Henry Kissinger
Henry Kissinger; drawing by David Levine


This enormous volume is an overwhelming account and a formidable defense of American foreign policy, as devised and carried out by Henry Kissinger, from the first Nixon inauguration to the signing of the Vietnam peace agreement four years later. Kissinger’s earlier works were remarkable for the intellectual self-assurance and the penetrating analytical intelligence they displayed. They were not easy to read. The marshaling of arguments and the array of maxims brought to mind the heavy, purposeful march of Roman legions. In his memoirs, Kissinger shows the same gifts, and adds light touches which reflect a sardonic humor that had not been much in evidence in his academic years, but flourished as his success in action began to match his self-confidence.

He also, far more than in his previous books, lets his emotions show—the warmth of his gratitude to Nelson Rockefeller, or of his affection for Chou En-lai, the depth of his exasperation and “impotent rage” when either the North or the South Vietnamese blocked his designs, most frequently his anger or contempt for domestic opponents. The book is often brilliant, the flow of arguments and the author’s mental concentration are prodigious, but the mass of detail is likely to discourage readers who are not professionally interested in foreign policy. The tone moves from the masterful to the garrulous; and despite many admirable sections, and chapters in which he communicates his own exhilaration, there is something airless and oppressive about the book.

This too has to be explained, for it is not caused only by the many passages in which he celebrates his diplomacy’s achievements, or by the tendency to repeat points almost verbatim from chapter to chapter (which better editing could have cured). It is as if the reader were entering a mighty fortress, with many glittering rooms but several dark galleries and dungeons, innumerable closets, and narrow openings filled with weapons for resisting attacks—guns or boiling oil.

About every political memoir, a first question is: for whom is the author writing? In the case of statesmen who wrote after they reached, or thought they had reached, the end of their careers, the audience is posterity. De Gaulle, for instance, wanted his memoirs to be both a celebration and an inspiration (or a reproach). Posterity is much on Kissinger’s mind, either when he draws pictures of his leading contemporaries or when he outlines his goals, explains his tactics, and defends his most controversial decisions. But Kissinger is not at the end of his career, and his book is a weighty force thrown into the battle for a second chance, or at least for continuing public service. This accounts for the vigor with which he conducts his defense, his occasional digs at his successors, his often brutal dismissal of foes he knows he would have to fight again, or (on the contrary) are now out of the way, and in either case deserve no quarter, his prudence in dealing with figures with whom he tangled mightily but whom he cannot afford to offend. His treatment of Melvin Laird is one example, and an enthusiasm for John Connally that was far less evident in 1971 is another. Although he mentions his “intention to reconcile” (p. xxi), he is at his most aggressive wherever he feels most on the defensive: in his chapters on Chile, Bangladesh, Iran, and Cambodia (where his enemies are denounced for having done “their utmost to forestall any effective assistance to the beleaguered country, as if to punish the free Cambodians for not living up to the role of victim to which they had been consigned,” p. 1384). This is not a serene work.

A second question raised by political memoirs is: how truthful are they? A detailed answer will have to wait until we have more of the record: the memoirs of other actors, unpublished documents (especially intelligence reports), and the famous tapes of the president and his assistant. Two kinds of problems arise. First, when Kissinger reconstructs his “design” (for instance, for the Middle East), to what extent does he tell us what he really thought and planned at the time, to what extent does he tell us now that what he obtained later is what he had wanted all along? Yitzhak Rabin, in his Memoirs,1 reports that in October 1971 Kissinger, referring to US peace efforts in the Middle East, confided to him that he would never handle any “matter that he deemed hopeless.” Was Kissinger’s opposition to the State Department’s initiatives due to a simple conviction that they were doomed, or to his preference for a complex plan aimed at producing a deadlock that would force the radical Arabs to turn to Washington? Was this plan, for which he claims authorship and credit repeatedly, any different from Israel’s policy under Golda Meir, which consisted of refusing concessions (except very minor ones) and of increasing Israel’s strength in the conviction that its enemies, incapable of a new round of war, would come to Canossa?


Secondly, is Kissinger’s account of the facts that led to a decision, or of the proposals and counterproposals in a negotiation, entirely candid? I will discuss later the evidence he gives on Cambodia—and what he leaves out. In his account of SALT I, he is very discreet on points that have later led to criticisms: his lack of interest in controlling MIRVs, his formula for limiting increases in silo dimensions for land-based missiles, which did not foresee that the Soviets would put powerful new missiles into existing silos and gain a (theoretical) advantage through a combination of superior throw-weight and multiple warheads of their own. In his account of the Vietnam negotiations he tends to interpret America’s successive proposals in such a way as to put maximum emphasis on continuity, and to present the North Vietnamese as the ones who made the decisive concessions (in giving up their objective of a coalition government and their insistence that we overthrow Thieu).

But it is not at all clear that we had really given up asking for mutual withdrawals from South Vietnam (unacceptable to the North Vietnamese) as early as October 1970: Nixon’s proposal of October 1970, Kissinger recognizes, was “fuzzy” on this point; and the United States offer of 1971 still mentioned the withdrawal of all outside forces. This goes a long way toward explaining Thieu’s rage, in October 1972, at an agreement that legalized the presence of Hanoi’s troops in the South (a point acknowledged by Kissinger, but which contradicts his assertion that this agreement contained no more than what Thieu had endorsed before). Kissinger’s account of discussions on Vietnam with the Soviets in April and May 1972 minimizes their importance and implicitly contradicts Tad Szulc’s story in his Illusion of Peace.2 Obviously, generations of scholars and graduate students will test Kissinger’s story issue by issue in order to get closer to the truth.

A third question raised by political memoirs is: what does the author reveal about himself—not his acts or concepts but his personality? Kissinger, on the surface, is reticent. He is gracious in acknowledging his own intellectual arrogance, occasional pettiness (toward Secretary of State Rogers), vanity (as in his interview with Oriana Fallaci), one or two tactical mistakes, and some deviousness. While he spares us little in describing his tactics abroad, he does not tell us much about the ways in which he consolidated and expanded his power at home over the bureaucracy and his influence over the press. He can be generous: several of his portraits show compassion and empathy, even for men such as Gromyko, who must have maddened him countless times.

But he displays also two less attractive features. One is a compulsion to be right. He is never so lavish in his praise of Nixon as when the president agreed with Kissinger’s preferred course. Whatever goes well was his initiative. To be sure, Nixon also had thought of the opening to China, but, says Kissinger, the president’s perspective was more tactical—he was seeking “short-term help on Vietnam.” Kissinger’s was strategic—“the policy’s impact on the structure of international relations” (p. 164). Whenever something goes wrong, it is someone else’s fault—or else history later comes to the rescue and vindicates the original design.

Thus Kissinger’s plan for a “reversal of alliances in the Middle East” finally worked, “but it took a long time, further crises, and an anguishing war to complete it” (p. 379). He does not ask whether these crises and this war weren’t partly the result of his policy. India and the Soviets are copiously blamed for the Bangladesh crisis of 1971—far more so than massacres carried out by Yahya Khan’s forces. In the failed Laos operation of 1971 the fault, he writes, lies with the military; in the failed attempts by the US at preventing Allende from becoming Chile’s president in 1970, the bureaucracy was too slow, too timid, and too clumsy. Watergate is the devil ex machina that ruined Kissinger’s post-January 1973 policy for Vietnam and, along with “the erosion of the leadership structure even in the Congress, the isolationism born of the frustrations of Vietnam, and an emerging pattern of geopolitical abdication” (p. 1143), it destroyed his policy toward Moscow, a careful “balance of incentives and penalties.”

This need to be right merges with his other unattractive bias: vindictiveness. He has three targets (two of them overlap). Academics get blamed for their “lack of compassion” and “overweening self-righteousness” (p. 515), the “abasement of the middle-aged before the young,” “the dismissal of rational discourse by those with the greatest stake in reason” (p. 1199). When his former colleagues urged him to accept Nixon’s offer of the job of National Security Assistant, he suggests that their advice was “tinged by the desire to know someone of influence in Washington who could provide…vicarious access to power (p. 15)—not the most charitable explanation.3 Liberals, throughout the book, are described as “sentimental,” unreliable, soft-headed, and wracked by guilt. (Already in A World Restored he had expressed a preference for conservatives and revolutionaries—both having predictable purposes and methods—over liberals. Mao, much to his delight, expressed the same feeling. It was precisely because, in Kissinger’s eyes, Allende was a true revolutionary that he took him seriously enough to want him kept from power.) Liberals are not only shallow but irresponsible and—as in the case of the antiwar leaders—“merciless”: “the doves have proved to be a specially vicious kind of bird” (p. 295).


The third target is none other than Richard Nixon: True, Kissinger celebrates repeatedly Nixon’s ability to make tough, unpopular, and bold decisions; “much intelligence and much knowledge lay behind his accomplishments” (p. 1468). The book’s last long paragraph, which is his most penetrating look at his boss (“What extraordinary vehicles destiny selects to accomplish its design,” p. 1475), is quite moving. And yet Nixon, “strong in his decisions,” was “inconclusive in his leadership” (p. 482). Whether he is aware of it or not, Kissinger, in dozens of brush strokes, gives a portrait of Nixon which is just as deadly, and far more informed, than the cartoons sketched over the years by the hated members of the Eastern “Establishment”—capitalized throughout the book and referred to with apparent confidence in its existence. Nixon, who felt (correctly) despised by it, and Kissinger, who had been adopted by it, who respected some of its members (such as Acheson or McCloy), but who despised much of it for its mix of condescending arrogance and superficiality, had been brought together not only by common ideas but by their sense of being (relative) outsiders. But White House Years is not only the history of a partnership. It is also the story of a divorce.

Kissinger’s portrait of Nixon is devastating in two ways. One is the accumulation of anecdotes that reveal the growing resentments, the psychological insecurity, the craving for reassurance and the thirst for publicity, the preference for indirection, the fear of rejection, the dislike of face-to-face confrontations, the need for isolation and “cocoons,” the secretiveness and suspiciousness, the lack of grace and style, the inability to elicit respect and obedience, the love of pomp and splash of a man who had been humiliated and battered so long that success in the 1972 elections, far from bringing satisfaction or relief, incited him only to “a premonition of ephemerality” (p. 1471), and to what Kissinger calls the “appalling performance” and “political butchery” (p. 1407) of November 8, 1972, when he asked for the resignation of the White House staff just after his victory.

The anecdotes about Nixon are often funny—Nixon eager to go to Maxim’s between the memorial ceremony at Notre Dame that followed de Gaulle’s death and an afternoon reception by Pompidou; or Nixon’s departure from the Vatican in a military helicopter after having harangued the Pope about left-wing priests in Latin America; or Nixon ordering the blockade of Haiphong and the bombing of Hanoi while gesticulating with a pipe and “playing MacArthur”; Nixon toasting the Shah and telling him that all successful leaders have “the ability to marry above themselves” (p. 1263); Nixon’s enthusiasm for Connally whose “swaggering self-assurance was Nixon’s Walter Mitty image of himself” (p. 951); Nixon suggesting Thomas Dewey as a possible emissary to China months after Dewey’s death, etc. But the effect is to give a picture of a man incapable of the greatness to which he aspired, craving for crises that would lift him above the daily routine, but gnawed by a “strange sense of his inadequacy” (p. 944) that was “the psychological essence of the Watergate debacle” (p. 1095), and consumed by a desire for revenge over his enemies.

The other way in which Kissinger gets at Nixon is not by stressing his foibles and instability but by telling the story of their own relationship. All was well in 1969-1970, when Kissinger helped Nixon to prevail over the bureaucracy they both distrusted—Nixon, because he deemed it filled with enemies, Kissinger because he had always feared it as a quagmire that absorbs creativity and dooms policy to routine. And they overcame together the crises in Cambodia, Cuba (the Cienfuegos affair), and Jordan. But things started going sour in 1971. Nixon sent Kissinger to China, but was afraid “of being upstaged by his own Assistant,” who, after achieving a real breakthrough with Chou Enlai, found his plane had been ordered to land “at a distant corner of Andrews Air Force Base, inaccessible to newsmen and photographers” (p. 786). Kissinger carried out Nixon’s orders during the Bangladesh crisis, but since the policy was unpopular, Nixon wanted “to get out of the line of fire” and to push Kissinger into it: “Nixon could not resist the temptation of letting me twist slowly, slowly in the wind, to use the literary contribution of a later period” (p. 918). Kissinger says he resented that “stern lesson in the dependence of Presidential Assistants on their chief.”

The following year, he resented even more a sharp tactical disagreement with Nixon over his secret trip to Moscow in April, an episode on which he spends several bitter pages—far more space than Nixon, who in his own memoirs rather fairly concludes that Kissinger may have been right.4 And the split deepened during the tense last phases of the Vietnam negotiations, when Kissinger tried to reach an agreement with (and in) Hanoi before the presidential election, while Nixon was willing to try one more military escalation just after his re-election. When Thieu rejected the agreement, Kissinger “began to be nagged by the unworthy notion that I was being set up as the fall guy in case anything went wrong” (p. 1377).5

The “peace is at hand” press conference of November 1972 and the Fallaci interview provoked a crisis of “emerging competitiveness” with Nixon (p. 1409). It led to new tactical differences, first when the negotiations resumed after the election, and later when both Nixon and Kissinger decided to break them off. Nixon—for once—wanted a low-key suspension of the talks, followed by a heavy US bombing of North Vietnam that would not be announced by a presidential speech. Kissinger wanted Nixon to announce this plan and to try to rally the public behind it.6 Nixon prevailed and ordered Kissinger to give a press conference in which he would “stress the President’s consistency, unflappability, firmness, patience, and farsightedness” (p. 1450). This, according to Kissinger, explains why, during the Christmas bombing which Kissinger had endorsed, he “did little to dampen the speculation” that he had opposed it, “one of the episodes of my public life in which I take no great pride” (p. 1456). Nixon, infuriated, had Kissinger’s phone tapped; Kissinger decided he would resign during 1973.7

This story helps to explain why Kissinger so relentlessly splashes his ambivalence about Nixon all over the book. There are similarities between the two men: neither forgave wounds to his self-esteem, both craved approval and flattery. Kissinger treats Nixon, on balance, less generously than Nixon treated Kissinger in his own book, and there are two good reasons for this. One is personal. Since Nixon’s administration was, until 1973, Kissinger’s only base of power, Kissinger had had to accept the humiliations which the White House minions inflicted on him. In his book he could no more, it seems, keep himself from settling this account than he could refrain from a very unflattering portrait of McGeorge Bundy—a man who plays no part in his story—thus getting even for having been treated, by Bundy, at Harvard, “with the combination of politeness and subconscious condescension that upper-class Bostonians reserve for people of, by New England standards, exotic backgrounds and excessively intense personal style” (pp. 13-14).

The other reason is, of course, Kissinger’s resentment over Watergate: a president more eager to heed Chou’s remark on the danger of coverups (p. 1081), and less unable “to leave the inhospitable and hostile world he inherited” (p. 1471), would not have undermined all the foreign policy triumphs that he and Kissinger had, in their eyes, achieved, by provoking the collapse of executive authority. For Kissinger, having had to serve Richard Nixon, rather than Nelson Rockefeller, is a stain that won’t go away.


Some people owe their psychological or sociological insight exclusively to their resentments and their fears. This is not Kissinger’s case. These may sharpen his wits, and dip his brush in acid. But he has three great gifts which serve him equally well in his writings and his statecraft.

One is an almost devilish psychological intuition, an instinct for grasping the hidden springs of character, of knowing what drives or what dooms another person. He was at his best as a face-to-face negotiator precisely because of this rare talent. Had he been less tempted by action and more capable of that “fantasy life” of “romantic imaginings” in which, he says, Nixon indulged (p. 1475), he might have been a good novelist. The gallery of portraits is the best part of the book. Each reader will have his own favorites (and all will notice that some statesmen with whom Kissinger had many dealings hardly appear, Willy Brandt being the most conspicuous). My favorites are the vivid portraits of Chou, Heath, Brezhnev, and Mao—who is described with a power and subtlety that seem worthy of him (pp. 1057-1066). As in his account of Nixon, for example, Kissinger backs up his incisive analysis of character with incisive anecdotes. We see Chou, late at night, taking Kissinger on a walk where they cross two bridges, without a word referring to a conversation months before when Kissinger had told Chou that he felt like a character in Kafka’s Castle—the plumber who is summoned and denied entrance—because of the presence of soldiers guarding the bridges connecting the various guest cottages (p. 745), and Brezhnev trying to make a toy cannon work during a conference and strutting “like a prizefighter who has knocked out his opponent” when the cannon finally went off (p. 1140).

All of the portraits convey the relation between a personality and the culture that has shaped it. And Kissinger’s second gift is that of a man particularly attuned to the nuances of cultural difference (the word “nuance” is one of his favorites, along with “intangible,” “comparison,” “exalted,” “insecure,” “petty,” and “unsentimental”). People who have been transplanted from one country into another, who have a certain distance both from the history and mores of the society from which they were uprooted and from the memories and rituals of their adopted country, often develop this sense. They lose it only if they are too eager to assimilate into the mainstream of their new culture—something that was never Kissinger’s case.

Kissinger is very good at evoking atmospheres, and their relation to the business of power: Washington dinner parties and receptions, where “the relationships are created without which the machinery of government would soon stalemate itself” (p. 20), the president’s lonely hideaway room, the villa filled with Fernand Léger paintings where Kissinger met the North Vietnamese, the peculiarities of protocol in each country he visited. One of the most fascinating sides of this book is the analysis of different political styles, molded by distinctive historical experiences and geographical imperatives. Kissinger thus compares brilliantly the Chinese and the Soviet styles of negotiation (not to mention cuisines). “The Soviets insist on their prerogatives as a great power. The Chinese establish a claim on the basis of universal principles and a demonstration of self-confidence that attempts to make the issue of power irrelevant” (p. 1056). Mao and Chou represented a nation that “had absorbed conquerors and had proved its inward strength by imposing its social and intellectual style on them. Its leaders were aloof, self-assured, composed. Brezhnev represented a nation that had survived not by civilizing its conquerors but by outlasting them…he sought to obscure his lack of assurance by boisterousness” (p. 1138).

The Vietnamese, he notes, have outlasted their conquerors by driving them insane. A Japanese leader “does not announce a decision, he evokes it” (p. 324). Japanese decision-making by consensus is endless, but execution is disciplined; in the US, it is the other way around. In the Middle East, “formal positions are like the shadows in Plato’s cave—reflections of a transcendent reality almost impossible to encompass in the dry legalisms of a negotiating process” (p. 342).

Nobody has analyzed more pithily Western European ambivalence toward the US—the fear of American rigidity compounded by the fear either of American retreat or of superpower condominium. French foreign policy under the Fifth Republic was prickly but “serious and consistent,” at times “steadier and more perceptive than our own,” whereas British statesmen “were content to act as honored consultants to our deliberations” (pp. 420-421). And “one sometimes could not avoid the impression that to discuss international affairs with [Italy’s] foreign minister was to risk boring him” (p. 102). One could cull a bestiary of negotiating styles from this book.

One could also draw from it a vast monograph on the workings of American bureaucracy in foreign affairs, and a short Little Red (or rather White) Book, an appendix to The Prince, on the art of diplomatic bargaining. For Kissinger’s third gift is one that puts into practice his insights into personalities and cultures: it is the gift for the manipulation of power—exploiting the weaknesses and strengths of character of his counterparts, either by neutralizing them (if they were adversaries) or turning them into allies or accomplices by addressing their needs and playing on their fears of other countries. This did not always work: his attempt at negotiating a textile agreement with the Japanese began as “an intricate Kabuki play” which “turned out to be more like a Kafka story” (p. 337).

Kissinger’s prerequisite for the exercise of this gift, as he suggests throughout the book, is a firm control of the US bureaucracy—which is precisely what Nixon also wanted. The president “was determined to run foreign policy from the White House” (p. 11), and Kissinger devised the machinery that was supposed to make it possible. But it never worked well enough, and those who believe that confusion and cacophony began with the Carter administration are in for a surprise.

If there is one constant theme that runs through every chapter of this complex book, it is that of the battle for control between, on the one hand, Nixon and Kissinger and, on the other, the bureaucracy—the State Department, Defense, the CIA, the Treasury during Connally’s “frontal assault on the White House staff system” (p. 951). It was a vicious circle: Nixon and Kissinger, exasperated by the bureaucrats’ lack of imagination, frequent resistance, and propensity to leaks, reserved more and more control over the key issues to themselves, but this only compounded the problem, since the execution of policies had to be largely entrusted to departments that had not been consulted or even informed. More and more Kissinger carried on the real business of foreign policy through secretive “back channels”—with Dobrynin over SALT and all other Soviet-American relations, with Chou, with Ambassador Rabin and Golda Meir (at the expense of Foreign Minister Abba Eban), later with Sadat. But the same issues were being treated simultaneously by the State Department, or in the formal SALT negotiation at Helsinki.

This created frequent confusion when America’s negotiators did not know the agreements in the making through the back channels; it also gave the Soviets opportunities to try to play one team against the other. It created deep resentments among American diplomats ignored or undercut by the White House. It even created suspicion in Moscow and Peking, for Soviet and Chinese diplomats wondered why the Americans wanted so much secrecy. It meant that vital decisions (for instance, those concerning Cambodia in April 1970) were taken behind the backs or against the opposition of Secretaries Rogers and Laird. It meant that at the summits in Peking and Moscow, set up without Rogers’s participation, Kissinger had to enlist the cooperation of Chou and of Gromyko in handling our own resentful State Department. (In China, this did not work: when the State Department, which had been kept in the dark, was informed of the text of what became the Shanghai communiqué, it demanded a host of changes—and obtained some, behaving exactly as Thieu was going to do, a few months later, when he was finally informed of the text of the peace agreement Kissinger had negotiated alone with Le Duc Tho.)

When Kissinger was charged with executing a policy, the sluggishness and opposition of the bureaucracy could complicate and delay, but no more. When responsibilities were shared, or supposedly belonged to the State Department but were subject to White House review, policy could become incoherent: for instance in the Middle East in 1969-1970, when Rogers launched peace plans which Nixon and Kissinger did not endorse, or during the Bangladesh crisis when Rogers opposed the “tilt” toward Pakistan. The bureaucracy, in what it deemed “its” domain, often failed to consult the White House! Nixon’s startling announcement of August 15, 1971—the monetary and economic measures that provoked a crisis with Western Europe and Japan—was made without either Rogers or Kissinger being consulted.

The Nixon method of government worked well when the military problem was relatively straightforward and could be carried out in one daring move…. It was effective also for purposeful solitary diplomacy conducted by a trusted associate working with a small staff…. Difficulties arose when a sustained military effort was needed…or when the diplomacy was too complex to be handled by the security adviser’s office…. Then the absence of consensus or even understanding inhibited coherence and commitment. [P. 997]

Nixon’s reluctance to impose his will perpetuated the lack of discipline, and drove him increasingly into secrecy and distrust. Thus his methods made possible some remarkable initiatives, but also led straight to the crisis which destroyed him in 1974, and weakened the presidency.

Kissinger was more than willing to overlook those risks, both when in office and in writing most of his memoir. For the brand of diplomacy he wanted to perform cannot tolerate pluralism in the various institutions concerned with foreign policy, or the long delays that building a consensus among them would entail. He concentrated on the games to be played with foreign interlocutors, not domestic bureaucrats. For him the job of the US bureaucracies was to give him the data for the decisions he and Nixon would make, and to carry out these decisions.

Bureaucratic maneuver annoys him. What fascinates him is diplomatic maneuver, as he makes clear in countless maxims and comments on the art of relating force to goals, on the advantages and perils of crises. These confer “an unusual capacity for creative action” (p. 597), but they must be “over-powered early” (p. 890). “One’s actions must be sustained; they must appear relentless, inexorable” (p. 604). In the final phase one must resist “the natural temptation to relax and perhaps to ease the process by a gesture of goodwill…. The time for conciliation is after the crisis is surmounted” (p. 629).

He tells us the requirements of secret diplomacy, the way of linking issues in a bargain so as to extract advantages, and the way of delaying agreement on the issues which one’s opponent is in a hurry to settle until he has given in on the others. One must never appear too eager, yet one should not (as the Soviets tend to do) compromise one’s gains by being too greedy or by asking for something unattainable; one should not make any unilateral concessions, yet one ought to avoid excessive haggling.

Kissinger also instructs us on triangular diplomacy (which “must rely on the natural incentives and propensities of the players” and “avoid the impression that one is ‘using’ either of the contenders against the other,” p. 712), on giving an opponent “a formal reassurance intended to unnerve as much as to calm; and which would defeat its purpose if it were actually believed” (p. 712), on the error of raising too soon an issue on which “readiness to compromise does not exist” (p. 349), on the occasional need to substitute boldness if one lacks power, on the uses of insolence, “the armor of the weak” (p. 1327).

If there seems considerable self-satisfaction in such advice, it is true that during the period covered by this book he was rarely caught at his own game: pathetically, his only personal diplomatic defeat was inflicted by Thieu, in October 1972, when the South Vietnamese leader turned the deadline agreed upon by Kissinger and the North Vietnamese into a weapon against the whole agreement as brilliantly as Kissinger had used the deadline of the US election in order to extract a “cascade” of concessions from Hanoi. (Both Thieu and Le Duc Tho used insolence to “stonewall” when in positions of weakness. Kissinger in this book does the same in reply to criticism from the left and from liberals.) Like an athlete reminiscing about a game he won because he was in top form, Kissinger relives his tactical calculations and manipulations with relish, and thus reveals what sustains a master politician in the daily drudgery of dealing with “the contingent.” But what was the design which all the ingenuity he so fondly recalls was supposed to serve? What strategy required these tactics?


Kissinger’s tactical maxims leave no doubt: the professed disciple of Kant,8 he is a follower of Hobbes in his assessment of human nature and of the behavior of states in the international state of nature. (Twice he mentions, with some awe, that Pompidou, who helped him conduct his secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese, “never used these kindnesses to extract anything in return” [p. 420 and again p. 440].) As he sees them, nations are driven by diffidence, greed, and glory; they are often propelled by the murderous certainties of ideology, compelled to use their power for their preservation or their expansion. What order can nations achieve in this “state of war” which Hobbes deemed bearable in his day, but which has become a threat to the common survival in the age (foreseen by Kant) when total destruction is possible and nations are so intimately interdependent?

Americans, Kissinger tells us, have had three traditions: “an idealistic tradition that sees foreign policy as a contest between evil and good,” a pragmatic tradition of problem-solving, and a legalistic tradition (p. 915). They had all failed. “Emotional slogans” (p. 1088) had kept America oscillating from over-involvement to isolationism. The time had come when “moral exuberance” could no longer be condoned: “we were becoming like other nations in the need to recognize that our power, while vast, had limits” (p. 57). “It was my conviction that a concept of our fundamental national interests would provide a ballast of restraint and an assurance of continuity” (p. 65). What America needed, and Kissinger wanted to establish, was a geopolitical tradition. (“By ‘geopolitical’ I mean an approach that pays attention to the requirements of equilibrium,” p. 914.)

Kissinger the realist sounds here like Hans Morgenthau writing on the balance of power. But Morgenthau has often been severely critical of Kissinger. The drama of this doctrine of realism is that, while it conceives of world order as the product of a careful balancing of power, as a set of restraints on excessive ambitions, and as a compromise between conflicting interests, it allows for many different versions of nirvana, and different evaluations of threats and opportunities. Containment too—as described by George Kennan, and as executed (not to Kennan’s satisfaction) by Acheson and (not to Acheson’s satisfaction) by Dulles—had been an attempt to teach realism to Americans. But Kissinger is critical of containment: it “treated power and diplomacy as distinct elements or phases of policy” (p. 62); by concentrating on building “situations of strength” at a time when we were strong and the Soviets weak, we allowed them to catch up, and thus to be in a much more favorable position on the distant day of negotiation. “Treating force and diplomacy as discrete phenomena caused our power to lack purpose and our negotiations to lack force” (p. 64). We had to learn a better integration of power and policy in an age of nuclear weapons, competing ideologies, and diffusion of political power.

The question remains: for what purpose? What was the “geopolitical design”? It is here that surprises begin. In the first place, Kissinger’s repeated assertions about the need for a policy purged of emotional excesses and reconciled “to imperfect choices, partial fulfillment, the unsatisfying tasks of balance and maneuver” (p. 1089) are nowhere accompanied by a description of the kind of world Kissinger was trying to bring about. If there was a vision beyond the geopolitical game, if the complex manipulation of rewards and punishments needed to create equilibrium and to restrain the troublemakers was aimed at a certain ideal of world order, we are left free to guess what it might have been. Maybe it is Kissinger’s horror of grand designs mass-produced by “the wayward representatives of American liberalism” (p. 1089) which explains this reticence. At any rate, he is much more mysterious about his purposes than about his method, about his destination than about his approach.

Secondly, the approach itself reminds one that geopolitics was a German school of thought based on the notion of constant and inevitable struggle. And Kissinger now reminds one of Karl Schmitt’s fundamental distinction—in which he saw the key to politics—between friends and foes. Kissinger recognizes that the nuclear stalemate between the superpowers results in a kind of fragmentation of world politics: there is both a global balance of nuclear power, and a series of regional balances (or imbalances). But at the heart of his conception there are two propositions.

The first is that the decisive and dominant issue is the conflict between the US and the Soviet Union. This extends to every part of the world and, given the nature of Soviet ideology, includes “the internal policies and social structures of countries” (p. 117) as well. Soviet policy, whatever its “ultimate aims” or the Soviet leaders’ “real intentions” (wrong questions, says Kissinger), wants “to promote the attrition of adversaries by gradual increments.” Soviet strategy is “one of ruthless opportunism” (p. 119). There is no “terminal point to international tension” (p. 123) that could be achieved by “sentimental conciliation” or “liturgical belligerence,” for we are “dealing with a system too ideologically hostile for instant conciliation and militarily too powerful to destroy” (p. 123).

The second fundamental proposition is that “to foreclose Soviet opportunities is thus the essence of the West’s responsibility” (p. 119). It is a permanent task, not (as containment was thought to be) “an exertion that has a foreseeable end.” The nature of that task is the management of the balance of power, which requires “perseverance subtlety, not a little courage, and above all understanding of its requirements” (p. 115).

What are these requirements? Above all, we must create in our adversary a perception of “an equality of power”: if it is perceived, “it will not be tested.” “Calculation must include potential as well as actual power, not only the possession of power but the will to bring it to bear” (p. 115). We must understand that our performance in any part of the world has an effect on this balance of real and perceived power; therefore, the way in which we respond to any local crisis ought to be related to, and determined by its relation to, the central contest.

Kissinger rigorously applied this maxim in cases such as Chile, where he saw in Allende’s election “a challenge to our national interest” not only because of Allende’s revolutionary and anti-American program but because it happened “against the backdrop of the Syrian invasion of Jordan” (Syria being a Soviet ally) “and our effort to force the Soviet Union to dismantle its installation for servicing nuclear submarines in the Caribbean” (p. 654). He acted in the same way in the Middle East, where in 1969 “delay was on the whole in our interest because it enabled us to demonstrate even to radical Arabs that we were indispensable to any progress and that it cannot be extorted from us by Soviet pressure” (p. 354). The division of the world into radicals and moderates is as important to Kissinger as the division between Moscow and Washington, Moscow being seen as the ally of the radicals, and Washington the protector of the moderates.

Vietnam was of course part of the same chain: he tells us many times that his “initiatives with Peking and Moscow would have been impossible had we simply collapsed in Vietnam” (p. 1046). He supported Pakistan against India because Pakistan was our ally, and China’s friend, whereas India had signed a treaty with Moscow, and India’s war threatened “our geopolitical design” (p. 879). Our friends must be supported whatever they may do within their own countries: hence Kissinger’s determination to stick by Yahya Khan, Thieu, Lon Nol, the Shah, etc…. Still, when their acts could adversely affect the central conflict, we must check their course: thus as Nixon “frostily” reminded Willy Brandt, we did not support his Ostpolitik, we merely “did not object” (p. 966); but we gave “the inevitable a constructive direction” (p. 530) by linking it to America’s own policy toward the Soviet Union, and thus we “became responsible for the ultimate success of Brandt’s policy” (p. 824). Our enemies, defined as whoever aligns himself with the Soviets, must be resisted and frustrated; our friends must be guided.

Kissinger’s notion of linkage applies not only to power relations among nations and entire regions but also to political issues arising with the Soviets. Not only are “the actions of a major power inevitably related,” and not only do they have “consequences beyond the issue or region immediately concerned,” but we must try to link “deliberately” separate objectives in a negotiation, “using one as a leverage on the other” (p. 129). Hence the efforts of the Nixon administration to make “progress in settling the Vietnam war something of a condition for advance in areas of interest to the Soviets, such as the Middle East, trade or arms limitation” (p. 129); and we linked SALT to the Berlin negotiation, on whose success, in turn, the Soviet-West German treaty depended. “We saw linkage, in short, as synonymous with an overall strategic and geopolitical view. To ignore the interconnection of events was to undermine the coherence of all policy” (p. 129).

Linkage was part of the attempt to restrain the Soviets with a careful mixture of penalties and incentives. Trade, for instance, was treated as “a political instrument,” to be favored “in measured doses” when the Soviets behaved cooperatively, and withheld otherwise (p. 840). “Penalties for adventurism” include “military assistance to friends resisting Soviet or Cuban or radical pressures” (p. 1254). They also include the use of force.

On this point, Kissinger is prolix: on the one hand, the “basic choice is to act or not to act”: “there are no rewards for exhibiting one’s doubts in vacillation: statesmen get no praise for failing with restraint. Once committed they must prevail” (p. 498). “Gradual escalation tempts the opponent to match every move”; a leader, once committed, has the “obligation to end the confrontation rapidly. For this he must convey implacability” (p. 622).

On the other hand, the purpose of force is to restore a balance of power, without which negotiations are bound to be counterproductive for one’s own side. And it is best to resort to force quickly, when a major crisis can still be avoided and the adversary is not yet fully committed. The objective of this strategy is “an end of the constant Soviet pressure against the global balance of power,” to which “in our minds efforts to reduce the danger of nuclear war by the control of arms had to be linked” (p. 1250). Reacting strongly, violently if necessary, in the early stages of Soviet expansion would save us from having to choose between either “the collapse of the balance of power or a colossal confrontation” (p. 1158).

It must be clear that Kissinger’s geopolitical design is not at all adequately described by the word détente. It was a scheme for universal, permanent, and successful containment, marshaling all our instruments of power more effectively than before, and aiming at “an end to the constant probing for openings and the testing of every equilibrium” (p. 1143). Kissinger, indeed, appears as the Compleat Cold Warrior. To be sure, he would allow for some cooperation with Moscow, but as a reward for good behavior, as an incentive to moderation, and because of the risks in the nuclear age.

Détente was a name for the forced Soviet acceptance of the status quo, obtained by “a firm application of psychological and physical restraints and determined resistance to challenge” (p. 1143). It was also “a device to maximize Soviet dilemmas” (p. 1255), a tactic aimed at demonstrating “to our public and to our allies that we were not the cause of conflict” (p. 1076). “We could not permit the Soviets to monopolize the world’s yearning for peace” (p. 1203). SALT I made us give up one weapon—the ABM—Congress was going to destroy anyhow, but it froze the Soviet offensive build-up (a debatable point) while allowing us to catch up (pp. 1244-1245). Triangular diplomacy has to serve the aim of containing the Soviets without provoking them into greater aggressiveness, and

it was a three-dimensional game, but any simplification had the makings of catastrophe. If we appeared irresolute or leaning toward Moscow, Peking would be driven to accommodation with the Soviet Union. If we adopted the Chinese attitude, however, we might not even help Peking: we might, in fact, tempt a Soviet preemptive attack on China and thus be faced with decisions of enormous danger. [P. 1076]

Kissinger asks whether the Soviet’s shift to détente was a tactical maneuver—a question that could be put to him.

This was, as I have written elsewhere, a design of Bismarckian proportions.9 “Our relations to possible opponents should be such, I considered, that our options toward both of them were always greater than their options toward each other” (p. 165). The US was to be the supreme manipulator of the triangle, and of course the supreme beneficiary of détente: the Soviets would be contained all over the world, and rewarded with measured deliveries of grain. Their proxies would be either punished, or induced to turn to us, as in the Middle East, from where, Kissinger announced in 1969, we wanted to expell the Soviets. “Three years later,” he now claims, “we made this prediction come true” (p. 580)—another debatable point. Balance of power and American hegemony become synonymous. Just as “it is up to us to define the limits of Soviet aims” (p. 119), it is up to us to teach everyone else the boundaries of the permissible, to trace the borders of their diplomatic and social experiments.

The problems with this ambitious strategy were legion, and Kissinger is singularly unwilling to confront them. In the first place, it assumed a far greater ability to force the Soviets to play “our” game than it was wise to expect. During the period in question Soviet military might and their capacity to project it grew, in no small part because the US was bogged down in Vietnam. Not only the weaknesses but the strengths of our own friends and allies created openings for Soviet influence—in the Middle East and in southern Africa, for example. Were we really in a position to deny them “all opportunities for expansion”? Since we wanted to keep them out of our chasses gardées, and since they wanted to preserve the autonomy of their political and economic system, how many chances “for genuine cooperation” could we dangle before their eyes so as to “inculcate habits of moderation and bring about a more constructive future” (p. 1204)?

Kissinger had criticized the containment doctrine for its suggestion that creating situations of strength would ultimately lead to harmony. But his own strategy left room for only two options: a constant manning of barricades, permanent crisis management, an endless vista of confrontations and tests, or else Soviet acceptance of the inevitable US dominance. The latter was unlikely, for it presumed total success by the US, for which the conditions existed neither at home nor in the world. The former was bleak.

Let us assume that the design made sense. Was it compatible with the American system of government? First, it required an extraordinary capacity for acting swiftly and flexibly all over the globe. Centralization of command allows for speed and suppleness. But it also entails concentration on a few fronts: a small staff can’t cope with everything. The beast in Kafka’s fable can’t run to all the corners of the burrow at once. Kissinger tells us that his plan for the Middle East, in 1969-1972, was, through intransigence—i.e., by our refusing to put pressure on Israel to make any accommodation whatever with Moscow and its allies—to get to the point where “some Arab state showed a willingness to separate from the Soviets, or the Soviets were prepared to dissociate from the maximum Arab program” (p. 1291). By the early spring of 1972, both of these developments had occurred: the Soviets were hinting strongly at their desire to deviate from that program (although they could not initiate this deviation themselves). At the summit they agreed on a weak statement of principles (Kissinger says he “never understood” why they did so [p. 1294]) which Sadat indeed interpreted as a Soviet breach of solidarity with the Arabs. And Sadat himself, disillusioned with the Soviets, had opened a secret channel to Kissinger and suggested an American initiative.

Even after Sadat’s expulsion of the Soviets in July, 1972, however, the US took no such initiative. Kissinger—in the only chapter that sounds faintly embarrassed—pleads unconvincingly that Soviet proposals were unacceptable because cause they assumed a permanent Soviet presence in the Middle East. And yet—knowing what was happening to their position in Egypt—the Russians had offered to withdraw in the event of a comprehensive settlement. As for Sadat, Kissinger recognizes that he thought for too long that Nasser’s successor was still playing Nasser’s game: “great men are so rare that they take some getting used to” (p. 1299)! In other words, opportunities were missed (and the October war made more likely), partly by Kissinger’s fixation on the Soviet angle of the Middle Eastern problem, partly by the simple fact that the summits and Vietnam left him little time, partly by the fact that 1972 was an election year: “I was too immersed in Vietnam and Nixon in the campaign to do any serious negotiating” (p. 1300). This is far from the only case where Kissinger’s conception and manipulation of grand strategy are shown as defective by his own evidence.

In the second place, Kissinger’s strategy required that domestic politics allow American leaders to pursue their delicate game abroad without constraints or pressures. He denounces, from chapter to chapter, those who wanted to cut the military budget at a time when the Soviets were building large missiles, or who sympathized with India over Bangladesh, or who tried to limit the Executive’s freedom of military action in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. But there can be no guarantee that a policy whose success depends largely on secrecy and speed will be automatically supported by a public and a Congress that are simply told to wait for the results. Surely the secrecy of the 1969 bombing of the sanctuaries in Cambodia was due at least as much to the desire not to sharpen domestic opposition as to the desire to protect Sihanouk. The tools of Kissinger’s strategy—linkage, the unrestrained use of force for specific objectives—could be effective only in the hands of one person. Yet their very nature tempted others, in Congress or in the public, to try to impose different ways (more crude or more moderate) of using them.

The style of Kissinger’s strategy was itself an invitation to damaging leaks, which in turn would provoke more or less legal retaliation, such as the wiretaps or the onslaught on Daniel Ellsberg; and these measures in turn would make Congress and the public more restive. In this sense, Kissinger cannot escape all responsibility for Watergate, if we mean by Watergate a pattern of Executive abuses. Watergate became a personal tragedy for Kissinger not only because it was the price of having served Nixon but also because it symbolized the revolt of the very democracy on whose behalf the geopolitical battle was being waged.

We have assumed so far that the design at least made sense abroad. But this too is open to challenge. The problem is not whether Soviet designs ought to be thwarted; the debate is over how to do it, and about the conception of the world that underlies Kissinger’s strategy. To Kissinger, the struggle between Moscow and Washington is not just global in scope, it absorbs, so to speak, every other conflict or issue. Peace, or containment, is therefore indivisible. Every crisis anywhere tests our ability to stand up to the Soviets. And the credibility of the US depends on our capacity to meet every test. Thus, in case after case, Kissinger’s policy was to make the Soviets squarely responsible for what was happening, and to act in such a way that they would either put pressure on their clients to cease and desist, or dissociate themselves from their clients.

Is this the real world? Or does it not substitute for the real world an artificially simple and tidy one, in which friends and foes, radicals and moderates are neatly lined up, and in which nationalism—surely as important a force as communism—gets thoroughly discounted? If one sees the world as more complex and fluid than in Kissinger’s scheme, if one realizes that most states are not simply the superpowers’ proxies—India and Syria are described as waging “proxy wars” for the Soviets (p. 1255)—but pursue their own interests, the notion of indivisible credibility and of a strategy geared exclusively to the Soviet Union becomes eminently questionable. A Soviet presence or privileged position is not necessarily permanent. We may have a good reason for being occasionally on the same side as the Soviets in order to prevent them from capturing a cause or movement. And we may have many incentives to deal with Soviet clients while they still are beholden to the Soviets, precisely because they may not want to mortgage their independence, or because their radicalism is rhetorical, or compatible with our concerns. Looking to Moscow for a key (as Kissinger did, in early 1969, when he wanted to send Cyrus Vance there with a peace plan for Vietnam) can be a mistake. On the other hand, as we discovered in Vietnam, some “proxies” are of such a hostile will of their own that neither Soviet pressure nor Soviet political disengagement helps us much.

Kissinger’s conception can thus be criticized in the first place because—strange as it seems—it limits America’s flexibility and may turn into a set of self-fulfilling prophecies. It obliges us to treat practically all unfavorable events as confrontations, and yet it may be very wise to avoid confrontations one can’t win—and some situations (as in the Horn of Africa) offer little or no scope for American success. Kissinger wanted us to establish priorities. Yet in his design every incident must be treated seriously, since even if it has no great intrinsic significance, losing the test would encourage our adversary to test us again. But if the Soviets are indeed intent on seizing every good opportunity, why would they fail to exploit one just because we blocked them elsewhere earlier?

To treat countries allied to Moscow (for their own national reasons) merely as Soviet proxies risks tightening their bonds to Moscow (it was Chou En-lai who wisely advised Kissinger to end the Vietnam war rapidly so as to reduce Soviet influence in Indochina), or putting oneself on the losing side (as in the Bangladesh crisis), or missing opportunities (as with Sadat). Indeed, to treat one’s own allies as proxies may bring rude awakenings: Thieu, in the last part of 1972, derailed our negotiations by asserting his own interests. And Kissinger has some trouble defending, in a footnote, our friend the Shah’s decision to press for high oil prices through OPEC.

Kissinger’s conception is one which, in its obsession with Moscow, discounts the internal problems of other countries, and dismisses local circumstances. This is a recipe for disaster. Thus he reduces the Chilean domestic situation of 1969 to a simple choice between revolutionary communism and democracy, either ignoring or misreading the complexities of the Allende coalition and the opposition to it. In 1972, Kissinger refused to support Brandt—who was having trouble getting his Ostpolitik treaties through the Bundestag—because the Soviets weren’t helpful in Vietnam: had Brandt lost, there would have been a major crisis in US-West German relations (Schmidt has been more generous in trying to help Carter with SALT II).

In the case of Bangladesh, Kissinger blames “the majority of informed opinion” for having “sought to judge the confrontation on the subcontinent on the merits of the issue that had produced the crisis” (p. 914). We had to stay associated with Pakistan because dissociation would have been tantamount “to the US-Soviet condominium so dreaded by Peking.” There would therefore have been no Peking summit, and without it there could be no Moscow summit (p. 886). But the one thing, it seems, we could not do was to ask Yahya Khan to release Mujib, without whom Kissinger’s dream of a “peaceful” solution of the Bangladesh problem (after so much bloodshed) was bound to remain a mirage, at Indira Gandhi’s mercy. “The merits of the issue” not only produce a crisis: they are also the key to a solution.

The signing by Sadat of a treaty with Moscow was wrongly seen by Kissinger as evidence of Soviet domination and confirmation of the conviction he expressed to Rabin (see the latter’s Memoirs, p. 201) that no settlement could be concluded without a Soviet-American understanding—on our terms. The geopolitical vision Kissinger advocates looks above all at military balances. Yet in the Middle East, where the US provided huge military assistance to Israel, William Quandt rightly notes that “the military balance proved not to be the key to regional stability and the prevention of war.”10

Kissinger’s conception can be criticized for another reason as well. Like Metternich, he is caught in a contradiction. He seeks an order of restraint, yet his global view obliges him to universal intervention. He wants the Soviets to separate their domestic ideology and practices from their external conduct, yet his very recognition of the fact that “a domestic upheaval in any country can cause a major shift in international alignments” (p. 68) leads him to justify as blatant an intervention in another nation’s affairs as the attempt to prevent Allende from becoming president. Indeed, he regrets that the US did not use arms and economic assistance as political weapons earlier and better in Chile. Our failure to do so “transformed us by 1970 from the dominant element of 1964 into a sort of mother hen clucking nervous irrelevancies from the sidelines” (p. 664). Kissinger wants to “shape events in the light of our own purposes” (p. 683)—those events may be another nation’s own political life. But of course, in Kissinger’s view, nobody’s affairs are exclusively his own.

The third criticism arises from the human cost of such a strategy—admittedly a “sentimental” concern. Kissinger’s conception turns people into pawns, countries into tools. Kissinger and the CIA encouraged the Kurds to agitate in Iraq so as to divert Iraqi forces from the Arab-Israeli conflict. When, in 1975, the Shah decided to “settle the Kurdish problem with Iraq” (a nice unsentimental euphemism), we approved. Chile’s General Schneider was killed as a result of a half-comic, half-serious confusion produced by the famous Forty Committee’s orders (Frei, the former Chilean president, whom we had financed in the past, refused to play the part Kissinger had assigned to him). And the classic case of a people sacrificed is of course Cambodia. Had we not intervened, Kissinger writes, “Vietnamization and American withdrawal would then come unstuck” (p. 475). “Cambodia was not a moral issue…. What we faced was essentially a tactical choice” (p. 515). “Strategically, Cambodia could not be considered a country separate from Vietnam” (p. 486).

This does not mean that Kissinger presents his strategy as amoral: morality is defined as the defense of our values and the resistance to totalitarianism. But this is an ethics of intentions, or purposes, which neglects consequences, and makes of “credibility,” in effect, the highest value. Whether a nation ensures its credibility by fighting unwinnable wars, by intervening blatantly in the affairs of others, by turning secondary issues into tests of strength, and by sacrificing others to its design is, at least, an open question. De Gaulle asked Kissinger in 1969 why the US did not leave Vietnam; he answered that “a sudden withdrawal might give us a credibility problem.” De Gaulle asked where; Kissinger mentioned the Middle East. “How very odd,” de Gaulle replied. “It is precisely in the Middle East that I thought your enemies had the credibility problem” (p. 110).

Indivisible credibility is a recipe for political hubris, military overextension, and moral callousness. “Those without strong values cannot withstand the ambiguities, pressures, and anguish that are inseparable from great responsibility” (p. 1033). But “strong values” can apparently carry you anywhere. In Kissinger’s conception, the ends justify the means, and the end (in both meanings of the word)—the stable, balanced world where the radicals and the Soviets will have been tamed—is attractive enough to vindicate a great deal of misery on the way. Kissinger wanted to put an end to America’s oscillations from one form of idealism—isolation—to another—crusades. But he fails to see both how his division of the world into friends and foes resembles the crusaders’ itch to divide it into good and evil, and how the way in which he proposed “to teach our people to face their permanent responsibility” (p. 125) was bound to produce a new swing toward the sentimental liberalism he despises.

If Kissinger’s book, is at times, oppressive, it is because the “historian’s perspective” (p. 54) he says he brought with him to power is both so grim and so thin. This is a world in which power is all: equilibrium is not just the prerequisite to order, the precondition for justice, it is order, it amounts to justice. Inspiration is provided not by an ideal, not by the attractiveness of the outcome—unless one makes a fetish out of a condition (balance)—but by the magnitude of the stakes. Ultimately, it is not surprising if no substantial conception of world order emerges. Religions are poor at describing paradise: it is with this world that they deal. And geopolitics is Kissinger’s religion—its good is the balance of power, its dogma is linkage, faith is credibility, the high priest is a United States acting on Henry Kissinger’s maxims.


All the flaws in Kissinger’s conception come together in his discussion of Vietnam and Cambodia. It fills one-third of the volume. Just as Kissinger’s ultimate vision of world order is elusive, he does not begin by telling us what his and Nixon’s policy in Vietnam was trying to achieve. He tells us what was to be avoided—we had “the duty” to prove that the North Vietnamese ambition of imposing communist rule (or a fake coalition government) in Saigon was wrong (p. 311)—and what was at stake: “the future of other people depended on their confidence in America” (p. 311). Thus we had to fight on “until Hanoi’s perceptions of its possibilities changed” (p. 311). What did this mean?

There were never more than two possible outcomes when Kissinger was in office. One was a victory of Hanoi—either on the battlefield or at the conference table. The other was a defeat of Hanoi—the North Vietnamese accepting in effect the survival of the regime of Saigon, under American protection, just as South Korea has survived since 1953. The fundamental ambiguity in Kissinger’s account is revealed when he talks of the agreement negotiated in 1972 as a compromise—which is why, he says, up to the “breakthrough” of October 1972, both sides had rejected his strategy: each one “still yearned for a decisive victory” (p. 1328). But a compromise was ultimately impossible, because it was not acceptable in the long run to either side and it could be no more than a lull. Ultimately either Saigon or Hanoi had to be in control.

Consider what Kissinger calls a satisfactory compromise, one with which he was so happy in October 1972 that he pleaded with Nixon to let him sign it almost at once, and did not communicate the text to Thieu until the last moment in the belief that Thieu would be impressed by the magnitude of Hanoi’s concessions (p. 1357). What he saw as a compromise provided Saigon not merely with a “decent interval” but with “a decent settlement” (p. 1359): Saigon, “generously armed and supported by the United States,” could cope with “moderate violations,” the US “would stand by to enforce the agreement and punish major violations,” Hanoi would be deterred by the prospect of such punishment and the incentives of economic aid (p. 1359). In other words, this was victory—not complete, since Hanoi did not have to withdraw its forces in the South, but it could not reinforce them and they occupied little ground.

The reason for Thieu’s fury was not just that “the South Vietnamese, after eight years of American participation, simply did not feel ready to confront Hanoi without our direct involvement” (p. 1375)—although the reluctance of much of the South Vietnamese population to fight on behalf of the ruling regime had long been a fundamental problem for the US. It is also that Thieu doubted that indirect American involvement would be forthcoming. Kissinger hoped that “joint exertions” between American and South Vietnamese would preserve the peace (p. 1356); he writes that “if doubts as to compliance were to be allowed to block a satisfactory agreement, then the war would never come to a negotiated end” (p. 1354). But doubts were justified, both about compliance (by either Saigon or Hanoi), and about America’s willingness permanently to act as policeman to exact compliance from Hanoi. Here again Watergate—and the decline in support for Nixon’s Vietnam policy that accompanied it—serves Kissinger as a convenient excuse for failure.

But even without Watergate, there was no justification for believing that an agreement that “depended on the vigor with which it was enforced” (p. 1361) could rely on the only effective deterrent: the certainty of US forces reintervening. Nixon promised this to Thieu, but it was not credible even before Watergate. For years Congress had been trying to accelerate America’s withdrawal; the two escalations of 1972, which involved no ground forces, provoked storms at home; Vietnamization had been an attempt to meet such criticisms (in vain).

Kissinger condemns those domestic upheavals throughout his book. Either he knew that the internal balance of forces in US politics would not allow the US to restore the external one in South Vietnam if there were a violation by Hanoi, in which case Thieu’s suspicions would be justified, and the agreement was no more than a time- and face-saving charade. Or else (and this is undoubtedly the case) he once again underestimated domestic battle fatigue, misjudged his ability to make Americans believe that their standing in the world depended on their persistence in a hopeless undertaking, and absurdly overestimated Nixon’s capacity to repeat in the future the temporary rescue of Saigon in 1972.

When, after Thieu’s request for sixty-three changes in the agreement; Hanoi in turn reopened many issues (with the rather obvious aim of forcing the US to return to the October text), Kissinger concluded that “they have not in any way abandoned their objectives or ambitions with respect to South Vietnam” (report to Nixon, p. 1435). How could he have believed they had, and if they hadn’t, could he believe that “reestablishing a better balance of risks” (p. 1445—another euphemism for bombing) would be available forever? The Christmas bombing may not have been the horror some critics denounced at the time; nevertheless it killed at least hundreds of people simply because Thieu needed time and a psychological lift that would enable him to sign at last. Returning to the October text after Thieu had so violently rejected it would have been “tantamount to wrecking the South Vietnamese government.” Kissinger writes that “though I considered the agreement a good one” in October, “intervening events would turn acceptance of it into a debacle” (p. 1429). This was a bloody charade—we got Hanoi to accept trivial changes that made no difference at all in the end.

Is one more “credible” for recognizing the inevitable early, and cutting one’s losses, or for pursuing a futile course, escalating not only the means but the stakes, and adding to the sufferings which the winner was going to impose at the end, those inflicted by the attempt to delay his inevitable victory? When Kissinger finally obtained the separation of Peking and Moscow from Hanoi, what the China initiative had started was completed: he had “reduced Indo-China to its proper scale—a small peninsula on a major continent” (p. 1049). Yet even then he acted as if American credibility demanded the vindication of the policies we had pursued from Eisenhower to LBJ, just as his geopolitical design was meant to be an apotheosis of containment.

There are bad places for a fight. In Vietnam, we (and the hapless South Vietnamese) never had a good alternative. We could “bug out,” either unilaterally or by negotiating a “coalition” formula to save some face. Or we could dig in and stick to our protégé in order to reassure our other allies—but our enemy would still be there, unless we destroyed him completely, something our values, as well as our calculation of risks, prevented us from doing. And in the meantime the futility of the effort would ensure that we’d look for a way out. At the end, the “honor” we had saved in 1973 was “lost” in 1975. Although Kissinger proclaims that “the security of free peoples everywhere would [have been] jeopardized by an essentially narcissistic act of abdication” (p. 1016), our allies were less than delighted to see what we were doing for them. They doubted its worth, and they feared that our exertions in this dubious cause might drain us of energy for better ones. In Vietnam, geopolitics were against us, and neither linkage nor dissociation could help.

Having however declared our policy moral, and all alternatives immoral as well as geopolitically dangerous, Kissinger can indeed affirm that he had little choice when the Cambodian crisis of 1970 broke out. There is a mad logic at work here. The new Nixon-Kissinger strategy, aimed at the same old objective of saving Saigon, entailed a greater willingness to use force outside South Vietnam (remember Kissinger’s strictures against gradualism). And it also entailed Vietnamization: the combination of American withdrawals and South Vietnamese build-up. Cambodia, whose neutrality had been dented by Hanoi (as had that of Laos)—no one denies it—was the natural victim of these changes. As early as January 8, Nixon ordered a report on “what, if anything, we are doing to destroy the buildup there” (p. 241): the secret bombing was at least as much caused by this desire to loosen old constraints as by the North Vietnamese offensive at the end of February 1969.

The bombing did, as William Shawcross has shown,11 begin to undermine Sihanouk. Kissinger denies what General Abrams has acknowledged to a Senate Committee: the bombing and other operations started pushing the North Vietnamese deeper into Cambodia.12 When Lon Nol’s coup occurred, the North Vietnamese, and Peking, tried to get an agreement from Lon Nol about the sanctuaries. Even though no direct aid was provided to him for several weeks, according to Kissinger, Lon Nol’s ultimate intransigence must have had something to do with an expectation of American support.

On the other hand, Nixon authorized (contrary to Kissinger’s wishes, he tells us) South Vietnamese attacks across the border; and several Khmer units trained in Vietnam were “launched on a grand scale into Cambodia” (Shawcross, p. 131). The North Vietnamese started moving westward. They must have known that the American command in Saigon was preparing an attack against one of the sanctuaries. Kissinger minimizes the importance of the South Vietnamese raids. When he says that “there had been no consideration of attacking the sanctuaries before April 21” (p. 487), he surely does not mean in Saigon, as is shown in the memo to Nixon which he quoted in an earlier version of his book and then removed.13 He claims that the North Vietmese were threatening Phnom Penh, and that Sihanouk, by “effectively declaring war on the new government,” had ceased to be a possible alternative: his “return would have meant not a restoration of neutrality but the victory of his new communist patrons, whom he had lost all capacity to control” (p. 467). But it was not to the North Vietnamese advantage to take charge of a vast and unfriendly country (in which Lon Nol was fostering massacres of Vietnamese); it was in their interest to have in power someone who would let them maintain their line of communication and their sanctuaries.

What made it impossible for us to deal with Sihanouk was neither Le Duc Tho’s rhetoric (which supported Sihanouk) nor Sihanouk’s alliance with his communist ex-foes but our “geopolitical” notion that whoever sides with the communists must be opposed, and above all the requirements of Vietnamization. The North Vietnamese in Cambodia were threatening a vital part of South Vietnam; we had to withdraw without endangering Saigon’s survival; Nixon had expressed anger at the existence of the sanctuaries from the beginning. The fall of Sihanouk and the westward moves of the North Vietnamese provided the opportunity to embroil them in Cambodia—by our helping Lon Nol, as Nixon wanted to do almost at once—as well as the opportunity to hit them from South Vietnam.

For America’s strategy, a restoration of Sihanouk under North Vietnamese “protection” would have been a major setback. But for the Cambodian people, it would have provided a far better alternative than the war that ravaged the country and allowed, at the end, the Khmer Rouge—not the North Vietnamese—to take over. In 1970, the Khmer Rouge were a handful, with no prospects of power. Kissinger several times attributes the devastation of Cambodia to the US opponents of the war, who crippled the scope of US military assistance legally available for Lon Nol, and thus obliged the Cambodian forces “to rely on our planes as their only strategic reserve” (p. 519).

But he does not include in his account what Shawcross stressed: that it was Kissinger who chose the most ambitious strategic option for the war in Cambodia, and got it approved by the National Security Council in October 1970 (Shawcross, p. 179 ff.). This strategy, designed to help Vietnamization, became a liability, both because of Lon Nol’s incompetence and because the South Vietnamese, to whom the departing Americans were entrusting ever bigger missions, had to overstretch their resources to keep the North Vietnamese from taking over Cambodia. Our way of helping “free Cambodia” by relentlessly destructive bombing for several years prolonged the agony and did much to prepare for Pol Pot’s rule. Kissinger may be right in saying that the Nixon administration had inherited the war in Vietnam. But not only did it accept the legacy, it extended the war to Cambodia.

The same geopolitical needs, global and local, kept Kissinger from trying to deal with Sihanouk before the peace agreement in Vietnam (and, as Shawcross shows, not much more actively later): “negotiations with him could not succeed so long as he was titular head of the communist force, insisting on total victory” (p. 1414). He “could not resume his pre-1970 balancing role unless there were two parties left to balance” (p. 1415). But by 1973, Sihanouk could not have returned except as head of the anti-Lon Nol forces (which would have been far better for the Cambodians than Pol Pot). We remained inhibited both by the belief that the North Vietnamese could somehow “deliver” the Khmer Rouge—it took Kissinger a long time to recognize that their relation to Hanoi was rather like that of Hanoi to Peking—and by the fear that a negotiation with Sihanouk while the war in Cambodia persisted could undermine the shaky regime in Phnom Penh, and perhaps by the belief that a continuing war in Cambodia might provide relief for our ally in Saigon. Thus, as in Saigon, we stuck to our client, and encouraged him to persist; but in Cambodia we could not even obtain a cease-fire.


External triumphs destroyed by domestic tragedy: a president’s weird character, an irresponsible Congress. This is one of the main themes of this volume, and it will undoubtedly be the thread of its successor. But the questions Kissinger’s relentless and impressive work leaves in the reader’s mind are quite different. To what extent were the successes proof of the validity of Kissinger’s “geopolitical” design? Was the détente of 1972 a vindication of his approach, or a passing episode? Was it only an attempt by Brezhnev “to calm the threat from Russia’s Western past so that he could deal with its Chinese future” (p. 1142), rather than an assent to Kissinger’s theory of linkages, networks, rewards, and penalties?

Was the China summit a triumph of triangular diplomacy, or a delicate marriage of convenience, in which one of the partners wants a far closer embrace than the other deems in his interest, although he may have to submit to it lest the more ardent partner should feel jilted and resume a flirtation with their mutual enemy? How wise was American policy in the Middle East and in Iran during those years? Was the colossal effort to find an “honorable” way out of Vietnam proportional to the results? Also, was the pursuit of so single-minded and intense a policy compatible with America’s institutions, and if not, what were the alternatives open to us? Kissinger, immersed in tactics, recounting the bureaucratic battles, and imperturbable in his reading of history, does not raise these questions. But those who, in their annoyance at Carter’s fumblings, are tempted by nostalgia for the Kissinger era, ought to think seriously about them.

This Issue

December 6, 1979