NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, January 13th, 2019

Book Review: Kissinger is proof the adults in the room were “Reckless”, too

In the Mel Brooks par­o­dy “Space Balls”, the vil­lain­ous char­ac­ter Darth Hel­met brags to Lon­es­tarr, the pro­tag­o­nist, that, “Evil will always tri­umph because good is dumb.”

This trope appears in fic­tion often, and some writ­ers rely on it almost entire­ly.

The medieval­ist his­to­ri­an and cul­ture crit­ic Steven Atwell has observed that one of the cen­tral dif­fer­ences between George R.R. Mar­t­in’s world­view in the fan­ta­sy book series A Song of Ice and Fire and that of showrun­ners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in the HBO adap­tion Game of Thrones is that Mar­tin will stack the cos­mic deck against his “good” char­ac­ters to give them more adver­si­ty while D&D treat nobil­i­ty itself as a hand­i­cap, where evil is syn­ony­mous with com­pe­tence, cun­ning, with a will­ing­ness to make the hard and nec­es­sary choic­es.

The ear­ly 21st-cen­tu­ry genre of “pres­tige tele­vi­sion” with its white male anti-heroes is pred­i­cat­ed large­ly on this world­view, from Vic Mack­ey in The Shield to Frank Under­wood in House of Cards, but it con­tin­ues today and goes back to Kurtz in Apoc­a­lypse Now and beyond.

In con­tem­po­rary real­i­ty, though, we have a pres­i­dent and admin­is­tra­tion that is an ever-over­lap­ping Venn Dia­gram of racists, incom­pe­tents, and grifters rapid­ly approach­ing a per­fect cir­cle with every new cab­i­net depar­ture and replace­ment.

Recent­ly, that admin­is­tra­tion announced that Viet­nam War refugees who’ve been liv­ing in the Unit­ed States for 40 years or more are now sub­ject to depor­ta­tion.

We can and should con­demn that as yet anoth­er exam­ple of eth­nic cleans­ing that it is. It’s the sort of behav­ior that’s car­toon­ish­ly evil except for that it’s actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing and hurt­ing real peo­ple.

That we are cur­rent­ly ruled by schmucks does not make their sadism less painful.

At the same time, there is a syrupy-sweet voice talk­ing from the cor­ners of New York Times opin­ion columns and con­ser­v­a­tive “for­mer Repub­li­can lumi­nar­ies” that sug­gests that every­thing could go back to nor­mal if we just had the adults back in charge, that if peo­ple were a bit more civ­il and sub­tle as they went about pur­su­ing poli­cies that irrepara­bly harmed mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple, and if they did­n’t tweet rude, mis­spelt things, we’d all be OK.

Reck­less: Hen­ry Kissinger and the Tragedy of Viet­nam by Robert K. Brigham is a great cor­rec­tive on that impulse.

The adults in the room of past gen­er­a­tions were simul­ta­ne­ous­ly evil and incom­pe­tent, too.

Brigham demon­strates how Kissinger’s nego­ti­a­tions were nev­er going to be suc­cess­ful when he cut the South Viet­namese gov­ern­ment out of it.

It active­ly harmed the war effort to treat Nguyễn Văn Thiệu’s South Viet­namese gov­ern­ment as a pup­pet state instead of a peer nation in its own right.

That was an auton­o­my, notably, the North Viet­namese were able to main­tain despite their reliance on Sovi­et and Chi­nese sup­port.

Kissinger’s strat­e­gy was any­thing but effec­tive realpoli­tik unless his only goal was nar­cis­sis­tic. When Kissinger cut out the State Depart­ment and much of the rest of the White House from Viet­nam pol­i­cy, and then catered to Nixon’s worst impuls­es of car­pet-bomb­ing civil­ians in mul­ti­ple coun­tries, it increased Kissinger’s own stature, but meant that any pol­i­cy deci­sions lacked the push­back to iden­ti­fy flaws in a plan before they were enact­ed.

Once put into prac­tice, they did­n’t have broad­er insti­tu­tion­al sup­port they would have if the short­com­ings had been hashed out and agreed to. Kissinger thought the Sovi­et Union could be help­ful in bring­ing the North Viet­namese to accept less favor­able terms to them in nego­ti­a­tions, not real­iz­ing that the Sovi­ets were also in an ide­o­log­i­cal strug­gle with Chi­na in the eyes of the Com­mu­nist world.

Being unable to con­sid­er the Sovi­et per­spec­tive out­side of rela­tions with the U.S. meant no diplo­ma­cy, how­ev­er amoral, would amount to much.

Brigham writes:

“The Har­vard pro­fes­sor who cham­pi­oned real­ism and link­age did not under­stand the basic needs of his major adver­sary.”

By bring­ing in con­tem­po­rary accounts and a glob­al per­spec­tive, Brigham shows how the North Viet­namese had a much stronger grasp than Kissinger on the real­i­ties that Amer­i­can for­eign pol­i­cy would have on the world, includ­ing its domes­tic polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion.

When the peo­ple of the Unit­ed States already want­ed to with­draw its troops and go home, bomb­ing the heck out of Hanoi and Cam­bo­dia-in-gen­er­al did­n’t do any­thing to change the fun­da­men­tal struc­ture of the con­flict or make the North Viet­namese inclined to capit­u­late. The North Viet­namese nego­tia­tor Lê Đức Thọ under­stood all of this. Kissinger con­fused “mil­i­tary might” for “pow­er” and ignored the world-as-it-was in terms of mak­ing deci­sions with­in a demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment.

It may not be com­mon­ly regard­ed as bril­liance, but there is a true genius in actu­al­ly being able to think like oth­er peo­ple and under­stand their sit­u­a­tion bet­ter than they do. In that way, empa­thy and both­er­ing to con­sid­er the per­spec­tives of oth­ers deal­ing with a prob­lem is inar­guably a strength.

It’s eas­i­er to do so in ret­ro­spect than real time, but Brigham’s analy­sis suc­ceeds in being con­vinc­ing that it’s fair.

Indeed, even with ret­ro­spect, Kissinger did not grasp it.

In 1973, after being award­ed the Nobel Peace Prize, Kissinger’s analy­sis of what they should have done dif­fer­ent­ly was: “We should have bombed the hell out of them the minute we took office.”

The most impor­tant thing to know going in is that if you’re not already steeped in Viet­nam War his­to­ry, this is going to be a dif­fi­cult book to read.

That’s not so much a weak­ness of the book as an aspect inher­ent in the sub­ject mat­ter. The con­flict in Viet­nam was one where the Unit­ed States was but one play­er of many, and the famil­iar fic­tion­al fram­ing Amer­i­cans give our­selves as the flawed pro­tag­o­nists or anti-heroes of the con­flict is not a deserved one.

Brigham’s writ­ing isn’t showy.

I imag­ine it’s as plain and jar­gon-free as it can be, but you have to have at least some pass­ing famil­iar­i­ty with the fig­ures and acronyms involved not to flip back to the front sec­tion of def­i­n­i­tions every three or four min­utes.

Clear­ly, its intend­ed audi­ence is those who already have opin­ions about Viet­nam and Hen­ry Kissinger in par­tic­u­lar. The book’s cen­tral argu­ment is that the real Kissinger had not even the mephistophe­lian virtue of inge­nious wicked­ness.

The fic­tion­al Kissinger does­n’t mind the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of him as a war crim­i­nal so long as it pre­serves the idea that he was the smartest one in the room, restrain­ing oth­er, worse impuls­es. This is par­tial­ly the char­ac­ter he cre­at­ed by writ­ing his own draft of his­to­ry and is pre­served in more absurd per­son­i­fi­ca­tions such as the car­toon Ven­ture Broth­ers that includes a Mar­ry Pop­pins-ish, umbrel­la-fly­ing advis­er whose advice nonethe­less is always good.

Real evil isn’t always banal. Plen­ty of times it’s incom­pe­tent, too.

When Kissinger dies, some will rush to defend him as a true states­man, some­one who looked at the world to deal with it as it was and not as he’d like it to be. Peo­ple will mourn Kissinger or equiv­o­cate, and many will do so based on the idea that all of the hor­ri­ble things he helped accom­plish were at least done so com­pe­tent­ly.

As we live in the present moment and see so much brazen, stu­pid evil, we are right to crit­i­cize it. We are right to despise it.

But we are fool­ish­ly nos­tal­gic to think that abus­ing peo­ple and dis­re­gard­ing what they think is ever the clev­er­er thing to do.

It’s stu­pid and big­ot­ed and moral­ly con­temptible to expel Viet­namese refugees who fled to our shores to save their lives and the lives of their fam­i­lies decades ago.

But the deci­sions behind them need­ing to flee were no less stu­pid, big­ot­ed, or moral­ly con­temptible.

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