This month, Dr. Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State during the Nixon and Ford Administrations and co-winner of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, published his first new book in eight years, On China. (Its publisher, Simon & Schuster, has simultaneously reissued Dr. Kissinger’s memoirs White House Years and Years Of Upheaval in paperback and ebook form.)
On China is not only an account of Dr. Kissinger’s four decades of involvement developing the relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, but also an assessment of how this relationship may evolve in the future and an examination of how the enormous span of Chinese history informs the PRC’s view of itself and its place in the world. It includes his descriptions of conversations with Chinese leaders ranging from epochal figures like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, to those leaders now guiding the political and economic direction of the nation.
Among the reviews the book has received, three are especially notable. Roger Morris, a staffer on the National Security Council who resigned in 1970 to protest the bombing of North Vietnamese bases in Cambodia, wrote a rather critical book about Dr. Kissinger, Uncertain Greatness, in 1978, but penned a generally favorable review of On China for the Toronto Globe & Mail:
The ambition here is impressive, with sweep and scholarship to match, nothing less than Kissinger’s own Long March across the cadence and chaos of modern Chinese history, endeavouring to understand how such an immensely rich and complex culture sees and relates to the outside world in a maelstrom of imperial decay, national turmoil and ideological upheaval, the rise and fall and rise of the most populous people on Earth rescued from inscrutability (always the excuse for Washington’s ignorance and blundering) by a sensitive, penetrating appreciation of the ancient paradox of tradition and change, the insular and the international.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, reviewed the book for the Financial Times, in terms more mixed than Morris’s but also expressing an appreciation of Dr. Kissinger’s ability to take the long view. The discussion of the book in the Los Angeles Times, by the paper’s former Beijing correspondent Linda Mathews, is also illuminating. She points out that Dr. Kissinger credits President Nixon with
[...] showing a “unique grasp of international trends” and for recognizing in 1969 that China might be amenable to overtures from the United States. Practically speaking, it was the threat of a war along China’s border with the Soviet Union that set in motion the diplomacy that led to Nixon’s first trip to Beijing. The Soviets massed 1 million troops there and hinted at possible attacks on Chinese nuclear installations. Nixon, sworn into office just months earlier, “put forward the then-shocking thesis … that the Soviet Union was the more dangerous party and that it would be against American interests” if China were invaded, Kissinger writes. His office then issued a directive that in any Soviet-Chinese conflict, the U.S. would stay neutral but “tilt to the greatest extent possible toward China.”
Dr. Kissinger has also been interviewed several times this month. The most worthwhile of these appearances have been with Harry Smith on CBS Sunday Morning and with John Hockenberry and Celeste Headlee on Public Radio International’s The Takeaway. Smith asked the former Secretary of State:
“People seem to be surprised at seeing the rise of China in the last several decades. Should they be?”
“No,” Dr. Kissinger replied. “ The Chinese think of themselves as having always been on top and that there was only an interruption of a hundred years in which the West exploited its momentary weakness. And in their mind, they are reclaiming their traditional position.”
In his interview for PRI, Dr. Kissinger expands on this point, observing that whereas it would seem strange for American leaders to use a war earlier than WWII as a reference point, Chinese leaders have no trouble drawing parallels between conflicts that happened a half-millenium ago and some current situation. Besides his remarks on China this interview also includes some very perceptive thoughts on how America should approach the Mideast situation in the wake of the popular unrest of the last five months and President Obama’s new proposals. As Dr. Kissinger approaches his nineties, his new book makes clear that he still has much to say about the pressing issues of the twenty-first century.