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  • Reflections on Kissinger’s On China
  • Tracy B. Strong (bio)
Henry Kissinger, On China. Penguin, 2011. $18.00 (paper), $36.00 (cloth). 608 pp. ISBN- 10 1594202710

Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water Yet nothing can better overcome the hard and strong For they can neither control nor do away with it.

The soft overcomes the hard, The yielding overcomes the strong; Every person knows this, But no one can practice it.

The leader who attends to the people would control the land and grain; The leader who attends to the state would control the whole world; Truth is easily hidden by rhetoric.

Laozi, Dao Deching, 78

“These aren’t very good records.” Pleading asthma and bad-eyesight, I was standing before the doctor at the last station of a pre-induction draft physical. Like all other potential draftees, I was naked and had just handed the doctor my file folder which had served until then as my only remaining remnant of modesty. ”I know,” I replied. “My records were lost in the revolution.” – “The revolution?” – “Yes.” The doctor had never heard this excuse before. “Which revolution?” he asked. I knew I had him. “The Chinese revolution,” I explained and he dutifully wrote on my file:”Records lost in the Chinese revolution.” Did it help that I also had in my file a letter from Henry Kissinger1 saying that I was to work with him in the Defense Policy Seminar at Harvard? Probably not, as this was May, 1968 and not many knew who Kissinger was. For the record, I was classified 1-S: “to be called only in case of national emergency” thus sparing me the choice of a jail term or exile.

My records of childhood asthma were actually lost in the Chinese Revolution. I was born in China and lived there until shortly before the Korean War, the last year under Communist rule after liberation. China has been part of my life since then, most particularly since I went back in 1980 to do research on the life the left-wing journalist and “friend of the Chinese people,”2 my great-aunt, Anna Louise Strong.3 I co-authored a book on her life that appeared in 1985 and has since been published in Chinese. At Harvard in the 1960’s I had wound up first TA’ing for Kissinger’s undergraduate International Relations course and then, in 1968, post- Ph.D., I was a second or third choice for his assistant in the graduate Defense Policy Seminar.4 The seminar met in the main conference room at Langdell Hall in the Harvard Law School: a thirty foot mahogany table; the walls hung with life-size portraits of past Deans in academic robes. I cannot say I co-taught the seminar as the format was each week to have an important guest invited to the class. It might be Herman Kahn or Alain Enthoven (then the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Analysis) – always someone famous and at the center of power. The week that Kissinger was negotiating with President-elect Nixon about the position of National Security Advisor he called and told me to take the seminar alone. I gulped: I had hair down to my shoulders, was in SDS, and had signed a “we won’t go” statement in relation to the Vietnam War: “Henry, do you know who the guest is this week? – “No,” came the familiar gravelly voice. –”It’s General Maxwell Taylor. – That’s all right, you take care of it.” Taylor, I thought, would take one look at me and flip out. I had the sense to call Jack Ruina at MIT, who had been Director of Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Defense Department, and he was kind enough to provide adequate cover.

I mention this because the recent publication by Kissinger (now eighty-eight years old) of On China interests me in several manners. First, given my background, it has to do with his understanding of China; second, it has to do with his understanding of the proper conduct of foreign policy and how that relates to his understanding of China. Last, given...

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