The year 1973 was a turbulent one in the United States, but while the Watergate scandal dominated domestic politics, the situation abroad was even more perilous. With President Nixon hobbled by his own troubles, Henry Kissinger — Nixon’s national-security adviser, who became secretary of state during the year — had to take charge of America’s dealings in Europe, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Soviet Union, and South America. The much-decorated British historian Alistair Horne, a longtime friend of Kissinger’s, has just written Kissinger: 1973, The Crucial Year, about one of the most important years in American history. Recently he talked about his book, and the man and the year it covers, with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What was so crucial about 1973?
ALISTAIR HORNE: It was a year in the Cold War where the U.S.A. seemed to be losing all along the line. Kissinger engineered the peace treaty in Vietnam (for which he won the Nobel Prize), but it fell apart almost immediately, through North Vietnam’s cheating and Congress’s weakness. The opening to China was consolidated, which helped Kissinger move on with détente with the Soviets. It was “the Year of Europe,” the endeavor to pep up Europe — perhaps Kissinger’s least successful ploy; and the coup against Allende in Chile (for which Kissinger was castigated, quite wrongfully, by the Left). He became the first Jewish secretary of state, but almost immediately was embroiled in the “Yom Kippur” October war. The world oil crisis ensued — but, thanks to Kissinger’s adroit “shuttle diplomacy,” a remarkable semblance of peace was restored in the Middle East, with Soviet influence eradicated. Above all, it was the year of Watergate, in which presidential power collapsed, and Kissinger virtually took over the helm of U.S., and indeed Western, foreign affairs.
LOPEZ: What was his profit-and-loss count for the year?
HORNE: Vietnam ended a failure: repeatedly, to me, Kissinger described it as his greatest, and most persistent regret. But Congress was more to blame than Kissinger. The Year of Europe was a disaster. I give him high marks for détente; contrary to the prevailing conservative view, the time was not yet ripe for a Reagan-style collapse of Communism. Keeping his face clean over Watergate was one of Kissinger’s biggest successes; so was his overall handling of the Yom Kippur War. Going to Defcon III on October 24 was perhaps an excessive risk to take, but it came off thanks to Dr. K’s intimate knowledge of his Soviet opponents. For the oil crisis of ‘73, Kissinger cannot entirely escape reproach on account of his earlier misconstruing of the Arab position. Nevertheless, I regard it a tragedy of fate that he was bestowed the Nobel Prize for the wrong achievement — Vietnam; he should have gotten it for peace in the Middle East.
LOPEZ: Did Watergate ruin everything?
HORNE: Yes, well it almost did; without Kissinger it would have done so absolutely. As Kissinger 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 boasting; without him — and had he allowed himself to be tarnished by Watergate — the U.S., and the West as a whole, might have been in a dire position. I greatly blame Congress, spurred on by its personal hatred of Nixon, for passing legislation in June through August of ‘73 which embargoed any further U.S. help to South Vietnam. By progressively denying all powers to the president, it seriously damaged relations with Moscow and Beijing, which had been so laboriously built up by Nixon and Kissinger. It threatened U.S. capacity to intervene in the Middle East war.
I ask myself constantly, “Why, why, why?” why did Nixon get into such “a feather-brained crime” (as CIA chief Dick Helms dubbed it). He didn’t need to. Then, had the holier-than-thou liberals of the Washington Post foreseen the consequences of the destruction of Nixon, would those eager-beavers Bradlee, Woodward, and Bernstein have pursued Nixon to the end? Or, put it another way, might not a less hated president than RN — say a JFK, let alone an Obama — have been allowed to get away with it, with just a rap on the knuckles? People in the Kennedy administration certainly thought so.