The Forty Years War
Probes Obscure Pentagon Official
Ideology of Fritz Kraemer at the Heart
of Wartime Policy from Vietnam to the Present
Who was Fritz Kraemer?
Whether Vietnam, Iraq, or now
Afghanistan, wars come and go, but the real battle is a philosophic one
two sects of conservatives. In The Forty Years War: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons from Nixon
to Obama, authors Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman challenge readers to
examine the role of a little-known Pentagon figure named Fritz G.A. Kraemer.
Colodny and Shachtman argue that Kraemer was the leading intellectual behind
what became known as the neo-conservative movement, witnessed by the fact that
Kraemer influenced so many high-ranking conservative figures over the course
of six decades.
What we see in The Forty Years
War is that Vietnam split conservatives into two groups: those who
sought reconciliation with America's adversaries (including not only North
Vietnam, but also the Soviet Union and China), and those who thought weak-kneed
political leaders were giving away too much to America's adversaries, including
restricting military solutions in Vietnam and more generally pursuing policies
of détente. Following Vietnam, Henry Kissinger emerged as the best example of a member of the former group,
while Fritz Kraemer continued to lead the latter group.
The split occurred during the fall
of 1972, at the moment the Nixon administration was closest to reaching a peace
agreement with North and South Vietnam. Most importantly, the split was captured
on the Nixon taping system. Before publication of The Forty Years War, no
attention had been paid to a meeting that took place on October 24, 1972, yet it
has all the makings of pure intrigue. At 11:15 am, Henry Kissinger and his
long-time mentor, Fritz Kraemer, entered the Oval Office for a private meeting
with President Nixon.
The role of Fritz
Kraemer on Henry Kissinger's formative years
He [Kraemer] brought him [Kissinger]
down to Harvard, nurtured him, loved him dearly, but became
profoundly disappointed on the issue of Vietnam, and arms control,
and other things. Because he happens to be a dear friend of mine,
and I love him and respect him dearly. And I'm trying to get the two
back together, and there's just no way; it's never going to happen.
Because Fritz is an ideologue and a principled individual who'd
never compromise on his beliefs.
Alexander M. Haig, Jr.
The obvious question, then, is why don't we know more about this
shadowy Pentagon figure who seemingly influenced nearly every conservative
foreign policy thinker from the Nixon administration forward? Even his death, in
2003, has been no impediment to his influence. Former Vice President Dick
Cheney's recent criticism of President's Obama's Afghanistan policy could have
come from Kraemer himself.
Start with what we do know. On
September 18, 1971, in an Oval Office conversation between Henry Kissinger and
President Nixon, Kissinger reminded Nixon that Kraemer had been sending a series
of papers related to his theory of "provocative weakness" to the White
House, to Henry Kissinger's attention. Kraemer's "provocative
weakness" applied to Nixon's foreign policy in the broadest possible sense,
including subjects such as Vietnam, China, and detente with the Soviet Union. In
the excerpt below, Nixon clearly recalls Kraemer, and asks Kissinger to set up a
meeting so that Nixon could meet with Kraemer himself.
I have this friend, this right-wing friend in the Pentagon, I’ve
shown you some memos of his—Kraemer—
Who, when he was—
always was the one who sent in—who gives us the analysis—
He was giving me—
I should meet him sometime.
Well, I’ll bring him in if you want—
You bring him in. All right, go ahead.
Tell him that I do read his stuff, though.
I—Yeah, I will tell him that.
Fritz Kraemer's theory of
provocative weakness, greatly simplified, goes like this: displaying too much
force, such as engaging in an arms race or using excessive force during wartime,
are provocative but necessary actions in the face of an irrational adversary.
Such displays of strength are preferable to appearing too weak in the eyes of
your adversary, which is also provocative since such weakness may incite an adversary to take unnecessarily
risky actions that they would otherwise not take. Colodny and Shachtman argue
that this philosophy has been an overriding principle of the neo-conservative
movement, which has been applied to a variety of international conflicts over
the past 40 years.
Fritz Kraemer was placed on
President Nixon's schedule, on October 24, 1972,
at 11:15 am. Kissinger's deputy, General Alexander M. Haig, Jr., who
remained loyal to Kraemer after the Kraemer-Kissinger split, was not permitted to
attend. At the start of the meeting, White House Photographer Ollie Atkins
captured numerous images, which appear below. They depict Nixon and Kissinger in
a jocular mood, clearly enjoying themselves, while Kraemer looked grave, perhaps
annoyed that the start of his meeting had been reduced to humor and grandstanding.
During the meeting, Kraemer made it
increasingly clear that he was not happy with Nixon's foreign policy,
specifically with respect to Vietnam. Kraemer believed that the forthcoming
peace agreement had been negotiated according to political timing, as opposed to
sound negotiating principles.
Nixon began the meeting by
flattering Kraemer. "There are so few people with intellectual capabilities
who aren't hopelessly unrealistic. We call them doves, for lack of a better name
for it. That's too good of a name for it. They're actually worse. To have an
intelligent appraisal by someone who really understands great forces at work in
the world...with the Soviets, China, etc., to have that kind of analysis...I
appreciate it. It's been very helpful."
Kraemer soon began to lay into
Nixon's and Kissinger's strategy in Vietnam, including that crucial concessions
had been made—such as not insisting on a North Vietnamese withdrawal from South
Vietnam—in order to obtain a flawed peace in time for the 1972 presidential
election. Kissinger and Nixon defended themselves.
Kissinger: Our difficulty,
Kraemer, has been not that we have made concessions before the
election. Our difficulty has been to think up demands which could
protract it beyond the election because every demand we make—
meet within twenty-four hours. So we are literally running out of
proposals we can make to them.
Kraemer: Make a proposal that
they should withdraw from South Vietnam.
Kissinger: We've made that now.
We've made the proposal, for example, that their prisoners have to
stay in South Vietnamese jails.
Nixon: Forty thousand.
Kissinger: Forty thousand
political prisoners would stay in South Vietnamese jails, which we
thought was unacceptable.
Kraemer: That's interesting.
Kissinger: And they have now
accepted that their cadres stay in South Vietnamese jails. Now, you
know that this is not an easy thing for them to sign a document in
which they release our prisoners, [they] have to release South
Vietnamese military prisoners, but all [North Vietnamese] civilian prisoners stay in
Kraemer: Do you perhaps think,
that the ceasefire is such an advantage to them for the psychological
reason that they are more disciplined, more homogeneous?
Nixon: I think they are fairly
confident, but I think there is the other factor, which I think we
must have in mind. Remember, we never want to obviously
underestimate...that they have taken a hell of a beating. I mean the
bombing has hurt, the mining has hurt, the attrition that has
occurred in South Vietnam. I mean, when you stop to think of, not
just what we have done in the North, but the 52s, those six carriers
we've had out there, and everything. We have clobbered the bejeezus
out of them. I think, therefore, that they have reached a point, and
it is only temporary, I agree, where in their thought there, they
may have read Mao. You know, he was always willing to retreat.
Kissinger: We may have been, in
fact, too successful...because we told them, for example,
that all communications will be cut off on November 7th. Because the
president would have to retreat to reorganize the government.
was probably the only one to have occurred during the Nixon presidency in which
Nixon and Kissinger permitted a rigorous debate, in the Oval Office no less,
over the merits of not just Vietnam policy, but Nixon foreign policy more
generally. Kraemer knew the issues well enough that both Nixon and Kissinger
were forced to defend themselves to someone who represented an increasingly
disenchanted sect of conservatives. Kraemer believed, as other conservatives
did, that the conduct of Nixon foreign policy had became tainted by short-term
political considerations, and that politicians had acted as a restraining
influence on military leaders who believed they were capable of achieving a military
Nixon: We've fought a pretty
good fight up to this point, and we're not caving. Because we see
that it's a very difficult war. Success or failure now, not just for
anything will look good for two or three months—but something that
has a chance to survive, shall we say, for two or three years. That
is very much a condition that we cannot compromise on.
Kraemer: May I formulate, say,
one strategic sentence—
Kraemer: If, it should prove,
within a number of fronts, that we, the United States, were not able
to deal with the entity North Vietnam, 31 million inhabitants, that
would be, apart from everything moral,
the question will arise—among
friend, foe, and entrants—with whom can the United States ever
deal successfully? Because this entity of 31 million, supported by
the Soviets, by China, but not by their manpower—
—is relatively so small that everybody from Rio de Janeiro to
Copenhagen, and from Hanoi to Moscow, can draw the conclusion:
obviously, the enormous American power couldn't deal with this.
Therefore, as a lawyer, I would say...since we cannot deal with
Vietnam, with whom can we deal?
The tone of the conversation was not
adversarial, but it was clearly elevated. Nixon admitted that Kraemer touched on
far more than simply American policy towards Vietnam. "The whole foreign
policy of the United States is on the line here," Nixon noted. The
half-hour meeting was too brief for what Kraemer had in mind. He made
his disagreement known to the president, which ultimately resulted in a split
with Henry Kissinger. The estrangement that resulted between the two men, who
had met a quarter century earlier after each enlisted in the U.S. Army during
World War II, continued stubbornly even beyond Kraemer's death in 2003.
It is because these two
conservative sects split—one
led by Henry Kissinger and the pragmatists, and the other led by Fritz Kraemer
and later figures such as Alexander Haig, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney—as
well as the fact that they never resolved their differences before Kraemer's
death, that this split continues today. Since Vietnam, wars and have come and
gone, but this philosophic battle has never been overcome. Former Vice President
Dick Cheney's criticism of President Obama's policy with respect to Afghanistan
could have come from Fritz Kraemer himself. While many in the media have
interpreted Cheney's comments on purely political, they miss the greater
struggle taking place within the conservative camp. The debate over future
American policy towards Afghanistan is merely the vehicle for the latest chapter
in the epic struggle.
The Forty Years War should serve as a call to researchers to learn much
more about Fritz Kraemer. Perhaps the outcome of this future research will
confirm Colodny and Shachtman's view that Kraemer was a sort of ideological
godfather to the neo-conservatives. After all, a split in the conservative camp
indeed took place, and was never resolved. On the other hand, others may conclude
that the emphasis on
Kraemer is overdone. Either way, the first step is to learn more about the
mysterious figure who was indeed influential to so many American diplomatic and
military figures since Vietnam. For that, The Forty Years War indeed