on 2 January 2015
“Not even my severest critics have accused me of excesses of humility.”
If ‘White House Years’ is any guide – a 1476 page appetiser for his ‘Years of Upheaval’ and ‘Years of Renewal’ - Henry Kissinger has a lot not to be humble about.
Take first his surprising ability to surprise. For ‘WHY’ is shockingly lucid – none of his verbal Mittel-Europaisch croke carries over to his written word. Rather, his pen portraits of his peers [and above] and his surroundings are arguably without, well, peer among memoirists. And he’s funny; really! Here he is at the “revolutionary” opera in the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, 22 October 1971: “an art form of truly stupefying boredom in which villains were the incarnation of evil and wore black, good guys wore red, and as far as I could make out the girl fell in love with a tractor.” He’s also – are you sitting down? – an optimist, even an idealist. “For other nations utopia is a blessed past never to be recovered; for Americans it is no farther than the intensity of their commitment.” For Kissinger America’s “blemishes…could not obscure … its greatness, its idealism, its humanity, and its embodiment of mankind’s hopes.” Hardly the Dr Strangelove he’s been [cheaply] caricatured as in the mainstream media.
Marry these surprises with more predictable achievements and you’ll see why ‘WHY’ is a consummated gem. True, it is compendious, with a character roster rivalling War & Peace. But the plot is better – ‘stuff happens’ on every page, but here it’s for real, but not perhaps how most armchair observers of 1968-1973 think or wish it. And Kissinger could not make up the main characters: De Gaulle, Indira Ghandi, Cho En Lai, Le Duc Tho [“Ducky”], Mao, Brezhnev, and above all, Nixon. “Great men are so rare they take some getting used to”, Kissinger wrote of his early dealings with Sadat. Perhaps some men are so great you never get used to them, and Nixon – Kissinger strongly implies – was one of them? For Kissinger, Nixon was as heroic, decisive and courageous as he was shy, Delphic and vindictive. The impression is that Kissinger survives the ordeal/privilege by playing Dr Jekyll – academic, socially adroit, vain – to Nixon’s Mr Hyde – instinctive, awkward, withdrawn. But the relationship went far beyond cold psychological interdependence. For example, Nixon’s inability to catch a break from the media deeply offended Kissinger’s sense of fair play – during the India-Pakistan crisis if 1971 “the principle [of Nixon-bashing] seemed to be that if Richard Nixon was for peace, war could not be all that bad.” Kissinger believed “history gave [cold warrior] Dean Acheson its highest accolade – it proved him right”; the weight of WHY is that Nixon will be similarly acclaimed by posterity.
Least surprising perhaps, and why Kissinger is still courted by the great and the good and even the leaders of today, is: WHY is disturbingly prescient. For example:
- unless America maps out its “fundamental national interests” we’ll be “back to our historic cycle of exuberant overextension and sulking isolationism.” As we are.
- as the Taliban, ISIL, Pyongyang, Al Qeda know: “Statements of Western leaders or analysts stressing the importance of goodwill can only appear …either as hypocrisy or stupidity, propaganda or ignorance.”
- American Dream? “A people must not lose faith in itself; those who wallow in the imperfections of their society or turn them into an excuse for a nihilistic orgy usually end up eroding all social and moral restraints; eventually in their pitiless assault on all beliefs they multiply suffering.”
- this one’s for the ‘Hands up’/ ‘Can’t breathe’/any given hash-tag and bobtail brigade: “If a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this Nation has no future as a free society.”
- here’s Kissinger in 1969 on anti-Vietnam demonstrators: “Most are casualties of affluence. They have had the leisure for self pity, and the education enabling them to focus it in a fashionable critique of the ‘system’”. Read ‘Occupy’ etc?
- Arab Spring, anyone? “Revolutions conducted in the name of liberty more often than not refine new tools of authority.”
- “Lucky is the leader whose convictions of what is in the national interest coincide with the public mood.” Now, via polls and focus groups, public mood is the cause, ‘conviction’ the effect.
- Are you listening China? Kissinger’s summary of the Shah’s demise: “Fortunate is the country that can manage a transition to new political forms without turmoil. Wise is the ruler who understands that economic development, far from strengthening his position, carries with it the imperative of building new political institutions to accommodate the growing complexity of his society.”
- And is there a better autopsy of Obama’s foreign policy than “We cannot always assure the future of our friends; we have a better chance of assuring our future if we remember who our friends are”?
If Kissinger is right and “we will never be able to contribute to building a stable and creative world unless we first form some conception of it”, then you’d better begin WHY while you still have time.
on 10 May 2016
I, possibly like many others, may not have been entirely sold on Nixon and Kissinger's reign in the White House of just shy of 6 years due to the Cambodian bombing campaign undertaken by the Nixon administration. However, after reading a sizeable chunk of this book I cannot but help but completely alter my opinion of Kissinger and Nixon. Kissinger in this giant undertaking of a book (note, this is not for someone who wants a light read or suffers from loss of concentration easily) delves into the WHY of the various policies that were put to Nixon and how U.S foreign policy was conducted by the Nixon administration almost immediately after Nixon's inauguration, most notably, the Vietnam fiasco and trying to kick start negotiations and also the reasoning for arguably Kissinger's most controversial act, the bombing campaign of parts of Cambodia. The Cambodia issue is something that formed most of my opinion on Kissinger through reading other books. However, this book does address this to some extent and Kissinger seeks to answer why he and the U.S undertook this campaign in order to protect South Vietnam from the Viet Kong of the North.
Kissinger in this volume, and I assume in his other two volumes also looks back on his time in the White House from a historians perspective, constantly picking apart some points and analysing them until I presume he went blue in the face. Being a history student myself I find this approach extremely satisfying as I feel that if Kissinger had just loaded this book with political jargon, of which there is a great deal nontheless, it would have made for a dry read and I would have lost interest quickly. Whoever, as stated, I feel Kissinger has looked at this from a historians viewpoint and his analysis is second to none. My only niggle with this book is its length, at 1500+ pages, just for this volume, it is a task in itself to read it but then again with such a poignant and influential role to President Nixon, it's understandable why it is so lengthy.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the history of the period and also to anyone who wants to understand and expand on their knowledge of the inner workings of one of the most memorable partnerships in the history of U.S politics. Looking forward to the next volumes, when I eventually get there!