In January 1969, when Henry Kissinger came to office in the White House, the American public was divided, disillusioned, robbed of almost all confidence in the nation's conduct of foreign policy. Activist approaches to international affairs were out of fashion. Neo-isolationism, as some called it, was setting in. There was little enthusiasm for throwing up bulwarks against real or imagined Soviet efforts to expand Communist influence. The main concerns were getting out of Vietnam, arms control, and peace. It was not, in short, the best of times for a historian of the nineteenth century in Europe, with a firmly fixed and carefully developed concept of balance-of-power politics, to arrive at the center of the American foreign policy-making process.
Eight years later, Henry Kissinger, in fact, had very little to show for his grand designs. No administration in memory had left for its successors such a backlog of unfinished foreign business: SALT II, the Middle East, the Panama Canal treaty, the Greek-Turkish conflict over Cyprus, the hardest half of the "opening" to China, an Atlantic Alliance languishing for lack of American attention, a sleeping giant of an international energy crisis.
It is only fair to add that no secretary of state in history has labored under so heavy a burden of presidential inattention to and lack of influence upon the conduct of foreign affairs. For the last two years of his stewardship at the State Department, Secretary Kissinger was serving an unelected President largely concerned with getting elected in his own right. For the two years preceding, foreign policy-making had been paralyzed by Watergate. And for most of the White House years which are the subject of Kissinger's first volume of memoirs, the orderly application of his finely tuned conceptual approach to the world was confounded by a protracted withdrawal from a doomed military involvement in the Vietnam War—an involvement, he repeatedly reminds us, that he inherited and would have conducted in a much different way had he been at the controls a little earlier.
That Kissinger managed, nonetheless, to bring endless energy and considerable originality to the theory as well as the execution of American foreign policy, to make some substantial headway in China policy and in SALT I and in the Middle East (for three examples), and to diminish or deflect some potentially disastrous crises and confrontations along the way, history will not deny. That he somehow preserved his sanity and his sense of humor through it all is a tribute to the human spirit. That he functioned as effectively as he did is testimony to his own taste for the Byzantine so dear to his chief, as well as to the extraordinary discipline and intellect he brought to his work.
All this is amply and richly reflected in his first volume of memoirs. As a chronicle—often in the minutest detail, hour-by-hour—of a phantasmagoria of decision-making and crisis-managing, the book is almost everything it's been called: witty, sometimes wise, elegantly and lucidly written, sharply analytical, philosophical, and so charmingly self-effacing that one very nearly forgets the place Kissinger is skillfully trying to make for himself in history.
This enormous book is instant history of a high order. The wealth of detailed information and documentation and the keyhole access that is offered to the inner workings of the most secretive foreign policymaking apparatus in anybody's recollection give a powerful sense of authenticity to his narrative. But it is a seductive, not to say deceptive, sense of authenticity. Just because one is seeing so much of what went on so vividly, the tendency is to believe that one is seeing the real thing and the whole thing—that this is the way it really works, not only in Kissinger's time, but all the time. There is, accordingly, a powerful temptation to find significant lessons for the future in the Kissinger experience.
This, in my view, is an exceedingly dangerous temptation on two counts. First, one is obviously not seeing the whole thing. As Kissinger himself admits, a balancing of his account must await the memoirs of others and the more settled judgment of history. A case-by-case challenge of the Kissinger version is no job for the unarmed outsider. And second, one is seeing only how things worked at a time and under conditions unmatched by any previous experience in our history and not likely to be repeated.
That is what struck me most forcibly about White House Years: not how much there is in it of historical (or politically prurient) interest—there's a lot—but how little there is, contrary to what some reviewers say, of practical and enduring educational value. The tone at times is professorial; we would expect no less. But there are not very many constructive lessons to be learned from Kissinger's painstaking efforts to tell us what he was up to, and up against, within the White House, with the bureaucracies, in the country, and in the world at large.
I am not questioning the validity of some of the perceptions Kissinger offers with respect to the nature of the American public—its yearning for quick solutions, for some terminal point to conflict, for nice, clean, either/or answers in an increasingly complex and dangerous world. He is right about the manner in which the modern communications industry solicits American involvement by giving instant prominence and weight to every remote conflict or incipient crisis. He has a point about the difficulty of conducting sensitive and necessarily secret diplomacy in an open society. I would not even deny him his distress with leaks and with the performance of an adversary press, or his disdain for Congress as a reliable or responsible partner in foreign policy-making. I'm simply saying that his account of the way he and his chief went about dealing with these hard facts of life—and all the others he faced while he was in office—is not exactly a how-to-do-it manual for future policy-makers.
It is not, for instance, the "best description of the process possible"—the best description, that is to say, of "what's going on in Washington, or how people here reach decisions that affect people's lives," as James Reston has argued in the New York Times. It is merely the best description of how Nixon and Kissinger reached decisions. The same must be said of the appraisal by columnist William Safire, who values this "Moby Dick of diplomatic memoirs" for its "glimpses into the world of power politics and collegial backstabbing" during the last time that the United States had "a coherent foreign policy." But these are glimpses not into the real world of politics, merely into the Nixon-Kissinger world; and this is not your garden variety "collegial back-stabbing," which is precisely why what may have been—on paper—a coherent foreign policy was robbed in practice of so much of its coherence.
Nixon had been around the center of power for eight years as Eisenhower's Vice President. He brought to the presidency prejudices, predilections, preconceptions, animosities, and insecurities acquired over a long, controversial, and contentious career in politics. He named as his secretary of state William Rogers, Eisenhower's attorney general, who was presumed to be an old and close friend of Nixon's. But their relationship had undergone some sort of transformation by the time Rogers was tapped for State: for whatever reasons (Kissinger does not explain), Nixon could scarcely bear to deal with Rogers man-to-man. That was one reason that the concentration of foreign policy in the White House, and the primacy of Kissinger's role, were preordained, which is not to say they were resisted by Kissinger.