D.C., October 2, 2006 - For understandable
reasons, the George W. Bush administration has shunned comparisons
between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War. But in his latest
book, State of Denial, Bob Woodward writes that Henry
Kissinger, the former secretary of state--and a secret (and
frequent) consultant to the current president--has made the
parallel explicit to the White House.
According to Woodward, Kissinger recently gave a Bush aide
a copy of a memo
he wrote in 1969 arguing against troop withdrawals
from Southeast Asia, an issue as salient four decades ago as
it is now.
Kissinger's September 10, 1969, advice to President Nixon famously
characterized withdrawals from Vietnam as "salted peanuts"
to which the American people would become addicted.
(Incidentally, Nixon underscored several passages in the document,
according to State Department historians, and it is interesting
to see what he regarded as noteworthy. They include references
to: domestic anti-war sentiments; the unlikelihood of a speedy
victory with current plans; the “disturbing” failure
of the South Vietnamese leader to broaden his government, or
to connect to “neutralist figures;” and the enemy’s
apparent strategy to “wait us out” and produce “a
psychological, rather than a military, defeat for the U.S.”
Each of these concerns would surely resonate with American political
and military leaders with regard to Iraq today.)
The National Security Archive has obtained an original
copy of the memo and today is posting it on its
Web site along with commentary by Archive Senior Fellow and
noted Vietnam expert John Prados, who recently edited a major
collection of declassified documents on the Vietnam War.
The commentary provides some historical context for the document
and draws parallels and distinctions between the situations
then and now.
on archival source for “salted peanuts”:
Nixon Presidential Materials Project, NSC Institutional Files,
box H-024, Special NSC Meeting Folder 9/12/69. Also available
in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United
States, 1969-1976, VI, Vietnam, January 1969-July 1970
(Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 2006), 370-374
(also available on-line at http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/64647.pdf.
"Salted Peanuts" and the Iraq War
By John Prados
It is important to view Kissinger's advice in his September
10, 1969 memo to Nixon in its appropriate context. The specific
circumstances of this advice are these: a first cosmetic withdrawal
of 25,000 American troops from South Vietnam had already begun.
The Nixon administration faced a decision about further withdrawals,
while the president struggled to craft a strategy under which
he could coerce North Vietnam into ending the war on Nixon's
terms. Nixon and Kissinger had already begun to make threats
to Hanoi, through third parties, that the United States would
undertake a destructive bombing campaign against the North absent
new concessions from Hanoi. The antiwar movement in the United
States had declared a national mobilization and planned a campaign
of massive Marches on Washington, to begin on October 15, 1969,
and continue monthly thereafter. Nixon's immediate problem was
to defuse political opposition sufficiently to provide him freedom
of action in Vietnam. The problem was clear to the White House:
as Kissinger notes in his memoir for this period, "The
turbulent national mood touched Nixon on his rawest nerve."
There is a broader context that sets the stage for this. By
1969 the Tet Offensive had taken place, the American public
had turned irrevocably against the Vietnam war, the Johnson
administration had changed course on the war, halting further
troop reinforcements, stopping the bombing of North Vietnam,
and moving to begin a process that it called "Vietnamization,"
which entailed handing prosecution of the war over to South
Vietnamese forces while bringing American troops home. As Secretary
of Defense, Clark M. Clifford presided over the spring 1968
policy review that led President Lyndon B. Johnson to this transformation.
(Note 2) Clifford (whose views on withdrawal
are in a way parallel to the November 2005 call by Pennsylvania
Democratic Congressman John Murtha for a pullout from Iraq)
also laid the groundwork for Vietnamization-and the initiation
of American withdrawals-during a visit to Saigon that July.
As he puts it, "I told the Vietnamese leaders that in the
absence of visible progress the American public would simply
not support the war effort much longer." (Note
3)Clifford and the South Vietnamese leaders then went to
Honolulu where, at a summit meeting with President Johnson,
the basic agreement on Vietnamization was made. (Note
Richard Nixon had actually won the 1968 presidential election
on a promise of ending the Vietnam war. In office, Vietnam strategy,
like Iraq strategy for President Bush, became one of the most
delicate issues with which he had to deal. The incoming president
used an interagency national security study in the spring of
1969, culminating in discussions at the National Security Council
(NSC), to set his new course. The discussion at the NSC on March
28, 1969, clarifies the real content of Nixon's policy. In considering
"de-escalation," Kissinger explicitly portrayed it
as a device to reduce American casualties which, in his view,
"strengthens our staying power." When the president
asked whether de-escalation meant unilateral U.S. withdrawal
from South Vietnam, Kissinger answered "no." Nixon
then turned to the withdrawal issue and pictured it as tying
American pull-outs to North Vietnamese ones, a subject for negotiations
with Hanoi. "We should agree to total withdrawal of U.S.
forces," Nixon said, "but include very strong conditions
which we know may not be met." He went on, "There
is no doubt U.S. forces will be in Vietnam for some time . .
. but our public posture must be another thing." (Note
In view of American politics and U.S. military programs that
strategy was not sustainable. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird,
most importantly, insisted on a continuation of the troop withdrawals.
(Note 6) The U.S. military accepted the goal
of withdrawals from Vietnam as a measure of merit in much the
same fashion as it had previously worked to enhance deployments.
For example, on July 24, 1969, at a meeting with South Vietnam's
defense minister, U.S. military commander for Vietnam Creighton
V. Abrams frankly reported that his plan for the next phase
of withdrawal had to be completed by early August and would
be in Washington by the middle of that month. Abrams frankly
told the Vietnamese, "I have discussed this with [Joint
Chiefs of Staff chairman] General Wheeler, and he knows what
this contains. And he agrees with the number. He agrees with
the rationale." (Note 7)
This was the specific proposal on which Henry Kissinger commented
in his September 10, 1969 memorandum. Kissinger's purpose here
was to give the president a rationale for minimizing U.S. troop
withdrawals under the latest redeployment plan, thus preserving
the Nixon policy adopted that March. While acknowledging the
antiwar opposition and upcoming demonstrations, Kissinger supplies
Nixon with a number of arguments: that Vietnamization cannot
"significantly reduce the pressures for an end to the war,"
that "withdrawals of U.S. troops will become like salted
peanuts to the American public," that the withdrawals would
encourage Hanoi," and more (see
the document). Kissinger was so confident in his
analysis that he reprinted the entire "salted peanuts"
memorandum-at a time when it remained a classified document-in
his 1979 memoir. (Note 8)
Handing this same document to a president befuddled by the
dilemmas of the Iraq war, Kissinger himself made the parallel
to Vietnam but he retailed advice created for a situation that
had significantly different structural elements. Nixon and Kissinger
in 1969 were attempting to use negotiations with Hanoi to regulate
pressures for American withdrawal from Vietnam. President Bush
has no equivalent device available to him. When "salted
peanuts" was concocted, Nixon and Kissinger faced a relatively
stable military situation in Vietnam in which the adversary
had been badly damaged in previous fighting. President Bush
faces a deteriorating military situation in which not only have
U.S. forces not been able to destroy the enemy, but new religious
forces have taken the field against their own countrymen. Most
important, where the Saigon government may have been restive
under American tutelage, it still shared a basic interest with
Washington in fighting Hanoi, whereas there is no significant
identity of interest between the Bush administration and the
government in Baghdad, which is actually dominated by religious
forces inimical to U.S. goals. Kissinger's advice to Bush amounts
to an appeal to do nothing differently in a situation where
clear-eyed reassessments appear to be increasingly essential
by the day.
1. Henry A. Kissinger, White House Years.
Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1979, p. 298.
2. Clifford's original account of these events
appeared prominently in July 1969. See Clark M. Clifford, "A
Vietnam Reappraisal: The Personal History of One Man's View
and How It Evolved," Foreign Affairs, vol. 47,
(July 1969), pp. 601-622. He revisited the Johnson change of
course and told the inside story in his memoir, Clark M. Clifford
with Richard Holbrooke, Counsel to the President: A Memoir.
New York: Random House, 1991, pp. 454-526.
3. Clifford, Counsel to the President,
4. The Honolulu conference is documented in
the National Security Archive collection on United
States Policy in the Vietnam War, Part I.
5. National Security Council, Meeting Minutes,
March 28, 1969. Department of State, Foreign Relations of
the United States, 1969-1976, v. VI: Vietnam, January 1969-July
1970. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2006,
pp. 164-176, quoted, p. 172-3. At a minimum Nixon envisioned
"something like a large military assistance group"
6. Melvin Laird, "Iraq: Learning the Lessons
of Vietnam," Foreign Affairs, November/December
7. Military Assistance Command Vietnam, "Briefing
for COMUS and General Vy," July 24, 1969. Lewis Sorley,
transcriber and editor, Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes,
1968-1972. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2004,
8. Kissinger, White House Years, fn.
11, pp. 1480-1482.