Magazine July 6, 2020, Issue

Henry Kissinger and the Way of the World

Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger attends the American Academy’s award ceremony at Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, Germany, January 21, 2020. (Annegret Hilse/Reuters)
The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World, by Barry Gewen (W. W. Norton, 480 pp., $30)

The Inevitability of Tragedy sits in judgment on Henry Kissinger. The opening page goes straight to the point as Barry Gewen recalls a dinner he shared not so long ago with an unnamed friend who in the course of a discussion about foreign affairs leaned across the table and hissed, “Barry, Henry Kissinger is evil.”

Kissinger has not held public office since 1977. Many, perhaps most, Americans are not much bothered with foreign policy anyhow and may well have little or no idea who he is, never mind what he might or might not have done for them when he was secretary of state. The way of the world is — and has always been — for monarchs and their servants to advance their national interest by all means at their disposal. President Nixon was one such monarch and Kissinger one such servant. Whole ranks of the customary opinion-mongers hold that Kissinger resorted to power at the expense of compromise, and rival but bizarrely identical ranks hold that he resorted to compromise at the expense of power. Uncalled-for force is immoral and uncalled-for compromise is feeble. Either way, the United States is perceived as a wrongdoer, public opinion is debased, and the national interest irredeemably harmed.

Détente with the Soviet Union was a policy of compromise whose function was open to rational argument. Armed support of South Korea in its resistance to Communist North Korea was a policy of force whose function was also open to rational argument. It is a mark of these times that even people of intelligence are so easily willing to confuse success and failure. An outstanding example of the consequent irrationality is the polemic The Trial of Henry Kissinger, written by Christopher Hitchens, a commentator influential in his lifetime. The mere sequence of events was enough to make him propose putting Kissinger on trial just as Hitler’s henchmen were, “for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offenses against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap and torture.” Black farce has also been an outcome. Once when Kissinger was in Paris, gendarmes came to his hotel at midnight and he was obliged to take refuge in the American embassy to avoid arrest and trial.

Kissinger speaks for himself, of course, and has done so in a good many volumes with hundreds of pages in each of them, all in prose of an almost Churchillian authority. The Kissinger Transcripts, a collection from the National Security Archive published in 1999, is an object lesson in international diplomacy that deserves to stand next to Carl von Clausewitz’s object lesson in warfare. The eminent historian Niall Ferguson has published the first volume of Kissinger’s authorized biography, so detailed and thorough that the finished work looks set to be received opinion for generations to come. The Inevitability of Tragedy fills the interim. A journalist on the staff of the New York Times, Barry Gewen is no respecter of fame; he sees fit to portray Kissinger as the “squat owlish professor with the kinky hair and sallow complexion.” Several times he accuses Kissinger of arrogance, adding that he “knew how to seduce and deceive,” with the result that “nobody ever claimed that Henry Kissinger was straightforward.”

In post-1945 Europe, the Communist Parties of Greece and Yugoslavia, France and Italy, were preparing to take power in their respective countries, with violence if necessary. Free elections in 1946 brought the Communist Party to power in Czechoslovakia. If one could fall, it was feared, all would fall, and in any case the Soviet bloc was here to stay. The Cold War was shaped by the sense that the Soviet Union was playing by new rules that the West would have to adopt in order to survive. “I don’t see why we have to stand by and watch a country go Communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.” This quotation from Kissinger in 1970 is the heart of the matter. The underlying assumption is that everyone everywhere values democracy above all other systems and would wish it for their own nation. The paradox arises that democracy may be introduced, sustained, defended, and enlarged by undemocratic means, including coups and invasions. To borrow from a famous phrase, it might inescapably involve going abroad in search of monsters to destroy. “Without a moral component,” Gewen makes the point, “foreign policy could be a rotten, blood-drenched business.”

In the case of Chile, Gewen says rather blankly that Kissinger was “pulling the strings” and quotes a remark of his, ambiguous in the context, that “covert operations have their philosophical and practical difficulties and especially for America.” The Soviets were busy disposing of Western sympathizers anywhere in Europe where they had control, and the United States and Britain were busy disposing of Soviet sympathizers in their sphere. Jacobo Árbenz was removed from office in Guatemala and Mohammed Mossadegh from office in Iran. In the 1973 coup in Chile, Salvador Allende paid with his life for allying with Fidel Castro, who, in spite of various Western moves against him, remained a Soviet apologist in office in Cuba till the end of his life and the Soviet Union was no more.

Garrulous at the best of times and a talented hair-splitter, Gewen enhances what he says about Kissinger with a great deal of digression and distraction. He discusses the political history and social composition of Chile from the mid 19th century onward. Kissinger was born and brought up in Germany. A chapter of nearly 50 pages is ostensibly about the life that the Kissinger parents and their two sons led in the Thirties, but much of it concentrates on Hitler’s character and the complex political process that brought him to power. It was not Nazi doctrine that convinced the Germans to back the new regime. Quite simply, “Hitler told people what they wanted to hear,” or as Gewen also expresses it, “His strategy of using democratic means to achieve undemocratic ends had worked.” It is implicit that this is the very thing that Kissinger has been up to. 

The account of Kissinger making his way is conventional enough. The young, somewhat discomforted immigrant evolves in the war into a sergeant in American uniform, who evolves into a Harvard professor, who evolves into someone who takes a week deciding whether or not he will work with President Nixon, who evolves into a world-class statesman. With or without relevance, Gewen compares and contrasts Kissinger with three of his contemporaries, Hans Morgenthau, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt. Refugees in the United States, all four were German Jews, though their identification with Judaism and Zionism was variable, usually responding to anti-Semitism. It fell to Kissinger to negotiate the end of the 1973 war between Israel and Egypt. In what might have proved an acute crisis of conscience, he preferred the interests of the United States to those of Israel. Unusual for him, Gewen is silent on that whole issue. 

The chapter about Strauss and Arendt broaches a pattern of relationships that are surprising but sometimes only coincidental to Kissinger. In the Thirties, Strauss considered Martin Heidegger, the philosopher and rector of Freiburg University, “the only great thinker in our time.” Heidegger joined the Nazi Party, momentarily backpedaled, but never recanted, speaking as late as 1953 of “the inner truth and greatness of national socialism.” Also in the Thirties, his student Hannah Arendt had an affair with him, which she resumed after the war in the full knowledge of his Hitlerite sympathies. Attending the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, the organizer of the Holocaust, I saw for myself that her phrase qualifying mass murder as “the banality of evil” had neither truth nor conscience about it. In word and deed, even in body language, Eichmann was obviously an exceptional monster.

Hans Morgenthau taught political science at the University of Chicago. He felt like a brother to Kissinger, who repaid the compliment by calling him “loveable” and “noble.” Mutual admiration took a turn for the worse with the Vietnam War. What it came down to, according to Morgenthau, was that the war was between incompatible cultures and therefore unwinnable. A prolific writer and a willing speaker, Morgenthau was at the head of the anti-war movement, a Pied Piper of protest especially on the campus, more or less the antithesis of Kissinger and praised by Gewen as “percipient but also heroic.”  

Ho Chi Minh was another making his country play by Soviet rules. The Vietnamese people had no say in the matter; it was their turn to be obliged to be irresponsible, and the neighbors did not have long to wait before their turn came too. As predicted, one would fall and then all would fall. But events have shown that national character is more constant, stronger, and more definitive, more historic even, than winning or losing a war. It is of course tragic to have museums filled with mementos of horror and still no democracy or freedom for the individual. It is the way of the world. One particular statement of Kissinger’s captured Gewen’s imagination: “Nothing is more difficult for Americans to understand than the possibility of tragedy.” Perhaps the moral of the story is that Barry Gewen could and should be more judicious about those with whom he dines.

This article appears as “The Way of the World” in the July 6, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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