Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stopped by the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin Tuesday night to talk about the Vietnam War. His appearance was part of a three-day Vietnam War Summit sponsored by the LBJ Presidential Library. Kissinger, who remains a controversial figure in American History, addressed his critics and defended his decisions.
His keynote address began with people reading letters written by soldiers during the Vietnam War. Like the country during that time, the letters represented a mix of opinions about whether the United States should have sent troops to Southeast Asia in the first place. Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of former president Lyndon Johnson, recalled being married to Air National Guardsman Patrick Nugent during the war.
“Like many wives of a serviceman, I frequently went home to my parents. Lying in my bed in the White House, I often heard the picketers say ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?’”
Kissinger said that this backlash in the states is what led to the eventual withdrawal of troops.
“The fundamental failure was the division in our country,” he said. “Without that, we [would] have managed it.
But Kissinger also described the summit as a way to heal wounds from those debates so many years ago. Kissinger has been a controversial political figure for his role in advising several presidents through the long war that cost thousands of Americans their lives – as well as more than a million Southeast Asian lives. During his keynote, Kissinger fielded some tough questions, including some from the audience, but he said ultimately he doesn’t regret any of his decisions.
“You always make tactical mistakes. I believe that the American Presidents and those of us who worked with them were acting on the basis of their best judgment at the time.”
Kissinger also took aim at critics who say he’s a war criminal for overseeing air strikes that killed civilians in Cambodia and Laos during the war.
“I think the word ‘war criminal’ should not be thrown around in the domestic debate. It’s a shameful – it’s a reflection on the people who use it.”
And when asked what he thinks history will have to say about him, Kissinger said he didn’t think about that too much.
“I tried to do the best I could, and that’s all I can say.”
The current Secretary of State, John Kerry, will be speaking at the summit Wednesday night. Kissinger told the crowd he was tickled by this because Kerry was among those picketing outside the White House when Kissinger worked there. He said that now, the two men are good friends.