Uncertain Greatness (Magill's Literary Annual 1978)
Robert Morris worked successively as an aide to Dean Acheson during the NATO crisis of 1966, as a Foreign Service Officer on the Executive Secretariat of the Secretary of State, as a special assistant of McGeorge Bundy during the Mideast War of 1967, and as a staff member of the National Security Council under President Johnson in 1967-1968. He served on the National Security Council staff under Henry Kissinger from 1969 to May, 1970, when he resigned because of his opposition to the invasion of Cambodia. For the past two years he has been a contributing editor to The New Republic, where his profiles of Carter administration appointees in foreign affairs have provoked wide comment and occasional outrage.
Uncertain Greatness is not a biography of Henry Kissinger but an evaluation of his performance as President Nixon’s Assistant for National Security and later as Secretary of State. It is a monumental task because Henry Kissinger dominated American foreign policy through some of the most turbulent years in our history. Any evaluation must include an understanding of his theory toward diplomacy and foreign affairs and his relationships with the foreign policy bureaucracy, President Nixon, his staff members, the press, and Congress.
Kissinger had written a number of books about diplomacy, foreign affairs, and international relations prior to joining the Nixon administration. In these books he set out the broad general theories which serve as a guide to understanding his performance as our foremost diplomat. His purpose was to maintain a favorable balance of power. Thus, there was a need for a precise calculation of interests and a self-interested approach to international relations and negotiations. Although Morris’ presentation of the theory is brief, it is accurate. However, he would have been in a better position to evaluate Kissinger and his policy if he had taken the time to discuss at greater length the implications of this theory and to explore some of the criticisms of the theory as well as some of the alternatives.
In addition to his discussion of Kissinger’s theory, Morris discerns three concepts that had a lasting influence on the man and his policy. They are his scorn for the bureaucracy, his faith in the establishment of a new national diplomacy, and the need to obtain domestic support so the policy would be legitimized.
Morris obviously shares Kissinger’s scorn for the bureaucracy because the first chapter is a scathing attack upon the foreign policy bureaucracy and the decision-making procedure of the Johnson administration. The decision-makers are accused of being more concerned with how the policy looked than with the policy itself. The close circle of advisers is referred to as the “Wise Men” in a way clearly not intended to be complimentary. The career officers of the foreign service are described as paper shufflers who shun policy responsibility to the public and are interested only in the rights of passage and the desire to make no waves.
According to Morris, a shared distrust of the bureaucracy is one of the ties that united Nixon and Kissinger. He suggests that they both had the same fundamental attitude about the use of power in foreign policy and in Washington. They are pictured as suspicious men who were afraid others would use the tactics against them that they used. From the very beginning, Nixon had told Kissinger they would take the foreign policy from the State Department and put it in the White House.
Morris seems to have seen in Henry Kissinger the potential for reducing the power of the bureaucracy by a fundamental rewording of the foreign policy decision-making procedure. The new system as originally designed by Morton Halperin was to balance the bureaucratic forces for inaction and maintenance of the status quo by compelling full presidential consideration of all the available options. To Morris this was a decision-making structure designed to assure...
(The entire section is 1630 words.)
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