Kissinger on Kissinger
History from the front lines
By Steven Martinovich
Henry Kissinger is one of those rare individuals who inspires almost as much dislike from those on the right as the left. To leftists he is a Dr. Strangelove-esque figure whose Realpolitik destroyed noble liberals like Salvador Allende and prolonged the war in Vietnam while many on the right see him as an neoconservative proponent of American interventionism and, thanks to détente with the Soviet Union and China, a soft-on-communism figure who would sell-out American interests for a deal. The extreme wings of American politics likely see his membership in groups like the Council of Foreign Relations and the Bilderberg Group as evidence of transnational governments and hidden puppet masters.
The reality would appear to be a man who realized that foreign policy is a question of balancing morality with objectives – an equation which prompts some difficult choices. Over a series of interviews with Winston Lord and K.T. McFarland – both of them long time associates of the man -- in 2015 and 2016, Kissinger provided an oral history of his time serving Richard Nixon and some of those choices, which eventually became Lord’s Kissinger on Kissinger: Reflections on Diplomacy, Grand Strategy, and Leadership. Regardless of what you think of Henry Kissinger the man, Lord and McFarland’s interviews confirms what even his enemies should readily admit; Kissinger is a man of uncommon intelligence.
Most are seemingly unaware of this but Kissinger and Nixon did not have much of a history together before 1968 when the former teenaged refugee from Nazi Germany was named the president’s National Security Advisor. As Kissinger relates, he had been a long-time supporter of Nelson Rockefeller and was somewhat surprised when Nixon tapped him for the post. It is his time with Nixon that forms virtually all of the material in this series of oral interviews, and not surprisingly four major events receive considerable attention: the opening of China, détente with the Soviet Union, the peace talks with the North Vietnamese, and his shuttle democracy in a bid for peace in the Middle East.
It would be difficult to describe the content of the interviews without simply regurgitating them at length – suffice it to say that the reader shouldn’t be surprised at how nightmarishly complex international diplomacy can really be. At one point Kissinger discusses the opening of China and how it began a few years earlier when Soviet troop movements indicated the possibility of an invasion of the People’s Republic. Nixon’s modus operandi in uncertain situations was essentially: If you don’t know who to support, go with the underdog. So the Nixon administration publicly backed China, a country it had no relations with over a country it badly wanted to negotiate nuclear arms and peace agreements with.
The move, as Kissinger relates, paid off in several ways. It signalled strongly to the Chinese that the US wanted formal talks. It also told a vacillating Soviet Union that the US wouldn’t allow them to be the hegemonic voice of international communism, invade China without cost, and that they would talk to Beijing if they couldn’t with Moscow. The eventual opening with China paid several dividends including summits between the Nixon administration and the Zedong regime, new talks with the nervous Soviets, a split of the Sino-Soviet alliance and some assistance with the situation in Vietnam. Yet the decision to move towards the Chinese was one that most told Kissinger and Nixon would only provoke the Soviet Union, perhaps even to war.
It is perhaps not surprising given Lord’s (and McFarland’s) long friendship with Kissinger that some controversial topics were not only skirted, they were completely ignored in Kissinger on Kissinger. There are many who consider Kissinger nothing less than a criminal thanks to alleged American involvement in the coup that bought down Allende in 1973, support for Pakistan during a war with East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) during which genocidal actions were undertaken, and at least tacit approval of Argentina’s “Dirty War” which saw thousands killed by the country’s military junta over nearly two decades. Granted, asking your friend of decades and former employer how much he knew about mass murder by the Pakistanis is likely a difficult topic to broach but Kissinger’s record is as much marked by great controversy as it is by great achievements. It is a disappointing oversight given that Kissinger himself has taken issue with some of the arguements made about him, such as those involving Argentina's junta.
Whether that leaves Kissinger on Kissinger an unworthwhile effort is ultimately up to potential readers but it would be an unfair judgment. It allows Kissinger to explain some key moments in international diplomacy which arguably changed the course of history and provides compelling insight into the thought processes by he and Nixon. Arguably, Kissinger has provided yet more proof that it may be time for Nixon to receive some rehabilitative treatment thanks to the enormous contributions and he and his National Security Advisor later turned Secretary of State made internationally. Lord should be congratulated on finally convincing Kissinger to sit down and provide an oral history of an era that continues to be discussed and a man’s career which continues to be debated.
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.