Kissinger reflects on Vietnam War and foreign policy
By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
Princeton NJ -- Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger talked about the Vietnam War and conducting foreign policy in the 21st century in a question-and-answer session with 40 undergraduates in Bobst Hall on Feb. 19.
With students arrayed on couches and chairs around him, Kissinger took questions on all topics, telling the students, "Feel free to ask any question you want. There are no impolite questions."
Later he had dinner with a second group of students, where he gave a lecture. His visit was hosted by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions in the Department of Politics and the Liechtenstein Institute for Self-Determination in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs after he was invited to campus by Paul Wythes, a member of the University's Board of Trustees. Several of the students who participated are junior fellows in the Madison program. Others are enrolled in a diplomacy course taught by Wolfgang Danspeckgruber and in other courses at the Woodrow Wilson School.
"This was a wonderful opportunity for the students," said Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the Madison Program. "In Dr. Kissinger you have someone who is not just an eminent scholar, but a historical figure in the history of diplomacy."
Kissinger was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977, continuing to hold the position of assistant to the president for national security affairs, which he first assumed in 1969, until 1975. In 1973, Kissinger shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Le Duc Tho for their efforts to arrange a ceasefire in Vietnam.
The students asked Kissinger about U.S. policy toward Iran, nuclear weapons in North Korea and the war in Iraq. When asked about conducting foreign policy in a world where terrorism is a major threat, he said, "My study of history convinces me that more people have been killed by prophets than by statesmen." He also stressed the importance of moral convictions in conducting foreign policy.
Kissinger discussed one of the most controversial events of the Vietnam War, the bombing of Cambodia, telling the students, "In retrospect it would have been better to announce it, but it isn't that people sat around and said, 'We're going to do something in secret.' I think the bombing of Cambodia was necessary. ... We believe it was justified. You have to assume there were serious people trying to make serious decisions."
Asked how he thought the current administration was doing on the international stage, Kissinger said, "I don't agree with everything ... but fundamentally, I believe [George W.] Bush has done the right thing, the necessary thing. I think [Richard] Nixon would have done substantially the same thing."
The students marveled at the experience of interacting with such a prominent figure in American history.
"He's a legend," said junior Marc Grinberg. "It was so instructive to hear someone who has had the experience he's had answer our questions."
"I thought he was very honest," said junior Sara Mayeux. "You could tell this is what he genuinely thinks. It wasn't spin."
Their guest also enjoyed the experience, noting that he seeks out meetings with young people. "This is something I greatly enjoy doing," Kissinger said. "It gives me an opportunity to learn what a generation I'm not in contact with thinks."