National Security & Defense

Codevilla Is Very Wrong on Kissinger

Kissinger in Tel Aviv, 1974 (AFP/Getty)

The Claremont Review of Books requested my reply – in their pages — to Angelo Codevilla’s review of Henry Kissinger’s latest book, World Order, as part of an online exchange with the reviewer, to which he was to reply. The Claremont Review then wrote that Codevilla declined to reply to me and promised to publish an edited version of my response as a letter. Here is my reply:

Codevilla’s review is an astonishingly nasty farrago of insults. Apart from relentlessly dismissive comments on the book, Mr. Codevilla tries to hang on Kissinger, as “Kissinger’s views evolved in tandem with our ruling class’s,” every shortcoming of U.S. foreign policy and the foreign-policy establishment of the last 60 years, including many policies Kissinger had nothing to do with, and, in a number of cases, vocally opposed. I do not agree with Codevilla’s basic point, that Kissinger wrote that peoples pursue international order rather than “their own ambition, interests, or predilections.” He wrote that they pursue those goals, but that the protagonists are constantly forming countervailing arrangements to resist the supremacy of a single country or bloc.

Codevilla says that the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, with Kissinger complicit by membership in it or just by being contemporaneous with it in some decades, sought “order” and not the national interest — and that, as a result, it “lost the Vietnam war, discarded its defenses against air and missile attack; [sought] to keep together” the Soviet Union, having “wasted its superior forces in conflicts without end,” and now “cowers as terrorists surround it, and back peddles in the Pacific.” (I assume he means “pedals,” as I can’t imagine what even he might think Kissinger and the others are peddling.) In fact, Kissinger had nothing to do with the stoking up of the American effort in Vietnam and was quite critical of President Johnson’s strategy. He and President Nixon have acknowledged that bombing of North Vietnam should have been resumed in 1969, but they were concerned that the secretaries of state and defense, William Rogers and Melvin Laird, would resign and imperil the administration’s ability to get any war policy through the Congress (and Kissinger didn’t appoint Rogers and Laird). The Vietnamization policy enabled the U.S. to withdraw on land, and, with massive air support, assist the South Vietnamese in defeating the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in the great offensive of April 1972. The same formula might well have worked again if the Democrats had not crucified the president over the mishandling of the trivial and tawdry Watergate affair.

The USSR imploded, in the greatest and most bloodless strategic victory in the history of the nation-state, and Kissinger did his part.

It was the work of ten consecutive administrations that caused the USSR to implode, in the greatest and most bloodless strategic victory in the history of the nation-state, and Kissinger did his part. He opposed the Kennedy-Johnson-McNamara-Clifford policy of passively enabling the USSR to gain nuclear parity; worked with Nixon to regain superiority through multiple independently targeted warheads, in what was called “nuclear sufficiency” in the SALT I negotiations; and supported President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative as an expert witness in Congress. He had nothing to do with George H. W. Bush’s ill-considered paean to the virtues of Russian federalism in Kiev in 1991. Kissinger was not a supporter of the recent futile conflicts as conducted, and he hasn’t countenanced whatever Codevilla thinks has been happening in the Pacific under Obama.

The snide claim that Kissinger’s “‘creatively ambiguous’ diplomacy produced pretend agreements that aggravated conflicts and helped lead his country to its only defeat in war” is an outrage; apart from whatever chance South Vietnam might have had without Watergate, the arrangements with China over Taiwan and with Syria over the Golan have held. There is a great deal in this review of gratuitous stylistic snobbery and pompous reflections on Kissinger’s alleged ignorance of such esoteric figures (in contemporary foreign-policy matters) as Saint Augustine and Hegel.

I don’t really agree with the reviewer (or, altogether, the author either) about the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648; it didn’t so much entrench the principle of the equal sovereignty of states as it enacted Cardinal Richelieu’s perception that, for France to be the greatest power in Europe, the Germans had to be severely divided. To this end, scores of German principalities and petty kingdoms were proclaimed as legitimate and inviolable, and Austria, ramshackle assemblage of fragments as it already was, was to be protected from the Russians, Prussians, and Turks, to help keep the German world divided. (Richelieu died in 1642, but left the outline of the peace after the Thirty Years’ War, which war he had largely masterminded, to his successor, Mazarin.)

For someone so quick to asperse Henry Kissinger’s grasp of history, Codevilla is pretty shaky himself. He seems not to understand that Britain’s manipulation of the European balance of power, which really began with Henry VIII and Wolsey, was interrupted in the periods 1625–49 and 1660–88, when Louis XIII and XIV were father-in-law, brother-in-law, and uncle to the English kings Charles I, Charles II, and James II, which explains some softening in British policy toward France. Contrary to what Codevilla wrote, Eugene of Savoy did play a prominent role in the relief of the Siege of Vienna in 1683, though he was junior to Sobieski. Also contrary to Codevilla’s account, there was no inconsistency between the Pitts and Disraeli: Chatham (Pitt the Elder) and his son opposed France because it was the strongest continental power, and Disraeli opposed Russia as the primary threat to the British Empire in the Middle East and India, and then Germany when it became the strongest continental power, and was the first important statesman in the world to recognize the full significance of Bismarck’s creation of the unified German Empire.

Codevilla’s view of the Congress of Vienna, Kissinger’s original academic specialty, is also skewed: Its significance was the immediate admission of post-Napoleonic France (represented by the imperishable and egregious Talleyrand) as one of the contracting powers of a Europe of static borders (apart from changes wrought by the unification of Germany and Italy) for the Great Powers until World War I.

I do agree with Codevilla’s high opinion of John Quincy Adams, and with his view that American statesmen prior to Theodore Roosevelt were almost entirely concerned in foreign affairs to prevent external meddling in the Americas (to this end, Adams and Monroe piggybacked on the Royal Navy while claiming that America was the protector of the hemisphere). After the Civil War, the posture matched the reality of American power. The founders of independent America had no ambitions internationally, except not to be bothered, and that continued to be American policy for over a century. Theodore Roosevelt did arrange with Japan the reciprocal recognition of the two countries’ occupations of Korea and the Philippines, and was more strategically involved and astute than Codevilla admits.

Britain did not push Europe into war in 1914, as Codevilla mistakenly claims that Kissinger wrote; it clung to peace until convinced (correctly) that, if it did not join France and Russia, Wilhelmine Germany would be as great a threat to Britain as was Napoleon, and with a much stronger navy. There is no inconsistency in this; Kissinger doesn’t claim that such world order as there may be is very durable or stable, and the heart of Codevilla’s essay is largely pedantry and pettifogging. Kissinger correctly recognized that Woodrow Wilson saw that the American public would not support substantial foreign involvement without a moral justification. He transformed World War I into a war to end war and make the world safe for democracy, and was one of history’s great prophets: the first person to inspire the masses of the world with the vision of enduring peace. Kissinger grasps his importance better than Codevilla does.

Franklin D. Roosevelt persuaded the American people that the U.S. had to act preemptively to prevent Western Europe and East Asia from getting into the hands of America’s enemies. The incompetence of the last two administrations — none of which can be laid at Kissinger’s door, either directly or through the spurious mud-slinging device of identifying him with “the ruling class” — has strained that consensus, but not irreparably. Henry Kissinger has always been very cautious about the U.S’s becoming over-extended, but has understood much better than his reviewer apparently has that the country will buy into onerous foreign involvements only if legitimate national-security interests require it. Codevilla seems not to understand that Henry Wallace and Cordell Hull had no influence whatever on American foreign policy, and he claims that Roosevelt “moved the American legation from the U.S. embassy to the Soviet compound, where every room had been bugged,” at the Tehran Conference. In fact, Roosevelt moved himself to the Soviet compound in perfect certainty that his rooms were bugged (the U.S. legation was in the suburbs and there were security concerns), so he could get Stalin to demand that the Western powers attack across the English Channel in 1944 and not undertake Churchill’s hare-brained plan to charge up the Adriatic and through the “Ljubljana Gap” (which Eisenhower claimed did not exist). It was a stroke of genius, as Stalin supported a Western strategy that kept him from control of Germany and France, by helping Roosevelt rebut Churchill’s fears of fighting the German army again in Northeast France and Flanders. Stalin was recruited against his own interests, because he assumed that the Germans would throw the Western armies into the sea again, as they had at Dunkirk, Greece, Crete, and Dieppe. Roosevelt was right and Stalin and Churchill were mistaken, and Codevilla obviously doesn’t know much about these momentous events.

It is also a bit rich for Codevilla to attack Truman and Acheson for not confronting Stalin over Berlin: The Berlin Airlift was a clear Western success. His complaints about the Nixon-Kissinger policy toward Russia and China are simply churlish. Both men explained that they sought better relations with both of those countries than they had with each other, and that this was attainable because the U.S. had less to dispute with them than they had with each other, as Communist rivals and the chief powers of the Eurasian land mass.

Codevilla asserts that, “as Nixon and Kissinger toasted in the Kremlin [that is, drank toasts, in May 1972], the flow of Soviet armaments to Ho Chi Minh increased.” Ho Chi Minh had died in 1969 and, while Nixon and Kissinger were in the USSR on that occasion, Nixon ensured that there were 1,200 American airstrikes on North Vietnam every day. Codevilla’s claim that now “there is no world order because nobody really wants one,” is not quite right either. The Russians wish to regain status and China wants to advance to the first rank of nations, and Europe is too enervated to do anything while errors deplored by Kissinger as they were made in the last 20 years have temporarily immobilized America.

This reviewer is overwrought and irrational, and basically blames Henry Kissinger for all American foreign-policy errors subsequent to Kissinger’s time in office. He generously admits that “no one can read Kissinger without noting elements of insight.” That is not something that can be confidently said about this scurrilous review. It is a shocking outburst from an often perceptive writer.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full.

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