On May 27, God willing, Henry Kissinger will celebrate his 100th birthday. He has known power, riches, and tragedy during his long life. Judging by recent books and articles he has written, Kissinger’s mind still functions at a very high level even as his body necessarily weakens. He has been both a brilliant academic and a prudent policymaker, a theorist and a practitioner. And above all, Henry Kissinger, a German Jew who fled Nazi Germany (where at least 13 members of his extended family perished in the Holocaust) in 1938, has been an American patriot.
Kissinger’s patriotism first manifested itself during the Second World War when he served with the 84th Infantry Division of General William Simpson’s Ninth Army, and in November 1944 participated in the attack on Germany’s Siegfried Line. His unit crossed the Roer River in Operation Grenade in February 1945, then crossed the Rhine, and he subsequently performed counterintelligence work for which he earned the Bronze Star. These and other details of Kissinger’s army service are recounted in Niall Ferguson’s Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist, the first of a projected two-volume biography.
He once again expressed his gratitude “for having been permitted to serve the country that gave my family refuge in America’s traditional quest for a world in which the weak are secure and the just free.”
After the war, Kissinger used the G.I. Bill to attend Harvard — Columbia, Cornell, NYU, Penn, and Princeton had rejected his applications. By all accounts, Kissinger was a brilliant student and his senior thesis, which analyzed the work of Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and Immanuel Kant, foreshadowed his approach to international relations. He followed that up with his doctoral dissertation on the statesmanship of Britain’s Castlereagh and Austria’s Metternich, which was later published as A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822. Kissinger organized Harvard’s International Seminar and edited a quarterly journal called Confluence. Policymakers in Washington took notice. So, too, did Nelson Rockefeller, who wanted to be president and sought Kissinger’s advice on foreign policy issues.
Meanwhile, the Cold War was heating up in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The Eisenhower administration in an effort to keep defense expenditures as low as possible without sacrificing national security — “a bigger bang for the buck” — adopted a strategic policy of “massive retaliation” which threatened the use of nuclear weapons to deter Soviet conventional aggression. Kissinger, now a member of a Council on Foreign Relations study group, wrote his next book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, which criticized Eisenhower’s “massive retaliation” policy, discussed the notion of “limited” nuclear war, and advocated a policy of “flexible response” to Soviet aggression. More policymakers in Washington took notice, including Senator John F. Kennedy and his advisers. When Kennedy became President, his national security team hired Kissinger as a consultant to advise the administration on Germany, NATO, and developments in Southeast Asia. Kissinger continued these efforts in the Johnson administration, but also continued to advise Republican Nelson Rockefeller. Not for the last time, would Kissinger be accused of playing a “double game” with Democrats and Republicans in order to achieve his ambition of becoming a policymaker.
Kissinger’s role in the 1968 presidential election still invites controversy. He apparently provided foreign policy advice to both the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey and the Republican candidate Richard Nixon. He has been accused of leaking information to the Nixon campaign of an “October surprise” related to the Johnson administration’s proposed ceasefire in Vietnam. Nixon, according to this version of the story, then used intermediaries to persuade South Vietnamese leaders to reject a ceasefire. But as Ferguson and others have pointed out, South Vietnam’s leaders needed no persuading to reject a ceasefire that would benefit their Viet Cong and North Vietnamese enemies. It was the Johnson administration and the Humphrey campaign that attempted to use the ceasefire to influence the election to benefit Humphrey.
When Nixon won the presidency by a narrow margin in the popular vote, he tapped Kissinger — whom he did not know well — to be his National Security Adviser. Nixon was determined to run foreign policy from the White House instead of the State and Defense Departments, and in Kissinger he found both a skilled thinker and a bureaucratic manipulator that helped him achieve this goal. Kissinger was now at the very center of foreign policy decision-making. He could now translate his theories into actual policies. Thus began what Kissinger later labeled “triangular diplomacy” with the opening to China and détente with the Soviet Union. It was a strategy designed to exploit the growing dispute between China and the Soviet Union to America’s geopolitical benefit. At the same time, it was designed to further Nixon’s goal of ending the Vietnam War on honorable terms (“peace with honor”). And it worked until Watergate unraveled Nixon’s presidency.
Kissinger emerged mostly unstained by Watergate, but the power of the presidency had been diminished to such an extent that the Gerald Ford administration’s foreign policy (Kissinger served as Secretary of State) was subjected to ever greater congressional restrictions. Congress eventually cut off all aid to South Vietnam, ensuring a communist victory. Watergate and congressional Democrats doomed much of Indochina to communist rule. And the Soviets embarked on a geopolitical offensive in the mid-to-late 1970s while the Carter administration practiced a softer version of détente.
Kissinger, out of power, wrote the first two volumes of his magnificent memoirs. White House Years was released in 1979 and covered Nixon’s first term in nearly 1,500 pages. He dedicated the book to Nelson Rockefeller. Years of Upheaval appeared three years later and covered Nixon’s abbreviated second term. All memoirs are self-serving, and Kissinger’s are no exception, but what comes through in every chapter of his memoirs is his patriotism — his love of, and appreciation for, his country. This is especially so when he writes about the domestic opponents of the war in Vietnam. He lamented the “home-grown radicalism” that infested our nation’s college campuses, driven by “a vocal and at times violent minority” that blamed America for the world’s problems. And he lashed out at the foreign policy establishment that hated Nixon, accusing it of collapsing “before the onslaught of its children who questioned all [of America’s] values.” Kissinger denounced those war protesters who expressed their “hatred of America,” and who called America “evil.”
Kissinger recalled his early years in Germany, Hitler’s rise to power, and the increasing discrimination and violence toward Jews in Germany. America, he wrote, had “a wondrous quality for me” and was “an inspiration … to the victims of persecution.” “I . . . have always had a special feeling for what America means,” he wrote, “which native-born citizens perhaps take for granted.” He refused to accept the “self-hatred” he witnessed among some Americans who “took every imperfection as an excuse to denigrate a precious experiment whose significance for the rest of the world had been a part of my life.” He expressed gratitude to the country that in his view manifested “greatness … idealism … humanity,” and that embodied “mankind’s hopes.” Kissinger praised the valor and courage of the American troops in Vietnam and scorned those who called them “baby-killers.” Kissinger’s goals, he wrote, were to bring about peace with honor in Vietnam, help “my adopted country heal its wounds, preserve its faith, and thus enable it to rededicate itself to the great tasks of construction that were awaiting it.”
Kissinger recalled a lunch he hosted in the White House Situation Room with a group of Harvard professors — his former colleagues from academia. Most had been his close friends, but they were there that day to “confront” him over the “immoral” conduct of the war in Southeast Asia. Kissinger noted their “overweening righteousness” but also their refusal to offer any prudent alternatives to peace with honor. They opened wounds, Kissinger wrote, that never healed. In another instance, Kissinger met with the presidents of seven Ivy League universities at the White House who urged Kissinger to listen to the pleas of the antiwar students. “It was,” Kissinger noted, “the ultimate expression of the abdication of institutional leaders in our society, of the abasement of the middle-aged before the young, of the dismissal of rational discourse by those with the greatest stake in reason.” In the end, Kissinger wrote, “it is not possible to understand the tragedy of Vietnam without a willingness to admit that some of the best people in our country thought they could serve peace best by discrediting their own government.”
Kissinger’s expression of patriotism and his scorn for those who effectively sided with our enemies extended to the president he served. Five years after Nixon’s resignation, Kissinger refused to cede the moral high ground to Nixon’s enemies. He praised Nixon for navigating “our nation through one of the most anguishing periods in its history.” Nixon, he wrote, “had steeled himself to conspicuous acts of courage” and “had forced himself to rally his people to a sense of national honor and responsibility, determined to prove that the strongest free country in the world had no right to abdicate.”
In Years of Upheaval, Kissinger wrote about the collapse of the Vietnam peace accords which he rightly blamed on a Democratic Congress, a guilt-ridden foreign policy establishment, and a hardcore anti-war leadership that viewed America as “an evil, corrupt, militaristic capitalist system” and treated our communist enemies in Vietnam as a heroic, revolutionary, progressive movement. The most hardcore radicals viewed Hanoi’s victory as “morally desirable” and America’s humiliation “as an object lesson in the immorality of America’s postwar world leadership and as a convenient tool to demoralize the entire American Establishment — business, labor, academia, the media, Congress.”
Kissinger recounted his feelings upon being named Secretary of State in Nixon’s second term. “Thirty-five years earlier,” he wrote, “I had come to America as a refugee from persecution.” He recalled working in a “shaving-brush factory,” then joining the U.S. Army. “America,” he wrote, “had been a distant dream when as a young boy I experienced intolerance and hatred under totalitarian rule. Now I was being given the responsibility to help steer my adopted country through one of the gravest constitutional crises of its history. I felt a stirring emotion, and not a little awe.”
In writing about Nixon in the wake of Watergate, Kissinger called him a “great patriot” who “deeply believed in America’s mission to protect the world’s security and freedom.” And Kissinger expressed gratitude towards Nixon for giving him “the opportunity … to serve my country.”
It wasn’t until 1999 that Kissinger’s third and final volume of his memoirs appeared — Years of Renewal, which covered his service in the Ford administration. Like the earlier two volumes, this book logged in at more than a thousand pages. Kissinger had not been idle in the years between the second and third volumes. He had become a business consultant, founding Kissinger Associates. He was frequently consulted by Presidents of the United States and their national security teams. And he continued to write — most notably a 1994 book entitled Diplomacy, where he assessed history’s consequential diplomats and statesmen, including France’s Cardinal Richelieu, Germany’s Bismarck, Britain’s Palmerston, and Disraeli, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill and FDR, Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.
In Years of Renewal, Kissinger again expressed his admiration for Nixon, crediting him with setting the stage for America’s victory in the Cold War achieved by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. And the key component of Nixon’s contribution to our Cold War victory was the opening to China which had the effect of placing China, however temporarily, on the side of the West in its Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. Kissinger again ridiculed the self-flagellation of American liberals who, as Jeane Kirkpatrick had memorably observed, seemed always to blame America first. And he once again expressed his gratitude “for having been permitted to serve the country that gave my family refuge in America’s traditional quest for a world in which the weak are secure and the just free.”
Happy birthday, Dr. Kissinger.