Thursday, April 1, 2010
The Crucial Year by Alistair Horne
I thought I knew all about "Watergate". I watched the hearings and read the newspaper accounts. I was a Vietnam war protestor. I followed the events surrounding President Nixon's "opening" to China and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's famous "Shuttle Diplomacy", detente, Brezhnev's trip to America as well as the overthrow of Salvador Allende by the General Pinochet in Chile. But what did a really know? As it turns out, not all that much
In writing this book Alistair Horne had access to Henry Kissinger's official papers- all 33 tons in the National Archives. He spent many hours discussing the events of 1973 with Kissinger himself and interviewed many of his aides, secretaries and other top government officials in those times such as Alexander Haigh and Brent Scowcroft, as well as diplomats, politicians, generals and biographers in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Furthermore, as the author notes:
" If we lucky historians have enjoyed one rare benefit through living in the murderous and turbulent twentieth century it is surely that, as almost never before, through the collapse of hitherto opaque, totalitarian regimes- and their subsequent exposure- we are privileged with unique views of "the other side of the hill". After 1945 we were treated to a comprehensive insight into workings of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, in all their vileness. Thus too, with the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the coming of perestroika and glasnost, we are now able to glimpse inside the stony exteriors of the Soviet Union and its East European allies the two decades previously."
The "inner history" of the People's Republic of China is becoming increasingly accessible to historians as well, not the least through Kissinger's own, previously confidential papers but also in several books exhibited on this blog such as Donping Han's "The Unknown Cultural Revolution" and Minqi Li's "Tiananmen Square".
If my perspectives of the events of 1973 as I lived them turned out to be so limited, what does that say about my knowledge of events as they are happening today, especially as portrayed in popular American media? The experience of reading a book such as this provokes genuine sense of humility.
The American government was not very involved in the overthrown of Salvador Allende in Chile. They provided a million dollar subsidy to keep the presses of a relatively responsible and moderate newspaper rolling during the turmoil leading up to the coup of General Pinochet. Nixon and Kissinger specifically ordered the CIA and the American Embassy not to get involved. Neither was it clear to them how nasty General Pinochet would become. Zhou EnLai, the second most powerful leader in the Chinese Communist Party at the time, was himself critical of Allende's rashness in Chile as well as Che Guevara'a Latin American "adventurism".
In a conversation with Kissinger, the conqueror of de Gaulle's France, Algerian President Houari Boudedienne described his fellow revolutionary Allende as " a troubling case":
Kissinger: " I tell you frankly that Allende faced an objectively complex situation. He wanted to make a revolution, but he had no discipline, to many scruples, and too much inefficiency. We did not do anything to overthrow him. I told your foreign minister that as a professor I wanted to make a study of revolution. This is why I am fascinated by Algeria. Seriously, I am fascinated by how revolutions start with inferior strength and how they convert psychological superiority into military superiority. In your case you analyzed correctly that you were bound to win if you did not lose...
Kissinger: Therefore you did not try to win in the normal sense. But for this you need great discipline. This was Allende's difficulty.
Boumedienne: "Perhaps we do give you Americans too much credit!"
Kissinger: " We did nothing to help him. We did not stop his suicide."
"In the theology of the left, Allende's collapse had to be the malign work of others", wrote Kissinger. But had Allende himself been conversant with the works of Lord Byron, with what accuracy he might have quoted the following:
I have been cunning in my overthrow,
The careful pilot of my proper woe.