Years of Renewal

By Henry Kissinger

When discussing the diplomacy of the later American Empire, historians will probably speak of the Age of Kissinger – a highly skilled political operator who became an enormously influential member of cabinet at a time when the presidency itself was weakened by both foreign and domestic crises.

No doubt one of their major sources of material will be the history of those years as written by Kissinger himself.

Years of Renewal is the third and concluding volume of Kissinger’s memoirs, covering the years he served as Secretary of State in the Ford administration (1974-76). As one might expect, it is a spirited defence of his policies as well as an attack on his detractors (a group that includes his critics in the nascent neo-conservative movement as well as his enemies in Congress and the liberal media establishment).

The case against Kissinger is that he was a brutal Cold War ideologue whose approach to foreign policy was essentially amoral and whose warmongering statecraft made him the most improbable winner of the Nobel Peace Prize since Teddy Roosevelt. In my first year at university, the news that Kissinger was coming was still enough to arouse a storm of controversy (though I suspect this was mostly outrage at his speaker’s fee).

How much of this was fair? What seemed to be cynicism, after all, may only have been realism or common sense. Opposed to the tradition of “Wilsonian idealism” in U. S. foreign policy, Kissinger sought to manage adversarial relations through a balance of power, making national self-interest the cornerstone of his diplomacy.

He was not, as some would have it, an unethical man. His policy decisions were filled with moral conviction, perhaps even more than he would care to admit.

The chapter dealing with the collapse of democracy in Southeast Asia is a case in point. Kissinger’s outrage at America’s abandonment of its allies in Vietnam and Cambodia has its basis in morality rather than law. What was at stake was America’s honour and credibility; there were no legal obligations involved.

Not surprisingly, it is in defence of this moral obligation that the diplomacy seems most unreal. One of the most bizarre moments Kissinger describes comes during a National Security Council meeting in April, 1975. Congress was pushing for breaking off virtually all funding to support Vietnam. Ford had the option of accepting this, asking for an additional $300 million (which would have been “patently inadequate”), or requesting $722 million. Ford decided to ask for the $722 million (he didn’t get it), despite the fact that “it did not make any practical difference which figure was chosen,” since Vietnam was disintegrating so fast it would have collapsed before any aid could arrive anyway.

“On one level,” Kissinger admits, “it was preposterous.”

The unreality of the discussion is apparent in its basic premise. Kissinger writes that “there is no doubt in my mind that, with anything close to an adequate level of American aid, they (South Vietnam and Cambodia) would not have collapsed in 1975.” But if not then, when? Surely by 1975 it was only a matter of time. No amount of U. S. gold was going to prop up these regimes.

No one attempting to write an 1,100 page history of U. S. foreign diplomacy under President Ford can afford to ignore the importance of style. In one of his many interesting sidebar discussions, Kissinger talks about the demise of the reading public and its replacement by an image- or information-based culture. Book-based knowledge puts a premium on conceptual thinking and learning based on perspective, while our computer culture shrinks perspective and degrades context-based thought. But the problem with acquiring knowledge from books is that reading often depends on other factors. This is where style becomes important, and Kissinger has to be given credit for writing as well as he does. While not a page-turner, the book does move along, helped out by the odd display of wit and a few well-chosen anecdotes (I particularly liked Brezhnev playing with a toy cannon before arms control negotiations).

Before entering government, Kissinger taught at Harvard, and throughout his memoirs one senses a pedagogical bent. This is not, however, a complaint. Chapters like those on the Cyprus dilemma (“A Case Study in Ethnic Conflict”) and the Mayaguez incident (“Anatomy of a Crisis”) are informed and informative discussions of difficult issues that hold the headlines to this day.

But while I would recommend Years of Renewal to anyone with an interest in the history of the period, some readers may find its politics a little hard to take. A “confirmed Cold Warrior,” Kissinger saw the world as starkly divided between communist despotism and free democracies. Thus Sese Seke Mobutu was better for Zaire than an “autocratic paladin of the radical world” (that is, Patrice Lumumba), and Pinochet preferable to Allende (a dictator who murders thousands of his own people being preferable to a commie).

It is hard to say that diplomacy like this was without moral conviction. Unfortunately, it was a morality too often based on Cold War stereotypes and mere calculations of interest. While power may be an aphrodisiac, it can be a terrible narcotic too.

Cynic or realist? A conversation with British Foreign Secretary James Callaghan lets you be the judge:

Kissinger: You know, one respect in which all the humanitarians and liberals and socialists were wrong in the last century was when they thought that mankind didn’t like war . . .
Callaghan: It’s regrettable but . . .
Kissinger: They love it . . .
Callaghan: I don’t know what sort of age we’re passing through or going to pass through, but historians like yourself really ought to give us a rundown on it some time and tell us how you think the next half century is going to look.
Kissinger: I’ll tell you . . . I’m glad I’m not going to be running part of it. It’s going to be brutal.

Review first published May 1, 1999.


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