Henry Kissinger's On China: Why is he so reverential and nostalgic about China?

Reading between the lines.
May 30 2011 8:01 AM

Chinese Dreams

Why is Kissinger so reverential and nostalgic about China?

Henry Kissinger in China. Click to expand image.
Henry Kissinger in China

We are now fast approaching the 40th anniversary of Kissinger's groundbreaking trip to Beijing, which began on July 9, 1971. He was the first U.S. official to set foot in China in more than two decades, and his trip marked a turning point in the Cold War. It opened the way for America and China to team up, forcing the Soviet Union to confront both of them at the same time. In the four decades since, China has emerged as the core of Kissinger's legacy. Other aspects of his diplomacy no longer seem so important as they did at the time. The Vietnam peace agreement, for which he won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, fell apart two years later. Détente with the Soviet Union didn't last. By contrast, China takes on ever-greater importance for U.S. foreign policy.

Kissinger was not only present at the creation of America's relationship with the People's Republic of China; he sees the ties as his creation and has held a proprietary interest ever since. When he has not been at the center of Sino-American diplomacy, he has wanted to be there, and in his new book, On China, the now 88-year-old diplomat does his best to command as big an audience as possible. As he looks back one last time at America's opening to China, Kissinger is not just talking to Americans. He has written this book with an eye toward an audience on the Chinese mainland as well.           

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The result is a nostalgic and curiously reverential account. As an author, Kissinger has many admirable qualities. He remains, by virtue of his earlier work, easily the best memoirist of any American secretary of state or president in the modern era. No matter whether one agrees with him or not, his three volumes on his eight years in the Nixon and Ford administrations stand out for their anecdotes, insights, and distinctive prose style. These same qualities are still occasionally on display in his new book. But what stands out in On China, rather than the skeptical detachment that is the Kissingerian trademark in writing about world affairs, is how little nuance the passage of years seems to have lent his views.

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In this tour through Chinese history, Kissinger seems to flounder until his own entry into the drama. The opening section, which covers ancient times to 1949, has the flat tone of a unit in a college-level survey course—with what almost seems like a chapter torn out. He jumps from the end of the 19th century to Mao's revolution, passing over in a few sentences the era when Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party ruled China. Kissinger argues that the Nationalist regime didn't sufficiently control the country, because it was preoccupied with fighting off both the Chinese Communists and the Japanese. Or is it that he's also in a hurry to get past what is still a sensitive subject for the Chinese Communist Party, which fought the Nationalists in the bitter civil war and sees Taiwan's current Nationalist government as a continuation of that civil war?

When Kissinger begins to revisit the era when he ran American China policy, it's striking how much his views and assumptions about Chinese leaders still seem bathed in the sense of awe that he acquired in his early trips to Beijing. Mao, Zhou Enlai, and successors like Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin are regularly depicted as wise and far-sighted. In Kissinger's version, they make few if any mistakes. Where others have argued that China erred during the Korean War or in China's 1979 invasion of Vietnam—in which the Chinese suffered astonishingly heavy casualties—or in the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, Kissinger demurs. He maintains the Vietnam incursion was still a strategic victory for China because it "succeeded in exposing the limits of the Soviet defense commitment to Hanoi." Kissinger can't bring himself to say he approved of what he called the Tiananmen "tragedy" of 1989, but he nevertheless urges understanding, as he did at the time, for Deng Xiaoping's decision to launch the violent crackdown. After all, Kissinger says, even peaceful protests can be a tactic aimed at weakening a government and demonstrating its impotence.