‘Kissinger’s Betrayal’: New Book Explains Why South Vietnam Fell

‘Kissinger’s Betrayal’: New Book Explains Why South Vietnam Fell
U.S. soldiers carry a wounded comrade through a swampy area during the Vietnam War in 1969. (National Archives/AFP/Getty Images)
Bradley A. Thayer

Analyses of the U.S. failure in Vietnam seem to have a target-rich environment for obloquy and blame for strategic malpractice. There are two fundamental debates: first, whether the United States could have won the conflict; second, who was to blame for the loss.

Often blamed are President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara for their conduct of the war, U.S. Army Gen. William Westmoreland for his strategy from 1964–68, or Congress for denying funding for U.S. involvement after 1973. Others tout the purported military effectiveness of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the alleged paucity of the effectiveness of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the lack of U.S. resolve, the anti-war movement on the U.S. homefront, or the determination of North Vietnamese government.

Stephen B. Young has produced a major new book, “Kissinger’s Betrayal: How America Lost the Vietnam War” (RealClearPublishing, 2023), that contributes to both debates. Reading his analysis, it’s clear that South Vietnam was becoming stronger and that nothing was inevitable about the U.S. defeat; second, it centers responsibility for defeat on President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and later secretary of state, Henry Kissinger.

While Kissinger rightfully has been faulted before, Young provided detailed historical documents as “smoking guns” for his argument that Kissinger betrayed Nixon, U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker, and South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu. This perfidy set the stage for the success of the North Vietnamese conquest of South Vietnam in April 1975. It occurred on May 31, 1971, during his secret negotiations with North Vietnamese leadership when Kissinger made a major military concession that, while the United States would withdraw from South Vietnam, it wouldn’t require North Vietnam to withdraw its forces.

Consequently, the PAVN remained in South Vietnam, facilitating the conquest of the South. This concession was made informally to Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin in a private meeting on Jan. 9, 1971—no doubt the Soviets conveyed this to their North Vietnamese allies.

Kissinger conceded that the North could keep its forces in South Vietnam, but for it, he received nothing. That Kissinger made this major concession to Dobrynin and later to the North Vietnamese before the Nixon policy of Vietnamization could have an effect is appalling. It was also made while the success of CORDS (Civil Operation and Rural Development Support) and the Phoenix program—aimed at rooting out communist spies and agents of influence—were clear, so it was all the more stunning. Each of those efforts stabilized South Vietnam and might have led to victory, but Kissinger had already thrown in the towel.

Kissinger’s acts were a betrayal of the administration, his president, the U.S. military, and the South Vietnamese, who were demonstrating the ability to resist successfully PAVN forces—backed by U.S. advisers and airpower—as they would in 1972, when they defeated the North’s Easter offensive. U.S. airpower in South Vietnam, and air campaigns against the North, Freedom Train and Linebacker I, interdicted North Vietnamese logistics, but it was the ARVN that outfought the PAVN. Kissinger had fatally wounded the South’s ability to defend itself absent U.S. support through his unilateral concession, in which he hoped, as he made explicit in his memoirs, that a negotiated settlement would give the South a chance to survive while leaving its future to a historical process. In other words, it would allow the United States to withdraw and have a decent interval before the South fell.

Young is clear that Vietnamization was succeeding and was ultimately doing so because of its deep roots in Vietnamese identity, nationalism, and culture. Due to the success of Vietnamization, the South had a military, political, and economic vitality that provided a future as a successful state even after the departure of its American allies. South Vietnamese nationalism and identity were becoming stronger, which, for Young, was the key to the ability to resist the North more effectively.

North Vietnamese leader Le Duan knew that, too, and Young noted that he needed U.S. help in sabotaging the ability of South Vietnamese nationalists to resist. Kissinger provided that for the North. Thieu’s greatest fear was that the United States would leave Vietnam with the North still in possession of bases in the South. As the French had accommodated the communists in 1954, so, too, would the United States. Thus, he provided the communists the incentive to try again, this time with a running start and in the most fortuitous circumstances. In 1975, the invasion worked beyond their expectations, as the North anticipated that it might take two years to execute a successful conventional conquest of the South.

Demonstrators take part in a nationwide protest against the Vietnam War in Washington on Oct. 15, 1969. (AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators take part in a nationwide protest against the Vietnam War in Washington on Oct. 15, 1969. (AFP/Getty Images)

That the Vietnam War was a war of conquest for the North from its outset is well documented by Young. His analysis is based on North Vietnamese documents, including Le Duan’s 1958 orders to start an insurgency in the South and the November 1960 cable to cadres in South Vietnam to launch the National Liberation Front. The documents make clear that the North intended to conquer the South. But they failed throughout the 1960s. Young makes clear—as the eminent historian of the Vietnam War, Mark Moyar, does, too, in his excellent books that serve as important complements to Young’s—that South Vietnamese and U.S. strength checked the North’s ambitions. This study is an excellent review of the history of U.S. involvement in the war, from Washington’s support of the French to its end in 1975.

Young doesn’t refrain from blaming South Vietnamese leaders where warranted. For example, Thieu is blamed for his disastrous orders to abandon the Central Highlands for the coast, which led to panic and the final collapse of the ARVN in 1975.

Kissinger allowed the North to remain in South Vietnam and build up its forces for a new and ultimately successful invasion two years after the United States left. Young demonstrated the duplicity of Kissinger toward his president and the leader of South Vietnam. That defeat was a betrayal of the South Vietnamese people, the American people, and the Americans killed, wounded, and missing in the war and the war’s many veterans. The legacy of this betrayal echoes today as it contributed to public distrust of the government and burdened U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. military for a generation.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Bradley A. Thayer is a founding member of the Committee on Present Danger China and the coauthor with Lianchao Han of “Understanding the China Threat” and the coauthor with James Fanell of “Embracing Communist China: America’s Greatest Strategic Failure.”
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