Henry Kissinger was the Metternich of America, devious and conspiratorial, the architect of the United States’ détente with China, a backstage dealer with the Soviet Union on the SALT I strategic arms treaty, and negotiator of a peace agreement with Vietnam that he would privately scorn.
Kissinger lived to be 100. He died this week, still writing and trying to live down memos and remarks unveiled while he was still living – if not accountable.
He has been confronted with such statements as saying of the South Vietnamese: “If they are lucky, they can hold out for a year and a half.”
An accurate prediction. When the agreement with North Vietnam was signed, Kissinger described it as “peace with honor.”
The former Secretary of State, in the Nixon and Ford administrations, was feted in China as recently as July and photographed meeting with President Xi.
Xi has recently been facing an economic downtown and is seeking to maintain business ties with the United States. Last month in California, he held a four-hour discussion with President Biden and dinners with U.S. business leaders.
It was Kissinger, in July of 1971, who took a secret trip to Beijing to clear a path for President Richard Nixon’s trip the following February.
The U.S. president, a notorious red-baiter, was photographed in intimate conversation with Mao Zedong, walking in the Forbidden City, and attending an opera performance of “Red Detachment of Women.”
Kissinger was a German Jewish refuge from Nazi Germany, arriving on our shores at the age of fifteen. He would rise to become, for a time, the second most important person in the United States government.
He would score diplomatic breakthroughs while working with a president notorious for his antisemitic remarks.
Leslie Gelb, a future New York Times columnist, knew Kissinger from days on the Harvard faculty and described him as “devious with his peers, domineering with his subordinates and obsequious to his superiors.”
It was so in his diplomatic maneuvers. Kissinger came to fame with his 1957 book, “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,” which suggested that a tactical nuclear strike could be contained. He briefly advised President Kennedy in the early 1960s. The Harvard professor found an enduring patron in New York Governor (and future vice president) Nelson Rockefeller. He was, to his surprise, asked by President-elect Nixon to assume the role of national security adviser.
He would advise every succeeding president. After meeting with Donald Trump, Kissinger observed: “He’s not the first president I’ve advised who either didn’t understanding what I was saying or didn’t want to.” The Kissinger ego was displayed repeatedly over the years. Once, while speaking to diplomats in France, he praised the gathering as the greatest gathering of wisdom since he looked at his reflection while visiting the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
President Nixon kept power close to the vest. He cut Secretary of State William Rogers out of the picture and dealt almost exclusively with Kissinger. Eventually, Dr. K would combine the posts of national security adviser and Secretary of State. He would hang onto both during the administration of President Gerald Ford.
Transfixed with power, Kissinger had little regard for small countries or people perceived as getting in the way. Kissinger would-be a co-recipient (along with Lee Duc Tho of North Vietnam) of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.
Yet, this is the same man who urged the carpet bombing of Cambodia and Laos, staging areas for North Vietnam’s conquest of South Vietnam – we were to bomb “anything that flies and moves anywhere,” Kissinger said privately — and a man who described U.S. soldiers as “dumb stupid animals to be used.”
When Pakistani forces slaughtered 300,000 people in what is today Bangladesh but used to be called East Pakistan, the United States worked backstage to support Pakistan. President Yahya Khan had served as intermediary and facilitator of the secret 1971 trip to China. East Pakistan had had the nerve, in an election, to elect an Bengali government.
The U.S. stood by while Indonesia invaded East Timor and slaughtered people. It had elected a leftist government which the United States disapproved. The small island was treated as a pawn in great power relations.
Of most interest, the United States encouraged, and the CIA played facilitator, in the 1973 coup that toppled and assassinated Chile’s Marxist President Salvador Allende. The U.S. could not permit another perceived Soviet ally in the Western Hemisphere. The result was a quarter-century of military dictatorship.
Kissinger was quoted afterward saying the Chilean presidency was too important a matter to be decided by the Chilean people. Global power was what mattered. Early in the Nixon administration, Kissinger declared (in private): “I can’t believe any fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.”
The man was even willing to stomp on his own origins. Negotiations with the Soviet Union could not, would not, be disrupted by appeals from Soviet Jews wishing to immigrate to Israel. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” The remark was described as “truly chilling” by the American Jewish Committee.
Such statements get attributed to Kissinger’s near-consistent pandering to Nixon. The thirty-seventh president would seek him out to pray in the White House on the eve of his resignation, an episode exposed in the Woodward-Bernstein book “The Final Days.” Kissinger would later reflect of Nixon, what the man could have done “had he been loved.”
Kissinger lived more than four decades after Ford’s defeat in the 1976 presidential election. He hung up his shingle as Henry Kissinger Associates and consolidated with the high and mighty. Student protests made campus appearances dangerous. But big business wanted to hear from the big dog of the 1970s. Disney consulted Kissinger when it wanted to locate a multi-billion-dollar theme park in China.
Henry Kissinger was a formidable boss. He hired the best and the brightest to work at the National Security Council, but then ordered the FBI to spy on them. He was infuriated at such leaks as the Pentagon Papers, revealed by Daniel Ellsberg, which detailed America’s march to folly in Vietnam.
If any leaks came out of the NSC, they would come “from me,” he told aides.
The Nixon-Kissinger collaboration brought home some foreign policy triumphs. The opening to China brought cooperation and massive trade between the two countries, but threats of confrontation now that China has become the world’s second-ranking superpower. The Vietnam War came to an end after killing 58,000 Americans and an estimated three million Vietnamese.
The longstanding U.S. confrontation with the Soviet Union was downsized until the “evil empire” staggered and fell at the end of the 1980s.
Still, Kissinger trampled people and nations while big powers maneuvered for global influence. The death toll was exceedingly high and often felt hardest in such places as East Timor, East Pakistan and Chile, far from North American and European capitals. When pressed, Kissinger would speak of a world in which American was confronted with unsavory characters and thankless choices.
A New York Times obituary carries this quote: “The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.”
So did the Vietnam War, at what human cost? Interviewed by The Atlantic in 2016, President Obama reflected: “We dropped more ordinance on Cambodia and Laos than on Europe in World War II And yet, ultimately, Nixon withdrew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaughter and authoritarian governments that finally, over time, have emerged from that hell.”
“In what way did that strategy promote our interests?” Obama asked.