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The Statesman in Winter: Kissinger on the Ford Years

In This Review

Years of Renewal

By Henry A. Kissinger
Simon & Schuster, 1999
1,119 pp. $35.00
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In 1979 Henry A. Kissinger published his memoir White House Years, dealing with the first term of the Nixon administration, in which he was the president's national security adviser. In 1982 came Years of Upheaval, dealing with the year and a half of Nixon's foreshortened second term, in which Kissinger was both national security adviser and, from October 1973, secretary of state. Now Kissinger has finally completed the trilogy with Years of Renewal, dealing with the two and a half years in which he served President Ford, first in the same two jobs and then, from November 1975, only as secretary of state. In this new volume Kissinger also reflects at length, and with more distance, on the time with Nixon that so deeply shadowed everything Kissinger would do afterward.

No American statesman has done more to document and explain what he did and why he did it. Not only has he now produced nearly 4,000 pages of memoirs, but Kissinger has also set the standard for recording every policy-related utterance while in office. His phone conversations were monitored and meticulous notes were made of his meetings, internal and external. Kissinger eventually installed a taping system to relieve weary staffers and transfer the burden of drafting transcripts to a night shift. (This taping system, analogous to the one Lyndon Johnson used, was quite separate from Nixon's own, about which Kissinger says he was ignorant until shortly before it was disclosed to all in 1973.) The products of these extraordinary efforts -- which extended beyond the usual official practice of tracking conversations with foreigners to include contacts with anyone, including government colleagues and the president -- are quoted frequently in Years of Renewal but without any notation of the source.

Kissinger argues, correctly, that for all its preoccupation with secrecy, the Nixon administration is the most thoroughly documented and recorded presidency in American history. But why did they do it? Kissinger writes:

For Nixon, it was an extension of his permanent nightmare that, in the end, all his efforts -- the self-discipline, the strong decisions wrung from nagging self-doubt -- would vanish into thin air, defeated by the hostility of contemporaries and the indifference of historians. At regular intervals, Nixon would send me lengthy memoranda on how to interpret for posterity the various actions in which he had been involved. The purpose of these memoranda was less to affect immediate publicity -- they were too complex for that -- than to influence the judgment of history by becoming part of the permanent record.

So too for Kissinger's even lengthier memoranda, these memoirs.

SELF-PORTRAIT OF A MIND

Every account of Kissinger allows that he is very intelligent. Those hostile to him then add other adjectives like vain or devious. His admirers use those adjectives too -- but return to the intelligence.

What really were Kissinger's extraordinary gifts? Kissinger himself argues that he (and Nixon) stood out against a background of utopian zealots, both liberal and conservative, because of their realistic analysis of national interests. (Kissinger grants Nixon great strategic insight but portrays him here as given to constant musing, throwing off sparks of brilliance and foolishness in almost equal measure. It was thus left to Kissinger and H. R. Haldeman, the priests at the oracle, to interpret the rumblings and judge what should actually be done.)

In the author's preferred paradigm of intelligence -- one of utopian crusaders vs. cool realists -- Indochina is a prime example. Kissinger writes that he and Nixon "never blamed our predecessors for the mess" in Vietnam, but he certainly blames them now: "Wilsonianism had involved the United States in Indochina by means of universalist maxims which had proved successful in Europe and were now applied literally in Asia. . . . Wilsonianism rejects peace through balance of power in favor of peace through moral consensus. It sees foreign policy as a struggle between good and evil. . . ." Kissinger says that he and Nixon knew instead that these ideals were worthy but impractical and saw "foreign policy as a continuing process with no terminal point" in which they would be guided by "a concept of the national interest," and a "realistic assessment of our own and others' interests."

This self-portrait is largely false, however much Kissinger may believe in it. Yet its falsity actually makes Kissinger more interesting.

To begin with, the Wilsonianism he describes is a cartoon originally drawn by Wilson's popularizing worshipers and polemical detractors. Kissinger's use of this label blurs together Wilson and William Jennings Bryan, Harry S Truman and Henry Wallace, John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson. And it hardly seems to fit the principal architects of Indochina policy, McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara. As the former said to the latter about Vietnam in October 1963, "You're going to have an authoritarian regime, and the question is whether they make asses of themselves." Not terribly Wilsonian -- and not so objectionable to the younger Kissinger, who privately wrote to Bundy in 1965 that the administration's course in Vietnam was "just right -- the proper mixture of firmness and flexibility."

Kissinger offers himself as a model of cool analysis of the national interest. In this book he proudly quotes his first foreign policy report to Congress: "Our interests must shape our commitments, rather than the other way around." Yet nowhere was this credo followed less than in Indochina, the problem that consumed more blood and treasure than any other on Kissinger's watch and drove so much of his agenda with his main adversaries, Russia, China, and Congress.

Little analysis of the American national interest in Vietnam and Cambodia can be found in Years of Renewal. At the time Kissinger frequently invoked fears about the loss of American credibility. But that argument's force has faded over the years, as history has revealed few ripples beyond the watershed of the Mekong, and it is barely mentioned here. Vietnam had its greatest effect on America not in causing foreign dominoes to fall but in changing the way Americans thought of themselves.

Instead, Kissinger stresses again and again the need to maintain the national honor of the United States. Discussing the war's agonizing denouement, he emphasizes that "neither the Ford nor the Nixon administration ever invoked a legal obligation to assist Vietnam. What we insisted on was something deeper -- a moral obligation."

This is not the rhetoric of a dispassionate geopolitical chess player. A chess player does not sacrifice half his pieces to defend a vulnerable rook out of moral obligation. But then, Kissinger never was an especially dispassionate person. As a supervisor and colleague he was hot-tempered; as a statesman and friend he was often sentimental, even if the sentiment was filtered through his usual sardonic mask.

Where his emotions are touched so deeply, Kissinger's memoir-writing is at its worst. His chapters on the fall of Cambodia and Vietnam are fierce indictments of those who opposed more U.S. intervention or aid. Yet these same chapters include practically no analysis of the violations by all sides of a 1973 peace accord that few thought would bring peace, of the internal pathologies that so limited the military effectiveness of the Thieu government in South Vietnam, and of the proposed aid's likely impact. The administration's requests for aid, therefore, look like palliatives for a bad conscience.

But Kissinger reminds readers that others should have bad consciences as well, and here his Cambodia chapter is especially wrenching. Some of his opponents in Congress and the media, for example, professed a belief that communist victories would bring a peaceful political settlement. The New York Times reported the approach of the Khmer Rouge to the gates of Phnom Penh under the headline, "Indochina Without Americans: For Most, a Better Life." Those who check Kissinger's footnote will learn that the author of the Times article was Sydney Schanberg, who would later come to prominence as a leading American witness to Cambodia's "killing fields."

REGARDING HENRY

Kissinger's great gifts as a statesman, at least from the evidence in these pages, lay less in analyzing the national interest -- where he was neither particularly original nor innovative -- than in two other spheres.

First, Kissinger had a great talent for cutting through reams of information to find the operational essence within. He could see the real issues in time, moving backward or forward, and envision the next sequence of bureaucratic and diplomatic moves. It was by harnessing this ability that Kissinger was able to turn abstract wishes into concrete policies. This was, for example, his singular achievement in the opening to China. He found a halting and ineffectual American policy driven mainly by shifts in Chinese politics. Urged on by Nixon's geopolitical musings, Kissinger crafted channels and opportunities for movement.

By the time of the events described in this memoir, however, the Sino-American relationship had been hollowed out by lack of substance and the turmoil of Chinese politics during Mao's last years. In this book the best illustration of Kissinger's operational skill comes in his chapter on the Cyprus crisis of 1974. The analysis of American interests is ordinary, but the analysis of how they could actually be advanced is illuminating, as Kissinger deals first with the Greek moves and then the Turkish response, all the while limiting damage and avoiding ill-considered commitments.

Kissinger's chapter on the Angolan debacle is also well done. He conscientiously raises and addresses his critics' arguments while tracing the destructive interaction between his diplomatic strategy to restrain Cuban and Soviet military intervention, the congressional cutoff of U.S. covert aid, and Soviet political and military calculations. The memoir shows how Kissinger's perceptiveness could lead to frustration: he and Ford set a general direction for U.S. policy -- covert aid -- but, given the battered leadership at the CIA, lacked subordinates capable of operationalizing their abstract wishes and addressing the policy's temporizing drift. Kissinger had the insight to see it was not working even before Congress killed the program, but had no one with sufficient will or capacity to fix it.

Kissinger's second great gift was an acute intuitive ability to assess other people, situate them in their political environment, and adapt himself to their needs -- at least if they were foreigners. This gift is displayed best in the chapters on his Middle East diplomacy, which are gems.

They are gems, it is worth pointing out, not necessarily because the diplomatic efforts they recount were especially successful. It is a common fallacy to judge a statesman by policy outcomes, which are actually influenced by many variables, rather than by the quality of thought brought to bear on the circumstances he could reasonably have understood. The passage of time has helped Kissinger become more detached, producing some of his finest writing to date. He reflects not only on his own constraints but on those facing Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. He shows exceptional sensitivity to the situation of embattled Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. And he recounts the determined and courageous struggle, with very narrow room for maneuver and with his own star waning in Washington, to achieve what became the 1975 Sinai II accord.

Kissinger has empathy -- yes, empathy, however clinical -- for his foreign interlocutors. It is finely displayed not only in his chapters on the Middle East but also in those on his diplomacy in southern Africa, which describe his 1976 efforts to work toward a settlement on the future of Rhodesia. Setting the policy in context as a successful adaptation to the failure in Angola, describing a situation in which he had practically no assets but his own skill and celebrity, Kissinger charts the maneuvers and shows a penetrating and generous understanding of his African and British counterparts.

YEARS OF DECLINE

The book is mistitled. The years 1974-76 were bad for America, and for Henry Kissinger. The memoir is often hard to read because it evokes so many painful memories of retreat and ruin -- even putting aside the sagging, inflation-ridden economy, which gets little space here. Nixon's excesses and the passions summoned by Vietnam ushered in other excesses from Nixon's victorious enemies, epitomized by the infamous Pike Committee investigation of the intelligence community.

The great issue in East-West relations was the future of detente, the relaxation of tensions and attempt to stabilize and regulate what both sides had thought to be an enduring rivalry. The political base for the Nixon-Kissinger policy of detente had eroded badly during 1973-74 under the steady drip of events: Andrei Sakharov's support of trade sanctions, the scapegoating of Kissinger for lack of support to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's exile, Albert Wohlstetter's declaration that the United States was actually losing the arms race.

By mid-1974, when the respected strategic analyst Wohlstetter spoke out and Paul H. Nitze resigned from the salt talks, domestic support for detente was all but gone. Liberal Democrats despised Kissinger for Vietnam and the Watergate-era abuses of power. Conservative Democrats like Senator Henry Jackson and afl-cio President George Meany considered him indifferent to human rights behind the Iron Curtain and were increasingly worried about the arms race. Reagan Republicans shared those concerns and were inflamed by Kissinger's stance on the Panama Canal and Taiwan. What was left was a slice of moderate Republicans so thin that they could barely secure the nomination of President Ford in 1976, a feat accomplished only by political legerdemain in which Kissinger was a liability, not an asset.

From mid-1974 onward any major policy initiative of Kissinger's was targeted as soon as it came into view, to be destroyed as quickly as his opponents could wheel their guns into position. In early 1976 they waited until he was actually negotiating in Moscow to cut the legs out from under him -- and these were his colleagues within the administration! Kissinger quotes example after example of situations where everyone seemed to gang up against him whatever the issue, even contrary to their apparent interests (e.g., conservatives refusing to help on Indochina or Angola). As the lightning rod for criticism of a foreign policy with no appreciable general backing, he might well have felt beleaguered.

Detente could have been saved only if Ford had recast the policy, coopting either centrist Democrats (difficult, since Jackson had presidential ambitions in 1976) or a significant portion of the emerging Reagan wing of the Republican Party. The ideal time for such a move would have been August 1974, when Ford replaced Nixon. But Kissinger's memoir offers no evidence of deep thinking, amid the turmoil of the succession, about a domestic political strategy to sustain Ford's foreign policy. Critical but little noticed, Ford had no real presidential transition, no comprehensive reappraisal of people and policies that would reposition and ostentatiously distinguish his administration from his predecessor's.

So Kissinger charged ahead, striving against all odds to hold detente together without a political base. Ford stood by him as best he could, a debt Kissinger repays with an extremely flattering portrait of Ford as president. But under these circumstances Kissinger's fight was not the policy of a master of realism. It was the policy of a Man of La Mancha. The best defense for it might be that it helped delay or mute the swelling forces of reaction, but that is a tough case to make and Kissinger does not try.

Still, once again this Kissinger seems more interesting than the one in his preferred self-portrait. This memoir is the story of a man trying, in his last years in office, to stand by a few ideals of statecraft and conceptions of national honor. To his foes he was benighted but to his friends he might, during these years, have seemed a bit, just a little bit, gallant.

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