By James Mann
Sunday, August 16, 2009
1973, The Crucial Year
By Alistair Horne
Simon & Schuster. 457 pp. $30
Poor Alistair Horne. The British author, who has written more than 20 books about the history of France and of Britain, was offered a few years ago what he believed was "a thrilling opportunity": continuing access to Henry Kissinger, so that he could produce a definitive account of Kissinger's years in office in the Nixon administration.
He might have thought more about the idea first. Kissinger's version of events has been told, retold and retold again. First, there were Kissinger's briefings, news conferences and backgrounders at the time he was in government. Next were the biographies, both early (Marvin and Bernard Kalb) and later on (Walter Isaacson). Above all, there are the man's own books. One of the very few things about Kissinger on which everyone agrees is that he is a prodigious memoirist; he has devoted more than three volumes, totaling 3,600 pages, to his ruminations on his Nixon years and afterwards added a couple of other books on diplomacy and on Vietnam.
Do we really need, then, another book reporting Kissinger's long-expressed views that Watergate undermined his carefully constructed foreign policy; that he thought Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was among the most impressive men he ever met; or that he, Kissinger, held things together in Washington as the Nixon administration began to unravel?
Horne first decided to narrow his task by examining Kissinger's activities in a single "crucial" year, 1973. The choice is debatable; one could as easily argue that most of the elements of Kissinger's diplomacy -- concerning the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam, for example -- were put into place in the 1971-72 period. But since Horne wanted to examine Kissinger's foreign policy against the backdrop of a weakening presidency, his choice of year serves this purpose.
Having set out his aim, Horne plunged forward: "Over a period of more than three years, I had many hours of prolonged meetings with [Kissinger], in Washington, New York, London and Paris, and up at his house in Kent, Connecticut," Horne explains. He tells us about the time he, Lord Carrington (the former British foreign secretary) and Kissinger "were lunching à trois . . . in London's posh Wilton's restaurant." Beyond the interviews with Kissinger, Horne's account relies heavily on Kissinger's memoirs and on interviews with former Kissinger aides, such as Winston Lord, Brent Scowcroft and the late Peter Rodman -- all of whom have been interviewed many times before.
Yet it is mostly of no consequence; the resulting book is a big disappointment. There is little new in the way of information or insight here.
It's not as though there is nothing new for historians to say about Kissinger, but the new information lies outside the man himself and his old associates. Over the past decade, a wealth of fresh material has been released about his diplomacy, including White House tapes, the written notes of his meetings (memcons) and phone conversations (telcons). Some of these run contrary to the Kissinger version of events. In his account of his groundbreaking contacts with Chinese officials in Beijing 1971, for example, he said in his memoirs that the subject of Taiwan was barely discussed. The written "memcon" of the meeting published later on, however, showed that Taiwan was a leading subject of conversation.
Horne seems to have been overwhelmed by the volume of this emerging body of documentary material, and so makes little use of it, except, briefly, in his chapters on Kissinger's role in the Yom Kippur War in the fall of 1973 and its aftermath. These happen, not incidentally, to be the best chapters in the book.
Horne acknowledges the criticism of Kissinger over the years, but in a curious way. He tends to cite only the most incendiary commentators -- Christopher Hitchens on Kissinger's policy toward Chile, or Jung Chang and Jon Halliday on China -- and then, after offering Kissinger's responses to them, decides these critics have gone too far. He downplays the more sober and scholarly criticisms of Kissinger's diplomacy.
Too often, Horne seeks to liven up his history with passages about himself, even though the anecdotes have little to do with the history he is telling. In a chapter on Europe in 1973, he informs us that he got to know West Germany's Willy Brandt many years earlier as a young foreign correspondent in West Berlin. Brandt liked "boozing and wenching," he says, and "we shared some carefree exploits together." Similarly, the chapter about what Kissinger did or didn't do to support the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende in Chile becomes sidetracked when Horne recounts for seven pages a trip he himself made to Chile with his friend William Buckley in 1971. (In sum: The author didn't like Allende and did later come to admire his authoritarian successor, Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Relevance to a history of Kissinger in 1973: not much.)
Oh, well. Horne's attempt to inject himself into the history does provide one of the few interesting new details in the book. Horne says he visited President George W. Bush in the White House two years ago -- he doesn't explain why, but one can assume it was because Horne's classic history of the French war in Algeria, "A Savage War of Peace," was at the time being passed around Washington for its potential insights into the American war in Iraq. Bush, who apparently knew that Horne was talking regularly to Kissinger, quipped: "Please thank Henry for all the good work he's doing for us with [then-Russian President Vladimir] Putin -- though I think maybe he's a bit too kind on the guy!" Now that's a revealing quote, though it has no connection to the history Horne set out to tell.
After finishing this book, the reader is left to await, perhaps, the author's own memoir and, more important, a more informative look back at Henry Kissinger.
James Mann is author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His last book was "The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War."