Because of the triumphalist manner in which the Cold War suddenly and unexpectedly ended, many have since viewed the West’s victory as a foregone conclusion, and therefore have tended to see the tough measures that Kissinger and others occasionally took as unwarranted. But for those in the midst of fighting the Cold War—who worked in the national-security apparatus during the long, dreary decades when nuclear confrontation seemed abundantly possible—its end was hardly foreseeable.
People forget what Eastern Europe was like during the Cold War, especially prior to the 1980s: the combination of secret-police terror and regime-induced poverty gave the impression of a vast, dimly lit prison yard. What kept that prison yard from expanding was mainly the projection of American power, in the form of military divisions armed with nuclear weapons. That such weapons were never used did not mean they were unnecessary. Quite the opposite, in fact: the men who planned Armageddon, far from being the Dr. Strangeloves satirized by Hollywood, were precisely the people who kept the peace.Many Baby Boomers, who lived through the Cold War but who have no personal memory of World War II, artificially separate these two conflicts. But for Kissinger, a Holocaust refugee and U.S. Army intelligence officer in occupied Germany; for General Creighton Abrams, a tank commander under George Patton in World War II and the commander of American forces in Vietnam from 1968 onward; and for General Maxwell Taylor, who parachuted into Nazi-occupied France and was later the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, the Cold War was a continuation of the Second World War.
Beyond Eastern Europe, revolutionary nihilists were attempting to make more Cubas in Latin America, while a Communist regime in China killed at least 20 million of its own citizens through the collectivization program known as the Great Leap Forward. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese Communists—as ruthless a group of people as the 20th century produced—murdered perhaps tens of thousands of their own citizens before the first American troops arrived in Vietnam. People forget that it was, in part, an idealistic sense of mission that helped draw us into that conflict—the same well of idealism that helped us fight World War II and that motivated our interventions in the Balkans in the 1990s. Those who fervently supported intervention in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia yet fail to comprehend the similar logic that led us into Vietnam are bereft of historical memory.
In Vietnam, America’s idealism collided head-on with the military limitations imposed by a difficult geography. This destroyed the political consensus in the United States about how the Cold War should be waged. Reviewing Kissinger’s book Ending the Vietnam War (2003), the historian and journalist Evan Thomas implied that the essence of Kissinger’s tragedy was that he was perennially trying to gain membership in a club that no longer existed. That club was “the Establishment,” a term that began to go out of fashion during the nation’s Vietnam trauma. The Establishment comprised all the great and prestigious personages of business and foreign policy—all male, all Protestant, men like John J. McCloy and Charles Bohlen—whose influence and pragmatism bridged the gap between the Republican and Democratic Parties at a time when Communism was the enemy, just as Fascism had recently been. Kissinger, a Jew who had escaped the Holocaust, was perhaps the club’s most brilliant protégé. His fate was to step into the vortex of foreign policy just as the Establishment was breaking up over how to extricate the country from a war that the Establishment itself had helped lead the country into.
Kissinger became President Richard Nixon’s national-security adviser in January of 1969, and his secretary of state in 1973. As a Harvard professor and “Rockefeller Republican,” Kissinger was distrusted by the anti-intellectual Republican right wing. (Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was slipping into the de facto quasi-isolationism that would soon be associated with George McGovern’s “Come Home, America” slogan.) Nixon and Kissinger inherited from President Lyndon Johnson a situation in which almost 550,000 American troops, as well as their South Vietnamese allies (at least 1 million soldiers all told), were fighting a similar number of North Vietnamese troops and guerrillas. On the home front, demonstrators—drawn in large part from the nation’s economic and educational elite—were demanding that the United States withdraw all its troops virtually immediately.
Some prominent American protesters even visited North Vietnam to publicly express solidarity with the enemy. The Communists, in turn, seduced foreign supporters with soothing assurances of Hanoi’s willingness to compromise. When Charles de Gaulle was negotiating a withdrawal of French troops from Algeria in the late 1950s and early 1960s (as Kissinger records in Ending the Vietnam War), the Algerians knew that if they did not strike a deal with him, his replacement would certainly be more hard-line. But the North Vietnamese probably figured the opposite—that because of the rise of McGovernism in the Democratic Party, Nixon and Kissinger were all that stood in the way of American surrender. Thus, Nixon and Kissinger’s negotiating position was infinitely more difficult than de Gaulle’s had been.
Kissinger found himself caught between liberals who essentially wanted to capitulate rather than negotiate, and conservatives ambivalent about the war who believed that serious negotiations with China and the Soviet Union were tantamount to selling out. Both positions were fantasies that only those out of power could indulge.
Further complicating Kissinger’s problem was the paramount assumption of the age—that the Cold War would have no end, and therefore regimes like those in China and the Soviet Union would have to be dealt with indefinitely. Hitler, a fiery revolutionary, had expended himself after 12 bloody years. But Mao Zedong and Leonid Brezhnev oversaw dull, plodding machines of repression that were in power for decades—a quarter century in Mao’s case, and more than half a century in Brezhnev’s. Neither regime showed any sign of collapse. Treating Communist China and the Soviet Union as legitimate states, even while Kissinger played China off against the Soviet Union and negotiated nuclear-arms agreements with the latter, did not constitute a sellout, as some conservatives alleged. It was, rather, a recognition of America’s “eternal and perpetual interests,” to quote Palmerston, refitted to an age threatened by thermonuclear war.
In the face of liberal capitulation, a conservative flight from reality, and North Vietnam’s relentlessness, Kissinger’s task was to withdraw from the region in a way that did not betray America’s South Vietnamese allies. In doing so, he sought to preserve America’s powerful reputation, which was crucial for dealing with China and the Soviet Union, as well as the nations of the Middle East and Latin America. Sir Michael Howard, the eminent British war historian, notes that the balance-of-power ethos to which Kissinger subscribes represents the middle ground between “optimistic American ecumenicism” (the basis for many global-disarmament movements) and the “war culture” of the American Wild West (in recent times associated with President George W. Bush). This ethos was never cynical or amoral, as the post–Cold War generation has tended to assert. Rather, it evinced a timeless and enlightened principle of statesmanship.