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July 19, 2009

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Henry's biggest year

BORN in 1925, two years after Henry Kissinger, Sir Alistair Horne, like his great contemporary, shows no signs of slowing down. In the past decade, he has written four books on his beloved France. Now, in "Kissinger: 1973, the Crucial Year," he ventures into different territory. This authorized portrait offers a comprehensive, penetrating and mostly reliable chronicle that its subject should welcome.

Horne explains that in 2004 he met Kissinger, whom he has known for almost 30 years, and proposed confining his biography to 1973, thereby allowing the equally prolific Niall Ferguson to work unmolested on a forthcoming official life.

Despite his ties to Kissinger, however, Horne has not given us a hagiography. He expresses perplexity at what he deems a "certain, extraordinary insecurity" on Kissinger's part, which he traces back to his origins as a young Jewish refugee from Nazism.

Nor does Horne scant Nixon's own contribution to foreign affairs. He notes that "from study of the underlying documents, it is abundantly clear that the original thinking, the initiatives, notably the opening to China and the detente with Russia, came from the unceasingly restless mind of Richard Nixon, and not from Henry Kissinger."

But Watergate meant that Nixon was on the run and rapidly becoming a spent force. According to Kissinger, "I was the glue that held it all together in 1973 - and I'm not being boastful." He was right. Nixon may have intensely resented Kissinger's celebrity and influence, but he felt compelled to name him secretary of state while allowing him to retain his post as national security adviser. At the ceremony, Kissinger later recalled, Nixon's remarks "ranged from the perfunctory to the bizarre," focusing on the fact that he was "the first secretary of state since World War II who did not part his hair."

Kissinger performed brilliantly in bringing the 1973 Israeli-Arab war to a close with several weeks of shuttle diplomacy. Chile, by contrast, formed a less auspicious chapter. Horne exonerates Nixon and Kissinger of any culpability for the military coup that ousted Salvador Allende. He goes on to whitewash the right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Horne also goes astray in denouncing the Senate Church Committee hearings that detailed the Central Intelligence Agency's misdeeds, which he deems "almost a McCarthy-style witch-hunt against all forms of 'secret intelligence' - and an exercise in self-hatred and self-harm."

Far more persuasive is Horne's astute depiction of the revolt that Kissinger's emphasis on good relations with the Kremlin triggered on the right, denounced by everyone.

Though Kissinger's government service career came to an abrupt end many years ago, the battles over whether to seek accommodation with foreign antagonists have not.


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