Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981
Hard Choices: Critical Years in America’s Foreign Policy
Thinking About National Security: Defense and Foreign Policy in a Dangerous World
Zbigniew Brzezinski’s fate, ever since his student days at Harvard, has been to be compared to Kissinger. His own “memoirs of the national security adviser” are very different from those of his formidable predecessor. Henry Kissinger’s memoirs are a monument carefully erected as an appeal to history. Reading them is like following a proud architect who points out the grandeur of his conception, the vistas outside, the spacious rooms inside, a sumptuous gallery of portraits, and an odd philosophical library. Brzezinski’s recollections are straight and swift. Indeed, they remind one of a fighter plane that flies much of the way on automatic pilot, strafing enemy targets, and also, here and there, in passing, hitting friendly positions.
Cyrus Vance’s book, which he refuses to call a memoir, reads, in its reasonable and dry way, like a thoughtful and reliable report to the somewhat stuffy board of directors of a major corporation. It is almost relentlessly impersonal. There are no portraits of other officials—not even of Carter. Vance mentions his differences over policy with Brzezinski and some anonymous bureaucrats, expresses his anger with Brzezinski’s behavior at a few points, but makes no attempt to describe or analyze him. A few statesmen receive passing praise; many of them happen to be men for whom Brzezinski expresses distaste, Helmut Schmidt and Moshe Dayan in particular. But Hard Choices is a book of little color and of subdued emotions.
On many issues it provides a more detailed account than Brzezinski’s—for instance, concerning the complex and slow negotiation of SALT II, the Carter administration’s ambitious policy for the Middle East in 1977, the Panama Canal treaties, and southern Africa. However, Vance is much more discreet or oblique than Brzezinski in two interesting cases. He does not tell us, as Brzezinski does, that Deng Xiaoping, whom Brzezinski calls “the diminutive but dangerous leader of China,” informed Carter during his celebrated visit to Washington in January 1979 that China would soon “teach a lesson” to Vietnam—thus putting Carter and his advisers on the spot because they had to choose between cooling off the new love affair with China and damaging relations with the Soviet Union. Whereas Vance lists a variety of reasons why the Middle East peace process ran out of steam after the conclusion of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in March 1979, Brzezinski squarely points his finger at Carter, who “made it clear to us that he no longer wished to play a highly visible role in Middle East affairs,” and appointed Robert Strauss as his Middle East negotiator in order to have a “political shield at home.”
Brzezinski and Vance both wanted the jobs Carter gave them. But whereas Vance’s book records, in its reserved way, a growing estrangement between him and the president, leading to his resignation in April 1980, Brzezinski displays throughout his book much pride in the importance of his position, his concern for predominance (he suggested Vance for …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.