Like the assassination of JFK, everybody alive then can remember where they were that Doomsday Week of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. That Saturday, 27 October, was, and remains, the closest the world has come to nuclear holocaust – the blackest day of a horrendous week.
Though Washington had closed down for the holidays, the next day, December 26, a key message from Hanoi brought Kissinger racing back to his office. It was the signal the White House had anxiously been awaiting; it was also the day of one of the biggest raids by the giant B-52s.
Though not the longest battle in history – that was Verdun – Stalingrad was certainly the most pitiless, an adjective that reappears regularly in Mr. Beevor’s classic work.
Mrs. Miniver was an ordinary middle-class English housewife, a character created by Jan Struther when she was commissioned by the ‘Times of London’ to write a weekly ‘cheer-up’ article in 1937.
In 1939, Fitzroy Maclean, a gangly Highland aristocrat in his early 30s, was serving as a British diplomat in the U.S.S.R. Disgusted by the Soviet show trials, he quit the Foreign Service and would go on to serve with Tito’s partisans fighting the Germans in Yugoslavia.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, FDR committed a most visionary act: He appointed a Harvard historian to write the official account of the U.S. Navy in World War II. Samuel Eliot Morison was given the rank of lieutenant commander, with the right to interview anyone of whatever status.
A triumph in which Kissinger could claim to have played some little part, in the presidential elections that November, President Richard Nixon had won the second greatest landslide in American history. Forty-seven million Americans had voted for him – and for his and Kissinger’s policies – representing more than 60 percent of all the votes cast.
In the fall of 1973, Erica Jong assaulted the last surviving bastions of old-fashioned modesty with her ‘Fear of Flying.’
Christmas 1972 was a lonely time for Kissinger, as well as for his boss, and a period of serious reflection. Kissinger was then a bachelor, enamored of the tall, elegant, but elusive WASP Nancy Maginnes, but still very much a bachelor – Washington’s most sought-after bachelor.
After 1945, shamefully, we Brits seemed dedicated to punishing the heroic Poles at every turn for their wartime loyalty.
In the 17th century, Barbados was regarded in London as ‘the brightest jewel in the English crown’.
Though Barbados has been independent since 1966, its capital, Bridgetown, still has elements of a thriving British colonial port.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s late husband, Michael Aris, was a good friend of mine at St Antony’s, Oxford. The gentlest of gentle academics, he helped establish a centre in Tibetan studies at Oxford and converted to Buddhism.
On 6 October 1973, the Yom Kippur war broke out between a coalition of Arab states and Israel. At 6 A.M. that morning, Kissinger, asleep in the Waldorf, was taken by surprise by the Arab attack – as were the CIA and the rest of the world.
Over the past years, I have lectured many times on the Cuban missile crisis, most provocatively to 200 senior officers of the former Soviet army in Moscow in 1991, among them KGB generals. There, my knowledge of Penkovsky’s role was thoroughly confirmed, and so was the Soviet military men’s residual sense of humiliation at Khrushchev’s ‘blink’.
The eight-year-long Algerian war was to bring down six French prime ministers, open the door to de Gaulle – and come close to destroying him, too. The war was the last of the grand-style colonial struggles, but, perhaps more to the point, it was also the first campaign in which poorly equipped Muslim mujahedin licked one of the top Western armies.
In the late 1980s, a new revolt broke out, this time led by the fundamentalist FIS (Islamic Salvation Front). Many of its leaders were the kind of young Algerians who joined the struggle against the French occupiers in the 1950s.
By the end of 2001, between 100,000 to 150,000 Algerians had died in the civil war, as well as 120 foreigners. The cost to the economy ran into billions of dollars. And all this in spite of a tough, 120,000-strong army backed by 80,000 police.
Following 9/11, intelligence indicated numerous links between al-Qa’eda and Algeria. It began to look as though the roots of jihad could be traced back to the war in Algeria that began 50 years ago.
A supreme pragmatist, Kissinger was never interested in the art of the impossible – and nor, as a biographer, am I. That is why, having initially been invited to write his entire official biography, I eventually decided to devote myself to writing just one year in his life: 1973.
Kissinger was surely one of the very few statesmen to try to do something positive to break the log jam of the Cold War; to try to end the war in Vietnam; to bring a halt to the cycle of war in the Middle East.
There is a widespread view among the liberal intelligentsia to the effect that Henry Kissinger, U.S. National Security Advisor from 1969 to 1975 and Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977, was a bad man. That may even be an understatement. In this fashionable consensus, he is not just a bad man: he is a war criminal.
Without Kissinger’s work in the Middle East, with Sadat especially, I doubt if the Camp David Agreements five years later would have happened. His achievements over detente, the seeds of trust he sowed in a very distrustful and hostile Moscow, helped over a long period.
I greatly blame Congress, spurred on by its personal hatred of Nixon, for passing legislation in June through August of ’73 which embargoed any further U.S. help to South Vietnam.
Vietnam ended a failure: repeatedly, to me, Kissinger described it as his greatest, and most persistent regret. But Congress was more to blame than Kissinger.
Keeping his face clean over Watergate was one of Kissinger’s biggest successes; so was his overall handling of the Yom Kippur War.
Mikheil Saakashvili can claim that 80 per cent of Georgians wanted to join NATO; on the other hand, a similar percentage of Russians would almost certainly support Putin’s quest for a strong Russia. We would mistake this mood at our peril.
In Tbilisi in 1990, I recall watching zealous Georgians smash statues of Lenin and Stalin. A few days earlier, though, in Moscow I had been invited to address the Red Army, as one of the first Brits to benefit from Glasnost. The subject they chose: The Cuban Missile Crisis.
History never repeats, but there are the obvious precedents that pessimists can reach for: Sarajevo, 1914; the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, 1938. But equally relevant might be the tragically meaningless guarantees Britain extended to Poland in 1939.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Reagan and Thatcher displayed Churchillian magnanimity towards Gorbachev’s broken nation. Relations were never better. There was no triumphalism.