Henry Kissinger and American Power

Excerpts from the book, Henry Kissinger and American Power - A Political Biography by Thomas A. Schwartz. Click here to order your copy 

by Thomas A. Schwartz

When I Finally Got The Opportunity to interview Henry Kissinger, and made my way through security into his Park Avenue office, the former secretary of state asked me what type of book I had planned. I told him I hoped to write a “short and concise” biography, using his career as a prism through which to explore the modern history of American diplomacy. Looking somewhat puzzled, he replied, in his inimitable German accent, “But you will leave things out.”

Henry Kissinger is the most famous American diplomat of the twentieth century. He may well be one of the most heavily documented public figures in American history. He wrote not only three volumes totaling four thousand pages of memoirs, but also other books, articles, speeches, and op-eds that would fill several library shelves. When I began my research, the late Harry Howe Ransom, a Vanderbilt University colleague who had worked with Kissinger in the 1950s, joked that “Henry never had an unpublished thought.” As Kissinger continues his commentary on American foreign policy well into a seventh decade, Ransom may well be right. As national security adviser and secretary of state, Kissinger left an unprecedented paper trail of memoranda of conversations, policy papers, and telephone conversations that record almost every day of his eight years in office. His presence is also significant in the 3,700 hours of the Nixon tapes. Indeed, it was a formidable challenge to write anything “short and concise” about Henry Kissinger.

For these reasons it may be best to start out with explaining what this book isn’t. This book is not a full biography of Kissinger the man, and it is not an attempt to make conclusions about his family life and personal relationships. The historian Niall Ferguson has undertaken that project, with the cooperation of Kissinger, and Ferguson has access to Kissinger’s personal papers.1 I have used Ferguson’s first volume for my opening chapter, supplemented with materials I have discovered in my own research. Ferguson treats many of the personal matters of Kissinger’s life before 1969 with great delicacy.2 Still, his work is extremely important for the light it sheds on such topics as Kissinger’s first years in the United States, his service during and after World War II, and his role in Vietnam negotiations before becoming national security adviser.

My book is also not an attempt to review every claim, accusation, and historical argument that has been made about Henry Kissinger. Covering the wide array of secondary literature about Kissinger would take a small army of historians. Although I make a number of judgments about Kissinger’s diplomacy and political behavior, I shy away from the thundering moral pronouncements of condemnation that are commonplace among academics and political activists. Writing dispassionately about a man whom some call a war criminal and lump together with figures like Slobodan Milošević or Pol Pot is not easy. Greg Grandin’s Kissinger’s Shadow indicts Kissinger for not only the actions he took while in power but also the “endless wars” that have characterized American foreign policy ever since.3 This strikes me as excessive—Kissinger has enough to answer for during the time he actually held governing responsibility. His advocacy of policies as a private citizen is worth studying, but making him responsible for every military action the United States has taken since 1977 is playing into Kissinger’s own sense of self-importance. Neither do I find myself as taken with the claims of many of Kissinger’s admirers, from his contemporary portrayal as “Super K” to the narratives of some establishment politicians and pundits who argue that Kissinger was the “20th century’s greatest 19th-century statesman.”4 The extreme praise and vilification Kissinger receives does little to provide any real understanding of the historical role he has played, or the consequences and legacy of his public life and career. In studying Kissinger, I have attempted to gain an insight into a personality in power, a brilliant man who thought seriously and with great insight about the foreign policy issues of the time, but who was prone to deception and intrigue, highly skilled at bureaucratic infighting, and given to the ingratiating and fawning praise of the president as the source of his power. Kissinger was also a genius at self-promotion, becoming a celebrity diplomat, a man whose activities were chronicled in the entertainment and society pages as well as in the news sections. He was indeed larger than life, negatively as well as positively.

This book aims to reintroduce Henry Kissinger to the American people and to an international audience. It is not quite the “short and concise” book I had hoped it would be. It is much shorter than it would have been had I delved into every aspect of Kissinger’s role in foreign policy. There are still many Americans, mostly now sixty and over, who well remember Kissinger. In the mid-1970s he ranked as the most admired American, enjoying close to universal acclaim. In the dawning age of globalization, he was internationally famous, one of the most recognizable figures on the planet. For a younger generation of Americans, the students I teach, Henry Kissinger is not very well known or understood. This book is written for them, as an attempt to explain who Henry Kissinger was, what he thought, what he did, and why it matters. Kissinger was an immensely powerful and important figure during a critical period in recent American history, and his career reflects on many of the enduring and important questions connected to U.S. foreign policy.

Each chapter of the book begins with a television news vignette, explaining in part how viewers saw the career of Henry Kissinger unfold in their living rooms. The first describes the course of Kissinger’s life from refugee to presidential adviser, a life and career shaped by the extraordinary changes in America’s world position as well as by the actions and sheer good fortune of the brilliant and ambitious Kissinger. His ascent owed much to his personal qualities, but it also provides an insight into America during the Cold War era, when universities like Harvard and politicians like Nelson Rockefeller needed the expertise and talents of men like him. The next three chapters cover Kissinger’s role as national security adviser, a position that answers to a constituency of one, the president of the United States. Chapter 2 tells the relatively unhappy story of the first two years of the Richard Nixon administration, as its attempt to start fresh with American foreign policy largely failed because it could not end the Vietnam War. This failure did not detract from the rise of Henry Kissinger to a position as the president’s principal adviser on foreign affairs, supplanting the secretary of state and controlling foreign policy from the White House. Chapter 3 takes the story through 1971, which began with the disastrous invasion of Laos but which saw Nixon and Kissinger surprise the world with the announcement of a trip to China. Kissinger’s role in Nixon’s foreign policy helped the president within the domestic political arena and also enhanced Kissinger’s personal fame, despite a stumble in South Asia, as he became known as Nixon’s “secret agent.” Chapter 4 records what Kissinger called the “trifecta” of 1972—the trip to China, the Moscow summit, and the Paris Peace Accords with North Vietnam—that helped propel Nixon to a landslide electoral victory and Kissinger to international stardom. This marriage between geopolitical realism and American domestic politics, engineered by Nixon and Kissinger, was always a tenuous one, but it served the electoral purposes of Nixon and even won Kissinger a Nobel Peace Prize.

The second half of the book examines Kissinger at the height of his fame. Chapter 5 records Kissinger’s appointment as secretary of state, an appointment Nixon was forced to make because of Watergate. Nixon’s standing plummeted with the scandal, and Kissinger assumed the preeminent role within the administration. He achieved extraordinary success in launching the Middle East peace process, pushing the Soviet Union out of that region and putting the United States at the center of its diplomacy. His understanding and manipulation of the media, both print and electronic, enhanced the authority and power he exercised. By the time Nixon resigned, Kissinger had become the most powerful figure in Washington.

Chapter 6 examines Kissinger’s role in the short-lived Gerald Ford administration. Ford deferred to Kissinger on foreign policy, making the decision to retain him one of the first he announced. Kissinger boasted to Soviet leaders in October 1974 that he had full negotiating authority because he enjoyed the approval of 85 percent of all Americans. Unfortunately, this would be an expression of pride before the fall. After the “Watergate elections” of November 1974, Kissinger faced a different political reality. During his last two years in office, he struggled with a hostile Democratic Congress and a changing national and international political environment. Kissinger himself became a political issue in the 1976 campaign, attacked from both the left and the right for his foreign policy realism and “Lone Ranger” style. When he left office at age fifty-three, after Ford’s defeat, however, few would have thought Kissinger would not be back in an official role sometime in the future.

In chapter 7 I look at Kissinger’s role in American foreign policy in the forty years since he left office and his effort to wield influence and to shape how Americans approach foreign affairs. During the Carter administration, Kissinger played the role of a shadow secretary of state, enjoying great influence, because the perception was that he would likely be back in power soon. After the Republican victory in 1980, however, Kissinger remained outside the White House. He constructed a role for himself as an influential commentator on foreign policy throughout the Reagan and Bush presidencies, writing newspaper opinion pieces and appearing frequently on network news shows. He also created an international business-consulting group, Kissinger Associates, Inc., and earned millions advising governments and large corporations about international events and trends. His public profile remained so prominent, and his actions as a policymaker so controversial, that he was one of the few American leaders whose mere presence at an event could provoke a hostile demonstration. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, men young enough to be his sons, called him in for advice and counsel. For potential candidates for president, a meeting with Henry Kissinger became seen as a sign of seriousness, so much so that foreign policy novices like Sarah Palin and Herman Cain made the pilgrimage to his Park Avenue office. His brand of foreign policy realism, reduced emphasis on human rights, and recognition of the limits of American power even enjoyed something of a comeback under Barack Obama, with administration officials justifying their response to the Syrian civil war and Iranian nuclear program in these terms. When Kissinger was photographed meeting with Donald Trump the day after the president fired the FBI director, James Comey, to head off the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, with echoes of Watergate resounding, it was only another one of the many ironies of Kissinger’s continuing presence in Washington.

This book is based on extensive research in both published and unpublished sources, as well as interviews with a number of Kissinger’s colleagues, including Brent Scowcroft, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, and Winston Lord. Given the sheer quantity of Kissinger materials available, I cannot, in good conscience, call my research “exhaustive” or “definitive.” I have read thousands of pages of Kissinger documents, listened to hundreds of hours of tapes, and read numerous secondary accounts. One unique source, new to the study of Henry Kissinger, is the holdings of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, which began recording the evening news on August 5, 1968. The media environment of the era when Henry Kissinger shot to fame was very different from that of today. By the early 1960s, television news had surpassed newspapers as the principal source of information for most Americans. The half-hour news broadcasts of the three networks originated in New York and sought to present the news “objectively” to the American people. For a variety of reasons, historians have largely neglected the study of television’s impact on American thinking about most major public policy questions, even while acknowledging its importance. As the Rutgers professor David Greenberg commented, “Television has clearly remained integral to the process by which Americans learn about and interpret public events. It stands to reason that historians, who strive to understand how people experienced their own worlds, should explore how TV portrayed the developments they are writing about.” 

No political leader had a stronger sense of the importance of television than Richard Nixon. He believed television cost him the 1960 election. In 1968 he obsessively managed the coverage of his campaign. While his administration will forever be remembered for Vice President Spiro Agnew’s blistering attacks on the establishment media, both press and television, Nixon was particularly aware of how the television news presented his policies and wanted to manipulate it in his favor. Kissinger eventually became a key to this manipulation. The evening news documents Kissinger’s ascendancy, from his relatively few and short appearances in 1969 and 1970 to a growing fascination with his role in the Nixon White House over the next two years, captured in his “peace is at hand” press conference on the eve of the 1972 election. During the following four years, as he became secretary of state during Watergate and engaged in his “shuttle diplomacy” in the Middle East, Kissinger made hundreds of appearances in American living rooms, serving as, in effect, the “president for foreign policy.” Kissinger remained a dominant television personality after he left office, making exclusive deals with the major networks and becoming a leading commentator on American foreign policy.

Remapping the world order

His television role in promoting the Nixon and Ford administrations’ foreign policy contributes to what is the central argument of this book. Most treatments of Henry Kissinger have highlighted his role as a foreign policy intellectual who advocated a policy of realpolitik for the United States, a foreign policy that eschewed moral considerations or democratic ideology and was geared to a “cold-blooded” promotion and protection of America’s security and interests. This is not incorrect, but it is incomplete. To fully understand Henry Kissinger, it is important to see him as a political actor, a politician, and a man who understood that American foreign policy is fundamentally shaped and determined by the struggles and battles of American domestic politics. Kissinger frequently liked to portray himself as a foreign policy expert “above” politics, independent and nonpartisan in his political leanings, offering his wisdom and advice to leaders without concern for the political advantage or disadvantage it might bring. “The President never talks to me about domestic politics,” Kissinger remarked, sitting at the Republican presidential convention in 1972 and answering a question about whether a peace settlement in Vietnam might help Nixon’s reelection chances. This was nonsense. Kissinger spoke with Nixon often about the domestic political impact of foreign policy. He well understood the importance of domestic politics in shaping foreign policy when he worked for Nelson Rockefeller, and his sensitivity to those issues grew—first as Richard Nixon’s personal agent for foreign policy, scoring successes that brought Nixon’s reelection; then, as Nixon declined during Watergate, as the president for foreign policy, acting unilaterally in the Middle East and elsewhere; and finally as secretary of state and effectively Gerald Ford’s director of foreign policy. While not a traditional politician—Kissinger’s foreign birth precluded him from running for president, and he did not hold rallies, kiss babies, or give formal campaign speeches—he recognized the centrality of politics to foreign policy and knew how deeply intertwined within the American system foreign policy and domestic politics were. He adjusted his perspective and recommendations accordingly. The French foreign minister Michel Jobert, who clashed with Kissinger during the 1973 Middle East crisis, remarked, “[Kissinger] was said to have a taste for stardom, that he was a foreign policy prima donna, but I believe [his taste] was for politics. He is a politician, above all else … He calculates like a politician.” Henry Kissinger sought political power for reasons of personal ambition, to enact his preferred policies, and to defend his perception of America’s national interest.

In approaching Kissinger from this perspective, the issue of the role of partisan domestic politics in shaping foreign policy emerges, and remains a hotly contested issue. Many Americans deeply believe that the United States should adhere to the famous words of Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Vandenberg made this statement as the Soviet Union was emerging as the new threat to the United States and as President Harry Truman was rallying Americans behind such programs as the Marshall Plan and the NATO alliance. The bipartisan support for the containment policy in Europe was, however, more the exception than the rule in U.S. history. Hedrick Smith, the chief diplomatic correspondent of The New York Times, wrote, “By the unwritten rules of the power game, it is practically immoral for presidents to admit that domestic politics play a role in foreign policy decisions. But everyone knows they do, and presidents listen to those who heed the political winds.” The best way to approach the study of this question is to recognize that the influence of domestic politics should be considered along a spectrum, from being quite fundamental to some decisions and more peripheral to others. As unpleasant as it is to think that decisions about war and peace might be influenced by electoral considerations, it is better to recognize and accept it as the reality of our flawed but still democratic and pluralist republic. From a president’s point of view, the best foreign policy for the country is useless if he is not elected or reelected to implement it. Even the great realist George Kennan, the father of the containment policy, acknowledged this. Kennan often despaired over the influence of American domestic politics and believed it would be best if there could be found “men independent of government and reluctant to participate” who could be drafted to serve as an enlightened elite to conduct the affairs of state. But he was grounded enough to realize this was an impossibility, and that the national interest was subject to interpretation and its promotion could never be totally disinterested or objective. Kennan knew that the direction of American foreign policy was shaped, at least in part, by “internal power struggles” and that while Americans might reach a bipartisan consensus on some issues, most of their history reflected bitter divisions and partisan arguments over how best to defend and promote the national interest. 

Kissinger, in his understanding of the politics of American foreign policy, and in the manner in which he came to personalize and project that foreign policy while he served in office, experienced considerable success and some tragic failures. But he did give American foreign policy a coherence and strategic purpose it has often lacked in the years since Kissinger was in office. At times he reflected an admirable sense of the proper limits of American power and sought to keep the United States from misguided commitments and unnecessary foreign adventures. Yet he also embodied a contradiction, as his preaching of limits was in tension with his own energetic search for new opportunities to assert American power. Hans Morgenthau, the legendary German analyst of international relations who preached realism in foreign policy, once characterized Kissinger as the Greek word polytropos, or “many-sided” or “of many appearances.” Morgenthau was seeking to explain his former student’s extraordinary skill as a negotiator and mediator, a “miracle worker” in the Middle East “who satisfies the interests of all within limits tolerable for all concerned, and thereby, holds out at least the promise of an end to strife.” This book recognizes the polytropos in Henry Kissinger and seeks to shed some light on the many sides of this complicated historical figure.

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