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Post Oksenberg, Whiting, Kissinger, and US-China Detente
Created by John Eipper on 05/03/22 12:51 AM

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Oksenberg, Whiting, Kissinger, and US-China Detente (Patrick Mears, -Germany, 05/03/22 12:51 am)

My thanks to Francisco Wong-Díaz for his most recent post and to John E for publishing it.

I have some lengthy "footnotes" to add to Francisco's post. Also, just an aside:  while composing the text below, I could not help but remember Robert Frost's melancholy poem, "The Road Not Taken."

Francisco's mention of Michael Oksenberg brought back memories that I had heretofore forgotten. One of my final tasks as a Wolverine undergrad in the Poli Sci department was to sit on a panel consisting of a few graduate students and one undergraduate, which was me. The task of this ad hoc panel, which was chaired by Whiting, was to consider the hiring of Oksenberg as a professor in the Poli Sci department. I can't recall where Oksenberg was at that time and in which role he was acting. Before the meeting, Whiting passed out to the panel members a package on the applicant, which included his CV, some articles that he had written and published, all of which I read. While reading among these materials Michael's published works, I was not particularly impressed with them--unlike Whiting's published works, which were very precise, supported by detailed facts and contained incisive analyses (as supported by Francisco's perceptions here), my reaction to Michael's published pieces was that they were altogether way too "folksy."

At the meeting, Whiting made the introductory remarks and I could not avoid the feeling that they contained faint praise. He then asked his graduate assistant, Elizabeth J. ("Liz") Perry, to comment, and she said politely what I had been thinking--that she had questions about the academic rigor of Oksenberg. When it came to me, I agreed with Liz and I sensed that Whiting was secretly pleased to hear our criticisms. Nonetheless, Oksenberg's hire was approved by the University as the semester ended and I later moved my belongings across the street to the Lawyers Club to start my law courses in the Fall of 1973. I wondered then if the Poli Sci Department was maybe trying to push Whiting out the door with this hire which, as I observed in some other situations later on, this would be in keeping with the atmosphere there. Perhaps this atmosphere is rife throughout so-called "elite" universities.

N.B. Michael Oksenberg passed away at 62 in 2001; his NYT obitiuary, which can be read via this link, briefly describes his career as an academic and government advisor. https://www.nytimes.com/2001/02/24/world/michael-oksenberg-62-china-expert-in-washington.html. Elizabeth J. Perry is now the Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government at Harvard University and is the director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute. I am very pleased to see that Professor Perry graduated as an undergraduate from William Smith College in Geneva, New York, where my daughter Patricia also received her undergraduate degree. You are and remain in good company, Tricia.

Here is the link to Harvard's post on Professor Perry, which also contains a further links to her CV and Publications, organized by years. https://scholar.harvard.edu/elizabethperry/home .

I recall a few instances in my China class with Whiting that he was very proud of his appetite and ability to read and absorb information in books and articles. For instance, once he recited all of the newspapers that he read on a daily basis (this list was long). He was also a keen student of jazz; when Duke Ellington and his band came to Ann Arbor to perform at Hill Auditorium in the fall of 1972, he urged us in his China class on a few occasions not to miss this performance. (I recall that I mentioned his jazz interest earlier in a prior post about Whiting.)

Finally, in a scholarly work published in 2008 by Routledge and titled Secrecy in US Foreign Policy: Nixon Kissinger and the Rapprochement with China, by Yukinori Komine (now a university professor and associate at the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University), Whiting is mentioned by the author in the context of the crisis brought about by the USSR-China Border Clashes of 1969 and its later defusement. Yukinori interviewed Whiting for the book; details of this interview appear primarily at pages 104-105. This passage describes dueling papers submitted by Whiting and John H. Holdridge, which were submitted to Henry Kissinger after a meeting held among the three on August 16, 1969. In his memorandum to Kissinger, Whiting emphasized the possibility that the Soviets could attempt to take out China's nuclear capability via an air strike and recommended the following course of action:

"The US objectives should be '(1) to deter a Soviet attack on China, (2) to inhibit the use of nuclear weapons in a Sino-Soviet war, and (3) to maximize the possibility of China identifying Russia as its sole antagonist, in contrast to the rest of the world and particularly with the United States.' Finally, Whiting urged that by taking such concrete steps as to resume contacts with the Chinese in Warsaw and through third parties and to lift the trade embargo with China, the US should assure the Chinese of its opposition to a Soviet attack." (This quote, and others following were taken by Professor Komine from an article written by Whiting in 1980 for the quarterly, China Review, and titled "Sino-American Detente.")

In a 2003 interview with the author of the Routledge book, Whiting recalled that "Kissinger and Holdbridge had little understanding of the nature of Sino-Soviet mutual hostility and the Soviet military deployment along the Sino-Soviet border in August, 1969." As a consequence, this possibility of making an earlier "opening to China" was likely squandered, as described by Professor Komine in her book:

"After that meeting, Whiting received no feedback from Kissinger and the NSC staff. In November 1971, Kissinger explained to Whiting, 'You know, until you brought that memo (of August 1969), we had a laundry list of things we would do, individual kind of signals. But we didn't have it in a strategy. And your presentation put the whole thing into a strategic context.' [Pat's comment: Duh! Homer Simpson could not have said it better.] Overall despite Kissinger's omission in his memoirs, the consultation with Whiting in August 1969 provided a crucial opportunity for Kissinger to improve his understanding of the nature of Sino-Soviet relations." In a footnote to this particular passage, Komine remarks as follows:

"There still remains ambiguity as to what extent Kissinger and the NSC staff came to realize the subtleness of Chinese diplomatic practice in 1969, because they occasionally failed to grasp the implications of China's diplomatic signals in 1970." (fn. 105 in text)

JE comments:  Pat, you remind us that there was a time when academics were listened to--although as the Kissinger episode illustrates, even then they weren't listened to enough.  So much of this narrative reads like ancient history, but then there is the timeless Henry the K, still with us at 98.  One of Whiting's points is worthy of note:  China and Russia do not enjoy a natural affinity for each other.  In the current crisis, we shouldn't worry too much about a Putin-Xi axis...or are things different now?

The Road not Taken, indeed.

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  • Al Meyer at U Michigan: A Free Intellectual Spirit (Francisco Wong-Diaz, USA 05/04/22 10:02 PM)
    Pat Mears and I must have crossed paths in Michigan and specifically at Haven Hall.

    Many important people walked those hallways. Michigan had at the time the #1 rated political science department in the country, top 5 law and medical schools, was a national powerhouse thanks to its superb Survey Research Center, and had a lot of money from all over the world thanks to its still huge alumni.

    Regarding Al Meyer, whom I really liked and respected, a couple of memories. He was an absolutely free intellectual spirit. He never compromised his own beliefs, had strong opinions on topics he knew but avoided those he didn't. Once I asked him why he had not published more and he said, "I have nothing to say!"

    He had a great sense of humor and when I once told him that his undergrad daughter and I had a common friend he smiled and said, "you get around; see you at home." True enough, the next day there was a party at his home and I was invited. One of the attendees was GB, another grad student in the Marxism seminar. We disagreed openly and strongly in class over a then hot critical issue--the role of the Cuban Communist Party in the Castro government.

    He argued, to my astonishment, that Castro was under party control and followed party orders. I insisted then and now that Castro was the man in charge and used the CCP for his own purposes. The Cuban CP was Fidel's tool and it was brother Raul the one under discipline. We never agreed on the genesis and true nature of the Cuban Revolution. He always played down the role of the Maximum Leader.

    Years later, GB now known as a Communism specialist, became the head of the poli sci department at UC Berkeley and later the UCB Chancellor.

    JE comments: Alfred Meyer, who passed away in 1998, was on the U Michigan faculty until his retirement in 1990.  He was born in Germany and managed to escape on the eve of the war, in 1939.

    I see from his obituary (below) that he taught as well at the Residential College, a small liberal arts school within the framework of the larger university.  Yours Truly taught there in 1988-'90.  So the WAIS Effect comes full circle--I too must have crossed paths with Prof. Meyer!


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