Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: New Republic (11-1-06)
... To begin unraveling the true meaning of Kissinger's advice to the White House [as reported by Bob Woodward in State of Denial], we have to go back to August 3, 1972. On that date, President Nixon repeated to the good doctor, his national security adviser, what he'd been saying in private since 1966: America's war aim (standing up a pro-American and anti-Communist South Vietnamese government in Saigon) was a fantasy. "South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway," the president sighed. But a presidential election was coming up. He had long before promised he was removing the U.S. presence, more-or-less victoriously (though "victory" was a word Nixon, by then, wisely avoided; instead, he called it "peace with honor").
It was Kissinger, who had been shuttling back and forth to Paris for peace negotiations with the enemy, who named the dilemma: "We've got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which--after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, this October, by January '74, no one will give a damn." Thus was confirmed what historians would come to call the "decent interval" strategy. Having pledged to Saigon--and American conservatives--that Communist troops would not be allowed in South Vietnam after a peace deal was signed, Kissinger negotiated the opposite. "Peace is at hand," he announced on the eve of the 1972 presidential election, in one of his rare appearances before the TV cameras. The United States left the following spring; the Communists moved in; Saigon fell.
That's not how Nixon and Kissinger told the story, of course. They blamed the defeat on a combination of the liberal congressmen who refused to vote for continued aid to South Vietnam in 1974 and Saigon's own unfortunate lack of will. And, just as Kissinger had privately predicted, no one gave a damn. You might not associate Kissinger with withdrawal, because that's not how he has retold events. "While history never repeats itself directly," he wrote in his book, Ending the Vietnam War, "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 overwhelmed by its divisions."
If Kissinger wasn't truly a stay-the-course man in Vietnam but just sold himself to posterity as one, is it possible that the sorcerer is teaching his new apprentice the same trick--how to end a war with a retreat and blame it on anyone but himself? That's not very hard to imagine. A growing body of data suggests that the Bush administration is edging ever closer to withdrawal. We have heard strong hints that the president will make one last desperate stand--pacifying militia-filled Baghdad, convening an international conference, dividing Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions--before finally departing. James Baker's Iraq Study Group will likely be recommending some variation of this to the White House after the November elections.
You can almost hear the famous thick German accent: "Mr. President, you have to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two--after which, Mr. President, Iraq will be a backwater." Maybe that is just what Henry Kissinger is advising: Something like a tripartite Iraq could be Bush's "decent interval" strategy, removing his own responsibility for the ultimate collapse in the eyes of posterity, parceling out the onus for failure between the Iraqis themselves and the American liberals who tied his hands. You can almost hear the president sighing in return, with a newfound, world-weary sense of realism: "Might as well. Iraq probably can never even survive anyway." ....
Posted on: Wednesday, November 1, 2006 - 21:26