Kissinger: Establishing Priorities, Tolerating Our SOBs

“Kissinger … was above all a revolutionary.” … [T]his may come as something of a surprise. Kissinger a revolutionary? The man who told the Argentine junta’s Foreign Minister, Cesar Guzzetti: “We wish [your] government well”? The man who promised his South African counterpart to “curb any missionary zeal of my officers in the State Department to harass you”? The man who told the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet: “We are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here”? Yet Suri has a case to make, even if he does not make it more than obliquely. An integral part of Kissinger’s grand strategy was always to establish priorities. In order to check Soviet ambitions in the Third World – the full extent of which we have only recently come to appreciate – some unpleasant regimes had to be tolerated, and indeed supported. Besides the various Latin American caudillos, the Saudi royal family, the Shah of Iran and the Pakistani military, these unpleasant regimes also included (though the Left seldom acknowledged it) the Maoist regime in Beijing, which was already guilty of many more violations of human rights than all the right-wing dictators put together when Kissinger flew there for the first time in July 1971.

Niall Ferguson, reviewing Henry Kissinger and the American Century in the TLS.

The book sounds good. The review is worth reading.

The Cold War was a bad time. It was a dangerous time. Victory was not assured. When Kissinger was in office, defeat seemed possible. When Nixon came to power in 1969, the country was in terrible shape, with only 1933 and 1861 being worse for a new president. American leaders made decisions under what they considered to be desperate conditions which we now question, or challenge, or repudiate. America allied itself with regimes which behaved very badly. Opposing and defeating the Soviet Union had many costs. We are too close to fully assess them.

Of the many books I have read about the Cold War, or events during the Cold War, the single best book covering the whole period which I have read is Norman Friedman, The Fifty-Year War: Conflict and Strategy in the Cold War.

Suggested favorite books about the Cold War would be appreciated, in the comments.

UPDATE: Good Zenpundit post about, inter alia, the Nixon White House. Zen suggests some Nixonian literature in the comments.

UPDATE II: Zen provides a Cold War reading list, in the comments. Check it out.

10 thoughts on “Kissinger: Establishing Priorities, Tolerating Our SOBs”

  1. Norman Friedman,the naval historian,got his PhD in physics,and has written several dozen books,mostly technologically oriented. It is rare that anyone understands politics and technology. I bought the book which is the best on the subject,but was very disappointed that I ran across no reviews of the book anywhere except in the Proceedings. This book is a pleasure to read. We have here a market failure. Thanks for plugging it.

  2. The revelations are correct but hardly show the full extent that Henry K went to, along with every American president during that period of time. I would suggest reading Legacy of Ashes, the history of the CIA, written with copious notes, all materials documented and interview that are extensive…this will reveal what Henry did, and, shockingly, the many presidents before the current one who got CIA dnd NSA, as well as FBI to open mail, tap phones, etc–all done without mandate from their charters and in defiance of the ban on domestic spying by some of those agencies.

  3. Renminbi, I agree that Friedman’s book got far too little attention.

    Fred: “I would suggest reading Legacy of Ashes, the history of the CIA”.

    This review convinced me not to bother with that one.

    The reviewer makes the point that, contra what you say, Kissinger was not worse than other Cold War-era Secretaries of State. I am inclined to believe that. Read the review I linked to. (BTW, I have a policy of deleting your comments, due to prior bad behavior. But since you are playing nicely, i.e. staying on the subject, being civil, being brief, you can stay on my porch for now.)

  4. Lex,thanks for linking to that review. Shows how useful a Pulitzer is as an imprimatur,doesn’t it?

  5. Suri was a professor of mine back at the University of Wisconsin. And a great one he was.

    One of the things Suri always emphasized to his students was how wrong conventional wisdom is so much of the time. A favorite thesis of his is that Reagan was a humanitarian first–he decried the ethically and morally opaque nature of detente, that the USSR was an evil empire, and that a world without nuclear weapons was worth striving for. These views ultimately took shape in both the SDI, and concurrently, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Nonetheless conventional wisdom of Reagan takes the view that he was an intellectually-weak dollard, an actor who has more in common with Chance Gardner (“Being There”) than being a transformative political figure like a Kennedy, a Roosevelt, etc.

    I’m sure that Suri won’t disappoint this time, as the destroys the CW of Kissinger.

  6. I’m planning on reading Dean Acheson’s autobiography – “Present at the Creation.” It is supposed to be a great recounting by one of our greatest Sec. of State in the critical first years of the Cold War.

    Which brings us to the future – who are the presidential candidates proposing for State? I’ve heard Kerry mentioned for Obama.

    Doug Feith’s book “War and Decision” certainly highlights the importance of a strong and loyal, reform-mined appointment.

  7. Good post – thanks for the link:

    Recs – I’m tilting toward Cold War historical subcategories:

    The Fifty-Year Wound: How America’s Cold War Victory Has Shaped Our World by Derek Leebaert

    Incorporated much of the new post-Cold War archival material. emphasis on the costs of the conflict.

    The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis

    A sound popular history by the top American diplomatic historian. Gaddis sharply rebuts much of the Revisionist-Left arguments about the Cold War

    Present at the Creation by Dean Acheson

    Acheson’s memoir is without peer, despite the much greater reticence with which statesmen wrote their public reflections at that time. Still used with regularity as a source by historians today.

    Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin by George F. Kennnan

    A solid, though idiosyncratic, work by the Father of Containment. Lays out how the USSR fit into his worldview as a policy maker and diplomat.

    In Confidence by Anatoly Dobrynin

    The longtime Soviet ambassador to the United States was also a member of the Central Committee of the CPSU who had, esp. in his later career, direct connections to several Politburo members. His role in the Soviet foreign service was very rare and abnormally authoritative

    Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America by Walter Lafeber

    Best argued Left-revisionist history of U.S. intervention in Latin America written – puts cold war policy there in a context of continuity. Sharply critical without wandering into ahistoricality.

    From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War by Robert M. Gates

    A great memoir about national security policy making in the later Cold War years. Emphasis on IC.

    America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 by George C Herring

    Generally regarded as one of the best, concise, general histories of the Vietnam War

  8. Mark, first-rate list. Thanks very much. I could not get through Derek Leebaert’s book, for some reason.

    If you are not familiar with the Friedman book I very highly recommend it. He focuses on the military and technological side, a good balance to the diplo stuff.

Comments are closed.