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In Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon found his foreign minister.
China, by Henry Kissinger
(Penguin Press, 586 pages, $36)
Henry Kissinger, Bill Buckley once observed, taught a course at Harvard in the 1950s “taken only by students who intended to become prime minister or emperor.”
But such students being in scarce supply, even at Harvard, Dr. Kissinger proceeded to look to the larger arena of American politics, where there are numerous men of semi-imperial ambition, in need of the wisdom and counsel of a wise, worldly, and pragmatic policy adviser of the old school, who knows where the levers are and how to pull them.
And Dr. Kissinger was just that—a man who found Bismarck “probably the greatest diplomat of the second half of the nineteenth century,” and whose doctoral dissertation at Harvard was a study of Castlereagh and Metternich. Nor, having seen combat in Germany in World War II as a U.S. Army sergeant in counter intelligence—a decorated NCO, and a damned good one—could he be seen as a sheltered effete academician.
The first political prince he undertook to tutor was Nelson Rockefeller, the last Ripon Society icon of the 20th century. But the times—and the candidate—were out of joint. Although he’d be brought back for various cameo roles—notably as vice president during the Ford administration—the man who would be emperor never recovered from being blown off the national stage by Nixon, Goldwater, then Nixon again. And so, in 1960, Kissinger joined the winning side, and found in Richard Nixon a leader with a fascination for statecraft and what at the time may have seemed an unlikely but often-stated ambition to construct what he called in speeches “a lasting structure of peace.” In Henry Kissinger, first as national security advisor, then as secretary of state, Richard Nixon found his foreign minister. And had it not been for Watergate, their accomplishments would easily have left the Nixon presidency as one of the most respected and effective in American history.
It’s hard to remember now what the country—or the world—looked like in the late 1960s, when Nixon and Kissinger took office: riots in Berkeley with the National Guard in the streets, riots in Chicago as the Democrats met, riots in Boston, San Francisco State, Columbia—the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy—and helping to fuel it all, the war in Vietnam and its escalation by the best and brightest of two preceding Democratic presidents. Across much of the world, with the U.S. increasingly perceived as a paper tiger, the expansion of the Soviet Empire continued apace.
There seemed to be no workable plan, no overarching strategy, no coherent long-range policy, no national direction. It was to remedy this situation that voters had turned to Richard Nixon. And he delivered. Despite the nearly total hostility of the liberal media and the liberal left that controlled our centers of learning, he ended the domestic turmoil. And abroad, he set out to bring the war in Vietnam to a close, to forge new relationship with the Soviet Union and China, and in the process to redress the imbalance in the world’s balance of power.
It would require high intelligence, a deep understanding of history, an acute sense of strategy, a clear vision for the future—and a willingness to roll the dice—to bring this transformation about. To set it all in motion, the first stop would be China, and the man in charge would be Henry Kissinger.
“FORTY YEARS AGO,” Kissinger writes, “President Nixon did me the honor of sending me to Beijing to reestablish contact with a country central to the history of Asia with which America had no high-level contact for over twenty years.” Our motive was to develop a long-term policy “transcending the travail of the Vietnam war and the ominous vistas of the Cold War.”
At the time, Kissinger reminds us,
both countries were in the midst of upheaval. China was nearly consumed by the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution; America’s political consensus was strained by the growing protest movement against the Vietnam War.
China faced the prospect of war on all its frontiers— especially its northern border, where actual clashes between Soviet and Chinese forces were taking place. Nixon inherited a war in Vietnam and a domestic imperative to end it, and entered the White House at the end of a decade marked by assassinations and racial conflict.
The trip was in no way the result of an impulse based on the exigencies of the moment. As early as 1965, Kissinger notes, Mao had begun to alter his tone in remarks about America. And in 1967, a year before his election, Richard Nixon had published an article in Foreign Affairs, one thrust of which was “to invite China to reenter the community of nations.” In fact, writes Kissinger, the article “went beyond a call for a diplomatic adjustment to an appeal for a reconciliation.”*
[FOOTNOTE: *In his splendid tribute to his grandfather, Going Home To Glory, David Eisenhower writes that well before taking office, Richard Nixon was developing a plan for ending the war in Vietnam involving China, which he incorporated into that Foreign Affairs article and sent a draft to retired President Eisenhower, who read it carefully and made several suggestions, “none of which, to Nixon’s relief, disputed his foreign policy views. The general took no exception even to Nixon’s forward-thinking China views, which were unfurled for the first time in the article.”]
Thus, Nixon’s idea of an opening to China had been germinating for some time; and thanks to Kissinger’s intense preparation and brilliantly conducted diplomacy, the trip to China was on. That trip, beginning on February 21 and ending on February 28, 1972, has been described in great detail in articles and books, and even inspired a silly opera.
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