Dreams Die Hard

By Benjamin Schwarz

16 May 1999 LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK REVIEW ford With “Years of Renewal,” Henry Kissinger concludes his mountainous three-volume memoir of his years in power. Kissinger has never been at a loss for words (his behemoth senior thesis at Harvard–the subject of which was nothing less than “The Meaning of History”–famously prompted that university to institute the “Kissinger rule,” limiting the number of pages that an undergraduate could write), and his need for an editor has never been more striking than in this book, which in its daunting length and Teutonic thoroughness lacks focus and penetration. For the reader willing to do far more work than should be asked, however, “Years of Renewal” is ultimately revealing, in spite of itself.

It’s been 15 years since Kissinger finished the second volume. His hesitancy in surmounting the final hurdle is understandable. In the first two works, which covered the Nixon years, Kissinger was often writing of high drama–the Paris peace talks, the Watergate scandal, and of his own triumphant diplomatic initiatives–detente with the Soviet Union and the opening to China. But in “Years of Renewal,” he covers the Ford administration, which means that he owes his reader excruciatingly detailed discussions of long-ago arms-control issues (anyone remember the debate over the Backfire bomber?) and, far more important, a record of diplomatic disasters and defeats, running from the stalled Sino-American strategic relationship to the scuttling of detente to the humiliating fall of South Vietnam to the United States’ unnecessary and self-inflicted defeat in Angola to the swelling opposition to himself and his policies, which contributed significantly to Gerald Ford’s defeat in the 1976 election and Kissinger’s (as it turned out) permanent banishment from power. Far from years of renewal, the Ford years were for Kissinger the time when things fell apart.

Throughout this volume he inadvertently reveals a profound inconsistency in his thinking and policies. Skeptical of globalist rhetoric, sensitive to the limits of power and to the dangers of a conception of U.S. security that demanded that America remake the world in its own image and convinced that interests, not ideology, should govern foreign policy, Kissinger has nevertheless often advocated American intervention against ideological foes in situations in which no specific American interests have been at stake. Few U.S. statesmen since World War II have been as critical of America’s missionary impulse, but few have been as governed by such apparently discredited notions as the domino theory.

The cool, dispassionate, sensible Kissinger is, of course, both applauded and condemned for detente. Formulated by Kissinger and Richard Nixon, detente was a significant departure from previous Cold War policies. Not since Franklin Roosevelt’s had an American administration been willing explicitly to recognize the Soviet Union as a collaborator in, rather than a challenger to, the effort to maintain an international order. To appreciate this dramatic shift, it’s helpful to contrast JFK’s inaugural address, in which that paragon of Cold War liberalism advanced the stirring but rather dangerous notion that in the struggle with communism, the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden,” with Nixon’s first inaugural address, which promulgated the realistic but conciliatory message that “we cannot expect to make everyone our friend, but we can try to make no one our enemy.” This was detente’s animating sentiment. Although at several points in “Years of Renewal” Kissinger attempts to rewrite history by claiming that at the time he, Nixon and Ford foresaw the Soviet collapse, detente was in fact based on the idea (hardly contested at the time) that the Soviet Union wouldn’t go away. Since the superpower rivalry could destroy humanity, there was, as Kissinger declared, “no alternative to coexistence.” Detente, then, was a strategy for managing a permanent relationship.

In what Kissinger hoped would develop into a “mature” relationship, Moscow and Washington would each acknowledge the legitimate interests of the other and try not to let their inevitable disagreements poison their accommodations. As is clear in the transcripts of conversations and negotiations between Kissinger and the Soviets collected in “The Kissinger Transcripts,” detente was a shift in style as much as in substance–or rather, a shift in style that had substantive consequences: The Soviets (and, of course, the Chinese) were to be treated not as alien ideologues but as intelligent adults with whom a substantial area of common interest could be found. Kissinger was confident that through this change of approach and through an elaborate strategy of diplomatic and economic carrots and sticks (“linkage”), the Soviet Union could be induced to behave like a “normal” great power.

But, as Kissinger has asserted, “the acid test of a policy is its ability to gain domestic support.” As “Years of Renewal” details, in the Ford years detente and its architect came under intensifying assault by an ad hoc coalition of neoconservative intellectuals, conservative Republicans (led by Ronald Reagan) and Cold War liberals (led by Sen. Henry Jackson). Blustering, in the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that “we stand for liberty, for the expansion of liberty,” these foes of detente found its attempt to enter into a partnership with Moscow, its implied acceptance of a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and its allegedly naive agreements on arms control morally unacceptable. In insisting that progress in superpower relations be made contingent on changes in Moscow’s domestic affairs, they eventually succeeded in crippling that policy.

Although Kissinger is obviously still bitter about this provocative and fatal attack on detente and charges that the neoconservatives advocated “unwarranted risks in the face of the consequences of nuclear war,” he lacks the courage of his (at least erstwhile) convictions in his assessment of the 1101730903_400opposition to the policy on which his historical reputation largely rests. With the end of the Cold War and his increasingly close ties with his former neoconservative foes, Kissinger has sometimes been at pains, as he is in “Years of Renewal,” to minimize his differences with them. But, in fact, those differences were substantial. Kissinger may now protest, for instance, that his State Department’s so-called “Sonnefeldt doctrine,” which called for the United States to help engender a more “organic relationship” between the Soviets and their satellites in Eastern Europe, was “a doctrine that never was,” but clearly the thrust of Kissinger’s policies was that the respect each superpower showed to the other’s sphere helped maintain a stable international order. This position, while unsentimental, is entirely defensible, and Kissinger owes it to history to own up to it.

But if Kissinger could be the arch-pragmatist in his relations with Moscow and Beijing, he was, as this book repeatedly illuminates, reflexively intolerant of other Marxist regimes and movements. To be sure, he often declared that the United States shouldn’t confuse a state’s or movement’s profession of ideology with its intention or ability to threaten U.S. interests and that containment had to be purged of the ideological distractions that had caused the United States to multiply profligately its “enemies.” But in practice, Kissinger never accepted that Marxism could be an indigenous, popular and quite independent force in certain parts of the world. When confronted with such regimes and movements–in Chile, Angola and Portugal–Kissinger moved to crush them, even though no evidence at the time or in retrospect suggests that any of them had been instigated by the Kremlin or that Soviet leaders could have counted on controlling them.

Kissinger’s yearning to intervene in a host of strategically peripheral areas was, as “Years of Renewal” makes clear, animated by his intense concern for “credibility,” a common trait among postwar U.S. policymakers. Here Kissinger’s grand strategic approach and embrace of what he likes to call “overarching concepts” got the better of his realism, for as he explained in the first volume of his memoirs, he believed that “displays of American impotence in one part of the world . . . would inevitably erode our credibility in other parts of the world.” Viewing events as a seamless web, Kissinger thus argued that although he didn’t see any intrinsic U.S. interests at stake in Angola, he nevertheless thought it vital to intervene (but not necessarily to win) there because he feared that if America failed to do so, the Western Europeans would question Washington’s resolve to defend them. But this way of thinking dangerously enlarged the scope of American interventionism and was also unnecessary: When vital interests are at stake, demonstrations of resolve elsewhere are superfluous, and when those interests are absent, such demonstrations are meaningless.

Of course, this same thinking was largely responsible for getting the United States involved in the Vietnam War and was almost completely responsible for Kissinger’s insistence that America not cut its losses there, which meant a slow and painful withdrawal. It has never seemed to occur to Kissinger that whatever America might gain by establishing the steadfastness of its commitments, it could lose by an erosion of confidence in its judgment. Thus, although when he became Nixon’s national security advisor in 1969, Kissinger was convinced that the war was a terrible distraction from the diplomatic initiatives he wished to pursue, the war would haunt him and the administrations in which he served for six more years; his discussion of the end of that conflict forms the dramatic centerpiece of this volume. Again, what emerges from the historical record is Kissinger’s near-obsessive concern for credibility. Although he recognized in the spring of 1975 that the situation in South Vietnam was beyond salvage, he nevertheless held that America had to aid Saigon because, as he put it in a message to Congress that he wrote for Ford, “U.S. unwillingness to provide adequate assistance to our allies fighting for their lives would seriously affect our credibility throughout the world as an ally. And this credibility is essential to our security.”

At the time Kissinger stressed that the United States had to appear to put up a visible and valiant effort on behalf of its client in what was almost universally acknowledged to be a lost cause. In “Years of Renewal,” however, Kissinger suggests that, had Congress not refused to aid Saigon in 1975, South Vietnam would not have fallen. This is a serious rewriting of history, which absolves Kissinger of his own sizable role in the “abandonment” of that regime. After all, after the Paris Peace Accords, negotiated by Kissinger, were signed, experienced observers and even the U.S. public overwhelmingly believed that South Vietnam–whose government and military had not been transformed into viable institutions despite the efforts of five successive U.S. administrations–would fail to hold out against even political pressure from North Vietnam. Kissinger himself notoriously told journalists Marvin and Bernard Kalb that all he expected was a “decent interval” (for the sake of Washington’s credibility) between the U.S. pullout and a possible communist takeover. Although Kissinger’s account is disingenuous–and in laying the blame on others not atypical–his contempt for, and sense of betrayal by, the liberal establishment, which in a remarkably short period went from pressing for American involvement to disdaining those who supported it, is entirely justifiable.

More than 20 years after the events described in “Years of Renewal,” the United States finds itself once again involved in a conflict in which its direct interests aren’t at stake. Clearly, this isn’t the proper forum to debate U.S. intervention in the Balkans. But Americans could justifiably be wary of many of the arguments supporting that intervention. After all, the Clinton administration maintains that America must act to maintain its credibility and thus to deter future aggressors. But just as Slobodan Milosevic was not deterred by United States action against Iraq, Saddam Hussein was not deterred by U.S. action in Panama, Manuel Noriega was not deterred by U.S. action in Grenada, Lebanon and Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh was not deterred by U.S. action against North Korea and Kim Il Sung and Joseph Stalin were not deterred by United States action against Adolf Hitler. An obsession with credibility can easily doom America to a string of military interventions in strategically peripheral regions. It should, perhaps, also give Americans pause to learn that, although Kissinger was originally skeptical of intervention in Yugoslavia (his initial take on Kosovo was similar to his 1969 verdict on Vietnam–“a product of liberal doctrines of reformist intervention and academic theories of gradual escalation”)–he now maintains that, once committed, to maintain its credibility, America must do whatever is necessary to prevail. This kind of thinking, in its single-minded focus on the ends, loses sight of the risks and costs of the means and is thus the antithesis of the cool “strategic” worldview that Kissinger prizes.

As more of the historical record is revealed, Kissinger will emerge in many ways a great diplomat. In “The Kissinger Transcripts,” for instance, we see a charming and patient negotiator, skillfully coaxing China out of its self-imposed exile. It is that Kissinger, with his extraordinary ability to enter the mind of his rivals and counterparts, who reminds us at the close of his book that “we are tempted to view our power as a dispensation and to use it to impose our preferences. Such an attitude runs the risk of being viewed as hegemonic by the rest of the world and will gradually be opposed by it.” America, the “sole remaining superpower,” as our current secretary of state never tires of reminding us, would do well to heed his warning.


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