White House Years (1979) by Henry Kissinger

Tears of a Courtier

Political memoirs are works of self-justification.  In the case of Henry Kissinger, he packages these self-justifications in the first volume of his memoirs, White House Years (1979).  As a major partner with President Richard Nixon, Kissinger, working as the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (more commonly referred to as the National Security Advisor), he followed Nixon’s wishes to direct the nation’s foreign policy from the White House.  Kissinger transformed himself from a Harvard academic to a diplomat engineering international relationships (political and military) of world-historical importance.

During this period, Nixon and Kissinger could claim credit for two major foreign policy achievements: the “opening” of China and the “end” of the Vietnam War.  White House Years covers these and many more events, spanning from January 1969 to January 1974.

President Dwight Eisenhower established the position of National Security Advisor in the frigid year of 1953.  The creation of this position reflects the spirit of the times, much like the creation of the Department of Homeland Security amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center and the smoldering wing of the Pentagon.  Unlike the Secretary of State and similar Cabinet positions, Congress does not confirm the National Security Advisor.  Freed from the bureaucratic entanglements associated with State and Defense, the National Security Advisor can, at least in theory, offer the President disinterested counsel and objective analysis on whatever specific crises threaten the nation’s foreign policy.  During his tenure as National Security Advisor, Nixon would use Kissinger to circumvent the processes of the State Department, headed at that time by Secretary of State William Rogers.  This trend of circumvention and secrecy would later become the undoing of the Nixon Administration.  Kissinger in Volume 2 of his memoirs, Years of Upheaval, will cover the “third-rate burglary” and the erosion of Executive authority.

Reading White House Years is an endurance test in several ways.  First, the sheer weight and length of the tome makes it, to paraphrase the Monty Python sketch on Australian table wines, ideal for hand-to-hand combat.  Used with enough force and the book is as lethal as a cast iron skillet to the forehead.  The hardcover runs an astonishing 1476 pages.  The Penguin edition of the first volume of Karl Marx’s Capital and the King James Bible are both shorter by several hundred pages.  Second, Kissinger’s responsibility and notoriety in relation to numerous foreign policy decisions makes him a polarizing figure.  The Left characterizes Kissinger as a war criminal, while the Right characterizes him as “soft on Communism,” due to his working towards détente and dealing with Red China.  The latte drinking, New York Times-reading, Prius-driving Blue State elitist liberal and the PBR-swilling, gun toting, flag-waving, multiple-gun-owning, gay-, immigrant-, and feminist-hating Red State “real ‘Murican” can join hands and denounce Kissinger.  Finally, the prose style of Kissinger, like an Andy Warhol film, is simultaneously seductive and tediously boring.  An strong editor could have lopped off a few hundred pages and still produced an epic of foreign policy and Washington insider gossip.  In the words of the National Book Award committee on Gravity’s Rainbow, the work is “turgid, overwritten, and obscene.”  Unlike Pynchon’s work, with its masterful amalgamation of genres, mysticism, pornography, and comedic set pieces, White House Years is obscene in its distillation of carpet bombing, amoral diplomatic gamesmanship, and Machiavellian maneuvering into the innocuous bureaucratese that has become the style of countless memoranda.

The reader should be aware of these challenges when reading this monumental work.  Kissinger, the loquacious courtier, leads the reader through numerous meetings with foreign leaders and offers thumbnail guides on different styles of foreign policy.  The differences between Russian and Chinese negotiation is illuminating.  On the other hand, Kissinger obscured and buried points in presentations reminiscent of “idiot briefings.”  In other words, giving the victim of the briefing an information overload, albeit information not relevant to the argument.  Exhaustion and fury can drive the reader into a numbed state.  Kissinger will go into detail bordering on the pointillist over something inconsequential while rushing over major areas of contention.  Reading the book was like prolonged combat with someone who will not let you get a word in edgewise.  To adapt the graffiti written about Marcel Proust: “Henry Kissinger is a yenta.”

The China Card

In Angels in America: Part Two: Perestroika, Roy Cohn, in a hospital bed dying of AIDS says to Joe Pitt, his young protégé, “If you want the smoke and puffery you can listen to Kissinger and Schultz and those guys, but if you want to look at the heart of modern conservatism, you look at me.  Everyone has abandoned the struggle, everything nowadays is just sipping tea with Nixon and Mao.  That was disgusting, did you see that?  Were you born yet?”  When Nixon had tea with Mao and remarked, “I think that you would have to conclude that this is a great wall,” Cold War foreign policy forever changed.

One of the foreign policy strategies Kissinger repeats again and again is the policy of linkage.  In theory, the strategy is reminiscent of the quid pro quo.  Strategy is linked with substance.  When Nixon entered office in January 1969, the United States did not recognize the People’s Republic of China; never had a summit with the Soviet Union; and the Vietnam War had cost the nation blood, treasure, and unity.  Amidst these foreign policy challenges, Nixon pledged to end the war in Vietnam and bring “peace with honor.”

In 1969, a foreign policy opportunity presented itself.  Along the extensive Soviet-Chinese border, military clashes took place.  Kissinger saw this as an opportunity to play the Communist giants off each other.  It was a daring move that would have consequences for several foreign policy challenges already in motion: the Vietnam War (North Vietnam funded by the Soviet Union), the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), West Germany’s Ostpolitik (normalizing borders and treaties with the Eastern Communist bloc), and the Soviet military presence in Egypt (a consequence of the Six-Day War in 1967).  Hence, a thousand-plus pages of self-justification, evasion, government jargon, and memoranda excerpts.  Whether one thinks of Kissinger as war criminal, elder statesman, or some combination of both depends on the political stripe of the reader.

Once China opened, the United States could use the relationship as a wedge between Communist giants.  The gambit represented great risk to the Nixon Administration, especially alienating the Right and jeopardizing his chances for re-election.  After a career as a Red-baiter, it must have struck the die-hards of the Right as treasonous and offensive to court China, especially after the carnage wrought by the Cultural Revolution.  Nevertheless, anyone familiar with the history of the American foreign policy must conceded that ideological differences take a back seat to the amoral engine of self-interest.  China astutely recognized the needs of the United States and integrated into their own specific foreign policy requirements.  Today the United States lives with the consequences of opening China, for good or ill.  One only needs to look where most of their products are made and thank Kissinger for his contributions.

Fascists and Despots; Communists and Tyrants

In White House Years, the reader encounters numerous foreign dignitaries, powerful leaders, and charismatic individuals via Kissinger’s many meetings at home and abroad.  Most meetings come off as procedural and drab; conversations focusing on this or that technical detail.  Kissinger encounters Fascists, despots, Communists, and tyrants.  Depending on the situation, the aforementioned human rights violators may be either friend or foe.  During the Cold War an ally’s human rights record or violations of democracy became forgotten in the global chess game.  This explains the United States rich history of friendship with Iran and Spain and antipathy towards Cuba and China.

Following the China summit, Nixon and Kissinger met the Shah of Iran.  While Kissinger lavishes praise on Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, he comes across like a cross between Tsar Nicholas II and Little Lord Fauntleroy.  A man of gentle nature and buffeted by the great events surrounding him, he was greatly dependent on American military and economic aid.  Unfortunately, Shah Pahlavi’s over-dependence on foreign largesse made him a weak ruler.  A pawn in a blockade containing Soviet expansionism, when the Iranian people overthrew his tyrannical rule, the United States broke off relations while the nascent democracy slid into the muck of theocracy and extremism.  The taking of American hostages did not help the situation, but it brought up a dangerous question: Why are nations that instigate regime change on their own vilified while nations overly dependent on American aid transform into weak governments?  National self-determination is in the best interests of the United States, except when it is not.

During another world tour, Kissinger meets Generalissimo Francisco Franco.  Franco and his Fascist cadres won the Spanish Civil War in the Thirties with the military aid of Nazi Germany.  In the Seventies, Franco remained a political relic, a sclerotic dictator, albeit a useful one in the goal of a global anti-communist crusade.  Ironically, East Germany called the Berlin Wall the Anti-Fascist Protection Wall.

“In the Seventies, many reacting by rote found it hard to admit that Spain was far less repressive than any Communist state and than most of the new nations.”  By that reasoning, Kissinger would not have had any problem with a National Socialist Germany, since the Germans were less repressive, numerically, than the USSR.  Only a few paragraphs on Kissinger will take credit for assisting in Spain’s tradition to a democracy.  Yet the bad taste remains, an American conservative rubbing elbows with an aged Fascist.

One witnesses authoritarianism from both sides of the Iron Curtain.  Amidst the meandering relationships and linkages created by Kissinger’s diplomacy, one eventually becomes immune to the sight of blood on the hands of both parties.  Granted, one can compare the numbers with Franco’s autocratic regime and the USSR’s, but it also desecrates the scores murdered by both regimes.

REMF Blues

The opening of China created opportunities for extricating the United States military forces from South Vietnam.  The plan, buttressed by the détente between the United States, Soviet Union, and Red China, isolated North Vietnam.  Negotiations, after years of stalemate, could finally present a real substantive result.  With other foreign policy decisions, this one also came with difficult choices and atrocious consequences.

Suffice to say the Vietnam War was an epic conflict.  Vietnam had endured centuries of rule by various occupiers, most notably China and France.  It shook off China’s shackles, enduring nearly one thousand years of occupation.  Following the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French left after one hundred years of colonial rule.  (The French left Vietnam to fight another colonial war in Algeria, trading humid jungles for arid deserts.)  The situation stalemated in the 1950s under the rule of nepotistic sociopath President Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam and charismatic elder statesman Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam.  Diem’s misrule ended in 1963 in a bloody coup sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency.  (Another Catholic President’s rule also ended in assassination in November of the same year.)

Nixon inherited the Vietnam War from the previous administration and it was his promise to end the war that got him elected.  One of the pillars of Nixon’s foreign policy was called “Vietnamization.”  After a decade of American escalation coupled with military and economic support, Nixon made the tough decision to extricate the ground troops.  In order to do so, the North Vietnamese sanctuaries had to be hit.  North Vietnam, violating the neutrality of Laos and Cambodia, used those nations to infiltrate the South via the Ho Chi Minh Trial.  By 1969, following Nixon’s election, all sides had blood on their hands.  North Vietnam, while justified in its struggle against foreign occupation, violated the neutrality of other nations and behaved like any other Communist tyranny.  While less genocidal than the Khmer Rouge, this is only a Leftist parroting of Kissinger’s adulation of Franco’s moderate Fascism.  The United States also faced a credibility gap when it claimed to fight for freedom and human rights while the dead of My Lai and other atrocities still lay fresh for the world to see.  South Vietnam was a weak regime, nominally democratic, constantly embattled and slouching towards military dictatorship.

Kissinger’s goal in his negotiations with the North Vietnamese was to create a situation where both Vietnams could co-exist.  The precedents of North and South Korea and East and West Germany stood as reminders that co-existence could become a possibility.  The situation became complicated when Congress and public support for a military presence dwindled.  Without a troop presence in South Vietnam, Nixon substituted an accelerated air war while the troop withdrawals continued.  Kissinger, from his office in the White House, embodied the Cold War technocrat, no different from Vietnam architects Robert MacNamara and General William Westmoreland, staring at situation reports and system analyses.  For all his ragging on the bureaucracy, he retains a bureaucratic practice, legitimizing government policies via mountains of paperwork.  Through these reports and memoranda, he comes to his idea of the truth.  The limbless in Laos and Cambodia also speak another kind of truth and not all of it emanates from Communist oppression.  While done with the best of intentions, Nixon and Kissinger paved Southeast Asia with unexploded bombs and mines.

The Calm Before the Storm

White House Years ends in domestic tragedy.  After years of diligent effort and complex maneuvering, the United States appears on the verge of ending its involvement in Vietnam.  “Peace with honor” is so close to being achieved it is palpable.  In the house of Ferdinand Léger, French abstract artist and Communist, Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, his North Vietnamese counterpart, finally agree on terms to end the War.  The first volume of memoirs ends with the double victory of successful negotiations and Nixon’s re-election to the Presidency.

Nevertheless, there was something rotten on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  In the end, the Nixon Administration was undone by the very crimes laid upon the North Vietnamese: illegality and dirty tricks, the monomaniacal desire to win at any cost, and a zealous fanaticism.  In a word: Watergate.

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3 thoughts on “White House Years (1979) by Henry Kissinger

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