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Kissinger & the Emperor

From the moment when they first began to keep historical records, the Chinese showed a fascination with the complexities of diplomacy, with the give-and-take of interstate negotiation, the balancing of force and bluff, the variable powers of human words to affect the onrushing course of events. Successful examples of bargaining, whether the fruits of deceit or of moral persuasiveness, swiftly found their way into fiction, poetry, and popular drama, and thus entered the culture of the country as a whole. Such tales formed both a respite and a satisfying coda to the otherwise unremitting records of violent warfare, as China’s earliest states battled for survival, or as the emperors—after the unification of China under a single ruling house in 221 BCE—fought to fend off foreign invaders or suppress internal rivals to the throne.

One such early text describes the ending of the war between the states of Chu and Song. Chu was pressing a savage siege on the capital city of Song, but the Chu ruler and his ministers knew that the Chu forces were down to their last seven days of rations, so that unless they could clinch a speedy victory, they would have to abandon their campaign against Song. Each ruler, to try to gauge the situation of the other, sent an emissary to hold a parley on the besieged city’s walls. As the two men met, the man from Chu asked how things were going in Song. Refusing to conceal the truth, the man from Song replied, “They are terrible. Our families are exchanging children so that they can eat them, and then splitting the bones to use as fuel. A lesser man might rejoice to hear of such sufferings, but I can see you are a man of honor, who would surely feel compassion.”

You are right,” replied the man of Chu, “be tenacious in defense of your city, for our Chu armies have only seven days of supplies remaining.” And he bowed and left.

When his emissary informed him of this verbal exchange, the exasperated Chu ruler at first decided to press the siege with renewed energy. But after further discussions of the moral implications of what had taken place, the Chu ruler changed his mind. He ordered the Chu armies to withdraw, and Song was saved.1

Not, perhaps, a conventional battle story, but one with true resonance in the Chinese tradition, drawing its inspiration from an enigmatic couplet in the far earlier Book of Poetry, dating from around 800 BCE: “When a person is truly so fine/How can one respond appropriately?” In other words, when can early truthfulness pay off in desperate moments, and when can it lead to disaster? Much depends on the way people size each other up, and their relative openness to the forces of moral argument. The tension will always be there, and the chances for misreading the situation are always present. Thus for Chinese pragmatists, or those of more cynical disposition, it was generally better to try to strike at the sources of the enemy’s strength. As one of China’s leading moral thinkers of the eleventh century put it, the process was similar to that of controlling a wild boar, most vicious and unpredictable of creatures. Attempting to control the teeth and tusks of such an animal by brute strength was impossible; one still would not curb its natural ferocity or the sharpness of the teeth. Hence “the superior man follows the principle of taking away the force behind the boar’s teeth,” whether by gelding or by other means. For the superior man “knows that the evil of the world cannot be suppressed by force.” Instead, he “gets hold of its essential element, and stops up its source.”2

Not too many years after those lines were written, China in fact entered a protracted period of disastrous foreign policy miscalculation, one that first sundered and then destroyed the ruling dynasty, as emperors trying to ward off the powers of the aggressive Liao invaders in the north brought in the equally aggressive Jin state to redress the balance, and then finally succumbed altogether to the triumphant Mongol armies. Missing the “essential element” of the situation, and unable to “stop up its source,” China’s rulers found their whole culture threatened with extinction. Though by the fourteenth century Chinese rebel armies had managed to overthrow the Mongols and establish the Ming dynasty, by 1644 the center broke again, as the Manchu armies swept into Beijing and established the new (and China’s last) dynasty, the Qing.

The Qing emperors were forced, by the circumstances of changing global power relations, to adjust to a completely new set of international norms, but they did so without losing the basic premises on which Chinese foreign relations had long been based. What this means for the historian is that the Chinese diplomatic record, which had often been recorded elliptically or even allegorically, could be supplemented from that time forward by a wide range of surviving outside sources, in a multiplicity of languages. It became possible to watch Chinese senior statesmen—and often the emperors themselves—sparring with foreign emissaries over the precise meaning of terms, the short- and long-range domestic implications of each decision reached, and the effects of each decision on both friends and enemies.

Such documentation became particularly rich during the long reign of the emperor Kangxi (1661-1722), and it shows us the learning process by which he came to assess—and then to curb—the territorial and economic ambitions of the Russians on China’s northern and western borders in the 1680s, as well as the very different but equally complex demands on China raised in 1706 by papal legates seeking to gain control over the religious practices of China’s new converts to Roman Catholicism, and over the Jesuits who had converted many of them. Such sources allow one to follow not just the words and the ceremonial, but the mood at court, the tightening of lips and the gestures of anger and impatience from the negotiating parties, the repulses and returns to the fray, the onset of tiredness or infirmity, the lobbying of interested parties on the edges of the central action.

We can get many of the same types of detail on the negotiations over British trade and diplomatic representation with China conducted by Lord Macartney with Emperor Qianlong in 1793, and on the desperate attempts a century later by China’s plenipotentiary Li Hongzhang to save southern Manchuria and Taiwan—to no avail—from the inflexible stance of Japan’s chief negotiator, Ito Hirobumi. Thanks to the remarkable collection of documents assembled by William Burr, we can now follow similar types of negotiations as they were conducted by Henry Kissinger (at the height of his power and self-confidence) and the Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Henry Kissinger, according to William Burr, sought in the late 1970s to limit access to many of the more sensitive documents from his period as assistant to President Nixon for national security affairs, and subsequently as secretary of state under Nixon and President Ford. Kissinger conveyed the key documents to the Library of Congress, stipulating that they be opened only five years after his death, or in 2001, whichever was later. In the library, which has its own laws of access, the documents would be better protected from the demands of those invoking the Freedom of Information Act than if they had been deposited with the executive branch. But Burr ingeniously tracked down many of the key transcripts of dealings with China and the Soviet Union in the 1970s—and hence remarkable material on both Mao Zedong and Brezhnev—in the papers of Henry Kissinger’s long-time aide and assistant Winston Lord. Since Lord had assembled this material as a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, they were available from the National Archives under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. It is these Lord papers that make up the bulk of this fascinating trove of material.

The Kissinger Transcripts can be read in a number of ways. They can be taken as a fairly straightforward critical account of Henry Kissinger’s character, and his chosen mode of conducting international diplomacy. In his preface, William Burr spells out a sliding scale of responses to Kissinger: at the high end would be the sense that Kissinger was “a shrewd practitioner of balance-of-power diplomacy.” Next would come the view of Kissinger as “a transitional figure in the complex passage to a post-imperial world.” Sliding down the scale of moral evaluation, Burr gives the third response as one that sees Kissinger as “a vain and power-hungry flatterer or even a counter-revolutionary” who tolerated human rights abuses in Indochina. In fourth and last place on the scale comes the view that Kissinger was “an appeaser of totalitarian governments.” The cover photo for the book is a tough and humorless black-and-white full-face portrait of Kissinger, the only touches of color being the rose tint that has been added to the lenses of his heavy spectacles. A pale yellow image of the Soviet hammer and sickle has been superimposed over the right eye, and the yellow star of the Chinese Communist flag over the left. This not particularly subtle imagery would seem to support the view that the publishers tilt toward the fourth of Burr’s four options, that of Kissinger as a diplomat who cultivated Communist dictators.3

Burr’s own editorial and historical comments are extensive, and cover such a wide interpretative ground that they can be used to support any of the four responses at different times. But the overall feeling the reader is left with is that Burr himself tilts toward the third of the responses. He comments often on Kissinger’s passion for secrecy, his use of back-door channels of communication that would bypass not only the State Department but also his own staff, his determination to keep human rights issues separate from issues of political détente, his defense of US policy in Cambodia while trying to get the Chinese to help in settling the Southeast Asia conflict, his flattery of President Nixon and other powerful world leaders, and his obsession with his own image.

Yet at the same time, Burr spells out in detail the efforts made by Kissinger to negotiate arms limitation agreements with the Soviet Union and to establish for the first time effective contacts with the People’s Republic of China, and most of the documents presented in the volume concentrate on these critical issues. Burr notes that once they have read the transcripts, “critics may be slightly more tolerant, and boosters more critical” of Kissinger than they were before. This is not going so far as to say “critics will be more tolerant, and boosters slightly more critical,” but it is a gesture in the direction of fairness.

There is already a colossal historical and analytical literature on the Soviet détente, the opening to China (with which the US had had no relations since 1949), and the bombing of Cambodia, as well as on Kissinger’s part in shaping those events as assistant to the president for national security affairs and subsequently as secretary of state. Burr gives cross-references in his notes to many of these sources. The Kissinger Transcripts will add important material to the debates over these matters, even though scholars will be divided over whether the often long and rambling discussions between Kissinger and Brezhnev, or Kissinger and Mao, really modify the overall picture of United States cold war policy between 1971 and 1976. To a historian of China, however, these are wonderful documents, because they not only let us follow the spoken thoughts of China’s leaders with more ample evidence than was possible previously, but they enable us to put Mao Zedong and his colleagues—especially Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, Huang Hua—into the longer-range perspective of China’s diplomatic history.

  1. 1

    Hanshi waizhuan (outer chapters of Mr. Han’s commentary on the Book of Poetry, Taipei, Taiwan Commercial Press, 1972), chapter 2, p. 37.

  2. 2

    The philosopher Ch’eng I, as quoted by Monika Ubelhör in William Theodore de Bary and John W. Chaffee, editors, Neo-Confucian Education: The Formative Stage (University of California Press, 1989), p. 371. The reference to the boar is drawn from The Book of Changes, Hexagram number 26.

  3. 3

    The book is issued under the auspices of the Fund for Peace, through the self-styled National Security Archive at George Washington University. The archive maintains a Website at www.seas.gwu.edu/nsarchive, on which can be found, according to The Kissinger Transcripts, the portions of the transcripts that are omitted in the book.

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