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Master Diplomat and Statesman

In Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon found his foreign minister.

By From the October 2011 issue

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On 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.

But no matter the treatment, the results were far-reaching. Nixon and Kissinger opened a new relationship with China, while maintaining support for Taiwan. The Soviets were thrown badly off stride, never to recover, thus accelerating the forces that would destroy the Soviet empire. As for Indochina, Mao would take steps to discourage the North Vietnamese, and Nixon and Kissinger would engineer a successful end to the war. (And had our Congress not lost its nerve, it may well have held.)

As Kissinger puts it, "Nixon’s visit to China is one of the few occasions where a state visit brought about a seminal change in international affairs. The reentry of China into the global diplomatic game, and the increased strategic operations, gave a new vitality and flexibility to the international system."

In her splendid account of the visit, Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, Margaret Macmillan cites an old Chinese proverb, reportedly repeated by Zhou Enlai: "The Helmsman who knows how to guide the boat will guide it well through the waves. Otherwise he will be submerged by the waves."

"Or," adds Ms. Macmillan, "as Mr. Spock will say aboard his spaceship many centuries from now, quoting an old Vulcan proverb: ‘Only Nixon can go to China.’ "

And perhaps only, one might add, with Henry Kissinger as guide and navigator.

THE TRIP SERVES as the dramatic center of this book, with early chapters on Chinese history, culture, politics and warfare. To impose an intelligible framework on China’s relations with the world, China, Kissinger describes differences in terms of two games--chess, the game of the West, the end of which is "total victory," putting "the opposing king into a position where he cannot move without being destroyed;" and the Chinese game of we qi, a game based on "a concept of strategic encirclement."

Given the historic position of China as Middle Kingdom, a useful analogy, especially when analyzing Korea and Vietnam. Of the Korean War, Kissinger writes that the split between Truman and MacArthur suggested to Asian leaders an "inability to harmonize political and military goals," which in turn suggested a political "vulnerability to wars without clear-cut military outcomes--a dilemma that reappeared with a vengeance in the vortex of Vietnam." (And may be reappearing today.)

One of Richard Nixon’s basic goals, writes Kissinger, "was to free American policy from the oscillations between extremes of commitment and withdrawal and ground it in a concept of the national interest that could be sustained as administrations succeeded each other." And that might have happened, had it not been for Watergate. "At a point when American and Chinese strategic thinking was striving for congruence, the Watergate crisis threatened to derail the progress of the relationship….the destruction of the man who had conceived the opening to China was incomprehensible in Beijing."

Nor is it much more comprehensible today. In 1993, Nixon reportedly said, "I will be known historically for two things, Watergate and the opening to China…. I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but Watergate, that silly, silly thing is going to rank up there historically with [China]."

And that may be the case for as long as an aging generation of journalists and historians with ideological and political axes to grind continue to denigrate him. Still, there are strong signs today that reflexive Nixon haters may be finally on their way to extinction, and a newer generation of historians like Margaret Macmillan is taking the field, free from archetypical preconceptions.

Beyond noting that Watergate "threatened to derail the progress of the relationship [with China] by enfeebling the American capacity to manage the geopolitical challenge," and the subsequent "collapse of congressional support for an activist foreign policy," Kissinger devotes only two pages to Watergate’s impact, those focused mainly on the Chinese reaction. At first Mao and Zhou suspected it was all a plot to sabotage the embryonic new alliance. "Increasingly, however, the Chinese accused the United States of something worse than treachery: ineffectualness."

Since the Nixon trip, Kissinger writes, he has visited China more than 50 times, holding conversations and discussion with Chinese leaders, and engaging in a life-long study of the country’s history. Both China and the U.S., he writes, "believe they represent unique values. American exceptionalism is missionary. It holds that the United States has an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world. China’s exceptionalism is cultural. China does not proselytize; it does not claim that its contemporary institutions are relevant outside China."

Both countries "have been obliged to overcome their internal ambivalences and to define the ultimate nature of their relationship. What remains…is to move from crisis management to a definition of common goals….The future of Asia will be shaped to a significant degree by how China and America envision it and by the extent to which each nation is able to achieve some congruence with each other’s historic regional role."

KISSINGER CONCLUDES with a discussion of building a new Pacific community, constructed on many of the guiding policies and principles of the Nixon years, with a historical perspective provided by analogies with 19th and early 20th century England and Germany--as might be expected from a student and master practitioner of balanceof- power statesmanship, and an admirer of Otto von Bismarck.

The U.S. has an enormous stake in the Pacific, where despite the current muddled preoccupation with the Middle East, our national future surely lies. Forty years ago, Kissinger writes, the leaders of our nations were willing "to raise their sights beyond the issues of the day…and to lay the basis for a world unimaginable then but unbelievable without Sino-American cooperation."

"When Premier Zhou Enlai and I agreed on the communiqué that announced the secret visit, he said: ‘This will shake the world.’ What a culmination if, forty years later, the United States and China could merge their efforts not to shake the world, but to build it."

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).