White House Years
by Henry Kissinger
Little, Brown, 1,521 pp., $22.50
This enormous volume is an overwhelming account and a formidable defense of American foreign policy, as devised and carried out by Henry Kissinger, from the first Nixon inauguration to the signing of the Vietnam peace agreement four years later. Kissinger’s earlier works were remarkable for the intellectual self-assurance and the penetrating analytical intelligence they displayed. They were not easy to read. The marshaling of arguments and the array of maxims brought to mind the heavy, purposeful march of Roman legions. In his memoirs, Kissinger shows the same gifts, and adds light touches which reflect a sardonic humor that had not been much in evidence in his academic years, but flourished as his success in action began to match his self-confidence.
He also, far more than in his previous books, lets his emotions show—the warmth of his gratitude to Nelson Rockefeller, or of his affection for Chou En-lai, the depth of his exasperation and “impotent rage” when either the North or the South Vietnamese blocked his designs, most frequently his anger or contempt for domestic opponents. The book is often brilliant, the flow of arguments and the author’s mental concentration are prodigious, but the mass of detail is likely to discourage readers who are not professionally interested in foreign policy. The tone moves from the masterful to the garrulous; and despite many admirable sections, and chapters in which he communicates his own exhilaration, there is something airless and oppressive about the book.
This too has to be explained, for it is not caused only by the many passages in which he celebrates his diplomacy’s achievements, or by the tendency to repeat points almost verbatim from chapter to chapter (which better editing could have cured). It is as if the reader were entering a mighty fortress, with many glittering rooms but several dark galleries and dungeons, innumerable closets, and narrow openings filled with weapons for resisting attacks—guns or boiling oil.
About every political memoir, a first question is: for whom is the author writing? In the case of statesmen who wrote after they reached, or thought they had reached, the end of their careers, the audience is posterity. De Gaulle, for instance, wanted his memoirs to be both a celebration and an inspiration (or a reproach). Posterity is much on Kissinger’s mind, either when he draws pictures of his leading contemporaries or when he outlines his goals, explains his tactics, and defends his most controversial decisions. But Kissinger is not at the end of his career, and his book is a weighty force thrown into the battle for a second chance, or at least for continuing public service. This accounts for the vigor with which he conducts his defense, his occasional digs at his successors, his often brutal dismissal of foes he knows he would have to fight again, or (on the contrary) are now out of the way, and in either case deserve no quarter, his prudence in dealing with figures with whom he tangled …