Richard Reeves

Comparing War in Iraq and Vietnam

WASHINGTON -- As we go marching once again to undeclared war -- a short one, we hope -- it is useful to look at our longest undeclared conflict, the one in Vietnam. Henry Kissinger, an architect of that war and the peace that ended it (at least for the United States), has conveniently written, or compiled, a new look at those events in a book just published.

"Ending the Vietnam War" is actually a reworking (sometimes rewording) of Kissinger's own writings on the war in three volumes of memoirs and his impressive tome, "Diplomacy," all published over the past two decades. And it does have some lessons for Americans rather helplessly watching their country prepare for war in Iraq.

The great diplomat is a wonderful man with words; after all, what is diplomacy but a graceful rearranging of the words under pressure to clean up the sins of the world? The same could be said of the writing of history, another Kissinger talent. It is doubly difficult to catch the very clever diplomat in an actual lie. The whole truth, never.

This one is my favorite of Kissinger spins:

In his 1977 memoirs, "The White House Years," artfully dodging charges that he and President Nixon betrayed or abandoned the Chinese Nationalist regime in Taiwan in the American haste to make a deal with what used to be called Red China, Kissinger wrote of his preliminary sessions with Chou En-lai: "Taiwan was mentioned only briefly during the first session." The transcript of that session, declassified 25 years later, showed that the brief mention was Kissinger's pledge to Chou that the United States would never support independence for Taiwan. Smiling, Chou replied, "Good, these talks may now proceed."

The most qualified reviewer of the specifics of the ending of America's involvement in Vietnam, Larry Berman, author of "No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam," writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review a couple of weeks ago, takes the old material apart, writing of "an Alice in Wonderland quality." He then suggests that if Kissinger were an honorable man he would return the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 1973.

Yes, peace prizes -- for instance, the one given Yasser Arafat -- often look silly in later years. But the interesting thing about Kissinger's views now are in the book's six-page foreword, in which he essentially blames the war on Americans who opposed the war, a perversion he announces this way:

"As these lines are being written, America finds itself once again at war -- this time with no ambiguity about the nature of the threat. While history never repeats itself directly, there is at least one lesson to be learned from the tragedy described in these pages: that America must never again permit its promise to be overwhelmed by its divisions."

Oh, those damn Americans and their passions! The people never get it right. This is how he explains those "divisions":

"Stimulated by a sense of guilt and encouraged by modern psychiatry and the radical chic rhetoric of upper-middle-class suburbia, these outbursts symbolized the end of an era of simple faith in the traditional values of mid-America. Ironically, the insecurity of their elders turned the normal grievances of maturing youth into an institutionalized rage and a national trauma."

Others might call that popular resistance, the essence of democracy. But Kissinger does not really believe in democracy. That was the fatal flaw of Kissinger and the president he advised, Richard Nixon. They had contempt for American institutions -- and Americans. The real enemies in their many books are, routinely, not the totalitarians they publicly and militarily opposed, but the Congress, the press and that misguided electorate. Only they knew, or so they thought.

Now another president and a small group of advisers, who say that only they know, are going to war praising traditional American values. But, like Nixon and Kissinger before them, President Bush and his small group of advisers are doing the same thing without law or the real effort to win the consent of the governed.

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