Kissinger’s involvement in Indochina started prior to his appointment as National Security Adviser to Nixon. While still at Harvard, he had worked as a consultant on foreign policy to both the White House and State Department. Kissinger says that “In August 1965… [Henry Cabot Lodge], an old friend serving as Ambassador to Saigon, had asked me to visit Vietnam as his consultant. I toured Vietnam first for two weeks in October and November 1965, again for about ten days in July 1966, and a third time for a few days in October 1966… Lodge gave me a free hand to look into any subject of my choice”. He became convinced of the meaninglessness of military victories in Vietnam, “…unless they brought about a political reality that could survive our ultimate withdrawal”. In a 1967 peace initiative, he would mediate between Washington and Hanoi.
Nixon had been elected in 1968 on the promise of achieving “peace with honor” and ending the Vietnam War. In office, and assisted by Kissinger, Nixon implemented a policy of Vietnamization that aimed to gradually withdraw US troops while expanding the combat role of the South Vietnamese Army so that it would be capable of independently defending its government against the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, a Communist guerrilla organization, and North Vietnamese army (Vietnam People’s Army or PAVN). Kissinger played a key role in a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia to disrupt PAVN and Viet Cong units launching raids into South Vietnam from within Cambodia’s borders and resupplying their forces by using the Ho Chi Minh trail and other routes, as well as the 1970 Cambodian Incursion and subsequent widespread bombing of suspected Khmer Rouge targets in Cambodia. The bombing campaign contributed to the chaos of the Cambodian Civil War, which saw the forces of US-backed leader Lon Nol unable to retain foreign support to combat the growing Khmer Rouge insurgency that would overthrow him in 1975. Documents uncovered from the Soviet archives after 1991 reveal that the North Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1970 was launched at the explicit request of the Khmer Rouge and negotiated by Pol Pot’s then second in command, Nuon Chea. The American bombing of Cambodia killed an estimated 40,000 Cambodian combatants and civilians. Pol Pot biographer David Chandler argues that the bombing “had the effect the Americans wanted — it broke the Communist encirclement of Phnom Penh,” while Christopher Hitchens asserts that the bombing may have increased recruitment for the Khmer Rouge.
Along with North Vietnamese Politburo Member Le Duc Tho, Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1973, for their work in negotiating the ceasefires contained in the Paris Peace Accords on “Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam,” signed the January previous. Tho rejected the award, telling Kissinger that peace had not been really restored in South Vietnam. Kissinger wrote to the Nobel Committee that he accepted the award “with humility.” The conflict continued until an invasion of the South by the North Vietnamese Army resulted in a North Vietnamese victory in 1975 and the subsequent progression of the Pathet Lao in Laos towards figurehead status.