One highlight of 2018 was the story of the Dutchman who wanted an age change. Born on March 11, 1949, Emile Ratelband was perfectly content with that day and month. It was just the year he proposed to alter — from 1949 to 1969. “We live in a time when you can change your name and change your gender,” Ratelband argued. “Why can’t I decide my own age?” He was even willing to give up his pension if the Dutch courts would recognise his desire to identify as a middle-aged man, rather than an old one. Of course, being Dutch, the judge said no.
If only Ratelband had been born in the United States, he would surely have had more luck. For most of her academic career, Senator Elizabeth Warren claimed to be of Native American origin. Had she not made the mistake of taking a DNA test, she might one day have been hailed as the first Cherokee president.
From December 1987 until August 2013, Bradley Manning was a male American. The day after Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for espionage, however, his lawyer announced that his client was in fact female. My mentioning that for 25 years Manning was a bloke called Brad will doubtless lead transgender activists to accuse me of “deadnaming”.
Last week it was reported that Brighton and Hove city council had issued new guidance to teachers advising that “menstruation must be inclusive of all genders” because “trans boys and men and non-binary people may have periods”. If we are to believe that menstruation is now a matter of personal choice, then why not age, too?
It is only as I reflect on this and other absurdities that I realise what is really going on. It is not just Emile Ratelband who wishes to turn the clock back. The whole world appears to want to go back in time.
The year 2018 will be remembered for our collective attempt to make believe that it is, in fact, 1973. In the United States the administration of Donald J Trump took several significant steps towards re-enacting the Watergate scandal. Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential election, has so far indicted or secured guilty pleas from more than 30 people, including four of the president’s advisers and his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen.
By losing control of the House of Representatives, the Republican Party opened the path to the president’s impeachment, although the Democrats will start the ball rolling with congressional investigations. The resignation of the defence secretary, Jim Mattis, last week was just the latest flashback. In the course of 1973 Nixon got through four defence secretaries.
Meanwhile, the government of Theresa May approached the conclusion of its near three-year mission to return the United Kingdom to 1973 — the year Britain lapsed from its historic greatness by joining the European Economic Community. By rejecting the withdrawal agreement negotiated by May, proponents of a “no-deal” Brexit hope to restore per capita income to its level in that year.
In China, President Xi Jinping continued his effort to return the government of the people’s republic to its pristine state of 45 years ago, when Chairman Mao Zedong ruled as a red emperor unconstrained by term limits, the rule of law or economic rationality.
His Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, faces a bigger challenge, as the Communist Party to which he once belonged was dissolved in 1991. Nevertheless, by recklessly violating the sovereignty of neighbouring Ukraine and by brazenly interfering in the presidential election in the United States, President Putin has managed to get such severe sanctions imposed on his country that he may yet return Russian living standards to their 1973 level. The recent slump in the price of oil will help.
All over the world, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Saudi Arabia, political leaders are engaged in time travel. It is like a global race to see who can be as odiously corrupt as the Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, generally recognised as the worst kleptocrat of the 1970s, or as barbarically cruel as Idi Amin of Uganda.
Of course, not everything in the Great Rewind is as easy as this. The 1970s were a time of rapidly rising inflation. The past 10 years have seen the developed world teeter on the brink of deflation. Even with the unemployment rate at its lowest level for 45 years, US consumer price inflation is still a meagre 2.2%. But Venezuela’s repulsive Chavista regime — for so long the toast of champagne socialists from Mayfair to Malibu— has pulled it off: according to the International Monetary Fund, inflation there will exceed 1,000,000% this year.
The biggest challenge, however, has been cultural. Just a year or two ago it would have seemed impossible to return mankind to the customs of the early 1970s. Over 45 years, real social progress had been made in so many ways. Women had been liberated. Men had realised how absurd they looked with long hair and beards. Disco music had largely been obliterated. Smoking had ceased to be tolerated. And the internet — no more than a twinkle in the eyes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in 1973 — had transformed the world by giving a majority of humanity access to all knowledge ever.
Yet our genius as a species was equal to the challenge. By 2018 the internet had become a toxic wasteland dominated by a handful of monopoly companies indiscriminately selling advertising and a horde of purveyors of clickbait. Smoking had been successfully reinvented as vaping. Music even worse than disco had been devised. (It’s true. I have listened to God’s Plan by Drake, the year’s bestselling track and a wholly mind-numbing dirge.)
My friends, it’s 1973. Manchester United have sacked their manager. Liverpool are going to win the Premier League. Their star striker, Mohamed Salah, has hair that Kevin Keegan must wish he still had.
Yet the greatest accolade goes to the #MeToo movement, which has successfully made working with women so dangerous for male executives that — according to Bloomberg — the new Wall Street rule is: “Avoid women at all cost . . . No more dinners with female colleagues. Don’t sit next to them on flights. Book hotel rooms on different floors. Avoid one-on-one meetings.” According to one wealth adviser, hiring a woman is “an unknown risk”. Now that’s what I call turning back the clock.
It’s true that I don’t feel as if I’m nine years old, any more than Emile Ratelband would have felt 20 years younger if the Dutch courts had upheld his age change. But I don’t care. It’s 1973 again, in my mind if not my body. And so I’m leaving it to Noddy Holder of Slade to say — as he did for the first time in that happy old year — Merry Xmas Everybody.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
To my 19-year-old son, the First World War — which ended 100 years ago today — is as remote an event as the Congress of Berlin was to me when I was 19, Lloyd George as distant a figure as Disraeli. To my generation, the First World War was not quite history. My father’s father, John Ferguson, had joined up at the age of 17 and fought on the western front as a private in the Seaforth Highlanders. He was one of more than 6m men from the United Kingdom who served. Of that number, 722,785 did not come back alive. Just under half of all those who lost their lives were aged between 16 and 24 — a fact that never fails to startle.
John Ferguson was one of the lucky ones who survived and returned. But, like more than 1.6m other servicemen, he did not come back unscarred. He was shot through the shoulder by a German sniper. He survived a gas attack, though his lungs suffered permanent damage.
My grandfather’s most vivid recollection of the war was of a German attack. As the enemy advanced, he and his comrades fixed bayonets and prepared for the order to go over the top. At the last moment, however, the command was given to another regiment. So heavy were the casualties in the ensuing engagement that my grandfather felt sure he would have died if it had been the Seaforths’ turn.
As a schoolboy, reading the poetry of Wilfred Owen, learning to shoot an antiquated rifle in our school’s Combined Cadet Force, I could readily imagine the raw fear of awaiting that order. I wonder if my son knows that sensation.
His generation is not only more distant from the war than mine. It has also been exposed to a great deal of nonsense on the subject. Here are just a few examples I have encountered in recent weeks.
1) Despite the enormous sacrifices of life and treasure, the war was worth fighting. (No, as I argued in my book The Pity of War, an unprepared Britain would probably have been better off staying out, or at least delaying its intervention.)
2) The peace of 1919 failed and was followed just 20 years later by another world war because there wasn’t enough European integration in the 1920s. We learnt our lesson after 1945 and that’s why we haven’t had a third world war. (No, we haven’t had a third world war mainly because of Nato.)
3) The peace failed because of American isolationism. (No, it failed because Woodrow Wilson’s belief that Europe’s borders could be redrawn on the basis of national “self-determination” was naive.)
4) Today, 100 years later, politics in both Europe and the United States is afflicted by the same pathologies that destabilised Europe after the First World War. (No, populism isn’t fascism.)
Let me counter with 10 points that I would like all my children to understand about what happened to their great-grandfather’s generation.
1) The war was not “for civilisation”, as claimed on John Ferguson’s Victory Medal. It was a war for predominance between the six great European empires — the British, the French and the Russian against the German, the Austrian and the Ottoman — that broke out because all their leaders miscalculated that the costs of inaction would exceed the costs of war.
2) It was not fought mainly by infantrymen going over the top. It was fought mainly with artillery. Shellfire caused 75% of casualties. The war-winning weapons were not poison gas or tanks so much as improvements in artillery tactics (the creeping barrage, aerial reconnaissance).
3) The Germans were not doomed to lose. If the French had collapsed in the first six months of the war — when 528,000 French soldiers were permanently incapacitated — it could have been 1870 or 1940. French resilience was one of the surprises of the war. Even so, by mid-1917 the French were finished as an attacking force. German submarines were sinking frightening numbers of the ships supplying Britain. With Russia consumed by the revolution, American investors saw a German victory as possible as late as the spring of 1918.
4) True, the Germans were handicapped in many ways. Their allies were weak: Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria. Their generals used methods — submarine warfare, in particular — that made American intervention likely, if not inevitable.
5) Economically, too, the German side was at a massive disadvantage. Britain and her allies had bigger empires (the population ratio was 5.3 to 1), bigger economies (3.6 to 1) and bigger budgets (2.4 to 1). Moreover, even before the US entered the war, Britain had access to Wall Street.
6) However, the Germans were formidably superior at killing (or capturing) the other side. Overall, the Central Powers killed 35% more men than they lost, and their average cost of killing an enemy soldier was roughly a third of the other side’s. The German soldiers were effective enough to win their war against Russia in 1917.
7) The Germans ultimately lost because the British Army proved more resilient than theirs. Men such as John Ferguson simply would not give up, despite all the hardships they had to endure. Was it patriotism? Did they simply believe in the official war aims? Or was it because British propaganda was so effective — and British military justice so harsh? Perhaps all of these played a part. But it also mattered that British officers were generally competent; that the average Tommy’s lot was made bearable by plentiful “plonk” and fags; that, despite high casualties, the bonds between “pals” and “mates” endured.
8) The German army finally fell apart in the summer and autumn of 1918, after it became clear that British tenacity and American intervention made a German victory impossible, and after Bolshevik ideas began to spread westwards from the eastern front. Beginning with the Battle of Amiens (August 8-11, 1918), the Germans lost the will to fight and began to surrender in droves.
9) The war was followed not by peace but by pandemonium. The dynasties toppled: Romanovs, Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Ottomans — all gone. Their great multi-ethnic empires also disintegrated. The Saxe-Coburgs survived by renaming themselves “Windsor”, but still lost the lion’s share of Ireland. Not only in Russia but all over the world, red revolution seemed unstoppable. To cap it all, an influenza pandemic struck, killing roughly four times as many people as the war had.
10) Not until the advent of a new generation of nationalist strongmen — starting with Jozef Pilsudski, Kemal Ataturk and Benito Mussolini — was it clear that belligerent nationalism was the best antidote to Leninism. Some called it fascism. However, few of the interwar dictators regarded the peace treaties drawn up by the wars’ victors as legitimate. Most of the treaties were dead letters long before war resumed in 1939.
Today, please do observe the two-minute silence, at least, in memory of all those whose lives the Great War ended prematurely. But don’t just zone out, as it’s easy enough to do. If only for 120 seconds, just think of your grandfather or great-grandfather as a boy, in a trench, mortally afraid. And ponder how he got there.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
The death last week of Tom Wolfe, one of the all-time great American writers, sent me back to The Bonfire of the Vanities. No other book, it is generally agreed, better captured the atmosphere of mid-1980s New York. What no one foresaw at the time of its publication was that 30 years later a character from Wolfe’s New York would take over the entire United States.
As Maggie Haberman of The New York Times put it last week: “Tom Wolfe envisioned a Donald Trump before the actual one came into tabloid being.” But that’s not quite right. Trump had already come into being even before Wolfe turned from journalism to fiction. (The Art of the Deal was published the same year — 1987 — as The Bonfire of the Vanities.) We catch glimpses of Trump-like figures not only in Bonfire but also in the equally engrossing, although less lauded, A Man in Full.
From The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to Radical Chic and The “Me” Decade, Wolfe the journalist had a knack for both capturing and puncturing the zeitgeist, combining the verbal pyrotechnics of a James Joyce or a Jack Kerouac with a Southern sensibility that subtly conveyed his contempt for 1960s and 1970s self-indulgence.
But the novels are Wolfe’s masterpieces, each one drilling deep into the American psyche, exploring mercilessly the country’s three great obsessions: money, sex and race. They can now be reread — and relished — as trailers for the Trump era. For Trump’s presidency is simultaneously, fascinatingly, horribly about all three obsessions.
First and foremost, there is money. You can easily picture the young tycoon Trump rubbing shoulders with Wolfe’s character Sherman McCoy, the bond-trading “Master of the Universe” whose downfall is central to The Bonfire of the Vanities. So Wolfean is the personality of Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer-fixer, that I found myself flicking through the book to see if he was lurking there. (The same goes for Stormy Daniels, the porn star whose silence Cohen appears to have bought on his boss’s behalf before the 2016 election.)
And there Cohen is in chapter 24! McCoy is waiting to see his lawyer, Thomas Killian, of Dershkin, Bellavita, Fishbein & Schlossel, who emerges from his office with “his arm around the shoulders of a pudgy . . . white man”.
“‘What can I tell you, Donald?’ Killian was saying. ‘The law’s like anything else. You get what you pay for. All right?’”
The protagonist of A Man in Full, Charlie Croker (“Cap’m Charlie”), is not quite Trump, as he is a Southerner and a former American football star. But he is a property developer. His business does teeter on the brink of insolvency. He does have a much younger “current” wife and an embittered ex-wife. And his inner monologue has more than a little Trump about it:
“A certain deep worry came bubbling up into his brain . . . Debt! A mountain of it! But real estate developers like him learnt to live with debt, didn’t they . . . It was a normal condition of your existence, wasn’t it . . . You just naturally grew gills for breathing it, didn’t you . . .
“He, Charlie, was a one-man band. That was what a real estate developer was, a one-man band! You had to sell the world on . . . yourself! Before they would lend you all that money, they had to believe in . . . you! They had to think you were some kind of omnipotent, flaw-free genius. Not my corporation but Me, Myself & I!”
The established giants of the New York literary scene, notably Norman Mailer and John Updike, looked down their noses at Wolfe’s novels, probably because they had sniffed his deep-seated conservatism. But Wolfe’s fiction is superior to theirs. I can think of no books that better capture the modern American predicament. For what Wolfe shows is that the obsession with money, and the status it confers, is only part of a triptych. Next to it, as each of the novels shows, is sex — about which Croker thinks at least as much — and race, America’s original sin, about which Wolfe always wrote fearlessly. (In each novel at least one transgression crosses the racial divide.)
Most intellectuals missed completely the potency of Trump’s presidential candidacy in 2016. Not Wolfe. In an interview in March 2016 he shrewdly assessed the way Trump was “capitalising” on the widespread “distress and contempt for government”.
Wolfe continued: “He comes out and says things like, no more illegal immigrants from Mexico, no more immigrants from Islamic countries, and so on, and a lot of people say, ‘Hey, yeah, finally, someone has come out and said what I believe.’ He goes from gaffe to gaffe and it only helps him.”
With an insight born of decades of acute observation of his fellow Americans, Wolfe noted that Trump’s “real childish side” was part of his appeal. “He is a lovable megalomaniac,” as Wolfe put it. “People get a big kick out of going to his office and behind his desk is this wall of pictures of himself in the news. The childishness makes him seem honest.”
For many months I have been trying to explain that a man can be, at one and the same time, deeply flawed as a human being and in some ways effective as a president. Wolfe understood this too, recalling how Ronald Reagan had been “a huge success” as president, despite being “considered an idiot by half of the people in the political field”.
Trump is in a completely different league from Reagan as a man. Reagan had arrived at his conservative principles through reading and reflection on both economics and politics. It was conviction that led him to overrule his advisers and call on Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
Trump, by comparison, has all the principles of Cap’m Croker. We have abundant evidence that elements in his administration are corrupt; that he himself is a lecher and a philanderer; that he has no qualms about pandering to racial prejudice; and that he has no attachment to the constitution he swore to uphold and would do away with all its constraints on him tomorrow if he could. As a friend of his once told me: “He has no filter and he has no core values.”
Yet, as I argued last week, it is conceivable that this dissolute individual could be the president who successfully counters the various challenges to US power posed by China, North Korea and Iran. Or at least who gives the impression of doing so. In truth, very few Americans will read the small print of any deal that Trump does with their adversaries. Mesmerised by the spectacle of Charlie Croker in the White House — The funny money! The shameless sex! The racy racism! — they will, like Wolfe’s readers, keep turning the pages, wondering what grand guignol scene will confront them next.
The author Michael Lewis once observed that Wolfe never knew how to end his novels. I worry that Americans don’t quite know how to end the Trump presidency. His approval rating is up. The Democrats’ lead in polls for the mid-terms is down. Wolfe may have departed the scene, but the Donfire of the Vanities keeps burning.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
About halfway through writing my biography of Henry Kissinger, an interesting hypothesis occurred to me: Did the former secretary of state owe his success, fame and notoriety not just to his powerful intellect and formidable will but also to his exceptional ability to build an eclectic network of relationships, not only to colleagues in the Nixon and Ford administrations, but also to people outside government: journalists, newspaper proprietors, foreign ambassadors and heads of state—even Hollywood producers? If Volume I had surprised readers with its subtitle—“The Idealist”—should Volume II perhaps be subtitled “The Networker”?
Whatever your views of Kissinger, his rise to power is as astonishing as it was unlikely. A refugee from Nazi Germany who found his métier as a scholar of history, philosophy and geopolitics while serving in the U.S. Army, Kissinger was one of many Harvard professors who were drawn into government during the Cold War. His appointment as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser in December 1968 nevertheless came as a surprise to many people (not least Kissinger himself), because for most of the previous decade he had been so closely identified with Nelson Rockefeller, Nixon’s patrician rival within the Republican Party. From his sickbed, the former President Eisenhower expressed his skepticism about the appointment. “But Kissinger is a professor,” he exclaimed when he heard of Nixon’s choice. “You ask professors to study things, but you never put them in charge of anything.”
Most writers who have studied his subsequent career in Washington have tended to explain the rapid growth of Kissinger’s influence in terms of his close relationship to Nixon or his talent for the very bureaucratic infighting he had condemned as an academic. This, however, is to overlook the most distinctive feature of Kissinger’s mode of operation: While those around him continued to be bound by the rules of the hierarchical bureaucracy that employed them, Kissinger from the outset devoted considerable energy to building a network that extended horizontally in all directions beyond the Washington Beltway: to the press and even the entertainment industry inside the United States and, perhaps more importantly, to key foreign governments through a variety of “back channels.” Kissinger brought to this task an innate capacity to make emotional as well as intellectual connections even with the most aloof of interlocutors, a skill he had honed long before his appointment by the famously aloof Nixon. It was Kissinger’s unique talent for networking, not just his scholarly acumen or his astute reading of power politics, that made him such a formidable figure. And it was his arrival on the political scene just as the world was shifting from the ideological bifurcation of the early Cold War—a duel between two hierarchical superpowers—to a new era of interdependence and “multipolarity” that made Kissinger precisely (in the words of TIME magazine) “the right man in the right place at the right time.”
Indeed, it was networking—ironically, a chance encounter with an official from the Eastern bloc—that presaged Kissinger’s greatest diplomatic triumph: the opening of diplomatic relations between the United States and Mao Zedong’s China.
A characteristic feature of the Soviet system, which endured long after Stalin’s death, was the systematic destruction of private networks and the isolation of individuals. Even in the late 1960s, when Soviet citizens encountered Americans—which of course they very rarely did—they had to be on their guard. The Pugwash conferences of scientists were a rare exception. Today, having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995, Pugwash is almost synonymous with disarmament and conflict resolution through so-called “track two diplomacy.” During the Cold War, however, the conferences had a more ambiguous character, as the Soviet academics who attended had to be approved in advance by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and sometimes even by the Politburo. Kissinger thrived in this environment—charming and impressing Soviet apparatchiks with his trademark mordant humor—and he attended the gatherings several times.
In 1966, at the Pugwash conference in the Polish resort of Sopot, Kissinger was startled by the violence of Soviet invective against China. “China was no longer Communist but Fascist,” the Soviet mathematician Stanislav Emelyanov told him during a boat trip to Gdansk harbor. “The Red Guards reminded him of nothing so much as the Hitler Youth. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had a common interest in preventing Chinese expansion.” Candidly, Emelyanov admitted he had not seen the Soviet government so confused since the aftermath of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization speech. It was through Pugwash that Kissinger received an invitation to go from Poland to Prague, where he met Antonín Šnejdárek, the former head of Czech intelligence operations in Germany who was now director of the country’s Institute of International Politics and Economics. The two men met again in Vienna at the annual meeting of the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies. The Czech frankly warned Kissinger that the Soviets had no sincere intention of helping the Americans extricate themselves from Vietnam. Indeed, he said, the crisis in Southeast Asia might end up being “a convenient pretext [for Moscow] to tighten control over Eastern Europe.”
The most revelatory of all these encounters came in January 1967, when Kissinger returned to Prague. Again Šnejdárek warned that Moscow “was becoming increasingly sensitive about the growing freedom of movement of the East European countries and especially the Czech effort to reduce their economic dependence on Moscow.” But now he startled Kissinger with a question that Kissinger had to admit “had never occurred to me”: if he thought a ‘U.S.-Chinese deal was in the making.” Sensing the American’s surprise, Šnejdárek explained:
“The Soviets took the Chinese attack on them [a key feature of Mao’s Cultural Revolution] extremely seriously. They could not easily reconcile themselves to the end of Socialist unity and even less to the challenge to their position as the chief interpreters of Leninism. The extent of their attempt to influence internal Chinese developments is therefore not always grasped. They supported the party apparatus against Mao ...”
The Maoists, in turn, were now desperate “to expel the Soviets physically from China. Nothing less than a complete rupture with the Soviet Union will enable them to feel secure.” True, the Cultural Revolution looked like an ideological rift, with the Chinese as the more radical Marxists. But:
“[w]hatever Mao’s ideological fervor, the human material available to him will force him in a nationalist direction—assuming he is still in charge of his movement. Despite their wild talk, the Maoists might turn out to be more flexible toward the U.S. than their opponents. They will have to shut off China in any event to reconstitute governmental authority and a form of non-aggression treaty with the United States might fit this design very well. Of course they hate the U.S. too; but … no Communist can forget the Hitler-Stalin pact.”
From a Czech point of view, such a “Johnson-Mao pact” was an alarming scenario because “if the United States settled with China it would step up the [Soviet] pressure in Europe.” Fearful of isolation, the Soviets would clamp down on what Šnejdárek obliquely called “the prospects of East European national development.” Kissinger was amazed, yet his Czech host’s fear of “a U.S.-Mao deal” seemed “genuine and deep.” Scholars have long speculated as to which American strategist conceived of the opening to China that would so transform the geopolitical landscape in 1972. But it was not Americans who thought of it first. It was the strategic thinkers of the Soviet bloc who foresaw the new world conjured up by the Sino-Soviet split, and they did so more than four years before Nixon’s historic visit to China.
Beginning in January 1969, Kissinger set about applying some of the lessons he had learned as an academic and public intellectual: in particular, the lesson that informal networks could provide diplomatic channels superior to foreign ministries and embassies. As a prelude to writing the second volume of his life, I have attempted to map Kissinger’s network on the basis of all the published memoirs that relate to his period in government. This provides a preliminary plot of his and others’ networks as they were remembered by Kissinger himself and his contemporaries in government. The graphs depict Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s ego networks, based on their memoirs; the Nixon and Ford administrations’ ego network, based on all members’ memoirs; and the Nixon and Ford administrations’ directed network, depicting how prominently members figure in each other’s memoirs. In the first three graphs (figures 1-3), relative importance is represented by both the proximity to the central “ego” node (which in the third case is the combined identities of all members who wrote memoirs) and the area of the node. In the fourth graph, we can see who mentioned whom and how often they did so in terms of mutual proximity, edge width and arrow direction.
The graphs leave little doubt about who mattered in the Nixon-Ford era. Kissinger abounds—as important to Nixon as his wife, and the second most important member of the two administrations, outranking Ford, who became president. Next (see figure 4) came Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, followed by Ford and White House counsel John Dean. Also ranked highly on this basis were John Ehrlichman (assistant to the president for domestic affairs), Treasury Secretary John Connally, future president George H. W. Bush and Alexander Haig (Kissinger’s assistant, then deputy, and Haldeman’s successor after Watergate).
It’s particularly striking to see the difference between “the world according to Nixon” and “the world according to Kissinger.” Nixon’s inner circle (figure 1) was that of a man whose experience of the presidency was to a remarkable extent confined within the walls of the White House. Aside from his wife and daughters, he refers most often in his memoir to Kissinger, Eisenhower (whose vice-president he was), Haldeman, Erlichman and Haig. Kissinger, by contrast, mentions key foreign leaders almost as much as the presidents he served, and more often than the secretary of state who preceded him in that office, William Rogers (figure 2). The more striking thing is which foreign leaders loom largest in Kissinger’s memoirs: the Soviets (their ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, their foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, and their premier, Leonid Brezhnev) came first, followed by Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier, and Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president. Apart from Brezhnev and Dobrynin, only one other foreigner was among the 40 individuals most frequently mentioned by Nixon: Nguyen Van Thieu, the South Vietnamese president. By contrast, only 16 of Kissinger’s top 40 were Americans. Of course, we would expect the national security adviser and secretary of state to spend more time than the president with foreigners: that is the nature of the job. Yet it is difficult to believe that any previous holder of those offices had been quite as indefatigable a traveler and negotiator.
Richard Nixon's ego network, based on his memoirs.
Henry Kissinger's ego network, based on his memoirs.
While in office, Kissinger appeared on the cover of Time magazine no fewer than 15 times. He was, according to one of the magazine’s profiles of him, published in 1974, “the world’s indispensable man”—though one who stood accused by his critics of paying more “attention to principals than principles.” The hypothesis must be that Kissinger’s influence and reputation were products not only of his intellect and industriousness, but also of his preternatural connectedness. Shuttle diplomacy was a part of this. So was schmoozing journalists, at which Kissinger excelled, though he scarcely mentioned them in his memoirs, despite the closeness of his friendships to the Alsop brothers, Stewart and Joseph, and the columnist Tom Braden. As Time noted, Kissinger had “a finely tuned sense of hierarchy.” But what mattered much more were all the other relationships in a network—including an “old boy network” of former participants in Kissinger’s summer seminars at Harvard—that spanned the globe. “He always looks for the guy who can deliver,” an unnamed aide told Time. “A lot of doors open for him,” said a “Washington friend and admirer.” The network was the precondition for his “chain reaction” diplomacy—a phrase used by the Israeli deputy premier, Yigal Allon. That was what justified the claim that Kissinger “probably [had] more impact than any other person in the world.”
The Nixon and Ford administrations' ego network, based on all members' memoirs.
The weakening of hierarchy and strengthening of networks that characterized the 1970s had many benefits. From Kissinger’s point of view, these trends significantly reduced the risk of a Third World War: that, after all, was the central rationale of more frequent dialogue with the Soviet Union, as well as the beginning of communication with the People’s Republic of China. Contemporaries often summarized Kissinger’s foreign policy as “détente.” He preferred to speak of “interdependence.” A “new international system” had replaced “the structure of the immediate postwar years,” he declared in London in December 1973: one based on “the paradox of growing mutual dependence and burgeoning national and regional identities.” “The energy crisis,” he suggested three months later, was one of “the birth pains of global interdependence.” By April 1974, “The Challenge of Interdependence” had become a speech title; by 1975 interdependence was “becoming the central fact of our diplomacy.” “If we do not get a recognition of our interdependence,” Kissinger warned in October 1974, “the Western civilization that we now have is almost certain to disintegrate.” Academics at his alma mater such as Richard Cooper and Joseph Nye obliged by writing books on the subject. Interdependence found institutional expression with the first meeting of the Trilateral Commission at the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills in 1972 and the first meeting of the “Group of Six” (Britain, France, Italy, Japan, the United States and West Germany) at Rambouillet in 1975. The New York Times chose to mark the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence with an editorial entitled “Interdependence Day.” It was a concept enthusiastically adopted by President Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
The Nixon and Ford administrations' directed network, depicting direction and frequency of members' references to each other in their memoirs.
Yet there were costs as well as benefits to inhabiting a more interdependent world. As Brzezinski argued in his book Between Two Ages, the new “global city” being created by the “technetronic age” was “a nervous, agitated, tense, and fragmented web of interdependent relations.” This was true in more ways than one. During the first half of the Cold War, the superpowers had been able to control information flows by manufacturing or sponsoring propaganda and classifying or censoring anything deemed harmful. Sensation surrounded every spy scandal and defection; yet in most cases all that happened was that classified information was passed from one national security state to the other. This, too, changed in the 1970s. Leaked official documents began to reach the public in the West through the free press—beginning in 1971 with the Pentagon Papers given by Daniel Ellsberg to The New York Times—and (to a much smaller extent) in the Soviet bloc through samizdat literature, notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Leaks to the media in turn fueled the dramatic escalation of social protest on university campuses and inner cities that made the early 1970s seem so febrile compared with the sedate quarter-century after 1945. Altogether close to 400 different groups were involved in some form of protest in the United States between the 1960s and the 1980s: what had begun with the campaign for African-American civil rights soon encompassed campaigns for women’s rights, Native American rights, gay and lesbian rights, and campaigns against the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, poverty and industrial pollution.
Like most members of the generation who fought in the Second World War, Nixon and Kissinger had little patience with these groups; indeed, Kissinger likened the student radicals he encountered at Harvard in the late 1960s to the German students who had attended the Nuremberg Rallies in the early 1930s. Nevertheless, in the small hours of May 9, 1970, Nixon ventured out of the White House to confront a group of student protesters who were camped out at the Lincoln Memorial. It was an uncharacteristic attempt at connection by a man notorious for his reclusiveness and misanthropy. As he told them:
“I was sorry they had missed it [his press conference the previous day] because I had tried to explain … that my goals in Vietnam were the same as theirs—to stop the killing, to end the war, to bring peace. Our goal was not to get into Cambodia by what we were doing, but to get out of Vietnam. There seemed to be no—they did not respond. I hoped that their hatred of the war, which I could well understand, would not turn into a bitter hatred of our whole system, our country and everything that it stood for. I said, I know you, that probably most of you think I’m an SOB. But I want you to know that I understand just how you feel.”
Perhaps Nixon did understand how the protesters felt. But, as they subsequently made clear to the reporters who swiftly descended on them, they did not remotely understand how he felt, or care to.
Long before Nixon fell victim to the exposure of his own skulduggery by the Washington Post—as well as to the consequences of his own vulnerability as a network isolate, with too few friends in the institutions that might conceivably have saved him—Kissinger had understood that networks were more powerful than the hierarchies of the federal government. The protesting students he knew well enough not to waste time on. But he did tour the country in the Ford years giving speeches to Midwestern audiences in an effort to explain his strategic concept to the wider public—though with only limited success. In some ways, his most remarkable feat was to isolate himself from the one component of the Nixon network that would have been fatal to him: the part that plotted the Watergate break-in. It took a networker of genius to know exactly which nodes to avoid connecting to.
Kissinger’s power, still based on a network that crossed not only borders but also professional boundaries, endured long after he left government in 1977, institutionalized in the advisory firm Kissinger Associates, maintained by almost incessant flying, meeting, mingling, dining. By contrast, the executive branch after Nixon saw its power significantly curtailed by congressional scrutiny and greatly emboldened newspapers. No future national security adviser or secretary of state, no matter how talented, would ever be able to match what Kissinger had achieved.
Adapted from THE SQUARE AND THE TOWER: Networks and Power, from Freemasons to Facebook by Niall Ferguson, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Niall Ferguson.