Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Crucial Year by Alistair Horne

I thought I knew all about "Watergate". I watched the hearings and read the newspaper accounts. I was a Vietnam war protestor. I followed the events surrounding President Nixon's "opening" to China and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's famous "Shuttle Diplomacy", detente, Brezhnev's trip to America as well as the overthrow of Salvador Allende by the General Pinochet in Chile. But what did a really know? As it turns out, not all that much

In writing this book Alistair Horne had access to Henry Kissinger's official papers- all 33 tons in the National Archives. He spent many hours discussing the events of 1973 with Kissinger himself and interviewed many of his aides, secretaries and other top government officials in those times such as Alexander Haigh and Brent Scowcroft, as well as diplomats, politicians, generals and biographers in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Furthermore, as the author notes:

" If we lucky historians have enjoyed one rare benefit through living in the murderous and turbulent twentieth century it is surely that, as almost never before, through the collapse of hitherto opaque, totalitarian regimes- and their subsequent exposure- we are privileged with unique views of "the other side of the hill". After 1945 we were treated to a comprehensive insight into workings of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, in all their vileness. Thus too, with the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the coming of perestroika and glasnost, we are now able to glimpse inside the stony exteriors of the Soviet Union and its East European allies the two decades previously."

The "inner history" of the People's Republic of China is becoming increasingly accessible to historians as well, not the least through Kissinger's own, previously confidential papers but also in several books exhibited on this blog such as Donping Han's "The Unknown Cultural Revolution" and Minqi Li's "Tiananmen Square".

If my perspectives of the events of 1973 as I lived them turned out to be so limited, what does that say about my knowledge of events as they are happening today, especially as portrayed in popular American media? The experience of reading a book such as this provokes genuine sense of humility.


The American government was not very involved in the overthrown of Salvador Allende in Chile. They provided a million dollar subsidy to keep the presses of a relatively responsible and moderate newspaper rolling during the turmoil leading up to the coup of General Pinochet. Nixon and Kissinger specifically ordered the CIA and the American Embassy not to get involved. Neither was it clear to them how nasty General Pinochet would become. Zhou EnLai, the second most powerful leader in the Chinese Communist Party at the time, was himself critical of Allende's rashness in Chile as well as Che Guevara'a Latin American "adventurism".

In a conversation with Kissinger, the conqueror of de Gaulle's France, Algerian President Houari Boudedienne described his fellow revolutionary Allende as " a troubling case":

Kissinger: " I tell you frankly that Allende faced an objectively complex situation. He wanted to make a revolution, but he had no discipline, to many scruples, and too much inefficiency. We did not do anything to overthrow him. I told your foreign minister that as a professor I wanted to make a study of revolution. This is why I am fascinated by Algeria. Seriously, I am fascinated by how revolutions start with inferior strength and how they convert psychological superiority into military superiority. In your case you analyzed correctly that you were bound to win if you did not lose...

Boumediennne" "Exactly.."

Kissinger: Therefore you did not try to win in the normal sense. But for this you need great discipline. This was Allende's difficulty.

Boumedienne: "Perhaps we do give you Americans too much credit!"

Kissinger: " We did nothing to help him. We did not stop his suicide."

"In the theology of the left, Allende's collapse had to be the malign work of others", wrote Kissinger. But had Allende himself been conversant with the works of Lord Byron, with what accuracy he might have quoted the following:

I have been cunning in my overthrow,
The careful pilot of my proper woe.


  1. During the Yom Kippur war and negotiations for a cease-fire Israel did not necessarily feel safer with a Jewish American secretary of State. On Kissinger's side, apart from a select few close friends and colleagues like the later assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, he never felt particularly at ease in -or with- Israel. At the time of its creation back in 1948, as a Harvard freshman Kissinger had opposed it, taking the view that a separate state in the Middle East would be "a potentially historic disaster." He thought the Zionists would have been "better off forming a federal state with Jordan. As he observed on several occasions to this author, he regarded the Israelis as a "hard, unforgiving, and ungenerous" and a "maddening people." His sentiments about Israel were complex, but strongly tinged with pessimism. He could not conceive of being secretary of state in circumstances which might see the demise of Israel; yet he thought its chances of survival beyond the mid-twenty-first century were slim. When I once put to him a proposal of a Nuclear Free Zone to embrace the whole Middle East, inclusive of Iran and Israel, he responded, "Intellectually I would support that, but emotionally I can't." For him, personally, he always found relations with the Israelis " very difficult- especially for a Jew. "Yes, I was very suspect. They had no understanding for anything less than 100 percent support. They expected me, as a Jew, to be totally on their side; I couldn't be." Kissinger was very frustrated by what he saw as an Israeli lack of a world view.

  2. Kissinger's two major goals in the negotiations around the Yom Kippur war were first, removing Soviet influence in the region which he regarded as "always enough to keep tensions high but never enough to bring about a settlement." His greatest ally in this endeavor was President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. Secondly and somewhat paradoxically, he sought to maintain detente- 'the mitigation of conflict among adversaries, not the cultivation of friendship'- with the Soviet Union. His best ally in this endeavor was Leonid Brezhnev. Under the supervision and concurrence of Richard Nixon( "the time has come to quit pandering to Israel's intransigent position'), in the short term, Kissinger achieved these goals with unsurpassed brilliancy, and against the greatest obstacles imaginable- the cold warrior Senator Scoop Jackson and the Israeli Lobby in the U.S. Congress.

    Kissinger could well regard the exclusion of the Kremlin- with all the grief, mischief and menace that its hand in the Great Game had brought since the Suez Crisis in 1956- as one of his greatest triumphs. And it came without ( at least apparently) any lasting damage to the doctrine of detente. Yet, at the same time, Kissinger was assuming for the United States the burden of responsibility for Israel, and peace in the region as a whole. Washington donned it willingly, consensually: then, as later leaders and the U.S. Government replaced Nixon, progressively shirked the burden. Was Kissinger's work to prove a Shirt of Nessus? Might historians one day parallel 9/11 with the poisoned shirt which had subjected the hero Hercules to such mortal torment?"

  3. The Watergate Scandal turns out to have been for the most part a self-inflicted injury. However despicable, the relatively minor clandestine acts upon which the investigation, hearings and impeachment proceeded had been engaged in by practically every previous U.S. Administration in one form another, and were so commonplace in the rest of the world it was only with great difficulty that its leaders came to appreciate the gravity of the situation and its threat to the authority of the President. The tragedy was compounded on a personal level by President Nixon himself, "a man who lived out a Walter Mitty dream of toughness that did not come naturally and who resisted his very real streak of gentleness." This was the man, with the intuitive insight to propose and initiated the diplomatic breakthrough with China while Kissinger was still proclaiming "Fat Chance" and that his soon-to-be-boss was "unfit to be president". But the press took the story and ran, people like myself gobbled it up, while Congress dismantled the carefully constructed peace agreement Kissinger signed with North Vietnam in Paris, and Cambodia succumbed to genocide. A legacy of partisan demagoguery, personal attacks, fear mongering and "Cold War" geopolitics survives to this day.

    Kissinger 1973; The Crucial Year by Alistair Horne; Simon & Schuster, 2009

  4. I have highlighted but a few of the events and circumstances in this book. As to its conclusions, no doubt many will disagree and in many instances, not entirely without justification. History is not a fertile field for frenzied certainty or unambiguity. It is a project that never ends, though for the responsible scholar some steady progress and meaningful revision is possible. Such an engagement is quite distinct from "news commentary" but if you want to get the most from news, history is indispensable. It tells us that we don't have the information to make an entirely informed judgment