Objective and Abstract
On Saturday, May 27, 2023, Henry Alfred Kissinger will attain the century mark, the age of 100 years. Not unexpectedly, on this occasion, pundits, academics, and journalists are focusing on his record as Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor in his first term, 1969-1973, and as Secretary of State during the combined Richard Nixon – Gerald Ford term, 1973-1977
I have authored this academic essay as a guide for readers to attempt to determine the various Kissinger legacies and to adjudge their impact during and after his service. My hope is that this essay will motivate my readers to continue to study the Kissinger career and governmental service record.
Henry Kissinger retains a remarkable vitality and continues to write and speak on a wide panoply of foreign policy and domestic issues, most notably recently the development and spreading usage of artificial intelligence (AI). I recently authored a column regarding Dr. Kissinger’s co-authorship of a book on this topic.
I begin this essay by providing recommended source readings to my readers. Then, I discuss three matters of which the reader should be aware before attempting to judge the Kissinger record.
First, the reader must understand the definitions of foreign policy making and diplomacy and Kissinger’s involvement in each.
Second, one must have a basic knowledge of the continuing debate between advocates of the two primary foreign policy philosophies: Realism (Realpolitik) and Idealism (Moralism).
Third, it is essential that the new arrival into the world of Kissinger gain a comprehensive understanding of the factors that resulted in the formation of Henry Kissinger’s intellectual context, most notably, his status as a German-Jewish escapee from the Holocaust.
With this basic background knowledge, the reader can now begin the study of issues of the Kissinger record. While Kissinger always attempted to portray himself as apolitical and nonpolitical, the remarkable aspect of Kissinger that few citizens comprehend is his intense focus and indeed mastery of the politics of public perception. I relate a story that illustrates Henry’s political nature.
From there, we proceed immediately to a capsule view of Kissinger’s relationship with his President, Richard M. Nixon. There are two dominant conflicting features: 1) Kissinger’s admiration of Nixon as a master analyst of foreign policy equilibrium; 2) his ordeal in dealing with Nixon’s appalling antisemitism.
Next, we deal with the two features of the Kissinger record for which he received the most intense criticism. The first was the policy he executed regarding the American withdrawal from Vietnam, a debacle which ultimately resulted in the American humiliation which Nixon and Kissinger so dreaded; and 2) the apparent Kissinger-inspired deprioritization of human rights concerns, as evident in 1) the American-assisted 1973 overthrow of the democratically elected Chilean Allende government; 2) the refusal to intervene against the Pakistani genocide in Bangladesh in 1971; and 3) the acquiescence in the mass murder of inhabitants in East Timor in 1975.
This is followed by a discussion of Kissinger‘s role in two international matters justifiably recognized as his major triumphs, in whole or in part: 1) his diplomatic role in the establishment of relations with the People’s Republic of China; 2) his policymaking and diplomatic role in the conclusion of the 1973 Israel-Arab war, resulting eventually in peace, albeit a cold one, and mutual recognition between Israel and Egypt and the armistice between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights, both of which states of non-belligerency have now lasted for nearly 50 years.
Next, I deal with two characterizations of Kissinger which I regard as unjustified: 1) the characterization of Kissinger as a “self-hating Jew;” and 2) the depiction of Kissinger as a “war criminal” for his role in the escalations that accompanied the American withdrawal from Vietnam.
The major ambiguity in the Kissinger record remains the detente established between America and the Soviet Union, eventually supervened by the ending of the Cold War during the second Reagan term and the fall of the former Soviet Union during the administration of George H.W.Bush. Did these events occur due to a vision of Reagan that Kissinger lacked? Or did detente establish a foundation from which Reagan’s success naturally followed?
The final segment of the Kissinger record is his role as a private citizen regarding the potential and dangers regarding AI. In this regard, I will reference my recent column regarding this rapidly emerging issue on the American political landscape.
Finally, this essay concludes with a recognition as to the existence of all the conflicting Kissinger legacies and why it is premature to assess a definitive historical verdict.
There is a veritable plethora of historical and journalistic works on Kissinger’s life and career. I recommend the following works, believing that if all are read, the reader will be able to discuss at an informed level the Kissinger impact on American history.
Henry Kissinger and American Power by Thomas A. Schwartz, Distinguished Professor of History at Vanderbilt University is widely considered to be the best one volume Kissinger biography. Historical biographies are usually considered to be either a narrative work, reporting chronologically the facts of the life of the subject, or interpretive, providing in depth the author’s interpretation of the relevance of these facts to the historical context. The Schwartz biography is unique in that it is both a superb narrative and interpretive historical work.
The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and his World, by Barry Gewen, formerly the editor of the New York Times Book Review, is the essential work in explaining the intellectual underpinnings of Kissinger. Specifically, it compares his world view with that of other German-Jewish Holocaust refugees and escapees, most notably, Hans Morgenthau, Hannah Arendt, and Leo Strauss. Kissinger and these three individuals all became followers of realpolitik and skeptics of populist democracy. Specifically, for these four individuals, the essential lesson of the Holocaust was how a populist movement like Nazism could degenerate into mob rule and use the democratic process to lawfully gain totalitarian power.
Perhaps the major disagreement among Kissinger scholars is regarding his management of American foreign policy during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and its aftermath.
Master of the Game by Martin Indyk, a Democrat who served as Ambassador to Israel under Bill Clinton, describes Kissinger as an unsurpassed foreign policymaker with supreme diplomatic skills and unique foreign policy insight. In the Indyk view, these skills enabled Kissinger to triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles to forge bilateral peace arrangements between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria that have endured for nearly half a century. By contrast, The Secret Conversations of Henry Kissinger by the late Israeli journalist Matti Golan depicts Kissinger as a duplicitous, untrustworthy charlatan diplomat whose final agreements were inherently unreliable.
Henry Kissinger has authored 18 books. A number of them include description of matters in which he was involved. The most impactful is his book, Diplomacy. It is the best history of international diplomacy I have read and includes the major matters in which he was involved.
During his years as a professor at Harvard, Kissinger became most widely known for his criticism of the doctrine of massive retaliation and military assured destruction and his proposal of an alternative strategy of limited war involving conventional forces and tactical nuclear weapons.This June, 1958 national television interview with Mike Wallace on this topic gained him national renown.
Distinguishing Foreign Policy Making from Diplomacy
As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, my mentor and professor of the history of American foreign policy was Dr. Richard W. Leopold, then regarded as America’s leading foreign policy academic on the Second World War and the ensuing Cold War between America and its Western allies and the former Soviet Union. This stature of Dr. Leopold was explicitly recognized in 1970 by John Garraty of Columbia University, then the leading American “consensus” survey historian.
In his book, Conversations with Historians, Garraty has a dialogue with 29 American history consensus historians, each considered to be the leading academic in their American history sub-specialty. His conversation on the United States in World Affairs, 1941-1968 was with Dr. Leopold. He also acknowledges Dr. Leopold’s authorship of the 1962 foreign policy textbook, The Growth of American Foreign Policy. This text was a standard basic text in foreign policy courses throughout leading American universities, including Harvard.
In this landmark work, Dr. Leopold defines foreign policy as “those objectives and aims set by the government for promoting the nation’s interests and welfare in the world at large.” Diplomacy is described as the “art or profession of transacting business among governments.” In a nutshell, foreign policy is strategic, while diplomacy is tactical.
Henry Kissinger is unique in American history among presidential foreign policy aides regarding the extent to which he was involved in both foreign policymaking and diplomacy.
During Nixon Term One, as National Security Advisor, Kissinger’s role was largely diplomatic, the execution of Nixonian formulated foreign policy, although it must be said that in planning foreign policy, Nixon’s most trusted and valued advisor was Henry Kissinger.
In Nixon Term Two, especially after his elevation to the position of Secretary of State, Kissinger took on a much greater assignment role, that of literally the President of the United States in charge of foreign policy. This unprecedented role was necessitated by Nixon’s devoting virtually all his time and attention to his eventually failed effort to survive the Watergate scandal. Nixon was often inebriated during this period, often necessitating that Kissinger make critical national security decisions without the advice and counsel of the president.
The Historic Foreign Policy Debate: Realism (Realpolitik) versus Idealism (Moralism)
In Diplomacy, Kissinger focuses heavily on the continuing debate between advocates of the two leading foreign policy philosophies: Realism versus Idealism. There is no question that Kissinger was a practitioner of the Realism school.
The term “Realpolitik,” in the context of foreign policy debates, is often used interchangeably with “Realism.” A Realpolitik foreign policy is based on the attainment of practical objectives rather than ideals.
In terms of practical application, a Realpolitik outlook evaluates foreign policy as a competition in which states are seeking to accumulate power for the purpose of pursuit of national interests. The national interest is defined in terms of the acquisition, maintenance, and expansion of power.
Advocates of Realpolitik assert a benefit to a world of national competitive Realpolitik nation states. Specifically, when there is an international competitive Realpolitik arena, a state of power equilibrium emerges, in which peace results from equally powerful nations and alliances refraining from hostile actions against one another. With Realpolitik, moral values took a secondary priority to the national interest.
Similarly, the term “Moralism” in terms of foreign policy study is often used interchangeably with “Idealism.” Specifically, “Moralism” refers to the practice of judging foreign nations based upon their adherence to American cherished values. The implementation of an Idealism based foreign policy has always involved primarily an attempt to make these values universal. Among these values are democracy, liberties of expression and thought, and free enterprise.
In Diplomacy, in evaluating the foreign policies of 20th Century presidents, Henry Kissinger designates, accurately in my view, Theodore Roosevelt as the prime exponent of Realpolitik and Woodrow Wilson as the leading proponent of Idealism. As the practitioner of Realpolitik, Roosevelt proved to be a master of statecraft, whose pursuit of the national interest as defined above resulted in America’s emergence as a world power.
By contrast, Wilson sought to enlist America’s World War 1 European allies in a moral crusade for which they had no inclination. The Versailles treaty which imposed punitive terms on Germany led to a reaction that ultimately resulted in the emergence of the Nazi regime in Germany.
Yet there was a dichotomy in American foreign policy which continues to prevail. Roosevelt is remembered for his power achievements. It was Wilson, however who shaped American thought.
This dichotomy had a profound impact on the achievements of Kissinger. He was very much an adherent of Realpolitik, especially as taught by Hans Morgenthau. In fact, he went further than Morgenthau in according a secondary priority to human rights concerns. Even Nixon had a picture of Wilson on his wall. It was Kissinger’s position on and deprioritization of human rights which resulted in his receiving the most severe criticism, both from historians and other political figures.
Kissinger’s Intellectual Context – The Impact of the Holocaust
The world view of Henry Kissinger can best be compared with that of other German-Jewish Holocaust refugees and escapees, most notably, Hans Morgenthau, Hannah Arendt, and Leo Strauss. Kissinger and these three individuals all became followers of realpolitik and skeptics of populist democracy. Specifically, for these four individuals, the essential lesson of the Holocaust was how a populist movement like Nazism could degenerate into mob rule and use the democratic process to lawfully gain totalitarian power.
Of the three other German-Jewish Holocaust refugees mentioned above, Kissinger was most influenced by Hans Morgenthau, the intellectual viewed as the 20th century godfather of Realpolitik. The two both agreed that the pursuit of the national interest should be the primary criterion for choices made in formulating a foreign policy and that such idealistic considerations as human rights should be given a secondary priority. Morgenthau, however was willing to give human rights a higher status than Kissinger, specifically on the issues of Vietnam and Soviet Jewry.
Kissinger, The Quintessential Politician
Down through the decades, Henry Kissinger has made every effort to portray himself as an individual above and beyond politics. He professes to be totally uninfluenced by the political process and electoral political concerns.
As noted by Thomas Schwartz in his above-mentioned Kissinger bio, the truth is quite the opposite. He quotes former French foreign minister Michel Jobert as stating that Henry Kissinger is above all else, a politician.
Indeed, Kissinger was a master at two skills that are integral to a politician’s success: 1) the skillful and effective use of media, particularly television; and 2) the necessity to garner domestic support for one’s program. And for all of Kissinger’s protestations about being unbothered by political concerns, the following story told to me by former Vice President Dick Cheney tells one something quite different.
As a Bush 43 administration official and a one- time national and state political operative, I had numerous encounters with Dick Cheney down through the years. While none were unpleasant, he always projected a rather dour personality and outlook. Dick Cheney was not exactly a barrel of laughs.
There was one encounter, however, that was quite different. It occurred at a New York area Bush Administration alumni meeting in 2015. I had recently finished reading Kissinger’s book, World Order, and I asked Cheney if he was aware of the book.
To my amazement, the normally dour Cheney responded to my question with a wide grin. Yes, he said, Henry himself had sent him a copy. And he proceeded to tell me a Kissinger story I found thoroughly amusing.
At the 1976 Republican National Convention, President Ford was on the verge of narrowly defeating Ronald Reagan for the presidential nomination after a long and somewhat bitter series of primaries. One of the principal sources of bitterness was Kissinger’s conduct of foreign policy. In order to mollify conservative Reagan delegates, the Ford convention managers had agreed to a platform plank advocating a “moral” foreign policy. This was a thinly veiled rebuke of Henry.
When Kissinger arrived at the convention and learned about the platform plank, he was livid, to put it mildly. He immediately sought out Tom Korologos, one of Ford’s convention managers. Korologos was a highly respected and well-liked Washington insider. Years later, he became the American Ambassador to Belgium under Bush 43.
Kissinger expressed to Korologos his anger over the platform and said, “If that plank is passed, I will quit!”
Korologos remained calm and responded, “Well, Henry, if you are going to resign, quit now. We need the votes!”
Henry walked away, stayed at the convention, and remained as Secretary of State until the last day of the Ford administration. So much for the “nonpolitical” and “apolitical” Henry Kissinger.
The Nixon-Kissinger Relationship: The Positive (Ideological Compatibility) and the Negative (Nixon’s Antisemitism)
There was a definite ideological compatibility between Nixon and Kissinger that enhanced their effectiveness, especially with regard to both detente with the former Soviet Union and the negotiations with the People’s Republic of China.
Nixon was in truth the first president since Theodore Roosevelt to fully embrace Realpolitik and equilibrium. These were the two salient features of Kissinger’s world view, and thus there was very rarely any ideological conflict between these two men.
Further, the two developed during Nixon Term One a very good division of labor. Nixon was the policy maker, the strategist, and Kissinger was the diplomat, the tactician.
This division of labor was very important, because Kissinger often unfairly received the credit for policies that Nixon had created.
A key example was the Nixon policy that established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Kissinger often received credit for the creation of the policy as well as its administration.
The creation of that policy was solely that of Nixon. In an article for Foreign Affairs magazine in October, 1967 entitled “Asia After Vietnam,” Nixon wrote the following:
“Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.”
Nixon’s words were prophetic, and his opening to China was a landmark in the history of American foreign policy.
Similarly, the policy of detente with the former Soviet Union was also a Nixon and not a Kissinger policy creation.
At the 1968 Republican National Convention, Nixon foretold the policy in his acceptance speech with the sentence, “After an era of confrontation, the time has come for an era of negotiation.” Again, the Detente policy would be created by Nixon and diplomatically implemented by Kissinger.
The aspect of Nixon that was most difficult for Kissinger to deal with was his virulent antisemitism. The extent and intensity of the Nixon antisemitism and Kissinger’s obsequious response to it was revealed in a tape of a 1973 conversation released by the Nixon library in 2010.
An indication of Nixon’s complex relationship with Jews occurred on the afternoon Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister, came to visit, March 1, 1973. The tapes capture Meir offering warm and effusive thanks to Nixon for the way he had treated her and Israel.
But moments after she left, Nixon and Mr. Kissinger were brutally dismissive in response to requests that the United States press the Soviet Union to permit Jews to emigrate and escape persecution there.
“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Mr. Kissinger said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
“I know,” Nixon responded. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.”
In a subsequent 2010 op-ed in the Washington Post, Kissinger apologized for the insensitivity of his words, while explaining why he maintained a policy of approaching the former Soviet Union on the Jewish emigration issue as a humanitarian concern, rather than as a diplomatic deal breaker. He felt that such an approach would be more effective.
One can argue that subsequent events may have proven Kissinger right on the immigration issue, as he set forth in his Washington Post op-ed. In no way, however, would this excuse the sycophantic way in which he dealt with his President’s antisemitism.
The Cloud of Vietnam on the Kissinger Legacy
No foreign policy matter clouds the Nixon-Kissinger legacy more than their management of the American withdrawal from Vietnam.
Usually, the opponents of the Johnson and Nixon Vietnam policies criticize their policy as a failure by the standards of American ideals. Yet a strong case can be made against our Vietnam policies from a Realpolitik outlook as well.
Such a critique was made by Richard Leopold in the above mentioned 1970 interview with John Garraty. The Leopold summation was as follows:
“The real error was not in going against our national interests at some point, but in assuming that the forces at our disposal were capable of affecting the outcome in a decisive way.”
The same criticism could be made of the Nixon-Kissinger Vietnam policy as well.
Nixon was not responsible for the Kennedy-Johnson policy that got us into Vietnam. He and Kissinger both felt, however, that a unilateral withdrawal would result in disaster, a sellout of the thousands of Vietnamese who had put their faith in us, plus massive irreparable damage to American credibility.
So they devised an alternative strategy of Vietnamization plus escalation while retreating.
Under Vietnamization, the number of American troops would be reduced, and combat responsibility would be turned over to the South Vietnamese Army (Army of the Republic of Vietnam-ARVN). To safeguard our withdrawing troops, various escalations would take place, such as the periodic bombings of North Vietnam and Cambodia. And no final American withdrawal would take place until North Vietnam released all American prisoners of war.
There would be a “decent interval” between the time of American withdrawal and the anticipated final collapse of the South Vietnamese government. Such a withdrawal under these circumstances would constitute a “peace with honor.”
These Nixon administration goals were well intended. As with the Johnson administration policies, however, the Nixon administration goals and objectives were unachievable.
American deaths in Vietnam during the Nixon administration exceeded 21,000. Furthermore, the paranoiac efforts of the Nixon administration to defend their Vietnam policies against their political enemies, real and imaginary, culminated in the Watergate scandal, which ended the Nixon administration in disgrace.
The American prisoners of war were released under the Paris Peace Accords, which ended the war and finalized the American withdrawal in January, 1973. One had to ask whether the North Vietnamese would have released the prisoners of war much sooner had Nixon and Kissinger agreed to a unilateral withdrawal at the outset of the administration.
Furthermore, there was no “decent interval.” The North Vietnamese conquered Saigon and won the war in April, 1975.
American policies in Vietnam can be said to be well-intended. The Nixon-Kissinger efforts ended in debacle and disgrace, with the same loss of honor and credibility that they both so feared. The words of John Kerry, to wit, “How would you feel to be the last person to die for a mistake,“ proved to be prophetic. It was the worst foreign policy disaster in American history.
The Kissinger Deprioritization of Human Rights
Aside from Vietnam, the most harshly criticized aspect of the Kissinger record was the setting aside of human rights concerns when they appeared to threaten his Realpolitik agenda: Three cases stand out:
1. The American-assisted effort to overthrow the Chilean government of leftist Salvatore Allende, democratically elected in 1970 and overthrown in 1973 in a Chilean Army coup led by Augusto Pinochet.
2. The American refusal to intervene to prevent the genocide in Bangladesh in 1971 by Pakistani troops and pro-Pakistani Islamist militias. Nearly three million Bangladeshis lost their lives.
3. The American acquiescence in the Indonesian invasion of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor after it declared its independence. The Indonesian invasion, utilizing American weapons and supplies, resulted in the killing and imprisonment of thousands of East Timorese and the destruction of numerous villages and widespread atrocities.
With regard to Chile, the concern was that the Allende government would move in a much more Castroite direction. As Kissinger brazenly stated, “I don’t see why we have to stand by and watch a country go Communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”
In essence, Kissinger was asserting that the American Realpolitik concern of national security superseded the human rights of Chileans to self-determination. This cannot be accepted, however, as the notion that a Castroite government in Chile could in any way have jeopardized American national security appears absurd.
In Bangladesh, Nixon and Kissinger based their non-intervention policy on geopolitics. India was developing a friendlier relationship with the former Soviet Union, and Pakistan was pursuing a much more pro-Western course, even acting as an intermediary between America and the People’s Republic of China prior to Nixon’s visit of 1972.
Yet it strains credulity to believe that Pakistan would have either significantly distanced relations with America or withdrawn from its role as the intermediary between America and China.
With regard to East Timor, one must recognize the importance of Indonesia as an American ally, given their oil reserves and their strategic location in Southeast Asia. This did not, however, necessitate American acquiescence in their use of American weapons in the slaughter of East Timorese.
Followers of Realpolitik, like this author, can accept the notion of subordinating human rights concerns when vital American interests are at stake. The fatal flaw in Kissinger human rights policy was his predilection to engage in such subordination when it was not necessary.
Kissinger’s Greatest Successes: 1) The opening to China; 2) Concluding the Yom Kippur War
As mentioned above, Richard Nixon was the author of his China policies. Yet Henry Kissinger’s diplomacy was essential to its implementation.
At Nixon’s direction, Kissinger made a two-day trip to China in July, 1971 to meet with Zhou Enlai, the Premier of the People’s Republic of China. The purpose was to lay the groundwork for Nixon’s forthcoming trip to China in February, 1972. The establishment of foundation trust between Kissinger and Zhou was essential to all subsequent developments in the Sino-American relationship, both during the Nixon-Ford administration and the years that followed.
With regard to the conclusion of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Kissinger was acting as not only the Chief Diplomat but also as the virtual President of the United States in charge of foreign policy. Besieged and sidelined by Watergate, Nixon was devoting virtually all his time to attempting unsuccessfully to save his presidency. In fact, Nixon was often inebriated during that period.
In the case of the Yom Kippur war, diplomacy became virtually synonymous with policy. Tactics became strategy.
The Arab States at this point, most importantly Egypt and Syria, the major combatants in the war, were not yet ready to recognize the State of Israel. Accordingly, at that point, it was futile to attempt to settle the war with a face-to-face summit conference between the leaders of these nations. While interim accords would be possible as confidence building measures, a final overall settlement would not yet be possible.
Therefore, Kissinger crafted an American policy to attempt to mediate the conflicts between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria by step-by-step diplomacy, with Henry Kissinger acting as the major American actor through his renowned shuttle diplomacy.
The result of the Kissinger Israel-Egypt mediation: A tentative Sinai accord, which eventually resulted after the Nixon-Ford administration in the March, 1979 Israel-Egypt treaty pursuant to which Israel withdrew from the Sinai, Egypt recognized Israel, the two states established diplomatic relations, and Israel gained recognition from Egypt of her right of passage through the Suez Canal.
The result of the Kissinger Israel-Syria mediation: In May, 1974, Israel and Syria reached a disengagement agreement on the Golan Heights, marking the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and subsequent attrition. While the agreement was perceived as an interim arrangement, both sides have now complied with it for nearly 48 years.
In 1973, Kissinger was awarded a Nobel Prize for his Vietnam diplomacy. This award never should have been given. Kissinger fully deserved a Nobel Prize, however, for his diplomacy and policy making concluding the Yom Kippur War.
The two defamations of Henry Kissinger: 1) The War Criminal; 2) The Self-Hating Jew
In 2001, the book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens was published. In 2002 a movie of the same name was released. Both works describe Henry Kissinger as a war criminal.
The most effective rebuttal to this charge was an essay in Slate by David Greenberg, currently a professor at Rutgers, one of America’s five leading presidential historians, and the author of the book, Nixon’s Shadow, a trenchant critique of the former president. He is also a professor of journalism and media studies.
Greenberg is hardly one of Nixon’s fervent admirers.
In fact, Greenberg has a different appraisal of Kissinger in tone and substance from that of any other academic. He describes him as a “smart, opportunistic Harvard professor who cannily attached himself to Richard Nixon.” Greenberg’s bottom line: Kissinger is “wildly overrated.”
He does not pull any punches as to what he thinks of Kissinger’s character. Yes, in Greenberg’s view, Kissinger was “a lying, coldblooded, immoral bastard.” But that does not make him a criminal.
In order to designate Kissinger as a war criminal, there has to be a specific charge, based on a definitive international criminal law doctrine. No such charge or doctrine exists. Furthermore, as Greenberg notes, there have been many other presidential aides in other administrations who committed acts of violent immorality. None of them were labeled as a war criminal.
The other defamation of Kissinger is somewhat more subjective and widespread. Kissinger has been accused of being a “self-hating Jew” by other Jews dissatisfied with his performance on matters of Jewish concern.
I can understand the dissatisfaction, but it does not rise to the level of justifying an attack on Kissinger as a self-hating Jew.
To begin with, such attacks ignore the fact that during Nixon Term One, Kissinger consistently and successfully resisted the efforts of Secretary of State Bill Rogers to move administration policy away from a pro-Israel direction.
There has been on-going controversy as to whether Kissinger attempted to delay shipments of arms to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. There are differing versions, but the Martin Indyk book convinces me that Kissinger was dedicated to the survival of Israel and always determined that Israel receive the weapons in timely fashion.
Having said that, Kissinger could be very insensitive on Jewish human rights issues, but no more so than he was insensitive on ALL human rights issues, not just Jewish.
I previously in this essay described the repulsively insensitive conversation he had with Nixon regarding emigration from the former Soviet Union. The Jackson-Vanik amendment, which passed in 1974 despite initial resistance from Kissinger, did much to facilitate Jewish emigration.
There was another example of Kissinger insensitivity on Jewish matters, not as consequential, but insensitive just the same.
Kissinger was a fervent admirer of the famed German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. There was much to admire. Bismarck was one of history’s most successful practitioners of Realpolitik. His accomplishments in uniting Germany and for the most part maintaining peace with its neighbors was remarkable.
Yet antisemitism was a major defect on the Bismarck record. He would use it without restraint against his political adversaries.
In March, 2011, Kissinger wrote for the New York Times a review of the book, Bismarck: A Life, by University of Pennsylvania Professor Jonathan Steinberg. Kissinger accurately described the book as the best study of its subject in the English language.
Yet Kissinger had failed to comment on an important aspect of the book. Steinberg had extensively described Bismarck’s antisemitism, his beliefs and uses. Kissinger made no mention of it.
For Henry Kissinger, who justifiably prides himself in his accurate uses of historical sources, this was indeed a significant omission.
Détente: On balance, a net positive
The major ambiguity in the Kissinger record remains the detente established between America and the Soviet Union, eventually supervened by the ending of the Cold War during the second Reagan term and the fall of the former Soviet Union during the administration of George H.W. Bush. Did these events occur due to a vision of Reagan that Kissinger lacked? Or did detente establish a foundation from which Reagan’s success naturally followed?
In late 2022, a newly published book, The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink by William Inboden, set forth in compelling fashion the case for Reagan as one of our most successful foreign policy presidents. An excellent review of this book was authored by New Jersey’s leading Republican intellectual in residence, Alvin Felzenberg.
I recommend this book as a must-read, particularly to people who share my views as to the greatness of Reagan as a foreign policy president. Where I disagree with Inboden is on his implication that the success of Reagan policy marked detente as a failure.
I will never stop attributing to Reagan the credit for the American victory in the Cold War and the subsequent fall of the former Soviet Union. I also have criticized Nixon and Ford administration officials for overselling detente.
Detente was exactly what it meant in French – a reduction in tensions, in this case, between the two major Cold War adversaries. It was, as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated, a way of dealing with our adversaries, and not with our friends.
Yet it must be said that on balance, detente was a net positive. It was accompanied by a triangular relationship between the United States, the USSR, and the People’s Republic of China.
This new paradigm enabled the occurrence of major breakthroughs, including guaranteed access to then-divided Berlin, a dramatic reduction of Soviet influence in the Middle East, and the beginning of the Arab-Israeli peace process.
It must also be said that one of the most criticized features of detente was the Helsinki Agreement of 1975, particularly Basket III on human rights, which enumerated a listing of human rights with which all the signatories were to comply.
Basket III was a major factor in the resurgence of human rights movements in Eastern Europe during the 15 years which followed Helsinki. For all my criticisms of Kissinger on human rights, Basket III was a significant step forward.
Kissinger’s centennial legacy: The artificial intelligence issue
Even at the age of 100, Henry Kissinger continues to be a compelling voice on national and international policy issues. His most recent policy endeavor as a private citizen has been in the debate regarding artificial intelligence.
My recent column on artificial intelligence elucidates the depth and breadth of his involvement on this issue. Doubtless, his public stature will enable him to have a major impact in this ongoing debate.
The Kissinger historical legacy is indeed complex. There are conflicting legacies of both a positive and negative nature.
As a diplomat he was without peer. As a foreign policy maker, he had a positive and negative aspect.
His tenure in the Nixon-Ford administration was marked by both historic success (China opening, Yom Kippur War) and disastrous failure (Vietnam). A historian attempting to adjudge a final Kissinger verdict will face a most difficult task in attempting to balance such triumph and tragedy.
He was able to maintain, from the standpoint of Realpolitik, a clear insight as to what course to follow for the national interest. Yet there were times he would perceive a conflict between the national interest and human rights where none had to exist.
It can take literally the passage of generations to form an historical verdict as to the impact of one’s foreign policy. This will doubtless be the case with Henry Kissinger.
About the author
Alan J. Steinberg is a graduate of Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin School of Law. He also has a Master of Law in Taxation from the Temple University Beasley School of Law. He served as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
Mr. Steinberg spent nearly two decades in government and politics. He led two major governmental agencies: 1) The New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman; and 2) Regional Administrator for Region 2, United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President George W. Bush. Region 2 consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Territory of the U. S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations.
Currently, Mr. Steinberg authors opinion columns as a contributing columnist for Insider NJ, New Jersey’s leading political website, and as a guest columnist for the Star-Ledger and the Jandoli Institute, the public policy center for the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University. He also often appears as a guest on various New York and New Jersey radio and television political talk shows.
Listen to Alan J Steinberg discussing his Kissinger essay on a podcast hosted by seven-time Emmy Award winner Jim Williams.