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Kissinger and China

It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a half millennia, and to bring China’s past full circle in order to illuminate the present. In form, the book is highly idiosyncratic, for it is not exactly a memoir, or a monograph, or an autobiography; rather it is part reminiscence, part reflection, part history, and part intuitive exploration.

To borrow a current phrase, it is a “hybrid vehicle,” and a more accurate title, it seems to me, would have been something like Variations on a Theme in China. If we keep that in mind as a working subtitle, then we can see how the book follows six sequential themes: China’s early history, China’s inadequate attempts to modify the imperial system of the later dynasties, the formative years of Maoist consolidation, Kissinger’s own experiences while orchestrating President Nixon’s 1972 China visit, China’s later cycles of “opening up” and repression under Deng Xiaoping, and a surprise final section that ingeniously links pre–World War I British and German expansion to some of the current problems facing the United States and China today.

For Henry Kissinger, ancient China was a subtle place. That in turn led to its special resonance in the present: “In no other country,” he writes, “is it conceivable that a modern leader would initiate a major national undertaking by invoking strategic principles from a millennium-old event,” as Mao often did in discussing policy matters. And Mao “could confidently expect his colleagues to understand the significance of his allusions.” How could it not be so? For “Chinese language, culture, and political institutions were the hallmarks of civilization, such that even regional rivals and foreign conquerors adopted them to varying degrees as a sign of their own legitimacy.” “Strategic acumen” shaped China’s earliest international policies; and to support its central position it could call on a remarkable series of potential followers and aides.

A good example was the Chinese scholar known in the West as Confucius, who taught by citing examples to a small group of loyal and dedicated students. They reciprocated by drawing on their conversations for practical examples that could create a legacy on his behalf—forming a canon that Kissinger describes as “something akin to China’s Bible and its Constitution combined.” Whereas in the Western world “balance-of-power diplomacy was less a choice than an inevitability,” and “no religion retained sufficient authority to sustain universality,” for China foreign contacts did not form “on the basis of equality.”

Kissinger’s reflections about the Western and Chinese concepts of strategy lead him to posit a stark distinction, one in which “the Chinese ideal stressed subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage,” while “the Western tradition prized the decisive clash of forces.” It is a good way for Kissinger to prepare the reader for a dualistic approach to two vast philosophical and military traditions, which he begins by summarizing the key differences between the Chinese players of the board game weiqi (the Japanese go) and those favoring the contrasting game of chess. While chess is about the clash of forces, about “decisive battle” and the goal of “total victory,” all of which depend on the full deployment of all the pieces of the board, weiqi is a game of relative gain, of long-range encirclement, which starts with an empty board and only ends when it “is filled by partially interlocking areas of strength.”

Teachers and practitioners of grand strategy have studied these contrasts between the two for many centuries. The principles of weiqi are echoed in the haunting text known as The Art of War, by a certain Master Sun, writing around the same time as Confucius. Kissinger quotes Sun at some length, drawing especially on his insights into the concepts of “indirect attack” and “psychological combat.” (“One could argue,” says Kissinger, “that the disregard of [Master Sun’s] precepts was importantly responsible for America’s frustration in its recent Asian wars.”) As the talented translator of classical Chinese John Minford renders one of the maxims by Master Sun quoted by Kissinger:

Ultimate excellence lies
Not in winning
Every battle
But in defeating the enemy
Without ever fighting.

Master Sun succinctly lists his favored tactics for success in order of their priorities and effectiveness: first on the list is an all-out attack on the enemy’s strategy, second comes an attack on his alliances, then comes an attack on his armies, followed by an attack on his cities. “Siege warfare,” says Master Sun, “is a last resort.”

* * *

How then did this subtle and complex China collapse as completely as it did, left to flounder, apparently helpless, in the vicious currents of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? In what I would call the second section of his variations, Kissinger gives a partial answer, one that focuses on the various cultural, economic, and political blows that hit China in numbing succession, from the arrival of Lord Macartney’s mission in 1793, seeking expanded trade and residence rights, to the opium wars, the internal rebellions, the Christian sectarians, down to the Boxers of 1900 and the collapse of the imperial regime itself. Somewhat undercutting his previous discussion, Kissinger suggests that “centuries of predominance had warped the Celestial Court’s sense of reality. Pretension of superiority only accentuated the inevitable humiliation.”

At the same time some of those weiqi pieces were still in play: “Chinese statesmen played their weak hand with considerable skill and forestalled what could have been an even worse catastrophe,” defying the basic rules of balance of power politics. Rapidly sketching some of the survival strategies of Chinese political realists in the nineteenth century, Kissinger argues that “the rearguard defense to maintain an independent Chinese government was a remarkable achievement.” In the later nineteenth century, he writes, the Chinese scored some real successes against Western aggression by using those tried and true methods of pitting enemy against enemy, with one central irony being that the fading government expected its most skillful officials to “gain time without a plan for using the time they gained.” He recognizes that resorting to appeasement of major powers like Russia and Japan made sense in a situation where “some degree of conciliation [was] the only prudent course,” given the fact that a rapidly weakening China was no longer in a position “to make its defeat costly beyond the tolerance of the stronger.”

The narrative becomes somewhat blurred here, owing to the remarkable confluence of events in China’s quest for a new order. Rebellions, military modernization, transformative education, assertive foreign powers demanding ever fresh “concessions”—all overlapped, compounded by the swift rise of Japan, which between 1894 and 1905 defeated the fleets and the land armies of both China and Russia. With the coming of the New Culture Movement in 1919, the activities of the Third International (the Comintern), and the 1921 founding of the Chinese Communist Party, Kissinger appears somewhat overwhelmed, and the reader might perhaps be wise to skip to what I see as the third of the main variations, where the chapter title “Mao’s Continuous Revolution” signals to the reader that Kissinger is approaching the areas of his analytical expertise as a China-watcher and professional diplomat.

* * *

In describing the early years of the Communist revolution in China, Kissinger tells us plainly where he stands emotionally. As he phrases it, “at the head of the new dynasty that, in 1949, poured out of the countryside to take over the cities stood a colossus: Mao Zedong.” He shifts the image but not the cosmic idea when he tells us that Mao lived “a lifetime of titanic struggle.” Despite these awesome attributes, Kissinger also admits that the main years of Mao’s power proved that it was “impossible to run a country by ideological exaltation.” The attempt to do so ended by making tens of millions of Chinese lives almost unbearable—one might be tempted to say “inconceivable,” while “millions died to implement the Chairman’s quest for egalitarian virtue” in the famine between 1958 and 1962.

Kissinger notes that the famine was “one of the worst” in human history and assesses the deaths at over 20 million (some scholars recently have estimated twice that number as probable1). As to the Cultural Revolution toll between 1966 and 1969, he gives no estimates, but accepts the current judgment that “the result was a spectacular human and institutional carnage,” one primed by “the assaults of teenage ideological shock troops.” Yet it was the Chinese people themselves who gave Mao’s impossible challenges a kind of foundation because of “his faith in [their] resilience, capabilities, and cohesion.” “And in truth,” says Kissinger, “it is impossible to think of another people who could have sustained the relentless turmoil that Mao imposed on his society.”

The remark is close to harsh in its moral judgment of the Chinese population as a whole. Why did the Chinese even try to “sustain” this “turmoil”? Was it out of fear? Or out of the same kind of unwavering faith in transformation that Mao had been preaching since the Teens of the twentieth century? By way of explanation, Kissinger repeats that “only a people as resilient and patient as the Chinese could emerge unified and dynamic after such a roller coaster ride through history.”

Thinking about Mao in power gives Kissinger the chance to circle back to some of the themes with which he opened his variations. “No previous Chinese ruler,” we are told,

combined historical elements with the same mix of authority and ruthlessness and global sweep as Mao: ferocity in the face of challenge and skillful diplomacy when circumstances prevented his preference for drastic overpowering initiatives.

Mao’s flamboyant rhetoric certainly made plenty of noise in the four-year Chinese civil war (1945–1949) that followed the defeat of Japan, but it was not necessarily a match for Stalin’s canniness, as could be seen at the time of the preliminary sparring between Stalin and Mao at the very beginnings of the Korean War: the Russian response to North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, both approving an invasion of the south and refusing to provide assistance (“If you should get kicked in the teeth, I shall not lift a finger. You have to ask Mao for all the help”), “was authentically Stalin,” writes Kissinger: “haughty, long-range, manipulative, cautious, and crass.”

Indeed, as Kissinger’s absorbing chapter on the Korean War shows, Mao was by no means always successful when dealing with the master manipulator himself. “The trouble with policy planning,” Kissinger notes, in a passage that suggests both his lifetime of diplomacy and its attendant travails, “is that its analyses cannot foresee the mood of the moment when a decision has to be made.” Or, to put it another way, in Korea “a Chinese offensive was a preemptive strategy against dangers that had not yet materialized and based on judgments about ultimate American purposes toward China that were misapprehended.” The confrontations were compounded by the fact that not one “of the many documents published to date by all sides reveals any serious discussion of a diplomatic option by any of the parties.” Overall, Kissinger concludes, in his detailed coverage of the Korean War, Stalin was the biggest loser, and the PRC achieved “something more than a draw…. [The war] established the newly founded People’s Republic of China as a military power and center of Asian revolution,” and showed that China was “an adversary worthy of fear and respect.”

* * *

With the fourth of the variations, “The Road to Reconciliation,” On Chinamakes a major shift in mood and content, becoming in part a first-person narrative, as Kissinger himself enters the story as President Nixon’s national security adviser during the bold and ultimately successful quest to arrange a meeting between Mao and Nixon in Beijing, with an accompanying account of diplomatic exploration of the science of the possible. Readers seeking to find chapters on the Vietnam War as detailed as those on the Korean War will be disappointed—Kissinger remains muted on many aspects of the Vietnam war as it was viewed in the United States, and links the war to his earlier patterns of historical thinking, claiming:

When the US buildup in Vietnam began, Beijing interpreted it in wei qi terms: as another example of American bases surrounding China from Korea, to the Taiwan Strait and now to Indochina…. Hanoi’s leaders were familiar with Sun Tzu’s Art of War and employed its principles to significant effect against both France and the United States. Even before the end of the long Vietnam wars, first with the French seeking to reclaim their colony after World War II, and then with the United States from 1963 to 1975, both Beijing and Hanoi began to realize that the next contest would be between themselves for dominance in Indochina and Southeast Asia.

Although much of the Nixon visit to China has been covered by the principals themselves in their published memoirs, the bibliography and notes to On China give helpful leads to many other sources. They enable Kissinger to recall the work of his advance team—and then the President’s February 1972 visit to Mao—in a sustained narrative that neatly blends the personal with the national sides of the story. Kissinger obviously derived immense pleasure from negotiating this China trip and from all his other visits at the highest levels—fifty or more, according to his own calculation—that came afterward.

Even if Mao was a somewhat tarnished colossus by this time, there is also Zhou Enlai to continue the tale, and then later Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping, and other ministerial-level Chinese officials. Cumulatively these transcribed minutes help us to see the gradual changes in policy when both sides were willing to risk rebuff. Reprising his first variation, Kissinger reflects on how, from 1972 onward, “what we encountered was a diplomatic style closer to traditional Chinese diplomacy than to the pedantic formulations to which we had become accustomed during our negotiations with other Communist states.” Here, to his obvious delight, “was a diplomacy well suited to China’s traditional security challenge,” preserving a “civilization surrounded by peoples who, if they combined, wielded potentially superior military capacity.” China, Kissinger observes, prevailed by “fostering a calibrated combination of rewards and punishments and majestic cultural performance. In this context, hospitality becomes an aspect of strategy.”

As an added plus, there was the chance to get to know Zhou Enlai, a consummate courtier, politician, and diplomat, who “dominated by exceptional intelligence and capacity to intuit the intangibles of the psychology of his opposite number.” In a nicely constructed summary of the two main Chinese leaders, Kissinger writes of their special attributes:

Mao dominated any gathering; Zhou suffused it. Mao’s passion strove to overwhelm opposition; Zhou’s intellect would seek to persuade or outmaneuver it. Mao was sardonic; Zhou penetrating. Mao thought of himself as a philosopher; Zhou saw his role as an administrator or a negotiator. Mao was eager to accelerate history; Zhou was content to exploit its currents.

The subsequent leader-to-leader meetings in Beijing went well and it may very well be true, as Kissinger writes, that the Nixon trip was “one of the few occasions where a state visit brought about a seminal change in international affairs.”

* * *

How swiftly, nevertheless, things could change: the Watergate crisis and the resignation of President Nixon on August 8, 1974, led, in Kissinger’s words, “to a collapse of congressional support for an activist foreign policy in the subsequent congressional elections in November 1974.” This was accompanied by an “enfeebling [of] the American capacity to manage the geopolitical challenge,” which in this situation meant above all a policy by which the US would weaken the Soviet build-up on China’s borders.

Kissinger tells us that “the destruction of the President who had conceived the opening to China was incomprehensible in Beijing,” though one might question whether Mao and Zhou were genuinely so astonished. Watergate was surely no more harmful and unanticipated than the sudden destruction of Mao’s selected successor, the minister of defense and army marshal Lin Biao. Lin was accused of trying to kill Mao in a 1971 coup, and subsequently was himself killed when the plane in which he was trying to escape to the Soviet Union, along with several of his family members, crashed in Mongolia. Even after this long passage of time, Kissinger carefully refers to the drama as being “reportedly an abortive coup.”

Mao himself jocularly noted in an aside to Nixon that

in our country also there is a reactionary group which is opposed to our contact with you. The result was that they got on an airplane and fled abroad…. As for the Soviet Union, they finally went to dig out the corpses, but they didn’t say anything about it.

Each side could (and did) exaggerate the subtlety of the other. Mao felt no hindrance to “defying laws both human and divine” or—as Kissinger glosses Mao’s use of the familiar Chinese idiom—”trampling law underfoot without batting an eyelid.”

Equally hard to predict were the astonishing changes brought to China after Mao’s death in 1976, and the return to power of the thrice-purged Party veteran Deng Xiaoping, which provides the setting for the fifth variation. In his 1979 visit to the United States, which Kissinger labels “a kind of shadow play,” Deng made a dramatically favorable impression. Like the earlier Chinese strategists admired by Kissinger, Deng could pursue contrasting policies at once: thus in early 1979, for instance, while he was charming his hosts in the United States, he not only also ordered Chinese troops into Vietnam, to counter Soviet influence there, but also arrested and ordered harsh prison sentences for many of the Chinese artists and writers who had been participating in the short-lived flourishing of demands for more freedom of expression known as “Democracy Wall.”

It now seems inevitable—though it was not—that Deng’s ten years of close to absolute power after 1979 must have led inexorably to the immense demonstrations and subsequent massacres of 1989 in Tiananmen Square. We can note the caution of Kissinger’s language, as he writes that the events of spring 1989 were not due to a single cause, but that “it was the unprecedented confluence of disparate resentments that escalated into upheaval.” More simply put, “events escalated in a manner neither observers nor participants thought conceivable at the beginning of the month.”

Recent events in North Africa and the Middle East may help to underline Kissinger’s sardonic reflection that “the occupation of the main square of a country’s capital, even when completely peaceful, is also a tactic to demonstrate the impotence of the government, to weaken it, and to tempt it into rash acts, putting it at a disadvantage.” As to the “harsh suppression of the protest,” writes Kissinger, that was “all seen on television.” In fact, I believe it is still accepted by most analysts in the West that the television lights were turned out on the square, and much of the killing took place in darkness—hence the great disparity in reports of what happened where, and when, and of how many fatalities there really were. Such figures are needed if one is to separate random from deliberate use of lethal power.

* * *

So was Deng Xiaoping a tyrant or a reformer, or an intricate mixture of the two? Some of the most absorbing pages of Kissinger’s book deal with the uses of diplomacy shortly after the Tiananmen crackdown, and the differences in response that were in play. He discusses how President George H.W. Bush sent a personal letter to Deng on June 21, 1989, in which he spelled out the issues concerning sanctions and other steps as he saw them, while at the same time he referred to Deng as a “friend,” despite what had so recently occurred. In the same letter, Bush talked of the United States as a “young country,” especially when contrasted to the “history, culture and tradition” of China.

To reinforce some of the themes in the letter concerning the best methods for damage control in the circumstances, on July 1 the President sent Brent Scowcroft (his national security adviser), together with Lawrence Eagleburger (deputy secretary of state), in a military transport plane to meet with Deng and the Chinese premier, Li Peng. In the ensuing discussion seeking some balance between violent suppression and the threat to order, Kissinger observes, “the difficulty was that both sides were right.” The letter and the talks do seem, however, to have led to a reopened dialogue, and in November 1989 Kissinger was invited to Beijing in a private capacity to continue the Bush/Scowcroft overtures.

The most intriguing materials in Kissinger’s depiction of his own personal meetings with Deng Xiaoping concern the various alternatives for solving the impasse over the treatment of the celebrated Chinese astrophysicist and writer on democracy Fang Lizhi. Witty and acerbic, sharp and funny in debate, Fang, the ousted vice-president of the prestigious Chinese University of Science and Technology, had for several years been openly advocating free speech and assembly.2 During the crackdown (and manhunt) that followed Tiananmen he had been sheltered in the American embassy, and faced severe punishment if the Chinese authorities got hold of him. Kissinger reports that after he told Deng that “your best friends in America would be relieved if some way could be found to get him [Fang] out of the Embassy and let him leave the country,” Deng then personally unscrewed the microphones between his and Kissinger’s chairs, to ensure that confidentiality was maintained. Asked by Deng what solution he could see to the problem of Fang, Kissinger tells us that he told the Chinese leader:

My suggestion would be that you expel him from China and we agree that as a government we will make no political use of him whatsoever. Perhaps we would encourage him to go to some country like Sweden where he would be far away from the US Congress and our press. An arrangement like this could make a deep impression on the American public….

True to his training in politics during the Mao years, Deng “wanted more specific assurances” and asked Kissinger: “What would you think if we were to expel him after he has written a paper confessing to his crimes?” Kissinger doubted that Fang would agree to write such a confession, and told Deng:

If he says that the American government forced him to confess, it will be worse for everyone than if he did not confess. The importance of releasing him is as a symbol of the self-confidence of China.

It was a delicate line to tread, and one that certainly suggested curbing some of Fang’s rights to freedom of expression, as long as it could be done tactfully.

In fact, while staying in the embassy, Fang wrote an essay, “The Chinese Amnesia,” published in these pages after his release, deploring the ways that “the Communists’ nefarious record of human rights violations” had been “largely overlooked by the rest of the world.”3 Fang and his wife were finally flown to the UK in an American military plane, and after a spell in Cambridge and Princeton he was subsequently appointed a professor of physics at the University of Arizona. Among other writings, in 1996 he published in these pages an essay (with Perry Link) commenting on the need for “freedom to criticize and dissent” in China,4 and he served for years as both a board member and cochair of the organization Human Rights in China; otherwise he seems to have concentrated mainly on his scholarly work.

* * *

The remaining chronological chapters of On China bring Kissinger’s own dealings with China close to the present, by looking at the later Deng reforms and the transition to the next generations of leaders, from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, with his reiterated calls for China’s “peaceful rise.” In this post-Deng period, after the negotiated agreements on the future of Hong Kong, Kissinger feels that China’s leaders

no longer made any claim to represent a unique revolutionary truth available for export. Instead, they espoused the essentially defensive aim of working toward a world not overtly hostile to their system of governance or territorial integrity and buying time to develop their economy and work out their domestic problems at their own pace.

Kissinger calls this a “foreign policy arguably closer to Bismarck’s than Mao’s: incremental, defensive, and based on building dams against unfavorable historical tides.” One consequence was the Chinese determination “to prove their imperviousness to outside pressure.” As the former premier Li Peng put it in a talk with Secretary of State Warren Christopher in 1994, “China’s human rights policy was none of [the US’s] business.”

The direct reference to Bismarck’s policies lays a foundation for Kissinger’s sixth and last variation, designed to draw his arguments together, especially those on “balance of power” and the possibilities of meaningful diplomacy. To effect this transition, Kissinger has chosen a classic of pre–World War I diplomacy, known most commonly by its author’s name as the “Crowe Memorandum.” Eyre Crowe was a career official in the British Foreign Office, an omnicompetent tabulator of the European balance of power and the burgeoning arms race, a mine of information on the so-called Western section of the Foreign Office (which he supervised), a master of the statistical skills needed to assemble the relevant information in the vast Foreign Office files, and with a special knowledge of Germany—he was born to a German mother, lived in Germany until he was seventeen, and had married a German woman.

Crowe’s celebrated twenty-three-page memorandum, handed in to British Foreign Secretary Earl Grey on New Year’s Day of 1907, took a hard-eyed realist’s view of the march of European international politics, with special focus on the naval arms race in which England and the recently unified Germany appeared to be locked. Crowe’s conclusion was sharp and devastating. Whether Germany chose to spread its influence by the force and richness of its cultural inheritance, or chose to project its strength by constant pressures on the British Empire and its many colonial dependencies, it essentially had no choice in the matter of survival: “In either case Germany would clearly be wise to build as powerful a navy as she can afford.” England’s choice of options was also limited. Given Germany’s urgent race for expansion, England was faced with a similarly stark choice:

England must expect that Germany will surely seek to diminish the power of any rivals, to enhance her own by extending her dominion, to hinder the co-operation of other States, and ultimately to break up and supplant the British Empire.

* * *

The Crowe Memorandum is a document projecting a kind of ruthless common sense rather than profound complexity. Perhaps for that reason, as Kissinger explains, there are senior military officers and policymakers in both China and the United States today who, more than a century after Crowe, wonder whether his formulations could be adapted to the present time so as to replace early-twentieth-century Germany and England with the choices facing China and the United States today. In its most direct form, this might point to a possible struggle between the two major powers in the Pacific, in a situation with room for only two major protagonists, only one of whom can win. The main riposte to this argument is to seek a richer pattern of alliances in the current century, and to diversify trade in resources, minerals, and cultural relics in a nonthreatening way that can promise wide-scale access to valued resources without major greed and disagreements.

Some of these answers can be found in the early texts with which Kissinger began his book; some can be seen in the patterns of political and commercial assertiveness that we are now witnessing in both China and the United States. But we need to remember one fact, small but relevant, that Kissinger does not pursue: namely, Crowe’s memorandum did not go unchallenged. The most important critique came from another senior career officer in the Foreign Office, Thomas Henry Sanderson (1841–1923), who on February 21, 1907, handed to Grey his own careful assessment and criticism of Crowe’s logic. After reading Sanderson’s countermemo, Grey exclaimed that “somewhat to my surprise he [Sanderson] has taken up the cudgels for Germany.”

What Sanderson wrote in his own notations to Crowe’s memorandum was that

Germany is a helpful, though somewhat exacting friend, that she is a tight and tenacious bargainer, and a most disagreeable antagonist. She is oversensitive about being consulted on all questions on which she can claim a voice….Her motto has always been “Nothing for nothing in this world, and very little for sixpence.”

With China substituted for Germany this is perhaps not a bad description of how things stand at the moment. As for Sanderson’s depiction of the old British Empire in 1907, that too was trenchantly written, and one can only hope that it does not apply to the United States today. “It has sometimes seemed to me,” wrote Sanderson,

that to a foreigner reading our press the British Empire must appear in the light of some huge giant sprawling over the globe, with gouty fingers and toes stretching in every direction, which cannot be approached without eliciting a scream.

Both of the memos, Sanderson’s and Crowe’s, were marked “secret.” But they could not both be right. Either Germany had to be stopped in her tracks or England had to lose her paramount global position. No clear decision had been taken when—seven and a half years later—World War I broke out in Europe.


  1. See Roderick MacFarquhar’s review of Frank Dikötter’s book Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962 (Walker, 2010), The New York Review, February 10, 2011.
  2. For example, his essay “China’s Despair and China’s Hope” was published in The New York Review in February 1989, and was circulated in China in the months before Tiananmen.
  3. The New York ReviewSeptember 27, 1990.
  4. The Hope for China,” The New York Review, October 17, 1996.
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Jonathan D. Spence holds the position of Sterling Professor of History, Emeritus, at Yale University, and is well-known throughout the world for his insightful views on modern China. His books...
Reviewed in This Article

On China
by Henry Kissinger
Penguin, 586 pp.

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This article was first published in the June 9, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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