Kissinger's "Diplomatic" Review of John Gaddis's Latest BookHistorians/History
Jim Sleeper, a former editor at Newsday and columnist for New York Daily News, is a lecturer in political science at Yale. Cross-posted from Dissent Magazine.
“The reader should know,” writes Henry Kissinger in his lengthy coronation of John Lewis Gaddis’s “magisterial” biography of the American foreign-policy seer and remonstrant George Kennan in the November 13 New York Times Book Review, “that for the past decade, I have occasionally met with the students of the Grand Strategy seminar John Gaddis conducts at Yale and that we encounter each other on social occasions from time to time.”
What the reader should also know (and what Times editors should have considered) is that this disclosure is roughly the equivalent of George W. Bush’s informing the public that he and Tony Blair have had “a full and frank exchange of views about matters of mutual concern.” A full disclosure by Kissinger would have acknowledged that no one has worked longer and harder than Gaddis since 2001 to help Kissinger justify and polish his controversial legacy.
Kissinger’s review offers insight and information—his own, more than Gaddis’s—and Kennan, in my view and that of others who’ve written about him, certainly deserves the respect both men are showing him. What rankles here is that, without being told, we’re watching the latest pas de deux in a long ballet between the once-powerful Kissinger and the power-seeking Gaddis:
“We hauled the entire Grand Strategy class down to New York to meet Henry Kissinger and hear about his sense of the great deficit that exists in grand-strategic thinking,” Gaddis told me and several hundred other Yale alumni in 2004. “One of the students was outraged by Christopher Hitchens’s book accusing Henry of war crimes, so I said, ‘Why not do a senior essay on Kissinger’s ethics?’ I saw a draft of it and called Henry, and he said ‘Bring him in,’ and he hired him on the spot—to fact-check Christopher Hitchens!”
Many in the audience swooned. This was how things had been done at Yale in their time, and, by God, Gaddis was restoring the old élan! But just as important to Kissinger as reducing “the great deficit” in grand-strategic thinking was reducing a deficit in his reputation that had been deepened not only by Hitchens but by indictments from abroad for crimes against humanity and by the declassification of State Department documents such as a November 1975 “Memorandum of Conversation” in which he counsels Thailand’s foreign minister to “tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way. We are prepared to improve relations with them.”
The Grand Strategy program shows students, quite rightly, why such utterances by diplomats aren’t shocking or even necessarily wrong. But it has also showed inadvertently that Kissinger has been playing Gaddis and Yale for all they’re worth, even without sharing the political and ideological predilections of Gaddis, a former Naval War College professor and, after 9/11, a prominent defender and apologist for the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy and the war in Iraq.
That became clear on one of Kissinger’s visits to the Grand Strategy seminar during the Bush years, when Gaddis said that “Washington has taken notice” of his work. His quasi-triumphalist 2004 book Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, written when the U.S. military victory in Iraq was fresh, trolled American history for precedents for preemptive war, winning him an invitation to the White House, where Bush met him holding a marked-up copy of the book. Gaddis huddled with historian Victor Davis Hanson and others to help draft Bush’s second inaugural address.
According to Peter Baker in the Washington Post, “Gaddis suggested that Bush promise to work toward ‘ending tyranny’ by a date certain in 20 or 25 years. Some scoffed, but [presidential speechwriter Michael] Gerson liked the idea [and] married Natan Sharansky’s idea of promoting democracy and Gaddis’s idea of ending tyranny, although they set no date and described it as the task of generations.” Later in 2005 Gaddis would be back at the White House to receive a National Humanities Medal from Bush. But on Inauguration Day itself, he was in New Haven hosting one of Kissinger’s visits to the Grand Strategy seminar, which watched Bush’s address on television and solicited his comments.
According to a former student who was present,
Kissinger teased Gaddis about there being nothing worse than an historian who wants to get involved in policy making. Of course Kissinger, a historian himself, has done just that, and he was tweaking Gaddis for trying. He gave the inaugural address a hand-waving endorsement: “I thought the speech was fine,” he said, but what he was really saying was, “Don’t ask me to say what I really think.”
“It was a case of the elder statesman being gracious,” said a student of Kissinger. “He clearly disdains any policy suffused with ideology,” and Gaddis, despite a few caveats in Surprise, Security, “had gone hook, line, and sinker with the Bush doctrine in Iraq. So it was all in what Kissinger didn’t say. It was clear he wasn’t enthusiastic when he said, flatly, ‘I supported the invasion of Iraq.’” That’s clear now, too, in Kissinger’s review, which reminds us that “Kennan served a country that had not yet learned the distinction between the [abrupt, military] conversion and the evolution of an adversary—if indeed it ever will.”
Gaddis seems to have anticipated Kissinger’s mild disfavor in a sometimes-arch appreciation of Kissinger’s Years of Renewal (which Gaddis, too, wrote for the New York Times) in 1999, before the Grand Strategy seminar existed. Then he noted deftly, if not backhandedly, that “Kissinger has produced the memoirist’s equivalent of a battleship, intimidating in appearance, heavy with armor and bristling with armaments, equipped to fire salvos at past critics while launching pre-emptive strikes against histories as yet unwritten.”
“The historians....will not be satisfied,” Gaddis continued. “Irritated by their inability to check his sources, knowing Kissinger’s reputation (partly self-cultivated) for covering his tracks, they are likely to regard this book as they have its predecessors: as an elaborate smokescreen designed to conceal what really happened.”
But then Gaddis quickly added: “There is irony here, because this most secretive of tacticians was surprisingly open about his strategy. Kissinger’s annual reports as national security adviser under Nixon, together with his speeches as secretary of state under Nixon and Ford, set out his objectives with extraordinary candor and clarity.”
Gaddis also explained why diplomats must dissimulate and are therefore not only frustrating to historians but misunderstood by all sides in politics:
It is often said of Kissinger that his view of the world was amoral, but this seems less than fair. He acknowledges here, more clearly than in the past, the influence of his upbringing in Nazi Germany, the examples set by his parents and the consequent impossibility, for him, of operating outside a moral framework. He calls for the United States “to remain the principal force for freedom and progress” even as it relies “on its head as well as its heart in defining its duty to the world.”
Small wonder, then, that in a review almost 4,500 words long, Kissinger mentions Gaddis and the book itself only briefly, in the introduction and conclusion, devoting more than 4,000 words entirely to his own rendering of Kennan. It’s no judgment against George F. Kennan: An American Life to suggest that now, after years of dancing around each other, its author and its reviewer have learned to make use of each other, as they are doing here now.
“Gaddis is intoxicated about power,” a former student who has since worked in the State Department told me in 2006. “His intellectual standards have eroded a bit because he’s so eager to tell the Bush administration what it wants to hear. It’s a little unseemly. He always contrives to seem no more than one and a half inches away from whatever is the conventional wisdom.”
While that cannot fairly be said of what, by all accounts so far, is an impressive biography of Kennan, it should have been said much more clearly about the orchestration of Kissinger’s diplomatic tribute to it.
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