Henry Kissinger Talks Nixon Administration at Vietnam War Summit

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If there was one thing made clear during former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s talk Tuesday at the Vietnam War Summit, it was that he is a man who regrets little about his role in the war.

“We were acting on the basis of our best judgment at the time,” he said. “It seems to me one should stand by his decisions.”

As one of the three-day summit’s keynote speakers, the former American diplomat and Harvard professor sat on the stage of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library Auditorium along with the library’s director, Mark Updegrove. Kissinger, now 92, served as the assistant to President Nixon for National Security Affairs from 1969-75. For what he said is the last time, he used the session to address his role in the Vietnam War and at the end, opened the room up to unrestricted questions from the audience.

Kissinger began by talking about the presidents he worked with, recounting how each man inherited a gradually escalating war. When President Nixon took 26574074082_05306599f7_zoffice, Kissinger said he “inherited the war” with 500,000-plus troops already in Vietnam. They were left solving how to withdraw troops while simultaneously preventing the collapse of Indochina and their allies.

“All the presidents were haunted in their own way,” he said. “They were dedicated to finding a peaceful solution. There was nobody who wanted to escalate the war. They all wanted peace.”

Though Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his actions negotiating the ceasefire in Vietnam, much of the American public has deemed him a “war criminal.” One of his most contentious actions was his support for the U.S. bombing campaign in Cambodia during the war, which is often referred to as “carpet bombing.”

He denied there having been a saturation of bombing, saying the attacks likely resulted in fewer casualties than the Obama administration’s actions in Pakistan. “I believe what happened in Cambodia was justified,” Kissinger said, explaining they were in a hopeless position. “I would bet sooner or later any president would have had to do it.”

Kissinger said one of the biggest takeaways from the Vietnam War was understanding the dilemma of American foreign policy. “Americans have a tendency to think peace is the normal condition of a country,” he said. “And when there is war or instability, it is an unusual condition that you can remedy with one set of actions.”

He said this way of thinking still applies to war today, including American involvement in Iraq and Syria. “We look at these countries as if they are one unit,” he said, noting that such assumptions can be fatal.

“I would say to all administrations not to get into deep conflicts unless you can describe an aim you are willing to sustain,” he said. “And in the extreme, [be] willing to sustain it alone or know you will have to end it.”

26574929422_7b28de6c7d_zWrapping up the session, Updegrove directed audience members to line up for questioning. One man, who was a South Vietnamese soldier during the war, said he had been imprisoned for 10 years after being abandoned by the creation of the Paris Peace Accords—a ceasefire treaty that Kissinger led.

“I have great sympathy for these questions from Vietnamese,” Kissinger responded. “The evacuation of Saigon was one of the saddest moments of my life. The fundamental failure was division of our country.”

As a group of protesters gathered outside the library to object to Kissinger’s presence on campus, his talk left many at the summit with mixed feelings. Veteran Don Dorsey, BA ’75, said he had an opinion of Kissinger because of the way he handled P.O.Ws.

“I never really knew a lot about it, I just knew I didn’t like it,” he said. “But you know, I listened to an old man talk yesterday who I’ve got a new respect for.”

When asked about how history will remember him, Kissinger said he has no obsession with what will be written about him.

“That is not my concern,” he said. “I tried to do the best I could and that’s all I can say.”

Photos from top:

Henry Kissinger, at left, former U.S. Secretary of State and national security advisor for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, discusses the Vietnam War with LBJ Presidential Library director Mark Updegrove.

Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State and national security advisor for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, discusses the Vietnam War on Tuesday, April 26, 2016.

Military veterans and others line up to pose questions to Henry Kissinger.

Photos by LBJ Library.

 

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