The case for Henry Kissinger

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The man who ran US foreign policy from 1969 to 1977 is loathed by liberals as a ruthless practitioner of global Realpolitik. Yet Alistair Horne, his biographer, believes that there is also a great deal about him to admire

There is a widespread view among the liberal intelligentsia to the effect that Henry Kissinger, US National Security Advisor from 1969 to 1975 and Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977, was a bad man. That may even be an understatement. In this fashionable consensus, he is not just a bad man: he is a war criminal.

His alleged crimes are numerous: the bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia; covert support for the coup against Chile's President Allende in 1973; support for assorted other obnoxious right-wing regimes; and alleged involvement (no charges for which have ever stuck) in the campaign of murder and kidnapping known as Operation Condor. His most vociferous critics, such as the journalist Christopher Hitchens, have explicitly called for him to be tried, while in 2001 a French judge tried to get him to give evidence in relation to the disappearance of civilians in Chile.

Although he remains highly respected in the corridors of global power, and in the boardrooms of multinational corporations, in the salons of the chattering classes he is little better than a pariah. Yet is this reputation actually deserved?

After some four years researching an authorised biography of Henry Kissinger, I came to the conclusion that fashionable opinion may be doing him an injustice.

What was obvious from the start was that no Americans – and few Europeans – could be neutral about him. They either loved him or hated him. For everyone who would happily have seen him arraigned on war crimes charges there were others who applauded his contributions to the cause of world peace.

I think I have come out with the latter group. This is not to say that I consider his record irreproachable. It is just that, on balance, I cannot avoid the conclusion that he is a great man.

A distinguished British biographer, Philip Ziegler, closes his official biography Mountbatten with the admission that, when enraged with his (posthumous) subject, he would have to set in front of himself a notice reminding himself: "Remember, in spite of everything, he was a great man." With Kissinger, I never felt a need for this reminder. In the first place, while I may have infuriated him during our many interviews, he never enraged me. But also the tribute, in his case, should surely have read not "in spite of" but "because of" everything. The very circumstances that have made him notorious – Watergate, Nixon, the Yom Kippur War, Vietnam – were those that define his greatness.

When, in 2005, I was working on the Kissinger papers at the Library of Congress, the Librarian, Dr James Billington, a distinguished scholar seldom given to hyperbole, mused to me how new leaders tended to be either "show horses" or "work horses". "But," he added, "Henry was both, and he deserved full credit." Speaking particularly of détente – and of the fact that Kissinger was working under the shadow of Watergate and a mortally-impaired president – Billington continued: "The period which Henry had to deal with was an extraordinarily difficult one – because of the cards that were dealt him."

This, to me, was the essence of his greatness. Kissinger was surely one of the very few statesmen to try to do something positive to break the log jam of the Cold War; to try to end the war in Vietnam; to bring a halt to the cycle of war in the Middle East. But his was a role of not just reacting – or of rolling with the punches. If circumstances were indeed "extraordinarily difficult", with Watergate frustrating him from attainment of his ultimate objectives, such as "peace with honour" in Vietnam, then it could be said that, at least, because of the straitjacket it imposed on his president, Kissinger was granted opportunities and powers never given to other mere secretaries of state before or after.

A supreme pragmatist, Kissinger was never interested in the art of the impossible – and nor, as a biographer, am I. That is why, having initially been invited to write his entire official biography, I eventually decided to devote myself to writing just one year in his life: 1973. This was, after all, the big year. It was the year that (in October) the world was shaken by the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East. It was the year Kissinger signed a pact to end the Vietnam War and of détente with the Soviet Union. But overshadowing all else, it was the year of Watergate. And in the midst of it, Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, and was appointed Secretary of State.

As for my own credentials for the task, I had written extensively on the Yom Kippur War, had already published a book on the Allende period (Small Earthquake in Chile, in 1972), and thought I knew America. I also had extensive access to Kissinger's archives – said to weigh 33 tonnes – and to Kissinger himself. Four years on, I feel that I am only beginning to approach the level of understanding that his complex career deserves.

To restrict ourselves to the example of the year I have chosen, consider what Kissinger achieved in 1973. The previous year had ended, for Kissinger, on a note of high expectation in the development of US foreign affairs, but personal misgivings about his own role in it. Relations with Nixon (just re-elected by a landslide) were at a low, and he was seriously seriously considering taking up a fellowship in All Souls, Oxford, to write his memoirs. In his busy diary, the New Year of 1973 began with a trip to Paris (one of nearly a score of secret visits) to finalise with the tricky North Vietnamese a treaty ending the Vietnam War. There followed two trips to Beijing to consolidate the new opening to Mao's China, engineered by Nixon and Kissinger over the two preceding years. This was probably the most historic breakthrough in all the Cold War.

Next on the agenda came Kissinger's initiative to open talks with America's European partners, with a view to revitalising Nato as a bastion against any Soviet threat. Ill-advisedly, he dubbed it "The Year of Europe"; to which France's President Pompidou riposted with acidity that, for the French "every year was the Year of Europe". Hand in hand with all this, Kissinger pursued his principal objective of furthering talks on détente, and mutual limitations on ballistic missiles with the Soviets. This was to culminate in Brezhnev's dramatic state visit to Washington in June.

Every gambit of US foreign policy in 1973 was, however, overshadowed by the darkening clouds of the Watergate scandal. It would lead to the resignation of a destroyed Nixon the following August. Kissinger first learnt of the full import of the scandal in April of 1973. As the waters closed in ever nearer to an increasingly-paralysed Nixon, Kissinger, as head of the key National Security Council remained, fortunately – and wisely – the only one of the inner White House team to survive untarnished. Had he been contaminated, it would have constituted a disaster for US foreign policy – and, in my view, for the world. As he remarked to me more than once: "I was the glue that held it all together in 1973 – and I'm not being boastful ... "

He wasn't. But all his efforts were seriously circumscribed by Watergate and the far-reaching distrust which it instilled – most consequentially, in Congress.

In September, Nixon – his egoism and distrust having caused him to hesitate throughout the year – finally appointed Kissinger his Secretary of State, replacing the ineffective (and often humiliated) William Rogers. Immediately, two major international crises landed on Kissinger. The first was the violent overthrow of the elected Allende regime in Chile; the second, and far more dangerous, the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, or in Arab terminology, the October War.

The world's intelligence agencies were totally surprised by the attack on Israel by Sadat's Egypt and Asad's Syria; as indeed was Kissinger himself, and Israel, and even Egypt's Soviet backers. Momentarily, there was an ominous threat of possible Soviet military intervention. It was accompanied by Kissinger (with Nixon incapacitated by alcohol) briefly raising the US nuclear alert to "Defcon 3". This was just one degree lower than that adopted by the US during the Cuban Missiles Crisis of 1972.

Brezhnev backed off. A ceasefire in the Middle East, hard-won by Kissinger, was followed by an equally hard-won semblance of peace between the warring nations. The peace was far from perfect (and was accompanied by an Arab-instigated fuel crisis); but any fair evaluation of Kissinger has to recognise that there were alternative outcomes that could have been infinitely worse.

There are some whose ideological position – specifically in relation the role of military force in international politics – makes it hard for them ever to think of Kissinger as anything but a monster of Realpolitik. As his biographer, I take a more neutral view. To me, Kissinger's career has been a mixture of successes and failures. Among the latter, I would include his handling of the oil crisis in its earliest stages. With an ear originally ill-attuned to the Arab world, or to the scale of their grievances vis-à-vis Israel, he did not take seriously enough Saudi warnings. The "Year of Europe" ended as an almost unqualified disaster, shipwrecked on the timeless rocks of European self-interest and American arrogance. On the other hand, the time and personalities were out of joint: Britain's prickly Prime Minister, Ted Heath, neither understood nor liked America and was fundamentally interested only in Europe; Germany's Brandt was playing his own game with Moscow; in France, Pompidou was dying, to be replaced at the helm of French foreign affairs by the anti-American Michel Jobert.

Kissinger's encouragement of rivalry between the two conduits of US foreign policy – his National Security Council and Rogers's State Department – does not rank among his finest hours either. On the other hand, charges about his involvement in the coup against Chile's Allende had little substance. If there is a "smoking gun" – showing that Kissinger facilitated the coup rather than merely welcoming it – Kissinger's critics have yet to produce it.

Then there is Vietnam. The fall of Saigon in April 1975 brought the collapse of US hopes in Indo-China, and all that Kissinger had striven for so arduously throughout those prolonged negotiations with Hanoi's steely Le Duc Tho. To this day, he regards his failure in Vietnam as the outstanding disappointment of his life – a source of never-ending regret. When the last US helicopters took off from the Embassy roof in Saigon, "only a feeling of emptiness remained". It is an emptiness that, he says, has remained with him ever since.

Could he have done better? There, once again, the shadow of Watergate hung heavy. By 1973 a hostile Congress was pledged to the liquidation of all US responsibilities in Vietnam, torpedoing Nixon's calls for continuing a modicum of military support to the threatened South. Could Kissinger – who was also thwarted in his hopes of some degree of neutrality, if not help, from Peking and Moscow – possibly have fought against the overwhelming tide of the Watergate mood, and what it had done to the American will at home? These are, of course, arguments about the outcome of the war rather than about whether or not the US should have been fighting it in the first place, or about whether any outcome could have justified the loss of life. But Kissinger did not start the Vietnam war.

On the credit side, Nixon's inspired China gambit undoubtedly made the world a safer place (although it would have had more impact without Watergate). Détente with the Soviet Union, a brave and far-sighted enterprise, was always the major plank in Kissinger's platform. Though weakened partly by the unanticipated war in the Middle East, and partly by the effects of the Watergate crisis on Nixon's authority, it remains a triumph for Kissinger's personal role. His wooing of Dobrynin, the Soviet Ambassador in Washington, makes fascinating reading. How many other foreign leaders could tell a troublesome Soviet apparatchik to "hold his water or I will send him to Siberia. I know Brezhnev better than he does. Ask him if he has ever been kissed on the mouth by Brezhnev, as I have ... "?

Though perhaps not a memory that everyone would relish, this nevertheless speaks of a unique world of experience in the career of one of America's most remarkable statesmen. And it reminds us to wonder: how much more dangerous might the world have become without Kissinger's initiatives in détente?

Kissinger also deserves high marks simply for managing to keep the holed US ship-of-state afloat and on course, throughout the terrible months of Watergate. (Just imagine if he had failed in this.)

But what I would award him the most marks for was his ending of the Yom Kippur War, and the tireless "shuttle" diplomacy which led to the construction of a peace still essentially in force to this day. The people of Egypt have – as I reminded a reluctant audience in Cairo last year – been free from war for more than 35 years. That is no mean achievement.

Yet Kissinger, as America's first Jewish Secretary of State, entered Yom Kippur with four monumental handicaps.

1. The Arabs instinctively distrusted him.

2. The atavistically anti-Semitic Russians also distrusted him.

3. Golda Meir, Israel's prime minister, consis- tently thought he should do more for Israel.

4. He was constantly badgered by "Israel First" lobbies in Washington.

His response to the latter was robust. Urged by one powerful Senator, "Scoop" Jackson, to send extra jet fighters to Israel, Kissinger retorted brusquely: "Tell him to go screw himself!" (Few "goy" leaders in DC today could get away with such a remark.) On another occasion, Kissinger warned the Israeli ambassador that if he received one more badgering call he would be "going out of the [arms] supply business".

Bearing in mind these impediments, Kissinger's tireless "shuttle diplomacy", back and forth to Moscow, Jerusalem, Cairo and Damascus (in one period of 11 days he made as many flights), seems to me to be a monumental achievement for which the world has shown insufficient gratitude. I have never played poker with him, but I assume that Kissinger would have been a superb player, playing it long and cool. He still has a mind like a Chinese chess player, capable of functioning on six levels at once. With an endless capacity for patience, he must surely rate as one of history's great negotiators.

Following the end of the Yom Kippur War, Kissinger managed simultaneously to conclude a peace settlement, to exclude the Soviets from monkeying in the Middle East (which they had been doing since the Suez debacle in 1956), and yet to maintain the fabric of détente. No mean achievement. For me it remains the greatest pity, and an inequity of fate, that Henry Kissinger did not receive the Nobel Peace Prize for that, rather than for the Vietnam peace that failed.

Although out of office these 33 years, Kissinger, now 86, still wields considerable influence in Washington's corridors of power, and in Moscow and Beijing – where he is well-received and listened to. One can reasonably assume that – though Kissinger backed John McCain – President Obama also makes use of his "back-channel" skills.

Does he deserve such respect? Or is he an instigator of atrocities who deserves to be unmasked? I can only repeat that, in my view, Kissinger's overriding legacy is his largely successful quest for a world balance of peace between the rival East-West blocs, and his persistent endeavour to defuse the horrendous danger of nuclear war by accident. If we are tempted to undervalue this legacy, we need only consider the largely accidental holocaust that overwhelmed the world in 1914.

Kissinger's seminal publication, written for his PhD from Harvard in 1957, was about two historic negotiators, Metternich and Castlereagh. Called A World Restored, it was a masterly study of how, after the fall of Napoleon, these two inspired statesmen (also vilified by some) engineered a balance of power which resulted in 100 years of European peace. One can be sure that President Nixon read it most closely, and it was to serve through Kissinger's time in the White House as a blueprint for the kind of world peace which he felt desirable, and attainable.

We should not disparage his achievement too lightly. In another era deeply challenging to America, a fellow Briton wrote memorably: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." As in 1776, a modern Thomas Paine might well have deemed the year 1973 – or, for that matter, 2009 – to be one that was sent to "try men's souls".

But 1973 was also a year in which Henry Kissinger, for all his faults, proved himself to be neither "summer soldier" nor "sunshine patriot".

Alistair Horne's book, Kissinger's Year: 1973, is published later this month (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20). To order a copy for the special price of £18 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600030 or visit Independentbooksdirect.co.uk

The case against

'One associates him with an aggressive foreign policy which is responsible for a lot of the dislike of America which still exists today' - Joan Smith (journalist and author):

For my generation he was one of the great demon figures. I think of him as one of the great Cold War ideologues, in a bad way: one associates him with an aggressive foreign policy which is responsible for a lot of the dislike of America which still exists today. It's the bad side of America as an empire: the idea that America comes first and that's the whole aim of its foreign policy – so that when you hear American politicians talk about the American people you wonder whether they are worried at all about the rest of the world.

The case against

'Kissinger and Nixon conducted the illegal, secret bombing in which 700,000 Cambodians died' - John Pilger (journalist and broadcaster):

Between 1969 and 1973, Kissinger and Richard Nixon conducted the illegal, secret bombing of Cambodia in which 700,000 Cambodians died beneath the equivalent tonnage of five Hiroshimas. Pilots' logs were falsified; Congress was deceived. In 1973, Kissinger backed the fascist General Pinochet's overthrow of Chile's democratic government. In 1975, Kissinger and Gerald Ford gave the "green light" (CIA files) to the Indonesian dictator Suharto to invade East Timor, secretly and illegally supplying him with US weapons. More than 200,000 people died.

The case against

'Realpolitik has animated the West’s enemies – this is the product of Kissinger’s approach' - Timothy Lynch (senior lecturer in US foreign policy, University of London):

His style of diplomacy has weakened the influence of the US. It was a realist-based approach to the world; but it was a superficial efficacy – the appearance that the US was getting on better with the Soviet Union and China, while they extended their influence into Africa and Latin America. My argument would be that US interests weren't advanced by cosying up to China and the Soviet Union. Realpolitik has animated the West's enemies – and these are all products of the Kissingerian approach.

The case against

'There is no reason why a warrant for the trial of Henry Kissinger should not be issued' - Christopher Hitchens, author

There is no reason why a warrant for the trial of Kissinger may not be issued ... Crimes that can and should be placed on a bill of indictment include: the deliberate mass killing of civilian populations in Indochina; collusion in mass murder in Bangladesh; suborning and planning of murder, of a senior constitutional officer in a democratic nation, Chile, with which the US was not at war; involvement in a plan to murder the head of state in the democratic nation of Cyprus; the incitement and enabling of genocide in East Timor ...

From 'The Trial of Henry Kissinger' (Verso, £8)

The case against

'He thought the issues in Chile ‘too important for Chilean voters to decide for themselves’. That sums up his view on democracy and other people' - Trevor McCrisken, chair of British American Security Information Council:

Kissinger has been a surprising ally in the cause of banning nuclear weapons; he was one of the first American figures to say that their spread was destabilising the world. But his view on democracy, and on other people in general, is summed up by that quote of his on the overthrow of the Chilean government: "The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves." It's not surprising that he's not regarded positively by many people on the left.

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