May 25, 2023
Henry Kissinger turns 100 on Saturday. His actions and legacy as a US statesman have been debated for decades, but perhaps at cost to remembering broader US complicity in the foreign policies and philosophies that he and his associates advanced.
By: M L CLARK
May 27, 2023 is the 100th birthday of Henry Alfred Kissinger, born Heinz Alfred Kissinger: a US statesman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and estimated to have caused between three and four million deaths through decisions that extended and accelerated wars, contributed to massacres, and supported military coups: in Asia, in the Middle East, in Latin America, and in Africa.
On occasions such as this centennial anniversary, journalists do critical work by renewing their scrutiny and rehashing key historical narratives around such notable people. We may not always have formal truth and reconciliation committees, and not everyone whose actions call for trials will face them, but we have these opportunities to revisit the cornerstone myths and contentions that shape our modern world, and to decide how we will reckon with them going forward.
The danger on this occasion is that, amid all our fixation on the man, in keeping with the “Great Man Theory” of history, we will fail to address the broader culture that bolstered Kissinger’s rise to power in the first place: a culture uncannily similar to the groundswell uplifting “controversial” figures in US politics today.
Constructing the “Great Man”
Kissinger has for years been described as a “great” if “controversial” statesman, and his life has been reviewed to such an extent that Kissingerology fuels a wide range of biographies and political histories. To cover just a few:
Seymour Hersh’s The Price of Power (1983) depicts Kissinger as an unhinged person granted unacceptable levels of control over foreign policy. Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001) outlines the war criminality of Kissinger’s actions, and US hypocrisy in overlooking this figure while condemning other world leaders for similar. Greg Grandin’s Kissinger’s Shadow (2015) goes one further, in illustrating how Kissinger’s actions have informed whole systems of harm in the modern world. Niall Ferguson’s Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist (2015) attempts a remediation by asking what else this misunderstood statesman was supposed to do. Barry Gewen offers a similarly fatalist take, in The Inevitability of Tragedy (2020), but from a deeper dive into the Weimar Republic and the haunted life of German-Jewish émigres that shaped Kissinger’s point of view.
And the story of Kissinger’s legacy has far from fully unfolded, either. Just this year, Nobel Prize documents, sealed for 50 years after original deliberation, revealed that the selection committee for the 1973 Peace Prize, given jointly to Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (who refused the award, while two Nobel committee members resigned in protest), knew full well that their deal was unlikely to bring peace to Vietnam.
Days ago, too, The Intercept published new research from released military documents that sets even more Cambodian casualties at Kissinger’s feet. In that campaign alone, experts find him responsible for attacks that killed over 150,000 civilians: three times the number that Kissinger acknowledges in his 2003 book, Ending the Vietnam War. Between 1969 and 1973, in his role as national security advisor and at President Richard Nixon’s express demand for a massive bombing campaign, Kissinger relayed orders to General Alexander Haig that would amount to Cambodia being bombarded by the equivalent of all munitions tonnage in the Pacific Theater in World War II, and more than in the whole Korean War.
Kissinger is a potent site for such analysis precisely because there are so many subtopics one might explore to understand these extensive histories of US foreign affairs: Kissinger’s involvement in the 1973 Yom Kippur War (and potential missed opportunity to avert it). His role in the Watergate scandal, and how he gained more autonomy in foreign policy through it. How he brought the US and USSR to temporarily calmer relations in the 1960s (after contributing to earlier confrontation pressures); enmeshed the US economy with Saudi oil interests (though not alone); and created pathways for renewed relations between the US and China.
Then there’s his mainstream PR maneuvering, perhaps no better exemplified than on April 14, 1986, when he made the media rounds to rally public support for Ronald Reagan’s decision to launch airstrikes against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, in a failed attempt to lessen terrorist events going forward. Also, his role not only in hyper-militarizing the Persian Gulf, but also in providing US sanction for other brutal campaigns against civilians: Pakistan genocidal operations in today’s Bangladesh, Turkish military attacks in Cyprus, and Indonesian actions in East Timor.
Journalistic and academic inquiries also follow the business dealings that underpinned his role in developing the North American Free Trade Agreement under George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In that domain, he helped usher in a new neoconservative era of privatization, which also benefited his own consulting firm, Kissinger Associates—not least of all, in a Latin America that he had grievously affected by supporting coups and death squads in prior decades.
Kissinger as an embodiment of “realism”
But beyond the specific actions taken by Kissinger, there is also a body of analysis around his guiding political philosophy, which both bolsters the myth of the statesman and also slips some dangerous givens into US foreign policy discourse.
Kissinger famously viewed his greatest nemesis as idealism, and instead advocated for a foreign policy approach based on “realism”, which in his formulation meant the necessity of prioritizing manageable, small-scale, and above all else flexibly principled state projects that served to bolster a nation’s appearance of power, as a deterrent effect against future conflict. All state negotiation, for Kissinger, was framed around who could convince the other of their greater willingness to inflict pain.
Unsurprisingly, then, Kissinger didn’t believe in actual peace so much as periods of non-combative arrangements formed by the effective management of a country’s image in the eyes of potential threats: an effort that, admittedly, would sometimes require “little” military outings to be maintained. Human history was a set of events in chaos, lacking no intrinsic or self-correcting order, which could be managed to mitigate greater atrocity only by those who had the will to recognize fluid morality as a precondition for the preservation of freedom. The best we could hope for, as a species, was for all nations to be run by people who understood similar, and took care of their own nationalist images while our statesmen took care of ours.
Kissinger wasn’t alone in these Harvard-incubated ideas, but his moral slipperiness outdid even that of peers like Hans Morgenthau, who is more classically considered the framer of “realism” in its modern foreign-policy context. However, Morgenthau didn’t have Kissinger’s savvy for gentling his stated ideology in service to maintaining and growing political connections within US government, and so lost favor when he protested the US Conflict in Vietnam, on the grounds that it was diminishing rather than increasing the country’s global image of power. Kissinger, conversely, actively extended the war, which sustained him in his role in US office.
Mainstream media, cultural complicity
Which brings us to the part of the story often neglected in biographies and political analyses of Kissinger dedicated to the “Great Man” school of historical thought:
The conditions precipitating Kissinger’s rise.
A commonly taught gloss of 20th-century history holds that, when the US deployed two nuclear bombs in World War II (one on Hiroshima, killing between 100- and 150,000 people; and one on Nagasaki, killing 60- to 80,000 civilians), it ushered in a nuclear age that gave the world pause. Awed and horrified by what human beings had wrought, we quickly embraced an understanding that mutually assured destruction (MAD) was the inevitable consequence of further nuclear action. And so, we did everything in our power to keep the Doomsday Clock from reaching midnight.
It’s a cute story, too: one that lends greater innocence to much of the US in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and generally ennobles human beings by imagining a uniformity of conscience in the face of so horrific a species-wide transgression.
It’s also flat-out wrong, as Kissinger’s rise to power illustrates.
Now, Kissinger was by no means the only political actor frustrated by an early formulation of MAD: namely, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s policy of “instant retaliation” against any Soviet invasion of Europe, traditional or nuclear. Kissinger’s argument, that an all-or-nothing gambit stripped the US of the interim power needed to engage in smaller military operations, was also expressed by officials in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Some feared that, by giving itself no leeway for intermediate interventions, the US was actively ceding ground to the USSR, which could quietly spread in this new game of nuclear “chicken”.
(This fear of gradually losing global position also fed the “missile gap” myth in the 1960s. Even though the US already held the greater store of Cold War weapons, it routinely scared itself into keeping up the push for more conventional munitions.)
But even though his concern was by no means unique, Kissinger was also distinctly well-situated to become the country’s main spokesperson for a different approach. An academic by training, Kissinger had been disappointed in 1954 not to receive a Harvard professorship; and yet, this made him available to do more controversial work somewhere between formal academia and direct state offices.
McGeorge Bundy, dean of the faculty, helped install him on the Council on Foreign Relationships (CFR), where Kissinger developed policy ideas around the use of nuclear weapons with a Special Studies Project funded by the Rockefeller Brothers, who were deeply interested in setting national policy for the coming decades. Kissinger argued for US readiness to embark on “limited” or “little” nuclear wars, with targeted nuclear deployments not because they were intrinsically necessary, but as a show of strength that he argued would give US enemies pause. (As if Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not been enough.)
Whether Kissinger, who would later fall in line with presidents who endorsed MAD-based foreign policy, believed in his own “little” wars argument is irrelevant. In 1957, these ideas were published as a book called Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, which was wildly popular (a New York Times bestseller for months), and bolstered by a Rockefeller-driven media campaign that saw copies of his subsequent CFR report requested by hundreds of thousands of US citizens.
And as if that claim to mainstream popularity wasn’t enough to build Kissinger’s brand as a nuclear war authority, Bundy then became John F. Kennedy’s national security advisory in 1961, and brought Kissinger on as a consultant. Although fellow academics protested that Kissinger’s foreign policy book lacked scholastic rigor, Bundy also got the Ford Foundation to financially back Kissinger’s long-sought-after Harvard professorship. He was in, and he thereafter worked hard to stay that way.
In a traditional analysis of Kissinger’s century, we might use these facts to critique the myth of the man: to argue, as some do, that Kissinger grifted his way into higher office, or that ideas about his talents as a statesman are grossly overestimated. But to do either misses a far more chilling and relevant point.
Consider the factors involved in his rise:
An approach to foreign policy expressly meant to provoke, and in doing so, to direct attention away from sitting politicians and the authority of democratically elected leaders. A charismatic public figure unafraid to say provocative things. Mainstream media normalizing the idea that the US should be engaged in “little” wars to sustain its power. Huge third-party financial backers expressly guiding the creation of US state policy, and helping to install people in key offices to serve those ends.
Henry Kissinger lies at the center of a brutal story of US foreign policy. Whole global regions have been devastated by his actions, and the actions of the governments in which he served, with consequences that we will be healing from for generations.
But he did not arise out of the ether, and the conditions that secured him and his ideas a place in the political sun remain with us today. We cannot forget the role of legacy media in building legitimacy around ongoing nuclear conflict, or the financial buy-ins that shaped figures of import in mid-century universities and government roles alike.
And above all else, we must not forget that, while Morgenthau and Kissinger had their notion of political “realism”, their claim that the only pragmatic move in foreign policy was a self-interested nationalism anticipating the impossibility of peace and therefore compelling the persistent demonstration of force through military might…
Kissinger’s century attests plainly enough to the damage that such “realism” wreaks.
As our current “lukewarm” war with Russia via Ukraine continues, and as the use of nuclear arms remains a dread possibility held at bay by our world’s fear of total annihilation, it now becomes pressingly clear that no one government actor holds all the cards, keys, and answers with respect to what comes next for global politics:
Nor should they. Not ever, ever again.