a negotiated compromise solution. These objectives had been affirmed by both candidates in the presidential campaign. No significant American political or intellectual leader opposed them.

When a negotiated solution proved unattainable, Nixon proceeded unilaterally to implement his concept of an honorable withdrawal. In the process, he cut U.S. casualties from 1,200 a month at the end of the Johnson administration to thirty a month at the end of Nixon's first term. He unilaterally reduced American troops from 550,000 in 1969 to 30,000 in 1972. And he concluded an agreement to end the war when it was possible to do so without abandoning the allies that America had sustained.

The stages in this process were often highly controversial partly because the liberal Establishment, which had launched America into the quagmire, had become demoralized and left the field to the radical protesters who, certain of their moral superiority, saw no need for restraint in the methods they used to pursue their ends. At the same time, the conservatives had abandoned the cause of Indochina in frustration while those who later emerged as passionate neoconservatives were as yet besieging the barricades from the side of the protest movement. Nor did Nixon possess the qualities to transcend the gulf in American society by an act of grace.

Unexpectedly, I was drawn into the vortex. Though I had been the principal foreign policy adviser of Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, Nixon's political opponent for a decade, and though I had met the President-elect only once and then only for a few minutes, he did me the honor of appointing me as National Security Adviser. In that role, I was to become the principal adviser to the President on the policy for the extrication from Vietnam and eventually the chief negotiator.

Like almost everyone involved in decisions affecting the future of Vietnam, I was beset by ambivalence. I was intellectually convinced that Hanoi would settle only if deprived of all hope of victory by a determined military strategy. But I was emotionally close to many of the more moderate of the protesters who had been my contemporaries at university; therefore I was also the principal advocate in the administration for negotiations for a political solution to give the people of Indochina a genuine opportunity to choose this future. It turned out to be a rough ride, rougher by far than I imagined when I started on the task.

Since then, the categories of our national debate on Vietnam have remained largely unchanged, compounded with the passage of time by an amnesia that suppresses events but remembers encrusted hatreds. A balanced judgment on Vietnam continues to elude us -- and therefore the ability to draw lessons from a national tragedy which America inflicted on itself. As a result, Vietnam has become the black hole of American historical memory.

The essence of the Vietnam tragedy was the tension between America's idealism and the perception we have of ourselves as a nation with a special mission -- and our growing involvement in a world of power, hence of relative judgment. How to strike the balance between these competing realities is not a simple matter, and practitioners of foreign policy have struggled with that problem for much of American history. The task is likely never to be completed, but we will not manage it unless we have sufficient confidence in ourselves to risk a definition of the issues reflecting their complexity.

This has not yet happened.

Ending the Vietnam War is composed of fourteen chapters drawn from texts heretofore scattered through four long treatises: the three volumes of my memoirs and my study Diplomacy. I have rearranged and occasionally rewritten the material to provide a consecutive narrative, reshaped the narrative from the anecdotal tone of memoirs to a more general account of the period, provided a connecting text where necessary, and added new material.

My purpose in undertaking this task is not to settle the debate of a generation ago retroactively but to leave for a new generation, hopefully untouched by the passions of the past, an opportunity to obtain as accurate an account as possible of how one group of America's leaders viewed and tried to surmount a tragic national experience. Like all autobiographical writings, it cannot be free of the righteousness inherent in describing actions in which one was involved -- actions one obviously would not have undertaken unless one thought them right or at least necessary. Where I have had second thoughts, I have tried to record them. In a number of chapters, I have referred to and footnoted books with a different perspective. These works contain their own bibliographies.

The Vietnam debate has so far produced no ultimate answers. The administration that ended the war was too abstractly analytical when, in the face of massive media and congressional opposition, it insisted on its geopolitical design dictated by its view of the long-range national interest. The critics were too abstractly passionate in their refusal to relate their moral proclamations to an operational strategy reflecting America's responsibility for peace and world order. The administration had concept without domestic consensus; the critics had passion without analysis. Watergate destroyed the last hopes for an honorable outcome. For the only time in the postwar period, America abandoned to eventual Communist rule a friendly people which had relied on us and were still fighting when we cut off aid. The pattern of domestic discord did not end quickly. We paid for a long time for the divisions into which we stumbled in that period, now seemingly so distant.

As these lines are being written, America finds itself once again at war -- this time with no ambiguity about the nature of the threat. While history never repeats itself directly, there is at least one lesson to be learned from the tragedy described in these pages: that America must never again permit its promise to be overhelmed by its divisions.

Copyright © 2003 by Henry A. Kissinger

Table of Contents



1. America's Entry into the Morass (1950-1969)

2. Evolution of a Strategy

What the Nixon Administration Found • Groping for a Strategy: The North Vietnamese Offensive and the Bombing of Cambodia • Attempts at a Diplomatic Outcome • Peace Initiatives • The Beginning of Troop Withdrawals • A Secret Meeting • Another Reassessment • The Unpacifiable Doves • A Strategy Emerges

3. Secret Negotiations and a Widening War

The Secret Negotiations • Special Advisor Le Duc Tho and the First Round of Talks • Laos Interlude • The Overthrow of Sihanouk • Another Major Troop Withdrawal • The Attack on North Vietnamese Sanctuaries • The Cambodian Incursion • The Domestic Travail • The Balance Sheet

4. Diplomacy and Strategy: From a Cease-fire Proposal to the Interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Madame Binh's Eight Points • The Setting of a Strategy • The Laos Operation • Lam Son 719: The Military Operation • Braving Domestic Opposition • The Negotiations Are Resumed • The South Vietnamese Presidential Election • Revealing the Secret Talks

5. Hanoi Throws the Dice: The Vietnam Spring Offensive

Diplomatic Maneuvers • What Strategy?

6. The Showdown

The May 2 Secret Meeting • The Mining and Bombing of North Vietnam • The Summit in the Balance

7. From Stalemate to Breakthrough

Testing the Stalemate • A Visit to Saigon • Interlude: Meetings of September 15 and 27 • The Breakthrough: The October 8 Meeting

8. The Troubled Road to Peace

Interlude in Paris • Consultation with Thieu • Rumblings • Showdown with Thieu • The Journey Home

9. "Peace Is at Hand"

Election Interlude • Haig Visits Saigon Again • The Meetings with Le Duc Tho Resume • The Breakdown of the Negotiations • The Christmas Bombing • Negotiations Resume • The January Round of Negotiations • Thieu Relents • Peace at Last • Postlude

10. A Visit to Hanoi

11. Enforcement and Aid

The Thieu Visit • Watergate and Enforcement • The Search for Peace in Cambodia • The Aborted Chinese Mediation • The Negotiations Unravel

12. Ford and Vietnam

The Strangulation of South Vietnam • Hanoi Resumes the Offensive • The End of the Road

13. The Collapse of Cambodia

The Myth of the Failure to Negotiate on Cambodia • The Final Collapse • Final Note

14. The End of Vietnamar

The Debate over Evacuation • The Search for a Political Solution • The Evacuation • The Last Day






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Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America's Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Joey13 More than 1 year ago
I'm twenty-two years old and knew relatively little about the Vietnamese War and how it ended. After reading Dr. Kissinger's book I became more familiar and understood how American's involvement gradually increased and how he was able to negotiate a departure of American troops. I'm not that smart, I'm just a 22 year old chump kid who is currently finishing his degree in political science with global politics from washington state university. I found it an interesting read and recommend this book to anyone who wishes to gain a better understanding of the war and the inside scoop of how we were able to pull out.

joey harrison
Guest More than 1 year ago
Anyone familiar with Henry Kissinger's fabled rise to preeminence as a Harvard professor to National Security maven to Secretary of State to international security mogul will find this overblown and egocentric effort at reconstructive twentieth century history amusing, frustrating, and absolutely self-serving. While Kissinger's personal biography is in fact a real-life Horatio Alger tale, ripped from the conditions, circumstances, and contradictions of this uproarious span of time, his own attempts herein to steer the reader toward a selective understanding of what happened and why profoundly misuses and abuses his insider's status in an all-too apparent attempt to reconstruct the historically verifiable facts of the situation pertaining to the sixties, the war in Vietnam, and his own efforts at establishing (along with his unindicted cohort in crime, Richard M. Nixon) a contemporary American realpolitick in world affairs. Yet Kissinger is hardly what he purports to be. Far from flying with the angels, Kissinger attempted to simultaneously court the liberal press and the academics into believing he was a solitary voice of reason and moderation within the Nixon White House, while at the same time pandering to the President's worst impulses, insecurities, and vulnerabilities by exploiting Nixon's paranoia about his public image and his need for pseudo-macho persona with his colleagues. As Daniel Ellsberg described so well in his recent book, Kissinger adroitly attempts to consistently play all sides against the middle in an attempt to elevate his own position and allow himself the latitude to swagger into public prominence and the political stratosphere at the same time. Thus, while the book is well written and quite entertaining to read, it suffers from the meglo-maniacal effort Kissinger has made to consistently portray himself in a positive light, and so slants the nature of the interchanges, anecdotes, and occurrences I personally found quite frustrating. In so doing he ultimately squanders any opportunity he had to help illuminate the nature of the many events he actively participated in and contributed toward, such that what other's refer to as a cogently written insider's take on the process of shutting down America's involvement in the long Southeast Asia conflict I find to be a cleverly attempted effort to marshal the facts in a way that dissembles more than it illuminates. The truth is that Kissinger, like Robert McNamara and others, was a superb politician, tactician, and game player, and one who enjoyed playing multiple political games on multiple levels with contradictory simultaneous outcomes all at the same time. Thus in the morning he could whine to his liberal staffers how the Neanderthals in the White House were misbehaving, and then engage in pseudo-macho asides with the same White House staffers he had just bad-mouthed to his associates. Kissinger played everyone, from the President to the Congress to Academia to the public. In this fundamentally dishonest and dissembling reinterpretation of the public record of what happened during those years and why, he continues to play us all. My advice is not to buy books like this, unless you want to see how cleverly and brilliantly someone as intellectually gifted as Kissinger is can engage in a campaign of boldface lies. Boycott this book!