Vassar Stories

Looking for the Real Henry Kissinger

Former National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger is one of the most controversial public figures of the past 50 years of American diplomacy. Many historians have called him a deft diplomat who steered American foreign policy effectively as a member of several presidential administrations. “There’s been a bit of a Kissinger revival among scholars lately,” says history prof. Robert Brigham. “Hillary Clinton has praised his work and is a bit of a disciple.”

Professor of History Robert Brigham with Ford Scholar Michaela Coplen ‘17

Others contend the man who won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize was a cynical, cold warrior who did not serve his country well. Brigham counts himself in this camp. And with the help of Vassar Ford Scholar Michaela Coplen ’17, he is gathering data this summer for a book on Kissinger’s role as President Richard Nixon’s chief negotiator at the Vietnam Peace Talks in Paris from 1969 to 1973. Kissinger and North Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho negotiated a ceasefire in 1973, but it failed and South Vietnam fell in 1975, long after Nixon had resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

Brigham and Coplen spent four days at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, CA, perusing more than 7,500 pages of documents, many of them declassified in the past year, that chronicle Kissinger’s role in advising Nixon on the Vietnam War. The documents include White House and State Department memos and communiqués, cables sent to Kissinger from generals and from the American Embassy in Saigon, and transcripts of telephone conversations between Kissinger and Nixon.

Brigham says some conclusions he reached during his previous research on the Vietnam War are reinforced by what he and Coplen are finding in the documents they are examining this summer. “Kissinger and Nixon didn’t start the war, but they plotted for a way to extricate the country—kind of like what we did with the ‘surge’ in Iraq: declare it a success and then begin to withdraw our troops,” he says. “But it’s tragic how many lives were lost while they were going through this charade.”

Coplen says the transcripts of some of the telephone conversations between Kissinger and Nixon paint an unflattering picture, both professionally and personally. “Some of these conversations were quite revealing,” she says. “Kissinger often bragged about women he was seeing, and there were some racist comments as well. He just doesn’t come off as a person of good character.”

Brigham says he and Coplen also found numerous examples of how Kissinger’s view of events in Vietnam differed sharply from observations being made at the same time by Secretary of State William Rogers and other American diplomats. “Kissinger contends the North Vietnamese weren’t prepared to discuss political issues, only military ones, at the peace talks,” Brigham says. “But Rogers disagreed, and there’s evidence from North Vietnamese sources that Rogers was right and Kissinger was wrong.”

As he and Coplen studied the documents together, Brigham says, he began to trust his student to decide which ones would be most useful for his research. “Michaela was superb in spotting what we needed—where the contradictions and inconsistencies existed and instances in which Kissinger’s opinions were often not based on facts,” Brigham says. 

Coplen says she found numerous instances in which Kissinger refused to admit he was wrong about anything. “He was handicapped by a superiority complex that led him to think that he was right and everyone else was wrong,” she says. “He consistently made value judgments that had no basis at the time and were contradicted by facts found in State Department files.”

Coplen says her experience in finding and analyzing the files in the Nixon Library has spurred her to consider pursuing a career in historical scholarship. “Spending the summer doing this has led me to think I might like doing something like this in graduate school,” she says.

—Larry Hertz

Photo: Buck Lewis

Posted Monday, August 8, 2016