TO BE the single most vilified individual in Henry's Kissinger's new memoirs is, if not exactly an honor, then at least a distinction. The bearer of this opprobrium -- he is described variously as "outrageous," "egregious" and "obnoxious" -- is a Vietnamese named Hoang Duc Nha, now an engineer for General Electric and formerly a close adviser to South Vietnam's President Nguyen Van Thieu. Nha's disputable role came during the hectic months of sumer and fall, 1972, when Kissinger was cobbling together what became known as the Paris Peace Accords -- the agreements that ostensibly ended the was but in fact merely permitted American withdrawal.
Kissinger blames Nha for delaying the progress of those accords once their terms had been basicaly set in secret talks with North Vietnam. Moreover, according to Kissinger, Nha was consistently rude and devious, with an ability to infuriate his American interlocutors that was clearly formidable. Kissinger writes:
"America had to take some responsibility for the egregious Nha. He was in his early thirties; he had been educated in the United States and in the process had seen too many movies of sharp young men succeeding by their wits; he came on like the early Alan Ladd in a gangster role. He was dressed in the fanciest Hollywood style, spoke American English fluently and had retained from his Vietnamese background only an infinite capacity for intrigue. He reinforced Thieu's inherent suspiciousness. Both [Ambassador Ellsworth] Bunker and I were convinced that he did much mischief in exacerbating every misunderstanding."
After reading this I decided to search out Nha, whom I knew in Saigon in the early 1970s', and get something of his side as well as finding out about his life now. Regardless of what one thought of them at the time, it had to be conceded that our South Vietnamese allies were correct in their abiding fears that the Paris accords would bring them no good. Kissinger implicitly denies that he was responsible for the term "decent interval" to describe the period between an American pullout and North Vietnamese takeover. But Thieu, Nha and other savvy Southerners felt then, and in Nha's case still contend, that an "elegant bug-out," "a fig leaf," was all the United States really wanted out of its negotiatons with the communists.
Indeed, the real issue for us in Vietnam was how to get the hell out. The issue for people like Nha was survival of their benighted country as a sovereign land. By that measure, we won and they lost.
I reached Nha by telephone and we agreed to meet in New York, where he works for the export sales and services division of GE. Nha is big for a Vietnamese, taller and stockier than most. In his Saigon salad days, when he was Thieu's press secretary and therefore an important contact for an American reporter, I remember him as being taller then I was. Now, on a crowded street in midtown Manhattan, I discover that he is actually a good deal shorter.I remember Nha's manner as haughty; this time he greets me warmly, even gratefully.
Nha, like so many other Vietnamese, fled in 1975. He joined GE two years later and commutes two hours a day from Stamford, Conn., where his wife and three children live in a condominium. He takes an immigrant's considerable pride in having his family well settled and in the fact that he recently received a promotion. To his colleagues and neighbors, Nha says, he is just another Vietnamese. No one holds his background against him.
"We live in an Italian neighborhood," Nha says. "There are battles for the kids over who invented spaghetti. We insist Marco Polo brought noodles back from the Orient." His sons are in the Boy Scouts. His daughter takes music lessons.
So how does Nha feel now about being presented as despicable in what will doubtless be an authoritative record of the time?
"He gives me too much credit," Nha says with a smile, adding: I take it as a compliment . . . Mr. Kissinger being the imperturbable, me extracting such reactions from him. That is quite a feat."
Nha's own account of what his role really was is modest to the point of probably being disengenuous: "As a good and efficient staffer of Mr. Thieu I only performed my duties to the fullest and as a Vietnamese in a critical moment, I outperformed myself in telling Mr. Thieu what were the pros and cons of everything concerning peace . . ."
In fact, despite his youth and nominal portfolio, press secretary and later minister of information, those of us in Saigon sensed that Nha was increasingly influential with his boss.The very quality of arrogance which drove Kissinger up the wall -- a deep, cleareyed skepticism about U.S. motives -- evidently became Nha's biggest asset as the United States bore down on Thieu for a settlement. Toughness was necessary, Nha relates, because in his eagerness to get a pact, Kissinger was inclined to trample on South Vietnamese sensitivities.
For instance, at a critical meeting on Oct. 19, 1972, according to Nha, when Kissinger presented a draft agreement accepted by Hanoi and scheduled to go into effect only a few days later, Thieu and his aides were dumfounded that the text presented was in English and markedly different from the draft Bunker had led them to expect.
"There was no version in Vietnamese until we asked for it," Nha reports. "I was joking with Mr. Theiu that if our opposition knew we were negotiating the fate of our country in a document in English, that would be very bad; just like asking the Israelis to negotiate their peace treaty in an Arabic text . . .
"And when we were handed that draft agreement which really had nothing to do with the other one Bunker gave to us, we were very surprised. But we kept our cool and Kissinger made the presentation. We listened to him politely and we just chatted. He said this was the best agreement we could get and that by signing this, the North Vietnamese will have accepted the collapse of their positions, a great thing for Vietnam and on and on.
"We said fine, we're going to examine it. We went to lunch and I was given the assignment of poring over the text in English and at 3 o'clock we had the National Security Council convene and I told the assembly that in the space of two hour of reading the text in English, these are the major points I picked up."
Kissinger and Nha's times for the session do not coincide, but Kissinger does acknowledge that the next day Nha "went through a list of extremely intelligent questions" which subsequently formed the basis for Saigon's demand that the accord be renegotiated. Over the next three months some changes were made but the fundamental accord remained the same. Kissinger was puzzled over Thieu's "inability to grasp [the] opportunity" for peace.
Nha explains why Thieu and he were stalling:
"I thought the moment a peace agreement was signed we'd have more trouble, because, given the general nature of Comunist activities in our area, there was for us more danger in peace than war.
"But we were also pragmatic. We knew from the beginning that we'd have to give in, that the process was irreversible. We held out for as long as possible and then we hoped for a new basis of support from the U.S. government. We thought Nixon could tell the Congress, 'Look, these guys were willing to work out a peace accord. We should support them because the economy is a shambles and a lot of other things are wrong.'"
That never happened, of course, and on this point, Kissinger and Nha fully agree: Watergate and Nixon's political weakness intervened. In the absence of substantial assistance from the United States, as assured in the peace bargaining, Nha admits that Saigon's confidence snapped. "With Nixon's resignation," he says, "we knew that we were in a very, very difficult situation."
"Outrageous," "egregious" and "obnoxious"Hoang Duc Nha may have been, but in guessing the dire consequences for his country of Henry Kissinger's determined bid for peace, Nha was right on the mark.