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The Return of Henry Kissinger

I

Less than two and a half years after the publication of his first volume of memoirs, Henry Kissinger has given us an equally dense and hefty sequel. White House Years covered the first term of Richard Nixon and ended with the Paris peace agreement on Vietnam in January 1973; Years of Upheaval is his account of the stormy period that began in February 1973 with his first visit to Hanoi, and ended in August 1974 with Nixon’s resignation. The first book dealt with fifty months in 1,500 pages; the second volume tells about eighteen months in nearly 1,300 pages—almost three pages per day. If the third volume, which will describe the Ford years, is as long, Kissinger will have set something of a record. Since, in the two and a half years during which he wrote Years of Upheaval, he also did a lot of public speaking, traveling, advising, and political maneuvering, the reader can only be impressed, once more, by the powers of concentration, the mental energy, the argumentative skills, and the apparent fierce desire for total recall evident in this book.

The events covered are momentous indeed: the unraveling of the Paris agreement, the continuation of triangular diplomacy with Peking and Moscow (entailing two meetings with Mao, two visits to Brezhnev in the Soviet Union, and two Soviet-American summits), the black comedy of the “Year of Europe,” 1973, the overthrow of Salvador Allende, the surprise and the shock waves of the October 1973 war in the Middle East, the first oil crisis, Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy, the beginning of the anti-détente campaign in the United States, Richard Nixon’s “last hurrah”—his Middle East journey—and, of course, throughout, the Watergate melodrama, without which, as Kissinger explains, he would not have been appointed secretary of state in August 1973 (indeed, he repeatedly asserts that he would have resigned some time in 1973). And yet a careful reader of the first volume is likely to find himself less stimulated or aroused this time: not because the events are less stirring, but because, apart from the story Kissinger has to tell, so little else is new.

On the one hand, Kissinger’s overall philosophy of international affairs, the concepts of which he speaks so proudly, were already laid out in the first volume; there are, inevitably, neither surprises nor innovations here. On the other hand, there are enough repetitions to exasperate even admirers of Kissinger’s analytic gifts and epigrammatic style. Not only does he tell us, all over again, what his basic beliefs are—his strategy and his operational code (and, lest I fall into the very practice I deplore, let me refer the readers of this review to my discussion of White House Years)*—but within Volume Two we find several overlapping accounts of the same subject, for example, the Nixon administration’s “challenge…to educate the American people in the requirements of the balance of power” (p. 50).

Kissinger’s role in the wiretapping of aides comes up in several places. (Thesis: he did the minimum that was required, appropriate, and legal. Antithesis: he expresses his “regret at the anguish that may have been caused to any individual.” Synthesis: he is dismayed at having been harassed “in lawsuits and in print…by some who knew very well that I was torn between doing my duty…and sparing them personally,” pp. 121-122.) Of the Year of Europe he remarks twice that “it was right to try” (p. 194 and p. 734). Without saying anything new he reiterates his points about the convergence of conservatives and liberals against détente; his judgment of Senator Jackson; his evaluation of the new nuclear situation created by superpower parity, and of the bureaucracy’s position on SALT negotiations; his distinction between great men and ordinary leaders or mere experts.

On the rivalry between him and Secretary Rogers, on the proper relations between the National Security Council staff and the State Department, on the Shah of Iran, on Chile, on détente, whole passages seem to repeat Volume One almost verbatim. A statesman, says Kissinger, must be a visionary and a teacher. For lack of a good (or brave) editor, and because of Kissinger’s tendency to deal with each subject in several chapters, and to recapitulate in the later ones what he told us earlier, pedagogy tends to degenerate into pedantry.

What Kissinger tells us about the machinery of government in foreign policy can also be called “more of same.” The indiscretions which made Volume One so fascinating for outsiders (and often shocking to insiders concerned with the emperor’s clothes) are fewer here—partly because, as of September 1973, Kissinger was both secretary of state and national security adviser, and the punishment inflicted on the Department by the NSC had stopped.

Still, in the preceding six months, many of the bizarre practices described in the previous volume persisted. In Middle East policy, “three parallel diplomatic tracks were developing” (p.206): Kissinger’s “back channel” with Ambassador Dobrynin, his secret channel with Hafiz Ismail (Sadat’s national security adviser), and the State Department’s attempt at obtaining an interim disengagement of forces along the Suez Canal. Only Kissinger knew about all three, at first (but American diplomats in the Middle East soon found out, in embarrassing circumstances).

Moreover, Kissinger, partly in order to explain delays he deplored, or to dissociate himself from proposals he says he disliked, refers to bureaucratic deadlocks over both the plan to retaliate with force against North Vietnamese violations of the Paris agreement (“a great lost opportunity,” p. 326) and over the American negotiating position for SALT II (“for the first time since I had come to government I was bureaucratically isolated—and confronted with palpable absurdities,” p. 265). If his rather bitter account of the American side of SALT II in 1973-1974 is correct, even his double position as head of the State Department and head of the National Security staff did not ensure his predominance over the Pentagon in this case. As for the divergences—about which so much has been written—between the Pentagon and himself during the October war, he manages at the same time to acknowledge them, to minimize their effects, and to present himself as the American official most solicitous of Israel’s needs and most eager to fit the supply of arms to Israel into an overall diplomatic strategy.

II

To say that there is little that is new, conceptually or in the analysis of foreign policy making, does not mean that what is familiar to readers of the first volume is necessarily without interest. Indeed, the strengths of this book are the same as those of its predecessor.

First, there is much merit to Kissinger’s decision to go into almost exhausting detail in his account of important diplomatic negotiations. True, this allows him to display his own skills as a mediator or as a manipulator of people and events; but writers of memoirs do not go through their past in order to minimize their achievements. Also, as he explains in his foreword, what he gives us is his side of the story; other participants may have a very different view and (as we shall see) he is often far from convincing. But the very length of his account is likely to provoke other players to offer their rebuttals and amendments, as happened with Volume One.

And even though readers who are not professional diplomats or students of foreign policy may find that Kissinger’s description of, say, the Syrian “shuttle”—thirty-four days in April-May 1974—is almost as draining as the events were for the actors, there is much to be learned about an art that will have to become much better analyzed and understood if one wants to be able, gradually, to replace violent change with peaceful settlements: the art of mediation, the uses (and the perils) of ambiguity, the skillful resort either to delay or to deadlines, to deadlock or to showdown, in order to prevent failure or to make progress, the little tricks that can make the difference between fiasco and success (such as having a proposal that originates from an adversary presented to the other by the mediator as his own, or refusing to present a proposal one knows to be unacceptable, etc.). Just as his account of the China “breakthrough” and of the negotiations with Hanoi, in Volume One, provided many glimpses into—respectively—the diplomacy of convergence and the diplomacy of inexpiable conflict, the more than 500 pages devoted here to the diplomacy of the Middle East war are a most important contribution to the record.

Secondly, once again, Kissinger is at his best as a portraitist. He adds new touches to his accounts of Mao, of Brezhnev, and of Edward Heath—Mao’s ambivalence about modernization, Brezhnev’s “split personality—alternatively boastful and insecure, belligerent and mellow” (p.233), Heath trying to make “a citadel of personal excellence” (p. 140) in order to rise to leadership in an upper-class party despite his lower-class background. His portrait of Dayan captures the charm, egotism, moodiness, and intuition of a man unique, among his colleagues, in “the sweep of his imagination, the nimbleness of his intellect, the ability to place Israel in a world context” (p. 563).

There are shrewd evaluations of such opponents of Kissinger as Michel Jobert, Henry Jackson, and James Schlesinger. For the first time, there is a portrait of Brandt, and along with testimony to his historical importance, Kissinger makes devastating remarks about him: not only had he “made himself irrelevant (and in some respects dangerous)” in changing the course of history, but “he possessed neither the stamina nor the intellectual apparatus to manage the forces he had unleashed. He in fact became their prisoner, wallowing in their applause…” (pp. 144-145). The most moving portrait is that of Sadat, of his growing passion for peace, of his mix of generosity and shrewdness, of his “almost carnal relationship with authority” (p. 648), his need for solitary reflection, his “pervasive humanity.” (What makes the portrait convincing is Kissinger’s awareness of his friend’s flaws—“the defects of his virtues.”)

Since so much of the book deals with the effects of Watergate, the reader may expect descriptions of the main actors in that drama. The sketches of Ehrlichman and Haldeman are a bit perfunctory. But the portrait of Haig—Kissinger’s aide who became Nixon’s final chief of staff—is a characteristic blend of compliments and barbs, showing admiration for his “will-power, dedication, and self-discipline” (p. 1197) as well as for the way in which he learned some of Kissinger’s own tricks, first in order to eliminate possible rivals on Kissinger’s staff, later in order to ensure his own preeminence even over Kissinger. Haig’s “rough methods” and “insistence on formal status” (p. 1197) are not recent.

The portrait of Nixon, begun in Volume One, is considerably deepened here, especially in the final chapter. I had thought that some of the comments about Nixon in White House Years were rather mean. Here, a kind of lucid, unsentimental compassion prevails in the description of a man “awake during his own nightmare” (p. 1181), “the first victim of his own unharmonious nature” (p. 1183), never at peace with himself because he had no central core, because “the various personalities within him” were always at war, because of inner doubts resulting in deviousness, because of his overwhelming fear of being rejected and his insecurity—the belief that his whole career had been accidental (p. 1186). “Few men so needed to be loved and were so shy about the grammar of love” (p. 1184). He “sought to move the world but he lacked a firm foothold,” and therefore “always turned out to be slightly out of focus” (p. 1186). He “accomplished much but he never was certain that he had earned it.”

  1. *

    The New York Review, December 6, 1979.

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