Politics & Policy

1973: The Year That Was

Sir Alistair Horne discusses his new book about Henry Kissinger's annus mirabilis.

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.

 

#ad#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.

 

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LOPEZ: What did it do specifically to Kissinger’s legacy?

HORNE: Of course it brought him, via Nixon’s state of paralysis, to a position of power never before accorded any U.S. secretary of state. Fortunately he used it wisely, and skillfully.

LOPEZ: How did Kissinger view Nixon?

HORNE: As I tried to set out in my chapter “A Very Odd Couple,” theirs was a unique relationship. On every level, they shared extremely little — except an extraordinary insight in foreign affairs. In that sense, they were a remarkable team; for that reason alone it was a tragedy that Nixon was destroyed. (It was of course Nixon, for instance, who thought up the China card; not Kissinger, though he was the essential engineer.) While the combination was exhilarating to Kissinger, at the same time he must have found certain things odious — notably Nixon’s crass and yobbish anti-Semitism. Yet Kissinger remained remarkably loyal to Nixon — even to the extent of being accused of excessive obsequiousness.

#ad#LOPEZ: Kissinger was close to WFB. How did they talk about Watergate?

HORNE: WFB empathized strongly with Kissinger; I quote one Telcom phone call of June ‘73 [my pp.172-3]: 

Buckley: I imagine you’re suffering a little bit. I’m sorry for you.

 

Kissinger: Well, it’s not one of the more glorious moments in American history . . . you know, to dismantle the country . . . Because of what was a collection of petty crimes, unworthy, and everything else, but still this is a dramatic dismantling of our foreign policy, of our Indochina policy. . . . And if this thing comes apart now we’re going to have the Chinese move far left to steal the Communist parties. We’ll have a bellicose Soviet policy and no public opinion to deal with it.

 

Buckley: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I wish certain things which aren’t easy to say over the phone . . . I wish the guy in charge had a better means of communicating this kind of thing to the American people . . . 

LOPEZ: What has been Kissinger’s post-1973 contribution to the world stage?

HORNE: Considerable. Without Kissinger’s work in the Middle East, with Sadat especially, I doubt if the Camp David Agreements five years later would have happened. His achievements over détente, the seeds of trust he sowed in a very distrustful and hostile Moscow helped over a long period. They paid dividends with the close relationship which he has cemented with Putin — and, at the same time, with Beijing, where he remains almost an ancestral voice, capable of saying things that might not be heard from subsequent Western statesmen. If he would choose a legacy, I would imagine it to be to make this dangerous world a safer place by pushing the doctrine of denuclearization. Aged 86, he is still restlessly at it, the mind of the historian and statesman never faltering. I would suggest, though I have no evidence, that his influence under even the present Obama regime is considerable.

 

I say “bravo” to an astonishing career that has not ended.

LOPEZ: Is it hard to write a book about a man who is still alive? Even if it’s just one year in his life? Is it hard to write a history book about a friend?

HORNE: Yes, on all scores. I have never done it before, and don’t think I ever will again! But it has been an immeasurably exciting challenge for me — especially through the process of getting to know an exceptional mind, and an extraordinary statesman. I am frequently asked, “Do you like him?” To which I reply, without hesitation, “Yes; and increasingly over the past five years which it has taken to write the book.” But then I don’t think I could write a biography of someone whom I actively disliked.

 

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Does he like the book? As anyone who worked with him could confirm, he — the professor — is a meticulous perfectionist in a class of his own. I would have been terrified to be on his staff! So of course he has quite a few points of discord with what I have written, not least the more critical parts; but I like to think he is not outraged by the whole.

One last point, the book is dedicated to William F. Buckley Jr., my oldest and dearest friend, of 65 years standing. Undoubtedly Kissinger’s trust in my judgment was much enhanced by his own close mutual friendship with Bill, and our conversations made that much more open. For this one last act of friendship, among so many, I remain especially grateful to WFB, and sad that he was never able to read the book.

#ad#LOPEZ: Did Israel sit pretty with a Jewish secretary of state in the White House?

HORNE: No, not at all. Kissinger mischievously nicknamed prime minister Golda Meier “Miss Israel,” but their relationship was never warm. As the first Jewish secretary of state, he had four potential adversaries to contend with:

 

1. The Arabs, naturally convinced — at least initially — that he would always favor Israel.

2. The Israelis, feeling that he was never doing enough for them, and suspicious of his relationship with the Kremlin.

3. The Russians, through their innate anti-Semitism.

4. The Jewish lobby in the U.S.A., as represented by Sens. “Scoop” Jackson and Jacob Javits. Possibly they gave Kissinger the toughest time of all; at one point in “Yom Kippur” he actually threatened that with any more pressure he would “go out of the supply business” of arms to Israel.

 

LOPEZ: What is “the Awful Grace of God” and how does it apply to Henry Kissinger’s 1973?

HORNE: Quoting a verse of Aeschylus that was a favorite of Robert Kennedy, Kissinger was referring to the fall of Nixon, in my opinion truly an event straight out of Greek tragedy; i.e., the man who falls from a great height because of some fatal flaw within. For that reason, Nixon remains to me one of the most fascinating of all U.S. presidents.

 

LOPEZ: Why was it important for you to write this book?

HORNE: As I try to explain in my foreword, the approach came from Dr. Kissinger, via my British publisher, George Weidenfeld, to do the whole of his life. At first I refused, pleading that — at only a few years younger than the subject — I was past it, and, additionally, it was reputed that Dr. K had 33 tons of archives. (After five years work, I now believe this to be true!) Then my wife, Sheelin, got at me: “You can’t throw up such an opportunity — he’s one of the most interesting men in the world!” I flew to New York, and proposed to Henry that I take on one year only — 1973 — for the reasons stated above. It was, I explained, quite simply, “THE big year.” (Also, I had written already extensively on two topics in that year: namely Chile and “Yom Kippur.”) To my surprise, Kissinger’s response was immediate: “I think that’s a great idea.” I like to think that it was. Certainly I enjoyed the research so much that President George W. Bush was provoked to bet Kissinger that the book would never be finished! I hope for a cut in the stake that Henry may have won.

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