The Trouble with Henry

When gathering material for his new book, Alistair Horne was warned by Brent Scowcroft, a longtime colleague of Henry Kissinger’s, that “Henry could tell the same story ten different ways to ten different people and never fib.” Scowcroft, one feels, was at least half right. Kissinger has told the story of his years as national security advisor and secretary of state many times, in his massive memoirs, his history of international relations, and in books such as Ending the Vietnam War and Crisis: The Anatomy of Two Major Foreign Policy Crises. Kissinger: 1973, The Crucial Year gives him another opportunity, this time with the help of the distinguished historian Sir Alistair Horne.

In 2004, Horne’s publisher, George Weidenfeld, proposed that he write Kissinger’s official life, based on the thirty-three tons of material in the Kissinger archives. Horne, then on the eve of his eightieth birthday, prudently declined (the task has gone to another prolific and accomplished British historian, Niall Ferguson), suggesting instead that he devote his attention to a single year in Kissinger’s public life. This idea, Horne tells us, immediately met with his protagonist’s enthusiastic approval and active support.

As Horne himself candidly acknowledges, a calendar year, even one as important and crowded as 1973, is not a very satisfactory unit for historical analysis. Some of Kissinger’s most important actions occurred earlier—the opening to China, for example, which Horne feels obliged to include even though it is outside his chronological frame—while many of the most important implications of his policies—for example, the fall of Saigon or the deterioration of détente—emerge only later.

The central event of 1973 was the one in which Kissinger was not directly involved: the Watergate scandal that wounded and eventually destroyed the Nixon presidency. Fortunately we do not have to decide whether Watergate was the organic product of the Nixon White House’s toxic atmosphere or, as Horne seems to think, no more than a political misdemeanor ruthlessly exploited by the president’s enemies. (His chapter on Watergate takes its title from CIA director Richard Helms’s comment that it was “a featherbrained crime.”) What matters is how much the affair affected the conduct of American foreign policy. On this question, Horne accepts Kissinger’s assessment that it was this “elemental catastrophe” that prevented the administration from expanding upon the diplomatic initiatives that seemed so promising at the end of the president’s first term.

On a number of diplomatic developments in 1973, however, Watergate’s impact seems slight. It had, for example, little to do with the failure of the so-called “Year of Europe,” which was, from the start, little more than a slogan. Nor was Nixon and Kissinger’s deplorable policy toward Allende’s regime in Chile seriously altered by the sapping of presidential power. A stronger case can be made that Washington’s response to the Yom Kippur War was influenced by the president’s growing distraction, but, as Horne shows, Kissinger was able to manage this crisis, effectively isolating the president even from the dramatic (and dangerous) decision to send a strong signal to Moscow by raising the alert level of U.S. forces.

The single most important case in which presidential weakness may have played a major role was what Horne calls “The Black Hole”—that is, American policy toward Vietnam. Just before the elections of 1972, Kissinger was able to reach an agreement with his North Vietnamese counterpart; this was signed early in 1973. By the end of the year, the agreement was in tatters, thus opening the road for the humiliating defeat of South Vietnam in 1975.

Horne is probably right to dismiss the charge that the terms negotiated by Kis­singer at the end of 1972 would have been possible three years earlier. But there is another question one might pose: Considering the outcome, were the differences between what might have been achieved in 1969 and what did happen in 1972 worth the enormous costs, to the United States and especially to the peoples of Indochina? The answer depends on whether the 1972 agreement was, in fact, the basis of “peace with honor.” Horne, following Kissinger, argues that an honorable peace—that is, one that did not abandon the South Vietnamese—would have been possible if the administration had been able to enforce the agreements made by North Vietnam. Opposition at home, culminating in the catastrophe of Watergate, rendered this impossible. “From the very beginning to the very end,” Horne concludes, “the hardest blows in the Vietnam War would be struck, not in the jungles and paddy fields, but at home in the United States.” Nonsense. The United States lost the Vietnam War because of its enemy’s ruthless resolve, its ally’s corrupt ineptitude, and its own military and political errors. Watergate may have contributed to the collapse of domestic support for the war, but the deepest and most significant source of this collapse was the American people’s belated recognition that three administrations had been unwilling or unable to tell the truth about what was being done in their name throughout Indochina. From Nixon’s vague promise of a secret peace plan during the 1968 campaign to Kissinger’s claim that “peace was at hand” four years (and hundreds of thousands of lives) later, the Nixon administration perpetuated and eventually paid the price for this policy of deceit and self-deception.

In part because of his narrow chronological frame and because of his dependence on biographical or autobiographical evidence (especially by and about Kissinger himself), personalities dominate Horne’s account. The chapter “Year of Europe,” for example, is largely devoted to the personal foibles of European leaders. Little is said about the long-term blend of interdependence and mutual frustration that shaped—and still shapes—transatlantic relations. Similarly, the destruction of Chilean democracy is blamed on Allende’s incompetence; the subversive engagement of the United States in Chilean affairs is mentioned but not emphasized.

Horne’s tendency to see politics as an expression of personalities reproduces an essential characteristic of Henry Kissin­ger’s approach to diplomacy, which always involved the intrusion of his own energy, emotions, intelligence, and, most of all, growing celebrity into the policy-making process. And as protagonist, historian, and commentator, Kissinger is a presence on every page of Horne’s book. This gives the account a vivid immediacy and also an oddly unbalanced quality. Horne is much too discerning and sophisticated not to recognize Kissinger’s personal shortcomings and policy failures. But his critical comments are frequently presented through quotations from contemporaries or in the form of questions left unanswered. His direct criticisms are usually sweetened by depictions of Kissinger’s charm, sense of humor, and the deep loyalty Kissinger evokes from those who worked with him.

This book demonstrates once again how Henry Kissinger’s personality remains inseparable from his accomplishments and his failures, the cause of his fame and infamy, and the reason why a balanced assessment of his historical role remains, for both his admirers and his critics, so difficult to achieve.

Published in the 2009-07-17 issue: 

James J. Sheehan, a frequent contributor, is professor emeritus of history at Stanford University.

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