When I first learned that the British historian Alistair Horne was writing a book on Henry Kissinger, I wondered if anyone had the appetite for another Kissinger book. After all, Kissinger himself has written three weighty tomes about his White House years, as well as a major treatise on diplomacy, and Crisis, a focused memoir of the October 1973 War and the last phase of the Vietnam War, to say nothing of the many biographies and case studies by other eminent authors.
To justify another, the author should uncover new information that has hitherto escaped notice or come up with a new interpretation of Kissinger and his role that helps us understand the dramatic events of the early 1970s. To his credit, Horne has partially answered the first of these challenges. He has dug deeply into the massive documentation that is now available and interviewed a significant number of people, including the man himself. As a result, there are a few tidbits that strike me as fresh.
As for presenting an original case, the author offers less. This portrait is pretty much the one that Kissinger has already drawn of himself, and it is quite a bit less critical than the acclaimed biography by Walter Isaacson. It is, in short, an admiring account of the man in his prime. But perhaps, in our post-neocon era, it is worth reminding ourselves what a realist foreign policy as practiced by a master looks like.
Horne decides—wisely, in my view—to confine his focus to 1973. This was the crucial year when Watergate began to undermine the presidency of Richard Nixon, the year of major developments in U.S. relations with both China and the Soviet Union, the beginning of the end of the war in Vietnam, and the overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile. Most momentously, 1973 was the year of the Yom Kippur War, from which ensued the oil embargo, the stage-three nuclear alert, the invention of “shuttle diplomacy” and the Middle East peace process, and the phenomenon of “Super K,” the foreign-policy impresario who simultaneously wore the hats of secretary of state and national security adviser.
I am not an entirely neutral reviewer, since I worked in a junior capacity for Kissinger on his National Security Council staff during this period. Until the outbreak of the October 1973 War, I had little direct contact with him, and I doubt he paid much attention to the memos that I regularly sent to his office. During the October War, however, I saw him nearly every day from the lowly vantage point of note taker in the numerous meetings of the Washington Special Action Group or when he and Nixon met with Arab foreign ministers. It was Henry at his best and worst, sometimes raging about the insanity of Sadat for starting a war that he could not possibly win, then quickly realizing that winning was not what Sadat had in mind at all and figuring out that this crisis might actually open the way for a new relationship with Egypt that would advance American interests.
Kissinger was always hard to decipher. At times, he seemed clear-sighted and able to grasp the essence of an unfolding crisis. On other occasions he seemed emotional, petty, manipulative, duplicitous, and ignorant—he really did not seem to understand the nature of the international oil market.
How to sort out the real Kissinger from these contrasting images? Horne’s account may be laudatory, but it is not hagiographic. He offers some trenchant observations about his subject’s weaknesses. He notes, for example, that Kissinger’s “own insecurity never ceased to surprise me.” Certainly Nixon, knowing that he held the power to make or break Kissinger’s career, played on that insecurity and vanity. Perhaps that is why Kissinger seemed so deferential to Nixon. Yet he would also mock the president behind his back, calling him “loaded” after a few drinks or saying that Nixon was a madman. On occasion, Horne finds Kissinger obsequious “almost to excess,” but he also expresses understanding. What else, he seems to suggest, can one expect when dealing with the president of the United States?
Almost one-third of this engaging book deals with the Middle East. I am struck by Horne’s insistence that Kissinger seemed to have a critical view of Israelis, referring to them as an “ungenerous people” and expressing doubt about Israel’s survival as a state beyond the mid-21st century. He further notes that Kissinger opposed the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, calling it a “potentially historic disaster.” Contrast that with a quote from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin about Super K: “‘First and foremost he’s an American, no doubt about it, but deep in his heart, he comes from here … and he’s a very warm Jew and for him it is a mission to defend us” (cited in Patrick Tyler’s A World of Trouble, page 140). One wonders again who is the real Kissinger. My guess would be that here Rabin is closer to the truth.
Horne explores the most vital and intriguing elements of Kissinger’s role in the October Crisis, but leaves some important issues unresolved. There is the long-running debate over the airlift to Israel, for one. The standard account, which Horne largely sticks to, has it that Kissinger favored a quick and large-scale response to Israel’s urgent requests for arms. The Department of Defense, according to this version, served as the obstacle to supporting Israel—either for bureaucratic reasons or for pro-Arab motives. I clearly remember, however, Kissinger telling then Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger that the DoD would have to take the blame for a delayed response while he tried to put a ceasefire in place with the Soviets and others. The British were supposed to introduce a resolution on Oct. 12 and, pending the outcome of this maneuver, Kissinger was not eager to launch the airlift, despite the fact that the Soviets were already sending in resupplies to their clients. It was only when the British initiative failed that Nixon and Kissinger shifted gears and authorized a full-scale airlift. Once the Pentagon got the green light, the flow of supplies began almost immediately.
A second question involves Kissinger’s visit to Israel after he had brokered the ceasefire in Moscow. While in Israel, he encountered strong resistance from the Israelis to an immediate ceasefire, since their army had nearly surrounded the Egyptian Third Army. Horne quotes Kissinger telling Golda Meir, “You won’t get violent protests from Washington if something happens during the night, while I’m flying.” Horne thinks Kissinger came to regret the remark, which encouraged the Israelis to break the ceasefire. Others, however, see it as a typical example of Kissingerian duplicity.
Finally, there is the peculiar issue of the Defcon 3 nuclear alert. Many have noted that on the momentous evening of Oct. 24, when Brezhnev seemed to be threatening to send troops to the region, Nixon did not join the meeting of the National Security Council where the decision on the alert was made. Some have suspected that Nixon was drunk. When asked if this was true, Kissinger has offered no comment. Horne clearly believes the allegation, and he gets some confirmation from interviews with those close to Nixon—though not from Kissinger or Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr. Perhaps we will never know, perhaps it does not matter, though the idea that Nixon was not in the right mental shape to make decisions in the midst of a nuclear crisis, and that others acted in his name, does raise concern.
Horne retells the Defcon 3 story in a compelling manner even for those of us who lived through it. He accepts that Kissinger was prepared to order American troops into Egypt to confront Soviet troops. My own recollection is rather different. On the morning of Oct. 25, when we briefly received intelligence that Soviet troops might be on their way to Egypt, Kissinger asked his staff to come up with plans to send American troops to the region but not actually into Israel or Egypt. Fortunately, within hours we were reassured that we had received the wrong intelligence and that no Soviet combat forces would be sent to the region. Maybe Kissinger did send a message to Sadat threatening to intervene “on Egyptian soil,” but if such a message was sent, as he claims in Crisis, I think it was a bluff. In any event, I was not at all aware of the possibility of such a course of action. It would have been a logistical and strategic nightmare.
Throughout this book, Horne expresses admiration for Kissinger’s willingness to act to ease Cold War tensions, to finish the Vietnam War, to halt the cycle of violence in the Middle East—at least he did not just react. Yes, but there are still too many unanswered questions about the endgame in Vietnam. What about Kissinger’s charge that it was Congress that caused the failure in Vietnam? Or the bombing of Hanoi? Or the intervention in Cambodia? And why did Kissinger and Nixon, having been warned by Brezhnev and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in fairly explicit terms in the summer and fall of 1973 about the danger in the Middle East, fail to see the war coming or take action to prevent it?
It is true Kissinger was a brilliant crisis manager, but might we have been better off if these crises had been prevented in the first place? Kissinger initially thought Sadat weak, incompetent, and pro-Soviet. He was later to alter those views dramatically, but it took a war, a nuclear alert, and an oil embargo to bring him around.
William B. Quandt is Edward R. Stettinius Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia.
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