Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1693
Henry Kissinger’s monumental Years of Renewal begins at one of the most dramatic points in American domestic history, when President Richard Nixon is forced to resign on August 9, 1974, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. With the exception of the brief first part, Kissinger’s book gives an extremely detailed account of his service to Nixon’s chosen successor, President Gerald Ford. Moving through the many foreign crises and challenges America had to face from 1974 to 1977, Kissinger offers a fascinating insider’s account on how Ford, he, and their team sought to execute foreign policy in a difficult time for America.
Kissinger organizes his memoirs in ten parts which, in generally chronological order, deal with the crises, catastrophes, and challenges of the years from 1974 to 1977, including a first part reflecting on the Nixon administration from 1969 to 1974. Thus, his readers get an exclusive view of dramatic historic events ranging in scope from the avoidance of a Greek-Turkish war over Cyprus to intense superpower negotiations with the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China in the penultimate decade of the Cold War.
As Kissinger describes his encounters with Leonid Brezhnev and Mao Zedong, his book illuminates how relationships between nations are shaped by the people operating at the highest level of government.Years of Renewal also offers a welcome reminder of how tense the competition between American and Soviet interests had been before the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and how much, all over the world, people and politicians were concerned about the threat of nuclear war.
Kissinger’s famous “shuttle diplomacy” in the Middle East, as he tries to mediate between Israel and its Arab neighbors in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, shows how persistently Kissinger strove to calm this global hot spot. Working closely with Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat and the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Kissinger shows how the second Sinai agreement is finally reached. Tragically, both of Kissinger’s negotiation partners, Sadat and Rabin, would later be assassinated by fanatics.
The catastrophic fall of Cambodia and South Vietnam in the early spring of 1975 occupies a central spot in Kissinger’s memoirs. This tragic event is followed by a reflection on his attempts to reunify America’s Western European allies and to come up with a successful political response to the world energy crisis of the mid-1970’s, which threatens to ruin Western industrial productivity. Emboldened by their perception of American weakness in the wake of the fall of Saigon, the Soviet Union begins to interfere in the civil war in Angola following this country’s release from Portuguese colonial rule in 1975. Here, Years of Renewallucidly shows how skillfully Kissinger has to maneuver between Soviet expansionism, congressional disapproval of an active American intervention, and the troubling existence of white minority governments in the former Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa.
Given all these crises and challenges to America’s global interests, however, the title of Kissinger’s book seems oddly inappropriate. In the wake of Watergate, most political analysts and historians agree, American power did not yet see a sense of renewal. Instead, there was a precarious decline illustrated most dramatically by the communist victories in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos in April, 1975, American economic recession in response to the oil crisis triggered by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and Soviet and Cuban intervention in Angola. At home, there was still a sense of economic despair, moral decline, disillusionment with politics, and a climbing crime rate perhaps best illustrated by Martin Scorsese’s famous film masterpiece Taxi Driver (1977).
As if to justify his choice of his title, Kissinger stresses the point that President Ford managed to restore a minimum of prestige and respect to the institution of the presidency. It is imaginable that without Kissinger’s able diplomatic activities, things could have become far worse for America than what happened historically. It would appear more adequate, however, to speak of a period of recovery, as America recuperates from the damages Nixon’s Watergate scandal had wrought on the national psyche.
Kissinger had worked very closely with Nixon, first as his National Security Adviser and, beginning in 1973, also as secretary of state. Kissinger’s first two books of memoirs, White House Years (1979) andYears of Upheaval (1982), deal at length with his work in the first and then in the truncated second term of Nixon’s presidency. In Years of Renewal, Kissinger generously describes Nixon as “the perhaps most complex President of the twentieth century,” who possessed conflicting character traits that made it very difficult to know him as a person.
After Nixon, Kissinger praises Gerald Ford for his dedication to healing the great rifts which had opened up in America’s political landscape.Years of Renewal is unanimous in its praise for Ford, who is described as a man of character who “had courage and leadership ability” and did the best he could to preserve American interests and American honor in a hostile, turbulent period.
Kissinger’s claim of a straight trajectory from Ford’s foreign policy to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall appears somewhat stretched, and it has met with rejection from quite a few critics of his book. In the field of foreign policy, things certainly first worsened during the Iranian hostage crisis and Soviet expansionism in Africa and Central America before taking a turn for the better. Some critics would argue that a genuine renewal of American confidence did not take place until the Reagan presidency was under way and Mikhail Gorbachev decided on his own to release Eastern Europe from its Soviet grip and to establish a cordial relationship with Reagan’s successor, George Bush.
Throughout his tenure in office, critics on the Left and the Right have charged that Kissinger preferred order and a stable world to the point of being too reluctant to engage communist regimes aggressively, either on issues of human rights or on allegedly disadvantageous arms treaties. Kissinger emphatically denies that charge. “But the Germany of my youth had a great deal of order and very little justice; it was not the sort of place likely to inspire devotion to order in the abstract,” is his final assessment. Since his Jewish family escaped from the Nazis in 1933 when Adolf Hitler came to power, Kissinger’s personal recollection represents a powerful rebuttal. In the light of his background, it is also interesting to read that because of his German accent, Kissinger’s voice was not broadcast on television or radio until 1972.
Years of Renewal is at its fascinating best when it reveals how American foreign policy was shaped both on the level of long-range strategies and in reaction to crises that threatened to spin out of control. Kissinger is also passionate in his defense of Ford’s foreign policy, which sought to hold the Soviet Union at bay while negotiating with its leaders to lessen lingering Cold War tensions.
Persistently, Years of Renewal stresses that in the mid-1970’s, overt confrontation of the Soviet Union would not have been politically feasible. It is Kissinger’s firm conviction that trying to negotiate a limit on nuclear arms and dealing with the Soviet Union as a lasting player in world politics was the only realistic course of action in the 1970’s.
Another strong conviction expressed by Kissinger in this book of memoirs is the belief that congressional micromanagement of foreign policy issues, which he sees as beginning in the post-Watergate atmosphere, has been truly harmful to America’s interests. Kissinger blames Congress for sabotaging many of his political maneuvers.
The fall of Cambodia and Vietnam was one of the most painful defeats of American foreign policy, and Years of Renewal powerfully evokes the atmosphere of darkness and despair enshrouding these events. In 1973, Kissinger and his North Vietnamese diplomatic counterpart Le Duc Tho (who declined the award) received the Nobel Peace Price for negotiating the Paris Peace Agreement to end American military involvement in the Vietnam War. It was thus especially painful for Kissinger to witness, in early 1975, the de facto violation of the Paris agreement to the point of becoming moot when North Vietnamese tanks rolled through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon on April 30, 1975, ending the war with a complete communist victory.
Kissinger betrays a certain sense of wishful thinking when he writes that in January, 1975, when North Vietnam launched an offensive in South Vietnam, American military aid of at least three hundred million dollars, which Congress refused to authorize, could have saved the situation. “The survival of Vietnam now depended on our ability to obtain the supplemental appropriation” of this amount, Years of Renewal states. Yet the problems of South Vietnam, and Cambodia, at this point, were too immense to have been solved merely by an American cash infusion to buy ammunition and weapons.
In the end, it appears that Kissinger realizes that the granting of this aid, which Congress denied, would have only enabled America to believe it had really done all it could to help, and that it would not have changed the outcome on the ground. Yet it is harrowing to read how mean-spiritedly some politicians behaved in their desire to forget and abandon America’s allies, to the point of not wanting to spend money on the Indochinese refugees fleeing the communist forces.
For a reader interested in a fascinating account by one of the era’s principal players on the stage of world politics, Years of Renewal offers an exciting reward. In its many pages are dramatic stories of world leaders trying to outfox each other, moments of great pain, and occasions of triumph when the worst had been avoided. Kissinger’s informative and detailed descriptions bring back to life years that were certainly traumatic for the United States. That Ford and Kissinger were dedicated to give their best to protect and safeguard American interests worldwide is one of the key insights to emerge from the final volume of this Nobel Prize-winning American statesman.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (March 1, 1999): 1100.
Foreign Affairs 78 (May, 1999): 123.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (March 21, 1999): 6.
Newsweek 133 (March 29, 1999): 42.
Publishers Weekly 246 (February 15, 1999): 95.
Time 153 (March 15, 1999): 59.
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