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Counsels on Foreign Relations


The years 1968-1975 were the hinge on which the second half of our century turned. The cultural revolt that we somewhat misleadingly call “the Sixties” reached its apogee in the early Seventies and entered the mainstream of public life and language. “Revisionist” or reform communism heaved its last, optimistic breath in Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1968; its defeat signaled first the end of a chimera in Eastern Europe and then, shortly thereafter, the first stage of the dismantling of that same fond hope in the West, with the 1973 translation of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag and the unraveling illusions of Old and New Left alike. In the Middle East the unstable post-‘67 truce between Israel and the Arab states was followed by the “Yom Kippur” war, the oil embargo and price rise, and a radically altered power configuration both in the region and between the Arabs and the great powers. In South Asia a new country—Bangladesh—was born, in the course of a war between India and Pakistan.

In 1968 the United States was still a major presence in Southeast Asia, with over half a million troops in South Vietnam alone. Of greater significance, it was also still the world’s banker, thanks to the postwar arrangements set in place at Bretton Woods in 1944: the dollar, whose relationship to other currencies was based on fixed exchange rates, was the international reserve currency, backed by US gold reserves. From August 1971 this unsustainable and increasingly symbolic role was abandoned to national and international policy initiatives and the fluctuations of trade and currency markets. In a related development the member states of the European Community voted the following year to commit themselves to the goal, however distant, of political unity. The nervous but familiar certainties of the cold war gave way to “détente”: between the US and the Soviet Union (SALT 1, the first international agreement to limit strategic armaments, was signed in 1972), and between Germany and its eastern neighbors following Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and the treaties and agreements he secured with the Soviet Union in 1970 and the years that followed.

In Asia the United States, after studiously ignoring Communist China for two decades, entered into a series of communications and meetings with Chinese leaders that would culminate (in 1979) in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, something that would have been unthinkable for most American politicians and statesmen of the cold war era. By April 1975 the US had been evicted from Vietnam and Cambodia; two months later the Helsinki conference on security and cooperation in Europe was convened. The dramatic international developments of the 1980s were still unforeseen and unthinkable (for all but a few imprisoned dissidents in Eastern Europe); but their foundations were now in place.

Throughout this protean moment in the international and national history of our times, the foreign policy of the most important country in the world was effectively run by one man, Henry Kissinger—first as national security adviser, then as secretary of state. And for most of that time he answered to the desires of Richard Nixon, president of the United States from January 1969 until his forced resignation in August 1974, after which Kissinger stayed on in a similar capacity under Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford. Kissinger’s protracted domination of state business, and the fact that Nixon’s presidency coincided with such an important turning point in world affairs, make their management of US foreign policy a matter of unusual general interest, and have tended to favor the claim made by both men that there was, in fact, no coincidence—that their strategic thinking and their actions played a central role in bringing about the changes I have described.

That is one reason why William Bundy’s new book is important. It is a carefully written and painstakingly researched narrative of US foreign affairs as they were conducted by Nixon and Kissinger. It is not the last word on its subject—as Bundy acknowledges, many archives and papers remain inaccessible, not least those public documents reclassified by Kissinger himself as “personal” papers and closed to prying scholarly eyes until five years after his death. But nothing of importance is left out; the story is not likely to change significantly in later versions. And that story, as we shall see, is distinctly unflattering to both men.

In itself that is hardly new—Nixon has long been a soft target for journalists and historians, and Kissinger too has been the subject of more than one critical assessment. But William Bundy is not a journalist and he is not, at least by profession, a historian. He was for a very long time a member of the old foreign policy “establishment” of this country; indeed his curriculum vitae is almost a caricature of the type. From 1951 to 1960 he worked for the CIA as an analyst of international political developments; from 1961 to 1964 he was in the Office of International Security Affairs, a Pentagon-based oversight committee evaluating the political and diplomatic impact of military options. From 1964 through 1969 he was the assistant secretary of state responsible for East Asian policy; according to former Senator and Ambassador Mike Mansfield, it was William Bundy, together with his brother McGeorge, Robert McNamara, and General Maxfield Taylor (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), who were the “architects” of American policy in Vietnam. From 1972 until 1984 he was the editor of Foreign Affairs, the prestigious and influential “house journal” of that same establishment.1

William Bundy, then, is a consummate “insider,” and this is an insider’s analysis of the making of US foreign policy, at a time when the old foreign policy elite was losing control to a new brand of international relations “expert.” It is cool, reasonable, dispassionate, sometimes quite technical, and at least as much concerned with how policy gets made as with its implementation. It does not blame its subjects for situations they inherited—understandably, since these, notably in Southeast Asia, were largely the work of Bundy himself and his peers and colleagues. Nor does Bundy devote overmuch space to discussing the moral and political dimensions of that inheritance. Moreover, he offers scrupulously balanced accounts of the choices Nixon and Kissinger had—and didn’t have—and he gives credit where credit is due. But just for that reason his book is a devastating, and within its limits definitive, dismantling of a certain myth, and it should be read by an audience far transcending the author’s fellow insiders, though they may be more startled than anyone by its conclusions.

The myth in question is that of the strategic originality, even genius, of American foreign policy making in the Nixon era. It is a version of history assiduously cultivated by Nixon himself, by Henry Kissinger in his memoirs, other writings, speeches, and public persona, and by their many admirers and acolytes. We found the world in a mess, it says: the cold war still frozen, the US trapped in a hopeless war in Southeast Asia, incoherent and contradictory American alliances and dealings with allies and enemies alike. In six short years we executed two truly radical departures: the opening to China and détente and arms agreements with the Soviet Union. We extricated the country from its Asian imbroglio, we propounded the “Nixon doctrine” whereby the US would support foreign allies without getting militarily embroiled in local conflicts, we set in place the basis for Middle Eastern dialogue, we established enduring personal and institutional relations with foreign statesmen, and we laid the groundwork for the great changes of the decades to come.

And we managed all this, the story runs, because we truly understood how a global foreign policy should be made and what its objectives ought to be. If our achievement is underestimated today it is because of domestic sniping, the failure of our successors to follow through on our initiatives and strategic design, and above all because of the tragic diversion of Watergate. In the long view, the myth concludes, the foreign policy “turn” taken in the years 1968-1974 will be appreciated for the courageous and original grand strategy that it truly was.

Some of this received version can stand the test of time—most obviously the decision to make contact with the leaders of Communist China. Other claims may strike some readers of The New York Review as spurious; but they cannot be ignored. They are, or were, quite well received in certain circles in Europe and Asia and in this country they have left a strong impression—witness the prestige of Kissinger himself and the curiously affectionate and even admiring eulogies that greeted Nixon’s death. Their successors, in the presidency, in the National Security Council (NSC), and at the State Department, have not always been men of outstanding intelligence or integrity, and this, too, has helped. And Kissinger in particular has been a master at presenting his own thoughts and deeds to an enthusiastic and receptive audience of journalists and scholars, then and since.

A Tangled Web cuts a broad, clear swathe through such claims. In the first place Bundy shows how the way in which foreign policy was made under Nixon—the effective exclusion of professional expertise, especially that of the State Department, and Kissinger’s clever reorganization of committees and hierarchies at the NSC and in the White House so as to centralize virtually all knowledge and authority in his own office—meant that foreign policy was no longer subjected to careful or contradictory debate and discussion. Hardly anyone interrogated Kissinger on the possible side effects or unintended consequences of his words and actions. Decision-making was certainly rendered more “efficient,” in the sense that major decisions were unlikely to be questioned or diluted before implementation, but the results, Bundy writes, were often disastrous. One clear implication of his book is that US foreign policy in these years, far from growing out of brilliantly reasoned and long-mulled strategic rethinking, was a “seat-of-the-pants” operation, with much consequent effort devoted to various forms of damage control.

This, it has to be noted, is a partisan position. Kissinger and Nixon most certainly did ignore and snub qualified experts, especially those in the professional diplomatic and intelligence communities with whom William Bundy was closely identified. But the track record of such “experts” through the Sixties had its own blemishes. The Communist regimes of Southeast Asia, including the one in Hanoi, were authoritarian and repressive and posed a threat to their non-Communist neighbors; and Hanoi was implacably determined to expand its power. But no one in the West had found any very convincing way to oppose those governments without propping up unsavory (and often unpopular) local non-Communist regimes, and in most cases not very successfully at that. Many American soldiers had died in Vietnam before Richard Nixon came to office, for reasons that seemed increasingly obscure to many people. The “experts” could try to explain why and how the US was in Southeast Asia, but they had little to offer on what should now be done, either to save South Vietnam or to extricate American forces. And that, above all, was the problem facing the incoming Republican administration.

  1. 1

    Mansfield is quoted from a conversation with Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to Washington. See Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence (Times Books, 1995), p. 137. It is perhaps also germane to add that Bundy is the son-in-law of the late Dean Acheson, that his father, Harvey Bundy, was a close adviser of Henry M. Stimson during World War II, and that his brother McGeorge was President Kennedy’s national security adviser, all of which makes him a member of the innermost foreign policy elite as much by dynastic relations as by election.

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