The Kissinger Transcripts owes its existence to the persistence of the researchers at the private National Security Archive who hunted down the once secret government documents recording Kissinger’s meetings behind closed doors with such top communist leaders as Mao Zedong and Leonid Brezhnev. William Burr, the book’s editor and a senior analyst with the archive, follows his nonprofit institution’s goal to provide public access to formerly secret material on U.S. foreign relations and military policy. Burr’s research skills, his devotion to the task, and a certain amount of luck in the archives contributed to his remarkable finds.
Burr’s task was not easy. When Henry A. Kissinger retired from government service in January, 1977, he managed to keep most of his papers out of the public sphere. He did so by depositing them in the Library of Congress, where no one but himself should have unrestricted access to them “until 2001 or five years after his death, whichever occurred later.” Some critics have charged that Kissinger restricted access to control primary sources that were critical for anyone trying to write about him (as Walter Isaacson had done in his Kissinger: A Biography, 1992).
With no one but himself enjoying unrestricted access to his old files, Kissinger’s own autobiography was guaranteed a certain level of exclusivity. Moreover, the inability for people to check freely the relevant documents for themselves would make it more difficult for anybody to challenge Kissinger’s account of his work, which he has presented in the three volumes of his memoirs, White House Years (1979), Years of Upheaval (1982), and Years of Renewal (1999).
However, the fact that many of Kissinger’s top aides made copies of his files and memoranda and deposited them with the State Department provided a lucky break for Burr. Since the Freedom of Information Act covers executive organs like the State Department, Burr obtained access to copies of relevant, declassified documents in the State Department’s possession. Once an intern at his institution, Matthew Talbott, alerted Burr to the existence of copies made by Winston Lord, Kissinger’s top aide on China policy, he found the transcripts of negotiation sessions with the Chinese reaching all the way to Richard Nixon’s meeting with Mao. While not all transcripts are complete and some remain secret, the publication of Burr’s carefully edited The Kissinger Transcripts fills a vital gap for anybody interested in reading what was truly said at top secret meetings of the political elite of three world powers.
The Kissinger Transcripts opens with a lucid description of superpower relations in the early 1970’s. Even though the Cold War had begun to thaw, the United States and the Soviet Union were still locked in an antagonistic relationship. President Nixon took office in 1969 determined to end the American involvement in the war in Vietnam and to try to negotiate a nuclear arms deal with the Soviets.
In the young Harvard professor Henry Kissinger, Nixon found an ideal candidate for his national security adviser, who would have to work hard on both issues. Kissinger preferred working in secret and directly with foreign leaders and their substitutes, short-circuiting the conventional State Department bureaucracy and the legislative process; Nixon found these traits admirable and useful.
While the negotiations with Moscow were expected, Nixon and Kissinger surprised the world when they announced that Nixon would visit Mao Zedong in Beijing in February, 1972. Ever since Mao’s Communists had seized all of mainland China in 1949, the United States had recognized and supported Mao’s sworn enemy, the government of General Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan. However, since relations between the Soviet Union and Mao’s People’s Republic of China had deteriorated massively by the late 1960’s, Nixon thought that the United States could gain a decisive advantage if, in Burr’s words, he were “to develop new relations with old adversaries.”
The point of the United States’ new “triangle diplomacy” was to create a geopolitical situation where Moscow and Beijing were more hostile toward each other than toward Washington. To check the Soviets, Burr points out, Nixon and Kissinger would nurture a new relationship with China; and to get close to the Chinese, they sought to utilize Mao’s hostility toward the Soviets.
(The entire section is 1832 words.)