Too Much Idealism? Ferguson, Kissinger, and the Vietnam War



Abstract. Ferguson provides evidence from Kissinger’s early academic writings involving Kantian philosophy and nineteenth century diplomacy, but continuing much later, that his subject was not the one-dimensional realist many have taken him to be. Kissinger was in fact a Kantian idealist, thought Prince Metternich to be backward-looking, and had serious reservations about the thrust of Bismarck’s power politics… Ferguson’s account of his record regarding Vietnam during the Kennedy andJohnson administrations demonstrates that Kissinger never opposed overall war strategy, although he made tactical criticisms of it.  Ferguson and Kissinger both neglect evidence that Kennedy was moving in an opposite direction regarding Vietnam, and that serious intra-Vietnam peace talks were underway in 1963. Such neglect leaves a misleading impression about alternatives… Ferguson’s account provides much evidence that Kissinger’s, and US, expectations for what might be obtained at the negotiating table in 1967-68 were unrealistic–this is a cardinal criticism of Kissinger and Nixon’s performance… Kissinger’s premises for continuing in Vietnam were usually geopolitical, rather than based on careful understanding of what was happening on the ground; and his view of power relations, at least during the 1950s and 1960s, gave insufficient attention to the role of nonaligned countries in contributing to international stability. Also, Kissingerthought maintaining US credibility an almost independent rationalefor continuing the war effort. Credibility arguments work best, however, where their advocates are otherwise on the right side of history.  Just as the US security framework survived concessions to avoid nuclear war over Berlin or Cuba, it would survive the post-Vietnam consequence thattroop commitments would henceforth be severely limited. The Kissinger-Nixon approach to Vietnam suffered from too little foreign policy realism, not too much.

Keywords. Niall Ferguson, Henry Kissinger, John F. Kennedy, Charles DeGaulle, Hans Morgenthau, Vietnam War.

JEL. F50, F52, F59.


Niall Ferguson; Henry Kissinger; John F. Kennedy; Charles DeGaulle; Hans Morgenthau; Vietnam War.

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