Kissinger: A Biography 
by Walter Isaacson.
Faber, 893 pp., £25, September 1992, 0 571 16858 2
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In a rather more judgmental time, history was sometimes written like this: ‘The evils produced by his wickedness were felt in lands where the name of Prussia was unknown; and in order that he might rob a neighbour whom he had promised to defend, black men fought on the coast of Coromandel, and red men scalped each other by the Great Lakes of North America.’ ‘Evil’? ‘Wickedness’? The ability to employ these terms without awkwardness or embarrassment has declined, while the capacity of modern statesmen to live up to them has undergone an exponential rise since Lord Macaulay so crisply profiled Frederick ‘the Great’. Walter Isaacson’s new study of Kissinger shows beyond doubt that he rose to power by intriguing for and against an ally, the South Vietnamese military junta, whom he had sworn to defend, and that in the process of covering his tracks, consolidating and extending his power and justifying his original duplicity, he was knowingly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of non-combatants in lands where his name was hitherto unknown. He also played an immense part in the debauching of democracy in the North America of his adoption.

Walter Isaacson is one of the best magazine journalists in America, but he moves in a world where the worst that is often said of some near-genocidal policy is that it sends the wrong ‘signal’. He accordingly approaches the problem of evil with some circumspection. At one point he correctly characterises the Nixon regime as ‘pathological’, and he gives us a breathtaking passage in which Nixon conspires to have Kissinger put under the care of a psychiatrist – surely the great modern instance of what pop shrinks call ‘transference’. But there is a limit, imposed by the tradition of New York-Washington ‘objectivity’, on his willingness to call things by their right names. It became very plain to me, as I finished the book, that if I were to employ the argot of popular psychology I could say that I had been reading the profile of a serial murderer.

Isaacson is probably right to begin with young Henry’s abused German-Jewish boyhood. ‘My Jew-boy’, Nixon was later to call him – at least once on the White House tapes – and it’s clear that many of Kissinger’s traits were acquired early on in Fürth. His family was one of those which did not identify with the opposition in Bavaria, preferring to stress its patriotic character, its past loyalty to the Kaiser and its deep attachment to the Kleinburger class and only when this failed choosing the option of emigration. Once across the Atlantic, young Kissinger avoided political anti-Nazi circles and only found a mentor in the shape of one Fritz Kraemer, a Spenglerian Prussian who flourished in the US Army perhaps not least because he was one of the few German exiles to criticise Hitler from the right. Isaacson’s chapter on this man, who later disowned his famous junior for his total absence of any core of principle, is unusually interesting.

Reflecting on Nazism, Kissinger placed it in the category of revolution rather than counter-revolution. Though it contained the essential doctrine of ‘order’, he identified it with disorder. He remains fond of mangling a phrase of Goethe’s to make it appear that ‘order’ is to be preferred to justice, and has made this a rationale for more than one bloodbath. A mediocre dissertation that he wrote, seeking a place for himself in the conformist Harvard of the drear Fifties, was entitled Metternich: A World Restored. In it, Kissinger wrote: ‘The deviousness of Metternich’s diplomacy had been the reflection of a fundamental certainty: that liberty was inseparable from authority, that freedom was an attribute of order.’

What causes a Jewish exile to give admiring expression to the precepts of German reactionary statecraft? We can only surmise Kissinger’s mind, as revealed again in this letter home from Germany after the war. He conveys what he considers to be the lesson of the death camps:

The intellectuals, the idealists, the men of high morals had no chance ... Having once made up one’s mind to survive, it was a necessity to follow through with a singleness of purpose, inconceivable to you sheltered people in the States. Such singleness of purpose broached [sic] no stopping in front of accepted sets of values, it had to disregard ordinary standards of morality. One could only survive through lies, tricks ...

This is fascinating. Though we know from the memoirs of survivors what is obvious – that the business of survival was a ruthless one – we also know that forms of solidarity, morality, decency and conviction were also of help both in motivating and in organising survival and resistance. How else to explain the re-emergence of a leader like Kurt Schumacher, or the mere existence of a man like my friend Dr Israel Shahak? Of matters like this, Kissinger says nothing. Yet he presumes to write as if from experience, when in fact his war had been quite a cushy one.

More than this, he writes with something like relish, as if he enjoyed imparting the brute lesson that morality and solidarity were mere feeble sentiment. This identification with the sub-Darwinist depravity of those who worshipped only ‘strength’ is unpleasant, as is the opportunity seized by Kissinger to lecture those back home on how little they knew. How often, in later years, were we to be bullied by him and by Nixon, and told that ‘sheltered people in the States’ were to be despised when great enterprises of bombing, destabilisation and secret diplomacy were on foot. It’s the unchanging, minatory rhetoric of the reactionary veteran and Freikorps man; doubly objectionable in one who had seen so little service.

Kissinger’s fear of weakness and humiliation, and his pathetic adoration of the winning or the stronger side, has an interesting counterpart in much the same period. As he was working his way into Harvard, so we learn from Isaacson,

in late-night bull-sessions, Kissinger strongly opposed the creation of Israel. ‘He said it would alienate the Arabs and jeopardise US interests. I thought it was a strange view for someone who had been a refugee from Nazi Germany,’ Herbert Engelhardt, who lived downstairs, said. ‘I got the impression that Kissinger suffered less anti-semitism in his youth than I did as a kid in New Jersey.’

Mr Engelhardt is one of those simple souls who tends to blame American-Jewish paradox on self-hatred or, like Arthur Schlesinger who – having in his time administered some wet smackeroos to the buttocks of the powerful – might be expected to know, on the ‘refugee’s desire for approval’. This is too simple. In 1989, Kissinger told a private meeting of the American Jewish leadership that the American media should be forbidden to cover the Palestinian intifada and that the rebellion itself should be put down ‘overwhelmingly, brutally and rapidly’. From being a foe of Zionism when it looked like losing in 1948, to becoming an advocate of its most racialist and absolutist application when it was a power to be reckoned with, is not second nature to Kissinger. It is his nature. There are no ironies to ponder here, unless you consider Hannibal Lecter an ironist.

The desire, or the need, for the death of better men is probably the special property of two groups – the congenitally inferior and the incurably insecure. Kissinger belongs more to the second category. It took him a while to nerve himself, but having experienced the thrill of ordering and administering murder he was unable to get his fill of it. He grew sleek and satisfied, and more confident. He began to chafe at the status of number two. He began to slather his leaden monologues with heavy, fetid innuendo about power as ‘an aphrodisiac’. He began to be gay, to be clumsily elegant – even safely and silkily indiscreet – and to seek out the salon life. Isaacson tells the story without fully intending to do so.

Take, as Kissinger had to if he was going to cut himself a path, the question of nuclear annihilation. How he strove to get it right! How he laboured to achieve the right ‘mix’ of rigour and restraint. His first book on the topic, written in 1957 (Book-of-the-Month Club choice) spoke against the dogma of ‘massive retaliation’ and inclined to the oxymoronic concept, ‘limited nuclear war’, then in favour among anti-Communist liberals. This was published by the Council on Foreign Relations. Book the second was written for Nelson Rockefeller and called for ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons. Book the third, wisely entitled The Necessity for Choice, refined the case for massive conventional war with thermonuclear options only as ‘a last resort’. In office, of course, Kissinger flung aside the mere nuclear pornography with which he had been disturbing and teasing himself, and went straight for the MIRV – a flat-out first-strike system designed for global extermination. To try and guess his work from his works, as Mr Isaacson gamely but irrelevantly does, is like poring for clues over the crabbed, cretinous scrawl of Ian Brady. Such a man needs scope. Scope! And scope is what, by relentless fawning on impressionable creatures, Henry finally got.

It’s a tale well worth the telling. When the American élite divided over the war in Vietnam, Kissinger was in a quandary. He attended numerous private, blue-chip seminars and briefings in which the war was early on recognised as lost, and added his mite of conventional sapience to the pragmatic conclusions of the wise men of the tribe. But he also saw what they had not – that there was immense political capital to be raised by a candidate who exploited the resentment engendered by defeat. (He may have had in mind the efficacy of the ‘who lost China?’ fantasy of the Fifties, but I don’t think that the ‘stab in the back’ psychosis of his German boyhood can have been far from his mind either.) At all events, the year 1968 found him advising the ruling Democrats, who had long decided to cut the losses they had inflicted on both countries, while also covertly counselling Nixon’s Republicans, who thought that perhaps both Vietnam and the United States had some lessons still to learn in the uses of pain.

The accounts are basically congruent, whether you draw them from Clark Clifford’s memoirs, Seymour Hersh’s critique, Stephen Ambrose’s judicious biography of Nixon or the recollections of Averell Harriman, Richard Holbrooke or Daniel Davidson. Mr Isaacson has added some extra but exiguous detail to the story. By shopping on both sides of the street, and betraying the side he notionally worked for, Kissinger helped the Nixon campaign in its secret effort to destabilise the Paris peace conference. He got credit for his guile from the incoming Nixonites, the South Vietnamese clients got the appearance of a better offer made sub rosa by Nixon, and the Democrats had the main plank of their re-election ripped out, by illegal covert action, on the eve of the poll. (Unbelievably, Kissinger did himself some harm as well as a bit of good by this even-handed subversion of both the Vietnam accords and the democratic process: Isaacson has later White House tapes with the pant-wetting conspirators wondering if Henry would do to them what they alone knew he did to his former Democratic confidants. But this might be described as the price of the omelette.)

There were more broken eggs than omelettes in the years to come. Having got elected on a false surreptitious promise to the Saigon regime, the Nixon-Kissinger team had to find a way of breaking said promise ‘with honour’. As a matter purely of their own face, they instigated the secret bombing of Cambodia and followed that with a coup and an invasion; they rained bombs on the centre of Hanoi during the Christmas of 1972; they caused hundreds more American prisoners of (undeclared) war to be taken, thus furnishing the last hysterical pretext for continuing the fighting, and they presided over an additional 20,552 American battlefield deaths. Of the Vietnamese casualties, one might do better not to speak. All of this in order to accept the identical conditions for withdrawal, but under less shameful and deceitful circumstances, to which Johnson and even Humphrey had been ready to accede in 1968. Quite hardened men on Kissinger’s own staff were able to see the gruesome fallacy. ‘We bombed the North Vietnamese into accepting our concessions,’ drily remarked John Negroponte, a rough-stuff artist if ever there was one and a veteran of Cambodia and later of Honduras. (Mr Negroponte was to offer his resignation from Kissinger’s team a few years later over the Cyprus crisis. I once asked a close relative of his what had sickened such a strong stomach. ‘Because,’ he replied after a silence, ‘everything you suspected was true.’ But I’m moving ahead of the story.)

So many of the professional foreign policy establishment, and so many of their hangers-on among the lumpen academics and journalists, had become worried by the frenzy and paranoia of the Nixonian Vietnam policy that consensus itself was threatened. Ordinary intra-mural and extra-mural leaking, to such duly constituted bodies as Congress, was getting out of hand. It was Kissinger who inaugurated the second front or home front of the war; illegally wiretapping the telephones even of his own staff and of his journalistic clientele. (I still love to picture the face of Henry Brandon when he found out what his hero had done to his telephone.) This war against the enemy within was the genesis of Watergate; a nexus of high crime and misdemeanour for which Kissinger himself, as Isaacson wittily points out, largely evaded blame by taking to his ‘shuttle’ and staying airborne. Incredibly, he contrived to argue in public with some success that if it were not for democratic distempers like the impeachment process his own selfless, necessary statesmanship would have been easier to carry out. This is true, but not in the way that he got newspapers like Rees-Mogg’s Times to accept.

Of what had this diplomacy consisted? Mr Isaacson describes Kissinger as ‘an enabler for the dark side of Nixon’s personality, someone who joined in his backbiting, flattered his ideals and never pushed him into a corner’. ‘Enabler’ is a weak word in the contemporary language of shrinkery and dependency. I began by saying that Kissinger demonstrated the profile of a serial killer. Let me make that case, seriatim.

1. Bangladesh. Often forgotten, but actually marking the inauguration of the puerile term ‘tilt’ to describe an abrupt change of policy or allegiance. In 1971, while still engaged in a war for his own and Nixon’s faces in Indo-China, Kissinger overrode all advice in order to support the Pakistani generals in both their civilian massacre policy in East Bengal and their armed attack on India from West Pakistan. In both theatres, this led to a moral and political catastrophe the effects of which are still sorely felt. Kissinger’s undisclosed reason for the ‘tilt’ was the supposed but never materialised ‘brokerage’ offered by the dictator Yahya Khan in the course of secret diplomacy between Nixon and China. Often credited with that rapprochement, Nixon and Kissinger only acted, as in Vietnam, in the ways they accused their opponents and critics of being unpatriotic for recommending. (Also see under Tiananmen.) Of the new state of Bangladesh, Kissinger remarked coldly that it was ‘a basket case’ before turning his unsolicited expertise elsewhere.

2. Chile. As Isaacson reminds us (though in very lenient terms and mostly en passant), Kissinger had direct personal knowledge of the CIA’s plan to kidnap and murder General René Schneider, the head of the Chilean Armed Forces and a man who refused to countenance military intervention in politics. In his hatred for the Allende Government, Kissinger even outdid Richard Helms of the CIA, who warned him that a coup in such a stable democracy would be hard to procure. The murder of Schneider nonetheless went ahead, at Kissinger’s urging and with American financing, just between Allende’s election and his confirmation by the Chilean Congress. This was one of the relatively few times that Mr Kissinger (his success in getting people to call him ‘Doctor’ is greater than that of most PhDs) involved himself in the assassination of a single named individual rather than the slaughter of anonymous thousands. His jocular remark on this occasion – ‘I don’t see why we have to let a country go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible’ – suggests he may have been having the best of times. Another occasion of his intimate involvement in the minutiae of conspiracy took place in the case of:

3. Cyprus. Deplorably seconding Kissinger’s decision to omit discussion of this lethal episode from his own memoirs, Isaacson does not discuss the 1974 disaster at all. However, it can be and has been shown that Kissinger approved of the preparations by Greek Cypriot fascists for the murder of President Makarios, and sanctioned the coup which tried to extend the rule of the Athens junta (a favoured client of his) to the island. When despite great waste of life this coup failed in its objective, which was also Kissinger’s, of enforced partition, Kissinger promiscuously switched sides to support an even bloodier intervention by Turkey. Thomas Boyatt, who was then State Department Cyprus desk officer, has since told me that he went to Kissinger in advance of the anti-Makarios putsch and warned him that it could lead to a civil war. ‘Spare me the civics lecture,’ replied Kissinger, who as you can readily see had an aphorism for all occasions.

4. Kurdistan. Having endorsed the covert policy of supporting a Kurdish revolt in northern Iraq between 1974 and 1975, with ‘deniable’ assistance also provided by Israel and the Shah of Iran, Kissinger made it plain to his subordinates that the Kurds were not to be allowed to win, but were to be employed for their nuisance value alone. They were not to be told that this was the case, but soon found out when the Shah and Saddam Hussein composed their differences, and American aid to Kurdistan was cut off. Hardened CIA hands went to Kissinger and asked at least for an aid programme for the many thousands of Kurdish refugees who were thus abruptly created. On this occasion, the aperçu of the day was: ‘foreign policy should not he confused with missionary work.’ Saddam Hussein heartily concurred.

5. East Timor. The day after Kissinger left Djakarta in 1975, the Armed Forces of Indonesia employed American weapons to invade and subjugate the independent former Portuguese colony of East Timor. Isaacson gives a figure of 100,000 deaths resulting from the occupation, or one-seventh of the population, and there are good judges who put this estimate on the low side. Kissinger was furious when news of his own collusion was leaked, because as well as breaking international law the Indonesians were also violating an agreement with the United States. In the minutes, he is confronted by State Department legal adviser Monroe Leigh, who points out this awkward latter fact. Kissinger snapped: ‘The Israelis when they go into Lebanon – when was the last time we protested that?’ A good question, even if it did not and does not lie especially well in his mouth.

It goes on and on and on until one cannot eat enough to vomit enough. Angola: incite the Zaireans to invade and give a nod to South African intervention. Portugal: summon Mario Soares and bully him about being ‘a Kerensky’. The Iran-Iraq war: the policy of the United States should be that ‘we wish they could both lose’ – which meant sending arms and intelligence to both to keep the pot boiling. A striking recent instance, discussed in some detail by Isaacson, is Kissinger’s policy towards the dictatorship in Beijing. The day after the cleansing of Tiananmen Square in June 1989, Kissinger was respectfully interviewed for his response and surprised at least some people by counselling a policy of ‘do nothing’. When Congress voted some minor sanctions against Beijing, he became even more eloquent and ‘realistic’, saying that Deng’s regime had opened fire ‘in reaction to events entirely within its domestic jurisdiction’ (a condescension he had not extended to Allende) and adding, with the instinctive solidarity of one autocrat for another: ‘No government in the world would have tolerated having the main square of its capital occupied for eight weeks by tens of thousands of demonstrators.’ (Lucky he wasn’t retained by the East German or Czech authorities a few months later.)

It came out, of course, that Kissinger was at that time privily advising Atlantic Richfield, ITT, H.J. Heinz and others on their investments in China, and had succeeded in arranging many ‘facilitating’ meetings in Beijing for other like-minded American executives. When the Wall Street Journal printed this intelligence, there were two sorts of reaction. The first, unsubtle one was that our Henry was on the take. The second, expressed by that normally cynical gentleman Stephen Solarz, then Congressman from Brooklyn, was that Kissinger always supported dictatorship whether he stood to turn a buck or not. Obviously the second view was the deep one. Since leaving active politics, Kissinger had been looking bored and ill, as if cut off from his death-support machine. He had made the occasional foray; warning that nuclear vigilance was even more necessary in the face of Gorbachev, for example, and memorably confiding his ‘worry’ that the United States would shrink from bombing Iraq. He had helped in the lowly task of briefing Dan Quayle for his Vice-Presidential debate. So here was a small chance to take part in something not for the squeamish.

There have, of course, been brutal and cynical statesmen in the past. But they were generally statesmen – Talleyrand and Bismarck come to mind – who could show something for the exercise of realpolitik. Will anyone say what Kissinger’s achievement was? Will anyone point to a country, not excluding his own, which is in the slightest degree ameliorated by his attention? And the old ‘realists’, of Vienna and Locarno and Yalta, though they may have looked at nations and peoples and borders as disposable and dispensable, did not axiomatically confuse crudeness and brutality with strength and (a significant Kissinger favourite) ‘will’. They did not reach hungrily for the homicidal, self-destructive solution.

The masochism of the press in all this has been contemptible, and it forms a sort of repulsive minor theme of Isaacson’s book. There have been other war criminals, law-breakers, phoneys and pathological liars during the long decline of the Empire and the Cold War, but they haven’t had their memoirs ghost-written by Harold Evans, their consultancy retained by ABC News and their columns syndicated across the qualities. They haven’t been met, at every airport lounge, with an orgy of sycophancy and a chorus of toadying, complicit mirth at every callous, mendacious jest (Kissinger, I have noticed, loves and needs the sound of nervous laughter). This power-worship and celeb fetishism extends through the media into the dingy world of Oscar ‘de la’ Renta and the designer nonentities of New York and Hollywood with whom Kissinger likes to be seen and who – bored, listless drifters that they are – like to be seen with him. Airhead television presenters like Diane Sawyer, conceited media-traders like Mortimer Zuckerman, salon-voiders like the Podhoretzes – you would need to be a spaced-out Visconti to capture the sinister tackiness of it all. These types seek the same rush as did Kissinger in his search for contact with the authentic thrill of death, and they exhibit the same spoiled, narcissistic contempt for democracy as something weak and inadequate. I wasn’t surprised, though I was gratified, to have one of my old guesses confirmed by Isaacson, who is first-rate on Kissinger’s social register. He may have taken out a dozen or so starlets in order to boost ugly over-priced restaurants and provide a few photo-opportunities. But no business resulted. In his little nest in Rock Creek Park: ‘The only decorative elements, other than books piled about, were pictures of Kissinger with a wide variety of foreign officials ... The bare room had two twin beds, one of them used as a laundry dump. A woman who stole a glance later reported that socks and underwear were scattered about and the mess “had so repulsive an aspect that it was hard to imagine anyone living there ... ” The dirty little secret about Kissinger’s relationship with women was that there was no dirty little secret.’ Repress the pang of pity. Recall what was said by James Schlesinger, former Secretary of Defence and yet another betrayed colleague: ‘Henry enjoys the complexity of deviousness. Other people when they lie look ashamed. Henry does it with style.’

All over today’s Washington there are men – Robert McNamara, William Colby of the CIA, George Ball of the State Department – who have written memoirs and given interviews which try to atone for past crimes and blunders. Kissinger, no doubt, would regard even the smallest exercise in atonement as sickly. When criticised, as in this book or in earlier work by Seymour Hersh, he reacts with great displays of rage and petulance. It is evident that he cannot allow any reconsideration of his own monstrous greatness. This may be a sign of instability rather than arrogance. Should we then say that he is ‘in deep denial’? It would be more direct to say that Kissinger was the Albert Speer rather than the Adolf Eichmann of the crimes against humanity that he assisted in perpetrating, but that he lacked Speer’s readiness to apologise. Nor, it must be recorded, was any attempt made to exact such a reckoning. That’s not Isaacson’s fault, but he has nonetheless written the biography of a murderer and largely left out the standpoint of the victims. So here we are again, invited to consider Kissinger as an essay in chiaroscuro, and not to make ourselves ill with the reflection of how many good people had to die so that such a man might prosper, and complain about profiles and book reviews, and remain ‘controversially’ in our midst.

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Vol. 14 No. 22 · 19 November 1992

It is fortunate that one of the contributors to your 22 October issue, Sherry Turkle, is psycho-literate and so able to describe correctly the phenomenon of ‘projection’: ‘we reassure ourselves that we are not X by placing the label on someone else.’ Christopher Hitchens cites the bizarre conspiracy conceived by Richard Nixon to have Henry Kissinger placed under the care of a psychiatrist as an instance of precisely this psychological process. Sadly, he spoils the story by misnaming it ‘transference’, which is, of course, something quite different altogether.

Tony Heal
London SE23

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