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.

Bundy’s second theme follows from the first. The “streamlined” decision-making process, with all power and initiative centralized under two men and their staffs, was from the outset intended to exclude not just unimaginative bureaucrats but also, and especially, those offices and agencies constitutionally empowered under US law to oversee and share in the making of foreign policy, notably Congress. This would in due course be the source of Nixon’s undoing, when congressional committees and even erstwhile senatorial supporters of the Vietnam War, for example, grew not just frustrated but genuinely alarmed at covert operations, unauthorized bombings, and the like and began to rein in the executive power. But it is also related to the inability of Nixon, in particular, to grasp that in a democracy the government is not only obliged but is also well-advised to give a running account of what it is doing and why if it wishes to retain public confidence and support.

On the contrary, Bundy writes, foreign policy under Nixon and Kissinger was not only not adequately discussed with Congress or the electorate, it was on vital occasions deliberately hidden by what can politely be called dissimulation. The administration did not just indulge in covert acts or illegal military operations and wiretapping or otherwise persecute those whom Nixon or Kissinger suspected of leaking details of their undertakings (which in Kis-singer’s case included members of his own staff). When they did describe what they planned to do, and why it ought to be done—whether to a congressional committee, to a roomful of journalists, or in a televised speech—they not infrequently, Bundy writes, said one thing and then in practice did the opposite.

In the short run, Bundy observes, this gained support for their policies—as when Nixon impressed upon his domestic constituency the virtues of “Vietnamization,” or Kissinger promised great things for the Paris Peace Agreements of January 1973. But the point is that, while the Paris accords were probably the best outcome that the US could get by that date, they represented an unhappy compromise and at best a holding operation, as Kissinger well understood. To claim more for them—to hold out the prospect of a free and autonomous South Vietnamese state for the foreseeable future—was disingenuous. And such deception just stored up greater frustration, disillusion, and ultimately cynicism when it turned out that the results were quite other than promised.

This chronic preference for offering self-serving, optimistic tales and then hoping no one would notice the unappetizing outcomes is one of Bundy’s major themes and he sees it as having had a corrosive effect on US public life: “In the end, Richard Nixon’s use of covert operations was less important than his persistent record of misrepresenting his policies and pursuing strategies and actions at odds with what he told Congress and the American people.”2 And, finally, these domestic shortcomings cannot simply be excused with the claim that at least the policies themselves were strikingly effective. Some were, but others were not. The opening to China and the arms agreements with the USSR were good in themselves, and in the Chinese case helped unfreeze US domestic discussion of foreign policy. Nixon and Kissinger can rightly take credit for these accomplishments. But they never merged into some overarching grand strategy, the very idea of which turns out to have been, for the most part, an Oz-like illusion.

It is one of the strengths of Bundy’s book that he manages to demonstrate how integrally related were all the separate characteristics and defects just noted. He provides many examples. We have long known about Kissinger’s scorn for foreign policy professionals, his confidence in his own knowledge and understanding—in the words of one earlier commentator, he “enjoyed putting the boot in State whenever possible.” When one of his staffers objected to the plan to invade Cambodia in April 1970 Kissinger responded revealingly, “Your views represent the cowardice of the Eastern Establishment.”3


Bundy, however, is concerned not so much to offer further illustrations of such attitudes as to show their detrimental impact on policy-making itself. Better staff work and a more sensitive ear to local knowledge, he argues, might have mitigated the long-term impact on US-Japanese relations of the unwelcome surprise (shokku) of the opening of links with China in 1971—something that Nixon and Kissinger kept very much to themselves, while leaving it to the then Secretary of State Rogers and his hapless staff to explain this turn of events to the perplexed and worried Japanese, who had been given no advance warning.

In a similar way, Bundy writes, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee only learned the full extent of Nixon’s “initiatives” in Cambodia thanks to the revelations of a disgruntled army officer. Although, according to Bundy, “a very few selected members of Congress” were told about the secret bombing, none of the congressional committees constitutionally established to authorize and fund military actions had ever been informed of the military violation of a neutral state. Nor, Bundy writes, had Nixon or Kissinger thought to consult other influential congressmen about these undertakings—with the result that when they were finally and inevitably leaked, they led not just to the congressional decision in June 1973 to cut funding for future US military action in Southeast Asia, but to the broader mood of frustration and resentment that contributed to Nixon’s fall. Bundy is quite insistent upon this sequence of events. It was not just Watergate that brought the President down, he writes; rather, it was the accumulation of broken promises, exaggerated claims, and straightforward lying—in foreign as in domestic matters—that finally drove the other branches of government into revolt—“failures of trust brought on by years of neglect and deception,” in Bundy’s words.

Bundy, as befits a former official of the CIA, has nothing against “secrecy,” an inevitable component of policy-making in any sensitive area, and one for which there are appropriate and legitimate institutional structures. His criticism concerns deception, and the peculiar combination of duplicity and vagueness that marked foreign policy in the Nixon era. “The essential to good diplomacy,” Harold Nicolson once suggested, “is precision. The main enemy of good diplomacy is imprecision.” And, paradoxical as it may seem, the main source of imprecision in this era was the obsession with personal diplomacy. Diplomacy (Harold Nicolson again) “should be a disagreeable business…recorded in hard print.”4

For Kissinger, in Bundy’s account, the reverse was true—he preferred to treat diplomacy as a series of confidential contacts with men with whom he could “do business,” while avoiding a clear and official record wherever possible. Moreover, in Bundy’s words: “Contrary to the repeated claims of Kissinger in particular, neither he nor Nixon operated solely, or even habitually, on the basis of dispassionate analysis of the US national interest.” Both men thought rather of people in terms of “heroes and villains,” and both “were strongly influenced by personal impressions of individuals.”5

As a result Kissinger sidetracked professional diplomats, established backchannels with all manner of persons, and took over crucial negotiations himself, often without consulting the existing negotiating team and leaving them completely in the dark. On this Bundy is quite unforgiving. The “parallel track” in Paris, where Kissinger met secretly with Le Duc Tho while the official US negotiators twiddled their thumbs, or a series of interventions in arms negotiations that resulted in the frustrated resignations of senior US officials—these are the occasion for some of his more forthright strictures. Of the SALT 1 talks in 1970 he writes, “It was hardly the way to conduct a major negotiation: a President not really interested, his principal assistant intervening without the knowledge or concurrence of the negotiating team, and the team left to fend for itself.” Of those same SALT talks a year later: “Kissinger had left many loose ends, in another sloppy negotiating performance.” And of the Vietnam peace talks and Kissinger’s “personal diplomacy” in general: “Negotiations bored Nixon and fascinated Kissinger, whose enthusiasm was not always matched by his skill.”

How telling are these criticisms? That Kissinger was sometimes high-handed in dealing with his staff, or that on occasion he humiliated professional negotiators in order to preserve secrecy or highlight his own role, would be neither here nor there if he had secured the desired outcomes. Bundy’s emphasis on such matters may strike some readers as excessive. But on many issues his criticisms are justified by the evidence he provides of poorly executed negotiations and oversold agreements.

In order to keep direct control over everything in this way, Nixon and Kissinger did not just deceive others as to their actions; they were also, Bundy suggests, less effective than they might have been even in matters that interested them. As for places and problems in which they had no sustained interest, or about which they knew very little, the outcomes were disastrous. They were blindsided, for example, by the oil crisis of 1973-1974 because, Bundy writes, neither man grasped the connection between domestic demand, US domestic oil production, and the changing terms of trade in international energy (the US share of world oil production fell from 64 percent in 1948 to 22 percent by 1972, even as US domestic usage steadily rose). Oil—like trade, or small, peripheral countries—did not figure in their view of what counted or how the world worked, and they were consistently ineffectual or wrong, either through inaction or a badly conceived policy, when faced with such matters.

Three instances will serve to illustrate these claims. Cambodia—“Mr. Nixon’s war”—is normally thought of as the major flaw in the Nixon record, and so it is. It is the occasion for Bundy’s strongest condemnation—“a black page in the history of American foreign policy.” In Cambodia the Nixon administration repeated all the mistakes of Vietnam on an accelerated and concentrated scale without the excuse of inexperience. It secretly authorized over 3,600 B-52 air raids against suspected (but undiscovered) Vietcong bases and against North Vietnamese forces in Cambodia in 1969- 1970 alone. By 1974, as Bundy shows, this policy had contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge—a Communist guerrilla organization whose crimes certainly cannot be laid at Nixon’s door, but whose political prospects were enhanced by the devastation brought about by the war. Bundy’s summary of the final stage of the Cambodian disaster is characteristic in its careful review of the record and worth quoting at length:

General Vogt [the commander of the US 7th Air Force] and most of the senior civilians involved (including Ambassador Swank) believed that the bombing kept Lon Nol afloat in the face of the 1973 Khmer Rouge offensive. It may have been crucial in enabling the government forces, using artillery, to hold their central enclave, including Phnom Penh, into 1974 and eventually until the early spring of 1975. Massive airpower used against a lightly armed attacking force with no antiaircraft capability could be effective in preventing victory for the opposing force.

On the other hand, the intensity of the bombing—as a matter of common-sense judgement shared by many objective observers—drove the Khmer Rouge to greater military efforts. It also made them more self-reliant, more separate from North Vietnam, more alienated from Sihanouk, and altogether less subject to influence from any of their Communist supporters. The bombing surely made it more rather than less difficult for any party to persuade the Khmer Rouge to accept a cease-fire and negotiate a political compromise—which was the stated objective.

The chances of such a change of course by the Khmer Rouge were almost certainly slim already. A determined negotiating effort to enlist Sihanouk…combined with a much more limited program of bombing to keep the threat alive, might just have stood a chance. As it was, intense bombing with no negotiating effort, until the Khmer Rouge was even more embittered, was the worst of all worlds. As throughout the American involvement in Cambodia, the policy miscalculations alone—apart from eventual congressional reactions—were monumental. They must be laid squarely at the door of Nixon and his two principal advisers, Alexander Haig and Henry Kissinger.

Nixon, Kissinger, and Alexander Haig kept the details of the Cambodian operation to themselves and a handful of colleagues as long as they could, rarely sought advice from sources outside the military (which was uniquely concerned with blocking North Vietnamese supply routes passing through eastern Cambodia), and made, Bundy writes, imprudent and unsustainable promises to Lon Nol (Cambodia’s ruler following the overthrow in March 1970 of the ostensibly neutral Prince Sihanouk in the wake of the initial bombings). They not only lost the country to the Communists anyway, following a devastating four-year war, but undermined their own support at home and their country’s standing abroad. In Bundy’s words, “In short, the United States was raining bombs on a small country with little prospect of a good outcome…. The stakes in Cambodia came down, then, almost entirely to the asserted psychological impact in South Vietnam if Cambodia fell and to Nixon’s sense of personal commitment to Lon Nol.”

Hardly a victory for grand strategic thinking. There were well-informed people in the State Department (and even more at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris) who might have counseled Kissinger and Nixon against doing what they proposed, but they were not asked.6 Kissinger, even more than Nixon, held it as axiomatic that the world is run by great powers, to whose instructions and interests lesser states duly respond. Policy in and toward Cambodia was thus conceived and practiced with no consistent attention paid to the distinctive characteristics of any of the local interested parties. In the case of Communist states and organizations, moreover, Kissinger took it to be self-evident that the lines of communication ran straight and true, from Moscow (or Beijing) to the lowest guerrilla operative in the bush.

To be fair to Kissinger, he was not alone in this belief—and in the case of the satellite states of Eastern Europe under Stalin and his successors, or powerless and tiny Communist movements in Western Europe or the US, it was in large measure accurate. And the rulers of the Kremlin, at least, dearly wished it were universally true, and had an active interest in convincing outsiders that it was. But the experience of Malaysia, Indonesia, and much of Latin America might have taught otherwise had those in power been listening. Just as the Vietnamese rulers in Hanoi were historically suspicious of China, so the Cambodian Communists were never in thrall to their Vietnamese “comrades,” though the Maoist “model”—which they had experienced firsthand in China—undoubtedly shaped their thinking more directly. Zhou Enlai even tried once to convey this basic truth about Asian history and Communist politics to Kissinger in person, to no apparent avail.

The Cambodian policy, in Bundy’s analysis, was thus ultimately justified by the claim that there was “linkage,” that just as invasion in Cambodia might pay off in Vietnam, so pressure in Hanoi (by its Soviet or Chinese “masters”) might trickle down to the Khmer Rouge and bring about some sort of truce in Cambodia itself. Hence the suggestion that one of the virtues of “détente” would be the leverage the US could assert, through its improved relations with Moscow or Beijing, upon their ill-behaved offspring in Southeast Asia. The military and logistical links were there, but, as Bundy’s account makes clear, the leverage never existed. The whole enterprise rested on an astonishing mix of overconfidence, misguided strategic theorizing, and ignorance.

Cambodia was the worst example, but it was not the only one. In March 1971 the Pakistan dictator Yahya Khan violently suppressed riots in East Pakistan; millions of refugees fled into neighboring India. Tension mounted all year until December when, following Pakistan’s dispatch of large numbers of troops to quell discontent in East Pakistan, fighting broke out between India and Pakistan on India’s northwest frontier. The war lasted a matter of weeks, until the Pakistani forces surrendered and withdrew, and East Pakistan declared its independence as Bangladesh, leaving a defeated, humiliated, and much-reduced Pakistani state. The indigenous sources of this conflict needn’t concern us here; the point is that they were also of no concern to Washington, which nonetheless “tilted” heavily toward Pakistan, to the point of putting pressure on India and sending a US naval task group to the Bay of Bengal.

Why should the US, which had no discernible direct interest in the conflict, resort to gunboat diplomacy and demonstrate such public support for one party—the repressive, dictatorial Yahya Khan—at the cost of alienating not just India, a major power in Asia and one of its few stable democracies, but also politicized Muslims everywhere? Why, in short, did Kissinger and Nixon engage in a piece of geopolitics that Bundy rightly describes as a “fiasco” and that has left a long and unhelpful legacy of distrust for the US in the entire region? For the breathtakingly simple reason, Bundy writes, that Pakistan was perceived as a friend of China (Yahya Khan had the previous year served as the link through which Kissinger made contact with the Chinese), and India, as a notoriously “neutral” state, had cultivated good relations with the Soviet Union. In Kissinger’s words, quoted by Nixon himself, “We don’t really have any choice. We can’t allow a friend of ours and China to get screwed in a conflict with a friend of Russia’s.7

Yahya Khan had certainly performed friendly services for Nixon and Kissinger, helping establish the early contacts between Beijing and Washington and keeping them secret at a time when leaks might have been disastrous for Nixon’s China project. But even if one allows that Pakistan was a “friend of ours,” it did not follow that the US need line up behind a violent and (as it proved) doomed military despot. However, in Kissinger’s words once again, “Why is it our business how they govern themselves?”8 And so, in another mechanistic application of hypothetical laws of geopolitical strategy, the US backed the wrong man in the wrong conflict, securing, as might have been predicted, an undesired outcome and a legacy of reduced influence.

There is no evidence that China would have reacted badly, or even cared, if the US had “sat out” the Indo-Pakistan conflict; there were even less grounds for believing that the Soviet Union was poised to intervene on India’s behalf—the ostensible reason for the dispatch of the naval task group. There is, on the other hand (according to Bundy), some evidence that Yahya Khan was misled, or given grounds for misleading himself, into thinking that he had American backing for his uncompromising stance, first in East Pakistan and then toward India. A fiasco indeed.


Let us allow that Southeast Asia by 1970 was a region in which the policy of any US administration was probably doomed to meet an unsatisfactory and ultimately disastrous end. William Bundy, it must be said, does not suggest a strategy by which the US could have brought to a more satisfactory end the war he had earlier helped to set in motion. Let us further acknowledge that the Indian subcontinent was terra incognita to most Americans (though, once again, not to some scorned experts at the State Department and in other official agencies); it is not just in Washington, after all, that men have badly misjudged situations taking place in “far away countries of which they know little.” But what of Europe, the centerpiece of the cold war and thus the site of Nixon’s own experience of foreign policy in the Fifties, as well as the region in whose history Kissinger established his scholarly reputation?

In later writings, both men took some credit for laying the groundwork of détente in Europe—in his memorial eulogy for the late President, Kissinger claimed this as one of Nixon’s major achievements. William Bundy is skeptical of this view. At the time both men were very wary of any change in Europe that they did not fully control—and whereas West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had always consulted fully with Washington before making the slightest move, Willy Brandt in particular, while keeping his American allies fully informed, pursued his own agenda. In the world view of Kissinger, only one superpower—the US—was fully entitled to engage its counterpart—the Soviet Union—in serious conversations that might lead to significant change. The White House was overtly displeased at Brandt’s election to the Chancellery in 1969 and gave only grudging and unenthusiastic assent to his Ostpolitik—the treaties and agreements he negotiated between the Federal Republic and the Soviet bloc states.

One reason for this was that Kissinger, concerned with geopolitical factors in international affairs, was reluctant to accept a definitive territorial and frontier settlement in Europe. But he may, at the time, have underestimated its significance for Moscow. When the Kremlin chose to overlook Nixon’s resumed bombing of North Vietnam in December 1972 and went ahead with plans for a summit meeting, the US administration took credit for its successful “gamble,” attributing Soviet acquiescence to Moscow’s nervousness at Nixon’s “China turn.” This view has been disputed by such contemporary Russian officials as Anatoly Dobrynin and Georgi Arbatov. “Kissinger,” Arbatov said, “thinks it was China that played the decisive role in getting us to feel the need to preserve our relationship with the USA…. But Berlin actually played a much bigger role, almost a decisive one. Having the East German situation settled was most important to us, and we did not want to jeopardize that.”9

Kissinger in his memoirs concluded “with hindsight” that the Soviets did not cancel the summit for several reasons. One was that cancellation would “bring about the Soviet’s worst nightmare, an American relationship with Peking not balanced by equal ties with Moscow.” But he also said that renewed Soviet-American hostility “would almost certainly have upset the applecart of Brandt’s policy, [and] the Soviet Union’s carefully nurtured strategy for Europe would have collapsed.” Bundy for his part concludes that Brandt’s policy of Ostpolitik “and its coming up for final Bundestag approval at that crucial moment saved the summit. At the moment of truth, stabilizing the situation in Germany, completing a new European order, and insuring Soviet control of the Eastern European nations…were more important to the Soviet Union than international solidarity.”

Whether or not the European version of détente was such a good thing is a debatable issue—Bundy certainly admires it unstintingly, based as it was on “slow day-to-day changes and increased contacts,” in contrast to the more demonstrative US version of détente, linked to high-level agreements and of questionable long-term value. I have argued elsewhere that both the West German Ostpolitik and the US idea of détente demonstrated an inadequate grasp of the weakness and instability of Communist regimes, notably that of East Germany, and showed as well a cavalier insensitivity to the needs and hopes of the population of Europe’s eastern half, for whom a “definitive” postwar settlement fixing Europe’s political and ideological frontiers into place was far from desirable, and was much resented. In any case, détente’s indirect contribution to the destabilizing of the Soviet Union and its satellites was not part of Kissinger’s—or Brandt’s—goals. The architects of Helsinki cannot take credit for that accomplishment.10

What is beyond question is that Kissinger in particular grew rather frustrated in his dealings with the divided and changing leadership of Europe’s many states. As he put it himself, “[R]elations with Europe did not lend themselves to secret diplomacy followed by spectacular pronouncements. There were too many nations involved to permit the use of backchannels.” But then that is how it is with a continent full of medium-size pluralist democracies. Willy Brandt wrote that “Henry Kissinger did not like to think of Europeans speaking with one voice. He preferred to juggle with Paris, London and Bonn, playing them off one against another, in the old style.”11 Brandt is somewhat disingenuous here; it suited him to think of European statesmen as speaking with one voice when they didn’t—and don’t. But his perception of Kissinger’s preferences seems no less accurate for that.

The “old style” was not very effective, however. One of its chief results was to weaken the Atlantic alliance, diminishing European trust in Washington. In April 1973 Kissinger, in a famously unfortunate speech aimed at America’s continental allies, declared a “European Year” without consulting a single European leader; the speech, in Bundy’s words, was “didactic, occasionally scolding and petulant, and free of any suggestion that the United States might have neglected some of its own obligations, or might have erred in some of its [own] economic policies or energy practices.”

The result of Kissinger’s policies and his style, Bundy concludes, was to drive a wedge between the US and its only credible international supporters—opening up a gap that was widened still further when the US gave its NATO allies no advance warning of the worldwide military alert of October 24, 1973 (at the time of the Middle Eastern war). Like the Japanese government following the political and economic shocks of 1971 (the opening to China, the abandoning of the dollar- gold parity, and restrictions on US imports), Western European politicians in the aftermath of the oil embargo, the Kissinger speech, and the cool response to Ostpolitik began to rethink their relations with Washington. As a result of behaving as though America’s European allies could be relied upon automatically to endorse US actions, Kissinger and Nixon thus released them from the habit of doing so. The damage done to NATO and the Western alliance was still being felt well into the mid-Eighties.

To be sure, Nixon and Kissinger had successes too, achievements that can be placed unambiguously to their credit. The opening to China and the first round of arms agreements with the Soviet Union are among these and William Bundy is scrupulously fair in taking note of them, just as he is careful to defend Kissinger in particular against the more all-embracing condemnations of his critics. It was Alexander Haig, he suggests, who carried the misleading, secret pledges to Thieu and who must take most of the blame for the implementation of the Cambodian schemes. An ambitious officer raised in the MacArthur school of foreign policy, he treated legal and institutional restraints on the maximum use of military force in all circumstances as annoying and dispensable impediments. Bundy’s summary is unusually severe: “That a senior military officer might be so far wrong on a central constitutional point is striking (and disturbing) even at a distance of time.”

As for Kissinger, Bundy gives him full credit for disengaging the Middle East from the volatile stalemate that followed the Yom Kippur War, shuttling tirelessly between Golda Meir and Anwar Sadat, outbidding the Soviet Union for local influence, and building good relations with many important local political leaders. In his dealings with Sadat and others, Bundy writes, “it was the reasoned arguments Kissinger made, the personal rapport he established, and the sense of understanding and respect he conveyed that moved things forward. He was always well-suited to be a mediator, a position in which a diplomat is justified in shading the views of A when he reports to B, in the interest of bringing the two closer.” A barbed compliment, perhaps, but a compliment nonetheless, followed by an unequivocally admiring conclusion: “Rarely has a statesman managed a diplomatic process so fully and to the benefit of his country.” Bundy also praises Kissinger for his well-attested suspicion of Pentagon advocates of the concept of “strategic superiority,” a skeptical position he shared with Robert McNamara, and one he sustained against opposition from the military lobby.

But the fact remains that no one who reads this book is going to think especially well of either Nixon or Kissinger, and certainly not nearly as well as they thought of themselves. Explaining Nixon’s weaknesses may be the easier task; it certainly produces the more familiar responses.12 By the standards of American politicians he was well-versed in foreign affairs, and had been active in them ever since Christian Herter put him on a 1947 House committee investigating the impact of the Marshall Plan in Europe. He could be a quick study and in principle, at least, he was open to new ideas and approaches—especially if, like the opening to China, they offered personal political advantage into the bargain. It is true that he was unable to rid himself, when observing the present, of conventional references and examples from the recent past—Munich and the Korean War among them; but this hardly distinguished him from most public men of his generation, John F. Kennedy included.

Nixon’s problem, of course, lay elsewhere. He was so absorbed in the recollection and anticipation of slights and injustices, real and imagined, that much of his time as president was taken up with “screwing” his foes, domestic and foreign alike: even when he had a defensible plan to implement, such as his “new economic policy” of 1971 (the floating of the dollar and protection against “predatory” imports), he just couldn’t help seeing in it the additional benefit of “sticking it to the Japanese.” He warned even his allies against offering unwanted (critical) counsel—according to Brandt he justified his bombing of North Vietnam in 1971 as a “preventive measure”—and added “with some irritation, that advice from third parties was not wanted.” Indeed, this aversion to criticism was perhaps the greatest weakness of all—it was why he surrounded himself with yes-men and hardly ever exposed his person or his policies to open debate among experts or more than one adviser at a time.13

In order to ward off criticism and keep his foes at bay, Nixon preferred to tell people—individually and collectively—what they wanted to hear, reserving for himself the privilege of doing just the opposite. One result was that everyone was caught off balance, unable to work out just what it was that the President was truly seeking to achieve. In a recent book Henry Kissinger recalls that the Emperor Napoleon III of France was sometimes referred to as “the ‘Sphinx in the Tuileries’ because he was believed to be hatching vast and brilliant designs, the nature of which no one could discern until they gradually unfolded.” Something of the same thing might be said of Nixon, though the comparison flatters him; but in both cases the sphinx turns out to be an elderly, insecure man frequently overtaken by events.14

Napoleon III’s baroque miscalculations brought his country to disastrous military defeat and occupation; Nixon’s America avoided that fate. Emperors answer to history. But when the president of a republic behaves like a sphinx, he risks not just his reputation but also his constituency, because the difference between a sphinx and a politician is that sooner or later a politician has to show his hand. So in the end we learn from Bundy what we knew all along: Richard Nixon was a gifted politician brought low by his fundamental flaws of character: “With all his talents, what mainly undid Richard Nixon was his unshakable bent to deceive.”


Henry Kissinger’s is an altogether more interesting case, and there is much to be learned from it. Bundy notes the contradiction between Kissinger’s reputation for brilliance and his rather checkered and much oversold record in office. Although this insistence upon the contrast itself will infuriate those for whom the former secretary of state can do no wrong, the book offers little further discussion of the matter. But the question remains: If Kissinger had such a sure grasp of international affairs, was so well-versed in diplomatic history and so clear-eyed in his understanding of the tasks of the statesman, how, in the instances of failure described by Bundy, could he have been led so astray by Nixon? Or, alternatively, why did he give Nixon such poor advice?

The conventional response is to investigate the context—the mitigating circumstances of reality, as it were. That is reasonable, and no one would deny that Henry Kissinger, like every statesman before him, inherited the problems he sought to address. But what if the starting assumptions themselves were also at fault?

Henry Kissinger’s first book, A World Restored, was a study of Metternich and Castlereagh, the Austrian and British statesmen who put together the Congress System of early-nineteenth-century Europe, named after the 1815 Congress of Vienna where the international settlement was negotiated following the defeat of Napoleon. Metternich emerges as the hero of that work and, although Kissinger has since written many other books, in his latest publication, Diplomacy, Metternich and his eponymous System once again come in for some respectful discussion. Count Metternich was without question a resourceful diplomat who served his emperor well. A skeptical student of his times, he maneuvered effectively to protect the interests of a declining Habsburg Empire in an international environment buffeted by domestic revolutions and a rapidly shifting balance of international power. He sustained Austria’s international position for a third of a century, and the system of inter-state relations that he helped secure at Vienna contributed to the decades of relative international tranquility that followed the revolutionary upheavals of the years 1789-1815.15

But Kissinger does not admire Metternich as a past statesman alone. He offers him as a model for contemporary emulation: in the aftermath of the fall of communism, he writes, “One can hope that something akin to the Metternich system evolves.” This is not an isolated, casual aside. The whole cast of American diplomacy, in Kissinger’s view, has been distorted by excessive sensitivity to Wilsonian idealism. What is called for is a return to the laudable realism of an earlier age: “Victory in the Cold War has propelled America into a world which bears many similarities to the European state system of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” And if we are back in a nineteenth-century international situation, then there should be no doubt about the correct nineteenth-century response: “The international system which lasted the longest without a major war was the one following the Congress of Vienna. It combined legitimacy and equilibrium, shared values, and balance-of-power diplomacy.”16

The problem with taking Count Metternich and his system as a model, as with many other references to statesmen and policies of the reasonably distant past, is that their world differed from ours in at least one crucial respect—and it is the business of the historian to understand such differences and why they matter. Austria in 1815 was a hereditary empire (though liberal by the continental standards of the time) where all power was vested in the emperor and his ministers. There were no constitutional constraints, no electoral constituencies to placate or inform, no committees to consult. The imperial foreign minister and chancellor answered only to his emperor and to their shared view of the imperial interest. Metternich, who had some inkling of the coming domestic troubles in the sprawling, multinational Central European empire, could confine his attention exclusively to foreign and diplomatic affairs. In his own formulation, “I ruled Europe sometimes, but I never governed Austria.”17

As a consequence, Metternich could practice diplomacy in the ancient manner, based in large measure on personal relations among noblemen from different lands speaking a common language and with a shared interest in cross-border social and institutional stability. Such intra-aristocratic diplomatic dealings had for Metternich the virtue of calculated imprecision and ambiguity. Kissinger quotes him with approval: “Things which ought to be taken for granted lose their force when they emerge in the form of arbitrary pronouncements…. Objects mistakenly made subject to legislation result only in the limitation, if not the complete annulment, of that which is attempted to be safeguarded.”18

Here we begin to see the outlines of the misconceived lesson that Henry Kissinger appears to have drawn from his study of international relations in the past. Secured by his own bureaucratic devices and habits of mind from having to respond to critics or other branches of government, though he could always get his opinion or policy echoed and supported by a well-placed article or interview or congressman, he indeed related to Richard Nixon much as did Metternich to the Emperor Francis II. An ambitious and intelligent courtier with the ear of an absolute ruler is in a position of unique influence, especially if he carries no responsibility for domestic affairs—this much history does indeed teach us. Moreover, although the courtier runs obvious risks if he incurs the ruler’s wrath, it is the ruler himself who is truly vulnerable in a crisis. The cleverest courtiers—Talleyrand comes to mind—will survive the fall of their masters, with some quick footwork and a recasting of the historical record; and Kissinger was among the cleverest of them all.

Henry Kissinger knew perfectly well that his world was not that of Metternich or even of Woodrow Wilson—statesmen in the past had never, he writes, “been obliged to conduct diplomacy in an environment where events can be experienced instantaneously and simultaneously by leaders and their publics.”19 But far from awakening him to an appreciation of a novel set of constraints upon foreign policy making, this changed situation seems to have made Kissinger all the more resistant to the constraints of policy-making in a constitutional republic with multiple governing branches. Unrecorded personal undertakings, unarticulated policy shifts, covert dealings and the deception of friend and foe alike, “secret wars, secretly arrived at” (George McGovern), were undertaken not in ignorance of the claims of pluralist democracy but, in some cases, in order to circumvent them. Of course a degree of strategic calculation and secrecy is a condition of good diplomacy in any political system; but in a liberal democracy it is the beginning of wisdom to recognize their limits.

But, Kissinger’s defenders might argue, so what if he abused historical analogy? He may have miscalculated or even misunderstood the domestic context in which Nixon had to operate; but he had a sure grasp of the fundamentals of international relations. Relations between states, the argument runs, are based on interest and geopolitical facts. Transformations in the ways in which countries are governed—from monarchies to aristocratic oligarchies, from liberal democracies to Communist dictatorships—may affect the way they talk about their interests and intentions, but the underlying realities remain in place. Once you know this you can negotiate with anyone and understand the deeper meaning of any particular crisis, secure in your grasp of your country’s long-term interests and the means by which these can be advanced and protected.

In the aggregate these are untestable propositions—you either believe them or you don’t. Henry Kissinger certainly behaved in accordance with some such set of assumptions. Like Sir Halford Mackinder, the early-twentieth-century British inventer of “geopolitics,” he believed that the Soviet Union/Russia, for example, constitutes a “geopolitical heartland” whose rulers will always be influenced by a certain sort of imperial territorial imperative; hence his various efforts to strike “deals,” with Brezhnev in particular. His admiration for Nixon rests squarely on his view that “among postwar presidents, only Nixon consistently dealt with the Soviet Union as a geopolitical challenge.” Kissinger believed that small countries (like Chile) in unimportant regions (like Latin America) require little attention or respect, so long as they stay in line. He believed, as has been seen, in “linkage”—the notion that US dealings with any one country or region should always be part of a global set of policies, rather than responses to local situations on an individual basis. And he believed in the “balance of power.”

A case can be made for any of these approaches, taken separately. A policy based on maintaining the “balance of power”—a concept deriving from the English strategy for dealing with European states in the nineteenth century, juggling favorites and favors so as to prevent any one continental power from becoming overmighty—could make some sense in a multipolar world. Kissinger’s practice, however, was inconsistent: if unchanging national and geopolitical criteria “trump” everything else, for example, why base a foreign policy on the belief that countries sharing the same ideological form—communism—will think or behave in concert? Sometimes Kissinger followed the “geopolitical” line, as in his dealings with China; sometimes not, as in his approach based on international Communist links and influence in Vietnam or Cambodia.

Détente, and what Kissinger calls “triangular diplomacy” among the major powers, brought more reciprocal relations with China and the USSR. But they never convinced either China or the Soviet Union to moderate or restrain their “clients” in Asia or Africa—the one thing Nixon and Kissinger sought above all else. “Linkage” secured nothing that was not gained by conventional diplomatic negotiating efforts or military might. And the overall objective—the advancement of the permanent interests of the United States—was probably further from attainment at the end of the Nixon-Kissinger era than at the outset.

Ironically, this is precisely because Kissinger was so caught up in the “big” picture that he and Nixon, as we have seen, made a cumulative series of crucial missteps in the “peripheral” zones whose significance they dismissively underestimated. William Bundy’s summary of the “deplorable” American treatment of Chile in the Allende era can stand for much else: “Nixon and Kissinger never gave Chile the attention required under their own decision-making system, and acted impulsively, with inadequate reflection. Their actions were not only morally repugnant but ran grave risks of the eventual exposure that damaged the United States in Latin American eyes.”

There is a revealing historical precedent for this sort of failed foreign policy, where “realism” is exposed to moral condemnation and ends up disserving its own goals. In the 1870s the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli pursued a policy of great-power “realism” in the Balkans, supporting the declining Turkish empire in its repression of the claims of national and religious minorities under its control. This policy, carried out in the name of Britain’s strategic interests, was condemned by Disraeli’s Liberal opponent, William Gladstone, who made a series of fiery and effective public attacks on it at the election of 1880, when Disraeli’s government was brought down to defeat.

Gladstone’s rhetoric is dated, but his theme is unmistakable and familiar: “Abroad they [i.e. the government] have strained, if they have not endangered, the prerogative by gross misuse, and have weakened the Empire by needless wars, unprofitable extensions and unwise engagements, and have dishonored it in the eyes of Europe.” Disraeli’s brazen unconcern for the behavior of his friends, or for the interests of others, especially small nations, was inimical to Britain’s long-term interest, Gladstone declared: if British interests were accepted as “the sole measure of right and wrong” in Britain’s dealings with the world, then the same attitude might logically be adopted by any other country and the result would be international anarchy.

Gladstone was responding in particular to Disraeli’s dismissal of national movements in the Balkans (especially the notorious “Bulgarian massacres” of 1876); at best he didn’t take any interest in them, at worst he attributed the troubles to the work of foreign secret societies. As for his critics at home in Britain, Disraeli dismissed their complaints as “coffee house babble”—a striking anticipation of Spiro T. Agnew’s description of similarly inspired critics of President Nixon as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” But although Gladstone was able to turn Disraeli’s haughty unconcern for informed opinion and public moral distaste to electoral advantage, Britain’s standing as a disinterested interlocutor in European affairs was indeed significantly imperiled.20

That is the trouble with geopolitical realism in foreign policy, especially when it is practiced with disdain for domestic constraints. You begin with a reasonable-sounding worldliness, of the kind articulated by Metternich and quoted admiringly by Henry Kissinger: “Little given to abstract ideas, we accept things as they are and we attempt to the maximum of our ability to protect ourselves against delusions about realities.”21 You then find yourself allying with disreputable foreign rulers on the “realist” grounds that they are the people with whom you have to do business, forgetting that in so doing you have deprived yourself of any political leverage over them, because the one thing that matters most to them—how they get and keep power over their subjects—is of no interest to you. And at the last you are thus reduced to cynicism about the outcomes not just of their actions but your own.

Thus, William Bundy points out, some of the most vaunted achievements of “realist” foreign policy turn out to be bogus. Kissinger and Nixon could hardly have been unaware, he concludes, that the Paris settlement of 1973 that “ended” the Vietnam War was a mirage, its clauses and safeguards “toothless.” It looked only to short-term political advantage, with no vision or strategy for handling the longer-term fallout. Their unstinting support for the Shah of Iran was similarly disastrous—first joining with him in misleading promises to the Kurds in order to bring pressure on Iran’s western neighbor, Iraq, then abandoning those same Kurds to a bloody fate, and finally bonding the image and power of the US to an increasingly indefensible regime in Tehran. Like so much else about the foreign dealings of the Nixon era, the bill fell due a little later: in 1975 in Vietnam and Cambodia, in 1979-1980 in Iran. And in each case the interests of the United States were among the first victims.

This history is important, because Kissinger has always claimed that—in contrast to administrations before and since—the governments in which he served were not bemused by “idealist” mirages and kept firmly in view the chief objective of foreign policy: the pursuit and defense of the US national interest. One can debate endlessly what US international “interests” really are and how they are best served. But what is clear, and this was Gladstone’s point as it is Bundy’s, is that in a constitutionally ordered state, where laws are derived from broad principles of right and wrong and where those principles are enshrined in and protected by agreed procedures and practices, it can never be in the long-term interest of the state or its citizens to flout those procedures at home or associate too closely overseas with the enemies of your founding ideals.

Richard Nixon was in one respect a most fortunate man. Felled by Watergate, he has been resurrected in some quarters as an unlikely tragic hero—the greatest foreign policy president we (nearly) had, as it were; a man whose human flaws undermined his unrealized talents in this crucial arena of presidential action. Henry Kissinger has benefited twice over from this strange beatification—the flaws are Nixon’s but the foreign policy was Kissinger’s, and its failures were attributable to Nixon’s domestic imbroglios. Anyone tempted to give credit to such claims should read William Bundy’s book, which anticipates what one must hope will be the considered judgment of history upon a troubled and troubling era in American public affairs.

This Issue

August 13, 1998