The Christmas Bombing of Hanoi was Justified (1 February 1973, Interview With Henry A. Kissinger)
THE CHRISTMAS BOMBING OF HANOI WAS JUSTIFIED (1 February 1973, Interview With Henry A. Kissinger)
In December 1972, when the already tortuous peace talks between the United States and the Communist-backed government in North Vietnam began to break down, the Nixon administration responded by initiating "Operation Linebacker," the so-called "Christmas Bombing" of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh's capital of North Vietnam. From 18 December to 30 December 1972, waves of American B-52s dropped nearly forty thousand tons of bombs on the mostly evacuated city. Although the administration defended its actions as essential to the attainment of a cease-fire, reaction from much of the country and the world was shock and outrage. Many accused Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger of enacting a policy of revenge and frustration. The destruction of several residential neighborhoods as well as the French embassy only stood to confirm these suspicions. At home, the president's approval rating plummeted, but some three weeks later, negotiations between divided Vietnam and the United States resumed in Paris. On 17 January 1973, the Paris Peace Accord was signed, and America's long direct involvement in the Vietnam War at last came to an end.
On December 18, 1972, the United States launched a massive bombing attack on Hanoi in response to stalled peace negotiations. The "Christmas bombing" created much shock and anger in the United States and was denounced as an immoral terrorist act against the North Vietnamese civilian population. (Civilian casualties of the twelve-day campaign have been estimated at about fifteen hundred; the number was relatively low because American pilots took measures to minimize such casualties and the North Vietnamese government had evacuated much of Hanoi and other areas prior to the bombing.) At that time neither President Richard M. Nixon nor members of his administration made any public defense or explanation of the December bombing campaign.
The following viewpoint on the Christmas bombing of Hanoi and other parts of North Vietnam is taken from an interview by television journalist Marvin Kalb with Henry A. Kissinger on February 1, 1973. As national security adviser to Nixon, Kissinger shaped foreign policy more than any other person save Nixon himself. Beginning in 1969, while public peace negotiations were being held in Paris between delegations representing the governments of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, the National Liberation Front (NLF) rebels in South Vietnam, and the United States, Kissinger engaged in secret talks with a series of North Vietnamese envoys, including Le Duc Tho. These talks eventually resulted in the Paris Peace Accords, signed by the four official negotiating parties on January 27, 1973. The accords called for the United States to withdraw all of its military forces and marked the end of American participation in the Vietnam War. In his interview with Kalb, Kissinger defends the December 1972 bombings as part of the effort to convince both North and South Vietnam of the desirability and necessity for a peace agreement.
kalb: Dr. Kissinger, let's move the clock back about one month, at a time when the United States was engaged in a very extensive bombing program in the Hanoi-Haiphong area. We've never heard any explanation about why that was really necessary. Could you give us your own feeling on that?
kissinger: The decision to resume bombing in the middle of December was perhaps the most painful, the most difficult and certainly the most lonely that the President has had to make since he is in—has been in office. It was very painful to do this at that particular season, when the expectation for peace had been so high, and only six weeks before his inauguration. It was very difficult to do it under circumstances when the outcome was not demonstrable. There were really three parts to it. One: should we resume bombing? Two: if we resume bombing, with what weapons? That involved the whole issue of the B-52. And three: should we talk to the American people?—which was really implied in your question: there's never been an explanation.
With respect to the first part—why did the President decide to resume bombing—we had come to the conclusion that the negotiations as they were then being conducted were not serious; that for whatever reason, the North Vietnamese at that point had come to the conclusion that protracting the negotiations was more in their interest than concluding them. It was not a case that we made certain demands that they rejected. It was a case that no sooner was one issue settled than three others emerged, and as soon as one approached a solution, yet others came to the forefront. At the same time, the more difficult Hanoi was, the more rigid Saigon grew, and we could see a prospect, therefore, where we would be caught between the two contending Vietnamese parties with no element introduced that would change their opinion, with a gradual degeneration of the private talks between Le Duc Tho and me into the same sort of propaganda that the public talks… had reached. And therefore it was decided to try to bring home, really to both Vietnamese parties, that the continuation of the war had its price. And it was not generally recognized that when we started the bombing again of North Vietnam, we also sent General [Alexander] Haig to Saigon to make very clear what—that this did not mean that we would fail to settle on the terms that we had defined as reasonable. So we really moved in both directions simultaneously.
Once the decision was made to resume bombing, we faced the fact that it was in the rainy season and that really the only plane that could act consistently was the B-52, which was an all-weather plane. The—You mentioned the Hanoi-Haiphong area. But major efforts were made to avoid residential areas, and the casualty figures which were released by the North Vietnamese of something like a thousand tend to support that many—that this was the case, because many of these casualties must have occurred in the target areas and not in civilian residential areas.
kalb: Yet a lot of the civilian areas were hit, apparently. There were pictures of that and—
kissinger: Well, you can never tell when a picture is made how vast the surrounding area of destruction is, but of course some civilian areas must have been hit. And I'm—I don't want to say that it was not a very painful thing to have to do.
Now, why did the President decide not to speak to the American people? The President can speak most effectively when he announces a new departure in policy and indicates what can be done to bring that particular departure to a conclusion. He could have done only two things in such a speech—which was considered. One is to explain why the negotiations had stalemated, and two, to explain under what circumstances he would end the bombing. The first would have broken the confidentiality of the negotiations, even more than was the case anyway through the exchanges that were going on publicly. And the second would have made the resumption of talks an issue of prestige and might have delayed it. And therefore the President decided that if this action succeeded, then the results would speak for themselves in terms of a settlement, and if a settlement was not reached, then he would have to give an accounting to American people—to the American people of all the actions that led to the continuing stalemate. Now, whatever the reason, once the Viet—once the talks were resumed a settlement was reached fairly rapidly. And I have—we have never made an assertion as to what produced it, but you asked why was the decision made to resume bombing, and this was the reasoning that led to it.
kalb: Dr. Kissinger, isn't the assumption that you're leaving with us that without that kind of heavy bombing the North Vietnamese would not have become serious—your term—and that therefore one could conclude that it was the bombing that brought the North Vietnamese into a serious frame of mind? I ask the question only because they've been bombed so repeatedly and for so many years and still stuck to their guns and their position. What was so unique about this?
kissinger: Well, that it came at the end of a long process—
kissinger:—in which they too had suffered a great deal. But I don't think—at this moment, when I am preparing to go to Hanoi—it would serve any useful purpose for me to make any—to speculate about what caused them to make this decision.… And at this moment, I think, it is important to understand that the decision was not made lightly, that it was made in the interest of speeding the end of the war, and that now that the war has ended, I think, it is best to put the acrimony behind us.
SOURCE: "The Christmas Bombing of Hanoi Was Justified." Interview with Henry A. Kissinger. CBS News (1 February 1973). Courtesy, CBS News Archives.