Kissinger in China: Realpolitik Takes a Powder

The Kissinger Transcripts: The Top-Secret Talks With Beijing and Moscow , edited by William Burr. New Press, 515 pages, $30.

Surely, Henry Kissinger considers himself the supreme practitioner of Realpolitik , rivaled only by Richelieu, who defined raison d’état as the interest of the state transcending all other considerations. But a funny thing happened when he encountered chairman Mao Zedong and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai (whom he had already met in his path-breaking trips to the Chinese capital in the early 1970’s). Bedazzled by the prospect of entering the Middle Kingdom, he lavished far greater praise on the Chinese leaders than I can imagine him doing with their counterparts in Moscow, London or Paris. As William Bundy points out in his aptly titled study of the Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy, A Tangled Web , when Nixon expressed his desire to visit the People’s Republic of China, this meant that “the foreigner had asked to come.” According to tradition, “China received official visitors as a matter of grace and favor, from the inherently superior position of the Middle Kingdom.” As the Chinese saw it, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were bowing and scraping even before they arrived. And the Chinese were right.

The interests of China and the United States in the Nixon years coincided in a number of ways, not least their joint aim of containing the Soviet Union in Asia. Mutual interests should have been enough to cement their relationship, but so seemingly awed were Mr. Kissinger and his master that their fawning remarks to the Chinese leadership are embarrassing to read. Item: Nixon tells Mao that he is “a professional philosopher. (Chinese laugh).” At another point, Mr. Kissinger somewhat gratuitously tells Mao: “Those on the left are pro-Soviet and would not encourage a move toward the People’s Republic.”

What an extraordinary idea! While it is certainly true that the “rightists,” as Mao correctly called Nixon and Mr. Kissinger, found it politically easier to open relations with China because of America’s China lobby that accused Harry S. Truman and Dean Acheson of losing China to the Communists in the 1940’s, there was no need to mislead Mao and Zhou about the so-called American left, who would surely have supported the opening to China, and could hardly be called pro-Soviet. And did Mr. Kissinger really think Mao believed him when he nakedly flattered Nixon by declaring, “We didn’t understand until the President came into office the different nature of revolution in China and the way revolution had developed in other socialist states.”

These transcripts make fascinating reading, and we should all be grateful to the National Security Archive for uncovering them in the papers of Mr. Kissinger’s aide, Winston Lord, who had put together the minutes of meetings as a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and deposited them at the National Archives where they became available under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. (Mr. Kissinger’s own documents remain under lock and key in the Library of Congress until five years after his death.)

The Nixon-Kissinger rapprochement with China was particularly welcomed by the Chinese in 1971 because of the growing threat to the Middle Kingdom by Soviet Russia. An armed clash between Soviet and Chinese troops took place in March 1969 along the Ussuri River at the extreme northeastern tip of Chinese territory. This was followed by a significant Soviet buildup over the next six months: from 24 divisions to more than 30. Nixon’s initiative to open relations with Communist China was welcomed by Mao precisely because this would put the Soviets on the defensive.

What is surprising is how much Nixon and Mr. Kissinger offered. In discussions with Huang Hua, China’s permanent United Nations representative, at a C.I.A. safe house on the Lower East Side, on Dec. 10, 1971, Mr. Kissinger offered information on Soviet forces and promised to deliver it “wherever you wish and in an absolutely secure way.”

Even more astounding is Mr. Kissinger’s offer to the Chinese as a result of the Administration’s tilt toward Pakistan in the 1971 India-Pakistan war. In this same meeting with Huang Hua, Mr. Kissinger told the Chinese envoy a week after Pakistan launched a surprise attack on India that if Beijing decided to intervene in the war “to protect its security, the U.S. would oppose efforts of others to interfere with the People’s Republic.” Moreover, “we would be prepared at your request, and through whatever sources you wish, to give you whatever information we have about the disposition of Soviet forces.”

In addition, Mr. Kissinger informed Huang Hua that “we tell you about our conversations with the Soviets; we do not tell the Soviets about our conversations with you. In fact, we don’t tell our own colleagues that I see you.” This is certainly a striking double-standard. In the U.S.-China-Soviet triangle that Nixon and Mr. Kissinger claimed they were setting up, the balance was unbalanced.

The new U.S.-Chinese entente may have encouraged the Soviets to come to terms in the agreement on limiting strategic arms at the Moscow summit of May 1972, which cut back on the antimissile system the two superpowers were building and set ceilings on the deployment of land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. But this was an accord that was also in the interest of the Soviets, and there was no need for Mr. Kissinger to treat Mao and Zhou more candidly than he did our closest allies.

Years later, Mr. Kissinger admitted to Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that “he had been wrong in basing his concepts on the inevitability of a Soviet attack against China.” It is questionable now that the opening to Beijing paid “substantial dividends with Moscow,” that we could “have our mao tai and drink our vodka, too,” as Mr. Kissinger reported to Nixon.

Nor did Mao trust Nixon and Mr. Kissinger; in 1973, he accused the Americans of “pushing West Germany to make peace with Russia, and then push Russia eastward.” Mao said he believed that the United States and Europe might “think that it would be a fine thing if it were that the ill water would flow toward China.” When Mr. Kissinger protested that the Europeans were “basically irrelevant,” and that if the “Soviet Union overruns China, this would … lead to our own isolation,” Mao just laughed: “How will that happen?” he asked. “How would that be?”

In the end, whatever his limitations in his opening to China, Henry Kissinger, like Othello, did the state some service. It would have been far harder for the Democrats than for the Republicans to make the initial contacts with Beijing. As it turned out, the triangular diplomacy did not come to very much, and any strategic alliance with the Chinese seems then as now a quixotic idea. States have interests; their interests are determined by their power. There was no need to offer to give so much to the Chinese. A quarter-century ago, under threat from the Russians, they needed us more than we needed them.