National Security & Defense

Kissinger’s Ruinous Legacy, Conrad Black Notwithstanding

Kissinger in 1976 (Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library)
Conrad Black’s defense cannot undo the damage Henry Kissinger has done.

This controversy between Conrad Black and myself on Henry Kissinger’s legacy to American statecraft will have been worthwhile if it leads anyone to the Claremont Review of Books, where my review of Kissinger’s latest book, World Order, treats that legacy at due length. Regardless of the merits (or lack thereof) of my or Black’s writings, they have not shaped American statecraft. Kissinger’s have, and continue to do so.

My review’s one and only reference to Conrad Black was to quote his praise of Kissinger’s book: “brilliantly conceived and executed . . . even by Henry Kissinger’s very high standards.” Black construes this as an “attack” on him, of “extreme belligerence.” Who am I to disagree? Black then joins himself to Kissinger — “admiring of his talents as both an academic theorist and a practical executant of foreign policy . . . He is a friend . . . ” — as well as to others who write “civilly.” These, Black says, have been victimized by a “malignant outburst of Codevilla’s love for psychoanalytic imputations of motives to others,” manifested by my “shock-and-awe carpet-bombing.” Black does not quote me. But, forswearing “animus,” he is surprised that my “virulently accusatory” writings, which I “don’t substantiate,” appear “in reputable places like the Claremont Review and National Review.” Why try to disagree? As Casablanca’s Rick said to Ilsa: “The problems of [such as ourselves] don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Kissinger’s problems amount to a lot.

Whereas Black’s first defense of Kissinger attempted to distance him from the last half-century’s foreign-policy failures, his second tries to sidestep scrutiny of his legacy by embedding it in “the most spectacular world-scale strategic victories since the rise of the nation-state,” achieved by an Establishment of which Kissinger is part. Think Kissinger? Think Churchill, Truman, Eisenhower, and Reagan.

Conrad Black denies his own membership in “the class of officials and eminences . . . who have conducted these affairs in the West for generations.” He does this by modestly name-dropping his connections with the Anglo-Saxon world’s movers and shakers (Thatcher, Blair, Kissinger, and so on). Then he devotes the bulk of his article to arguing that although this “establishment did not conceive and engineer” the past 80 years’ triumphs, individual members of it did. Black’s list includes: “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,” as well as “Generals Marshall and MacArthur, Dean Acheson, and many others.” According to Black, “Codevilla largely dismisses [these] as devotees of defeatist accommodation of America’s enemies” or as “lucky amateurs.” One problem with all this is that my critique of Kissinger’s legacy never mentioned General Marshall, praised MacArthur, and never said or implied that anyone was amateurish or defeatist. Moreover, it was Kissinger (pp. 281-282), not I, who criticized Truman and Acheson’s refusal to confront the Soviets on Berlin, in 1948.

I linger on Black’s diversion because it shows where, as they say, he is coming from: “Codevilla appears to subscribe to part of the Yalta Myth.” What that “myth” is and to what part of it I “subscribe,” he does not say. But he implies that it is illegitimate to criticize the statesmanship that led to the Soviet Union’s domination of Eastern Europe for nearly half a century as well as the conduct of Western “containment policy.” Averse though I am to arguing from authority, I cite the memoirs of Winston Churchill and George Kennan, who urged policies and deployments that would have avoided this domination, as well as historian Christopher Andrew’s research on the influence of the network of Soviet spies and agents in the Anglo-American hierarchy: the British Oxbridge homosexual ring that Andrew terms “the Homintern”; the U.S. government’s covert Communists, of whom Alger Hiss is but the best known, and of course Harry Hopkins, FDR’s alter ego, whom the Soviets considered their agent (regardless of what he might have thought). For Black, the Soviet Empire was inevitable. But it was also so obviously foredoomed to the autochthonous collapse by which it died that those who thought it such a big deal were wrong. Despite that, Black considers the 1991 triumph of democracy and free markets an achievement so hard-won that it exempts the major players involved — and their successors — from all but a little criticism at the edges.

Why and how, for a half-century, has America’s ruling class inured itself to a mode of international conduct that has yielded defeat and decline?

So, though America has gone from being safe and respected to cornered and scorned, and though the roots of these momentous changes reach back long before 1991 in the ideas of the Establishment on whose watch they have occurred and are occurring, Conrad Black does not want us to examine them. Yet Henry Kissinger, author of 17 books, beginning in 1957, and adviser to or éminence grise in all U.S. administrations from Kennedy to Bush 43 (Reagan and the Carter NSC and DOD excepted), cannot be avoided.

Why and how, for a half-century, has America’s ruling class inured itself to a mode of international conduct that has yielded defeat and decline? The answer, comprising as it does a host of social and moral factors, transcends the realm of ideas. Nevertheless, ideas have consequences. Henry Kissinger’s status as the ruling class’s preferred purveyor of ideas on international affairs throughout living memory is such that they have become this class’s common sense. The disparity between this pseudo–commonsense and reality goes a long way toward explaining what America has done to itself.

Here, Conrad Black shows how wide and enduring that disparity is with regard to strategic weapons, and what a bar it is to dealing with reality: “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 was plenty wrong with it, because the other side was not interested in any such thing. Continuing to pursue an indefinable “historic quest” for a “stable relationship” while the Soviets were pursuing concrete plans for usable military superiority skirted disaster. Only by not knowing or caring what these weapons were for, by imagining them as pawns in a friendly contest for a “stable relationship,” could Kissinger sustain the empty wish for “maximum assurance” and “strategic superiority without war,” thinly veiled by the inherently meaningless claim of “nuclear sufficiency.” Sufficient for what? Under what circumstances?

Conrad Black sustains Kissinger: “He wasn’t responsible for the policy of allowing the Soviets to achieve parity with the U.S. in nuclear strength.” Earth to Black: Nixon/Kissinger took office in 1969, at which time the third generation of Soviet missiles that were intended not to achieve parity with but to overwhelm U.S. strategic forces was in engineering development. How to deal with this looming threat was the primordial task of U.S. strategic policy at the time. Fulfilling that task depended on understanding the nature of that threat. Kissinger misunderstood it then. There may have been some excuse then.

But Black persists in that misunderstanding: “Nixon regained leadership in SALT I by avoiding reference to missiles with multiple independently targeted warheads. . . . ” Since circa 1978, there has been zero excuse for writing such stuff. In 1969–72, as Kissinger was negotiating the SALT I treaty and its ABM coda, the U.S. had plenteous multiple warheads, the Soviets none yet. Kissinger’s working assumption was that this technology was beyond them and would remain so for a long time. Wrong. Above all, the number of warheads was, is, and forever will be far, far less relevant than their function. From the very start of the missile age, the Soviets had endowed all their missiles and warheads, as best they could, with a combination of accuracy and nuclear yield designed to destroy U.S. military “hard targets.” By contrast, since Robert McNamara in the Johnson administration, the U.S. had optimized its missile/warhead combination to destroy “soft” civilian targets. In short: U.S. forces were designed to deter nuclear war. Soviet forces were designed to fight, survive, and win nuclear war. Not only did Kissinger misjudge the number of Soviet warheads that America would face very soon under the terms of SALT I. More important, he either did not notice or did not take seriously what these warheads were exquisitely designed to do. Noticing that, and starting (albeit barely) to do something about it, had to wait for that superhawk Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Directive 59 (1980).

Conrad Black’s defense of Kissinger continues: “ . . . and keeping anti-missile defense research going. It wasn’t a perfect agreement, but it shut up the doves. . . . ” Since, today, our 50 states — your house and mine — are entirely vulnerable to any and all missiles from Russia, China, and, yes, Iran, it is worthwhile remembering that, in 1969–72, when Henry Kissinger was crafting the ABM coda to SALT I, America had a working and burgeoning missile defense the technological horizons of which were unconstrained, and which was orders of magnitude ahead of anything else on the planet. In America, only the extreme Left opposed it. Hubert Humphrey, Mr. Liberal of the age, supported it. But Kissinger’s ABM treaty threw away present defenses and the possibility of better ones in the future.

The Soviet Union’s death did not obviate the problems of missile warfare or America’s need for missile defense. The restriction, in Kissinger’s treaty, of missile interceptors to radar control, which effectively bans interceptor control from orbit, continues to negate the application to ground-based defense of the technologies that make the biggest difference in its effectiveness. That treaty’s restriction on the use of “other physical” principles continues to foreclose the most effective of all approaches, namely destroying enemy missiles in boost phase. All this is so despite the (strictly) formal abrogation of the ABM treaty in 2002, because Kissinger’s ways have become part of our ruling class’s mentality. Yes, Kissinger’s ABM treaty “shut up the doves” — by satiating them and validating them.

Kissinger has never publicly regretted any of this. Doing that would impeach himself. Why do it, when the Conrad Blacks of this world will defend you because you are you?

Because Conrad Black does not see or does not wish to see that Kissinger treated as axiomatic the Realist notion that all nations tend to seek “some stable relationship” or “order” — and that the primacy of this objective is what Kissinger’s influential theory of “limited war” is all about — Black’s defense of Kissinger’s role in the Vietnam debacle is internally incoherent as well as counter to reality.

Black writes: “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.” True, strictly speaking; but misleading, diametrically.

In Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957), Kissinger, writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, misrepresented as nuclear warmongering the Eisenhower/Dulles policy of responding to Communist aggression, not by shedding American blood on the enemy’s chosen field but rather “at times and places of our own choosing” with overwhelming force. Bouncing off this straw man and using the game-theory concepts of Thomas Schelling (The Strategy of Conflict), Kissinger advocated limiting U.S. responses to the point of attack, with means proportionate to the attack. This became part of the Democratic party’s campaign in 1960 and the mainstay of the Kennedy administration’s foreign policy. Kissinger elaborated this “limited war” theory further in The Necessity for Choice (1961) — his application for transitioning from Nelson Rockefeller’s entourage to Kennedy’s.

Of course, as Black writes, “There were acceptable policy alternatives between nuclear war and the quagmire of Vietnam.” But Kissinger’s theory fit perfectly with the Kennedy people’s penchant for making war and saying they weren’t, or not making war and saying they were. Hence, it strengthened their view that Vietnam was the proving ground for their judgment and manhood. Kissinger’s practical advice abetted all that. If, as Black writes here, Kissinger in the 1960s believed that “conscripted American armies could not be sent to the ends of the earth to fight for anything less than victory,” there is no record that he pressed that belief onto anyone at the time. This was Barry Goldwater’s point of view. Anyone who voiced it would have estranged himself from the Establishment. Kissinger did the opposite, and ended up running the political side of the Vietnam War from near the beginning through the shameful end.

Kissinger was complicit in consigning hundreds of American prisoners to a lingering death in Vietnamese prisons.

Black tries to absolve Kissinger of that shame in part by characterizing as “something of a novelty” of mine the notion that Kissinger’s objective, far from victory, ended up being “a decent interval between American withdrawal from Vietnam and the North Vietnamese military victory,” and that he shaped U.S. foreign policy to achieve that objective — including his diplomacy with the Soviet Union. Black wants to know what evidence I have for these allegations.

Start with the Oval Office tapes that became public property as a result of Watergate. This is the summary of one of those tapes by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center: “President Nixon acknowledges that South Vietnam will probably fall to the North but he and Kissinger want to make sure that its collapse does not negatively impact the 1972 presidential election or the Nixon administration’s foreign policy. Kissinger advises that they need a ‘formula’ to hold South Vietnam together until which time the public not only loses interest in the matter but that it also holds Saigon, and not the Nixon administration, responsible for the political and military defeat.” To supplement that noble conversation, just Google “Kissinger, decent interval, Soviet Union.” In 0.57 seconds, you get 134,000 results.

Conrad Black does not try to counter the fact that Henry Kissinger was complicit in consigning hundreds of American prisoners to a lingering death in Vietnamese prisons. Perhaps that is because, in his memoir White House Years, Kissinger himself wrote: “We knew of at least 80 instances in which an American serviceman had been captured [in Laos alone] alive and subsequently disappeared. The evidence consisted either of voice communications from the ground in advance of capture or photographs and names published by the Communists. Yet none of these men was on the list of POWs handed over after the Agreement.” In other words, Kissinger knew that he was dooming fellow citizens whose lives he himself had hazarded.

Not for the first or the last time was the Establishment’s bluster about grandiose ends followed by unseriousness about weapons and by playing at war, ended by betrayal and buried by pretense. Kissinger embodies the level of expertise, of public-spiritedness, and of honor with which U.S. foreign policy has operated for most of a half-century.

Did he really do that? The report of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs (August 2, 1991, to January 2, 1993) tells us, on p. 89, that Admiral Thomas Moorer, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1973, testified under oath that, when it became clear that Hanoi was not releasing all the Americans it was holding, he ordered American troops to cease their withdrawal from South Vietnam until Hanoi complied. Moorer testified that the White House countermanded his order the very next day. On p. 86 of that report, we also read that Kissinger swore that he never had any information showing that Americans who had been captured alive by the Communists hadn’t been returned. What do you think?

Kissinger is not ancient history. His legacy to American statecraft — negotiating surrender in Vietnam, arms-controlling our strategic forces into inferiority and leaving us naked to missile attack, sustaining the Soviet empire by “detente,” and paying rather than exacting a price for defending China against that empire — has made it normal for his successors to do things like making an arms-control deal with Iran, larding it with billions of dollars, leaving hostages behind, and expecting to reap respect.

By now the pattern is familiar: Facing an adversary, U.S officials assume that it is amenable to compromise and thus open negotiations with preemptive concessions of U.S. interests. Discovering that the adversary persists in its purpose and in fact is hardening its demands, our officials, falling back on Kissinger’s “creative ambiguity,” craft “agreements” based on the pretense that the adversary accepts the U.S. understanding thereof, and that our officials do not accept the adversary’s understanding. On that basis, they pretend that they have done something good. When the opposite results, they hide behind their status. Until we come to grips with Kissinger’s legacy, no one should expect results different from the ones that have befallen and continue to befall us.

— Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and the author most recently of To Make and Keep Peace.

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