Recovery from Vietnam and Watergate

What is the appropriate role for the United States to play in the world? That question lies at the heart of the third volume of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's memoirs, covering the final days of the Nixon administration through the transition after the 1976 presidential election, when Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford and Dr. Kissinger said farewell to Foggy Bottom.

Kissinger, in his day reviled by the left as too hard-line against US adversaries and by the right as too accommodating toward them, was no Realpolitiker in the classic sense. But he clearly saw - and sees - a need to counter the Wilsonianism that he believed pervaded the State Department. Even when it was unfashionable to do so, he represented the idea that there was something called "American national interest" that was worth defending.

Kissinger describes this period as "Years of Renewal" because it represented a time of recovery from the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate. Specifically, it was a time for the US to play its role as a great power without feeling guilty about it.

Kissinger's personal glimpses of the enigmatic Richard Nixon are among the most fascinating parts of the book: the Nixon who could never say no to someone's face, but could sometimes manage a memo; the Nixon who memorized speeches to be able to appear to be giving them extemporaneously; the Nixon whose "single most important quality was the ability to make bold decisions," though "he was not by nature daring."

But it is Gerald Ford who is the hero of this book, along with, of course, Kissinger himself. No one will read it without an increased appreciation for the nation's one unelected president, who, in Kissinger's view, was able to play such a healing role because he showed up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue without all the baggage that typically accompanies the journey.

"Having never felt obliged to participate in the obsessive calculations of normal presidential candidates, Ford was at peace with himself. To a world concerned lest America's domestic torment impair its indispensable leadership during what was still the height of the cold war, he provided a sense of restored purpose. On his own people, Ford's matter-of-fact serenity bestowed the precious gift of enabling the generations that followed to remain blissfully unaware of how close to disaster their country had come in a decade of tearing itself apart."

Still, Kissinger makes plain, both presidents he served held office under peculiar constraints: Nixon with Watergate closing in on him, and Ford lacking both foreign-policy experience and the electoral mandate that would have given him more authority. As a result, Kissinger had a higher profile, especially in relations with foreign governments, than is usual for a secretary of state.

"Wilsonianism," Kissinger acknowledges of the mind-set he has so often resisted, "was not merely the idiosyncrasy of a few American intellectuals. It was the instinctive expression of a society founded and shaped by immigrants who had affirmed universal principles of liberty and justice to distinguish their society from the values and practices of the Old World. An international order based entirely upon national self-interest would not be sustained by a people who thought of their country as the 'shining city on a hill.'"

*Ruth Walker is the Monitor's correspondent in Toronto.

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