Years of Upheaval (1981) by Henry Kissinger

A Second Term and a Third-rate Burglary

Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you?
Tell the truth.

“Sweet Home Alabama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd (1974)


Years of Upheaval, the second volume of memoirs by Henry Kissinger, continues his personal account of public service, spanning the time of Nixon’s re-election to Nixon’s resignation following the Watergate scandal.  The memoirs record a short span of time although it encompasses a plethora of geopolitical, domestic, and personal events.  In the words of Homer Simpson, this volume has it all, “the terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, the creamy middles.”

Riding on the triumph of the Paris Agreement, the document that began the peace process in Vietnam, Kissinger returned home to the United States.  In a few short months, he witnessed President Nixon win the 1972 Presidential Election in a record landslide victory.  The afterglow of re-election victory began to fade when papers began reporting about a burglary in the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.  The office was in the Watergate building.  The imperious tough guy edifice of Richard Nixon, personifying the dam that held back the onslaught of international Communism, had a hairline crack in it.  If Nixon could re-imagine Cold War foreign policy, with the help of Kissinger, his National Security advisor, surely this third-rate burglary needn’t worry a President who opened China, ended the Vietnam War securing “peace with honor,” and defused the menace of nuclear annihilation with détente.

Years of Upheaval chronicles Kissinger’s ascension to the post of Secretary of State, negotiating with the various parties in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur, and dealing with the challenges of foreign policy while executive power eroded in the prolonged hydra of scandals called Watergate.


The State Department: Now with 30% more ominousness.

Presidents privileged enough to have a second term usually reshuffle their staff.  In this case, Nixon dismissed William Rogers and nominated Henry Kissinger for Secretary of State.  Following his confirmation, Kissinger assumed the dual role of Secretary of State and National Security Advisor.  President Ford later terminated Kissinger’s special situation, preserving Kissinger in the Cabinet position and letting Brent Scowcroft take over the role as National Security Advisor.

The recent maelstrom of current events, from the resurrection of the Far Right to the Wikileaks fiasco, makes this an invaluable book.  A major component of its value it is specific bias.  One usually associates bias with a lack of worth and this makes it easy to dismiss works that may merit reconsideration.  This behavior happens all too often in our hyperventilating political culture with its calls for “fair and balanced” reporting, not listening to critics, and hating everything that falls outside our tunnel vision.

After one recognizes the bias of a work like this, one should work towards divining the grain of the bias.  Because Kissinger specialized in foreign policy, it afforded him a unique position to witness the spreading Watergate fiasco.  It also allowed him a means of justifying a way out of getting swept up in the scandal, containing the damage to “juvenile and illegal” activities perpetrated by campaign workers and those staffers associated with domestic policy.  This memoir is self-serving in an entirely different fashion than the Haldemann Diaries or Chuck Colson’s Born Again.

The perspective is also unique in that the Secretary of State receives the resignation letter of the President.  While Kissinger engaged in shuttle diplomacy, the executive branch suffered from multiple disruptions.  Watergate began as the Vice Presidency became threatened by Spiro Agnew’s monetary shenanigans.  The verbal warhammer of the Nixon Regime, Agnew uttered some of the greatest one-liners, usually penned by that paragon of tolerance, Pat Buchanan.  Raging against the nattering nabobs of negativity and the impudent snobs, Nixon’s heir apparent left amidst accusations of bribery and fraud.  The Silent Majority hadn’t yet metastasized into the Moral Majority.  In another unique instance in this paranoid time, the circumstances gave Nixon the opportunity to nominate his own successor.

From an institutional standpoint, Upheaval offers a firsthand look at Kissinger’s transition from National Security Advisor to Secretary of State.  The former is an advisory position with no confirmation necessary and an office within the White House.  The latter involves Senate confirmation and is the most prestigious Cabinet position, heading the Foreign Service, and occupying a massive bureaucracy from Foggy Bottom (the Harry S Truman Building).  The prestige and responsibility of the Secretary of State is further enhanced by Kissinger’s status as a foreign-born immigrant.  (During World War 2, Kissinger worked in Army Intelligence, returning to Germany a decade after fleeing in the Thirties.)  At the height of the Watergate scandal and the dissolution of executive authority, Kissinger acted as a “surrogate President for foreign policy.”  Once Ford became President, Kissinger fell back into a more traditional capacity.

A Shalom and a Salaam

The Americans & Russians are sending bombing planes tanks

Chinese Egyptians Syrians help me battle for my righteous

house my Soul’s dirt Spirit’s Nation’s body’s

boundaries & Self’s territory my

Zionist homeland my Palestinian inheritance

The Capitalist Communist & Third World Peoples’

Republics Dictatorships Police States Socialisms & Democracies

are all sending Deadly Weapons to our aid!

“Jaweh and Allah Battle,” Allen Ginsberg, 1974.

White House Years provided a glimpse into the negotiations leading to the Paris Agreement and the end of US involvement in the Vietnam War.  It was the foreign policy showpiece of the first volume.  In Years of Upheaval, the Yom Kippur War is given the same showpiece status.  Southeast Asia faded into the background only to have the Middle East flare up with Egypt and Syria attacking Israel.  Kissinger took the lead in the disengagement negotiations with the dual aims of bringing about a coherent peace process and locking out the Soviet Union from exacerbating radicalism in the region.  Existing as a geopolitical archaeology of sorts, one witnesses how the United States came to treat the grab bag of absolute monarchies and dictatorships as our allies.  Like a sequel to World War 2 with the Soviet Union and United States exploiting “our Germans” versus “their Germans,” the despots and tyrants became “our Arabs” to combat the threat of Soviet expansionism, manifest in the loaded yet vague term “Arab radicalism.”

Despite the cynicism, hatred, and despair one feels towards this region and its seemingly unending conflicts, Kissinger’s account reveals the specific context that resulted in the resulting military and diplomatic actions.

In the early Seventies, the Middle East lay dormant with Israel sitting precariously atop conquered territories wrested from Arab hands in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.  The Arab nations, specifically Egypt and Syria, festered with resentment and impotence.  The recent assassination of Gamal Abdel Nasser created a power vacuum Anwar el-Sadat filled.  The United States did not consider Sadat a real threat or a leader of promise until the Yom Kippur War.  According to Kissinger, Sadat did not send Egypt into war against Israel for conquest, but to prove that Egypt was not impotent against Israeli arms.

Herein lays the paradox facing any peace process in the Middle East.  Israel, surrounded by hostile neighbors, maintains occupied territories of its three neighbors, as a means of maintaining security.  Egypt and Syria have portions of their territory occupied by Israel.  In order to assuage “the Arab street” – a euphemism for the sociopaths and maniacs who cloak a bloodthirsty ethos in “fundamentalist Islam” – and the more established oligarchies (usually military), leaders have to walk a fine line between appeasing the base and making sensible decisions.  It is a delicate dance that can have fatal consequences for all involved.

Jordan is a special case.  The West Bank, prior to Israel’s occupation, belonged to Jordan.  Jordan, throughout this prolonged crisis, remained a stalwart ally of the United States.  It did not press as hard as Egypt or as passionately as Syria, because it had to hold off the designs of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) under the charismatic leadership of Yasser Arafat.  The rocky land and the half of Jerusalem dubbed “Palestine” belonged to Jordan.  Kissinger, trying to keep this precarious situation as simple as possible, worked with King Hussein to block any unwarranted influence from the PLO during the peace negotiations.

In addition to this complicated set of challenges, the Middle East is a region that has several thousand years of political history and long-simmering blood feuds.  The region came into existence following the arbitrary set of lines and arbitrary set of leaders concocted at the Versailles Treaty following World War 1.  One can dig deeper and find Arab occupations, Turkish occupations, Crusader occupations, and on and on.  Israel occupying the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt hearkens back to the Book of Exodus and big-haired Charlton Heston movies.  Now it is Anwar Sadat saying, “Let my people go!”  Instead of Hebrew slaves, it is an Egyptian Army surrounded on all sides by the Israeli Army, without supplies.

Prior to negotiations, Kissinger recounts the delicate task of supplying Israel.  The airlift operation comes across like a transcontinental Rube Goldberg Machine, endlessly complicated by wary European nations, Soviet saber rattling, and a nation rapidly spinning into a frenzy over Watergate.

Charting this dangerous course ends with the historic Kilometer 101 meeting.  In a tent in the middle of the desert, military negotiators from both sides begin the arduous task of actually taking to each other.  The faint glimmer of hope presides when leaders from the belligerent nations meet in Geneva.  Drawn together by the prospect of giving the region a lasting peace, one understands the motivation since the Middle East had been in perpetual warfare since 1949.  Kissinger labored extensively with Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Israel to detach political issues from disengagement.  As per usual with Kissinger, it involved the creation of a bogus-sounding organization under whose auspices the disengagement would take place.  Kissinger did the same thing with the North Vietnamese when they pressured the United States to create a coalition government with representatives from the Communist Party.

The challenges to begin a Middle East peace process had become further exacerbated by the unraveling of executive authority due to Watergate.  Under normal circumstances, the Secretary of State could use the tried-and-true tactic of carrot and stick.  With Watergate eroding Nixon’s authority, Kissinger had less authority to cajole or threaten the leaders, even those like Sadat who actively sought an American alliance.

The Middle East represents a Gordian knot of paradox, atrocity, and war.  Kissinger gives a succinct analysis of the history, diplomatic challenges, and personalities involved in the region.  In that case, it is useful for anyone seeking to understand a complicated situation and its history that spans millennia.

The Valley of Bones

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones.  And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.  And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

Ezekiel 37: 1 – 3

The memoirs of a government official in the upper echelons make it easy to forget what a high-stakes game diplomacy can be.  Buried beneath mountainous prose that describes numerous meetings between dignitaries drenched in minutiae and bonhomie, the reader can become overwhelmed or bored.  Middle East leaders, Arab and Israeli, that worked towards creating a working peace occasionally found themselves in the valley of bones.

Anwar Sadat met the fate of his predecessor in 1981 following his historic meeting with Israel.  This ushered in the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.  King Faisal, another personality in this volume, met his end with assassination in 1975.  Yitzhak Rabin, who played a role in Golda Meir’s government, died at the hands of an Israeli religious fanatic in 1995.  One laments that the yearning for peace often gets destroyed by the faith-based initiative of bloodthirsty fanatics, or, in Kissinger’s witty phrase, “apostles of the ordinary.”

Sadat’s martyrdom occurred shortly before Israel withdrew from the Sinai in 1982.  Israel still occupies the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip (1967 to present).  The growing influence of the Palestinian cause has complicated the peace process.

Besides the deaths of Middle Eastern leaders, the United States endured the impeachment crisis shortly after Vice President Agnew resigned.  Amidst the chaos and bloodshed, Kissinger remains standing.

Strange Interludes

Interviewer (Eric): From the plastic arts we turn to football.  Last night in the Stadium of Light, we witnessed the resuscitation of a great footballing tradition, when Jarrow United came of age, in a European sense, with an almost Proustian display of modern existentialist football.  Virtually annihilating by midfield moral argument the now surely obsolescent catennachio defensive philosophy of Signor Alberto Fanfrino.  Bologna indeed were a side intellectually out argued by a Jarrow team thrusting and bursting with aggressive Kantian positivism and outstanding in the fine Jarrow team was my man of the match, the arch-thinker, free scheming, scarcely ever to be curbed, midfield cognoscento, Jimmy Buzzard.

Buzzard (John): Good evening Brian.

“The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Goes to the Bathroom” (1.11), Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “Literary Football,” airdate December 28, 1969.

The inordinate length of this book allows for the occurrence of some strange interludes.  One encounters situations from the menacing to the ridiculous.  Because Kissinger is an Ivy League academic and a career diplomat, his writing comes across as lapidary, overdetermined, and always polite.  He finds a way to say kind words about nearly everyone he meets, friend and foe alike.  His description and justification of Nixon’s anti-Semitism or King Faisal’s anti-Zionism are marvels in grammatical acrobatics.

Following the afterglow of Nixon’s re-election, Kissinger is whisked to Hanoa, capital of North Vietnam, to hammer out the remaining minutiae in the Paris Accords.  It is one of the strangest trips in American diplomatic history.  Hanoi comes across like a small provincial town rather than a towering fortress, the monolith acting as bulwark against colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism.  The battle-scarred landscape and the empty streets say more about the agonies of the Vietnam War than any writer does.  The entire experience has a strange otherworldly feeling, with Kissinger negotiating with Le Duc Tho and others in a building only a few blocks from the notorious Hanoi Hilton.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, during one of Kissinger’s many trips to Israel, he had the opportunity to visit Yad Vashem.  Yad Vashem is the museum and memorial to the Holocaust located in Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.  In an uncharacteristic act of silence, Kissinger says nothing about the experience.  Theodor Adorno famously said, “There can be no more poetry after Auschwitz.”  Given the monumental scope and horror of the Holocaust, it would seem trite or futile to attempt to write about it.  The silence seems out of character with Kissinger’s gregarious nature and his penchant for cheerleading for American ideals and power.

The geopolitical context further complicates this visit, since Israel’s military conquests bring to mind associations of Germany’s quest for Lebensraum (“living space”).  Additionally, Kissinger’s repeated endorsements of America’s quest for freedom and liberty come across as vacant gestures when openly courting the support of the brutal regimes of Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.  The United States, in decades to come, will tie itself into an incomprehensible knot of alliances with both Israel and the Middle Eastern tyrannies.  During Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy”, many of the pro-Soviet Arab tyrannies eventually tilted to become pro-US Arab tyrannies.  (Or in the words of our youth, “frenemies.”)

Kissinger describes King Faisal’s position thus:

The speech on Communism and Zionism, however bizarre it sounded to Western visitors, was clearly deeply felt.  At the same time it reflected precisely the tactical necessities of the Kingdom.  The strident anti-Communism helped reassure America and established a claim on protection against outside threats (which were all, in fact, armed by the Soviet Union).  The virulent opposition to Zionism reassured radicals and the PLO and thus reduced the incentive to follow any temptation to undermine the monarchy domestically.  And its thrust was vague enough to imply no precise consequences; it dictated few policy options save a general anti-Communism.

During that meeting between Kissinger and King Faisal, the King asserts that Israel was the result of a plot between Jews and Communists, “put there by Bolshevism for the principal purpose of dividing America from the Arabs.”  This kind of rhetoric may sound odd to Western ears in the mid-Seventies, with the rise of the Tea Party movement and Glenn Beck’s popularity, not so much.

The travels of Kissinger become accidentally hilarious when he describes a football (i.e. soccer) game he attended in Munich.  It was the final game of the World Cup.  He attended with Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the new Foreign Minister for West Germany.  He describes the strategies of the soccer teams in foreign policy terms.  While Kissinger does pepper his memoirs with the occasional joke or two, (at least one suspects those are jokes, since they are usually devoid of any humorous content).  Germany “used the methods of the Schlieffen plan, of complicated maneuver with intricately plotted designs, almost irresistible when everything worked as planned and with the psychological impetus of a friendly crowd.”  “The Dutch lost, despite an even more cerebral style of soccer that was beautiful to watch but lacked the final will to prevail.”  (Oh, snap!)  “England, once preeminent, now relying on condition and reputation to sustain its slightly old-fashioned, somewhat pedantic style, and therefore long since eliminated from the World Cup tournament.”  Has anyone contacted Kissinger to provide color commentary for World Cup tournaments?  Then again, if Kissinger provided commentary in a Madden-like video game for soccer, young kids everywhere might put down their Funyuns and Mountain Dew to actually go outside.

My Country for a Horse

“Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

Richard Nixon, The Nixon Interviews with David Frost, airdate May 19, 1977

L’État, c’est moi” (“I am the State”)

King Louis XIV of France, attributed.

Watergate remains the other grand narrative in Years of Upheaval.  It haunts his journeys like a grim specter.  With executive authority rapidly evaporating, his power to negotiate became diminished.  As per usual with political memoirs, he places a lot of blame on “professional Nixon-haters” and “McGovernite peaceniks,” while giving short shrift to the actual disturbing implications a scandal of this sort presents to the very fabric of participatory democracy.  In the simplified folklore that passes for historical knowledge, Watergate remains the “Mother of All Scandals” both in terms of actual malfeasance and it is closer in living memory.  Unlike the XYZ Affair and the Teapot Dome scandals, our parents and grandparents remember (or mis-remember) what happened.  Watergate also put a close to a disastrous decade in foreign and domestic policy.  The Vietnam War took down three presidencies, one by assassination (Kennedy), one a single-term catastrophe (Johnson), and one by impeachment (Nixon).

While it is easy to turn this is a partisan affair, Democrats gloating over Republican misbehavior and the ruthless Nixon finally being put down like a rabid dog, Watergate represents something more malevolent and disturbing than just electoral shenanigans.  Despite the nature of the cause, placed under the umbrella of “national security,” Watergate destroyed the moral credibility of the Presidency.  The enemy lists, the bugging, COINTELPRO, and using intelligence agencies to cover-up an investigation all reeked of political tyranny.  This was behavior fitting for Pinochet, but not for a leader of a democracy.  “The center will not hold,” to William Butler Yeats.  Watergate was one step too far.

Unfortunately, the creeping forces of authoritarianism never quite held, since Nixon never went to trial.  President Ford, in one of his first acts, preemptively pardoned Nixon.  The ensuing impeachment trial would have grievously wounded an already divided nation, but the pardon created a dangerous precedent.  It gave the President an aura of invincibility.  Do whatever crimes and atrocities are necessary to secure your power and have your successor pardon you.  Something no Jacobean dramatist could have dreamt up.

Legacies and Their Discontents

Senator Pat Geary: I despise the way you pose yourself. You and your whole fucking family.

Michael Corleone: We’re both part of the same hypocrisy, senator, but never think it applies to my family.


The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

Proverbs for Paranoids:
1. You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.
2. The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master.
3. If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.
4. You hide, they seek.
5. Paranoids are not paranoid because they’re paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.

From Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) by Thomas Pynchon

When the Nixon administration went supernova and collapsed in on itself like a dying star, the United States preserved his legacy in its foreign policy.  Despite the scandal and humiliation of resignation, the world is still cast in terms of Nixon’s radical realignment.  The push towards opening China is one of the reasons the Communist regime still exists.  The Middle East remains allied with the United States, the tyrannies contending with the oppressed masses and the occasional terrorist flare-up that might damage tourism and military aid shipments.

Nixon’s foreign policy legacy should be seen by the successor administrations less as a prison (what it is now) than as a strategic innovation (what it could be).  A border clash between the Soviet Union and China created the impetus to play the Communist giants off each other, making it possible for the US to extricate itself from the Vietnam conflict.  Can the same be done with the tyrannical monarchy of Saudi Arabia, our nominal ally, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, a faux democracy?  Nixon provided the necessary strategy with détente and linkage, defusing the confrontations of the Cold War, and leading it towards the inevitable endgame.  With the Cold War finished, the legacy is the free market on a truly global scale, but the practical alliances created against the Soviets has created a rogues gallery of tyrants, dictators, and absolute monarchs who pay fealty to the United States.  Is it time, now that markets are free, to work towards making people just as free?  Maybe the politicians, only caring about their re-election and personal enrichment, see cheap commodities as a greater priority than individual liberty?

Another legacy of the Nixon administration is in popular culture.  Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s labyrinthine postmodern kaleidoscope of paranoia, perversion, and war atrocities, was published in 1973.  In 1974, Francis Ford Coppola released the Godfather: Part II, a film that was both sequel and prequel to the Godfather.  The second film charts the immigrant beginnings of the Corleone Family.  Vito Corleone rises to power, while the film charts the Corleone Family in the Fifties and Sixties.  Michael Corleone, heir of Vito, has power, wealth, and influence.  Senators do his bidding and power is extended from New York to Nevada and into Cuba.  Castro’s Revolution cuts short the Mafia plutocracy.  Michael retreats to his eyrie in Lake Tahoe, consolidating power again in another periodic Mafia purge, whacking the disloyal.  But the power corrupts him, rotting him from the inside, when he puts a hit out on his brother, Fredo.  The Godfather: Part II is an American fable about immigration and the corruptions of capitalism.  It also works as a metaphor of the Nixon Presidency with its paranoia, seclusion, and ruthlessness.

It’s Nixon’s world; we just live in it.

2 thoughts on “Years of Upheaval (1981) by Henry Kissinger

  1. Pingback: World Spinner

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s