A Play for Hearts and Minds: Kissinger Eyes the Textbooks

Ending the Vietnam War , by Henry Kissinger. Simon and Schuster, 640 pages, $18.

A few years ago, when I was working on my book about the Presidency of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger came up behind me in a restaurant in New York and, with his hands on the back of my shoulders, asked: “So, why aren’t you talking to me?”

“Well,” I answered, “I want to know as much as you do about some things before I ask questions about them.”

“That will be difficult,” said a friend at my table.

“Impossible, I’d say,” rumbled Mr. Kissinger.

We all laughed. He was right, of course.

The great diplomat is a wonderful man with words-after all, what is diplomacy but a graceful rearranging of words under pressure to clean up the sins of the world? The same could be said of the writing of history, another Kissinger talent. It is doubly difficult to catch the very clever diplomat in an actual lie. The whole truth, never.

This one is my favorite Kissinger twists:

In his 1979 memoirs, White House Years , artfully dodging charges that he and Nixon betrayed or abandoned the Chinese Nationalist regime in Taiwan in the American haste to make a deal with what used to be called Red China, Mr. Kissinger wrote of his preliminary sessions with Chou En-lai: “Taiwan was mentioned only briefly during the first session.” The transcript of that session, declassified 25 years later, showed that the brief mention was Mr. Kissinger’s pledge to Chou that the United States would never support independence for Taiwan. Smiling, Chou replied, “Good, these talks may now proceed.”

In fact, the former National Security Advisor (1969-75) and Secretary of State (1973-77) is so enamored of his own words and versions of his tales that he tells them twice in this new book, which is a reworking of sections of four of his previous works. He has plagiarized three volumes of his own memoirs, including White House Years and Diplomacy , winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History in 1994: “I have rearranged and occasionally rewritten the material to provide a consecutive narrative from the anecdotal tone of memoirs to a more general account of the period, provided connecting text where necessary, and added new material.”

A footnote adds: “All this is clearer to me in hindsight. My own views evolved only gradually, paralleling the increasing ambivalence of our society.” Yes. The most qualified reviewer of the specifics of the ending of America’s longest war, Larry Berman, author of No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam , writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review a couple of weeks ago, takes the old material apart, writing of “an Alice in Wonderland quality.” He then suggests that if Henry Kissinger were an honorable man, he would return the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 1973.

It is true that most of the old dodges-most particularly the convoluted denials that the American-installed government and people of South Vietnam were left twisting in the wind when the United States signed some papers and left the place-are still in the main text of this paperback version of the lies upon lies of the public dialogue of those days. The format and price of Ending the Vietnam War , along with some simplifications, indicate that what this is really about is Mr. Kissinger’s determination to get his side of the story to a new generation in a textbook.

He puts that this way in a new six-page foreword:

“My purpose in undertaking this task is not to settle the debate of a generation ago retroactively but to leave for a new generation, hopefully untouched by the passions of the past, an opportunity to obtain as accurate an account as possible of how one group of America’s leaders viewed and tried to surmount a tragic national experience.”

The most interesting material in the text itself is the footnotes. A note on page 69, discussing the double bookkeeping of the secret bombing of Cambodia, says the deception-years of it-was just a simple “bureaucratic blunder.” It seems, according to Mr. Kissinger, that only the first mission was supposed to be secret-a secrecy maintained by Air Force records listing targets in Vietnam rather than Cambodia. But oh my goodness: No one remembered to tell the Pentagon to go back to keeping honest books.

The foreword ends with a ludicrous paragraph:

“As these lines are being written, America finds itself once again at war-this time with no ambiguity about the nature of the threat. While history never repeats itself directly, there is at least one lesson to be learned from the tragedy described in these pages: that America must never again permit its promise to be overwhelmed by its divisions.”

Oh, those damn Americans and their passions! The people never get it right. This is how Mr. Kissinger explains the nation’s “divisions”:

“Stimulated by a sense of guilt and encouraged by modern psychiatry and the radical chic rhetoric of upper middle-class suburbia, these outbursts symbolized the end of an era of simple faith in the traditional values of mid-America. Ironically, the insecurity of their elders turned the normal grievances of maturing youth into an institutionalized rage and a national trauma.”

Others might call that popular resistance, the essence of democracy. But Mr. Kissinger does not really believe in democracy. Neither did Nixon. Their fatal flaw was the contempt they had for American institutions-and Americans. The real enemies in their many books are, routinely, not the totalitarians they publicly and militarily opposed, but the Congress, the press and that misguided electorate. The America these two gifted, troubled men wanted was something like what scientists call a “black box”: What happened inside could be disconnected from the rest of the universe around it. The darker side of each man’s nature-each trying to reconstruct governance (in Nixon’s case) and foreign policy (in Mr. Kissinger’s) in his own image-combined into a toxicity that poisoned at least a couple of American generations. Now Henry Kissinger is after another one.

I worked on the Nixon Presidency for the better part of 10 years, and found some of what I just said difficult to understand, at least at first. If one thing brought that together for me-and it was what I thought of while reading this book-it was something told me by Winston Lord, who was Mr. Kissinger’s principal assistant at the National Security Council and was often part of conversations between the President and his National Security Advisor. “They deliberately mirrored adversaries who were secretive,” said Lord. “In China, only two or three people were involved in decision-making.”

It is that ambition, that secrecy-and the lies it took to protect the secrecy-that Henry Kissinger is now defending as traditional American values. Put to music, it is the world turned upside-down.

Richard Reeves is the author of President Nixon: Alone in the White House (Simon and Schuster). He is currently working on a book on President Reagan.