A History of America's Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War

By Henry Kissinger

Simon & Schuster. 563 pp. Paperback, $18

This book, the product of years of writing and thinking on the Vietnam War, is by far Henry Kissinger's most comprehensive defense of Nixon administration policies in Indochina. Drawing on four of his previously published works and adding new material, Kissinger argues that President Richard Nixon pursued the diplomatic and military strategies he did in Indochina because there were no other options.

The Nixon White House faced one basic problem in constructing its withdrawal strategy: how to secure from Hanoi the release of American prisoners of war in exchange for a U.S. troop withdrawal before Congress cut funding for the war. Nixon also needed to give South Vietnam time to develop its military capabilities in the face of an inevitable challenge from the communists.

There were also some delicate matters of domestic political perception. The Nixon administration's goal was to withdraw from Vietnam as a matter of policy, not because of domestic pressure, and without threatening other national obligations. This was accomplished, Kissinger writes, through skillful diplomacy and the adroit application of military force. He implies that by using a stick -- expanding the war into Laos and Cambodia and intensifying the bombing of North Vietnam -- as well as the carrot of American withdrawal and postwar reconstruction aid, Nixon forced concessions from Hanoi that eventually led to an honorable peace.

If there were failings in Vietnam, Kissinger concludes, they were not his own. Unlike some other Vietnam-era policymakers, he accepts none of the responsibility for the debacle. He is, however, quick to blame others. The reckless liberalism of Kennedy and Johnson did just enough to get America deep into the quagmire of Vietnam, but not enough to make a difference militarily. Congress, too, was at fault: By the time Nixon took office in 1969, Kissinger writes, war-weary senators introduced resolutions on an almost daily basis to limit American involvement in Indochina, moves that undercut administration objectives and challenged fundamental principles of U.S. foreign policy.

One of Kissinger's favorite targets is the liberal press, which he claims was biased against Nixon, launching unfair attacks that played into North Vietnam's hands by creating a hostile climate at home and abroad for administration policies. Kissinger also finds fault with the North Vietnamese, who refused to compromise in Paris. Our allies in Saigon were also to blame for prolonging the war unnecessarily. When it was time to negotiate with Hanoi, they balked. Even Nixon is at fault, because flaws in his personality allowed domestic politics -- namely Watergate -- to interfere with his important foreign-policy agenda. But Kissinger saves his harshest attacks for the antiwar movement. In a bizarre passage blaming college students for much that went wrong in Vietnam, he writes that protesters were "encouraged by modern psychiatry and the radical chic rhetoric of upper middle-class suburbia."

Critics should line up against this book in droves. Some will challenge Kissinger's conclusion that expanding the war into neutral Laos and Cambodia and intensifying the bombing of North Vietnam "speeded the end of the war and saved lives." Others will dismiss Kissinger's "peace with honor" claims, suggesting instead that the United States abandoned its South Vietnamese allies. The 1973 Paris Peace Agreement that Kissinger signed left nearly 100,000 North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam. The agreement therefore provided little more than a decent interval between the American withdrawal and the communist takeover in South Vietnam. Many -- myself among them -- will condemn Kissinger's suggestion that Congress should simply go along with the president during foreign-policy crises. And almost all readers will find Kissinger's racial stereotyping of the Vietnamese offensive. Of North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho, he writes, "His Vietnamese heritage expressed itself in an obsessive suspicion that he might somehow be tricked." U.S. allies in Saigon are treated no better. According to Kissinger, South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu had a "morbid suspiciousness" that was a "quintessential Vietnamese trait."

It is difficult to see past the mean-spirited nature of much of this book, but if readers give Kissinger a chance, there is a great deal to learn here about Nixon and how the president constructed his Indochina policy. Kissinger's analysis of the secret negotiations in Paris is valuable, as is his discussion of U.S. relations with China and the Soviet Union. It may take decades before an American audience is ready for a dispassionate critique of the Nixon administration's role in Vietnam. Until then, as this book makes clear, scholarship on the Nixon years will remain an extension of the war itself. *

Robert K. Brigham is professor of history at Vassar College and author of "Guerrilla Diplomacy: The NLF's Foreign Relations and the Vietnam War." He has also co-authored, with Robert S. McNamara and James G. Blight, "Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy."

President Nixon with Henry Kissinger in 1972