WASHINGTON — Henry Kissinger, who helped steer Vietnam policy during the war's darkest years, said Wednesday that 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."
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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 Nixon and continued in the role of chief diplomat during the administration of President Ford.
Kissinger offered a 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.
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.