Regarding Henry, Warily


By Walter Isaacson

Simon & Schuster -- 893pp -- $30

In the introduction to Kissinger, author Walter Isaacson reveals the extensive cooperation he received from his subject. The image-conscious former Secretary of State was initially unenthusiastic, but he was unable to resist being drawn into the project. Not only did Henry Kissinger sit for more than two dozen interviews and provide access to personal papers, he leaned on relatives, business associates, and past Presidents to help Isaacson out.

Even so, the richly detailed portrait that emerges in these pages is unflattering. While Isaacson, an editor at Time, gives Kissinger ample credit for his foreign-policy achievements, he presents devastating accounts of Kissinger's scheming and high-handedness. Most damaging of all, he assigns Kissinger a hefty share of the blame for creating the atmosphere that contributed to President Richard M. Nixon's downfall.

Kissinger and Nixon were both realists who saw the need to ease tensions with the Soviet Union and the payoffs to be had in using China to offset the Soviets. But both also stoked each others' paranoia and conspiratorial natures. While operating in secret sometimes made sense, it often led to ludicrous situations. For example, the Soviets, Chinese, Romanians, and Pakistanis all knew of Kissinger's "secret" visit to China in 1971 while the State Dept. did not. And it was the obsession with secrecy that ushered in the profligate wiretapping that eventually led to Watergate.

The first wiretap, according to Isaacson, followed a New York Times story revealing the secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969. Although the leak was more of an embarrassment than a threat to national security, an enraged Kissinger arranged to have the FBI tap the phones of three of his National Security Council staffers as well as the military assistant to Defense Secretary Melvin Laird. Nixon signed on to the program, and the White House became a madhouse of wiretapping and other spying.

Isaacson ascribes Kissinger's secretive, authoritarian approach to govern- ment to his unusual background. Instead of turning him against dictators, his experience as a refugee from the Nazis and the Holocaust--which claimed more than a dozen of his relatives--made him deeply insecure and gave him respect for stability and order. He never fully comprehended the strengths of America's open if messy political system. Kissinger also seems to have acquired an early taste for the perquisites of power. While serving in the U. S. occupation forces in Germany, he set himself up with a mansion and a beautiful mistress, the wife of a German nobleman.

Less satisfying is Isaacson's explanation of how Kissinger caught the eye of the foreign policy establishment as a young Harvard academic. He repeatedly calls him "brilliant," but Kissinger's early ideas and writings seem to have been more ponderous than illuminating. Kissinger does appear to have acquired and polished a courtier's knack for cultivating the powerful, and there was apparently little he wouldn't stoop to. In an effort to ingratiate himself with the 1968 Nixon campaign, Kissinger offered inside tips that he had weaseled out of friends privy to the Johnson Administration's talks with the North Vietnamese.

Isaacson's tales mf Kissinger's difficult relationship with Nixon are enough to make a reader squirm. While obsequious in Nixon's presence, he became privately disloyal as Nixon deteriorated under the pressures of Watergate. He would refer to Nixon as a "madman" and "our drunken friend." When strange or slurred calls came in from Nixon, he would have an aide secretly listen in to share in the hilarity.

Nixon became increasingly disenchanted with Kissinger and several times considered firing him--a move he couldn't afford. With Kissinger's foreign policy successes and his cozy relationship with much of the press, he was the Administration's only asset in its final days.

But how much of his reputation rests on substance and how much on hype? From a distance of almost two decades, it is possible to see that Kissinger did score some major successes. His shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East laid the groundwork for peace between Egypt and Israel, and it is likely to produce further dividends in the future. China is a much more prosperous and less belligerent place than it was before the opening he orchestrated.

But Kissinger also suffered from major blind spots. His tough-guy approach to the Vietnam War helped prolong the conflict while failing to prevent a complete victory by Hanoi. His insistence on treating regional conflicts as proxies for U. S.-Soviet rivalry made it impossible for him to analyze them objectively. He also overestimated the Soviet Union's strength and durability and was too ready to concede Moscow's sway over Eastern Europe.

It's a mixed record, but Kissinger still has his adoring fans. Although out of office since 1977, he commands close to $2 million a year in speaking fees, and corporations pay him millions more for the benefit of his advice. Isaacson describes a talk to board members and managers of Freeport-McMoRan Inc. at a New Orleans restaurant as a typical Kissinger session with Big Business. The executives, Isaacson writes, hung on his every word as he discoursed on coming upheavals in the Moslem world. No one came away from the session with any practical advice. In fact, most of those interviewed by Isaacson had quickly forgotten what he said. All they remembered was that he was "brilliant."

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