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THE WAR AFTER THE WAR

The Struggle for Credibility during America’s Exit from Vietnam

Johannes Kadura

CORNELL UNIVERSITY PRESS    ITHACA AND LONDON

To my parents, Dorothee and Bernd, with love

Contents

Acknowledgments

List of Abbreviations in the Text

Introduction

1.  The Strategy of the Cease-fire

2.  The X Plus 60 Period

3.  The Collapse of the Equilibrium Strategy

4.  Going Down with Colors Flying

5.  Ford and the Fall of Saigon

6.  Beyond Defeat in Indochina

Conclusion

Notes

Bibliographic Essay on the Different Interpretations of the Post–Paris Agreement Period

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Index

Acknowledgments

In researching and writing this book, I have accumulated numerous debts; it is my pleasure to acknowledge them properly. First and foremost, I would like to express my deep appreciation to Andrew Preston of Clare College at the University of Cambridge. Andrew read numerous drafts of the manuscript, and his constructive criticism and meticulous corrections were tremendously helpful. Without his mentorship and encouragement, I would not have been able to write this book. At Cambridge, Tony Badger and David Reynolds provided critical input and created an intellectually stimulating atmosphere. David Milne’s comments and feedback on my work were extremely helpful. I also profited immensely from the support of Andreas Etges, and I am very grateful for all his efforts on my behalf. I would especially like to acknowledge the friendship and support of Tom Tunstall-Allcock, whose comments on the early versions of the manuscript were highly beneficial.

At Yale, John Lewis Gaddis was very supportive and introduced me to Mark Atwood Lawrence. Mark’s input and support at the beginning of the project were critical: he helped me find the topic of this book and organize my first research trip to the National Archives and, most important, introduced me to Andrew. In New Haven, Bryn Savage and David Gafron-Savage repeatedly let me stay at their home when I was on research trips and helped me through difficult times. Katun Luc, Benjamin von der Recke, and many other close friends were equally supportive. I am especially grateful for the friendship of Richard Horne, who indefatigably proofread many drafts of the manuscript. A former US marine, he has truly taken to heart the Marine Corps motto, Semper Fidelis. At Cornell University Press, my editor, Michael McGandy, had faith in the project, and his knowledgeable input greatly helped me improve earlier versions of the manuscript.

During the writing of this book, I received financial and moral support from various institutions. The Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes awarded me a generous grant for three years. Yale’s International Security Studies center financed my first research trip. The Cambridge European Trust and the Parry Dutton Fund of Sidney Sussex College provided me with additional funding. While I was conducting research, archivists of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and the Nixon Presidential Materials Project were extremely helpful.

My deepest gratitude goes to my family. My grandparents, Adelheid and Paul-Bernhard, who both passed away before this book could be published, encouraged me to finish my writing and supported me financially. My parents, Dorothee and Bernd, were always there when I needed them and shared memories about their own academic achievements, which did not always come easy. My dad’s knowledge about and enthusiam for history were as encouraging as they were entertaining. Most important, my parents miraculously managed to hold their spirits high in extraordinarily difficult times. Words cannot express how much I admire them and how grateful I am to have them as my parents. And last but certainly not least I would like to thank my love, Julie, for being in my life. Je t’aime, mon amour!

Abbreviations in the Text

MAP 1.   Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia with important sites for the 1973–75 period.

MAP 2.   South Vietnam during the final North Vietnamese offensive in March–April 1975.

Introduction

CONTINGENCY PLANNING IN TURBULENT TIMES

I just want history to be written correctly.

Nixon to Kissinger, December 3, 1976

It was a moment of triumph. Shortly after President Richard Nixon addressed the nation to announce the Paris Peace Agreement and the cease-fire in Vietnam on the evening of January 23, 1973, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger called to congratulate him. True to himself, Nixon remained fixated on his political opponents: Well, that kills them, you know. The ceasefire kills them, the independent government for South Vietnam kills them and they know that everything they said would not happen has been achieved. Exactly, Kissinger replied. When Nixon mentioned the upcoming briefings before a dovish Congress, Kissinger’s belligerence was nothing short of the president’s: I can kill them anyway.¹

Just over twenty-seven months later, things looked quite different. On April 29, 1975, while Operation Frequent Wind, the final airlift evacuation of Americans from Saigon, was in full swing, Kissinger, now secretary of state under President Gerald Ford, sat alone in the White House National Security Council office. In that almost mystical stillness, he later remembered, I felt too drained to analyze the various decisions that had led to this moment of dashed hopes. But I reviewed them as if in slow motion.² As a dazed Kissinger tried to make sense of what had gone wrong, North Vietnam finalized its victory. On the morning of April 30, Soviet-made T-54 tanks of the North Vietnamese Army smashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace. South Vietnamese president Duong Van Minh, who had been in office for less than seventy-two hours, was arrested, and the exuberant victors renamed Saigon Ho Chi Minh City. South Vietnam was no more.³

This book seeks to explore what happened during the war after the war in Vietnam and its aftermath. How could leaders in Washington proclaim in 1973 that they had successfully extricated the United States from the Indochinese quagmire while keeping South Vietnam intact when their ally crumbled under the communist onslaught less than two and a half years later? What had gone wrong? Not only did the bitter ending in Vietnam pose a serious challenge for policymakers in Washington who tried not to lose ground in the Cold War, but it also seemed to suggest that those who had seen the US engagement as ill fated from the beginning had been right all along. In fact, the search for culprits in the defeat in Vietnam became a highly personal matter for those involved in policymaking, as well as their critics. After all, Vietnam played a central role in how the world would come to see the legacies of Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford.

To understand the last chapter of US involvement in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, it is important to look at how Nixon and Kissinger, the principal architects of Washington’s Indochina strategy in the late 1960s and 1970s, approached the Vietnam problem from the beginning. When Nixon entered the White House in 1969, US policy toward Indochina and US foreign policy more generally were fundamentally transformed. Most important, the new president and his national security adviser realized that they had to address the limits of US power. Vietnam had made this point unmistakably clear. At the same time, Nixon and Kissinger sought to maintain US credibility and leadership in the world. Essentially, the realist approach to foreign policy that Nixon and Kissinger introduced to the White House was a combination of old ends and new means. Nixon and Kissinger’s Indochina strategy reflected this fact. In what came to be known as Vietnamization, they gradually reduced the presence of US troops and attempted to shift the responsibility for fighting the war onto Saigon’s forces. This approach was captured on a more general level in the Nixon Doctrine, which stipulated that the United States would support its allies against communist revolutions but would avoid direct military intervention.

At the same time, Nixon and Kissinger relied on the so-called madman theory, a stratagem by which Hanoi, Moscow, and Beijing had to be tricked into believing that Nixon was ruthless and irrational (in particular, he might use nuclear weapons). Between 1969 and 1972, they also expanded the war in Indochina. In fact, during Nixon’s first eighteen months in office, he and Kissinger were hoping that the escalation of the war would lead to a military victory. While winding down the overall US presence, they greatly extended aerial bombardments of communist forces in Vietnam and its neighboring countries, threatened the North Vietnamese with massive military operations against the North (Operation Duck Hook), and, in April 1970, orchestrated an incursion into Cambodia. However, none of these measures proved successful, and, facing rising opposition at home, Nixon and Kissinger shifted their strategy by 1971 from seeking military victory to finding a negotiated end to direct US involvement in the war.

Meanwhile, Nixon and Kissinger continued to pursue a policy of détente with the Soviet Union, culminating in the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks agreements (SALT I) at the Moscow summit in May 1972, and Nixon’s historic visit to China earlier that year marked the beginning of improved relations with Beijing. According to the president and his national security adviser, these dramatic developments had the positive effect of making Vietnam appear less significant by comparison. At the same time, as Nixon and Kissinger saw it, the United States could not be seen as weak if it was to successfully deal with the communist giants. According to this reasoning, maintaining US credibility and projecting an image of strength necessitated ongoing support for South Vietnam. When, in the so-called Easter Offensive in March 1972, the North Vietnamese launched a large-scale conventional attack on the South, Nixon ordered an intense and ultimately effective air campaign in support of South Vietnamese ground forces and against targets in North Vietnam. Negotiations in Paris between Kissinger and his North Vietnamese counterpart, Le Duc Tho, resumed in the summer and intensified in the fall. But the conclusion of the Paris Agreement in January 1973 did not materialize before Nixon had unleashed Operation Linebacker II, also known as the Christmas bombings, against targets in North Vietnam (the most intense bombing campaign since World War II), aimed at both bullying the North and reassuring the South Vietnamese, who feared being abandoned by the United States and so only grudgingly accepted the agreement.

How did this dual approach to Indochina—the simultaneous expansion and contraction of the war—translate into a post–Paris Agreement strategy? Can one detect a coherent attempt to prevent South Vietnam’s downfall? Were the principal decision makers by 1973 merely seeking a cosmetic delay of Saigon’s collapse—a so-called decent interval—to avoid taking responsibility? Or did Nixon and Kissinger actually plan for permanent war to keep South Vietnam afloat? What role did domestic opposition to continuing US engagement play after the conclusion of the peace agreement? How important was Watergate for the cause of events? Finally, how did policymakers in Washington and around the world respond to the fall of Saigon in the spring of 1975?

The War after the War seeks to address these questions and offers a new interpretation of Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford’s post–Paris Agreement Indochina policy that centers on the concepts of equilibrium strategy and insurance policy. It is argued here that the protagonists followed a twofold strategy of making a major effort to uphold South Vietnam while at the same time maintaining a multilayered fallback strategy of downplaying the overall significance of Vietnam and looking for the means to counterbalance possible defeat in Indochina in order to preserve US credibility. In other words, Nixon and Kissinger simultaneously maintained a plan A of further supporting Saigon and a plan B of shielding Washington against the negative fallout should their maneuvers prove futile.

As this book will show, Nixon and Kissinger’s plan A was based on the concept of an equilibrium strategy, which in turn was closely linked to the highly ambivalent (and largely misrepresented) term decent interval. Rather than depicting the defeatist notion of an inevitable, anticipated communist victory, Nixon and Kissinger used the term to allude to their strategy to uphold the Saigon regime. They sought to gain time, make the North turn inward, and create a perpetual equilibrium. A central part of the strategy for Indochina was based on the idea of persuading Hanoi to refrain from any major offensive for a decent interval of some years. In order to accomplish this, Nixon and Kissinger sought to employ positive and negative incentives for Hanoi to abandon its plans for conquest: the prospect of the normalization of US–North Vietnamese relations and economic aid were meant to serve as carrots, while the possibility of renewed US bombings was intended to provide the necessary stick for successful deterrence. If South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu remained the master of his own house, the reasoning went, and US firepower stood as the guardian angel against an all-out invasion, the period of relative tranquility could strengthen the equilibrium and finally lead to a permanent live-and-let-live attitude on both sides. But although Nixon and Kissinger maintained this optimistic view toward South Vietnam’s long-term survival in early 1973, they coupled it with a more pessimistic outlook. By the time of the Paris Agreement, they had come to see that South Vietnam could fall despite their maneuvers. As a result, they did not base their Indochina policy solely on the equilibrium strategy but combined this approach with an insurance policy (plan B).

Nixon and Kissinger’s ultimate goal was to remain flexible and keep their options open. As they saw it, domestic opposition to the war in the United States and a less-than-stable situation in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos required preparations for different contingencies. To achieve that flexibility, they implemented a dual strategy of deterring the North and promoting equilibrium while simultaneously deflating Vietnam’s significance in public and, above all, working on improved relations with Moscow and Beijing as a counterweight to possible failure in Indochina.

Although a primary concern of this book is Washington’s Indochina policy from 1973 to 1976, it also seeks to locate this topic within the broader context of US foreign policy in the 1970s. Were there larger strategic patterns that prevailed during that period? What problems did Vietnam pose for détente? What chances, in turn, did détente and rapprochement provide for Indochina? How was Vietnam connected to other international crises?

To be sure, policymakers in Washington were facing challenging times in the early and mid-1970s. Americans and the rest of the world witnessed the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, a severe energy crisis, the flow across borders of capital and the emergence of multinational corporations, the rise of Western Europe and Japan as economic powerhouses, and increased influence of entrepreneurs and transnational, nongovernmental groups. Domestically, US citizens were unnerved by simultaneous inflation and high unemployment (stagflation), as well as a fundamental loss of trust in government as a result of Vietnam and Watergate. Although US foreign relations were marked by East-West détente and the reintegration of China into the international system, increased stability among the great powers was starting to create a backlash at home from both the Right and the Left, whose members demanded a return to US ideals in the conduct of foreign affairs.

Vietnam was thus not the only international crisis policymakers in Washington had to manage, but it was certainly a central one. Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford evaluated Indochina (and other regional crises) first and foremost against the backdrop of Cold War great-power relations. The effects of Soviet-US détente, as well as the historic opening to China and the intensifying Sino-Soviet split, provided an essential backdrop for the war after the war in Vietnam. After regional containment of China had provided the rationale for US intervention during the first phase of US involvement in Vietnam, global US credibility was the primary concern of Washington’s Indochina hands in the first half of the 1970s.⁸ Still, unlike what one may suspect, the protagonists’ concern with great-power relations does not seem to have led to a simplistic understanding of the situation in Indochina. Despite the fact that US policymakers hardly cared for Vietnam for its own sake, Kissinger especially showed a clear and nuanced understanding of the Indochina problem, both in its complexity, as, for instance, with respect to the various factions involved in Laos and Cambodia, and in its simplicity: he knew that the future of South Vietnam effectively depended on whether Washington would be able to deter Hanoi from its plans for conquest.

An additional crucial aspect of this book is the role domestic politics plays in shaping US foreign policy. Watergate, of course, is an important case in point. As this study shows, Nixon, Kissinger, Ford, and several observers were correct in stressing the importance of Watergate for the passage of inhibitive legislation on US military actions in Indochina in the summer of 1973. Had it not been for the dramatic revelations in the first half of that year of presidential abuses of power, Congress would probably not have had the necessary momentum to override Nixon’s veto of cutting funds for Indochina. At the same time, it is argued here that Watergate’s decisiveness in weakening the president’s standing and the passage of the cutoff did not altogether derail Nixon and Kissinger’s Indochina policy (thereby absolving them of being responsible for Saigon’s fate). Rather, they followed through on their insurance policy, which had been in place well before the summer of 1973. Moreover, contrary to Nixon and Kissinger’s depiction, this study argues that Watergate was no unpredictable tragedy; it was the logical result of Nixon and Kissinger’s policymaking style.

More generally, historians have correctly pointed out that Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford paid significant attention to the effects of foreign policy decisions on their domestic standings. Political gains, above all in the run-up to presidential elections, were never far from the protagonists’ minds. However, this book maintains that Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford had an equally strong sense of what they believed to be the US national interest. Although the first half of the 1970s was marked by ongoing erosion of the domestic Cold War consensus that had been shattered in the late 1960s, primarily by the divisive experience of Vietnam, Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford remained convinced that US engagement in Indochina was the right thing. Rather than basing their Indochina policy and, more generally, their foreign policy on domestic considerations, they sought to balance political necessities with the perceived need to project an image of US toughness around the world.¹⁰

The antagonism between the White House, on the one hand, and Congress and parts of the US public, on the other, is closely linked to another component of the insurance policy for Indochina. After the 1973 congressional cutoff of funds for Indochina, Nixon, Kissinger, Ford, and their aides carefully orchestrated a blame campaign against Congress and the antiwar opposition in the larger public. To be sure, different concepts of morality clashed: Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford’s political opponents pointed to years of seemingly wasted bloodshed and the lack of democratic standards in Saigon and Phnom Penh; Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford stressed the need to stand by allies and honor commitments. It is reasonable to conclude that they genuinely felt that Congress’s ban on funds for Indochina was amoral and wrong.¹¹

However, the cutoff also provided them with a welcome opportunity to wash their hands of Vietnam and put the blame for Saigon’s collapse on the administration’s critics. As Nixon put it in his memoirs, The war and the peace in Indochina that America had won at such cost over twelve years of sacrifice and fighting were lost within a matter of months once Congress refused to fulfill our obligations.¹² In fact, what one may call the stab-in-the-back part of the Indochina story became a central element of Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford’s attempt to attenuate the pain of defeat in Indochina and preserve US credibility. Had it not been for the self-imposed restraints of US democracy, the argument runs, the Nixon and Ford administrations would have honored their commitment to Indochina. If Washington abandoned its allies, it was because it was forced to do so, not because it had grown soft on communism.

Ford fully subscribed to this approach. Although Nixon’s successor deserves credit for bringing back a degree of normalcy to US society and overcoming some of the divisions caused by Nixon’s governing style, he contributed his fair share to the continuation of Washington’s Indochina policy. Rather than being a passive follower of Kissinger and lacking the ability to grasp complex foreign policy problems, such as Indochina, Ford, just like Nixon and Kissinger, held the clear conviction that Washington must see it through in Indochina, even if that meant going down with the flags flying. During Ford’s presidency, it was clear to most observers (including the president and Kissinger) that South Vietnam would most likely collapse in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, instead of cutting their losses, Ford and Kissinger continuously requested increased levels of aid, not so much believing that their requests would be granted as first and foremost trying to set the record straight. Although the idea behind the insurance policy was to move on from Vietnam, Ford and Kissinger sought to highlight that Washington’s principal stance of honoring its commitments had not changed. The overarching benchmark under Ford continued to be how foreign policy decisions would affect US prestige and credibility in the global Cold War.¹³

Although it does not appear that the 1970s were actually more affected than the previous or following decades by political violence or economic instability, historians generally agree that the decade was largely perceived as a period of crisis. For Americans, the 1970s were marked by a keen sense of their own limits and imperfections, politically, economically, and morally. The fall of Saigon in April 1975 provided an iconic image of US defeat and perfectly epitomized the overall feeling of disillusionment. Watching the pictures of desperate South Vietnamese trying to get on one of the last helicopters to leave the country, Americans felt a mix of shame and relief that the decade-long war had come to an end. Many Americans blamed their government, either for not achieving victory or for supporting an undemocratic ally for too long. In any case, in the memory of US citizens, the Vietnam War remained closely linked to dishonesty and abuses of power by the White House. Fittingly, in the middle of the decade, the collapse of South Vietnam and Cambodia underlined the perception of a profound crisis in the United States.¹⁴

This book tells a specific story—Washington’s endgame in Indochina—and is part of the extensive historiography of the Vietnam War. Beginning in the second half of the 1970s, two distinct schools emerged in the writings on the war. In what came to be known as the orthodox school, authors criticized US intervention in Vietnam as ill conceived and doomed to fail. Revisionist writers, on the other hand, argued that Washington’s engagement in Indochina had been a noble cause and proposed different strategies that supposedly would have led to US victory. To this day, the debate between orthodox and revisionist scholars continues, and the different schools provide a conceptual framework with which analyses of the Vietnam War can be assessed.¹⁵

In the literature on the war after the war in Vietnam, very few studies have focused on the post–Paris Agreement period; most accounts have portrayed the flawed agreement in early 1973 as determining subsequent events. At the same time, three prevailing interpretations of the Paris Agreement and its aftermath have emerged. Nixon, Kissinger, and their supporters claimed that they had achieved peace with honor in Vietnam and that the Paris Agreement marked the success of their military and diplomatic maneuvers to uphold an independent South Vietnam. According to their interpretation, the war was lost on the home front when Congress denied the administration the necessary means to provide critical ongoing support to Saigon. The historian Jeffrey Kimball refutes that notion and has advanced the so-called decent-interval theory as an alternative interpretation. According to Kimball, Nixon and Kissinger knew that the Paris Agreement would not hold and merely sought to gain time before the final collapse of South Vietnam, not least to shift the blame for defeat onto their political opponents. The political scientist Larry Berman has provided a third explanation, the theory of permanent war. He contends that Nixon planned to use the Paris Agreement as a pretext to justify ongoing bombing campaigns to keep the Thieu regime alive, and that only Watergate prevented him from carrying out that plan. As this book will show, all three existing lines of interpretation contain valuable observations but ultimately fail to adequately capture Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford’s approach to Indochina after the conclusion of the Paris Agreement.¹⁶

Although The War after the War goes beyond a mere synthesis of the existing analyses by introducing the concepts equilibrium strategy and insurance policy, it takes up arguments that have been made by both critics and defenders of Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford’s Indochina policy. As historian Gary Hess has pointed out, there is still little evidence of an emerging synthesis between the orthodox and revisionist schools on the Vietnam War, although it seems desirable to move beyond the divide, which is often ideologically motivated. This study attempts to do so. Because the controversial protagonists of this story—Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford—have been the focus of debates that sometimes have become passionate, it seems all the more necessary to avoid jumping to conclusions and to provide a balanced analysis. It is concluded here that Nixon, Kissinger, Ford, and their supporters have, in fact, highlighted some important points (for instance, the influence of Watergate on US policy toward Indochina), but they have conveniently neglected others (for example, in justifying the US engagement in Vietnam from hindsight).¹⁷

The War after the War focuses on the US side and does not attempt to tell the Vietnamese versions of the story, certainly a fascinating topic and promising for future studies. Although some scholars have made progress in this field, North Vietnamese and particularly South Vietnamese sources remain difficult to access. In any case, this study aims to illuminate the Nixon and Ford administrations’ decisions and motivations. Because of the nature of the making of foreign policy during the Nixon-Kissinger-Ford years, the spotlight will primarily rest on these key figures. Under Nixon, the centralization of power and decision making in the hands of a small and secretive circle was practiced to an unprecedented degree. Suiting their foreign policy strategy and reinforced by their personalities, Nixon and Kissinger regularly excluded the bureaucracy from the decision-making process. In Ford’s presidency, Kissinger remained the central figure of US foreign policy.¹⁸

While telling the story of the war after the war in Vietnam, this book shows how Indochina was linked to other crises in the first half of the 1970s. In addition to Watergate, the Yom Kippur War and the oil crisis constitute two important examples. But this book is linked to other analyses of the 1970s in an even more fundamental way. It helps readers understand how Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford attempted to maintain control of the ship in what Kissinger called times of upheaval. The pragmatic and flexible realpolitik that Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford introduced to US foreign policy contributed to the fact that the United States maintained a leading role in the Cold War and a relatively high degree of control in what appeared to be uncontrollable times. Unquestionably, by the time Jimmy Carter entered the White House, Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford’s realist approach to foreign affairs had fallen from grace, and détente had come under attack from both the Right and the Left. The premises of a more stable world system that Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford had tried to build were discredited. Although Ronald Reagan was very different in style and purpose, he continued Carter’s approach by emphasizing US ideals for the conduct of foreign policy. In fact, the Nixon-Kissinger-Ford realism of the first half of the 1970s was a unique episode in US foreign policy insofar as it consciously embraced the notion of US unexceptionalism and a realization of Washington’s limits. Perhaps this notion contributed in no small part to the fact that Americans quickly grew uncomfortable with realpolitik.¹⁹

Still, despite the obvious shortcomings of their approach (for example, the lack of respect for human rights) and the fact that Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford’s foreign policy produced a backlash that lasted until the end of the Cold War, they offered a coherent strategy that addressed the challenges of an increasingly complex world. In fact, the analysis of Washington’s Indochina policy from 1973 to 1976 shows how Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford tried to use the multipolar, increasingly interdependent world system to the United States’ advantage by contextualizing Vietnam and thus reducing the importance of defeat.²⁰

If Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford’s foreign policy deserves credit for its conceptual coherence—what Kissinger referred to as a philosophical deepening—it is worth noting that this coherence was in no small part based on the three men’s sense of the prevalence of contingency and uncertainty in foreign affairs. This general orientation of emphasizing the flow of events was perhaps best embodied by Kissinger, both as a scholar and as the preeminent diplomat of the 1970s. As a statesman, Kissinger observed, he was confronted with a continual struggle to rescue an element of choice from the pressure of circumstance.²¹ Vietnam, of course, was the prime example of this, and time and again Kissinger argued that the United States had to accept the fact that there was no easy way out of Vietnam once Washington had committed so many resources. The insurance-policy approach for the post–Paris Agreement period was precisely meant to address an uncertain future and obtain the best result under difficult circumstances.²²

What Kissinger implied on a more general level was that the United States had to learn how to deal with its own limitations. In the first half of the 1970s, while the United States was struggling with accelerated globalization and its political, economic, and cultural effects, Kissinger, together with the two presidents he served, tried to maintain the United States’ leadership role in a rapidly changing international environment by stressing pragmatism and balance of power over idealism and human rights concerns. In that respect, Kissinger, Nixon, and Ford’s foreign policy stood in the tradition of other realists, such as George F. Kennan, and to this day Kissinger remains a prominent critic of what he considers an excessively values-driven foreign policy (for example, with respect to China). But although this constant maneuvering in the national interest gave back to Washington a much-needed sense of initiative and flexibility, Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford ultimately failed to sell their realist approach to the American public. The story of Washington’s handling of the war after the war in Vietnam, which culminated in the fall of Saigon, highlights this fundamental tension. In the end, Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford’s record is mixed. Not least for that reason, it remains a fascinating subject for historical inquiry.²³

1

THE STRATEGY OF THE CEASE-FIRE

On January 18, 1973, five days before Henry Kissinger initialed the Paris Agreement and Richard Nixon publicly proclaimed peace with honor, the two men discussed the various upcoming announcements on the phone. At this point, South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu had not yet given his final word on whether or not he would sign the agreement, but Nixon and Kissinger were determined to go forward in any case. It’s got to end now, Mr. President, and it will one way or the other, Kissinger said. It’s over, huh, Nixon replied. Concerning Nixon’s upcoming announcement, Kissinger advised, I don’t know whether I would nail myself so much to the word lasting peace or guaranteed peace because this thing is almost certain to blow up sooner or later. Nixon agreed, "Well, I think rather than lasting and guaranteed in relation