WASHINGTON — Henry Kissinger, who helped steer Vietnam policy during the war's darkest years, said Wednesday he is convinced that "most of what went wrong in Vietnam we did to ourselves" – beginning with underestimating the tenacity of North Vietnamese leaders.
Offering a somber assessment of the conflict, which ended in 1975 with the humiliating fall of Saigon, Kissinger lamented the anguish that engulfed a generation of Americans as the war dragged on.
And he said the core problem for the U.S. was that its central objective of preserving an independent, viable South Vietnamese state was unachievable – and that the U.S. adversary was unbending.
"America wanted compromise," he said. "Hanoi wanted victory."
Kissinger spoke at a State Department conference on the history of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. The department in recent months has published a series of reports, based on newly declassified documents, covering U.S. decision-making on Vietnam in the final years of the war.
Kissinger was national security adviser and secretary of state under President Richard M. Nixon and continued in the role of chief diplomat during the administration of President Gerald R. Ford.
In introducing Kissinger, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton – who opposed the war as a college student and has written that she held contradictory feelings about expressing her opposition – spoke in broad terms about how the conflict influenced her generation's view of the world.
"Like everyone in those days, I had friends who enlisted – male friends who enlisted – were drafted, resisted, or became conscientious objectors; many long, painful, anguished conversations," she said. "And yet, the lessons of that era continue to inform the decisions we make."
Kissinger offered a more personal, extensive assessment of the war that killed more than 58,000 U.S. servicemen.
He said he regretted that what should have been straightforward disagreements over the U.S. approach to Vietnam became "transmuted into a moral issue – first about the moral adequacy of American foreign policy altogether and then into the moral adequacy of America."
"To me, the tragedy of the Vietnam war was not that there were disagreements – that was inevitable, given the complexity of the (conflict) – but that the faith of Americans in each other became destroyed in the process," he said.
He called himself "absolutely unreconstructed" on that point.
"I believe that most of what went wrong in Vietnam we did to ourselves," he said, adding, "I would have preferred another outcome – at least another outcome that was not so intimately related to the way that we tore ourselves apart."
In hindsight, Kissinger said, it is clear just how steadfast the North Vietnamese communists were in their goal of unification of the North and the South, having defeated their French colonial rulers in 1954.
Historians are coming to the same conclusion.
In his account of the conflict, "Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975," military historian John Prados wrote, "The (North) had a well-defined goal – reunification of the country – and an absolute belief in its cause."
Kissinger credited his North Vietnamese adversary in the peace negotiations – Le Duc Tho – with skillfully and faithfully carrying out his government's instructions to outmaneuver the Americans.
"He operated on us like a surgeon with a scalpel – with enormous skill," Kissinger said.
Washington and Hanoi signed a peace accord in January 1973, and Kissinger and Tho were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace prize that year for their role in the negotiation. Tho declined the award.
The peace accords provided a way out of Vietnam for the U.S., but it left South Vietnam vulnerable to a communist takeover.
"We knew it was a precarious agreement," Kissinger said, and that the conflict was not really over. But Washington also was convinced that the South Vietnamese could hold off the communists, barring an all-out invasion.
Kissinger joked that his long negotiating sessions with Tho took a heavy and lasting toll.
"I would look a lot better if I had never met him," he said.
A flavor of the negotiating difficulties is revealed in a newly declassified transcript of a meeting between Kissinger and Tho in Paris on May 21, 1973, in which they discussed problems implementing the peace accords.
"We have been meeting for only 45 minutes and already you have totally confused us," Kissinger told Tho.
To which Tho replied: "No, you are not confused yourself. You make the problem confused."
Most recent volume of State Department reports on Vietnam: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2010/09/147900.htm