Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has frequently courted controversy. Respected and loathed in (possibly) equal measure, Kissinger is one of the few political icons of the 1960s and 70s who’s still around.
Those who can remember that era probably also recall the constant insanity that seemed to attach itself to the issues that dogged international diplomacy during the Cold War and the age of the protest generation.
But at a recent conference in Washington DC on US history in South-east Asia, Kissinger was at his best. He had few problems holding the attention of hundreds of guests as he offered his insights into the machinations behind the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration.
One of the things he touched on were the glib and relentless Marxist-Lenin clichés that would accompany Cold War negotiations—an endless stream of dogma that, he can now admit, were stalling tactics.
Kissinger said this was particularly the case with Le Duc Tho, who handled Hanoi’s side of the bargaining table during negotiations over the Vietnam War.
‘Now, Le Duc Tho—this is like asking a patient what he thinks of his surgeon. I had high regard for Le Duc Tho. Here he was, the representative of a small country, with no huge international experience, facing the representative of the super power, always maintaining his calm, his discipline, pursuing his strategy. I knew exactly what he was doing, which was to exhaust us.
‘And one of the typical moments was he had an opening statement which included a dramatic account of Vietnamese history which took about 40 minutes. And it was the same each time, so I knew it by heart and one of the phrases, in his words—if you make a big effort, we will make a big effort.
‘So one day he said, “If you make a big effort, we’ll make an effort.” So just to break the monotony, I said, “Mr. Special Advisor, I noticed that you dropped an adjective in what you have just said.” And he said, “I’m so glad you noticed it.” He said, “Because yesterday we made a big effort and you only made an effort.”’
Kissinger scored more than a few laughs when he added: ‘I’d look a lot better if I’d never met him.’