Henry, Act III

Henry, Act III

Mini Teaser: Kissinger's record of the Ford years and of the demise of détente.

by Author(s): Walter A. McDougall

Henry Kissinger, Years of Renewal (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999), 1119 pp., $35.

According to Walter Isaacson's Kissinger: A Biography, the consulting firm of Kissinger Associates became active in 1982, when the firm's chief "realized he did not feel like writing a third volume of memoirs and that Ronald Reagan was never going to make him secretary of state." Perhaps so, but that does not explain why we had to wait seventeen years for the finale of the trilogy that began with White House Years (1979) and Years of Upheaval (1982). More to the point are the facts that Kissinger Associates proved more successful, hence time-consuming, than expected; that Kissinger wanted to devote what spare time he had to more interesting projects (above all, his magisterial Diplomacy, 1994); and that the memoirs themselves had to be revisited in light of the end of the Cold War, the death of Nixon and each new revelation about the 1970s.

Thus, even though the author must have begun Years of Renewal years ago, the final product contains subtle replies to William Bundy's A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency (1998), William Burr's The Kissinger Transcripts: The Top-Secret Talks With Beijing and Moscow (1999), The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House (1994), Isaacson's biography (1992) and the selective release of Nixon tapes by the National Archives. One result is that although Kissinger's third volume covers his service in the Ford administration, the first 166 pages consist largely of rebuttals and clarifications made necessary by all the above. For instance, Kissinger bluntly disputes Bundy's "caricature" of policy making in the Nixon administration as obsessively secret, deceptive and thus self-defeating. No recent president, he argues, tried harder than Nixon to explain to the Congress, media and public what he was doing and why. The audiences just hated the message, or messenger, and refused to listen. Moreover, Kissinger adds, by 1972 he himself was often called to the microphone to explain and persuade, and while he grants that domestic politics were hardly his long suit, he denies trying to mislead.

One may add that if charges of willful hypocrisy are to be hurled about, the veterans of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who designed, then deserted, the Vietnam War amidst yawning "credibility gaps" are ill-advised to cast the first stones. As for the transcripts of taped conversations, avidly peddled as the unvarnished truth by those who would profit from them, Kissinger warns that they are "flotsam and jetsam" of little historical use because it is impossible to gauge the moods, motives and contexts of remarks made in private. Nixon in particular was prone to venting his deepest insecurities about people not present, while at the same was "obsessively incapable" of disagreeing with people who were present. Kissinger grants that Nixon's language was at times inexcusable, but denies ever seeing him intoxicated during working hours, and stands by the eulogy he delivered at Yorba Linda in praise of a flawed but courageous and "near great" maker of tough decisions.

Enter Gerald R. Ford, who, by contrast, was guileless: "With Ford, what one saw was what one got." And given that he was an unelected president taking office in an era of polarization and paranoia, "Providence smiled on Americans when--seemingly by happenstance--it brought forward a President who embodied our nation's deepest and simplest values." In an unspoken comparison to Clinton, Kennedy and perhaps Reagan, Kissinger meditates on how television and the computer have replaced the written word--and a politics of substance--with the visual image--and a politics of impressions:

"The modern politician is less interested in being a hero than a superstar. Heroes walk alone; stars derive their status from approbation. Heroes are defined by inner values, stars by consensus. When a candidate's views are forged in focus groups and ratified by television anchor-persons, insecurity and superficiality become congenital. Radicalism replaces liberalism, and populism masquerades as conservatism."

Contrary to his bumbling media image, Ford was just such a hero in Kissinger's eyes. He took office at a moment when most of the old establishment, not to mention the antiwar movement and the "McGovernite Congress", had turned isolationist in the belief that anti-communism had corrupted America, and that American Cold War exertions had polluted the world. At the same time, conservatives and neoconservatives were metamorphosing into Wilsonian crusaders and damning the administration for not being anti-communist enough. Yet Ford never wavered from his mission to heal the nation's wounds. Kissinger confesses that at times he thought Ford's equanimity excessive, but he now appreciates how his restraint lanced the poison from the American body politic and hastened its convalescence.

Kissinger is probably right about that. Just as Nixon's Southern strategy and appeal to blue-collar Democrats helped make possible the later "Reagan coalition", so did Ford's willingness to absorb the angry darts of the Left and Right dissipate the passions aroused by Vietnam and Watergate until (with assists from his successor's "malaise" and the Ayatollah) the nation was ready to get back into the ring with its geopolitical opponent.

But the anticipatory question many of us had about Kissinger's final volume of memoirs was whether he would put a new spin on the era of dŽtente in light of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Would he deny the charge that he was a pessimistic declinist, and insist that he, too, had been working toward an eventual victory in the Cold War, rather than a long-term accommodation with Moscow? The answer is yes, though his claims are modest and his arguments subtle. Thus he and Nixon did not discount the Soviets' ideology, but did conclude "that the Soviets' ideological reach was collapsing. . . . Once our opening to China was completed, the Soviet Union faced a coalition of all the industrial nations in the world in tacit alliance with the most populous nation. Sooner or later this equation would work in favor of the democracies, provided they could contain Soviet adventures by deterrence and give the Soviets a chance to reduce confrontation by opportunities for cooperation."

To be sure, Vietnam had severely wounded American prestige and self-confidence, but Nixon and Kissinger believed that whereas dŽtente would buy time for America to recover, Brezhnev's embrace of dŽtente was a "gamble" that "as these policies gather momentum and longevity, their effects will not undermine the very system from which Brezhnev draws his power and legitimacy. Our goal on the other hand is to achieve precisely such effects over the long run." Kissinger came to know the Soviet rulers intimately, and judged that their obsession with political survival in the Byzantine nomenklatura gave them little incentive to exercise strategic imagination. Hence, "the Soviet Union in the 1970s accumulated military and geopolitical power less as an expression of long-range geopolitical aims than as a substitute for them." He did not doubt that time was on the side of the West, and says he is still unable to identify any of the alleged "giveaways" that his critics said made détente a "one-way street."

Likewise, the 1975 Helsinki Accords denounced by the American Right as a reprise of Yalta have come "to be appreciated as a political and moral landmark that contributed to the progressive decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet system." Kissinger does not claim to have had any premonition of that at the time, but he does note that the Soviets themselves were worried enough about the human rights guarantees in "Basket Three" that they lobbied (unsuccessfully) for a preamble forbidding their use as a pretext to interfere in the domestic affairs of states. Indeed, the East Europeans were avid supporters of the Final Act because (or in spite) of the fact that it amounted to a repeal of the Brezhnev Doctrine under which the Soviets had invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. But when it came to selling Helsinki at home, President Ford was trapped. He could hardly brag publicly that Helsinki was really a secret ploy to encourage dissent in the Soviet bloc, but he could not win conservative support at home unless he did precisely that. It was this Catch-22 that engendered Ford's "Poland" gaffe in the 1976 debate with Carter, and perhaps his loss of the White House.

Likewise, the Vladivostok agreement on nuclear arms was rejected by the American Right for allegedly ratifying Soviet strategic parity, if not superiority, and by the Left for not cutting nuclear arsenals. But the only way the United States could have leveraged Moscow into lower levels of arms was by increasing, or threatening to increase, the American arsenal. Thus, the "dilemma faced by Ford was that the senators supporting Vladivostok were generally in favor of cutting the defense budget, while those who favored an increase in defense also opposed Vladivostok." In time, Reagan was able to launch the defense build-up needed to nudge the Soviets into reductions, but in 1976 that was a utopian option.

Historians gaining access to new documentation, especially from the communist side, and pundits pursuing their domestic political agendas will debate whether or not the Ford administration did the best it could under the circumstances, but none can deny its energy. Kissinger is sure to be ribbed for penning another 1119 pages covering the truncated Ford presidency. But the truth is that the Ford years were packed with crises and contingencies that might have spawned disaster had Ford and Kissinger bowed to the "Come Home, America" mood. Describing the situation in the fall of 1974, Kissinger alludes to "the strategy by which a non-elected President, saddled with a McGovernite Congress, trying to rebuild a discredited presidency, and dealing with ethnic conflict on Cyprus and the threat of war in the Middle East, sought to pursue the part adversarial, part cooperative relationship with the other nuclear power." That was only the beginning.

Over the next eighteen months came the congressional assault on covert action and the evisceration of the CIA; a series of exhausting shuttles to persuade Anwar Sadat and the Israelis to disengage in the Sinai; the congressional cutoff of funds for the defense of Cambodia and the fall of that country to the genocidal Khmer Rouge; the North Vietnamese offensive of 1975 and the futile fight in Congress for material help for the South; the final evacuation from Saigon and the Cambodian seizure of the Mayaguez; the crushing of Kurdish autonomy and danger of another genocidal conflict; and efforts to rally Europeans to surmount the ongoing energy crisis and forestall the Euro-communists' bid for power in several NATO governments. Then add to all that the decolonization of Portuguese Africa; Soviet and Cuban intervention in Angola, and the subsequent danger of radicalization and even race war in southern Africa; the collapse of Lebanon into civil war and foreign occupation; the Panama Canal treaty; and continuing negotiations with the Soviet Union and China.

What is more, given that the Ford administration was constantly "whipsawed" at home by the post-Vietnam and post-Watergate Left and the neoconservative Right, it is remarkable that its setbacks were so few and achievements so many. In one sense, of course, the mid-1970s were years of cloture, as illustrated by Kissinger's excruciating accounts of former Cambodian Prime Minister Sirik Matak, pleading vainly for help as the Khmer Rouge approached, then dying in agony in Phnom Penh; or U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin, who had lost a son in the Vietnam War, bravely and bitterly directing the airlift out of Saigon and leaving on the last helicopter; or black African leaders begging in vain for the United States not to desert the Angolan resistance lest the Soviet-armed "boys with the guns" be emboldened all over Africa.

But in another sense those were years of gestation when new constellations of power emerged that would shape the next fifteen years. In the Middle East, Kissinger doggedly explored the Syrian and Jordanian dead ends until he discovered the high road to bilateral Egyptian-Israeli agreement. He and Ford rallied the oil-consuming industrial states to coordinate their response to the energy crisis, institutionalizing what would become the "G-7" summits. Kissinger and the British worked to prevent a Greek-Turkish war over Cyprus, thus shoring up NATO's southern flank for the duration of the Cold War. And while Congress undercut CIA efforts to prevent a Marxist takeover in Angola, Kissinger and the British, again, shuttled among a dozen African capitals to win white and black Africans alike to a plan for majority rule in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Namibia, thereby frustrating Soviet and Cuban plans to exploit racial tensions on the continent. Finally, of course, the much maligned Helsinki Accords would encourage the Polish Solidarity Movement and Helsinki Watches that cracked the Soviet bloc--whether or not the drafters expected such results, or expected them so soon.

The biggest coup of the Kissinger years was the "tacit alliance" with China. And only Nixon could have pulled it off, not only because of his anti-communist credentials, but because Mao Tse-tung and Zhou Enlai--unlike moralistic Americans of all persuasions--thought primarily in geopolitical terms, the only terms under which the United States and China could make common cause. As well, it had to be Nixon because he remained determined to frustrate Hanoi's campaign to unify Vietnam, and to keep U.S. power in Southeast Asia. It should be obvious by now that while China supported North Vietnam for ideological reasons, it did not want the Vietnamese (who hate the Chinese) to unite under a tough pro-Soviet regime on China's southern flank. An American president who went to Beijing with apologies and promises to abandon South Vietnam would have been shown the door. To be bŸndnisfŠhig--that excellent German word meaning "worthy of being courted as an ally"--the United States had to be of strategic use to China, which meant balancing Soviet influence in Asia while deterring Soviet use of its nuclear arsenal. As Kissinger notes, "Though Brezhnev occasionally implied (if not very forcefully) that America's conduct of the war in Vietnam might impair Soviet-American relations, Zhou never even hinted at such a prospect." What cooled Sino-American relations in 1975-76 was precisely U.S. acquiescence in the fall of Saigon, Soviet nuclear parity, and what Chinese Ambassador Huang Zhen called "Munich thinking in Western Europe."

In 1972 Mao told Nixon, "I like rightists." Will the American Right ever come to admire Kissinger? It is a conservative principle that people ought to be judged not by what they accomplish, but by what they accomplish with what they are given. Ford and Kissinger were dealt very weak hands, and deserve credit for winning as many tricks as they did. But if the tone and content of these literate, thoughtful memoirs win grudging appreciation in some quarters, the book may annoy neoconservatives all over again. As a refugee from totalitarianism, Kissinger states that he could only agree with the neoconservatives' values and ultimate goals, but he blames their tactical blindness and ideological fervor for undercutting those who were engaged in fighting communism on the ground in those years. Neoconservatives may have had their consciousness raised by the Yom Kippur War and the excesses of the New Left, but they still despised Nixon and promoted a "militant, muscular Wilsonianism" at a time when domestic and geopolitical constraints made it impossible.

Thus, where the administration had made quiet and significant progress on emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union, Senator Henry Jackson's loud ultimatum to the Soviets on the issue only provoked a predictable nyet. And when the administration was fighting to prevent communist victories in Southeast Asia and Africa, it was Senator Jackson who said nyet. Neoconservatives might rebut these complaints with references to wheat deals and guaranteed loans that only subsidized the Soviet system; technological "partnerships" that amounted to giveaways; repeated Soviet violations of the spirit of dŽtente, especially in the Middle East; Kissinger's obsession with Third World complications when the real front lines of the Cold War remained Europe and the nuclear balance; and their own role in preparing the pitch for Reagan. Still, their Leninist "worse is better" approach c. 1975 was cold comfort to those responsible for, or dependent upon, American engagement in the meantime.

Asked once by Barbara Walters to describe himself in a word, Kissinger cleared his throat and replied, in his sonorous accent, "Complicated." By my count the words "complicated" and "complex" appear over seventy-five times in this book, not to mention variations of "ambiguous", "nuanced", "perplexing", "convoluted", "elaborate" and "intricate." And by impressing upon us the complexity of international relations Kissinger warns us against all who would simplify. His chosen trope in such cases is to employ disparaging terms drawn from religion, as when the North Vietnamese employ "sacramental phraseology", writing about Cambodia's genocide has a "near liturgical quality", the bureaucracy delivers "homilies" and its "standard litany" on Africa, the CIA mouths "orthodoxy" and the arms control community "theology" on nuclear weapons, and liberals quest for "a nirvana combining principle and low risk." During the Carter administration Zbigniew Brzezinski grunted that world politics is not a kindergarten. Neither, Kissinger would add, is it a Sunday school. But he laments at the end that the very success of Ford and Reagan (I would add Bush) in healing the nation and winning the Cold War "has been so extraordinary as to tempt the United States again into a missionary version of Wilsonian enthusiasm . . . and to conduct foreign policy as a permanent crusade for apocalyptic outcomes against all regimes that offend our sensibilities." Is he, therefore, the amoral realpolitiker after all, always preferring order to justice? The question is ill-framed, Kissinger tells us, and replies that his true commitment is "to evolution over revolution."

Beyond that, we learn no more here about Henry Kissinger the man than we have from his other books. Even the concluding page and a half, entitled "A Personal Note", is really about his father's charity and Jewish piety--both of which, his biographers say, Henry abandoned early in life. But the message of the "personal note" is clear: it is that Henry did his father proud, and is proud of having made his father proud. And that sort of pride is no sin.

Essay Types: Book Review