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Henry Kissinger turns 100 on May 27. How should he be remembered?

For me, he is the American who, more than any other individual, lost the Vietnam War.

But today Kissinger is a demigod among our foreign policy elite. National Security Adviser and Secretary of State under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Kissinger ranks in the top echelon of notable Americans. On issues like the war in Ukraine and even artificial intelligence, our elite wants to know: "What does Henry recommend?"

Kissinger's rise to eminence began with his secret negotiation of the 1973 Paris Peace Agreement ostensibly ending the Vietnam War with peace and freedom for the people of South Vietnam.

That war had begun modestly for America in late 1954, when the exhausted French gave up on military efforts to maintain their colonial control of Vietnam. Two independent nations were created by agreement — North Vietnam for the Communists, and South Vietnam for the nationalists. Each pledged not to attack the other.

On Oct. 23, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower sent to South Vietnam's prime minister an American commitment to provide military and economic aid to the nationalists in building a modern country respecting traditional Vietnamese values. (My father drafted that letter for Eisenhower.)

In 1959, Communist leaders in Hanoi launched a political/military campaign to conquer South Vietnam. Soon party members in South Vietnam formed an insurgency called the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (also called the Viet Cong).

In 1961 President John Kennedy enhanced Eisenhower's commitment to the Vietnamese nationalists, sending American military advisers to help counter the insurgency. Hanoi escalated.

By June 1965, with the introduction into the South of North Vietnamese regular forces, the South Vietnamese were in danger of losing the military struggle. President Lyndon Johnson sent American military forces to South Vietnam to hold the line against Hanoi's aggression.

In response, a protest movement began in the United States, stridently opposing the war against the Vietnamese Communists as unwise and unwinnable. After his narrow 1969 election to the presidency, Richard Nixon adopted a policy of "Vietnamization" -- withdrawing American forces as the South Vietnamese took over the fight. By 1971 the program was succeeding.

In November 1972 Nixon won re-election in a landslide. The antiwar movement by then had gained control of the Democratic Party and turned it into a political force demanding an immediate end to American support for South Vietnam. The resulting bitter strife did much to set in motion the cultural and political antagonisms that are unraveling America today.

But even before the success of Vietnamization had been demonstrated, and before Nixon had been re-elected, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, tasked with secretly negotiating with the Vietnamese Communists, had undergone a change of heart. He had given up on the South Vietnamese.

I know this because of good luck in finding, in odd places over many years, documents that reveal what Kissinger did. My search began in 1980 when Ellsworth Bunker, former American ambassador to Saigon, asked me to help him write his memoirs. I thus gained access to secret files not then available to other scholars and journalists. I also cultivated by then retired and disgraced former President Nixon to confirm my assessment of Kissinger's culpability for the ultimate loss of South Vietnam.

The documents show that:

On Jan. 9, 1971, Kissinger proposed to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that the United States could agree to the Vietnamese Communist Party leaving its army in South Vietnam after signing a peace agreement with the United States. He did this without authorization from Nixon and without consulting America's ally Nguyen Van Thieu, President of South Vietnam.

Kissinger further discussed with Dobrynin the idea that if war resumed between North and South Vietnam after a peace agreement, America would stand idly by and let the Gods of War determine the fate of South Vietnam.

In his memorandum on his talks with Dobrynin, Kissinger did not reveal to his president what he had suggested. But several weeks later, the Soviet ambassador in Hanoi reported Kissinger's thoughts to North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong.

On May 25, 1971, the Vietnamese Communist leadership used a Frenchman, former colonial official Jean Sainteny, to convey their acceptance of Kissinger's concept of how the Vietnam War could end with their conquest of South Vietnam "a couple of years" after a peace agreement was signed.

Also on May 25, 1971, Kissinger sent a secret message to Bunker, then American ambassador in Saigon, noting indirectly that the United States would no longer demand the withdrawal of Hanoi's army from South Vietnam but would leave resolution of the issue to the Vietnamese themselves.

On May 31, 1971, Kissinger met secretly in Paris with Xuan Thuy, a senior Hanoi diplomat. The American again did not demand that Hanoi withdraw its troops from South Vietnam.

Kissinger also said: "When U.S. forces are finally withdrawn, the political future of South Vietnam will have to be left to the Vietnamese." With these words, Kissinger confirmed to Hanoi as representative of the president his personal position that the Vietnamese Communists could revoke South Vietnam's independence after "a couple of years."

Kissinger did not report to his president this commitment to a future abandonment of South Vietnam.

On July 4, 1971, Kissinger was in Saigon. He met with South Vietnam's President Thieu. Kissinger did not bring up either his proposal to let Hanoi station its army in the South or Hanoi's commitment to delay its conquest of the South by "a couple of years."

A few days later Kissinger was in Beijing meeting with Chinese Communist Premier Zhou Enlai. He told Zhou that "[I]f after complete American withdrawal, the Indochinese people change their governments, the U.S. will not interfere."

In the summer of 1972 Hanoi launched a major invasion of South Vietnam. By then the Viet Cong had been defeated by the South Vietnamese through a program of village self-government and self-defense. (I worked for that program and can testify to its success.)

Hanoi's 1972 offensive failed, and afterward the Communists agreed to terms with Kissinger. A draft treaty was written up. It did not provide for the withdrawal of Hanoi's forces from South Vietnam. President Thieu refused to sign it, saying such a treaty would be "suicide" for the South Vietnamese.

Nixon insisted that Kissinger get terms better protecting South Vietnam from future aggression. But Nixon's negotiating flexibility was limited by the demands of Democrats in Congress to end the war. When Hanoi refused to accept more favorable terms Nixon resumed bombing North Vietnam. Hanoi became more accommodating, and a slightly better treaty from South Vietnam's point of view was signed on Jan. 23, 1973. But Hanoi still had the right to keep its army in the South.

After a "couple of years" passed, years during which Democrats in Congress reduced military assistance to South Vietnam, Hanoi kicked off a full-scale offensive in early 1975. Saigon fell to the Communists on April 30.

Thus did America lose its first war, thanks to Henry Kissinger's secret negotiations with the Vietnamese Communists. This precedent would be repeated years later in Afghanistan when Americans would again negotiate with the enemy behind their allies' backs.

Losing the Vietnam War mortally wounded American self-confidence, opening a Pandora's box of perhaps unresolvable cultural and political divisions that have split the nation into fratricidal warring tribes.

This cultural collapse may well be Henry Kissinger's principal legacy for his adopted homeland.

Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is author of "Kissinger's Betrayal: How America Lost the Vietnam War," published by Real Clear Publishing. He was chief, Village Government Branch, Civil Operations and Rural Development Support, Republic of Vietnam. He was a member of the Citizens Commission for Indochinese Refugees.