In mid-January 2015, as we may be entering a more intense phase of the civilizational conflict that has characterized our century, Henry Kissinger’s capstone book, World Order, perpetuates a legacy of strategic thought centered on resolving major conflicts through grand bargains pursued through complex signals. This week, the anniversary of January 15, 1973 leads us to ask whether such bargains are really bilateral and what can stand in the way of enforcing their terms.
Henry Kissinger’s legacy at the helm of U.S. strategic policy rests on his effort to end the Vietnam War on not-unfavorable terms, via a “grand bargain” with the Soviet Union. Then Secretary of State Kissinger and President Nixon pursued this objective by withdrawing American troops from the South and reducing U.S. military pressure on the North via multiple restrictions on bombing—this to signal both to Hanoi and to Moscow that the U.S. was willing to settle for less than victory—while showing them America’s residual capacity to inflict massive damage and stressing Nixon’s visceral anticommunist penchant to do that. At the same time, they offered Détente to the Soviets. They, in exchange for moderating North Vietnam’s drive for total victory and the extreme policies and acts of their other clients, would receive parity (at least) with the U.S. in strategic nuclear weaponry and a cessation of competition in that realm, plus the cessation of U.S. pressure against their Eastern European empire, and enormous economic benefits. When Nixon and Kissinger met Soviet leaders at the May 1972 Moscow summit, they believed that they had shown their residual capacity and will by crushing North Vietnam’s conventional invasion of the South with American bombs the previous month, and that the Summit’s agreements sealed the grand bargain.
Not so. Soviet military supplies to North Vietnam increased, and Hanoi continued to insist on America’s abdication of its purpose in the war. Kissinger/Nixon, attempting to secure what they had expected from the bargain, turned to America’s potent residual military capacity in Southeast Asia. U.S. forces mined Hanoi’s harbor at Haiphong, and, with Operation Linebacker II, B-52 bombers began to devastate Hanoi, moving ever closer to the places where its elite lived. The Soviets made ominous noises. Hanoi did not yield.
On January 15, 1973, President Richard Nixon suspended all military activities against North Vietnam. This had been Le Duc Tho’s condition for further progress in the negotiations that he had been carrying on with Henry Kissinger for some years. The result, Kissinger writes in World Order, was the formal end of America’s war in exchange for North Vietnam’s return of U.S. prisoners.
But—and this is the point—the events of January 15, 1973 merely formalized a fact that America’s enemies had grasped more clearly than had Kissinger: namely that his offer of a grand bargain was U.S. policy made for its own sake, resulting from intra-American bargaining. As such it was unconditional. By its adoption, the U.S. government divested itself of the intellectual, moral, and political wherewithal to enforce its terms.