Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger discusses his controversial career

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Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger speaks at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs on Tuesday evening. Kissinger discussed his controversial record, and said he had no regrets about his actions during the Vietnam War.
Photo Credit: Gabriel Lopez | Daily Texan Staff

Addressing his controversial record as former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger acknowledged “mistakes were made” by America in the Vietnam War but said he had no regrets about his actions in the war at the Lyndon B. Johnson School on Tuesday.

“We acted on the basis of our best judgment at the time,” Kissinger said. “One should stand by one’s decisions.” 

Kissinger, former American diplomat and Harvard professor, served as secretary of state from 1973 to 1977. He is best known for his role in the Vietnam War — for negotiating a ceasefire between North and South Vietnam and expanding the war into Cambodia through a secret bombing in 1969. 

Kissinger — who is alternately praised as a brilliant statesman and denounced as a “war criminal” — answered questions about his time in office from Mark Updegrove, moderator and LBJ library director, and insisted on taking unrestricted questions from the audience.

Responding to criticism about the Cambodia “carpet bombing,” Kissinger denied he was a “war criminal.” He defended the action as necessary because American forces would have been “absolutely hopeless” if the Vietnamese fighters were allowed to keep their base there. 

“It is much less than the Obama administration has done in similar base areas, such as Pakistan. When we wiped out the base areas, the casualties dropped by 80 percent,” Kissinger said. “It was correct, and it was in the American interest.” 

Readers of the Foreign Policy magazine have voted him as the best secretary of state in the last 50 years. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, which he later sought to return after South Vietnam fell to the communist forces in North Vietnam in 1975. 

Kissinger said the congressional ban on further involvement in Vietnam, combined with the Watergate scandal, made it politically impossible for the United States to enforce the peace treaty in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese, who reneged on the cease-fire, “hold the Olympic record for breaking agreements,” he said. 

“America should not torture itself on the view that it could have had a settlement earlier if their presidents had been more willing,” Kissinger said. 

One audience member, who said he was imprisoned for 10 years because he was abandoned by Kissinger’s Peace Accords, questioned Kissinger’s handling of the Fall of Saigon. In response, Kissinger said the “divisions in our country” prevented the U.S. from stopping the capture of the South Vietnamese capital.

“I have great sympathy for the Vietnamese,” Kissinger said. “It is a historic tragedy that America found itself so divided and could not solve its domestic debates.” 

LBJ professor Jeremi Suri, who wrote a book about Kissinger’s approach to international relations, said Kissinger seemed to struggle between showing sympathy for the Vietnamese and justifying his policies.

“It’s more than memory,” Suri said. “It’s personal experience.” 

Mechanical engineering junior Sam Roach, who protested Kissinger’s record as secretary of state outside the LBJ School, said Kissinger has violated human rights.

“He should be tried for war crimes,” Roach said. “It sets a bad precedent for future leaders.” 

Asked to predict history’s judgment, Kissinger declined to say what it would look like. 

“I tried to do the best I can,” Kissinger said. “That’s all I can say.”