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.