I approached Henry Kissinger's "White House Years" with some misgivings both because of its voluminous length -- nearly 1,500 pages -- and an impression gained from some reviews that it contains more trees than forest. As one interested more in policy formation than crisis management, I was less concerned with how meticulously Kissinger records his experiences than with how perceptively he appraises them.
It is pleasant to report that, while I am far from agreeing with him in all respects, he does both in a masterly fashion, and with as much objectivity as one would expect from a participant. Two examples illustrate the latter point.
He emphasizes, rather than masks, as so many accounts by statesmen do, the distorting static which unforeseen contigencies and domestic pressures introduce into the application of any sort of calculated and coherent foreign policy. "There is little time for leaders to reflect," he writes. "They are locked in an endless battle in which the urgent constantly gains on the important. The public life of every political figure is a continual struggle to reserve an element of choice from the pressure of circumstances."
Even more remarkably, Kissinger frankly concedes that the elevation of the national security adviser into the President's principal instrument for the formulation and conduct of foreign policy, which Nixon's profound distrust both of the bureaucracy and his own Cabinet inspired and Kissinger himself zealously cultivated, was a serious mistake.
"Though I did not think so at the time," he writes, "I have become convinced that a President should make the Secretary of State his principal adviser and use the National Security Adviser primarily as a senior administrator and coordinator . . . . If the President does not have confidence in his Secretary of State, he should replace him, not supervise him with a personal aide."
This is of course equally sage advice for the conduct of foreign policy under the present administration and its successors.
One reason the memoirs are so long is that approximately one-third is devoted to an account of the interminable negotiations which Kissinger conducted with the North and South Vietnamese and of the battles which punctuated them.
I found it difficult then, and still do now, to understand how so hard-headed a realist as Henry Kissinger could ever have supposed that whatever agreements he might negotiate with Hanoi would survice unless Saigon, after the inevitable US withdrawal, had the strength and will to maintain them. I have always thought, and still do, that the Nixon administration should have ended direct US involvement much earlier and, while continuing as much military and economic aid to Saigon as Congress would permit, left both combat and negotiation to the Vietnamese. Given the overwhelming American revulsion against out continued participation, this had to be in any case the ultimate outcome.
The detailed account of the wise opening to the People's Republic of China is fascinating, but the parts of the memoirs most relevant to immediate concerns are those reflecting upon our relations with the Soviet Union. Several brief quotations epitomize Kissinger's carefully balanced conclusions on this most critical of all our external problems.
"The two superpowers often behave," Kissinger writes, "like two heavily armed blind men feeling their way around a room, each believing himself in mortal peril from the other, which he assumes to have perfect vision . . . . Each tends to ascribe to the other side a consistency, foresight adn coherence that its own experience belies. Of course, over time even two armed blind men can do enormous damage to each other, not to speak of the room."
As of the present writing, the "room" about which the two "blind men" are awkwardly groping is the Gulf, an explosive area, which could be set alight by any spark struck by a superpower or a local fanatic.
In a similar vein Kissinger wrote to Nixon in 1969: "It is always tempting to arrange diverse Soviet moves into a grand design. The more esoteric brands of Kremlinology often purport to see each and every move as part of the carefully orchestrated score in which events inexorably move to the grand finale. Experience has shown that his has rarely if ever been the case. From the Cuban missile crisis, through the Arab-Israeli war, to the invasion of Czechoslovakia, there has been a large element of improvisation in Soviet policy."
Yet Kissinger firmly believes that Soviet behaviour outside its accepted sphere is to a large degree conditioned by what the US does or does not do. "To expect the Soviet leaders to restrain themselves," he writes, "from exploiting circumstances they conceive to be favorable is to misread history. To foreclose Soviet opportunities is thus the essence of the West's responsibility. It is up to usm to define the limits of Soviet arms."
He goes on, however, to make another vital point: "In the face of the Soviet Union's ambiguous challenge, the West paralyzed itself, moreover, not only by excesses of conciliation but by excesses of truculence."
A final quotation reflects what is after all the heart of the matter. "I had then retained, and still do, the confidence that free peoples can accomplish both, looking to their security through strong defenses while simultaneously exploring the ambiguous prospects for peace. Indeed, if they cannot pursue both objectives, they will fail in both."
This, too, is advice which the Carter administration, and the more "truculent" members of Congress, would do well to ponder prayerfully.