The 1973 Nobel peace prize to top US diplomat Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho, among the most disputed in the award’s history, was given in the full knowledge the Vietnam war was unlikely to end any time soon, newly released papers show.
Nominations to the Peace prize remain secret for 50 years. On 1 January, documents about the prize awarded to Kissinger and Hanoi’s chief negotiator Tho were made available on request.
The decision shocked many at the time as Kissinger, then US national security adviser and secretary of state under President Richard Nixon, played a major role in US military strategy in the final stages of the 1955-75 Vietnam conflict.
“I am even more surprised than I was at the time that the committee could come to such a bad decision,” said Stein Tønnesson, a professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo who reviewed the documents.
Kissinger and Tho reached the January 1973 Paris peace accords, under which Washington completed a military withdrawal from South Vietnam, having largely ended offensives and avoided combat against the Communist North in the face of worsening troop morale and huge anti-war protests in America.
But the ceasefire stipulated by the accords was soon ignored on the ground by North and South Vietnam, which refused to sign the deal claiming betrayal as Hanoi’s forces were not required to withdraw from the South.
The war raged on, with the North’s forces rapidly advancing in the South, now left to fight without critical US support and weakened by high-level state corruption and disarray.
Fighting ended only on 30 April 1975 after North Vietnamese forces captured the South’s capital Saigon, triggering a chaotic and humiliating evacuation of remaining Americans and local allies by helicopter from the US Embassy rooftop.
Two out of the five members of the Norwegian Nobel committee – all now dead – resigned in protest. Kissinger, while accepting the award, did not travel to Norway for the ceremony and later tried in vain to return the prize.
Tho, who died at 78 in 1990, was a general, diplomat and member of North Vietnam’s ruling Politburo. He oversaw the southern Viet Cong insurgency against the Saigon government from the late 1950s, and later the North’s decisive 1974-75 offensive that brought about unification under rule from Hanoi.
Kissinger, 99 and still a prominent commentator on foreign policy, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The papers reveal Kissinger and Tho were nominated by a member of the Nobel committee, Norwegian academic John Sanness, on 29 January 1973 – two days after the signing of the Paris accords.
“My reasoning is that this choice would underline the positive that talks have led to a deal that will bring armed conflict between North Vietnam and the United States to an end,” Sanness said in his typewritten letter, in Norwegian.
But Sanness, who died in 1984, added: “I am aware that it is only in the time ahead that it will become clear [what kind of] significance the accords will have in practice.”
The nomination letter and the reports prepared on Kissinger and Tho for the committee’s deliberations showed it was “fully aware” the accords were “unlikely to hold”, said Toennesson.
Among the released documents is the original telegram Tho sent from Hanoi that said it was “impossible” for him to accept the peace prize.
Tho wrote: “When the Paris agreement on Vietnam is respected, guns are silenced and peace is really restored in South Vietnam, I will consider the acceptance of this prize.”
In the end, the Paris accords sealed the US exit from a war widely reviled at home as a hugely costly and divisive quagmire, but did not silence the guns or bring a negotiated peace in Vietnam.
On 1 May 1975, the day after the fall of Saigon that ended the war, Kissinger tried to return the prize, via a US cable to the Nobel committee in which he said the “peace we sought through negotiations has been overturned by force”.
The committee refused to take back the award.
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