As Henry Kissinger (born 1923) nears 100, I finally read, 40 years after publication, his massive, three-volume memoirs of his government stint. Self-justifying, to be sure, but containing much wisdom and marking current problems: how to handle East Asia, hostile Russia, the Middle East ready to erupt, Europe a shambles and bureaucracies impeding policy change.

Kissinger-haters unfairly blame him for Vietnam, but he played no role in JFK’s or LBJ’s war but took Nixon’s grim assignment of getting out of it, which proved much harder than anyone thought. Kissinger scorns hypocritical Democratic hawks who became war critics after Nixon took office. He respected Nixon’s ideas but saw him as awkward and frightened.

Antiwar public and congressional opinion irritate Kissinger. Couldn’t critics understand that he was really trying to get us out of Vietnam? Well, did he expect no domestic reaction to a long, costly, unsuccessful war? Afghanistan and Iraq show again how faulty analysis can lead our military strength into quagmire wars we cannot gracefully end.

While still at Harvard, Kissinger ventured that we should seek a “decent interval” of two to three years between U.S. pullout and North Vietnamese takeover. Great idea, provided the enemy cooperates. But Hanoi, which surely heard the signal, disbelieved it until we were effectively out at the end of 1972. Neither could American leftists, who claimed the U.S. would stay indefinitely. With the 1975 fall of Saigon, Hanoi closed a decent interval of 2.5 years.

Kissinger’s faithful pursuit of Nixon’s “peace with honor” mirage deserves criticism. It got Kissinger the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize but prolonged Vietnam to no good purpose. Early in his term, Nixon asked the Pentagon how long it would take to withdraw the half-million American troops. They told him 12 to 18 months. He should have ordered them to do it in 10. Over 40% of U.S. combat deaths came under Nixon, whose devious methods bruised American democracy.

Kissinger is associated with the “realist” school of international relations, which looks to power, not personalities. Going back to his Harvard doctoral dissertation on Europe’s post-Napoleon reconstruction, however, he pays ample attention to personalities, namely statesmen maneuvering within the limits of a harsh reality.

Kissinger’s “Year of Europe” (1973) looks a lot like what President Biden encountered in 2021. Kissinger’s chapters, if anyone read them, would have warned Biden that Europe is in its perpetual disarray and disinclined to take firm stands against Russia and China. One difference: France’s Macron is a lot more cooperative than Gaullist Foreign Minister Michel Jobert, whom Kissinger heartily disliked. Europe frustrated Kissinger; Biden did somewhat better.

Likewise, in terms of both national interests and personalities, Russia is little changed from the Soviet Union. Ex-KGB officer Putin says, “There is no such thing as an ex-Chekist.”

Moscow still fears a hostile America trying to subdue Russia. Therefore both harsh internal and external measures — including massive computer hacks — are justified. As during the Cold War, this could blow up.

Nixon and Kissinger were as surprised as anyone by the 1973 Egyptian-Syrian attack on Israel. Sadat turned out to be a crafty chess-player, able to foresee the opportunities his moves would create. Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy ended the war in a durable ceasefire.

Long before he entered the Nixon administration, Kissinger disparaged the foreign-policy bureaucracy. However intelligent and well-educated, they are locked into replicating policies that have never been seriously re-evaluated. It takes outsiders to replace conventional paradigms with new ones, a point made by several thinkers. Kissinger modestly offered himself as the necessary outsider, a role now played by neither Secretary of State Blinken nor National Security Advisor Sullivan, both rooted in the foreign-policy establishment.

How to manipulate, use and bypass the bureaucracy is a major point of Kissinger’s tactical success. He praises individual American foreign-service officers but used them for little but transmitting messages. Sometimes he kept them in the dark while he made his moves. In return, they did not love him.

Kissinger, under Nixon’s orders, came prepared to deal and compromise; his Communist adversaries were not. They endlessly repeated official lines and dared not change one word without Hanoi’s or Moscow’s clearance. Personally, I couldn’t have stood it. If you’re getting nowhere, walk out early.

But that should be one of our takeaways: Don’t suppose that diplomacy can solve all differences between adversaries. What Kissinger called “atmospherics” — such as Trump’s smiles and handshakes with North Korea’s dictator — can look like progress but accomplish nothing.

You might find Kissinger’s memoirs at midcoast yard sales. Skip the mind-numbing daily details of fruitless negotiations in which he quotes his own memos. He intended to write a first draft of history, but the high points are the wisdom he gained over a lifetime of scholarship and practice. Edited down to a single volume, his memoirs could become required reading for all who deal with international relations.