Journalism Prof’s Article Shows Kissinger Knew Vietnam War Was Lost Years Before it Ended

A gray-haired professor stands in front of a class holding his glasses and some papers.
Professor Bass in his natural habitat — a classrom full of students. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)

ALBANY, N.Y. (Dec. 7, 2023) — In an article published in the winter issue of The American Scholar, Thomas Bass, professor of English and Journalism, reveals that diplomat and policy maker Henry Kissinger knew the Vietnam war was lost a decade before it ended. 

Kissinger, who died Nov. 29 at age 100, served as national security advisor and secretary of state under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his role in negotiating an agreement — ultimately unsuccessful — to end the Vietnam war. “The Prize was so obviously undeserved that Kissinger never picked it up, and his co-recipient, North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho, turned it down,” Bass said.

Bass was granted access to Kissinger’s personal papers at Yale, including his personal diary, by Kissinger himself. The diary reveals that as early as 1965, Kissinger realized the United States was refighting a colonial war that the French had already lost. America would not prevail, in spite of its military superiority and in spite of the 3 million Vietnamese who would die by 1975, when the last American helicopter lifted off a rooftop in Saigon.

Kissinger made two trips to Vietnam, in the autumn of 1965 and again the following summer. Still a professor at Harvard, he had taken a year’s leave of absence to evaluate the war for then U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Kissinger never gave Lodge a final report but instead  he recorded a “personal and confidential diary,” a collection of “unedited notes written down at the end of each day.” The diary, accessible by permission only, is stored with Kissinger’s papers in the Yale University Archives. While it had been briefly described by Kissinger’s official biographer, Bass said, “nothing prepared me for the brutal honesty of these notes.”

Kissinger characterizes most of his military briefings as “eyewash.” With few exceptions, he notes that the southern forces supported by the United States are incompetent or corrupt. Both the winning strategy and popular support lie with the communists. Between Kissinger’s first and second visits to Vietnam the situation has only worsened.

“This leaves us wondering why Kissinger, as right-hand man to Richard Nixon, would later choose to waste so many lives and so much blood and treasure pursuing a lost cause,” Bass said.  “In his Vietnam diary, we catch our first glimpse of how a supposedly brilliant statesman can see the truth and ignore it. The will to power, the pursuits of ego and empire, are now recorded as part of his legacy.”

Titled “Notes from the Front,” Bass’s article is the lead story in the latest issue of The American Scholar, the quarterly publication of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Bass, who has written three books on Vietnam, teaches investigative reporting and other journalism courses at the University. His next book, Return to Fukushima, about life in Japan’s nuclear exclusion zone, will be published next year by OR Books.