The long life of Henry Kissinger prompted me to think of the short life of a boyhood friend. In the summer of 1968, Kissinger was serving as an unofficial consultant for the United States at the Paris Peace Talks to end the War in Vietnam. Almost wantonly ambitious, the future Secretary of State was secretly working to win a cabinet position from whatever presidential candidate might go to the White House. Thirty thousand American lives had already been lost in the Guerrilla combat of Southeast Asia, and Kissinger was about to play a role in extending the conflict by conspiring with a foreign power to affect an American election.
Roy Raymond Dukes, meanwhile, had just graduated from Southwestern High School in Flint, Michigan. I do not know what his options were regarding his future, but they almost certainly had to include college track scholarships. Dukes was often spoken of as having the potential to become the first school boy to ever break 45 seconds in the quarter mile. I had seen him compete in meets that involved my high school team and remember being astonished by his speed and fluidity on a cinder track.
Dukes’ legs sometimes appeared to reach up to his armpits and he had a barrel chest that fed oxygen and power to his great stride. His heels never touched the surface when he ran and his breathing was almost silent and effortless. In the George Graves Relays Invitational in Midland, Michigan, I recall how other competitors stopped what they were doing to watch Roy anchor Southwestern’s mile relay team. My suspicion is that we all knew we were witnessing greatness and were intrigued by what made the difference between Roy and the rest of us, who he made look like plodding Clydesdales.
I spoke with Roy only briefly at a few all-comers track meets that summer but never got any sense of his plans. He was a year ahead of me in high school and was already graduated and to be without a student deferment exposed 18-year-old males to the military draft. Our conversations never got that personal but I assumed he had figured out what was next and maybe had hoped to run for the U.S. Army, if he were not going to attend a college or university. When I heard from another running friend that Roy had been drafted about a year after graduation, I thought maybe he had tried college and gave it up from a lack of interest. I did not know.
I do know now, though, what everyone understands about the Vietnam War. The 1968 peace talks to broker an end to the war concluded with the same terms as the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, which resulted in the 1975 collapse of South Vietnam. The unnecessary delay was a product, in significant part, to the ego and ambitions of Henry Kissinger. In 1967, the author and Harvard professor was cleared by LBJ to launch unofficial peace talks with representatives of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. They fell apart when Kissinger was unable to convince President Lyndon Baines Johnson to stop bombing the North. Ultimately, the war led to LBJ declining to run for reelection.
There was, however, a very close race for president to succeed LBJ in 1968 and the war was the central issue. In a clear attempt to ingratiate himself with the Democrats, whose support in the polls was growing as the war waged on, Kissinger contacted LBJ’s advisor Averell Harriman, who a year later was leading renewed peace efforts in Paris. He wrote Harriman that he was “through with Republican politics” and that the “party is hopeless and unfit to govern.” Unsurprisingly, a month later, while young men like Roy Raymond Dukes of Flint, Michigan were trying to figure out their lives without fear of war, Kissinger arrived in Paris as an unofficial consultant to the American delegation. He burnished his credentials with the Democrats by constant expressions of disgust regarding Richard Nixon, the GOP nominee.
Kissinger was looking to join a winning team and if the bombing of North Vietnam could be halted at the negotiation table, Democratic Presidential Nominee Hubert H. Humphrey was almost certain to win the November election that year. Nonetheless, Kissinger was taking no chances and even as he was serving the incumbent LBJ’s efforts at peace, he began back-channel communications with the Richard Nixon campaign. Using a telephone booth so his calls could not be monitored, historians wrote that Kissinger contacted Nixon’s foreign policy advisor Richard Allen to offer information in exchange for a senior cabinet position if the Californian won the White House. When he informed Allen that LBJ’s team had negotiated a pause to bombing campaigns, the information secured him the job as National Security advisor if Nixon were to win. He was playing the same game with Humphrey’s campaign, lobbying for a senior post. Numerous historians have concluded that Nixon and Kissinger conspired to slow down the peace process to give the Republican a better chance at becoming president.
Although Kissinger had publicly criticized Nixon in the past for possessing what he called a “dangerous misunderstanding” of foreign policy, and describing LBJ’s successor as being burdened with “shallowness,” he jumped into his role in the new administration and resumed negotiations to achieve what Nixon hoped would be viewed by history as “peace with honor.” A restive American population had given Nixon the presidency after the Democrats had been unable to stop the bombing and arrive at peace terms before Election Day. Nixon won the total vote by a half percentage point over Humphrey. Whatever conciliatory impulses Kissinger might have had for quickly ending the war disappeared into policy morasses like “Vietnamization” and increased bombing campaigns to force the Viet Cong back to the bargaining table.
About the time in 1969 that the U.S. began carpet bombing Cambodia in what was supposed to eliminate supply lines for the Viet Cong, Roy Raymond Dukes was drafted into the Army. I was never able to learn how he spent his time between graduation and induction but I know he would have had to take his physical in Detroit before being shipped off to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for basic training. Had there been even a tentative agreement to end hostilities in 1968, Roy might have taken a job and begun training in an effort to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials and the 1972 games in Munich. He would have had a real chance at making the team in the 400 meters. Instead, he arrived “in-country” the first week of January 1970.
According to a New York Times article, Roy would have been joining his infantry combat unit at the time a heroin scourge was sweeping through American troops. The report indicated that as many as 60,000 enlisted U.S. personnel were addicted and that some field units had more than 50 percent of their number addicted to the drug. The heroin in Vietnam was 95 percent pure, and cheap. A habit in the U.S. during that era cost an addict as much as $100 a day, and soldiers in Vietnam needed only $5 to satisfy their craving. There was no need to use needles and mainline because the purity of the heroin made it easy to snort or smoke. Facing death almost daily and living in near-squalid conditions when not sleeping in jungles where rain, snakes, and the enemy held dominion, troops sought an easy escape from their circumstances through drug use.
The drug culture was widespread when PFC Roy R. Dukes landed in Vietnam and joined D Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. His outfit was ordered to provide support to combat operations by escorting convoys and conducting occasional air cover. Just six weeks after his arrival, on February 17, 1971, Dukes was manning a gun on a jeep that was part of protecting a supply convoy, which was moving through Phuoc Long Province. The train of military vehicles was near the Song Be River about ten miles northwest of Phuouc Binh when someone discovered Roy Raymond Dukes unconscious over his gun, and he was airlifted to the 93rd Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh. Army doctors indicated he was suffering from anoxic encephalopathy, which is a deprivation of oxygen to the brain. The cause was a heroin overdose. Roy lingered for just under two weeks but never regained consciousness. The Army, in its clinical and obtuse fashion, described the cause of his death as “self-inflicted, ground casualty.”
In the years that followed the 1968 tampering with the peace process by Kissinger and Nixon, the war accelerated instead of winding down. America began bombing Cambodia and Laos, which analysts said involved 540,000 pounds of explosives that killed up to 500,000 civilians. Kissinger personally approved each of the 3,785 bombing missions between 1969 and ‘70, an assault that led to the destabilization of the Cambodian government and brought about the Pol Pot regime, which killed more than 2 million people in a genocide. In Vietnam, around 200 American soldiers died each week as the total grew toward an eventual number of 58,220, memorialized now on a black, marble wall in Washington, D.C. In 1995, Vietnam released its estimate of dead with a total number of 2,000,000 citizens and 1,100,000 soldiers.
When I began traveling to Washington on frequent reporting assignments in the eighties, I made it a point to visit the Vietnam Memorial. Often, I ran from my hotel down the National Mall and looked up Roy’s name and was overwhelmed by the dramatic accounting of loss carved into the stone. It’s not a true measurement, though, because there is no way to know what might have been accomplished by those young people had their lives not been sacrificed in a geo-political game that was never destined to have a winner. Kissinger’s life, however, is easily measured by the deaths he helped cause through his political manipulations in Cambodia, Laos, East Timor, Bangladesh, Argentina, and Chile. Atrocities and war crimes he facilitated using American power account for 3-4 million deaths.
His legacy is not likely to be burdened with facts, though, any more than was Nixon’s, who gave Kissinger his initial power. In April of 1994, I was assigned to cover Richard Nixon’s funeral in California and provide live reports for CBS-TV affiliates around the country. Reality, however, was not in attendance as I had to listen to Democratic and Republican presidents, a famed minister, historians and colleagues, lionize a man who nearly brought down the country with a constitutional crisis with Watergate and lingered over a war that was not winnable and wasted American lives and treasure in a vain attempt to salvage an historic political legacy. Only minutes after he had been lowered into the grave outside his presidential library, huge hailstones began to fall after loud claps of thunder and in minutes there were several inches accumulated on the ground. Satellite trucks were knocked off the air. An L.A. weatherman said that night he could find no record of hail ever having fallen in Yorba Linda.
I suspect it is nowhere cool enough for hail to fall where Nixon and Kissinger presently exist.