Henry Kissinger was, in my view, a mostly effective secretary of state, but his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize this week (Dec. 10) in 1973 for his work in bringing “peace” to North and South Vietnam is arguably the most controversial, if not the most misguided decision ever made by the Norwegian Nobel committee that hands out this most famous of peace prizes. The fact that two of the prize committee members subsequently resigned in protest, and the fact that the co-recipient of the prize, North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho, turned it down, is some indication that there were issues.
The award was ostensibly given to Kissinger and Tho for negotiating the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, which was advertised as bringing about a ceasefire to the Vietnam War. In reality, although there was no longer a direct U.S. combat presence in Vietnam, fierce fighting between the North and South continued, and contributing mightily to South Vietnam’s ability to keep fighting were U.S. technicians, military equipment and — of course — dollars, which propped up the repressive and highly unpopular government of President Nguyen Van Thieu. This made a mockery of Article 4, Chapter II of the Paris Peace Accords, which read, “… the United States will not continue its military involvement or intervene in the internal affairs of South Vietnam.”
Small wonder Le Duc Tho said that one reason he declined the award was the unmistakable reality that there was no peace in Vietnam. Interestingly, another reason he declined was to avoid the hypocrisy of being honored alongside Kissinger, who was, Tho said, “the destroyer of my country.”
Tho was primarily referring to Kissinger’s intimate involvement in the decision to initiate the “Christmas Bombings” of North Vietnam the previous December — a 12-day bombing campaign that dropped more bombs on the North and did more damage to that country than had the previous three years of bombing. But Tho was also referring to the fact that Kissinger’s imprint was on every major military, as well as diplomatic, initiative against North Vietnam.
Which is not to say that North Vietnam didn’t also flout the Paris Peace Accords — it did, brazenly. Both the North and South saw the Paris treaty for what it really was — a worthless piece of paper. Indeed, when peace finally came to Vietnam more than two years later, it was because North Vietnam finally, decisively defeated South Vietnam on the battlefield, thereby ending the fighting.
Given that reality, a lot of people — me included — find it hard to say the name Henry Kissinger in the same sentence with Nobel Peace Prize recipients such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and Mother Teresa.