"The triangular relationship among the United States, the USSR, and China unlocked the door to a series of major breakthroughs: the end of the Vietnam War;Ö"

- Kissinger - Diplomacy

SECRET talks became a hallmark of diplomacy during the Nixon years when Henry Kissinger, in his capacity as President Richard Nixonís national security adviser, usurped the functions of the State Department to establish direct channels between the White House and foreign governments.

In his memoirs, Kissinger later reasoned that this facilitated a quick resolution of problems which in their view were being slowed down by red tape and built-in institutional agenda resistant to seeing old issues in new ways.

In some respects he was right about this. The cornerstone of Nixonís first term was his resolve to end the Vietnam conflagration, and in the process somehow restore Americaís tattered stature as a world power. Together they managed to forge a diplomatic strategy that not only ended the US involvement in the Vietnam conflict but also established the three-way balance of powers between the US and the two communist powers - the Soviet Union and China. They also used these new ties to break the deadlocked negotiations to end the Vietnam War.

These milestones would not have been reached within the space of Nixonís presidency had he not endorsed the expedient measures that Kissinger had taken. And it is doubtful that the US could have ended its involvement in the Vietnam War with a settlement signed by both the North and South Vietnamese had it not made the outcome of the war a matter of low priority for the two communist powers with the establishment of a triangular diplomacy.


The secret talks that Kissinger, then, had begun with North Vietnamís Le Duc Tho in late 1969, were not going well. The conflict of objectives made it difficult to come to a settlement. The US wanted a mutual cease-fire but the North Vietnamese were adamant about a unilateral withdrawal of US forces from South Vietnam. The "Vietnamization" program which had already begun, also gave the North Vietnamese no incentive to concede to any demands when American troops were being systemically withdrawn. Nor did the US offer anything they wanted. It offered them cosmetic concessions such as obviating the necessity of placing the withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops from the South on the same legal basis as that of the Americans or formally announcing the event.

The US persisted in the same course, and the reason for that was the failure to understand the North Vietnamese resolve in regaining what they felt was rightfully theirs. Itís conduct of the affair saw them as invaders of the non-communist South. But Hanoi did not see itself as an outsider in South Vietnam. During the negotiations it never admitted that its troops were there nor discussed if it had a right to be there. Far from recognizing the Vietnamese resolve, the US belittled it. A remark Kissinger made reflected this sentiment. "I refuse to believe a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesnít have a breaking point.", he said.

That was one of the main disadvantages to holding the talks secretly. Kissinger was handicapped without field expertsí readings on Vietnam history and character, as well as intelligence on current sentiments in Vietnam at the time. Early on in the talks this handicap showed up when he offered a time table on troop withdrawals without knowing the numbers. The secrecy of the talks meant he could not consult the military either. He also kept the State Department ignorant of the talks, and had also left South Vietnamís President Thieu largely in the dark about the content of the talks. The principal negotiators were himself and Tho, despite the fact that a negotiated settlement would require the Southís acquiescence. Later this called a halt to the agreement days before signing when Thieu objected to terms he had not been privy to.

Hanoi displayed more savvy about the workings of its counterpart. Mindful that public opinion held great sway in American politics it conducted a public relations campaign by claiming publicly that they had made a reasonable offer to the US but that the Nixon administration was intransigent. This lent the already vocal and vehement anti-war groups more fuel to their protests. This only added to the internal pressures of Nixonís administration.

Nixon had already made it worse for himself by declaring that he would see an end to this war "in six months" when he was campaigning for the presidency. This fondness for setting deadlines came up again when Kissinger threatened Hanoi with force if they did not come to an agreement by November 1969. That threat fizzled out when November came and went with no sign of US military coercion.

By May 1971,the US gave in, with Kissinger offering the unilateral withdrawal that Hanoi had wanted from the start. But the US had still hoped to score on securing a political concession from the North Vietnamese, by their not insisting on the overthrow of the South Vietnamese.


Securing that concession - which took place more than one year later - could not have been done through conventional diplomatic horse-trading. It would be a strategy of isolating North Vietnam from the two key communist powers as well as a little brute force that would do it.

At same time the secret talks commenced certain events took place which made it possible for the US to take the initiative in creating a three-way balance of powers.

In the spring of 1969, certain events came to the notice of the US which suggested that there were tensions between the communist powers. Skirmishes along the Sino-Soviet border that year had been taken for granted as being instigated by fanatical Chinese leaders. But Soviet diplomats gave the game away by being too interested in finding out the US reaction to these border skirmishes. A closer investigation revealed Soviet intentions to attack China

Until then there had not been much differentiation in thinking about China and the Soviets, as they were considered integrated parts of a greater communist threat. China had been diplomatically isolated for about 20 years and little was known about its motives or workings.

The US began building bridges to China, by sending signals in the form of unilateral initiatives to indicate a change in its attitude. The prohibition against the Americans traveling to China; Americans were allowed to bring $100 worth of Chinese-made goods into the US and limited grain shipments were permitted to China.

Secretary of State William Rogers made US intentions explicit on August 8, 1969, when he said that the US would welcome a significant role by Communist China in Asian and Pacific affairs. If Chinese leaders abandoned their introspective view of the world, the US would open up communication channels, he said.

On September 5, 1969, Nixon took a next step by warning the Soviet Union that the US would not remain indifferent to an attack on China. This was based on an assessment that the diplomatic maneuvers between the US and the Chinese would take too long to rely on them to pre-empt a Soviet attack.

The Chinese were receptive to these overtures from the US administration. In fact it had just two months after Nixon took office sent some signals indicating a willingness to reopen channels. These included dropping the prefix "principal enemy" in its reference to the US and referring to the Soviet Union as an equal threat. Unfortunately, the signals were too subtle and were missed.

By December 1969, diplomatic contacts were resumed between China and the US in Warsaw, but these were not successful as both sides were concerned with a standard agenda which did not allow a discussion on Sino-American relations. It was only when the US attack on Cambodia in May 1970 that gave Kissinger a chance to exercise his penchant for secret diplomacy again.

China had interrupted ambassadorial talks in protest against the Cambodian attack. But it continued to send signals to the US of its intentions to maintain communications. Some again were so subtle that it was lost on the US - such as Mao Zedong allowing Edgar Snow to be photographed with him in October 1970 or Maoís invitation to Nixon to visit which he made in an interview he gave Edgar Snow on December 1970.

It was direct and explicit message sent by China via the Pakistani President Yahya Khan that finally made the connection. Kissinger received the message from Yahya on December 8, 1970 - this was an invitation of a special envoy of President Nixon to discuss Taiwan.

Then in April 1971, Zhou En-Lai invited the United States table tennis team to China after the team had befriended the Chinese team in Japan. This signal eventually led to Kissingerís secret meeting with China in July 1971.

The meeting went well, and the establishment of ties between the US and China meant that Chinese interest in a North Vietnam victory was much diminished, as the latterís ties were much stronger with Moscow, who supplied arms to them. China also began to put pressure on Hanoi to accept a compromise that would allow the survival of the Thieu government. North Vietnamís President Pham Van Dong visited Beijing in early 1972 to ask Mao not to receive Nixon but he was rebuffed.

Similarly the Soviet Union became more interested in détente than the outcome of the Vietnam conflict. The success of Kissingerís meeting in China led to Moscowís willingness to have a summit meeting with the US. Within a month of Kissingerís visit to Beijing, the Kremlin invited Nixon to Moscow, when previously it had been stalling over the arrangements for the summit between Brezhnev and Nixon.

This led to a summit in May 1972 with the Soviet Union giving a tacit agreement to Americaís presence in Vietnam.


In August 1972 the cumulative effect of the triangulation of powers began to take effect. Hanoiís politburo agreed to the negotiated settlement. By then most of the troops had been withdrawn already. Both sides were also aware that it was an election year. Kissinger and the North Vietnamese wanted the agreement settled before November elections. The North Vietnamese were fearful of force Nixon would unleash if reelected. Kissinger wanted it, believing he could extract more from the North Vietnamese. Nixon & Thieu wanted it after the elections, which led to a clash.

By October, Kissinger has carved out the following terms of peace with the North Vietnamese:

Unfortunately, while Kissinger was successful with China and the Soviet Union, he was not so with Vietnam. He failed to tell Le Duc Tho that South Vietnamís President Nguyen Van Thieuís approval was contingent on the agreement being made, and that that could result in a delay on the October 24 signing date.. Thieu had not been briefed on the settlement, or that a deal had been struck. and had not received a copy of the peace accord. Kissinger had also sent a misleading cable to Thieu saying the North Vietnamese "appear to be ready to accept a cease-fire".

Instead Thieu finds out from his own intelligence that the draft treaty had already been distributed amongst communist cadres. He took his own action by putting up banners which make a cease-fire conditional on a North Vietnamese withdrawal.

Kissinger also prematurely makes the announcement that "peace is at hand". Later he conceded that he "surely made a mistake not analyzing what Thieuís domestic needs were and how we could help him prepare for what was coming,". But this he called a "trifling error in human calculation".

To get Thieu to sign, Kissinger now tries to get North Vietnam to make some concessions in the treaty which they thought they had already shaken hands on. Thieuís resentment makes him reluctant to sign. On top of that he wants 69 changes to be made to the accord. When the North Vietnamese refuse to budge, feeling duped by the US, the US launches what came to be known as the Christmas bombing, a 12 day bombing run targeted at Hanoi.

By January 1973, the two side agree to sign. Thieu does so, relying on the US stating its commitment to retaliate if the agreement is violated. That year the Nobel Peace Prize goes to Kissinger and Le Duc Tho. Tho rejects the prize..


In Kissingerís assessment, a negotiated settlement was essential to preserving the USís credibility as a world power. The settlement was reached, but not without prolonging and already long war and at a considerable cost in human life.

When Nixonís administration inherited the Vietnam War problem, domestic sentiment had escalated to a point where his predecessor Lyndon Johnson could not make a public appearance without being hounded by demonstrators. And by then it had become clear that the US was not going to win this protracted war. At least domestically, it would follow that the act of withdrawal would not lost the US any credibility with its own people.

As for its credibility abroad, it was already no secret that the US was already doing pulling out its troops. The process may have been termed "Vietnamization" but the Vietnamese saw it for what it was - a unilateral withdrawal of US forces.

To its credit, the Nixon administration did use the Vietnam imbroglio as a spur to pursuing its triangulation policy with China and the Soviet Union. But had Vietnam been set aside, the triangle diplomacy would still have taken place. China had long been ready to open channels with the US. And given its tensions with the Soviet Union, it was likely that the Soviets would have responded to the bigger threat of a China-US alliance and dropped its interest in Indochina. This feat alone would have restored US credibility, without need to tortuous negotiations and widespread destructive acts like the bombing of Cambodia and Hanoi.

The US administration already knew of Chinese-Soviet tensions before the skirmishes in 1969, which confirmed them. At that period the Chinese were also giving overt signals to open up lines of communication. Kissinger himself had already made the assessment before going to China in his first visit in 1971, that its primary concern would be its own security.

Another factor that could have helped bring the negotiations to a close sooner was that although Kissinger was a master geo-strategist, he failed to take enough notice of domestic politics and how his allies would have to account for the deals they had struck to their own people. He left Thieu with no time and no room to maneuver when he forced the peace accords on him. Thieu could not prepare his people for the outcome nor did he have a say in the wording of the accords which could ameliorate its effects - till later after Saigon was bombed. Lives could have been spared, had Thieu too been given a chance to maintain some credibility before his people. The failure to get Thieu to the signing, also undermined the basis of trust between Le Duc Tho, who had agreed to the October treaty in good faith. This did little for US credibility, when it had to resort to brute force to get extra concessions when the original deal had already been struck.




Henry Kissinger - The White House Years

Henry Kissinger - Years of Upheaval

Marvin Kalb & Bernard Kalb - Kissinger

Walter Isaacson - Kissinger, A Biography

Henry Kissinger - Diplomacy

Barbara Tuchman - The March of Folly