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.
The other reasons are perhaps best explained by Kissinger's paraphrase of Nixon's comments when they first met, at the Pierre Hotel during the transition period: "He had very little confidence in the State Department. Its personnel had no loyalty to him; the Foreign Service had disdained him as Vice President and ignored him the moment he was out of office. He was determined to run foreign policy from the White House . . . . He felt it imperative to exclude the CIA from the formulation of policy; it was staffed by Ivy League liberals who behind the facade of analytical objectivity were usually pushing their own preferences."
It was not, then, merely a question of the competence of the State Department or of the wisdom of denying intelligence-producers a policy-making role on grounds of their vested interest in vindicating the accuracy of their intelligence product. It was also that he didn't like the Foreign Service or the CIA people because they had been mean to him, or thought they were too good for him, or something; at any rate, he didn't think they could be trusted or controlled. In short, the circling of the wagons, we discover, didn't start with Watergate or the war protests or the other adversities encountered in the course of Nixon's presidency. It began in transition, at the Pierre Hotel, and it began with foreign policy.
If Nixon's personality had much to do with the centering of foreign policy-making in the White House, to the exclusion of, or at least in adversary relationship to, the bureaucracies, the policies themselves and the conceptual underpinning provided by Kissinger were significant contributing factors. Nixon and Kissinger quickly discovered that they shared to a considerable degree preconceptions that were fundamentally at odds with the prevailing wisdom of the professionals in the State Department and elsewhere in the foreign policymaking community—with what Kissinger describes as "the overwhelming impulse throughout the West, in the United States as well as in Europe . . . to resume the active pursuit of detente."
In their transition talks at the Pierre, Nixon and Kissinger reached agreement on a radically different approach, which would make the U.S.-Soviet relationship the keystone of policy and would make "linkage"—interconnecting American and Soviet interests and demands in all sorts of otherwise unrelated situations and conflicts—the fixed, guiding principle. It's important, I think, to take a closer look at those early, formative hotel room deliberations, for the basic guidelines agreed upon then were, in Kissinger's words, "to characterize our approach to U.S.-Soviet relations as long as we were in office"—and were thus to define an approach to policy-making which, to my mind, was in a real sense incompatible with the system of government with which the Nixon Administration had to live and with which any future administration would have to live.
In brief, U.S.-Soviet negotiations would deal with specifics, not atmospherics. There would be no illusions about the ideological commitment of the Soviets or the conflicts of interest between the two countries. There would be no reliance on sentimental rhetoric to end tension. We were determined to resist Soviet adventures. But we would negotiate about a genuine easing of tensions. Restraint would have to be mutual. The U.S. would use a carrot-and-stick approach.
"We insisted that progress in superpower relations, to be real, had to be made on a broad front. Events in different parts of the world, in our view, were related to each other . . . . We proceeded from the premise that to separate issues into distinct compartments would encourage the Soviet leaders to believe that they could use cooperation in one area as a safety valve while striving for unilateral advantages elsewhere. This was unacceptable."
How did Nixon go about imposing the "linkage" principle on the government? Did he take his case to the public or to Congress in a way that would convey unmistakably to lower-echelon officials that he meant business? No. Did he even lay down the law to the top people around him? Not exactly, or at least, not convincingly, the way Kissinger tells it. He apparently told the National Security Council a few days after his inauguration that he meant to control negotiations with the Soviet Union from the White House. He also "used every opportunity to emphasize that he did not wish to commit himself to a specific date for talks on arms limitations until he had explored Soviet cooperativeness on political issues, especially Vietnam." But whatever he did was not enough to stem the bureaucratic momentum, Kissinger concedes. Did Mr. Nixon then have it out with his subordinates? "A principal problem was the flat refusal of the President to confront his advisers directly on the central question," Kissinger explains. "There never took place a meeting at which the issue was formally thrashed out and settled..." Why? "Because Nixon wanted to avoid a face to face confrontation with his Secretary of State."
The upshot of this episode seems to have been an enlargement of Nixon's already sizable distrust of the State Department and an encouragement of the tendency ("buttressed by me," Kissinger concedes) to put the conduct of negotiations with the Soviet Union more and more directly under White House control, with Rogers on the outside looking in only when it suited Mr. Nixon's purposes.
A by-product of this mistreating or ignoring the bureaucracy was—quite literally—the "loose cannon" quality of the Nixon practice of diplomacy. Consider what Mr. Kissinger tells us of an early exclusively Nixonian effort in 1969 to put pressure on the North Vietnamese by dropping hints to world leaders that some unspecified strong action would result if there was hot progress in the Paris peace talks by November 1 of that year. "So far as I could tell, Nixon had only the vaguest idea of what he had in mind," Kissinger recalls, adding that he heard of it only by chance and that "because Nixon never permitted State Department personnel (and only rarely the Secretary of State) to sit in on his meetings with foreign leaders, no one else in our government even knew that a threat had been made."
It's Kissinger's view that the President "was bluffing." When Nixon expressed the same threat to Ambassador Dobrynin in October, Dobrynin responded not with any promises to help out on Vietnam but with an offer to resume strategic arms talks. "The Soviets, in short, applied reverse linkage to us," says Kissinger. Secretary Rogers, who apparently was made aware of this Soviet message, pressed for an early acceptance and Nixon reluctantly agreed. But, "as was his habit Nixon sought to compensate for his unwillingness to face down his old friend by escalating the menace to the Soviets." In what fashion? Kissinger was ordered to convey to Dobrynin that the President was "out of control" on Vietnam.
Of this extraordinary gambit, Kissinger observes: "In serving Nixon one owed it to him to discriminate among the orders he issued to give him another chance at those that were unfulfillable or dangerous. This one was in the latter category. I knew that Nixon was planning to take no action on November 1... So I waited to see whether Nixon would return to the theme. He did not."
Thus, yet another bizarre pattern in the inner workings of the Nixon council was established. Repeatedly, Kissinger tells of angry, impetuous presidential commands to fire an entire embassy staff or certain officials who had given offense, to launch political maneuvers or take economic reprisals—commands which Kissinger prudently ignored in the fervent hope that his chief did not mean what he said.
Usually he didn't. Sometimes he did—and didn't. Consider the almost incredibly chaotic process by which he arrived at his momentous decision to carry the U.S. side of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, first by secret bombing raids in 1969, and later by the joint U.S.-South Vietnamese ground assaults on the Cambodian sanctuaries. Nixon, we discover, had had his eye on the sanctuaries even before he was sworn in. In the January transition period, he ordered Kissinger to study "what, if anything, we are doing to destroy the buildup there... I think a very definite change of policy toward Cambodia probably should be one of the first orders of business when we get in." In February 1969, a North Vietnamese offensive inflicted heavy American casualties just as the new administration was beginning to try its hand at peace negotiations. Twice an angry Nixon ordered supposedly secret, one-shot air raids on Cambodian territory by way of retaliation. Twice he was talked out of it, once by Defense Secretary Laird, who was fearful of what Kissinger called "the dormant beast of public protest," once by Rogers, who was nervous about the effect on the peace probes. The President's third order stuck. His instructions read: "State is to be notified only after the point of no return... The order is not appealable."
But Kissinger talked Nixon into at least a token meeting with his advisers. The account of it is instructive: "He approached it with tactics that were to become vintage Nixon. On the one hand, he had made his decision and was not about to change it; indeed he had instructed me to advise the Defense Department to that effect twenty-four hours before the meeting. On the other hand, he felt it necessary to pretend that the decision was still open. This led to hours of the very discussion that he found so distasteful and that reinforced his tendency to exclude the recalcitrants from further deliberation."
If there is any procedural model in these methods for future Presidents or their advisers—anything of lasting value—it escapes me. And it apparently escapes Kissinger as well. "These extraordinary procedures were essentially made necessary by a President who neither trusted his Cabinet nor was willing to give them direct orders." But that, in my view, is only part of what was wrong with the Nixon-Kissinger approach, and perhaps not even the worst part. The contempt with which the bureaucracy was treated had to do with management techniques. However, the degree to which both men dismissed the importance of domestic politics as an element in the conduct of this country's foreign policy does not only invite large constitutional questions. It also raises practical political considerations having to do with public confidence and a public sense of participation in the making of life-or-death, war-or-peace decisions by government. Nothing better illustrates the point than the handling of Vietnam.
By domestic politics, I mean much more than the usual problems every administration has with the press, with Congress, with competing demands for public funds, with the particular political imperatives bearing upon particular members of Congress in ways that help determine their stance on foreign policy issues. I have in mind the fundamentals of a free society: free speech; the co-equality of Congress as a policy-making partner; the public need to know, not only as a right but as a practical necessity to sustain a level of public confidence. Without this confidence, even the wisest decisions, reinforced by the soundest conceptual framework, are impossible to carry out.
I'm not suggesting that Kissinger is entirely insensitive to the fundamentals. On the contrary, what's odd is that he takes considerable note of them. From his perspective as a Jewish émigré from Nazi oppression, he writes movingly of his boyhood impressions of America—"an incredible place where tolerance was natural and personal freedom unchallenged." He had always had a "special feeling for what America means." And this translated into a sense of "responsibility to help end the [Vietnam] war in a way compatible with American self-respect and the stake that all men and women of goodwill had in America's strength and purpose." He was aware of the danger of battered self-confidence, and this made it all the more important "for America not to be humiliated, not to be shattered, but to leave Vietnam in a manner that even the protesters might later see as reflecting an American choice made with dignity and self-respect."
It is hard to imagine a nobler statement of purpose or one more out of touch with the domestic forces that had begun well before 1969 to undermine, indeed to cripple, the war effort, to destroy Lyndon Johnson's presidency and to turn talk about "humiliation" and "self-respect" on its head, abroad as well as at home. He did not see—still doesn't see, apparently—that the quagmire was the humiliation. "Only America had both the power and decency to inspire other peoples," he writes with reference to the "moral significance" of his adopted country, not seeming to realize that morality had become the central argument of the protesters at home and that increasing numbers of foreigners were neither inspired nor reassured by the "decency" with which the United States was applying its power in Vietnam.
Actually, Kissinger comes close to suggesting that the Nixon Administration was "un-American" in its approach to foreign policy to the extent that its "attempt to establish a sense of proportion out of the welter of conflicting emotions and to adjust to a world fundamentally different from our historical perceptions" ran counter to traditional American "impulses to lurch toward either isolationism or global irtervention."
Here was the thinking of a professor-historian. And that thinking was the undoing of any prospect of an orderly, reasonably honorable extrication from Vietnam on a schedule compatible with the domestic political forces at work. What was required, by Kissinger's theoretical analysis, was a thorough re-education of the American public—"Vietnam was not the cause of our difficulties but a symptom," he writes. But both Kissinger and Nixon, in part owing to their sense of innocence of any responsibility for the war up to that point and in part owing to their natural proclivities, did not seem to realize that the American public was in no mood for history lessons or deep analysis. To an academician, Vietnam may have been no more than a "symptom"; to most people it was the source of all our troubles. They had been led to believe that Nixon had a "plan" to put an end to it, and because many Americans believed the government had systematically duped, surprised, conned, and outright lied to them about the war for too long, they were in no mood to give the new administration the honeymoon that Kissinger believed to be its due.
What Kissinger (and Nixon, as well) either couldn't or wouldn't understand was the extreme vulnerability of American trust to even the slightest new evidence of duplicity or dissembling. Early on, long before the Cambodian explosion, he was outraged by a public outcry resulting from the killing of a handful of Americans under combat conditions in Laos after the government had given assurances that no Americans were fighting there. This struck him as a very small straw; he had no sense, apparently, of the weight bearing down on the back of public confidence. On the contrary, he believed, and apparently still does, that "our [Vietnam] involvement had begun openly and with nearly unanimous Congressional, public and media approval." The scholarship for this astonishing view consists of a footnote reference to an article by Henry Fairlie ("We Knew What We Were Doing When We Went Into Vietnam") in the May 1973 issue of the Washington Monthly. Fairlie's article deals with the American military advisory role under President Kennedy; it does not even get as far as the Gulf of Tonkin affair and the ensuing first air strikes against North Vietnam in August 1964, let alone the first landing of organized American combat units in early 1965. It does not deal at all with the period of greatest escalation of the American effort.
So much for an involvement "openly" begun. Fortified by his own sense of the rightness of his strategy, and of how logically it could be fitted into his larger geopolitical design, Kissinger simply refuses to accept the fatal flaw in a strategy designed to convey to the North Vietnamese the impression of solid and undiminished American public support for the war. This show of a public consensus for the war effort was as central to "graduated" withdrawal from the war as it was to Lyndon Johnson's "graduated" escalation. It was the way to persuade Hanoi to negotiate. But it didn't work for Johnson—witness the Tet offensive. What reason was there to hope it would be any more persuasive on the way out of the war? Only, I suppose, the fact that American forces were withdrawing, which Kissinger believes should have been reason enough for Americans to be understanding and sympathetic and supportive, even with the widening of the war into Cambodia and Laos, the bombing of Hanoi, and the mining of Haiphong harbor.
The public didn't understand, of course. And Kissinger didn't understand. And so he rails at the Congress as if it were not a legitimate and well-established branch of government but an instrument of torture created especially to frustrate him. He finds the opposition of his old academic colleagues self-righteous, lacking in compassion, strident to the point of irrationality.
Dissent, in other words, does not fit into the Kissinger formula. And while Kissinger was perhaps a little less outraged or driven to less frenzy than Nixon by the exercise of the right to free speech by American citizens who did not agree with one or another policy, he concedes he had a hand in inciting—and in executing—at least some of the President's more draconian efforts to suppress dissenting voices, close down government leaks, and crush the protest movement.
Even in retrospect, Kissinger doesn't see the fatal flaw in his Vietnam strategy. Rather, it pleases him to blame his troubles on the irresolution and the lack of large-mindedness of the critics and protesters and, indeed, the public at large. "Cambodia was not a moral issue," he insists. "Without our incursion, the Communists would have taken over Cambodia years earlier... poor Cambodia gradually turned into the butt of our national frustration... whatever the merits of the 1970 debate, a strong case can be made that Cambodia was ultimately the victim of the breakdown of our democratic political process."
If Kissinger is saying that domestic dissent undermined the war effort, and that Cambodia suffered as a consequence, he's right. But if he is equating the public expression of dissent with a "breakdown of our democratic political process," he does not fully grasp the meaning of the Bill of Rights. What undermined the war effort was abuse of the democratic process by the application of a strategy which simply did not allow for the constitutionally protected right of dissent—and the awful irony is that the strategy with respect to Cambodia perfectly illustrates the point.
In 1970, when the issue was whether to invade Cambodian sanctuaries with American as well as South Vietnamese ground forces—the famous (or infamous) "incursion"—Kissinger writes, "Those within the administration who balked were mostly concerned about domestic reactions," which is to say, public opinion. At a "rather random" NSC meeting, it was Vice President Agnew who apparently crystallized the decisionmaking, and "accelerated" Nixon's inclination to deploy American forces, by unexpectedly breaking into the discussion. "He did not understand all the pussy-footing about the American role," Kissinger reports, adding that Agnew favored going for broke with American forces, or not at all. Kissinger thought Agnew was right. But it wasn't the merits of the Vice President's argument, apparently, that "accelerated" Nixon's decision. As Kissinger explains it, "If Nixon hated anything more than being presented with a plan he had not considered, it was to be shown up in a group as being less tough than his advisers." Agnew was excluded from the next, conclusive, NSC meeting because Nixon, even though he had by then bought the Agnew line, "wanted to be the strong man." Thus, at least in part, was Richard Nixon moved to ignore the warning of domestic discord and to widen the Vietnam War in a way that not only profoundly influenced the tragic fate of Cambodia but set loose perhaps the most crippling, politically and strategically, of all the domestic antiwar outbursts.
Plainly, the Nixon-Kissinger strategy was not designed for an open society. And that would be one extremely useful lesson to derive from the Vietnam experience, it seems to me. But it doesn't seem so to Kissinger, at least not by the end of Volume I. Rather, he checks out in a reflective postlude with just about the same conceptual, philosophical, and geopolitical baggage with which he arrived at the Pierre Hotel, and with no small sense of accomplishment. It is January 1973 in his narrative, and there is no reason to spoil everything with reminders of the things that are going to happen, inexorably, in Volume II. With the Paris accords, the opening to China (halfway), a new basis established (he believed) for stable relations with the Soviet Union as a result of the Berlin agreements and an "agreed code of international conduct"—with all this, he was prepared to argue that "the diplomatic revolution that had been brought about had opened up an extraordinary opportunity for American diplomacy...
"We stood, I fervently hoped, at the threshold of a period of national reconciliation that would be given impetus by the unique opportunity for creativity I saw ahead... Only rarely in history do statesmen find an environment in which all factors are so malleable; before us, I thought, was the chance to shape events, to build a new world, harnessing the energy and dreams of the American people and mankind's hopes."
Only by the most arbitrary exploitation of the time frame afforded by the division of his memoirs into two volumes could Kissinger be justified in leaving the reader with so euphoric a vision. Surely mentions were in order of the fall of Saigon two years later and of the failure of every purpose of the costly and drawn-out withdrawal and the long, tortuous peace talks which together take up so much of Volume I. Was the reader not also entitled to be reminded by more than a passing allusion to it that there was a particularly bloody and costly war in the Middle East in 1973 and an oil embargo which first established beyond question American dependence on foreign sources of energy? It can well be argued that Arab frustration and Egypt's ultimate resort to renewed hostilities were at least an indirect consequence of Kissinger's relentless resistance—out of consideration for the "linkages" he attached to the Middle East—to the persistent efforts of the State Department to promote new peace initiatives during almost all of his White House years.
As for that "international code of conduct," did it contemplate Soviet-supported Cuban troops running around Africa? That Congress thwarted Kissinger's ultimate effort to launch a covert campaign against the Cuban-backed forces in Angola can be accounted for in large part by the aftereffects of the Vietnam experience, in all its unfortunate aspects.
Kissinger blames the bureaucracy for the clumsiness of the American intervention to forestall the election of Allende in Chile—a vote for a "Marxist-Leninist state" made "freely and knowingly," according to the American Embassy's report. But for Kissinger, Allende constituted yet another test, another American obligation to balance the geopolitical scales. Given the benefit of hindsight available at the writing of Volume I, Kissinger might have said more about what this intervention did for American credibility and respect in this hemisphere.
Kissinger will have to deal with these questions in Volume II. He will argue, among other things, that Watergate killed the Paris peace accords by crippling this country's capacity to uphold the terms with the threat of force. He makes the point briefly in Volume I. It has some validity. But one could as well argue that the genesis of Watergate lay in a Nixon-Kissinger approach to the conduct of foreign policy so repressive of dissent that it strained the American system of government beyond tolerable limits. It will be interesting to see how Kissinger sorts all this out in Volume II. With more time to reflect, perhaps he will have more lessons of positive and enduring worth to pass along at the end of his accounting for his full eight years in Washington. By the end of Volume I, there are a lot more "don'ts" than "dos."
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