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Kissinger's "Salted Peanuts"
and the Iraq War

The National Security Archive Posts Original
Document Cited in Bob Woodward's State of Denial

For more information contact:
John Prados - 301/565-0564
Thomas Blanton - 202/994-7000

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Washington D.C., October 2, 2006 - For understandable reasons, the George W. Bush administration has shunned comparisons between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War. But in his latest book, State of Denial, Bob Woodward writes that Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state--and a secret (and frequent) consultant to the current president--has made the parallel explicit to the White House.

According to Woodward, Kissinger recently gave a Bush aide a copy of a memo he wrote in 1969 arguing against troop withdrawals from Southeast Asia, an issue as salient four decades ago as it is now.

Kissinger's September 10, 1969, advice to President Nixon famously characterized withdrawals from Vietnam as "salted peanuts" to which the American people would become addicted.

(Incidentally, Nixon underscored several passages in the document, according to State Department historians, and it is interesting to see what he regarded as noteworthy. They include references to: domestic anti-war sentiments; the unlikelihood of a speedy victory with current plans; the “disturbing” failure of the South Vietnamese leader to broaden his government, or to connect to “neutralist figures;” and the enemy’s apparent strategy to “wait us out” and produce “a psychological, rather than a military, defeat for the U.S.” Each of these concerns would surely resonate with American political and military leaders with regard to Iraq today.)

The National Security Archive has obtained an original copy of the memo and today is posting it on its Web site along with commentary by Archive Senior Fellow and noted Vietnam expert John Prados, who recently edited a major collection of declassified documents on the Vietnam War. The commentary provides some historical context for the document and draws parallels and distinctions between the situations then and now.

Note on archival source for “salted peanuts”: Nixon Presidential Materials Project, NSC Institutional Files, box H-024, Special NSC Meeting Folder 9/12/69. Also available in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, VI, Vietnam, January 1969-July 1970 (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 2006), 370-374 (also available on-line at http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/64647.pdf. (document 117).


Kissinger's "Salted Peanuts" and the Iraq War
By John Prados

It is important to view Kissinger's advice in his September 10, 1969 memo to Nixon in its appropriate context. The specific circumstances of this advice are these: a first cosmetic withdrawal of 25,000 American troops from South Vietnam had already begun. The Nixon administration faced a decision about further withdrawals, while the president struggled to craft a strategy under which he could coerce North Vietnam into ending the war on Nixon's terms. Nixon and Kissinger had already begun to make threats to Hanoi, through third parties, that the United States would undertake a destructive bombing campaign against the North absent new concessions from Hanoi. The antiwar movement in the United States had declared a national mobilization and planned a campaign of massive Marches on Washington, to begin on October 15, 1969, and continue monthly thereafter. Nixon's immediate problem was to defuse political opposition sufficiently to provide him freedom of action in Vietnam. The problem was clear to the White House: as Kissinger notes in his memoir for this period, "The turbulent national mood touched Nixon on his rawest nerve." (Note 1)

There is a broader context that sets the stage for this. By 1969 the Tet Offensive had taken place, the American public had turned irrevocably against the Vietnam war, the Johnson administration had changed course on the war, halting further troop reinforcements, stopping the bombing of North Vietnam, and moving to begin a process that it called "Vietnamization," which entailed handing prosecution of the war over to South Vietnamese forces while bringing American troops home. As Secretary of Defense, Clark M. Clifford presided over the spring 1968 policy review that led President Lyndon B. Johnson to this transformation. (Note 2) Clifford (whose views on withdrawal are in a way parallel to the November 2005 call by Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman John Murtha for a pullout from Iraq) also laid the groundwork for Vietnamization-and the initiation of American withdrawals-during a visit to Saigon that July. As he puts it, "I told the Vietnamese leaders that in the absence of visible progress the American public would simply not support the war effort much longer." (Note 3)Clifford and the South Vietnamese leaders then went to Honolulu where, at a summit meeting with President Johnson, the basic agreement on Vietnamization was made. (Note 4)

Richard Nixon had actually won the 1968 presidential election on a promise of ending the Vietnam war. In office, Vietnam strategy, like Iraq strategy for President Bush, became one of the most delicate issues with which he had to deal. The incoming president used an interagency national security study in the spring of 1969, culminating in discussions at the National Security Council (NSC), to set his new course. The discussion at the NSC on March 28, 1969, clarifies the real content of Nixon's policy. In considering "de-escalation," Kissinger explicitly portrayed it as a device to reduce American casualties which, in his view, "strengthens our staying power." When the president asked whether de-escalation meant unilateral U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam, Kissinger answered "no." Nixon then turned to the withdrawal issue and pictured it as tying American pull-outs to North Vietnamese ones, a subject for negotiations with Hanoi. "We should agree to total withdrawal of U.S. forces," Nixon said, "but include very strong conditions which we know may not be met." He went on, "There is no doubt U.S. forces will be in Vietnam for some time . . . but our public posture must be another thing." (Note 5)

In view of American politics and U.S. military programs that strategy was not sustainable. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, most importantly, insisted on a continuation of the troop withdrawals. (Note 6) The U.S. military accepted the goal of withdrawals from Vietnam as a measure of merit in much the same fashion as it had previously worked to enhance deployments. For example, on July 24, 1969, at a meeting with South Vietnam's defense minister, U.S. military commander for Vietnam Creighton V. Abrams frankly reported that his plan for the next phase of withdrawal had to be completed by early August and would be in Washington by the middle of that month. Abrams frankly told the Vietnamese, "I have discussed this with [Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman] General Wheeler, and he knows what this contains. And he agrees with the number. He agrees with the rationale." (Note 7)

This was the specific proposal on which Henry Kissinger commented in his September 10, 1969 memorandum. Kissinger's purpose here was to give the president a rationale for minimizing U.S. troop withdrawals under the latest redeployment plan, thus preserving the Nixon policy adopted that March. While acknowledging the antiwar opposition and upcoming demonstrations, Kissinger supplies Nixon with a number of arguments: that Vietnamization cannot "significantly reduce the pressures for an end to the war," that "withdrawals of U.S. troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public," that the withdrawals would encourage Hanoi," and more (see the document). Kissinger was so confident in his analysis that he reprinted the entire "salted peanuts" memorandum-at a time when it remained a classified document-in his 1979 memoir. (Note 8)

Handing this same document to a president befuddled by the dilemmas of the Iraq war, Kissinger himself made the parallel to Vietnam but he retailed advice created for a situation that had significantly different structural elements. Nixon and Kissinger in 1969 were attempting to use negotiations with Hanoi to regulate pressures for American withdrawal from Vietnam. President Bush has no equivalent device available to him. When "salted peanuts" was concocted, Nixon and Kissinger faced a relatively stable military situation in Vietnam in which the adversary had been badly damaged in previous fighting. President Bush faces a deteriorating military situation in which not only have U.S. forces not been able to destroy the enemy, but new religious forces have taken the field against their own countrymen. Most important, where the Saigon government may have been restive under American tutelage, it still shared a basic interest with Washington in fighting Hanoi, whereas there is no significant identity of interest between the Bush administration and the government in Baghdad, which is actually dominated by religious forces inimical to U.S. goals. Kissinger's advice to Bush amounts to an appeal to do nothing differently in a situation where clear-eyed reassessments appear to be increasingly essential by the day.


Notes

1. Henry A. Kissinger, White House Years. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1979, p. 298.

2. Clifford's original account of these events appeared prominently in July 1969. See Clark M. Clifford, "A Vietnam Reappraisal: The Personal History of One Man's View and How It Evolved," Foreign Affairs, vol. 47, (July 1969), pp. 601-622. He revisited the Johnson change of course and told the inside story in his memoir, Clark M. Clifford with Richard Holbrooke, Counsel to the President: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1991, pp. 454-526.

3. Clifford, Counsel to the President, p. 550.

4. The Honolulu conference is documented in the National Security Archive collection on United States Policy in the Vietnam War, Part I.

5. National Security Council, Meeting Minutes, March 28, 1969. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, v. VI: Vietnam, January 1969-July 1970. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2006, pp. 164-176, quoted, p. 172-3. At a minimum Nixon envisioned "something like a large military assistance group" (p. 173).

6. Melvin Laird, "Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam," Foreign Affairs, November/December 2005.

7. Military Assistance Command Vietnam, "Briefing for COMUS and General Vy," July 24, 1969. Lewis Sorley, transcriber and editor, Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2004, p. 223.

8. Kissinger, White House Years, fn. 11, pp. 1480-1482.

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