Talking with Mao: An Exchange

In response to:

Kissinger & the Emperor from the March 4, 1999 issue

To the Editors:

No China scholar has influenced my own thinking more than Jonathan Spence. My comments on his review of The Kissinger Transcripts edited by William Burr [NYR, March 4] should therefore be read as minor differences in emphasis.

Professor Spence had no reason to doubt Mr. Burr’s canard that the papers I deposited in the Library of Congress had been placed there to prevent access to them under the Freedom of Information Act. The truth—known to Mr. Burr’s publishers well in advance of publication—is quite different. Every document in the Library of Congress is the copy of an original in the State Department, the Ford Library, or the National Archives. (The only exceptions are telephone conversations ruled by the US Supreme Court as private. However, in October 1998, I gave access to these conversations to the State Department historians so that they might extract portions relevant to foreign policy decisions for inclusion in their publications.) Every last document cited in The Kissinger Transcripts has been available in governmental archives under the Freedom of Information Act on the basis of regulations established by the US Government. I have no voice in these decisions. Mr. Burr required no “special ingenuity” to obtain them.

Kissinger & the Emperor

Jonathan D. Spence from New York Review of Books
From the moment when they first began to keep historical records, the Chinese showed a fascination with the complexities of diplomacy, with the give-and-take of interstate negotiation, the balancing of force and bluff, the variable powers of human...

Professor Spence, who over the years has greatly enlightened me on the context of China’s history, should be equally meticulous in drawing conclusions from dependent clauses and isolated phrases in individual diplomatic conversations. For example, the diplomacy of December 1971 involved a complex minuet triggered by the India-Pakistan war. In our view, the very existence of Pakistan, which had just facilitated our opening to China, was now being threatened by a de facto Soviet-Indian alliance. At the same time, in the guise of talking tough, China was angling for reassurance from the United States. With neither Washington nor Beijing prepared to use force, each was calibrating its measures to give the maximum diplomatic help to Pakistan and to avoid being charged by the newfound partner with abandoning a mutual friend. The discussions about intelligence should be read in that context.

On the more important issue of who benefited more from the Sino-American relationship, it is no doubt true that Mao applied traditional Chinese methods to the dialogue; what other methods would one expect him to apply? It is also true that I recognized these nuances less easily at the time than I would today. But that lacuna in my knowledge made no practical difference to the results of the overall policy.

What brought the two sides together were not phrases used at individual meetings but genuine common concerns. China, threatened by forty-two Soviet divisions along its borders, was eager to break out of its self-imposed diplomatic isolation. To that end, it needed, following age-old Chinese diplomatic patterns, to use a distant barbarian to balance the threat from the barbarian nearby—a point we fully grasped at the time.

The United States’ goals were to prevent a Soviet attack on China, to isolate the Soviet Union, to achieve the freedom of maneuver to end the Vietnam War and overcome its legacy, and to avoid military conflict over Taiwan.

This is what the conversations were about. Twenty-five years after the event, it is not possible to judge whether too much or too little was said in one conversation. Professor Spence takes Mr. Burr’s tendentious and petty commentary—drawn from a standard catechism—more literally than he would Chinese texts. In the end, both China and the United States achieved the results they sought, if less elegantly than Professor Spence might wish. This is the essence of successful diplomacy and why the initial pattern has lasted through every administration of both American political parties ever since.

Henry A. Kissinger
New York City

Jonathan Spence replies:

I thank Henry Kissinger for his detailed response to my review. The question of who had access to what is a significant one, and Mr. Kissinger’s pointed rebuttal of William Burr on this point led me to reexamine the preface to The Kissinger Transcripts. The language used there by William Burr, I can see now, is more carefully qualified than I realized on my first reading. In the preface (p. x) Burr writes: “In January 1977, when [Kissinger] left the State Department, he transferred to the Library of Congress copies of his White House and State Department files as part of a larger collection of his papers.” Burr continues (preface p. xi) that in the Library “documents deemed Mr. Kissinger’s personal papers” were “protected…from FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests of historians, journalists and the general public.” Among the key words here are “copies” and “deemed.” Presumably, even if some of these transcript copies were “deemed” personal, they were still only copies, and the originals remained in the White House or the State Department, where they would—if not still classified—be subject to requests for access through the normal channels.

Regardless of what may be inflated claims for the difficulty of gaining access to these transcripts, I am glad that we have them now in published form. General readers without the inclination or the expertise to invoke the FOIA will gain a much fuller sense of the specific issues and topics covered in the talks, and of the way the tone and direction of the talks meshes with long-held Chinese patterns of thinking about diplomacy.

It is this level of detail, for example, that lets us place Mao’s ruminations inside a more discursive Chinese historical tradition, and observe the balance he creates between shrewd reflections on policy and remarks designed to jolt the interlocutor. Thus I cannot exactly agree with Mr. Kissinger that Mao had no choice to think any other way but within such a tradition: Mao’s long years in the Chinese Communist Party, not to mention his complex relations with Stalin and Khrushchev, surely gave him many other models of behavior. Similarly, it is just because we have the fuller transcripts that we can move beyond the “dependent clauses” and “isolated phrases” to put some of the most interesting or even startling sentences by the participants into a tighter line of argument.

I would, of course, agree with Mr. Kissinger that the overall structure of a diplomatic initiative is far greater than the parts we can observe in this particular narrative. As I noted in my review, Henry Kissinger is not only a master of detail, but possesses a wide-ranging knowledge of international politics, that enabled him—along with President Nixon—to propose major new directions for United States policy. China was only a part of that process, just as these transcripts are only a part of the China story. But they are a most intriguing part.