Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, has spent most of his life collecting honors. He carried home the Nobel Peace Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Honorary Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George, and many other prizes, awards, and medals.
He has been honored for two things: establishing relations with the People’s Republic of China and negotiating peace in Vietnam. Next month is the fiftieth anniversary of the former, so it is a good time to take a cold look at both these events.
The opening to China
Kissinger was not the mastermind behind the opening to China. It was Nixon’s idea and Kissinger made fun of it behind his back. Kissinger aide Alexander Haig relates, “In the second week of the administration, Henry came back from the Oval Office and said to me, ‘Al, this madman wants to normalize our relations with China.’ And he laughed.” By late summer of 1969, Kissinger still didn’t understand Nixon’s idea. White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman told him, “You know, [Nixon] actually seriously intends to visit China before the end of the second term.” Kissinger replied, “Fat chance.” Later, Kissinger would insist he and Nixon got the idea at the same time.
Nixon called his 1972 visit to China with Kissinger, “the week that changed the world” and “a breakthrough.”
It wasn’t a breakthrough of vision, though, because Nixon and Kissinger were just acknowledging what any newspaper reader already knew: first, the Chinese Revolution defeated Chiang Kai-Shek’s army in 1949 and had been governing China for two decades, and second, if the United States tried to help Chiang Kai-Shek with his fantasy of conquering mainland China, it would fail and likely start a nuclear war.
Nor was it a breakthrough for Nixon against domestic opposition — because there wasn’t any. During the heyday of 1950s McCarthyism, a group known as the China Lobby backed Chiang Kai-Shek and red-baited those who disagreed. Young Richard Nixon joined the Lobby, proclaiming himself “America’s Greatest Enemy of Communism.” As Vice President in 1953, he was the highest-ranking China Lobbyist in the U.S. government.
Sixteen years later, though, when Nixon became President, the China Lobby was a spent force. In 1969, Chiang Kai-Shek was eighty-two and his fighting days were over. The China Lobbyists in Congress, starting with Senator Joseph McCarthy, had died, been replaced, retired, or lost interest in the cause. Its three key business backers had died, too.
The cliché — “Only Nixon could go to China” — meant that given his belligerent career, no one could accuse Nixon of being soft on China. It didn’t make much sense, though, since there was no one left from the China Lobby to make accusations.
In reality, the opening to China was about the Vietnam War. When Nixon ran for president in 1968, he promised “Peace with Honor.” After he won, it became clear that by honor, he meant victory.
Part of his plan was to make a deal with China in which the United States would normalize relations with China and accept Taiwan as a province of the People’s Republic of China. In exchange, China would pressure North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government in South Vietnam to agree to U.S. terms for peace. This is what Nixon meant when he wrote “Taiwan = Vietnam = tradeoff” on his yellow pad before meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972.
In 1971, Nixon sent Kissinger on a secret mission to Beijing to lay the groundwork for a presidential visit. As Kissinger’s trip approached, both he and Nixon got excited about the prospects for a deal. Kissinger told Nixon, “Mr. President, I have not said this before, but I think if we get this thing working, we will end Vietnam this year.”
In public, Nixon described the opening to China with phrases like “a structure for world peace,” and “a generation of peace.” He was more candid in the White House. Before leaving for Beijing, Nixon told his Cabinet, “It isn’t about China, and it isn’t about Russia. It is about South Vietnam.”
Nixon was so confident he considered insisting on Chinese agreement to his trade-off before he committed to going there. He told Alexander Haig and Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, “. . . there can’t be a presidential visit to China as long as they’re supporting North Vietnam. So that’s the deal. It’s got to be a straight cold-turkey deal on that.” He later thought better of his idea.
In Beijing, Nixon and Kissinger met briefly with Chairman Mao Zedong. The ailing Chinese leader insisted they only discuss “philosophical” topics and conduct business with Premier Zhou Enlai. Nixon later described Zhou as “the greatest statesman of our era.” He and Kissinger soon learned Zhou was also a formidable negotiator.
The first agenda item, Taiwan, was relatively easy. On his previous visits, Kissinger had already told Zhou the United States was ready to acknowledge Taiwan as a province of the People’s Republic of China, and thus give up on Chiang Kai-Shek’s ambition to rule both Taiwan and mainland China. Without those concessions, normalization of relations with Beijing would have been impossible and so would further talks on any subject.
On the other item in the proposed trade-off, Vietnam, they found Zhou to be unyielding.
He told the two Americans, “Why not give this up? You should adopt a most courageous attitude and withdraw. If the war in Vietnam and the other two countries of Indochina [Laos and Cambodia] does not stop, no matter what form it continues in, it will be impossible to relax tensions in the Far East. We will, of course, continue our aid to them. We do not have the right to interfere in their position nor put forward various stands. We have no right to negotiate for them.”
Kissinger and Nixon kept coming back to the topic from different angles, but Zhou would not budge.
After five days of negotiations with Zhou, they discussed the wording of a joint communiqué. Nixon saw clearly what had happened. He told Zhou, “Obviously what will be said, even with a skillful communiqué, is what the People’s Republic of China wanted from us was movement on Taiwan and it got it; and what we wanted was help on Vietnam, and we got nothing.”
After returning to Washington empty-handed, Nixon turned bitter. He told Kissinger and Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, “The China thing was important from one standpoint only: hope. Getting to know you, all that bullshit. The American people are suckers. Gray Middle America, they’re suckers.”
Paris Peace Agreement on Vietnam
At the Vietnam peace talks in Paris, Henry Kissinger again faced brilliant diplomats on the opposite side of the table. They were Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy for North Vietnam, and Nguyen Thi Binh for the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam.
The United States goal had always been to create in South Vietnam a stable client state, obedient to Washington. Vietnam’s goals had been summarized by Ho Chi Minh in two sentences. “The U.S. imperialists will certainly have to quit. Our Fatherland will certainly be reunified.”
When years of Paris negotiations finally produced the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, it included a cease-fire, withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, dismantling of all U.S. bases, and the release of military and foreign civilian prisoners by all sides, among other things.
It meant the achievement of Ho’s first goal, which made the achievement of his second goal inevitable. Again, Henry Kissinger walked away empty-handed.
The success of the Vietnamese negotiators in Paris was all the more remarkable because of four additional obstacles they had to navigate: First, the two nations providing them the most supplies and equipment, the Soviet Union and China, were locked in bitter political and military conflict with one another. Second, the Soviet Union had entered its “Era of Stagnation” under Leonid Brezhnev with a faltering economy and weak leadership. Third, China was still trying to recover from the internal chaos of its Cultural Revolution. And fourth, with Mao’s health failing, Chinese politics were becoming preoccupied by the matter of who would succeed him.
Columbia University historian Lien-Hang T. Nguyen used unprecedented access to Vietnamese archives to prepare her 2012 book, Hanoi’s War. She concluded —
The key to Hanoi’s ultimate success in the war lay not in launching general offensives or even winning hearts and minds in South Vietnam; rather, it resided with its world relations campaign aimed at procuring the support of antiwar movements around the world.
In the end, Hanoi’s radical relations – fueled by the global antiwar movement taking place in the streets of Washington and Paris, Havana, and Algiers, and even New Delhi and Tehran – as well as its shrewd small-power diplomacy, managed to blunt not only Saigon’s regional relations but also, and more important, Washington’s superpower diplomacy. This is perhaps the greatest legacy of Hanoi’s war.
Henry Kissinger once summed himself up this way: “I’ve always acted alone. Americans like that immensely. Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into the town with his horse and nothing else.”
He didn’t mention that on the defining issues of his career, China and Vietnam, he also rode out of the town with his horse and nothing else.