Henry Kissinger: The sequel

Heroic statesman or war criminal? America's most legendary living foreign-policy wonk takes another stab at molding his legacy.

Published September 30, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

Henry Kissinger, ever anxious to mold his place in history, is, as Ronald Steele has said of Richard Nixon, like the Ancient Mariner, anxious to tell his story over and over again. In his new book, "Crisis: The Anatomy of Two Major Foreign Policy Crises," Kissinger now returns (once more) to two key moments in his career, largely using recently released documents to buttress his case. He first discusses the Yom Kippur War of 1973, arguably the Nixon-Kissinger team's finest hour of diplomacy; and then he turns to the "peace with honor" settlement of the Vietnam War, which Adm. Elmo Zumwalt characterized as bringing neither peace nor honor.

Few men in public life have understood the importance of the documentary record better than Kissinger. Somehow, he managed to leave public office with his records, and then stashed them in the Library of Congress, closed to historical researchers, except for his selected chorus of acolytes. Kissinger made millions of dollars writing memoirs from that record, all the while successfully preventing others from using his papers for nearly three decades. Similarly, his former deputy, Alexander Haig (who was later secretary of state himself, under Ronald Reagan), managed to depart office with all his papers. Nice team.

History usually is written first with memoirs by participants, and then by disinterested historians, who uncover and explore the documentary evidence. Kissinger has given us an ample record of memoirs. But now he is anxious to provide, select and edit the documentary record himself, which he controls while he is alive. Why should we trust the completeness of these materials? Kissinger acknowledges that Condoleezza Rice herself approved and released some of these documents. Would she approve similar requests from historians? Understandably, she is busy these days; but then, historians other than Kissinger are not former national security advisors.

Kissinger first focuses on the Yom Kippur War. For Nixon watchers, this is one of the most fascinating episodes of his presidency. October 1973, when the Egyptians attacked Israel, was Nixon's cruelest month. Watergate was approaching a decisive moment, as pressure mounted on the president to release the damning White House tapes. In the meantime, he had to deal with Vice President Spiro T. Agnew's pending indictment for tax evasion and bribery, charges that resulted in Agnew's plea bargain and resignation. Rep. Gerald Ford succeeded Agnew, but he was hardly Nixon's first choice; the president's diminished power left him no alternative. Finally, special prosecutor Archibald Cox refused to back down from his insistence that Nixon surrender his tapes. The president then dismissed Cox on Oct. 20, and Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy resigned in protest. The ensuing firestorm again left Nixon with no choice, and a week later his lawyers meekly agreed to make the tapes available. Two days after Cox's firing, the House began its impeachment inquiry (which would ultimately lead to Nixon's resignation the following August).

Nixon's ability to deal with the Middle East conflict was extraordinary. This book supplements other documents and materials that have revealed that role. He was in constant touch with Kissinger, sometimes personally and at other times through Haig. It is unlikely that Kissinger has given us the totality of Nixon's role; nevertheless, there is ample material to demonstrate that the president clearly was in charge and well focused.

Nixon intuitively saw opportunity in the conflict. He would not allow either side to win a victory that would reinforce the resentments of the past. As the war proved more difficult for the Israelis, Nixon dispatched consumable military supplies despite Pentagon resistance. But Nixon had another tack: "[W]e've got to squeeze the Israelis when this is over and the Russians have got to know it. We've got to squeeze them goddamn hard." He regularly repeated that he would save the Israelis from being overwhelmed, but consistently added that he would not rescue them again. "I don't think it's going to cost us a damn bit more to send in more ... supplies," the president said, "but only for the purpose of maintaining the balance, so that we can create the conditions that will lead to an equitable settlement. The point is, if you don't say it that way, it looks as though we are sending in supplies to have the war go on indefinitely, and that is not a tenable position."

The administration's refusal to allow the Israelis to destroy the Egyptian Third Army resulted in a cease-fire, more or less between equals. Whatever Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's motivations in beginning the war, events soon proved his determination to change things. There is a clear line that leads from Nixon and Kissinger's 1973 diplomacy to Sadat's dramatic visit to Jerusalem, and the Camp David Agreement orchestrated by Jimmy Carter in 1977. The ensuing quarter-century has not entirely fulfilled the anticipated reconciliation, but there has no been no armed conflict between the parties.

Vietnam is Kissinger's tar baby. In this book he focuses exclusively on the last month of the war and the story of the evacuations of Americans and South Vietnamese. It is a tragic and shameful story for the U.S., and a triumphant one for the North Vietnamese. Kissinger glosses over the painful record of the peace accords, except for occasional jabs at his fellow Nobel Prize winner: "I would say anything that [chief North Vietnamese negotiator] Le Duc Tho is eligible for, there must be something wrong with it." But the facts are inescapable: The "peace agreement" left the North Vietnamese Army intact in the South while American troops withdrew. The papier-mäché South Vietnamese government inevitably collapsed in April 1975.

Historical assessments of Kissinger's diplomacy are increasing rapidly, thanks to the outpouring of Nixon's papers and tapes. Such historians as Jeffrey Kimball and Larry Berman, among others, have already compiled compelling evidence of Kissinger's miscalculation, deceit and eventual failure.

Kissinger describes the last month of the Vietnam conflict as marking the "collapse of an effort to which Americans had sacrificed 25 years of blood and treasure." He still prefers that we believe his 1973 agreement resulted in an American victory, or at least vindication for our 25-year effort. Did he expect North Vietnam to squander its own 30-plus years of struggle for independence and unification? Congress prohibited further American involvement in June 1973, but Kissinger nevertheless huffs: "It was the first time that the United States had deprived itself of the ability to enforce an agreement for which American forces had fought and died." In short, in his view the accords failed only because we did not defend them.

Nixon had promised the South Vietnamese he would continue to defend them despite the congressional injunction. But when the South's government collapsed in April 1975, Ford had been president for eight months. He made a gesture toward intervention, but no more. Secretary of State Kissinger, at that moment, at least, recognized the futility of further involvement. Now he rails against the immoral course of Nixon's successors who failed to enforce a presidential promise. Such agreements, he writes, "impose a moral, not a legal obligation on his successors." Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon generously supported Dwight Eisenhower's commitment to maintain an independent South Vietnam. Consider the costs. Presidential promises, like the act of a legislature, are neither sacred nor binding. While we did not necessarily lose a war, our policy had failed, and not because of our refusal to commit blood or treasure. But the North Vietnamese most assuredly had won. By April 1975, that was the reality; we had no choice.

When the Yom Kippur War erupted, Kissinger told Haig, then the White House chief of staff, that "our domestic situation [i.e., Watergate] has invited this." Watergate so weakened Nixon and his successor, Kissinger insists, that neither could keep Nixon's promise of retaliation if the North Vietnamese violated the truce. But Congress' refusal to authorize any further involvement reflected a turn against the war on its merits, and had precious little to do with the president's weakness.

No stranger to backbiting and innuendo, Kissinger blames "radical McGovernites" in Congress for the Vietnam retreat. This is a cheap shot, at best. Sen. George McGovern will be remembered for his overwhelming defeat by Nixon in 1972, however prophetic he may have been. He was no great mover and shaker in Congress. Congressional opposition to the war was molded by Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., and Sen. J. William Fulbright, D-Ark., chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, allied with many prominent Republicans, including Sens. John Sherman Cooper, R-Ky., Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., and George Aiken, R-Vt., who famously suggested that we put our troops onboard ships, withdraw and then declare victory. Nevertheless, Kissinger persists in blaming the Watergate crisis and the new Congress elected in the wake of Nixon's resignation for the Vietnam debacle.

Make no mistake: Kissinger sees Watergate as the convenient scapegoat for his and Nixon's failures. He urges us to assess "why good men on all sides found no way to avoid this disaster [Vietnam] and why our domestic drama first paralyzed and then overwhelmed us." History is a ready guide. We can begin by considering whether Kissinger's "good men," presumably including himself, simply were wrong, misguided and frozen in rhetoric that long had outlived its relevance and reality. And why did our domestic drama paralyze and overwhelm us? That one is easy. Richard Nixon had abused power and involved himself in criminal activity, and he was found out. Or has sometime-historian Kissinger simply and conveniently forgotten the elementary facts of Watergate?

By Stanley I. Kutler

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