Future historians will marvel at how U.S. leaders failed to learn from their horrific crimes in Indochina, and are instead repeating so many of them today.
"I saw my cousin die in the field of death. My heart was most disturbed and my voice called out loudly as I ran to the houses. Thus, I saw life and death for the people on account of the war of many airplanes. Until there were no houses at all. And the cows and buffalo were dead. Until everything was leveled and you could see only the red, red ground. I think of this time and still I am afraid."
-- A 33-year old Lao woman, describing life under U.S. bombing on the Plain of Jars in 1969.
Nothing more symbolizes how the temptations of how power can corrupt youthful values and idealism than Secretary Hillary Clinton's invitation to Henry Kissinger and Richard Holbrooke to keynote a major State Department conference on the history of the Indochina war. As an idealistic college student, Clinton protested Kissinger's mass murder of civilians in Indochina. She knows full well that had the international laws protecting civilians in war been applied to Kissinger's bombing of civilian targets in Indochina he would have been indicted for crimes of war.
But on Sept. 29 she will introduce Kissinger at the State Department Historian's conference, giving him a platform to continue 40 years of Orwellian deception in which he has sought to blame Congress for the fall of Indochina rather than accepting responsibility for his own massive miscalculations and indifference to human suffering.
Clinton has also invited Richard Holbrooke, who as State Department head of Afghanistan/Pakistan policy has learned nothing from history and is repeating precisely the same policies that caused the U.S. to lose in Indochina -- support of a corrupt and unpopular regime that cannot stand on its own. Inviting Holbrooke is particularly egregious, because following Obama's strategy review, according to Bob Woodward's new book. "Perhaps the most pessimistic view came from Richard Holbrooke. 'It can't work,' he said." Lacking even a fraction of the integrity and moral courage of a Daniel Ellsberg, however, Holbrooke continues to promote in public a policy he privately believes is doomed to fail.
Inviting Kissinger to keynote a conference on U.S. history in Indochina insults history, the memories of tens of thousands of Americans and countless Indochinese civilians who needlessly died as a result of his policies, the young people of America who desperately need to learn the truth about what occurred in Indochina so as not to repeat it, and all those who oppose indiscriminate mass murder of civilians.
Giving Kissinger and Holbrooke a platform also has important policy implications for the present.
An attempt is currently being made to build support for today's war-making in Afghanistan and Pakistan by claiming that the reason the U.S. lost Indochina was because it was "stabbed in the back" by a Congress that cut off aid to Thieu. This view is being articulated not only by Kissinger and other Nixon-era officials but a younger cadre of military officers, most notably Lt. Colonel Louis Sorley in his book A Better War -- which has been, according to the Wall Street Journal, "recommended in multiple lists put out by military officers, including a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who passed it out to his subordinates."
As President Obama was considering Afghan policy last fall, Newsweek reported that "Louis Sorley's book argues ... that the military was stabbed in the back by its civilian leaders ... the United States could have won in Vietnam if only the U.S. Congress hadn't cut off military aid to South Vietnam. The most surprising guidance Vietnam may have to offer (to Afghanistan) is not that wars of this kind are unwinnable but that they can produce victories if presidents resist the temptation to fight wars halfway or on the cheap."
Sorley's contention is absurd. The evidence is overwhelming that the Thieu regime lost to its enemies because it was a corrupt and unpopular police-state, and its troops were far less motivated to fight than those of the other side. U.S. military aid to Saigon in 1974-'75 was two to four times as great as Soviet and Chinese aid to the North Vietnamese, and the Thieu army was well supplied with ammunition and fuel up to the very end.
Kissinger's mistake in Vietnam, like the Obama/Petraeus policy in Afghanistan today, was to try and prop up an unpopular and corrupt government that could not stand on its own. It is not Congress but Kissinger and Presidents Ford and Nixon who bear the responsibility for the fall of Saigon.
Henry Kissinger's Record in Indochina
Henry Kissinger managed U.S. policy in Indochina as National Security Adviser for Richard Nixon and Secretary of State for Gerald Ford, from January 20 1969 until the fall of Saigon on April 30 1975. During this time Kissinger needlessly prolonged U.S. war-making in which 20,853 Americans were killed and an officially U.S.-estimated 7,860,013 Indochinese were murdered, maimed or made homeless. That's right. The policies Kissinger orchestrated created nearly eight million war victims, almost as much as the 8,745,207 Indochinese war victims created by Lyndon Johnson when 550,000 U.S. troops were based in South Vietnam.
Most of these U.S. and Indochinese lives could have been saved had Kissinger negotiated a deal with the North Vietnamese in 1969, as urged by Averill Harriman, Clark Clifford, Cyrus Vance and many others. Such a deal would also have allowed the U.S. to leave Vietnam with far more dignity than occurred with the total defeat of U.S.-supported forces in April 1975. (Note: Official U.S. statistics in this and succeeding paragraphs are taken from "Indochina War Statistics - Dollars and Deaths", Congressional Record, May 14 1975, pp. 14262-66.)
Kissinger orchestrated the most massive bombing in world history, dropping 3,984,563 million tons on an area inhabited by some 50 million people, twice the 2 million tons dropped on hundreds of millions through Europe and the Pacific in World War II. He dropped 1.6 million tons on South Vietnam, as many as Lyndon Johnson at the height of U.S. involvement; quadrupled the bombing of Laos, from 454,200 to 1,628,900 million tons; initiated widespread bombing of previously peaceful Cambodia, including B52 carpet bombing of undefended villages, for a total of 600,000-1 million tons; and vastly expanded the bombing of civilian targets in North Vietnam.
Much of this bombing struck civilian targets throughout Indochina.
In Laos, where I interviewed over 1,000 refugees from the Plain of Jars, every single one said their villages had been destroyed by U.S. bombing which escalated tremendously in 1969, and that the main victims were civilians because the soldiers could move through the thick forests largely undetected, while old people, mothers and children were forced to stay near their villages.
In Cambodia, Kissinger told Alexander Haig to undertake "a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies or anything that moves," the clearest possible violation of international law requiring the protection of civilians. Two million people in Khmer Rouge zones, as estimated by the U.S. Embassy, were driven underground by massive U.S. bombing that featured regular B52 carpet-bombing of undefended villages.
In North Vietnam, Kissinger conducted the most savage B52 bombing of urban targets in history, as the New York Times reported in 1972: "United States military leaders are being permitted to wage the air war as they want in Indochina. There appears to be less concern with the civilians this time in view of the freedom given the air commanders and the attempt to cut off food, clothing and medical supplies." Kissinger boasted to Richard Nixon, "It's wave after wave of planes. You see, they can't see the B52 and they dropped a million pounds of bombs ... I bet you we will have had more planes over there in one day than Johnson had in a month ... each plane can carry about 10 times the load of World War II plane could carry."
Kissinger orchestrated the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, a disastrous miscalculation that led directly to the Khmer Rouge takeover five years later. I visited Cambodia in April 1970, shortly after the U.S. supported Lon Nol in overthrowing Prince Sihanouk. U.S. Embassy officials then estimated there were no more than 100 Khmer Rouge, and were not even sure that Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan or Ieng Sary were alive. As William Shawcross described in Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia, it was Kissinger's overthrowing Sihanouk, supporting the corrupt and unpopular Lon Nol regime and massive bombing that created the Khmer Rouge and brought it to power. Kissinger then compounded his brutality by supporting the genocidal Khmer Rouge, telling the Thai Foreign Minister on November 26, 1975, that "you should also tell the Cambodians [i.e. Khmer Rouge government] that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won't let that stand in the way. We are prepared to improve relations with them. Tell them the latter part, but don't tell them what I said before." Had Nixon and Kissinger not invaded Cambodia there is no reason to believe the Khmer Rouge would ever have come to power.
Kissinger diverted billions of dollars in Food for Peace, meant to feed the starving, to the Thieu and Lon Nol armies.
He violated the U.S. constitution by secretly bombing Cambodia and Laos without Congressional authorization. And his representatives regularly perjured themselves before Congress, as when former U.S. Ambassador to Laos William Sullivan testified to the Kennedy Subcommittee on Refugees on April 22, 1971, that the U.S. only bombed military targets in Laos.
Who Lost Indochina: Kissinger or Congress?
"Had I thought it possible that Congress would, in effect, cut off aid to a beleaguered ally, I would not have pressed for an agreement as I did in the final negotiations in 1972."
-- Henry Kissinger, Ending the Vietnam War, 2003
"The Defense Department said today that despite Congressional reductions in military aid, South Vietnamese forces were not critically short of either ammunition or fuel."
-- "U.S. Says Arms Situation in Vietnam Is Not Critical," New York Times, March 27, 1975
Kissinger began to try to blame Congress for the fall of Saigon even before April 30, 1975. Sorley's book contends that the failure of the North Vietnamese spring 1972 offensive in South Vietnam proves that Thieu forces could have prevailed in April 1975. Newsweek, interviewing Sorley, reported that "in 1974, breaking Nixon's promises of continued support to Saigon, the U.S. Congress cut off all aid to South Vietnam. Without logistical support or air cover, the South Vietnamese army collapsed in 1975 and the communists swept into South Vietnam."
Former Defense Secretaries Melvin Laird and James Schlesinger, along with Kissinger, have consistently maintained the North Vietnamese were receiving more aid from the Soviet Union and Chinese than were the South Vietnamese from the United States.
None of this is even remotely true:
Congress did not "cut off all aid to South Vietnam," as Kissinger falsely claims. On the contrary. Congress in August 1974 only reduced military aid to Thieu from $1.2 billion to $700 million.
The $700 million in military aid voted by Congress "is apparently running at twice that of Chinese and Soviet military aid to North Vietnam," according to the New York Times on March 27, 1975. The CIA estimated that U.S. military aid of $1.7 billion to Thieu in 1974 was four times the $400 million it estimated the North Vietnamese received from the Soviet Union and China. All told, official figures show the U.S. spent $141 billion in Vietnam from 1961-'75, compared to $7.5-$8 billion in Soviet and Chinese aid to North Vietnam during the same period (Congressional Record, May 14, 1975, p. 14262).
Sorley's contention that the failure of the North Vietnamese 1972 offensive proved the Thieu army could stand on its own is particularly absurd. Sorley himself quotes General Creighton Abrams, the head of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, as saying "on this question of the B-52s and the tac air 'it's very clear to me that this (the Thieu) government would now have fallen, and this country would now be gone, and we wouldn't be meeting here today, if it hadn't been for the (U.S.) B-52s and the tac air. There's absolutely no question about it."
During the 1972 offensive, the Times reported on May 3, 1972, that "the growing consensus among Americans here is that the South Vietnamese forces have proven unequal to the task of defending it." And on May 19, 1972, that "despite four years of Vietnamization, American and South Vietnamese military commanders here have relied less on the Government's ground troops to stem the current North Vietnamese offensive than on an instrument of massive bombing that only the Americans have -- the B-52"; from Anloc on June 24, 1972, that "American advisers here say that the South Vietnamese helicopters are not flying because the crews have panicked under fire and suffer from low morale"; and on October 7, 1972, that "both American and South Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam say that the B-52s played a major role in halting the North Vietnamese offensive last spring as government units were disintegrating."
Neil Sheehan reported in his biography of U.S. adviser John Paul Vann, who directed U.S. and Vietnamese military forces in Region III in the spring of 1972 that "Vann did not see the fallacy in his victory. He did not see that in having to assume total control at the moment of crisis, he had proved the Saigon regime had no will of its own to survive."
Conclusion: Repeating History
"The past is never dead. It's not even past"
"He who controls the past controls the future; he who controls the present controls the past."
-- George Orwell, 1984
We all have a natural tendency to want to forget an unpleasant past. Many of us whose lives were deeply affected by the Indochina war particularly prefer to put those years of anguish, divisiveness and anger behind us.
Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Those who cannot remember the past are indeed condemned to repeat it.
Future historians will marvel at how U.S. leaders so thoroughly failed to learn from their horrific mistakes and crimes in Indochina, and have instead repeated so many of them today in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is clear to all but the most blind or brainwashed that the basic lesson of Indochina is that the United States cannot create democratic and stable governments out of corrupt, brutal, autocratic and unpopular warlords who can neither direct nor motivate their own people.
Secretary Clinton is not only insulting history and betraying her own past by giving a platform to Henry Kissinger to continue distorting history; she is betraying America today, foolishly perpetuating policies toward the Muslim world that can only end in even greater losses for the U.S.