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Politics is a lot like the The Wizard of Oz: there's always somebody behind the curtain, pulling all the strings.
In the case of the Vietnam War, that wizardly individual went by the name of Henry Kissinger. Also a lot like The Wizard of Oz, Americans wished that there were a set of magic ruby slippers that could take the country back to the way things were, back before the war started. (Plus, there's probably a story in there about a little dog named Toto, but we've yet to unearth that part of the Vietnam War.)
Kissinger acted as national security advisor and secretary of state during Nixon's—and much of the next president's, Gerald Ford—tenure in office. In other words, he was the go-to guy for foreign policy…and especially the Vietnam War.
Kissinger became famous for being a no-nonsense negotiator. He believed in a political philosophy called "realpolitik." Now, we know that this may surprise you, but that's a German term that means "real politics." Mind blown, right?
Anyway, being a guy who believed in realpolitikmeant that Kissinger didn't want to mess around. He didn't want ideology to get in the way. He didn't care to make everything equal for everyone. He didn't want to hear about honor or obligation. He made decisions that were going to be pragmatic, looking at the situation at hand and acting accordingly.
Just think of realpolitik as…keeping politics real.
Kissinger made a name for himself by helping to make the Cold War a little warmer during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He encouraged the United States and the Soviet Union to not try and stab each other in the back every chance they got, ultimately deescalating what had become an extremely tense relationship between the two.
On top of that, he got the United States and China talking again after defriending each other years before.
In fact, you could kind of see Kissinger as the Cold War group therapy counselor, getting all these countries together to shake hands. Even if they did still secretly hate each other's guts.
Either way, when the Vietnam situation kept getting worse and worse, Kissinger seemed to be the perfect guy to find a way out. He and Nixon worked together on their plan to Vietnamize Vietnam. Sounds a little contradictory, right? Well, it fit in with Kissinger's belief that ideology shouldn't get in the way of a solution to a foreign policy problem.
Back to The Wizard of Oz: just like the guy in the movie, Kissinger was not a wizard. He was just one guy behind the curtain. He couldn't fix the Vietnam War by himself.
It seemed like nothing went right in the Vietnam War, and the Vietnamization plan was no different. Everything took way longer than planned. As it turned out, handing Vietnam back over to the Vietnamese was a lot easier said than done.
So, in order to speed things up, Kissinger came up with a plan. That plan was to basically bomb Cambodia, Vietnam's neighbor. If this sounds potentially controversial to you, you would be spot on. Cambodia was technically not part of the Vietnam War, and an attack on the country could be seen as an invasion. On the other hand, the Viet Cong was sneaking between the border of Vietnam and Cambodia as a way to avoid U.S. troops.
It was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario. But Kissinger decided to go for it.
The bombing of Cambodia can be added to the list of Vietnam War-related events that can be considered controversial. Either way, the bombing did make it so pulling out of the country was becoming an increasing possibility. And, in fact, the United States did negotiate a peaceful withdrawal out of Vietnam by 1973.
But that didn't mean that Kissinger was going to withdraw from politics. No way. He loved what he did way too much. He pretty much had his hands in nearly every major U.S. foreign policy decision that took place during the 1970s.
In fact, the dude still provides insights into American foreign policy to this day. We're betting he'll be reading up on foreign policy right up until the moment they start writing his eulogy. The guy has a work ethic.