Some passions die hard. If you’re old enough to recognize the names Le Duc Tho, Salvador Allende and Anatoly Dobrynin without resorting to Wikipedia, you already know what you think of Henry Kissinger. But younger people have no such preconceptions—and the passage of 35 years is probably long enough to open even most older minds about the man who dominated U.S. diplomacy in the early 1970s.
Alistair Horne, a veteran historian whose more recent works have focused on France, believes we’re now at a point when Kissinger’s record can be seen more objectively. Horne has known Kissinger since 1980, and the former secretary of state approached him in 2004 to write his official life. Horne counter-offered: thus, Kissinger: 1973, The Crucial Year.
Like other “years” that have recently attracted writers (1848 springs to mind), 1973 was indeed a doozy. Detente with the Soviet Union and China was in full swing. The U.S. and North Vietnam agreed to a treaty that ended direct American involvement in the Vietnam War, leading to a Nobel Peace Prize for Kissinger and Le Duc Tho. Chilean President Allende was overthrown in a military coup. The Yom Kippur War and subsequent oil embargo began a new era in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Overshadowing everything at home was the Watergate crisis, which both empowered and stymied Kissinger. He was promoted from national security advisor to secretary of state at a time when Nixon, a foreign policy strategic master prone to jealousy of his underling, was in political and personal collapse.
As Horne makes clear, Kissinger was a product of the Cold War generation, and he saw literally every issue through the prism of relations with the Soviets. He failed again and again to heed warnings that Egypt was about to attack Israel, and he initially underestimated President Anwar Sadat’s abilities. But he quickly seized the opportunity to push the Soviets out of the Middle East and make the U.S. the key mediator in the conflict, with mixed consequences that persist today.
Vietnam emerges as Kissinger’s worst failure, though only in part through his own actions. Horne argues that Watergate’s most serious foreign policy impact was to limit the U.S. ability to respond to flagrant North Vietnamese treaty violations, as a Congress hostile to Nixon refused military funding.
If a book on foreign affairs can have lighter moments, they come in Horne’s description of Kissinger’s calamitous “Year of Europe” initiative, which ran aground on British pique, French obstructionism and German Ostpolitik. More seriously, the latest evidence described by Horne suggests that the decision by Kissinger and his top colleagues to respond to what they saw as a Soviet provocation in the Middle East with a DEFCON 3 alert of the U.S. military was an overreaction—the most dangerous point in the Cold War since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Although Horne is an authorized biographer with full access to Kissinger and his voluminous archives, he is not a hagiographer. He scrupulously goes through the arguments of Kissinger’s critics on the left and the right, and examines the evidence, including newly available Soviet records. He comes to a generally favorable conclusion, but provides readers with enough facts and fair analysis to make up their own minds.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.