About the Author: Lindsay Krasnoff serves as a Historian in the Office of the Historian.
The Department of State's Office of the Historian in the Bureau of Public Affairs convened a conference September 29-30, 2010, on U.S. policy and the war in Southeast Asia, 1946-1975, with a special emphasis on the years of greatest American involvement in the conflict in Vietnam. Featured speakers at the conference included: Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton; Dr. Henry A. Kissinger and Ambassador John D. Negroponte, participants in the Vietnam policy process; and the late Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke.
The conference showcased and commemorated the completion of the Indochina/ Vietnam War documentary histories prepared by the Office of the Historian in the Foreign Relations of the United States series. In approximately 26 volumes, the Office of the Historian has printed over 24,500 pages of policy related documents. Transcripts and videos can be found on the Office of the Historian website.
Dr. Kissinger addressed the Nixon Administration's Vietnam War policy, stating that “most of what went wrong in Vietnam we did to ourselves," and that he was "absolutely unreconstructed" on this point. Ever the realist, he argued that a key lesson from the war must be that when the United States goes to war it must do so as a united country and with a “global strategic analysis that explains to us what the significance of this [going to war] is." He called the conference, "an extraordinary, moving experience in my life."
Ambassador John D. Negroponte, similar to the other speakers, focused on lessons learned from the war. The central one, he concluded, "really goes to the question of Iraq and Afghanistan and many subsequent experiences for me, but I guess it's pretty simple. Be careful before you take the first step, because once you get in, then you just -- you lose a little bit of control about the next ones and the consequences. And it becomes harder to decide to disengage."
Ambassador Holbrooke's career started in Vietnam -- his first posting as a Foreign Service Officer -- and was an experience that influenced his thinking throughout his career. In Holbrooke's speech, he reflected on this experience, concluding that "our goals in Vietnam did not justify the immense costs of the war. Nor do I believe that success was denied to us because of domestic events and lack of patience on the part of the American public." In short, "success [in Vietnam] was not achievable. Those who advocated more escalation or something called, 'staying the course,' were advocating something that would have led only to a greater and more costly disaster afterwards."
The program included a panel on the role of the media on the Vietnam War to explore the impact of the press on public opinion and U.S. policy. Marvin Kalb moderated the panel, which consisted of journalists Morley Safer, William Beecher, and Edith Lederer, all of whom reported from Vietnam or about the Vietnam War, as well as the late Barry Zorthian, former Director of Media Relations at U.S. Embassy Saigon. Succinctly summing up the subject, moderator Marvin Kalb said, "I think that you have to have lived on Mars to have missed the central role that the media played during the Vietnam War."
Other panels featured thought-provoking presentations by leading American and international scholars on topics such as force and diplomacy, counterinsurgency and pacification, the United States and its allies, and the war at home.
This conference, aided by the recollections of participants in the policy process, such as Dr. Kissinger, and Ambassadors Holbrooke and Negroponte, by documents in the Foreign Relations series, and by presentations of the most recent research by scholars, provided a special opportunity to re-examine the formation, development, and consequences of U.S. policy in Indochina and the Vietnam War for America and the world. Those in attendance broadened and deepened their knowledge and understanding of the war in Southeast Asia, as will those who read and study these videos and transcripts online at the Office of the Historian website.