The Myth of Henry Kissinger

The New Yorker, 18.05.2020
Thomas Meaney, académico (Max Planck Society-Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft)
Nixon’s Secretary of State was a far less remarkable figure than his supporters, his critics—and he himself—believed.

Kissinger in 1972. Recent works in the vast literature on him have questioned fundamental assumptions about his outlook.(Yousuf Karsh)

In 1952, at the age of twenty-eight, Henry Kissinger did what enterprising graduate students do when they want to hedge their academic future: he started a magazine. He picked an imposing name—Confluence—and enlisted illustrious contributors: Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron, Lillian Smith, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr. The publisher James Laughlin, who was a backer of the magazine, described the young Kissinger as “a thoroughly sincere person (terribly earnest Germanic type) who is trying his hardest to do an idealistic job.” Like his other early production, the Harvard International Seminar, a summer program that convened participants from around the world—Kissinger gamely volunteered to spy on attendees for the F.B.I.—the magazine opened channels for him not only with policymakers in Washington but also with an older generation of German Jewish thinkers whose political experience had been formed in the early thirties, when the Weimar Republic was supplanted by the Nazi regime.

For Cold War liberals, who saw the stirrings of fascism in everything from McCarthyism to the rise of mass culture, Weimar was a cautionary tale, conferring a certain authority on those who had survived. Kissinger cultivated the Weimar intellectuals, but he was not impressed by their prospects for influence. Although he later invoked the memory of Nazism to justify all manner of power plays, at this stage he was building a reputation as an all-American maverick. He appalled the émigrés by running an article in Confluence by Ernst von Salomon, a far-rightist who had hired a getaway driver for the men who assassinated the Weimar Republic’s foreign minister. “I have now joined you as a cardinal villain in the liberal demonology,” Kissinger told a friend afterward, joking that the piece was being taken as “a symptom of my totalitarian and even Nazi sympathies.”

For more than sixty years, Henry Kissinger’s name has been synonymous with the foreign-policy doctrine called “realism.” In his time as national-security adviser and Secretary of State to President Richard Nixon, his willingness to speak frankly about the U.S.’s pursuit of power in a chaotic world brought him both acclaim and notoriety. Afterward, the case against him built, bolstered by a stream of declassified documents chronicling actions across the globe. Seymour Hersh, in “The Price of Power” (1983), portrayed Kissinger as an unhinged paranoiac; Christopher Hitchens, in “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” (2001), styled his attack as a charge sheet for prosecuting him as a war criminal.

But Kissinger, now approaching his ninety-seventh birthday, no longer inspires such widespread loathing. As former critics crept toward the political center and rose to power themselves, passions cooled. Hillary Clinton, who, as a law student at Yale, vocally opposed Kissinger’s bombing of Cambodia, has described the “astute observations” he shared with her when she was Secretary of State, writing in an effusive review of his most recent book that “Kissinger is a friend.” During one of the 2008 Presidential debates, John McCain and Barack Obama each cited Kissinger as supporting their (opposite) postures toward Iran. Samantha Power, the most celebrated critic of the U.S.’s failure to halt genocides, was not above receiving the Henry A. Kissinger Prize from him.

Kissinger has proved fertile ground for historians and publishers. There are psychoanalytic studies, tell-alls by former girlfriends, compendiums of his quotations, and business books about his dealmaking. Two of the most significant recent assessments appeared in 2015: the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s authorized biography, which appraised Kissinger sympathetically from the right, and Greg Grandin’s “Kissinger’s Shadow,” which approached him critically from the left. From opposing perspectives, they converged in questioning the profundity of Kissinger’s realism. In Ferguson’s account, Kissinger enters as a young idealist who follows every postwar foreign-policy fashion and repeatedly attaches himself to the wrong Presidential candidates, until he finally gets lucky with Nixon. Grandin’s Kissinger, despite speaking the language of realists—“credibility,” “linkage,” “balance of power”—has a view of reality so cavalier as to be radically relativist.

Barry Gewen’s new book, “The Inevitability of Tragedy” (Norton), belongs to the neither-revile-him-nor-revere-him school of Kissingerology. “No one has thought more deeply about international affairs,” Gewen writes, and adds, “Kissinger’s thinking runs so counter to what Americans believe or wish to believe.” Gewen, an editor at the New York Times Book Review, traces Kissinger’s most momentous foreign-policy decisions to his experience as “a child of Weimar.” Although Gewen is aware of the pitfalls of attributing too much to a regime that collapsed before his subject’s tenth birthday, he is fascinated by the connections between Kissinger and his émigré elders, whose experiences of liberal democracy made them fear democracy’s capacity to undermine liberalism.

Heinz Kissinger was born in 1923 in Fürth, a city in Bavaria. His family fled to New York shortly before Kristallnacht, settling in Washington Heights, a neighborhood with so many German immigrants that it was sometimes known as the Fourth Reich. They spoke English at home, and Heinz became Henry. In his youth, he displayed few remarkable qualities beyond enthusiasm for Italian defensive soccer tactics and a knack for advising his friends on their amorous exploits. As a teen-ager, he worked in a shaving-brush factory before school, and aspired to become an accountant.

In 1942, Kissinger was drafted into the U.S. Army. At Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, he befriended Fritz Kraemer, a German-American private fifteen years his senior, whom Kissinger would call “the greatest single influence on my formative years.” A Nietzschean firebrand to the point of self-parody—he wore a monocle in his good eye to make his weak eye work harder—Kraemer claimed to have spent the late Weimar years fighting both Communists and Nazi Brown Shirts in the streets. He had doctorates in political science and international law, and pursued a promising career at the League of Nations before fleeing to the U.S., in 1939. He warned Kissinger not to emulate “cleverling” intellectuals and their bloodless cost-benefit analyses. Believing Kissinger to be “musically attuned to history,” he told him, “Only if you do not ‘calculate’ will you really have the freedom which distinguishes you from the little people.”

For all the imputations of Kissinger’s Germanness, the indelible experience of his youth was serving in the 84th Infantry Division as it swept through Europe. “He was more American than I have ever seen any American,” a comrade recalled. The work of the U.S. occupation, with its opportunities for quickly assuming positions of authority, thrilled him. In 1945, Kissinger participated in the liberation of the Ahlem concentration camp, outside Hanover, and earned a Bronze Star for his role in breaking up a Gestapo sleeper cell.

In 1947, Kissinger enrolled at Harvard on the G.I. Bill, intending to study political science and English literature. He found a second mentor, William Yandell Elliott, a well-connected history professor from the Wasp élite, who advised a series of U.S. Presidents on international affairs. The young Kissinger was drawn less to the classic exponents of Realpolitik, such as Clausewitz and Bismarck, than to “philosophers of history” like Kant and anatomists of civilizational decay such as Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler. From these thinkers, Kissinger cobbled together his own view of how history operated. It was not a story of liberal progress, or of class consciousness, or of cycles of birth, maturity, and decline; rather, it was “a series of meaningless incidents,” fleetingly given shape by the application of human will. As a young infantryman, Kissinger had learned that victors ransacked history for analogies to gild their triumphs, while the vanquished sought out the historical causes of their misfortune.

Ferguson and Grandin both seize on one sentence in Kissinger’s undergraduate thesis, titled “The Meaning of History”: “The realm of freedom and necessity can not be reconciled except by an inward experience.” Such a deeply subjective world view might seem surprising in Kissinger, but French existentialism had arrived at Harvard, and the thesis cited Jean-Paul Sartre. Both Sartre and Kissinger believed that morality was determined by action. But for Sartre action created the possibility of individual and collective responsibility, whereas for Kissinger moral indeterminacy was a condition of human freedom.

In 1951, while pursuing graduate studies, Kissinger worked as a consultant with the Army’s Operations Research Office, where he became familiar with the Defense Department’s penchant for psychological warfare. To Kissinger’s peers at Harvard, tailoring their résumés to the needs of the U.S. security state, his doctoral work—on the Congress of Vienna and its consequences—seemed whimsically antiquarian. But his published dissertation invoked thermonuclear weapons in its first sentence, and presented readers in Washington with an unmistakable historical analogy: the British and Austrian Empires’ efforts to contain Napoleon’s France held lessons for dealing with the Soviet Union.

Kissinger is sometimes called the American Metternich, a reference to the Austrian statesman who forged the post-Napoleonic peace. But here, weighing the careers of the men he wrote about, he stressed the limitations of Metternich as a model:

Lacking in Metternich is the attribute which has enabled the spirit to transcend an impasse at so many crises of history: the ability to contemplate an abyss, not with the detachment of a scientist, but as a challenge to overcome—or perish in the process. . . . For men become myths, not by what they know, nor even by what they achieve, but by the tasks they set themselves.

Kissinger was taking a swipe at the bright-eyed social scientists around him, who thought that the deadly confrontation of the Cold War could be solved with empirical and behavioral models, rather than with existential swagger.

In 1954, Harvard did not offer Kissinger the junior professorship he had hoped for, but the dean of the faculty, McGeorge Bundy, recommended him to the Council on Foreign Relations, where Kissinger started managing a study group on nuclear weapons. In Eisenhower-era Washington, a fresh take on nuclear weapons could make your name. In 1957, Kissinger published the book that established him as a public figure, “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy.” It argued that the Eisenhower Administration needed to steel itself to use tactical nuclear weapons in conventional wars. To reserve nuclear weapons only for doomsday scenarios left the U.S. unable to respond decisively to incremental Soviet incursions. Kissinger intended his thesis to be provocative, and could not have known that Eisenhower’s Joint Chiefs of Staff had been telling the President much the same thing for years.

By the late fifties, Kissinger did not need to choose whether to be an academic, a public intellectual, a bureaucrat, or a politician. Each sphere of activity enhanced his value in the others. He was a sought-after consultant to Presidential candidates; assuming that America’s Wasp aristocracy offered the likeliest path to power, he spent years tutoring Nelson Rockefeller in foreign policy. In 1961, Bundy, who had become President John F. Kennedy’s national-security adviser, hired Kissinger as a consultant. Kissinger also finally got tenure at Harvard. Members of the faculty objected that his nuclear-weapons book was unscholarly, but Bundy pushed the appointment through, persuading the Ford Foundation to put up money for his professorship.

Kissinger is hard to place among the foreign-policy thinkers of his time. Does he belong with America’s most idiosyncratic and brilliant strategists, such as George Kennan and Nicholas Spykman? Typically, he is categorized with lesser “defense intellectuals,” such as Hans Speier and Albert Wohlstetter. These men moved fluidly between lecture halls and rand Corporation laboratories, where they complained about student protesters and gave alarming slide-show presentations about nuclear apocalypse.

Gewen prefers to put Kissinger among the more high-minded Weimar émigrés, although the “family resemblances” he finds are hard to pin down. Arendt never warmed to him, but they shared a disappointment about the U.S.’s early performance in the Cold War. In her book “On Revolution,” Arendt worried that post-colonial nations, rather than choosing to copy American political institutions, were following the Communist script of economic liberation through revolution. Kissinger argued that the U.S. needed to better broadcast its ideology, and he did so with an evangelical fervor that went beyond anything Arendt intended. “A capitalist society, or, what is more interesting to me, a free society, is a more revolutionary phenomenon than nineteenth-century socialism,” Kissinger said, in an interview with Mike Wallace, in 1958. “I think we should go on the spiritual offensive.” This was the impulse not of a critical intellectual but of someone who did not question the American global mission.

The émigré closer in viewpoint to Kissinger was Hans Morgenthau, the father of modern foreign-policy realism. The two met at Harvard and maintained a professional friendship that waxed and waned over the decades. “There was no thinker who meant more to Kissinger than Morgenthau,” Gewen writes. Like Kissinger, Morgenthau had become well known with a popular book about foreign policy, “Politics Among Nations” (1948). And he shared Kissinger’s belief that foreign policy could not be left to technocrats with flowcharts and statistics. But, unlike Kissinger, Morgenthau was unwilling to sacrifice his realist principles for political influence. In the mid-sixties, working as a consultant for the Johnson Administration, he was publicly critical of the Vietnam War, which he believed jeopardized America’s status as a great power, and Johnson had him fired.

Morgenthau and Kissinger both resisted describing themselves as practitioners of Realpolitik—Kissinger recoiled at the term—but Realpolitik has proved a remarkably flexible concept ever since it emerged, in nineteenth-century Prussia. Political thinkers grappling with Prussia’s rise on a continent crowded with competing powers propounded several strains of strategic thought. In an increasingly bourgeois society, diplomacy could no longer be tailored to the whims and rivalries of a royal court; prudent foreign policy required marshalling everything at a state’s disposal—public support, commerce, law—in order to project the image of power toward its rivals. The irony is that these doctrines were at root an attempt to codify something that their adherents believed Anglo-American statesmen already did instinctively. “We Germans write fat volumes about Realpolitik but understand it no better than babies in a nursery,” the New Republic editor Walter Weyl recalled being told by a German professor during the First World War. “You Americans understand it far too well to talk about it.”

America has never been short of statesmen capable of communicating their vision of the national interest to the public. If Kissinger was a realist, it was in this sense—of making the image-management aspect of foreign policy a priority. Morgenthau, though also fixated on the reputation of a state’s power, believed that that reputation could not diverge too much from a state’s ability to exercise its power. If the U.S. upset this delicate equilibrium, as he believed it was doing in Vietnam, other states, more realist in their assessment, would take advantage. The best a realist could do was adapt to situations, working toward a narrowly defined national interest, while other nations worked toward theirs. Idealistic notions about the advancement of humanity had no place in his scheme. For Morgenthau, Gewen writes, “war was not inevitable in international affairs,” but “the preparation for war was.” Wars waged by realists would be less destructive than ones waged by idealists who believed themselves to be fighting for universal peace.

Morgenthau was disappointed when Kissinger defended the Vietnam War in public, despite having privately admitted to him that the U.S. could not win. It took Kissinger’s close contemporary the political theorist Sheldon Wolin—another son of Jewish émigrés who fought in the war and studied at Harvard with William Yandell Elliott—to fully dissect Kissinger’s careerist instincts. On the surface, Wolin observed, Kissinger would have appeared a mismatch for the anti-élitist Nixon. But the pairing was perfect: Nixon needed someone who could elevate his opportunism to a higher plane of purpose and make him feel like a great figure in the drama of history. As Wolin wrote, “What could have been more comforting to that barren and inarticulate soul than to hear the authoritative voice of Dr. Kissinger, who spoke so often and knowingly about the ‘meaning of history.’ ” Later, Kissinger liked to mention his qualms about taking the job with Nixon: he’d been so successful at mobilizing his academic pedigree in Washington that he might well have been appointed to the same position even if the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey, had become President instead.

As early as 1965, on his first visit to Vietnam, Kissinger had concluded that the war there was a lost cause, and Nixon believed the same. Yet they conspired to prolong it even before reaching the White House. During the Paris peace talks, in 1968, Kissinger, who was there as a consultant, passed information about the negotiations to the Nixon campaign, which started to fear that Johnson’s progress toward a settlement would bring the Democrats electoral victory. Nixon’s campaign then used this information in private talks with the South Vietnamese to dissuade them from taking part in the talks.

Having won the election promising “an honorable end to the war,” Nixon wanted to appear to be in pursuit of peace while still inflicting enough damage on North Vietnam to achieve concessions. In March, 1969, he and Kissinger began a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, which was a staging ground for the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese. In four years, the U.S. military dropped more bombs on Cambodia than it had in the entire Pacific theatre during the Second World War. The campaign killed an estimated hundred thousand civilians, hastened the rise of Pol Pot, and irrevocably ravaged large tracts of countryside. It also fell so far short of its strategic aims that more than one historian has wondered whether Kissinger—who personally tweaked the schedules of the bombing runs and the allocation of planes—had some other motive. But, as Grandin writes, “he had built his own perpetual motion machine; the purpose of American power was to create an awareness of American purpose.”

Gewen occasionally defends Kissinger’s record more strenuously than Kissinger himself has done. He argues that the claims about the need to maintain “credibility” were rooted in legitimate concerns about securing a U.S.-led global order. But, as Morgenthau saw, Kissinger’s argument rested on a disastrous miscalculation of America’s capacities. How would the credibility of the United States be enhanced by dragging out a war against a fourth-rate power? How, to paraphrase John Kerry, do you ask thirty thousand American soldiers to die so that the thirty thousand soldiers before them will not have died in vain?

As it was, each successive American initiative eroded credibility rather than reinforced it. Not even the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam, in 1972, the largest of the war, could convince the North Vietnamese to renegotiate. The young Foreign Service officer John Negroponte offered a wry postmortem, which Kissinger never forgave: “We bombed the North Vietnamese into accepting our concessions.”

Gewen also defends Kissinger’s idea that every political event anywhere in the world demands a response somewhere else, a view that, in practice, made every pawn appear to be a threatened queen. When Nixon and Kissinger backed the Pakistani President Yahya Khan’s genocidal campaign against East Pakistan, in 1971, they did so to show the Soviets that America was “tough.” Four years later, Kissinger’s sign-off on the Indonesian President Suharto’s genocidal campaign in East Timor was meant to signal that America would unquestioningly reward those who had decimated Communists within their reach. In retrospect, the notion that everything America did would be duly registered and responded to by its opponents and friends seems like an expression of geopolitical narcissism. At the time, the thirty-three-year-old senator Joe Biden accused Kissinger, at a Senate hearing, of trying to promulgate “a global Monroe Doctrine.”

Given Gewen’s insistence on Kissinger’s realism, it is odd that he does not dwell more on the most pragmatic episodes in his career—the pursuit of détente with the Soviet Union, the opening of relations with China, and the development of “shuttle diplomacy” to contain the 1973 Arab-Israeli war—which are still widely celebrated as major diplomatic achievements. Détente required Kissinger to prevail over hard-liner views of the Soviet leadership as ideologues bent on world domination and to see Leonid Brezhnev’s Kremlin as populated by rational actors. Instead, Gewen often seems drawn to defend Kissinger at the points in his career where defense is hardest. He opens the book with a long chapter on U.S. involvement in Chile, which culminated in a coup, in 1973. When Chile elected the socialist Salvador Allende as President, in 1970, Nixon and Kissinger resolved to remove him. The fact that Allende was popularly elected made him only more dangerous in their eyes. “I don’t see why we have to stand by and watch a country go Communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people,” Kissinger observed. Gewen thinks this quip captures the tragic dilemma of Kissinger’s relationship to democracy and power. “The statement looks a lot different if one has the rise of Adolf Hitler in mind,” Gewen writes, and suggests that socialist Chile should be grouped with the Weimar Republic as examples of a people voting themselves out of a democracy. Gewen lists the sins and foibles of Allende—including “pernicious” wage increases for workers and indoctrinating the young in the “values of socialist humanism”—but withholds such scrutiny from his successor, the right-wing dictator General Augusto Pinochet, whose power the U.S. helped consolidate, and who, if one has the rise of Hitler in mind, seems rather more germane.

Similarly questionable is Gewen’s assertion that “what cannot be dismissed is the Nixon/Kissinger worry that Chile under Allende was a paving stone on the road to Soviet hegemony.” In fact, the Soviet Union had scaled back its rivalry with the U.S. in the developing world, where countering China now diluted its resources. The Cuban missile crisis, in 1962, and a failed attempt to establish a submarine base in Cuba, eight years later, had soured any hope for developing a true proxy state in Latin America. The Kremlin leadership was reluctant to increase the pittance it sent to Chile, knowing that Allende would spend it on badly needed American imports.

If Allende did represent a threat, it was almost certainly less to do with any Soviet ambitions than with his own powerful arguments for a global distribution of resources far beyond anything that Washington was prepared to countenance. Unlike Morgenthau and Kennan, who saw the non-industrial world as a backwater not worth America’s attention, Kissinger considered Third World socialism a serious foe, capable of disturbing the U.S.’s delicate face-off with the Soviet Union. He and Nixon assumed, correctly, that they could back a coup against Allende with minimal fuss, just as Eisenhower, two decades before, had rid Guatemala of its democratically elected President, Jacobo Árbenz. Still, the spectacle of Allende’s removal had one unintended consequence: it lit the wick of one of Kissinger’s most durable annoyances, the global human-rights movement.

In 1972, when the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci asked Kissinger to explain his popularity, he said, “The main point arises from the fact that I’ve always acted alone.” Critics and defenders alike tend to accept this self-assessment, but his record shows a more mundane figure who assimilated prevailing foreign-policy assumptions. His most controversial moves have clear precursors. President Johnson had secretly bombed Cambodia, too, and, in 1965, he condoned Suharto’s genocide in Indonesia, which in scale outstripped the one Kissinger approved in East Timor. The U.S.-backed interventions prefiguring Allende’s removal include dozens in Latin America and the Caribbean alone.

Since leaving office, too, Kissinger has rarely challenged consensus, let alone offered the kind of inconvenient assessments that characterized the later career of George Kennan, who warned President Clinton against nato expansion after the Soviet Union’s collapse. It is instructive to measure Kissinger’s instincts against those of a true realist, such as the University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer. As the Cold War ended, Mearsheimer was so committed to the “balance of power” principle that he made the striking suggestion of allowing nuclear proliferation in a unified Germany and throughout Eastern Europe. Kissinger, unable to see beyond the horizon of the Cold War, could not imagine any other purpose for American power than the pursuit of global supremacy.

Although he has criticized the interventionism of neoconservatives, there is scarcely a U.S. military adventure, from Panama to Iraq, that has not met with his approval. In all his meditations on world order, he has not thought about how contingent and unforeseen America’s rise as global superpower actually was. Nothing in the country’s republican tradition prior to the Second World War demanded it.

Although Kissinger may not have originated the precepts for which he is best known, it is hard to find discussions of them that don’t refer to his career. As Grandin has pointed out, Vice-President Dick Cheney’s one-per-cent doctrine—the idea that a state has to act against enemies if there’s even the merest chance that they can harm it—is thoroughly Kissingerian, and when Karl Rove reputedly said, “We create our own reality,” he was echoing words of Kissinger’s from forty years before. In 2010, the Obama Administration’s lawyers used the precedent of Nixon and Kissinger’s incursions into Cambodia as part of their argument to establish the legal basis for drone killings of American terrorist suspects who were outside the battlefield of Afghanistan. A Justice Department memo argued that military action in places like Yemen was justified when recognized threats had already spread there. The Trump Administration’s recent assassination of the Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani, apparently intended to terrify the Iranians into ceasing Middle East operations, conforms to Kissinger’s obsession with “credibility.”

“Historians could learn a great deal about the years after World War II simply by studying the vicissitudes of Kissinger’s celebrity,” Gewen hazards toward the end of his book. One could go further: the main display of Kissinger’s “realism” was in the management of his own fame, his transformation of a conventional performance into a symbol of diplomatic virtuosity. It can sometimes seem as if there has been an unconscious compact between Kissinger and many of his detractors. If all the sins of the U.S. security state can be loaded onto one man, all parties get what they need: Kissinger’s status as a world-historic figure is assured, and his critics can regard his foreign policy as the exception rather than the rule. It would be comforting to believe that American liberals are capable of seeing that politics is more than a matter of personal style, and that the record will prevail, but the enduring cult of Kissinger points to a less palatable possibility: Kissinger is us.

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