Kissinger’s Crises

Christopher Serpell

  • The White House Years by Henry Kissinger
    Weidenfeld/Joseph, 1476 pp, £14.95

In spite of its length – 1,476 pages of text, concerning only the first four years of Dr Kissinger’s life inside US government – and the immensely detailed coverage of events which that length implies, The White House Years is hard to lay aside. This quality of readability will come as a surprise to those who have tackled the turgid prose of some of Dr Kissinger’s earlier works, which combined the worst excesses of the American academic style with an uncertain approach to the English language. These defects provided an almost impenetrable disguise for the personality of a man who has now revealed himself to be not only an intelligent interpreter of events but also humorous and sympathetic, and an excellent raconteur. It is possible that Dr Kissinger has found more fulfilment as a reporter of events than as a theoretician; it is also possible that the years of attempting to write confidential briefs which would make those events intelligible to the mind of President Nixon have been a valuable discipline. But at least part of the explanation for this metamorphosis from professorial exposition to lucid narration lies in a sentence found in the foreword to the present book: ‘Harold Evans, assisted by Oscar Turnill, read through the entire volume with a brilliant editorial eye; they taught me what skilled and intelligent editing can contribute to organisation and to lightening prose.’

Obviously the book’s main claim to attention must be based on the importance of the events and the personalities which it describes, and on the value of having a detailed account of them from a man who was both a trained analyst and a participant. For later historians it will be like having Clarendon’s History of the Great Rebellion transposed to the 20th-century scale of world politics. And until you look at the table of contents, it is difficult to recall how many and how portentous were the international developments unfolding between January 1969 and January 1973. The main theme is inevitably the painful and laborious effort of the United States to extricate itself from the war in Vietnam, if possible in a way that would save the national face and avoid compromising the electoral prospects of the Nixon Administration. Since the book ends with the second Nixon Inauguration and the initialling by Kissinger of the ironically named ‘Paris Agreement on ending the war and restoring peace in Vietnam’, those aims can be said to have been achieved at a heavy cost not only in human lives but also in national self-esteem. But the Vietnam War, while it overshadowed American politics and diplomacy during those four years, by no means limited the vast field through which Dr Kissinger, as Presidential Assistant for National Security, had to range.

There was the continuous and hazardous dialogue which he had to maintain, on the President’s behalf, with the Soviet Union, involving, on the one hand, Moscow’s desire for a summit agreement on the limitation of strategic nuclear armaments and, on the other, Washington’s determination to make the Russians pay for it by using their influence with their clients in Hanoi to put an end to hostilities. Underlying these exchanges was Kissinger’s own ‘doctrine of linkages’ – an attempt to convince the Russians that all issues of policy between the two super-powers were interconnected. There was at the same time the exciting and eventually rewarding adventure of re-opening United States relations with the People’s Republic of China. There was the fidgety fence-mending to be done inside the Nato alliance with West European governments united only in their demand for a continued American military presence in Europe and in their insistence on their right to be consulted over United States dealings with the Soviet Union. There was the labyrinthine tangle of the Middle East, with its perpetual threat of war. And during what he calls ‘the Autumn of Crises’ of 1970, Dr Kissinger had to advise his President on three explosive issues almost simultaneously. There was the situation in Jordan, where King Hussein was confronting not only the rebellious Palestinian element in his own country but also the threats of his bellicose neighbours, Iraq and Syria. There was the clumsily surreptitious attempt by the Soviet Union to establish a nuclear submarine base in Cuba. There was the coming to power in Chile of what was seen as the radical and anti-American government of President Allende.

But the major events it describes do not by themselves account for the fascination of Dr Kissinger’s book. It is the story of how a first-generation German-Jewish immigrant found himself taken up into the inner sanctum of American power with full opportunities to shape the destiny of the nation that had received him. It is an account of how an academic specialist in international affairs found himself confronted with the practical day-to-day conduct of those affairs. Although his emphasis is naturally enough on his successes, he does acknowledge his fallibility and does not always place the blame for mistakes on colleagues. The White House Years is also an illuminating description of the byzantine complexities of modern United States government, and, above all, of the elaborate rivalry between the executive staff of the President and the professional bureaucracy of government departments headed by the Secretaries appointed by the President. The bureaucracy with which Kissinger found himself constantly at odds was, of course, that of the State Department, headed by William Rogers, though he had his occasional brushes with Melvin Laird, who controlled the Pentagon hierarchy. And he is sharply critical of the ‘breath-taking effrontery’ of lower-level civil servants who used their professional skill to frustrate Presidential directives of which they disapproved: since he was, as often as not, the real author of those directives, his resentment is understandable. The solution encouraged by Nixon and welcomed by his Assistant was the use of ‘backchannels’. Kissinger explains this device:

Essentially a backchannel is a communications system that seeks to circumvent normal procedures; it requires, however, somebody’s facilities. Usually the excluded party was the State Department which had victimised itself by technology and habit: by technology because its computers automatically distribute even the most sensitive cables through the building by pre-established criteria; by habit, because diplomats live on trading information and are infinitely ingenious in getting round formal restrictions. This is why even the State Department has set up its own system of internal backchannels, and why almost every modern President has sought to evade State’s formal communications machinery.

There is one more aspect of The White House Years of consuming interest: Kissinger’s own relationship with and understanding of Richard Nixon. Obviously the time limits of this volume preclude any anticipation of Watergate, apart from one or two hindsighted hints. But Kissinger makes no secret of his awareness, from the start of their association, of the President’s psychological disabilities. There is a revealing description of Nixon at his first Inauguration:

He was dressed in a morning coat, his pant legs as always a trifle short. His jaw jutted defiantly and yet he seemed uncertain, as if unsure that he was really there. He exuded at once relief and disbelief. He had arrived at last after the most improbable of careers and one of the most extraordinary feats of self-discipline in American political history. He seemed exultant, as if he could hardly wait for the ceremony to be over, so that he could begin to implement the dream of a lifetime. Yet he also appeared somewhat spent, even fragile, like a marathon runner who has exhausted himself in a great race. As ever, it was difficult to tell whether it was the occasion or his previous image of it that Nixon actually enjoyed.

Another of these insights is occasioned by Nixon’s reaction to the national uproar over Vietnam:

He had taken initiatives that reversed the course of his predecessor; he had withdrawn troops and de-escalated the war – all steps urged on him by the Establishment groups whom he simultaneously distrusted and envied. And instead of being acclaimed, he was being castigated for not moving more rapidly on the path on which they had not even dared to take the first step. It was not a big leap to the view that what he really faced was not a policy difference but the same liberal conspiracy that had sought to destroy him ever since the Alger Hiss case. Here were all the old enemies in the press and in the Establishment uniting once again; they would even accept, if not urge, the military defeat of their country to carry out the vendetta of a generation.

At close quarters with this complex man, Kissinger could still give him credit for his abilities, and above all for an intuitive apprehension of a line of policy. On the opening to Peking, he writes:

I doubt whether the rapprochement could have occurred with the same decisiveness in any other Presidency. Nixon had an extraordinary instinct for the jugular. He was less interested in tactics or the meticulous accumulation of nuance; too much discussion of details of implementation, indeed, made him nervous. Once he had set a policy direction, he almost invariably left it to me to implement the strategy and manage the bureaucracy. But though I had independently come to the same judgment as Nixon, and though I designed many of the moves, I did not have the political strength or bureaucratic clout to pursue such a fundamental shift of policy on my own. Nixon viscerally understood the essence of the opportunity and pushed for it consistently.

Perhaps it was because Kissinger was himself a newcomer to the United States and a mere novice in American politics that Nixon trusted him and generally accepted his advice. At times their relationship reads like that between a manic-depressive patient and a sympathetic male-nurse.

The book includes several set-piece studies of personalities which will certainly be quoted by historians. Both Chou En-lai and Mao Tse-tung are sensitively and convincingly depicted. The study of Mao, involving both the powerful aura of the man himself and an analysis of the inner conflict which beset him, is too long to quote. But there is an entertaining snapshot of President Brezhnev:

His hands were perpetually in motion: twisting his watch; flicking ashes from his ever-present cigarette; clanging his cigarette-holder against an ash-tray. He could not keep still. While his remarks were being translated he would restlessly bound up from his chair, walk around the room, engage in loud conversation with his colleagues, or even leave the room without explanation and then return. Negotiations with Brezhnev thus included the bizarre feature that he might disappear at any moment, or while you were being most persuasive he could be concentrating not on your remarks but on forcing food on you. On one occasion he brought along a toy cannon to the conference-room normally used for meetings of the Politburo. It refused to fire. Making it work preoccupied him far more than whatever profundities I might be uttering at the moment. Finally the contraption went off with a roar. Brezhnev strutted round the room like a prize-fighter who has knocked out his opponent.

One cannot help wondering here whether the imperturbable Dr Kissinger was not being subjected to gamesmanship tactics of a subtlety with which he did not credit the Russians.

Sometimes he betrays a notable lack of sensitivity in special areas. There is no recognition or acknowledgment of the Palestinian case in the Middle East. In the chapter on Chile, there seems to be total unawareness of the counter-productive effects of the so-called ‘covert operations’ with which the United States Government has sought to protect its interests in Latin America. Occasionally there are inconsistencies: on one page he writes, ‘There does not seem to be any unifying thread to Soviet policy’; on another he speaks of ‘the durable impulses of nationalism and ideology that lie behind Soviet policy’. But these are minor flaws in a remarkable book.