White House Years

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

During his years in power, and particularly during those early years as National Security Adviser to the President, it was never quite clear exactly what Henry Kissinger did. His thick German accent, his frequent appearances with Hollywood actresses, his combination of great personal charm and a strangely expressionless face, his secret missions to China and Paris and Moscow, and his close association with the ever-perplexing Richard Nixon all helped to build up around Kissinger an air of mystery. It is this mystery which has made the publication of his first volume of memoirs such a public event. The book seems to have met almost everyone’s expectations: Kissinger’s old opponents have found plenty of hedged statements and damning admissions, his admirers have found a fervent defense of the Nixon strategy for peace, and the rest of us have found a richly detailed, superbly written anatomy of American foreign policy.

White House Years is as good a political memoir as this country has ever produced. For insight, candor, and detail, it is far better than the nine or ten memoirs published by former presidents over the past century. It compares well with a number of excellent autobiographies written by earlier diplomats, including George Kennan’s Memoirs and Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation. Whether Kissinger’s book is superior to these is really a matter of taste, for he has written with special purposes and under very unique circumstances. Although Watergate is not covered, it has affected this volume in two important ways. First, Watergate has freed Kissinger of any need to be vague and circumspect in expressing his true sentiments about administration actions; second, it has created almost a moral imperative for him not to cloak any portion of the narrative with “national security” disclaimers. Indeed, it seems that a complete account is what Kissinger wished to write anyway. He has sought to create a feeling for the “texture” of foreign policy during his tenure and to convey and justify to the reader the overall design of the Nixon-Kissinger policies—a justification all the more necessary in the light of the intensity of antiwar sentiment and the ultimately disastrous failure of the Vietnam policy.

All of this is made possible by the way in which White House Years is written. First, it is immensely detailed. Kissinger wrote nearly fifteen hundred pages to cover the time from his appointment as National Security Adviser (November, 1968) to the conclusion of the Vietnam peace agreement (January, 1973); in other words, he has averaged about five hundred words for each day of this fifty-month period. It is hard to imagine how such thoroughness could avoid being incredibly tedious; but Kissinger manages to keep the book not only interesting, but also often suspenseful. He accomplishes this primarily through exceptionally good writing. Kissinger has a smooth narrative style and a talent for summing up a complex idea in a very simple statement. For example, in one of the few passages in the book dealing with his pre-1968 life, he recalls his perceptions as a Jewish boy growing up in Nazi Germany:Through this period America acquired a wondrous quality for me. When I was a boy it was a dream, an incredible place where tolerance was natural and personal freedom unchallenged. Even when I learned later that America, too, had massive problems, I would never forget what an inspiration it had been to the victims of persecution, to my family, and to me during cruel and degrading years. I always remembered the thrill when I first walked the streets of New York City. Seeing a group of boys, I began to cross to the other side to avoid being beaten up. And then I remembered where I was.

Such writing, even when dealing with drier subjects, is a pleasure to read. Coming from a public figure, it is surprising; coming from a public figure to whom English is a second language, it is remarkable. The style makes it easier to forgive Kissinger for a certain repetitiveness: he describes Russians, North Vietnamese, the State Department, and liberal Democrats as possessing “congenital insecurity,” “congenital stubbornness,” “congenital obtuseness,” “congenital naïveté,” and so on. He tends to state a very general observation about foreign policy, or life, for example, only to jump to a specific situation with the transition—“And so it was in. . . .” He also makes many of his favorite points about foreign policy, about bureaucracy, and about the President not once or twice, but six or seven times.

In contrast, Kissinger introduces the cast of the book succinctly and memorably. He also tends to be extremely diplomatic. He is generous in his evaluations of everyone, and he rarely has anything negative to say about anyone. He does not even damn with faint praise—he damns only by offering less than outlandish praise. Thus Charles de Gaulle is “one of the two or three most remarkable men I have ever met,” while his successor, Georges Pompidou, was merely “a strong, decisive, and dominant President.” One gathers that Kissinger did not entirely approve of Pompidou. Extravagant praise aside, however, Kissinger’s characterizations and anecdotes ring true and help sustain the narrative. He recounts, for example, one occasion when the President and part of his Cabinet were about to be admitted to the Pope’s presence for an audience. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird was, as usual, smoking a cigar. Kissinger suggested to Laird that cigar-smoking might be an inappropriate activity during the religious ceremony, whereupon Laird promptly tucked the still-lit cigar into his suit pocket. Kissinger’s subsequent description of “the full drama of the Secretary of Defense immolating himself in front of the Pope” somehow manages to convey both the irrepressible personality of Laird and the underlying absurdity of state ceremonies.

By far the most interesting of Kissinger’s personages is Richard Nixon. This is partly because Nixon is the only figure Kissinger criticizes openly, partly because Nixon’s virtues and faults were so closely interwoven, and partly because Kissinger’s attitude toward the President is thoroughly ambivalent. On the one hand, Kissinger is harshly critical of Nixon’s administrative style. The President, in this portrait, was a man who thrived on making the “difficult” and “unpopular” choice, almost regardless of whether it was the correct policy choice. This trait was true both in relation to his Cabinet, from which he would try to hide or disguise decisions which went against their recommendations, and in relation to the country, before which he repeatedly described himself as a determined man bucking popular will, devoting himself to shoring up American strength at the imaginary cost of limiting himself to one term in office. The reader receives a full dose of stories about Nixon’s petty competition with government agencies for the lion’s share of credit when policies were successful, of his incessant attention to form and public image, and of his “fatalistic instinct that nothing he touched could ever be crowned with ultimate success”—an instinct which often nearly sabotaged delicate negotiations on the brink of breakthroughs.

Alongside this unpleasant view of Nixon the man, there arises in Kissinger’s pages another view: that of Nixon the statesman. The adviser readily gives the President credit for exhaustively studying relatively technical details of foreign...

(The entire section is 3079 words.)