National Security & Defense

Contra Codevilla on Kissinger

Kissinger testies on Capitol Hill, January 29, 2015. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)
Kissinger loomed large in U.S. foreign policy for many years. But he can’t be blamed for everything.

Angelo Codevilla is mistaken in imputing to me an animus against him. I have for many years thought him an erudite and original strategic thinker and have always enjoyed reading him. But I was astounded by his nasty and unrigorous attack (in the Spring issue of the Claremont Review of Books) on Henry Kissinger’s latest book, World Order, on Kissinger personally, and on favorable reviewers of the book, including me. The publisher and editor of the Claremont Review invited me to respond to Codevilla’s piece, and promised that Codevilla and I would then have an exchange on their web site. If he had not attacked me and I had not been invited to respond, I would not have intervened at all. I replied to Codevilla, and he then declined to engage me, and the Review told me with “embarrassment” that the best they could do was run a letter from me that would be a condensation of the reply they had requested. I agreed and said I would run my full response on National Review Online, which at least flushed Codevilla back onto the battlefield that he had chosen with his initial shock-and-awe carpet-bombing of Kissinger and anyone who writes civilly about him, as effigies for the entire foreign-policy establishment of the United States since the Thirties.

I am not repeating or responding to the acerbities that have been exchanged between us already, and any readers who are interested may determine for themselves which and whose strictures are justified. However, I must sincerely thank Angelo Codevilla for his generous compliment to my “status as an authority on international affairs” and my membership in the “class of officials and eminences of which [I am] part, and who have conducted these affairs in the West for generations.” I have no such status; I have some modest standing as a historian of the United States and Canada and as a commentator and former newspaper publisher in those countries and in the United Kingdom, Israel, and Australia. But I have never been a citizen or resident of the U.S., nor have I been consulted by anyone in authority about foreign-policy matters anywhere, except, to a slight and inconsequential extent, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. As is well known, I was persecuted half to death by U.S. federal prosecutors, though I prevailed eventually, but I am not currently officially welcome in that country and have no present intention ever to return to it. I wish it well, though it is not now the country I long knew and admired.

Our disagreement comes down to two main points: the quality of America’s foreign policy over most of the last 80 years, and the capabilities and record of Henry Kissinger himself.

Nor am I a Kissinger cheerleader, as anyone would know from reading my biography of Richard Nixon, where I am sometimes critical of Kissinger, though certainly admiring of his talents as both an academic theorist and a practical executant of foreign policy for the presidents he served. He is a friend, but we sometimes disagree, as over Russia (as was referred to in my piece on NRO last week). Trying to rise above the infelicities of our exchange up to now (which I lay at Codevilla’s door for the extreme belligerence of his original piece and his attack on me in it), I think our disagreement comes down to two main points: the quality of America’s foreign policy over most of the last 80 years, and the capabilities and record of Henry Kissinger himself. Codevilla does credit me with being very critical of the authors of U.S. foreign policy at times in the Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, George W. Bush, and Obama eras, and sometimes under Bush Sr. and Clinton. But he seems to believe that U.S. foreign policy has been almost uniformly incompetently conducted since the Thirties, except in the Reagan years. I believe Franklin D. Roosevelt was overwhelmingly successful, and Harry Truman and the strategic team he inherited from Roosevelt only slightly less so; Eisenhower gets a good passing grade; Kennedy’s record is more mixed. I believe that Nixon and Ford and Kissinger achieved a great deal in very difficult times, and I agree with Codevilla that Ronald Reagan was very successful.

In sum, and although Codevilla appears to subscribe to part of the Yalta Myth, from 1940 to 1945 the world evolved from Germany, Italy, Japan, and France all being in the hands of anti-democratic regimes negatively disposed to the Anglo-American powers (and, in the case of Germany and Italy, at war with the British Commonwealth) to the military occupation by the Western powers of all those countries, which became flourishing democratic allies, while the Russians took 95 percent of the casualties and physical damage incurred by the Big Three in subduing Germany and gained only a temporary and fruitless occupation of much less strategically important areas of Eastern Europe.

For more than 40 years, the Cold War divided the world and imperiled world peace, but in 1991 the supreme and at times closely contested struggle between the U.S.-led and Soviet-led blocs ended with the implosion of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Alliance, and international Communism, and the triumph of democracy and the free market in much of the world, and without a general war between the Great Powers. I share many of Angelo Codevilla’s reservations about the foreign-policy establishment of the U.S. (and other countries), and, vastly more importantly, so did Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Ronald Reagan. But the Roosevelt–Churchill leadership of the Western Alliance and the leadership of, in varying degrees of proficiency and success, all the U.S. presidents from Truman to George H. W. Bush, produced the most spectacular world-scale strategic victories since the rise of the nation-state, and somebody must receive the credit for it. The people just mentioned, along with Generals Marshall and MacArthur, Dean Acheson, and many others, cannot simply be dismissed as lucky amateurs. There were certainly mistakes, and at almost any point it all could have gone horribly and irretrievably wrong. But it didn’t. The U.S. foreign-policy establishment did not conceive and engineer these successes, but individuals whom Codevilla largely dismisses as devotees of defeatist accommodation of America’s enemies did.

Again, Codevilla and I agree that U.S. foreign policy has essentially been a disaster since the expansion of NATO in the mid-Nineties, except for George W. Bush’s rapprochement with India. Bill Clinton underreacted to the early terrorist provocations. The younger Bush’s crusade for democracy and attempt to transform Iraq into the state of Connecticut were dreadful fiascos. Clinton and Bush share responsibility for the near-terminal real-estate–driven financial collapse and the chronic balance-of-payments deficits, and President Obama has completely failed to define the U.S. national-security interest or even to hold to a consistent position on Syria, Iran, Ukraine, or any other important subject, while doubling the national debt. But Codevilla’s attempt to connect every failure to Kissinger — Vietnam, the Middle East, Ukraine — is unjust. Kissinger wrote in the Fifties that there would have to be some alternative to massive retaliation for any offense, and his account of the Berlin blockade and airlift — based in part on the reminiscences to him of Andrei Gromyko — was not at all critical of President Truman’s handling of it. Codevilla’s treatment of this subject is very misleading. The fact that Kissinger advocated a wider menu of responses than massive nuclear counter-attack does not mean that he was responsible for the Vietnam debacle.

Eisenhower was successful in ending the Korean War by threatening China with nuclear weapons, but Nixon and Kissinger, though they did not agree with MacArthur’s insubordination, thought the general was correct that North Korea could have been disposed of and China taught a lesson in 1951 at only marginally greater cost than the Korean War inflicted on the U.S and its allies. They also agreed with MacArthur’s view that conscripted American armies could not be sent to the ends of the earth to fight for anything less than victory, and victory in a war that clearly involved a vital national interest. There were acceptable policy alternatives between nuclear war and the quagmire of Vietnam. Nixon and Kissinger did not approve of the 1962 Laos Neutrality Agreement, which turned that country into an invasion superhighway for Ho Chi Minh. They didn’t approve of the Kennedy administration’s attempt to fight the Viet Cong with social programs. There was always going to be a problem in South Vietnam after Eisenhower brought it into SEATO, guaranteed it, and signaled the American version of the Vietnam unification referendum that emerged from the Geneva Conference (separate majorities in the two Vietnams). Codevilla even blames Kissinger for the 1991 “Chicken Kiev” speech of the elder George Bush just because it was drafted by the assistant (Condoleezza Rice) to National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who had been Kissinger’s assistant when he was national security adviser 20 years before. This is Red Queen historical justice.

We will never know whether South Vietnam could have survived if the Democratic majorities in the U.S. Congress starting in 1973 had not eliminated 80 percent of our military assistance to Saigon, and then cut it off completely, and if they had not prevented any bombing at all, much less heavy air support of the sort that helped ARVN repulse the North Vietnamese offensive of April and May 1972; any more than we will ever know if the Indonesian Communists would have been defeated in their attempted takeover of 1965–66 if the U.S. had not made the effort in Vietnam.

Codevilla summarily convicts Kissinger of “begging” the Soviets for a decent interval between American withdrawal from Vietnam and the North Vietnamese military victory. This allegation has often been made (though the idea that he begged the Kremlin for it is something of a novelty), but Angelo Codevilla, when I have read him on other topics, has offered some evidence for such serious allegations. Authors who don’t substantiate grievous charges against living people don’t normally appear in reputable places like the Claremont Review and National Review. There is no evidence that that was Kissinger’s intention, though he would have had to be brain-dead not to realize that there was a chance that Saigon would fall and that the longer it held, the less damage there would be to American credibility. Communist victory was assured by the Democrats’ cutoff of assistance to Saigon (the same Democrats, in many cases, who had originally plunged headfirst into Vietnam).

Similarly, Codevilla convicts Kissinger of having inspired Lyndon Johnson to adopt his disastrous on-again/off-again bombing policy against the North, before Kissinger held any public office, knew Johnson, or was more than a somewhat prominent academic writer and foreign-policy adviser to Nelson Rockefeller. He wasn’t responsible for the policy of allowing the Soviets to achieve parity with the U.S. in nuclear strength, and Nixon regained leadership in SALT I by avoiding reference to missiles with multiple independently targeted warheads and keeping anti-missile defense research going. It wasn’t a perfect agreement, but it shut up the doves while restoring what Nixon cleverly described as “nuclear sufficiency.” And Kissinger did not advocate balance as an end in itself; he wrote of the historic quest for some stable relationship between the principal entities and nations, and favored a balance that would give maximum assurance to America and its interests: strategic superiority without war. There was nothing wrong with that ambition.

There is plenty of room to dispute issues with Henry Kissinger, but not in Codevilla’s virulently accusatory manner.

There is plenty of room to dispute issues with Henry Kissinger, but not in Codevilla’s virulently accusatory manner, alleging cowardice, treachery, and corrosive cynicism. This is the most malignant outburst of Codevilla’s love for psychoanalytic imputations of motives to others; the most malignant, but not the most absurd. That honor goes to his conclusion: that I am attacking him to protect Kissinger and to shore up the crumbling reputation of the Western foreign-policy establishment of which I am a part. If I could chin myself on that fantasy, the next step would be to claim credit for the Inchon landing, the invasion of Normandy, or Wellington’s victory at Waterloo. On the basis of this exchange, I suspect that is what Mr. Codevilla would do if our roles were reversed, and he were the subject of such a spurious attack as his on Henry Kissinger and me, and countless unnamed others in the unspeakable cabal that he imagines has been mismanaging Western international relations for generations.

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