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It Was a Very Good Year

There are two things that make Alistair Horne's Kissinger: 1973 very special. One is the author.

By From the July 2009 - August 2009 issue

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Kissinger: 1973, The Crucial Year
By Alistair Horne
(Simon & Schuster, 457 pages, $30)

Recently marking his 86th year, Henry Kissinger remains unique among recent American secretaries of state—indeed, perhaps of all of our secretaries of state. Born in Furth, Germany, of a Jewish family obliged to emigrate in the late 1930s, he worked his way through public high school in New York City and at the City College of New York. Drafted during the Second World War, he held a minor position with occupation authorities in his defeated homeland. Returning to the United States, he took a Ph.D. at Harvard and remained there as a faculty member until summoned first by New York governor Nelson Rockefeller as a consultant on foreign affairs and then (somewhat unexpectedly) by President-elect Richard Nixon to serve as national security adviser (later simultaneously as secretary of state).

An extraordinary enough career if it stopped here—but of course it did not. During his time in government Kissinger negotiated a drawdown of American troops in Vietnam, engineered the opening of diplomatic and trade relations to China, pursued a police of détente with the Soviet Union, and brokered a Middle East peace which in spite of everything has held these last 40 years. Nor is his renown at an end. Although a deeply controversial figure to both right and left in the United States and beyond, he is perhaps one of the very few foreign policy makers in our history whose influence and prestige have remained undimmed, perhaps even enhanced, since leaving public life. His brilliance, his discipline, even his wit have remained with him in extreme old age.

This book does not attempt to cover Kissinger’s entire career, but rather to focus on what the man himself regards as his most crucial year. Most of the events referred to in the paragraph above either took place or reached something of an apex during those months. In most Kissinger played a crucial role, and in one in which he did not—the downfall of Marxist president Salvador Allende in Chile—he still stands accused by a defeated and unforgiving left. Even in a book that supposedly deals with a single year in American foreign policy the author inevitably must move backwards and forwards to flesh in the necessary background, so to some degree we are treated to something of a résumé of the Nixon and Ford years.

Inevitably, too, Horne at times finds himself writing a dual biography of Kissinger and his patron Richard Nixon. How could it be otherwise? “A very odd couple” he calls them—what an understatement! Nixon, a Quaker from Whittier, California, a scholarship boy and a classic striver long viewed with contempt when not outright hatred by the Amer ican establishment, working in harness with Kissinger, a brilliant refugee intellectual stepped from the very world Nixon loathed in turn. The contrast does not end there. Nixon hated meeting people and was uncomfortable in sophisticated social situations; Kissinger gloried in a wide circle of friends from journalism, politics, the arts, and literature. Even at the very nadir of his popularity with the New York lit-crit crowd, people still called him “Henry” and sought out his company. The one thing that bound Nixon and Kissinger together was their “outsiderness,” a status that apparently was sufficient to weather all of the inevitable storms of day-to-day governance that might otherwise have torn them apart.

There are two things that make this book very special. One is the author. Sir Alistair Horne, probably largely known in this country as a historian of France, has also been a veteran war correspondent. He served in the British army in the Canal Zone in the late 1940s and later wrote a classic study of the French-Algerian conflict. He knows the United States well, but he knows many other places too. He is the kind of Englishman rather more common before 1939 than today—a man at home in many corners of the world. He is on personal terms with a vast range of people who had firsthand dealings with Kissinger and were willing to discuss him candidly, not always admiringly. There are brilliant cameo sketches of personalities all of us have seen up to now only in two dimensions—my favorite being Leonid Brezhnev, whose less lovely characteristics (such as anti-Semitism) apparently had a curious appeal for Nixon. We are treated to private or near-private glimpses of Syria’s late dictator Assad, Algerian president Houari Boumedienne, former British prime minister Edward Heath, German chancellor Willy Brandt, French president Georges Pompidou, and above all, China’s premier Zhou Enlai.

The book’s other outstanding quality is its access to sources. Inevitably, Sir Alistair mined Kissinger’s voluminous multi-volume memoirs, books that many of us have read into but not read in their totality. But beyond that he has had access to recently declassified notes on con versations (MemCons) or transcripts of confidential telephone communications (TelCons). Some of these make particularly piquant reading, and give a good sense of what Kissinger was like in difficult situations. My personal favorite is an exchange between the secretary of Sstate and the Israeli ambassador Simcha Dinitz. At the time the Israeli forces had cornered Egypt’s Third Army and Israel was refusing to lift its siege even though the war was fundamentally over. Listen to the conversation:

K: Why don’t you let them break out and get out of there?...Why can you not let them take the tanks with them. The Russians will replace them anyway.

D: We will not open up the pocket and release an army that came to destroy us. It has never happened in the history of war.

K: It has also never happened that a small country is producing a world war in this manner. There is a limit beyond which you cannot push the President. I have been trying to tell you that for a week…You play your game and you will see what happens…You are destroying the possibility for negotiations, which you want.

Needless to say, Kissinger got what he wanted—a negotiated outcome that laid the groundwork for an Egyptian-Israeli peace several years later.

Inevitably, in a book of this sort the author has to address a number of fundamental criticisms of the subject. He is particularly eager to explain and defend the policy of détente with the Soviet Union—an approach that eventually divided the Republican Party and led to a 30-year realignment in American politics that only now seems to be ending. He rejects the notion that the peace agreement with North Vietnam achieved in 1973 could have been easily obtained in 1969. He is quite emphatic in attributing the failures of Nixon’s policies—particularly the collapse of our South Viet namese client—to the specter of Watergate, and in this his narrative is utterly convincing.

Kissinger: 1973 is one of the most intriguing books on American history to appear in many years. Even when dealing with fairly technical subjects like arms control it never fails to hold the reader’s attention. And it reminds us how difficult are the tasks of those entrusted with America’s power. Those who have convinced themselves that a mere change of tone will solve all of our current foreign policy problems need to read this book even more than the rest of us.

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About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.