ad info

 custom news
 Headline News brief
 daily almanac
 CNN networks
 on-air transcripts
 news quiz

CNN Websites
 video on demand
 video archive
 audio on demand
 news email services
 free email accounts
 desktop headlines

 message boards



 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

A realist faces reality

The Ford years don't make a rollicking read, but Kissinger's memoirs draw some smart lessons

By Walter Isaacson

March 8, 1999
Web posted at: 11:00 a.m. EST (1600 GMT)

TIME magazine

It's been 17 years since Henry Kissinger published the second of his three volumes of memoirs, which took him through Richard Nixon's resignation, and some wondered whether he would ever really write this final volume. The Gerald Ford years, after all, were filled with events (communist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia, the end of detente with Russia, arms-control stalemates) that weren't exactly ripe for recounting with relish.

But here it is, yet another 1,000-plus pages, and in the end it was worth the wait. Kissinger again displays an intellectual ambition, provocativeness and mix of sweep and detail that make other memoirs seem pale. Of course that doesn't mean Years of Renewal (Simon & Schuster; $35) is a relaxing beach read. The narratives and character sketches (including those of Nixon and Ford, excerpted in this issue) are often vivid delights, but they are leavened by meticulous trudges through old battlegrounds (some repetitive of previous volumes) that make up in defensiveness what they lack in concision. To paraphrase a reviewer of one of his first books, 40 years ago: Kissinger may be a great writer, but anyone who finishes his book is definitely a great reader.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me note that I once wrote a biography of Kissinger that, while attempting to convey his brilliance, criticized him for failing to fully appreciate the messy openness of America's democracy and the strength it derives from basing its foreign policy on moral ideals. He was not thrilled. In this volume he rather effectively debunks the notion, put forward by myself and others, that growing up as a Jew in Nazi Germany bred in him a reverence for order over ideology, and he ends with an eye-moistening 1946 letter his father wrote him about idealism. But his primary theme, now as in the past, is that in seeking a balance between realistic appraisals of our national interests and Wilsonian idealism, America tips too much toward the latter.

Kissinger's pragmatic, realpolitik approach may have made intellectual sense, but his lack of feel for America's idealistic impulses ultimately contributed to a string of failures: Congress's unwillingness to support South Vietnam after America's withdrawal; the controversy over "secret" assurances of support that Kissinger had given Saigon; the assault on detente with Russia by both liberals and conservatives; and the crazed congressional probes of the cia oddly abetted by its director, William Colby. Kissinger doesn't go so far as to admit he was wrong, but he does concede that "I underestimated the impact on the public psyche of the sharp difference between our approach to foreign policy and the Wilsonianism which had become dominant in the 20th century."

Kissinger is particularly baffled by neoconservatives such as James Schlesinger and Henry ("Scoop") Jackson. He thought they should have been his natural allies in pursuing anticommunist strategies, but he now realizes how deep the differences were between their uncompromising (and rather ambition-laden) moralism and his realism. Among Kissinger's great mistakes, for example, was thinking he could negotiate with Jackson a compromise level of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union that would convince the Senator to support detente, or that he could convince Schlesinger to support an arms-limitation scheme based on realistic numbers. Kissinger also tacitly concedes that the secretive methods he used in negotiating with Russia, China and Vietnam made it harder for him to win sustained support from the bureaucracy and Congress.

The most painful failure was the collapse of the Vietnam peace accord. Kissinger's outrage that Congress would not go to the aid of South Vietnam in 1975 when the North launched its final offensive is sincere and understandable. But he glosses over any differences he may have had with Ford, who displayed a more sensitive feel for the wariness of Congress and the weariness of the public. And he never confronts the basic reality that his 1973 peace accord fudged rather than resolved the issue of whether the communists accepted South Vietnam as an independent country. He is right to be dismayed, but has little justification for being shocked, that neither the North nor the South ever worked hard at reaching a political rather than a military resolution--or that there was little appetite in the U.S. to re-engage in the struggle.

From his earliest writings on Bismarck and Metternich to the final chapter of this final volume of his 3,769-page trilogy of memoirs, Kissinger has remained true to his realist tilt. "The United States," he concludes, "must temper its missionary spirit with a concept of the national interest and rely on its head as well as its heart in defining its duty to the world."

Yet the enduring successes of the Ford years came not from merely pursuing the pragmatic calculations of the Nixon years. The 1975 Helsinki accord, for example, including its uber-idealistic declaration on human rights, will be "considered by posterity as a landmark in the West's victory over communism," as Kissinger points out. More broadly, the Ford years restored a sense of honesty, openness and morality to the conduct of foreign affairs. In portraying them as years of renewal, Kissinger conveys his appreciation of these values, perhaps even more fully than he did at the time.


Cover Date: March 15, 1999

Search CNN/AllPolitics
          Enter keyword(s)       go    help

© 1999 Cable News Network, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.
Who we are.