For people under 60 years of age, Henry Kissinger has loomed large their whole lives. Already a prominent thinker on global statecraft and nuclear weapons starting in the 1950s, he effectively managed Richard Nixon’s foreign policy from 1969 as National Security Advisor and eventually as Secretary of State, which he continued under Gerald Ford until 1977.
Beyond any other Secretary of State in history, much less National Security Advisor, Kissinger was a superstar. After his shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Arab capitals during and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he became known as “Super K.” His reputed romantic life with Hollywood stars, supposedly suggested by Nixon to make him appear human, was much reported. He was declared the “sexiest man alive” based not on his short and pudgy looks but his brilliant mind.
In fourth grade at my Virginia grade school in the mid-1970s, we were required to write public figures to award them our “good guy of the month” award. I wrote Kissinger, receiving back his signed photo, which was pinned to the class bulletin board. There were good natured jokes about him among my grandmother’s church friends. I don’t recall the details, but something about the “smartest man” in the world jumping out of a crashing plane with a gunnysack instead of the last parachute. Everybody in the 1970s, whether supportive or horrified, was intrigued by Kissinger.
The fascination with Kissinger did not end with his departure from public office when Ford was defeated for reelection. For the last 46 years, as a senior statesman, Kissinger remained the premier global strategist. In 1978, everybody awaited with bated breath his testimony on President Carter’s SALT II treaty with the Soviets. His ambivalence, suggesting support but only with large military spending increases, helped to kill ratification. In 1980 he endorsed Ronald Reagan by visiting him for a photo op at a Virginia country estate. Originally a close advisor to New York governor and sometimes presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller, Kissinger offered counsel to every president from JFK through Joe Biden, which surely has no precedent. Even at the end, Kissinger noted that he could phone either Putin or Xi Jinping and they would likely answer.
Kissinger’s counsel was usually received respectfully and even appreciatively, despite his being despised by critics on the left and right. The Left disdained him for the Vietnam War, especially the bombing of Cambodia, for his support for Indonesia when seizing East Timor, for Pakistan’s brutal effort to retain Bangladesh, and for Pinochet’s overthrow of Allende in Chile. The Right despised him for “abandoning” southeast Asia, for détente with the Soviets, for SALT I and the ABM Treaty, for his opening to and lifelong ties to Communist China, for his perceived amorality in favor of realpolitik. Kissinger was ostensibly Machiavellian. Supposedly he modeled himself on Metternich, the cleverly opportunistic early 19th century Austrian diplomat.
Metternich was indeed a model for Kissinger for having helped orchestrate the “concert of Europe” after Napoleon, which kept an approximate European peace for several decades. Kissinger acknowledged America’s Wilsonian and Puritan impulses for a better world governed by law and safe for democracy, with peace as the goal. But he saw his goal as not seeking total victory or total peace but forestalling the worst alternatives. There could be relative wins, and relative peace, but there is always another struggle. He eschewed excessive idealism. Kissinger wanted to keep America safe and strong. Unlike Reagan, who strove to defeat the Soviet Union and end the Cold War (“They lose, we win.”), he wanted at least to keep the Soviets at bay.
Kissinger was managing America’s weakness in the 1970s. The Vietnam War, which had divided America, was deemed unwinnable, but there had to be a fighting retreat to avoid complete humiliation, with its strategic consequences. Kissinger partly camouflaged this retreat by the opening to China, sealing China’s break with the Soviets and effective alignment with America. He negotiated arms control with the Soviets partly due to America’s growing antipathy towards military spending and overseas commitments. He felt constrained to support unsavory rightist allies, in Chile, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran and Greece, because the U.S could not afford to lose further ground to Soviet proxies. He sought to contain Soviet adventurism in Africa by supporting proxies fighting the new Marxist regime in Angola (which Congress blocked), effectively aligning America with apartheid South Africa. For Kissinger, these alignments were far preferable to Soviet advances. He was playing for time, especially after Watergate and Nixon’s fall weakened the presidency. An actual Cold War victory was not on Kissinger’s radar. He was a master strategist, not a visionary.
His family were Jewish escapees from Nazi Germany, so Kissinger had no illusions about the world’s depravities. He was not, to my knowledge, religious, although he was respectful of religion. Reportedly in recent years, if only bemusedly, he evinced interest in Roman Catholicism. Metternich, after all, in his later years negotiated with the Catholic Church over his possible return to its fold. Kissinger always appreciated diplomatic drama.
When Kissinger spoke to the 1980 Republican Convention there were fears that Reagan’s supporters might boo him. In 1976, Reagan had made opposition to Kissinger’s and Ford’s foreign policy a centerpiece of his campaign. But Kissinger was treated respectfully, although his speech was dry and professorial, lacking in convention hoopla, of course, as he did not do hoopla. And Kissinger was largely accepted as an occasional unofficial advisor for Reagan.
In the early 1980s, I was a college intern at a group advocating for anti-ballistic missile defense, which was widely called “Star Wars,” and which Reagan endorsed as his Strategic Defense Initiative. To the surprise of many, Kissinger, despite having negotiated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty under Nixon, favored SDI and opposed negotiating it away, as many advocated. The leader of our missile defense group, called High Frontier, expressed surprised delight. But he said we could not openly celebrate Kissinger’s endorsement, since the conservative donors would be aghast at any positivity towards Kissinger. Conservative distaste for Kissinger, especially as the Cold War ended successfully, eventually receded. William Buckley, a personal friend to Kissinger, always defended him for having been on the right side for the big issues.
The triumphalist years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, when American power and democracy surged, seemed somewhat of a rebuttal to Kissinger’s darker realism. But more recent years, with the rise of China and Putin’s aggression, among other unpleasantries, vindicated Kissinger’s perspective. He was always ready for dark days, through which he usually saw a path for negotiation, from strength, with coexistence.
Kissinger was frequently called more European in his outlook than American. He was immune to soaring Yankee optimism. But as a former refugee, Kissinger was always a dedicated patriot committed to American strength and resolve. Participating in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp while in the U.S. Army in 1945, Kissinger knew the dark alternatives to American and Western democratic power.
“At an early age I have seen what can happen to a society that is based on hatred and strength and distrust,” Kissinger recalled at his appointment as Secretary of State. “America has never been true to itself unless it meant something beyond itself. As we work for a world at peace with justice, compassion and humanity, we know that America, in fulfilling man’s deepest aspirations, fulfills what is best within it.”
As to his humanity, which critics doubted, Kissinger revered his mentor, military strategist Friz Kraemer, an anti-Nazi German who served during WWII in the U.S. Army, where he discovered young Kissinger as a brilliant protege. During the 1970s, the fiercely anti-communist Kraemer ended contact with Kissinger, disdaining his détente with the Soviets. For years Kissinger pleaded for reconciliation, which Kraemer refused. At Kraemer’s 2003 funeral at Arlington Cemetery, with the family’s permission, Kissinger tried to speak but repeatedly convulsed into tears. It was testimony enough. Hopefully Kraemer and Kissinger are now reconciled.