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International Episodes

Present History

by Theodore Draper
Random House, 458 pp., $19.95

Theodore Draper’s book collects his essays, long and short, published at various dates during the past decade, and dealing mainly with international affairs during the same period. The first two sections, “On Nuclear War” and “Where Are the Allies?” are closely related, and make up more than one-third of the book. These are also the most recent in date of composition, and will have the freshest interest for readers now. The two essays that make up the section “On Nuclear War” both appeared in The New York Review of Books in the second half of 1982. Those who read and admired those essays at the time—as the present reviewer did—will be interested in re-reading them, in the context of other writings by Mr. Draper on the same subject, notably the long and closely reasoned essay. “The Western Misalliance” which opens the second section in the present book, and first appeared in The Washington Quarterly in 1981.

I shall come back to these first two sections, which seem to me to contain most of the much that is excellent in Present History. The remaining five sections of the book are more diverse, and more uneven. The section “The Arab-Israeli Wars” consists of three essays written in 1973, 1974, and 1979. Very properly, Mr. Draper has refrained from revising these in the light of hind-sight. Most of them stand up well to the rather severe test (in relation to the Middle East especially) of re-publication as long as ten years later, but the things that don’t stick out. An obvious example is: “In the event of an Arab-Israeli war, Hussein is sure to take Jordan into it, whatever the state of his preparedness.” Anyone who has risked such confident affirmations (as the present reviewer too often has) ought to paste that on his writing desk, making the mental note: “The fact that the fellow has acted this way several times before doesn’t prove he’s going to act this way next time around.”

Another pitfall in writing about current affairs for immediate publication—a pitfall whose contents are likely to appear on re-publication—is a temptation to magnify the long-term historic importance of some dramatic recent event. Thus having chided the United Nations for its role (as he interprets it) in relation to the Yom Kippur War, Mr. Draper concludes: “This war may well be to the United Nations what the Italo-Ethiopian war was to the League of Nations.”

It must have been a chilling thought at the time, since the “failure of the League” (code language for backing down by Britain and France) over Italy’s attack on Ethiopia is generally regarded as the beginning of the chain of events that led to the Second World War. The chill comes off the thought, to a degree or two, when one realizes that the span of time that separates Mr. Draper’s “may well be” (in 1973) from our own day is already more than twice the span that separated the Italo-Ethiopian war from the outbreak of World War II.

In general, it may be imprudent, in relation to international affairs, to use propositions of the order A is to B as C is to D. The international entities corresponding to the algebra are so complex, and so charged with unknown variables, that the proposition is most unlikely to be true. In this case, “the League of Nations” and “the United Nations” sound highly comparable, but in fact stand for situations and expectations that were very widely different. The international authority of the European victors of the First World War was invested in, and expressed by, the League, and was fatally wounded when those powers, instead of using the League to uphold their authority, tried to use its “failure” to divert attention from their own failure. The United Nations is a quite different animal: floppier and funnier, and better adapted to survival. The United Nations is not identified with the prestige or authority of any group of powers: all countries, great or small, make use of it from time to time, to let off steam, save face, or evade the consequences of rash acts. Nobody should have been expecting much more of it by 1973; nor should its “failure”—which was no more than its established mode of existence—have evoked more than usually apocalyptic apprehensions.

In general, the Arab-Israeli section, though containing much of interest, is the poorest part of a very rich book. The writer here often seems under such stress of moral indignation that his formidable capacity for cool analysis, and his sense of proportion, seem to desert him. Worse still, he tends here to get sanctimonious. Mr. Draper legitimately establishes the large inconsistencies in the propaganda positions of the Arabs (and their political friends) as these positions stood at the beginning and at the end of the 1967 war. Then he piously adds: “In this way a double standard was smuggled into the Middle East conflict and has plagued it ever since.”

But a double standard is normal to all propaganda and all conflicts, on all sides. It often takes the sophisticated form of denunciation of the double standard as the sole property of the other side. And as for smuggling a double standard into the Middle East, that event occurred originally in the Garden of Eden, and the smuggler was the serpent. I don’t like Yasir Arafat much either, but he didn’t invent sin.

The sections “Ghosts of Vietnam” and “The Diplomacy of Henry Kissinger” are more analytical than the Arab-Israeli section, and more moralistic than the two first sections; to which, however, they also add some significant elements of analysis and assessment. I will later return to these, along with the first two sections, for discussion of some of Mr. Draper’s principal themes.

Another section, ” ‘Neo-Conservatives’ in Review,” consists of two fairly short articles on two representatives of the genus: Norman Podhoretz and Jeane Kirkpatrick. Both are attacks. The one on Mr. Podhoretz is ferocious; that on Mrs. Kirkpatrick mixed with a grudging respect, as is also the case with the author’s much more developed treatment of Henry Kissinger in many of the essays that make up this book.

The final section, “The Past in the Present,” consists of two longish essays, “Prophets of the ‘Cold War’ ” and “Intellectuals in Politics.” “Prophets of the ‘Cold War’ ” deals with obscure but interesting predecessors of Tocqueville’s in predicting the emergence of Russia and America as world superpowers (not really an extraordinary guess for a crystal gazer around 1800: there was all that peripheral space to be filled up, and all those vigorous children of nature available to fill it).

The final essay deals with intellectuals in American politics from La Follette and Wilson to Kissinger and Brzezinski. Mr. Draper as an intellectual concerned with politics is rightly and discriminatingly suspicious of intellectuals engaged in the practice of politics. He is somewhat obsessed with Henry Kissinger, in an interesting sort of way. Writing about the first volume of Mr. Kissinger’s memoirs he says: “This book conveys much of the brute force, the intellectual virtuosity, and the insatiable appetite for power that enabled him to come out on the top, only slightly soiled, of a political dunghill.” Elsewhere he treats even that achievement as largely illusory: “I am inclined to think that Kissinger’s power over the media was greater than his power over anything else…. As a shaper of history, Kissinger was most successful in shaping his own histrionics, not history.”

The first judgment I think is fair; the second unduly reductive. I think Mr. Kissinger has long been essentially an operator: if not exactly a treasonable clerk, in Julien Benda’s sense, at least a security risk in matters of intellectual integrity. Mr. Draper makes much of the fact that, as an analyst of international affairs, Mr. Kissinger was anti-détente, but became the great advocate of détente after he entered practical politics. Mr. Draper also shows that although Mr. Kissinger saw through the illusion of victory in Vietnam as early as 1966, he generally kept quiet about it until the Vietnam War had become an obviously hopeless cause. And the two positions, on détente and on Vietnam, are of course closely connected.

The key to all these contradictions is in that “insatiable appetite for power.” An intellectual with such an appetite could best put himself in the way of satisfying it by being anti-détente in the Sixties. He would have put himself out of the way of satisfying it, if he had opposed the Vietnam War too early. But when the time was ripe, when the president needed to get off the hook of the Vietnam War, it was Mr. Kissinger who saw how to do that, in a cloud of détente and global pseudo-linkage. Having always insisted on the necessity of an “honorable” outcome to the war, he was well placed to mask the true character of the dishonorable outcome: the only one actually available, after all that had happened. It need not have been dishonorable intrinsically; but it was certainly dishonorable in terms of the version of the war that had been presented to the American people. According to that version, the government in Saigon was a genuinely representative one, legitimately allied to the United States. Kissinger never disavowed that version, but he arranged the selling of America’s allies down the river, under a pretense that they could stand on their own feet, and with a mimed procedure of apparently bilateral withdrawal. And so the silly, filthy war came to its shabby end.

But after all, it did come to an end, with Mr. Kissinger’s help. If one so clever and so unscrupulous as Mr. Kissinger had not managed to be around (precisely by dint of being so clever and unscrupulous), why then the war might have gone on even longer. If a consistent and genuinely honorable person had been in charge, America might have been stuck in that bloody quagmire for another year or so.

So rogue intellectuals in politics can have their uses, though it is seldom easy to make out just what those uses are. I remember a controversy with one such intellectual, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Mr. Schlesinger had been among the signers of a letter in The New York Times testifying to the intellectual integrity of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and rebutting the charge that the congress was paid for by theCIA. Soon afterward the charge became so undeniable that even the congress ceased to deny it. I had been among the first to diagnose the case, so I was asked to debate, on television, with Mr. Schlesinger. I put the question: “Did you not know, when you signed that letter, that theCIA paid for the congress?” Mr. Schlesinger paused for a moment and then said, “I did know about it while I was in government.”

Apparently such people have two distinct modes of cognition, one for when they are in, the other for when they are out. Perhaps more than two. Who knows what they know, and don’t know? The science of political epistemology is still in its infancy.

Mr. Kissinger is far too smart to sign such a letter as that, gratuitously (although he has been caught out in a lie or two when under pressure). Mr. Kissinger is so outstandingly smart that it gives one—that is, me—some pleasure to contemplate even his misdeeds, so saturated are they in the joy of cleverness. As for Mr. Draper, if he feels any such pleasure, he stifles it pretty effectively. He rightly castigates Mr. Kissinger for his intellectual sins, which are legion. But he fails to give Mr. Kissinger due credit for his considerable achievements as a politician and—above all—as a diplomatist. I find it strange that Mr. Draper, with his strong interest in Arab-Israeli problems, does not acknowledge the brilliance and fruitfulness of Mr. Kissinger’s diplomacy in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. It was in this period that the foundations were laid for the solid achievement that was later embodied in the Camp David agreement: that is, the separate peace between Egypt and Israel. And it is notable that, while Mr. Kissinger’s general political record inspires anything but confidence, this extraordinary diplomatic feat of his in the Middle East was brought about precisely by winning, and deserving, the confidence of two parties who had just been at war with one another. There at least he was shaping history, not histrionics.

Mr. Draper is not altogether at his best in dealing with personalities. He is rather too fond of scolding people, and sneering at them, and while the people in question have generally earned some such treatment—and it is often memorably done—they and the reader could do with a bit less of it. Where Mr. Draper is at his best, and is fascinatingly instructive, is in the discussion of concepts and especially in the illustration, analysis, and assessment of key terms in the vocabulary of international affairs (mainly in the first two sections of his book).

I shall consider two of these terms, as examined by Mr. Draper: détente and deterrence. “Détente,” says Mr. Draper, “is a seemingly innocent word that implies the spread of good will and peaceful intentions where these did not exist before. In the real world, however, its influence is not innocent.” Détente, of its nature, “changes the existing balance of forces.” It can become “a weapon, not a token of affection or a reward for good behavior”: détente, in its negative form—requiring the giving of no offense to the Soviet Union—“gives the Soviet Union an effective veto over European policy” and “leads Europe into a one-way street” that takes it further and further away from the United States.

One détente may work at cross purposes with another. The Franco-Soviet détente of 1965 acutely disturbed the Germans and the German-Soviet détente of 1969-70 intensely disconcerted the French…. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Soviet-American détente [of the early Seventies] was not universally greeted with joy and applause in Europe.

I am not in agreement with all of Mr. Draper’s political judgments, explicit or implicit. Specifically, I am more in favor of some forms of détente than he seems to be of any. But what is impressive is the sense Mr. Draper is able to convey—in these and many other passages—of the often disquieting dynamics of this apparently amiable phenomenon. The Romans had words for it, as well they might: graves amicitiae principum, “the ominous friendships of princes.” Those of us who may be too inclined to bask in the benignity generally associated with the notion of détente would do well to recall that it was a great détente—the gravis amicitia of Hitler and Stalin—that set loose the Second World War.

Mr. Draper likes deterrence rather better than he does détente, but he is also highly critical of some versions of deterrence. He has no time for people like Jonathan Schell. He quotes Mr. Schell:

The policy of deterrence does not contemplate doing anything in defence of the homeland; it only promises that if the homeland is annihilated the aggressor’s homeland will be annihilated, too.

Is that doing nothing?” asks Mr. Draper, and he goes on:

If an aggressor has reason to believe that his own homeland will be annihilated, he is well on the way to being deterred from devastating the homeland of the defender.

To that extent, Mr. Draper is a classical exponent of the theory of deterrence. But he rejects President Reagan’s defense policies as being inspired not by the limited needs of deterrence but by an illusory quest for superiority: “the level of destructiveness from no more than a small part of the existing stock of nuclear weapons is so appallingly high that a race for superiority can only be a competition in redundancy. Nevertheless, even fantasies have their meanings—in this case, a return to a paradise lost of American prepotency.”

Mr. Draper is particularly illuminating on the subject of the secret and separate hopes of the European and American partners in the “Western alliance” concerning the cruel contingency in which uncertain deterrence might at last fail, and retaliation would have to take some ugly concrete shape. On the European position, Mr. Draper quotes a “biting observation” of Henry Kissinger’s:

Their secret hope, which they never dared to articulate, was that the defense of Europe would be conducted as an intercontinental nuclear exchange over their heads; to defend their own countries, America was invited to run the very risk of nuclear devastation from which they were shying away.

Implicitly accepting Kissinger’s interpretation of European hopes, Mr. Draper matches it with his own interpretation of the corresponding American hopes:

America’s secret hope, Kissinger might have added, was that the defense of the United States would be conducted in or through Europe—or at least anywhere but in the United States. The two secret hopes did not make for secret confidence between the United States and its allies.

I have no doubt that both secret hopes exist. But they are not symmetrical, in degree of probability. The European hope is pathetic rather than discreditable, since the Europeans have no means of bringing their hope to fruition should nuclear war break out. The Americans do have such means. All they have to do is to confine their nuclear retaliation to the territories of the Soviet Union’s East European allies. The Soviet Union has the strongest possible incentive to take the hint, and confine its own retaliation to the territory of America’s West European allies. The war between the superpowers would be fought out at the expense of their surrogates. Most of Europe would be in ruins, and most Europeans would be dead.

Granted these apocalyptic possibilities, it is not surprising that there is a good deal of protest in Europe against the deployment of new American missile systems. What is surprising is not that there has been so much protest, but that there has not been more: The reason, I think, is that most people believe both that Russia needs to be deterred, and that it can be deterred. The peace movement is widely distrusted, because of its faith that Russia does not need to be deterred. In Britain’s recent elections the Labour Party’s adoption of the full unilateralist line—complete with the abandonment of Britain’s own independent nuclear deterrent—was high on the list of the causes of its shattering defeat. If Labour had stuck to the old concept of deterrence, including Britain’s deterrent, but opposed the deployment of the new weapons, it could have gained seats by its defense policy instead of losing them.

Unilateralism seems unlikely to gain much ground. But when the idea sinks in of a war of the superpowers as likely to be fought out (if at all) in Europe only, demand is likely to increase for the disconnection of European (and/or national) defense from the defense of the United States and for the strengthening of Europe’s own defenses, both nuclear and conventional. Mr. Draper’s book seems likely to increase that demand, though I think he would deplore that effect.

Present History is both well worth reading and almost always a pleasure to read, frightening though much of its subject matter is. Mr. Draper’s writing is lucid and polished, often sharply witty, and with an enviable command of lapidary aphorisms. His historical methodology, as explained in his introduction, is also much to be commended. He distinguishes “present history,” as practiced by him, from a common sort of current-affairs journalism:

Journalists are accustomed to using unattributed sources; I believe in using them most sparingly, if at all, or when nothing else will do, and then giving the reader ample warning. The evidence should be presented critically rather than as the latest news bulletin. In short, the material should be treated in a way that any historian would recognize and respect.

These are admirable principles, and Mr. Draper faithfully applies them in practice. I have criticized what I regard as some flaws in Present History, but these are far outweighed by its merits.


For the Record November 10, 1983

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