Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Vietnam Summit at the LBJ Library, Day 1

Dr Henry Kissiner at the LBJ School of Public Affairs Auditorium, during the Vietnam War Summit, 26 April 2016.
Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser during the Nixon Administration, called the violation of the Peace Treaty with North Vietnam and the subsequent invasion of the South "one of the saddest moments of my life." Kissinger spoke Tuesday evening (26 April 2016) as part of the ongoing Vietnam War Summit being held at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library at the University of Texas at Austin. Afternoon sessions included a panel on the Battle of La Drang moderated by Joseph L. Galloway.

Larry Temple, chairman of the LBJ Foundation Board of Trustees introduced and welcomed Dr Kissinger.

"LBJ would have wanted this summit," Temple said, and he quoted President Johnson: "'It's all here, the story of our time—with the bark off. There is no record of a mistake, or an unpleasantness or a criticism, that is not included in the files here.' His greatest failure was not achieving peace in Vietnam."

The presidential library houses the papers from Johnson's time in office. "These include criticisms of decisions and actions that were taken fifty years ago. There should be no record of a mistake or criticism that is not included in this forum.

"It is my honor and my privilege to introduce my friend Dr Henry Kissinger."

Dr Kissinger at 92 walks slowly, and his trademark gravely voice and German accent have both thickened over the years, making him a little harder to understand than when he advised Richard Nixon.

Mark K. Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library, interviewed Kissinger and served as moderator when audience members asked questions. Updegrove is also a historian and author who has published books on the presidency: Second Acts: Presidential Lives And Legacies After The White House (2001); Baptism by Fire: Eight Presidents Who Took Office in Times of Crisis (2009); and Indomitable Will (2012).

"It is a pleasure to be here," Kissinger said, "and to participate in a conference that gives room for debate about vietnam."

Although Kissinger was still a professor at Harvard, he had a secret channel of communication that he offered to the Johnson Administration so the United States could talk about peace. This channel broadened when he joined the Nixon White House as Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, and it also eventually allowed Nixon to open relations with China.

"We've been involved in five wars since World War Two," Kissinger said. "We entered each of these wars with a wide public consensus. There was 80% support at the commencement. but after some time, people tend to say we need an exit strategy.

"If you cannot describe an objective you should not get in it. When we started in Vietnam, it was a reasonable objective."

Updegrove asked Kissinger what he thought of Johnson's foreign policy.

"He did not know the foreign leaders as well as domestic politicians," Kissinger said, "so foreign policy did not come to him as naturally as domestic policies."

Updegrove mentioned a National Security memo that Kissinger had written, and on that memo Nixon had written by hand that the "US has controlled Vietnam's and Cambodia's airspace for ten years, but what good has it done?"

"What did you make of Nixon's response?"

"I had known President Nixon for five or ten years," Kissinger said, "and I had a tendency to wait and see if there would be a follow-up." There was general laughter in the audience although Kissinger was not seeking to mock Nixon. "I think Nixon might have exaggerated when he said that in a note, written probably late at night," Kissinger added, to more general laughter. "There are lots of these documents with these sorts of notes that are floating around. I had a very clear idea of what he wanted [without having to respond to spontaneous requests and observations]. The most important thing a National Security Adviser can do is to tell the president his options."

Updegrove then allowed audience members to pose questions to Kissinger.

"There are many who allege that you are  a war criminal due to systematic carpet bombing of Vietnam and Laos," one audience member asked. "Why was that bombing necessary?"

Kissinger denied that there was any carpet bombing, and he reacted visibly and sometimes audibly whenever he felt that historical details of the audience were inaccurate.

"The claim of carpet bombing was not true," he said. "The North Vietnamese moved four divisions into the border areas of Vietnam and Cambodia, and eventually launched attacks into Vietnam. The troops were deliberately put there before an attack."

"When Nixon came in," he said, "he sent a message to the Vietnamese that he was eager to negotiate."

But Nixon firmly believed in negotiating from a position of strength, and he ordered attacks on base areas within five miles of Vietnamese borders.

The spectre of Robert McNamara arose various times through the day. McNamara was on his way to becoming CEO of Ford Motor Company when newly elected President John Kennedy pressed him to become his Secretary of Defense. McNamara had a reputation for understanding and managing complex systems of logistics, which made him a perfect fit for Defense. After Kennedy's assassination, Johnson asked the Cabinet to stay with him and to stay the course established by Kennedy.

Yet McNamara's logical mind conflicted with his intuitive feelings against war. "To the end of his life," Updegrove said, "Robert McNamara regretted the war. The war was futile. Combat was terribly wrong."

"The American presidents," Kissinger said, "and those of us who dealt with them were acting in good faith at the time. ... I'm proud of Bob McNamara. He was a really good friend of mine. I have good regard for him," but Kissinger did not agree with him.

Updegrove asked Kissinger what was the biggest lesson we should learn from Vietnam. Kissinger said that the dilemma of American foreign policy is that Americans tend to think that peace is the normal condition among people, and when there is war they are overly eager to become involved to try to end it.

Updegrove asked Kissinger about the upcoming presidential election. "You said that Hillary Clinton would make a good president, but you intend to support the Republican candidate. Do you still intend to support the Republican nominee?" Kissinger, perhaps in light of the course of the Republican campaign, did not answer.

An audience member asked if Kissinger thought the war on drugs was worth it, but again Kissinger did not formulate a clear response.

As both a player in and scholar of history, Kissinger has published numerous books, highlights of which include White House Years (1979); Years of Upheaval (1982); Diplomacy (1994); On China (2011); and World Order (2014).

Perhaps by chance, Dr Kissinger's exit music was The Supremes' "I Hear A Symphony."

Earlier in the afternoon during a panel discussion on The Battle of La Drang, moderator Joseph L. Galloway, co-author of We Were Soldiers Once... and Young, told the story of one of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's trips to Vietnam. President Johnson, noting casualties in Vietnam were much higher than anticipated, told McNamara in so many words "to get his butt over there" and find out what was going on.

After briefings from key military personnel McNamara on his return flight wrote a memo. When McNamara walked into the next Cabinet meeting, Johnson held McNamara's memo in his hand, and he was miffed.

"Bob," Johnson said, "do you mean no matter how many men I put in Vietnam I cannot win this war?"

McNamara shook his head. The North Vietnamese had already matched a recent American troop escalation, and would continue to do so. The Americans had reached a fork in the road: either they pulled the troops out and brought them home, or they escalated the troops and took the military stalemate to a much higher level of violence by giving Westmoreland the 200,000 additional troops for which he was asking.

Galloway's book, which he wrote with Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, was also made into a movie starring Mel Gibson as Moore.