SOURCE: Special for HNN ()
[Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches history at Bucknell University.]
As the Iraq War gains increasing comparisons to Vietnam and the abuses of the Bush administration compound, people are drawing eerie parallels with the Nixon-Watergate era. The timing for two recent books, Jeremi Suri’s Henry Kissinger and the American Century, and Robert Dallek’s Partners in Power: Nixon and Kissinger, is hence appropriate. Dallek’s book in particular promotes a cautionary tale about the fragility of democratic institutions in the United States and how the behind-scenes political manipulations of power-hungry individuals can result in gross violations of the American constitution and international law – and the suffering of scores of innocent people. Suri draws some of the same lessons from Kissinger’s career, though is more concerned with probing his intellectual background and ideological outlook, and seeks to refute – unsuccessfully in this writer’s view - characterizations of him as a “war criminal.”
To his credit, Suri has done a remarkable job in showing how Kissinger was shaped by his upbringing in Weimar Germany and his family’s status as refugees in the United States fleeing the terror of the Nazis. Because of his background, Kissinger came to develop a passionate devotion to his adopted homeland, which he saw as a haven from the ethnic hatreds engulfing much of Europe. He also acquired an engrained fear of mass-based political movements and street protests, which he saw as being capable of destroying democratic institutions. This fear – which drew from his witnessing the breakdown of the Weimar Republic – helps to explain Kissinger’s visceral opposition and mistrust for the 1960s social movements and New Left, which bordered on the fanatical during the Vietnam War period. According to Suri, Kissinger’s status as an outsider in American society seeking acceptance in elite political and intellectual circles – in a time when anti-Semitism remained conspicuous - played another formative role in shaping his conduct.
The book possesses a particularly insightful chapter on Kissinger’s academic career at Harvard, during which time he became the protégé of William Elliot of the Kennedy School of Government. Elliot believed in a symbiosis between academic study and public service, and was firmly committed to the ideological struggle against Soviet Communism – which he saw as representing an existential threat to Western civilization. Inspired by European philosophers like Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, Kissinger embraced a similar ideological outlook – stemming in part from the lessons that he drew from World War II. As a young Ph.D. student, he coordinated a highly influential seminar on international affairs, which brought together up-and-coming anti-Communist leaders from across the globe to debate strategies for upholding Western interests.
Through the personal connections he developed – as well as the success of his first book on nuclear strategy – Kissinger became a consultant to Nelson Rockefeller, and gained appointment as the National Security Advisor to President Richard Nixon in 1968. According to Suri, though stereotyped in films such as Dr. Strangelove as an irrational war hawk, Kissinger actually sought to limit American nuclear proliferation, albeit incrementally, and prevent a world war with the Soviet Union. His approach was to use America’s military superiority as a mechanism for reducing the threat of nuclear confrontation, while confining American military intervention to more limited and covert engagements.
Besides a glaring silence on the issue of Vietnam during the decisive years of the conflict, one major shortcoming of Kissinger’s thought – as Suri relates – was his condescending attitude towards people of the developing world. This stemmed in part from a Eurocentric outlook – similar to other major strategic thinkers of the era like George Kennan. Admiring 19th century statesmen like Bismarck and Metternich who were able to skillfully counterbalance imperial rivalries to advance their nations’ strategic interests, Kissinger believed that the major powers – chief among them the United States because of its subscription to liberal-democratic values -- should be the arbiters of global stability, which could break down if left to the whims of less sophisticated countries.
The elitism underlying Kissinger’s worldview is ultimately what resulted in his disregard for human rights in the so-called Third World, including the U.S. secret bombing of Cambodia and its role in overthrowing Salvador Allende’s Socialist government in Chile. While Suri attributes to Kissinger responsibility for the “loss of thousands of lives,” his account of Kissinger’s misdeeds is far from complete. For Cambodia, one of the blackest stains on Kissinger’s record, there is only a limited acknowledgement of the “methodical devastation” (as one observer put it) 1 caused by his actions. Kissinger’s encouraging the Indonesian military under General Suharto to invade East Timor in 1975, resulting in the death of one-seventh of the island’s population, is also ignored, as is his support for Pakistan’s brutal suppression of the Bangladeshi independence movement. Suri also neglects Kissinger’s maneuvers in Laos, where he presided over a sweeping escalation of the U.S. secret war, causing mass internal displacement and the ravaging of the Plain of Jars region, which was literally turned into a moonscape. At one-point, two IVS workers, Fred Branfman and Walter Haney, wrote a letter to Kissinger (now on record at the National Archives) explaining the plight of the refugees, some of whom had resorted to living in underground caves to survive, and urged an immediate U.S. halt to the bombing sorties. Kissinger’s staff responded in cold bureaucratic language that the bombing was in response to “Communist aggression” and hence justified. The Communist Pathet Lao, however, enjoyed wide popular support at the time because of their role in overthrowing French colonialism and supporting badly needed land reform and literacy programs.
Suri would have been well served to probe in greater depth precisely how Kissinger’s worldview allowed him to assume such a callous posture towards oppressed people suffering the same fate once experienced by Jews in Europe. Perhaps revealing his own politics, Suri makes a rather dubious claim that one of Kissinger’s major accomplishments was the “insulation of the management of foreign affairs from public interference.” This stands as a striking statement of the author’s approval of Kissinger’s disdain for democratic politics – which is at the root of his presiding over some horrific atrocities. At the end of the book, Suri makes another dubious claim –that in spite of all of Kissinger’s “mistakes,” there has been no overriding vision in American political and intellectual life to replace that of Kissinger’s. This ignores the insights of many scholarly analysts seeking to promote a less militaristic foreign policy which respects international law and the right of developing-world nations to chose their own governments – whether socialist or not. Suri insinuates that the Bush administration – in seeking to expand American influence unilaterally and spread democracy at the barrel of a gun – should revert to Kissinger’s emphasis on the limits of American power. Given that actions speak louder than words, it is unclear however, that Kissinger ever applied his own teachings. Especially in considering the massive application of force utilized by the Nixon White House in expanding the Vietnam War, which Suri ought to have mentioned in this context – and paradoxically appears to support. (He states that Kissinger’s extracting America from the war with its moral purpose intact was one of his major accomplishments.)
Robert Dallek’s biography – which draws on thousands of recently declassified documents and hundreds of hours of tapes, is more biting in its analysis than Suri’s – and justifiably so. Dallek does a good job in comparing the background of the book’s two key protagonists, and shows how Nixon’s confrontational political style had its roots in his first congressional campaign against New Dealer Jerry Voorhis, whom he falsely smeared as a Communist sympathizer. Dallek also vividly shows how Nixon’s paranoid fear of his enemies – which manifested itself most vividly during the Watergate hearings – originated in Nixon’s working-class midwestern background, personal insecurities and his self-perception as a political outsider. In this respect, he found a kinship in Kissinger, whose immigrant status and Jewish background fostered a similar social identity.
Rather than being motivated by high-minded ideals, such as the protection of Western civilization from (imaginary?) existential threats – as Suri portrays it, Dallek sees both Nixon and Kissinger as being chiefly motivated by their outsized egos and a Machiavellian desire for power. As with many other “great men” throughout history, it was this very yearning that led both men to eschew moral scruples once in office, eventually leading to their downfall. Nixon, in Dallek’s portrayal, comes across as particularly unprincipled and uncouth, frequently shouting vulgar epithets at his subordinates and seeking to destroy those who failed to conform to his whims. He was most enraged by the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which he equated with treason, resulting in a public campaign to discredit the former RAND corporation analyst who leaked them, Daniel Ellsberg, and the bugging of his psychiatrist’s office.
Unlike during the Kennedy administration, when many high level cabinet and White House appointees gained their positions because of their academic pedigrees, or commitment to liberal ideological beliefs, Nixon generally appointed sycophantic “yes-men” like William P. Rogers, John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman who insulated the president from outsiders and deferred to his demands. In this respect, Nixon ruled more like a monarch than the head of a democratic state.
This was especially true in considering the illegal measures that he took to quash public dissent against the Vietnam War. Nixon and Kissinger’s obsession with secrecy, as Dallek documents, was best exemplified in the conduct of their foreign policy, which was marked by illegal actions such as the subversion of peace accords with Vietnam, bombing of Cambodia (where Nixon had given the murderous orders – “anything that flies on anything that moves”)2 , destabilization of Angola and destruction of Chilean democracy. Even in their diplomatic successes, such as the renewal of diplomatic ties with China and détente with the Soviet Union, Nixon and Kissinger displayed cunning and immoral tactics – such as cozying up to Pakistan’s murderous president Yahya Khan to secure a strategic base in Asia – that reflected their desire for personal acclaim at the expense of human decency and compassion. Here Dallek’s interpretation differs significantly from that of Suri, who sees their actions as part of a more visionary strategic design. Given Nixon and Kissinger’s contempt for human rights elsewhere in the world, and the deteriorating situation in Vietnam, it is hard not to side with Dallek in this debate.
On the whole, while both works are of enduring value in differing capacities, Dallek’s book raises the most fundamental and timely questions about democratic accountability in the United States and the detachment of the executive branch from popular pressures and legal constraints. In spite of the constant extolment of the virtues of the American system by politicians and in the media, his work shows in vivid detail how ambitious men can hijack political power for their own aims, while utilizing the resources of the wealthiest nation in human history to serve their own delusions of grandeur. The Bush-Cheney nightmare is unfortunately no anomaly in American history. Engaged citizens concerned about human rights and the future of democracy in this country ought to think very seriously about how to prevent it from continuously reoccurring.
1 Serge Thion in Caldwell & Tan, Cambodia in the Southeast Asian War, with preface by Noam Chomsky (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), p. ix, See also on this point, Benedict Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power: A History of Communism in Kampuchea (London: Verso, 1985).
2 See Kiernan & Owen, “Bombs Over Cambodia: New Light on U.S. Air War” Japan Focus, May 12, 2007 (Walrus, October 2006), Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), p. 88.