Reading Years of Upheaval, the second volume of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs,1 was for me a less overwhelming experience than reading its immediate predecessor, White House Years. But that was only because my astonishment at what Kissinger was capable of as a writer had already worn off by the time I had finished White House Years itself.

Kissinger in his disarming fashion likes to quote the reviewer of one of his early scholarly works who (allegedly) said: “I don’t know if Dr. Kissinger is a great writer, but anyone who gets through this book is certainly a great reader.” If the remark was ever in fact made, it was an exaggeration. Kissinger as a professor wrote in a serviceable academic style, which was no worse than the prose of most of his colleagues in the fields of political science and international affairs. On the other hand, he was certainly not as lively or as lucid a stylist as certain of his academic colleagues. Be that as it may, if memory serves, there was little if anything of a literary nature in his earlier work to prepare us for White House Years. We did, however, have White House Years to prepare us for Years of Upheaval which, although self-contained in the sense of being entirely intelligible on its own, is really a continuation (though not yet the completion) of the same book. When in due course the third and final volume comes out, we will have a single unit running to some 4,000 densely printed pages. And it will be—it already is—one of the great works of our time.

I use the word “great” both reluctantly and advisedly: reluctantly because I do not wish to contribute to the inflationary tendencies which have debauched the language of literary criticism as surely as they have the currency of monetary exchange; but advisedly because in this case the epithet for once designates the true value being claimed.

There is also another reason to insist on the word great here, and that is the failure of so many who have written about these memoirs to give them their proper due. It is one thing to quarrel with Kissinger about his ideas and his policies; I will be doing just that myself. But it is quite another matter when no awareness is shown of the high intellectual distinction with which those ideas are explicated and the policies defended. And it is altogether scandalous when people who presumably care about books as much as they do about politics are unable to recognize or unwilling to acclaim a masterwork when they see one because they are blinded or moved by political bias. Yet with an occasional, and surprising, exception like Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and Stanley Hoffmann, the reviewers first of White House Years and now of Years of Upheaval have either been unremittingly hostile or grudging in their acknowledgment of what Kissinger has done here.

Admittedly the length of these volumes is a problem, if only because they demand more time than most of us nowadays are willing to give to a book. Yet as an editor who has been known to cut a manuscript now and again and to judge the briefer version an improvement, I would have found it very difficult to shorten either White House Years or Years of Upheaval without sacrificing something good. It is true that in order to make Years of Upheaval self-contained, Kissinger goes over a certain amount of territory already traversed in White House Years. But aside from such patches of repetition, these volumes are astonishingly free of either padding or gratuitous detail. One might well say of them what Dr. Johnson said of Paradise Lost, that “none ever wished it longer than it is,” while at the same time recognizing that they are not too long for what they deliver.

This does not mean that every page is equally interesting. So much ground is covered, so many subjects are explored in such rich and sometimes technical detail, that inevitably every reader will come upon sections that seem arid or dull. But even those sections (for example, discussions of the debate over SALT, or some of the minute-by-minute accounts of Kissinger’s negotiations with foreign governments) are necessary to the historical record. Moreover, they always reward careful attention and often turn out to be as fascinating as they appear forbidding. Indeed, not the least stunning of Kissinger’s talents as a writer is his ability to do justice to the technical complexities of a subject like arms control while making those complexities clear to any lay reader who is willing to slow down a bit and invest a little extra intellectual effort.

The paradox is that Kissinger unwittingly discourages the reader from exerting himself on such occasions by making it so easy for him the rest of the time. Hard as it is to pick these volumes up (in addition to being so long and looking so forbidding, they weigh about five pounds each), it is harder still to put them down. A reader who approaches them as a duty will invariably be rewarded with a pleasure: a wonderful story told wonderfully well.

It is not, however, as might have been expected, the story of Kissinger’s spectacular career. There is almost nothing of a personal nature here. From time to time he refers to his origins as a Jewish refugee from Germany, or his years as a Harvard professor and as an adviser to Nelson Rockefeller. He tells us too how he happened to be hired by Richard Nixon in 1968 as National Security Adviser and he explains why Nixon later decided to appoint him Secretary of State. But whereas Kissinger provides dozens of character sketches throughout these two volumes, the best of them breathtaking in their evocative power, and the least of them shrewd in their psychological insight, he shows no such gift for self-portraiture and no inclination toward the introspective. On the evidence of these memoirs, one would have to conclude that this man—who has become legendary for his arrogance and egomania—is if anything abnormally deficient in curiosity about himself. His interest in everyone and everything else in the world, by contrast, seems inexhaustible.

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To convey some idea of how this combination of qualities works to control and color Kissinger’s narrative style, let me take as a random example the account in Years of Upheaval of his first visit to Saudi Arabia in 1973, only two weeks after the oil embargo had been declared.

He begins here, as always, by setting the political context—in this instance Nixon’s desperate desire to get the embargo lifted, not only for its own sake but in order to demonstrate his mastery of foreign policy and hence buttress “his claim to continue in office” just at the point when “Watergate was winding its inexorable way through congressional and judicial procedures.” Having spelled out the domestic political forces that influenced the workings of the episode, Kissinger then goes on to place it in its local setting by means of an analysis of Saudi Arabia in which history, geography, religion, and national psychology are interwoven and interrelated in a tour de force of compression and lucidity. Then comes a typical humorous description of his reception, accompanied by a disquisition on the cultural implications of the physical and architectural surroundings which are themselves presented with a vividness beyond the literary powers of a good many contemporary novelists:

Faisal’s palace was on a monumental scale. Preceded by two sword carriers, I was taken to a tremendous hall that seemed as large as a football field. Dozens of the distinguished men of the Kingdom (women, of course, being strictly segregated) in identical black robes and white headdresses were seated along the walls, immobile and silent. There was incense in the air, circulated by the air conditioning. What seemed like a hundred yards away on a slightly raised pedestal sat King Faisal ibn Abd al-Aziz Al Sa’ud, aquiline of feature, regal of bearing. He rose as I entered, forcing all the princes and sheiks to follow suit in a flowing balletlike movement of black and white. He took one step toward me: I had to traverse the rest of the way. I learned later that his taking a step forward was a sign of great courtesy. At the time, I was above all conscious of the seeming eternity it took to reach the pedestal.

In one respect, this passage is untypical, since it leads straight into a rare reference to Kissinger’s personal background (“His Majesty and I sat side by side for a few minutes overlooking the splendid assemblage while I reflected in some wonder what strange twists of fate had caused a refugee from Nazi persecution to wind up in Arabia as the representative of American democracy”). But we soon discover, what we might already have suspected, that the reference is not a gratuitous touch. It is there because it is essential to a full appreciation of the outlandish aspect of Kissinger’s encounter with Faisal, who proceeds to tell him that

Jews and Communists were working now in parallel, now together, to undermine the civilized world as we knew it. Oblivious to my ancestry—or delicately putting me into a special category—Faisal insisted that an end had to be put once and for all to the dual conspiracy of Jews and Communists. The Middle East outpost of that plot was the State of Israel, put there by Bolshevism for the principal purpose of dividing America from the Arabs.

Kissinger’s comment on this outburst—the smile playing over the prose, the wit, the wry self-deprecation both concealing and revealing enormous self-confidence—is characteristic of the way he talks about himself throughout these memoirs:

It was hard to know where to begin in answering such a line of reasoning. When Faisal went on to argue that the Jewish-Communist conspiracy was now trying to take over the American government, I decided the time had come to change the subject. I did so by asking His Majesty about a picture on the far wall, which I took to be a decorative work of art. It was a holy oasis, I was informed—representational art being forbidden in Islam. This faux pas threw Faisal into some minutes of deep melancholy, causing conversation around the table to stop altogether. In the unearthly silence my colleagues must have wondered what I had done so quickly to impair the West’s oil supplies. I did not help matters by referring to Sadat as the leader of the Arabs. His Majesty’s morose reaction showed that there was a limit beyond which claims to Arab solidarity could be pushed.

After a few more amusing details about the way this weird conversation was conducted, Kissinger, modulating smoothly into a serious key, composes a little essay on the mind and character of King Faisal so thoroughly informed by sympathetic imagination that it even manages to make a kind of sense out of the speech on Communism and Zionism:

However bizarre it sounded to Western visitors, [Faisal’s speech] was clearly deeply felt. At the same time it reflected precisely the tactical necessities of the Kingdom. The strident anti-Communism helped reassure America and established a claim on protection against outside threats. . . . The virulent opposition to Zionism reassured radicals and the PLO and thus reduced their incentive to follow any temptation to undermine the monarchy domestically. And its thrust was vague enough to imply no precise consequences: it dictated few policy options save a general anti-Communism.

The section on this visit to Riyadh then moves toward its conclusion with a meticulous account of the negotiating sessions between Faisal and Kissinger, which, like the dozens of other such accounts scattered throughout these memoirs, gives a superlative picture of how diplomacy is actually conducted.

What we have here is writing of the very highest order. It is writing that is equally at ease in portraiture and abstract analysis; that can shape a narrative as skillfully as it can paint a scene; that can achieve marvels of compression while moving at an expansive and leisurely pace. It is writing that can shift without strain or falsity of tone from the gravitas befitting a book about great historical events to the humor and irony dictated by an unfailing sense of human proportion.

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Kissinger the writer, then, has established a secure claim to greatness. But that is not the claim he is staking in these memoirs. What he wants, above all, is to explain and defend his achievements as a diplomat or (to use the word he himself generally prefers) a statesman. On this point too his memoirs are a surprise. For what they reveal is that if Kissinger did achieve greatness in this area, it was as a practitioner of the art of diplomacy, and not as the “conceptualizer” he was always praised for being.

The reason this is surprising, of course, is that he was, after all, an intellectual rather than a professional diplomat. He had studied and taught and written about international affairs, but when he became Nixon’s chief adviser on foreign policy in 1968 he had had very little practical experience in diplomacy or the conduct of high-level negotiations. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations he had done a certain amount of consulting and he had participated on a relatively low level in one or two diplomatic missions. But that, so far as we can tell from the memoirs, was all.

Of McGeorge Bundy, who blazed the trail Kissinger was to follow from Harvard to the post of National Security Adviser, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. could say with typical Cambridge smugness: “I had seen him learn how to dominate the faculty of Harvard University, a throng of intelligent and temperamental men; after that training, one could hardly doubt his capacity to deal with Washington bureaucrats.” But unlike Bundy, who had been a dean, Kissinger had only been a professor. Hence he had not even had a chance to learn the game of power in the interdepartmental conflicts of the academic jungle before graduating into the real jungles of international conflict where the stakes are so much higher and the talents required to play are of an entirely different order.

Because Kissinger is so incurious—or perhaps only reticent—about himself, we learn nothing from these memoirs that would help us understand how this intellectual, this professor, with no practical diplomatic experience to speak of, could with perfect assurance and a poise that would normally require many years of training to develop, leap overnight and in one bound into the topmost reaches of international statesmanship. There is nothing here to explain how this naturalized American, still speaking with a heavy German accent and (presumably) still carrying the burdens of uncertainty and inner doubt that afflict all refugees and to which even native-born American Jews of Kissinger’s generation have so often been prey, could, again overnight, begin dealing on equal terms with all the major figures of the age.

As in the passage quoted above about his first meeting with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Kissinger is fond of poking gentle fun at himself for the gaucheries and faux pas he always seems to be committing on his breathless and bewildering diplomatic rounds from one country to another, each with its own manners and mores and hence with its own innumerable opportunities for getting things wrong. In one place he talks out of turn; in another he fails to follow the right procedure in reviewing the troops who have come to honor him; in a third he elicits a pained response for his American obtuseness in missing a subtle signal during the course of a negotiation. But it goes without saying that this easy willingness to tell funny stories at his own expense is the surest mark of a supreme self-confidence.

And indeed, far from being thrown by the requirements of his job as the official envoy of the United States of America and the main shaper of its relations with the rest of the world, he demonstrates a mastery that is all but incredible. In the same month, or the same week, or even on the same day, he will turn his attention to the technicalities of the SALT negotiations, the intricacies of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the problems of the Atlantic Alliance, and the niceties of the developing relation with China. When he is traveling, especially during the “shuttle diplomacy” that he conducted after the Yom Kippur war between Israel and Egypt, and then Israel and Syria, he maintains an alert sense of the issues and the personalities he is dealing with, while simultaneously supervising all the other business of his office.

Sleepless, racked by jet lag, assailed by a multitude of crises, he never seems to tire to the point of losing his edge or growing impatient with the nuances that are—so he repeatedly tells us—the lifeblood of diplomacy. He always seems to know where he is, he always seems to keep a fascinated and wary eye on his interlocutor, he is rarely at a loss for the humorous quip or the soothing remark or the daring proposal when an opening suddenly presents itself. When he meets with someone like Mao Zedong, whom he regards as a titanic historical figure, he can be awed without being overawed. But he is equally capable of taking the proper measure of a lesser personage like Assad of Syria without the condescension that is the surest path to stupidity in a diplomat. A believer in the centrality of power, he nevertheless has a judicious respect for even the least powerful of nations and the sensitivity of an anthropologist to the distinctive features and beauties of even the least imposing of cultures. No wonder he won the answering admiration and affection of so many of the leaders he dealt with, including many who counted themselves enemies of the United States.

If Kissinger ever suffered any anxiety in becoming National Security Adviser and then Secretary of State, or in performing the duties of those offices, it is not recorded in these memoirs. Being (as he would perhaps be willing to admit) human, he cannot be an absolute stranger to anxiety. But as a statesman he was at ease only as a man could be who had found the job that he was clearly born to do.

In this respect, the contrast between Kissinger and Nixon could not have been sharper or more poignant. In one of the most extraordinary passages of these memoirs—it comes toward the end of Years of Upheaval—Kissinger describes an automobile trip he took with Nixon and his friend Bebe Rebozo in California during the summer of 1970. What Nixon wanted was to show Kissinger and Rebozo the house where he was born and the town in which he grew up. After pointing out various landmarks of his childhood and his youth, “Nixon suddenly conceived the idea that Rebozo and I should see not only his origin but how far he had come.” Accordingly he directed his driver to the place he had lived for two years after losing the presidential election of 1960 and where he had regained his sense of balance. But astonishingly, he was unable to locate it. Thus the President of the United States and his National Security Adviser spent well over an hour searching “every canyon and the streets leading off them” in the vicinity of the Beverly Hills Hotel, without ever finding the house they were looking for.

Rightly seeing in this episode an allegory of Nixon’s life, Kissinger comments: “He was at ease with his youth; he could recount his struggles; he could not find the locus of his achievements. . . . On his way to success he had traveled on many roads, but he had found no place to stand, no haven, no solace, no inner peace. He never learned where his home was.”

Henry Kissinger had traveled on many roads too, but unlike Nixon he did find a home. Quoting Archimedes (“Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth”), Kissinger remarks that “Nixon sought to move the world but he lacked a firm foothold.” Yet Kissinger obviously discovered a firm foothold in the very place that failed to provide one for the poor boy from Whittier who had put him there. Even in the White House Richard Nixon, the man who “lacked a firm foothold,” remained “slightly out of focus.” For he “had set himself a goal beyond human capacity: to make himself over entirely; to create a new personality as if alone of all mankind he could overcome his destiny.” Not Kissinger. Though he does not say so himself, but as we know from the simple fact that this enormously ambitious man trying to make his way in circles not particularly hospitable to foreigners never even bothered to get rid of his accent, Kissinger was guilty of no such “presumption.” Therefore he did not pay “the fearful price” he believes the gods exacted of Nixon: “the price of congenital insecurity.” And thus it was that the refugee from Fürth, Germany, unlike the refugee from Whittier, California, found a home in Washington, and a firm foothold, and the sharpest possible focus for his talents and his energies, which then proceeded to pour forth in prodigious torrents of virtuoso activity.

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Whether he moved the earth is, however, another question. What he attempted to do, always working with and often (it is important to remember) under the direction of Nixon, was to build a new “structure of peace” in the world. This involved, first, arranging for an “honorable” American withdrawal from Vietnam; second, establishing a new relationship with the Soviet Union to be known as détente and to be based on negotiation rather than confrontation; and third, inaugurating an American relationship with Communist China. All this was to be accomplished, moreover, within the context of a diminishing American presence in the world. Indeed, it was precisely because domestic support for American intervention abroad had been eroded by Vietnam that substitutes had to be found to prevent the balance of power, on which Kissinger and Nixon believed that peace depended, from tilting dangerously toward the Soviet Union.

In presiding over what was in effect a strategic retreat, Nixon and Kissinger were trying to make certain above all else that the retreat would not turn—as retreats are always in danger of doing—into a wholesale rout. This consideration in itself precluded a precipitous withdrawal from Vietnam. We had to leave in such a way as to give South Vietnam a fighting chance to save itself from conquest by the Communist North, thus vindicating the purpose of our own intervention and demonstrating the reliability of American commitments.

At the same time, we had to find a way to restrain Soviet expansionism that did not depend entirely or even largely on the use or the threatened use of American military power. This new strategy, as Nixon and Kissinger conceived it, was composed of two tactical strands. The first and more important was to offer incentives (mainly consisting of economic benefits) for Soviet moderation and restraint, and to threaten penalties (mainly consisting of the withdrawal of those benefits) for aggressive or adventurist activity. This, in essence, was what détente meant. Although the rhetoric in which Nixon and Kissinger and their supporters talked about it was usually more grandiose, détente was at bottom an effort to compensate for the loss of American military power (the will to use it as well as the relative edge in hardware) with a more purposeful deployment of economic power. In this scheme, the function of arms control was to keep the military balance stable, both for its own sake and because reducing the influence of the military factor would make the economic factor more effective.

The second tactical strand of the new strategy for containing the Soviet Union at a time of diminishing American power and will was the so-called Nixon Doctrine. This entailed finding regional allies or surrogates who would assume the responsibility for deterring Soviet expansionist moves and if necessary resisting them by force. The United States would supply arms for this purpose, but such regional surrogates as Iran under the Shah would do the rest. The opening to China, whatever else it may have been intended to accomplish—and there were undoubtedly many reasons for the move—has to be understood in the first instance as a product of the Nixon Doctrine. For China too was to be built up as yet another restraint on Soviet expansionism. No one, certainly not Kissinger, was so foolish as to think of the Chinese as an American surrogate. But playing the China card was undoubtedly part of the overall strategy of finding substitutes for the formerly all but exclusive reliance on American military power to contain the Soviet Union in Asia and indeed everywhere else in the world.

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It was, no doubt about it, a brilliant strategic conception, each element consistent with every other and all together blending into an organic whole. That it corresponded with Nixon’s instincts and impulses we can be certain, and there is no way of knowing where exactly, in the collaboration between them, Nixon left off and Kissinger began. In general (so Kissinger tells us) Nixon in effect saw what had to be done and gave the orders to do it; the details of the execution were left to others—and where foreign policy was concerned, others meant Henry Kissinger.

This is not to suggest that the strategy was all Nixon and the tactics all Kissinger. For it was Kissinger who, at first under the pseudonym “a high official” and later openly in his own voice, took over the job of explaining and articulating the administration’s policy—in press briefings, in interviews with influential columnists like James Reston, and in private conversations both with journalists and with Congressmen. Thus the exquisite balance and symmetry in the design of the overall strategy must surely have owed at least as much, and more, to Kissinger the intellectual, the “conceptualizer,” as to Nixon the politician.

Whatever the share of responsibility—credit or blame—to be assigned to Kissinger, however, one might say of this strategy what Edmund Burke said of Lord North’s treatment of the American colonies: “This fine-spun scheme had the usual fate of all exquisite policy.” Brilliant though it was in achieving perfect internal coherence, it failed because it misjudged the nature of the Soviet threat on the one side and the nature of American public opinion on the other.

That men like Kissinger and Nixon should have misjudged the nature of the Soviet threat is on the face of it hard to believe. Neither one of them was in the least subject to sentimental illusions about the Soviet Union; neither had any sympathy for the Soviets or any admiration for their leaders. Whereas Kissinger writes about Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai with a respect bordering on and occasionally crossing over into reverence, he is sardonic about Brezhnev and Gromyko. Nor did Kissinger or Nixon ever doubt that the Soviet Union had expansionist aims or that it was capable of great ruthlessness in the pursuit of those aims.

At the same time, however, while Kissinger here, and Nixon in his own writings, always make their obeisances to the role of ideology in determining Soviet behavior on the international scene, for the most part they saw the Soviet Union as a nation-state like any other, motivated by the same range of interests that define and shape the foreign policies of all nation-states. From this perspective—the perspective of Realpolitik—Communist Russia was not all that different from Czarist Russia, the facts of geography, history, and ancestral culture being far more decisive than the ideas of Marx and Lenin.

If this were indeed the case, it would certainly be possible to make a deal of the kind contemplated by the policy of détente. If, in other words, the aims of the Soviet Union were limited, they could be respected and even to a certain extent satisfied through negotiation and compromise, with the resultant settlement policed by means other than, and short of, actual military force.

But what if the Soviet Union is not a “normal” nation-state? What if in this case ideology overrides interest in the traditional sense? What if Soviet aims are unlimited? In short (and to bring up the by-now familiar contending comparisons), what if the Soviet Union bears a closer resemblance to the Germany of Hitler than to the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm? Wilhelmine Germany was an expansionist power seeking a place in the imperial sun and nothing more than that. Hitler, by contrast, was a revolutionary seeking to overturn the going international system and to replace it with a new order dominated by Germany (which also meant the political culture of Nazism). For tactical reasons and in order to mislead, Hitler sometimes pretended that all he wanted was the satisfaction of specific grievances, and those who were taken in by this pretense not unreasonably thought they could “do business” with him. But there was no way of doing business—that is, negotiating a peaceful settlement—with Hitler. As a revolutionary with unlimited aims, he offered only two choices: resistance or submission.

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All the evidence suggests that the Soviet Union poses the same kind of threat, and the same narrow range of choices, to the West. It has committed itself by word and deed to the creation of a “socialist” world. There is no reason to think that it can be talked out of this commitment or even (as, at bottom, détente assumes) bribed out of it. It may well be, as we are often told, that the Soviet leaders no longer believe subjectively in Communism. But whatever they say to themselves in the privacy of their own minds, they are (to borrow from their own vocabulary) objectively the prisoners of Marxian and Leninist doctrines. Without these doctrines, which mandate steady international advances in the cause of “socialism,” they have no way to legitimize their monopoly of power within the Soviet Union itself. Hence even if they wanted to limit their aims and become a “status-quo power,” they would be unable to do so without committing political suicide.

What this means is that the conflict beween the Soviet Union and the West is not subject to resolution by the traditional tools of diplomacy. Or, to put the point another way, given the nature of the Soviet threat, détente is not possible. Certain agreements may be possible from time to time, but they will invariably cover ground (cultural exchanges, arrangements for travel and communications, and the like) that is peripheral or even trivial from the point of view of the central issue. Where really important ground is touched upon, the agreement will invariably result in a Soviet advantage.

This is not because the Soviets are necessarily better at negotiating than we are or because they will necessarily cheat. They may or may not be better and they may or may not cheat. It is, rather, because in any negotiation between a party with limited aims and a party with unlimited aims, the party with limited aims is bound to lose in the very nature of things. Even a deal that on the surface promises mutual benefits will work out to the advantage of the side pursuing a strategy of victory over the side pursuing a strategy of accommodation and peace.

Thus, for example—as Kissinger himself has had the honesty and the courage to admit—the expanded commercial relations that were supposed to encourage Soviet restraint did not prevent the invasion of Afghanistan or the repression of Solidarity in Poland (not to mention such earlier Soviet moves as the dispatch of Cuban proxies to Angola). But economic “linkages” did work to restrain the American response on each of these occasions and to paralyze the Europeans altogether.

The case of arms control is perhaps less obvious but it is no less telling. What have the SALT negotiations accomplished? SALT I, which Kissinger defends with his customary brilliance (but with uncustomary heat), may well have been the best agreement possible at the time. Nevertheless, whereas it did nothing to limit the build-up of Soviet strategic arms, it did contribute to the slowing down of the American build-up.

Again, this was not because the Soviets cheated (though they may have, just as a roulette wheel may be fixed though the house wins even when it is honest). It was because, as the history of disarmament agreements in this century should have taught everyone, such agreements result in disarming only the party that wants to disarm and not the party that has no intention of doing so. That is what happened after the naval agreements of the 20’s and 30’s, when the United States, the British, and the French did not even build up to their legal limits while the Japanese and then the Germans not only did so but invented ways of exceeding their quotas while remaining within the letter of the law. And it is exactly what happened after SALT I, a period in which the Soviet build-up continued on its relentless course in both quantity and quality while the United States was either standing still or actually cutting back.

Kissinger frequently argues that a tough policy toward the Soviet Union can only enlist the support of public opinion in the United States (and in the West generally) if it is accompanied by a strategy for peace. People, that is, must be convinced that their leaders are doing everything possible to resolve the conflict by peaceful means before they will vote for the increases in defense spending and before they will back the firm stands against Soviet expansionism that Kissinger himself has consistently favored as the indispensable foundation of American influence and as a necessary element even of a successful policy of détente.

But the historical record suggests the opposite. In relation first to Nazi Germany and then to Soviet Russia, Western public opinion was lulled by negotiated agreements and was only galvanized at those moments when the nature of the enemy revealed itself unambiguously in action.

Where Hitler was concerned, for example, it was not until the invasion of Poland that the British public finally awoke from the dream of Munich—that great monument to the illusion that Nazi Germany was a state like any other with limited and hence negotiable ambitions. In the case of the Soviet Union, this illusion comes and goes. It was blasted for the first time after the Czechoslovak coup of 1947, only to rise again during the period of de-Stalinization of the 50’s, until it was blasted by the invasion of Hungary, only to rise again during the “thaw” of the 60’s until it was blasted by the invasion of Czechoslovakia, only to rise again in the time of détente until it was blasted by the invasion of Afghanistan.

The trouble is that each time the illusion returns, it seems to grow stronger, fed by fear as the Soviet military arsenal also grows stronger. Now that it is rising again, it is indeed stronger than ever, forming the basis of the most explosive outburst of unilateralist sentiment yet to erupt in Western Europe, and of an anti-nuclear hysteria in the United States that is well on its way to becoming a more respectable cover for isolationism than any of the other disguises isolationism has recently assumed.

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The misreading of the nature of American public opinion that underlay détente was thus symbiotically connected to the misreading of the nature of the Soviet Union itself. The American people for better or worse have always been and still are very reluctant to support large standing armies, let alone to use them in combat, merely for geopolitical reasons. In the absence of some higher meaning, the idealistic Wilsonian strain in the American character is likely to be overwhelmed by the ever-present isolationist temptation. Therefore, as I once put it in these pages,2 “by representing the Soviet Union as a competing superpower with whom we could negotiate peaceful and stable accommodations—instead of a Communist state hostile in its very nature to us and trying to extend its rule and its political culture over a wider and wider area of the world—the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations robbed the Soviet-American conflict of the moral and political dimensions for the sake of which sacrifices could be intelligibly demanded by the government and willingly made by the people.”

In Years of Upheaval Kissinger calls this “the subtlest critique” of détente, but the generosity of his characterization does not imply agreement. “The argument that the American people cannot understand a complex challenge and a complex strategy to meet it,” he writes, “that unable to handle both deterrence and coexistence it must base its policy on truculence, reflects a lack of faith in democracy.”

Having so often been accused—though never by me—of lacking faith in democracy, Kissinger must have taken a special pleasure in thus turning the tables on some of his critics. But the issue here is not democracy; it is, rather, the nature of the American character. Kissinger, who is so good at delineating national character when he talks about other peoples, and whose mastery in practicing the art of diplomacy is so intimately tied to his respect for the limitations and possibilities flowing out of the national character of his opposite numbers, somehow refuses to see that the people of his own country, no less than the Chinese or the Israelis or the Vietnamese, are shaped by the facts of geography, history, religion, and culture and are therefore capable of certain things and not of others. He knows that it is foolish to demand of other nations what the facts of their situation make it impossible for them to give. But he seems not to know that this is equally true of the United States.

Given the nature of the American national character, a very high price had to be paid for the achievement of which Kissinger is perhaps most proud and for which the Nixon administration has been universally applauded—the opening to China. The strategic purpose of striking a de-facto alliance with Communist China was to enlist its help in containing Soviet imperialism. But the question arose then, and continues to bedevil us today, of whether a China allied to the United States contributes any more to the containment of the Soviet Union than a China treated with benign neglect. After all, the number of Soviet divisions pinned down on the Chinese border before Kissinger went to Beijing has not increased.

On the other hand, by befriending one of the two great Communist colossi, we have made it harder to explain to ourselves what the struggle with the other is all about. In this way too the Soviet-American conflict has been robbed of the moral and political significance without which the dangers and the sacrifices it involves begin to seem pointless. People then begin to wonder why, if we can support Communist China, we should put ourselves at risk to resist Communist Russia. Why not let the Russians work their will in the Persian Gulf, or for that matter in Western Europe? Or, if the only objection to the establishment of Communist regimes in countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador is that they are tied to the Soviet Union, why not woo them away?

Indeed, underlying much discussion of these matters in the United States nowadays is the idea, rarely made explicit, but present in the logic of particular proposals, that the safest course for us is to help sponsor a world of Communist regimes which are independent of the Soviet Union. Instead of making the world safe for democracy, we are urged to make it safe for Titoism.

To the extent that the opening to China was part of the Nixon Doctrine, then, one can say that this component of the new strategy—a strategy, to repeat, aimed at finding substitutes for American military power at a time when that power was in relative decline and when the will to serve as “policeman of the world” was declining even further—rested on the same misjudgment of the American national character as did the détente policy which represented the other major component of the overall strategy.

Of course the Nixon Doctrine cannot yet be said to have failed the test of China. But it can most definitely be said to have failed the two other tests it has undergone. The first was in Vietnam, when after the withdrawal of American troops, the United States Congress doomed the South Vietnamese to defeat at the hands of the Communist forces by cutting off military aid even in the midst of an invasion by the North Vietnamese army. The second was in Iran, when we either would not or could not (it makes no practical difference) save the government on which the Nixon Doctrine depended in that region from being overthrown by forces hostile to the United States.

When Vietnam was abandoned, Kissinger was still in office, but his protests and pleas fell on deaf congressional ears; by the time the Shah was abandoned, Kissinger was a private citizen, and his protests were a fortiori of no avail. He blames Watergate, but there are reasons to believe that even without Watergate American public opinion would have opposed continued involvement in Vietnam after the withdrawal of our troops.3 The case of Iran is harder to judge, but even there one wonders whether American public opinion under any President (even a Nixon undamaged by Watergate) would have countenanced the bloodletting that would have been necessary to keep the Shah in power once the revolutionary mobs had hit the streets.

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In short, as a “conceptualizer” Kissinger was very brilliant but for the most part wrong. The “structure of peace” he envisioned was an illusion, based on a misconception of what was possible in the real world. Since such misconceptions are common to intellectuals—who are always in danger of getting carried away by ideas—it is tempting to blame the intellectual in Kissinger for his errors as a statesman. But if he (rather than circumstances like Watergate) is to be blamed at all, it is paradoxically the diplomat rather than the intellectual in him at which the accusing finger should be pointed.

Kissinger was so good at diplomacy, so great a virtuoso in the negotiating arts, that he may well have come to imagine that he could negotiate anything; and this may have led him into the mistake (which the intellectual in him could reinforce with dazzling rationalizations) of trying to negotiate the non-negotiable. Throughout these volumes, whenever a stalemated negotiation is being described, the vision of the breakthrough shimmers in the distance, and when it comes, the sense of achievement is so great and so vividly conveyed that the reader not only shares in it but is in danger of joining Kissinger in forgetting for the moment that in at least two major cases it ultimately turned out to be a mirage. The Paris accords that seemed to end the Vietnam war are one such case of a “breakthrough” in a conflict that could not be settled by compromise or accommodation; the 1972 agreement with the Soviet Union on the Basic Principles of Détente was another.

There is one more great conflict in the world, to which as it happens more space is devoted in Years of Upheaval than to any other: the Arab-Israeli conflict. Is it also non-negotiable? Certainly the essential feature of the non-negotiable conflict is there. One side seeks victory, in this instance meaning not merely the conquest or the domination but the total destruction of the other side, which for its part seeks peaceful coexistence and accommodation. For many years the Arabs were entirely open about the unlimited character of their ambitions with respect to Israel. Nasser proclaimed that he wanted to drive the Jews of Israel into the sea, and the Arab world as a whole was united in the famous three “No’s” proclaimed at Khartoum in 1967: No recognition, No negotiation, No peace. So long as this “rejectionist” position held, not even the most talented negotiator—not even Henry Kissinger—could see any chance of real motion toward a settlement. But with the rise of Sadat, and with his decision to inch his way toward a new and therefore potentially negotiable position, possibilities opened up that had not been there before; and at this point even a less perceptive diplomat than Henry Kissinger might have seen the faint glimmerings of a breakthrough at the end of a very long tunnel. Kissinger is frank to admit that he was a little slow in taking the full measure of Sadat, but once he did, there was no stopping him in pursuit of this most prized (because most elusive) breakthrough of all.

It was said at the time, and can still be maintained, that Egypt was egged on to attack Israel in 1973 by the Soviets (who thereby violated the provision in the Basic Principles of Détente calling on the two superpowers to exercise a restraining influence on third parties lest they themselves be drawn directly into the conflict). Kissinger, however, did not and does not see it that way. What he came to believe was that Sadat had launched the Yom Kippur war not because of the Soviets, and not in order to destroy Israel, but to establish the psychological precondition for making peace with Israel: the restoration of Egyptian honor. This meant that Egypt must not be subjected to a humiliating military defeat. Thus while the United States was making certain through the supply of equipment that Israel would not be defeated by a Soviet-armed opponent, and while Nixon and Kissinger were deterring a direct Soviet intervention by putting U.S. forces on alert, their policy simultaneously required that Israel be denied a decisive victory.

The policy, in effect, was to contrive a virtual draw. This would leave Egypt feeling that its honor had been restored and would therefore make dealing with the Israelis psychologically possible; it would leave the Israelis indebted to the United States for saving them from being overwhelmed; it would therefore leave the United States (as Sadat often put it) with “99 percent of the cards,” and would also result in a severe diminution of Soviet power in the Middle East. For an inconclusive end to the war would demonstrate that while the United States would not permit the Arabs to win a military victory over Israel (the only kind of victory the Soviet connection could promise), only American diplomacy could help the Arabs recover territory that they had lost to the Israelis on the battlefield.

The outlines of this overall design were sufficiently clear even while the Yom Kippur war was still going on. They were discerned, for example, by such observers as Walter Laqueur and Edward N. Luttwak who, writing in collaboration in these pages,4 accused Kissinger of dragging his feet in resupplying the Israelis with vital military equipment in order to make the scheme work. Others, including Kissinger himself, blamed the second echelon of the Defense Department for this delay, and I must say that my original belief in the Laqueur-Luttwak interpretation has been shaken by his account of the episode in Years of Upheaval.

In any event, the Yom Kippur war was concluded in the way the new strategy required: in the end the Israelis were saved by a heroic American resupply effort; Egyptian honor was preserved by American pressure on Israel to spare the encircled Third Army; the Soviets were squeezed out of the ensuing diplomatic play; and the United States, in the person of Henry Kissinger, became the central actor in the Middle East. The military disengagement between Israel and Egypt that Kissinger negotiated in the course of the first example of “shuttle diplomacy” the world had ever seen led ultimately to the signing of a separate peace between the two parties: a stunning breakthrough indeed which, although not arranged directly by Kissinger himself (he was out of office by then), must be considered the direct progeny of his original achievement.

As I write, the Israelis have just turned over the last part of the Sinai to Egypt. Sadat is gone and his successor Mubarak is still a relatively unknown quantity. If the peace holds, Kissinger will have been vindicated; if, however, Egypt, having used American diplomacy to get what it could not win on the battlefield, should now return (whether openly or covertly) to the rejectionist fold, another example will have been added to the Paris agreements on Vietnam of the terrible dangers of contriving a negotiated settlement between a party that wants peace and a party that, although it may at certain moments pretend otherwise, wants only victory.

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Whatever happens, however, Kissinger is surely right in saying, as he often does, that the statesman works in darkness, that he is always forced to make choices not only without foreknowledge of the future but usually even without adequate knowledge of what is going on in the present. One salient virtue of these memoirs is the sense Kissinger gives us of how the process works from day to day, from hour to hour, sometimes even from minute to minute. We are drawn in, we share in the anxieties and excitements of one crisis after another, we are in suspense while we read even though we know what the outcome will be.

For myself, even when following Kissinger through the execution of a policy with which I disagree, I find it very hard to fault or blame him. What else could he have done? What better could anyone have done? That is the feeling I get as I read, and it is undoubtedly the feeling he wants us all to get. Yet valuable as these memoirs are, they would have been more valuable still if Kissinger—having evoked the circumstances in which he did what he did and having convinced us that there was probably no better alternative available at the time—had added the dimension of hindsight and commented, from the perspective of today, on where and how he nevertheless went wrong.

On the evidence of some of his recent statements, for example, he has changed his mind about détente, or at least certain features of détente (such as the effects of economic linkage), and about arms control (whether there is such a thing as strategic superiority and what can be done with it). But so busy is he here with the effort to explain and justify his earlier views that he scarcely does more than hint at the revisions time and experience have wrought in his thinking. Understandable though this is, it remains a pity. For as the foreign policy of the Reagan administration reveals, we will never recover from some of the illusions of the past until we arrive as a nation at a franker and more realistic assessment than Kissinger provides here.

For example, in defending himself against those (myself included) who have pointed out that the fate of the Shah has demonstrated that the United States cannot safely rely on surrogates to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf, Kissinger asks what alternative there was to this policy at a time when neither Congress nor American public opinion would have sanctioned the stationing of American forces in the region. But the fact that there may have been no alternative under the circumstances prevailing at the time does not mean that the policy was sound. It may well have been the best we could do, but we now know that even the best turned out to be not good enough.

This is not an academic issue: the Reagan administration is now going through the same process in its policy toward Saudi Arabia, at least partly because it does not understand what our experience with Iran teaches. And much the same can be said of the Reagan administration’s policy toward the Soviet Union which—for all that the President has always been a critic of détente—looks more and more like a less and less cleverly executed version of the détente policy of the Nixon administration.

Perhaps it is too much to expect Kissinger himself, the most interested of all parties, to provide the disinterested critical assessment of the past we (and in particular the present Secretary of State, who still seems arrested in the ideas he absorbed then as Kissinger’s deputy) so desperately need. On the other hand, there is no one on the face of the earth from whom such a reassessment would come with greater authority.

In the meantime, and despite this deficiency, I think it is important, and especially for one like myself who was and remains opposed to the political strategy in whose defense these memoirs were written, to emphasize that they have already earned a place among the great books of their kind and among the great works of our time.

1 Little, Brown, 1283 pp., $24.95.

2 “The Future Danger,” April 1981.

3 I spell out these reasons in detail in chapter 4 of Why We Were in Vietnam.

4 “Kissinger and the Yom Kippur War,” September 1974.

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