The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World 
by Barry Gewen.
Norton, 452 pp., £22.99, April 2020, 978 1 324 00405 9
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Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography 
by Thomas Schwartz.
Hill and Wang, 548 pp., £27.99, September 2020, 978 0 8090 9537 7
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Whenfamily and friends of Christopher Hitchens periodically tried to persuade him to temper his unhealthy lifestyle, they used to point out how awful it would be if Henry Kissinger outlived him. Hitchens spent years pursuing Kissinger in print – and sometimes in person – for his assorted war crimes. He wanted to see him prosecuted at The Hague. Failing that, wouldn’t it be worth forgoing the odd drink or cigarette in order to be able to dance on the old monster’s grave? Apparently not. Hitchens died in 2011, aged 62, ten years after he had published The Trial of Henry Kissinger (an event that never happened). The subject of that book was 77 when it appeared, 88 when its author died, and is 97 now. Still the books keep coming. This latest pair, by Barry Gewen and Thomas Schwartz, have moved beyond outrage to something more like bafflement, tinged with affection. Each begins with an effective admission of authorial uncertainty: why, they ask, am I writing about Henry Kissinger, when so much has been written already? The answer is because he tantalises them, suggesting a mystery that remains unsolved. What did he have that all the others didn’t? What was his secret?

Part of the answer is self-fulfilling. These books ask why people are still writing about a man who left public office more than forty years ago and has been burnishing his legend ever since, while making a lot of money on the side. Surely there must be more to his celebrity than simply a prodigious appetite for it? Kissinger lost his job as secretary of state in January 1977, on Jimmy Carter’s arrival in the White House. Before that he had been one of the most famous men in the world, repeatedly on the cover of Time and Newsweek, and in one red-letter week in 1972 fronting both magazines at the same time. In June 1974, two months before Watergate drove his boss Richard Nixon from office, Newsweek portrayed Kissinger as ‘Super K’ in full hero outfit, muscles rippling, cape swirling. He knew it was too good to last: those whom the gods wish to destroy they first dress up as Superman. Gewen describes the absurdity of peak Kissinger in the first months of 1974: ‘In its irrational exuberance it had all the permanence of a Tulip Mania or some other financial bubble.’ But though Kissinger’s popularity dipped during the Ford administration, the bubble never quite burst.

It was always claimed by his enemies that only Kissinger’s limpet-like attachment to presidential power accounted for his extraordinary cachet. Yet when he left office his pull was barely diminished. During the decade that followed, his was still the third most cited name in the American press, behind Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Taylor. He went on to advise presidents of all stripes, commanded huge fees on Wall Street, was lionised in China and feted by publishers. This has continued into his late nineties. Kissinger has always liked to draw a historical parallel from the first half of the 20th century; one of his mantras for new political figures who burst brightly on the scene was: ‘Don’t be a Kerensky!’ Alexander Kerensky was the leader of the February Revolution in 1917 and briefly the darling of the democratic world until the Bolsheviks consigned him to the dustbin of history nine months later. He spent the last 53 years of his life eking out a living as a political commentator and public intellectual in Paris and New York, winding up at the Hoover Institution in Stanford. Isn’t Kissinger a Kerensky? Yes and no. It’s true that half of Kissinger’s life has been spent trading off his reputation. But what a trade it’s been – as though Kerensky had managed to parlay his short ascendancy into Hollywood fame, New York money and global influence.

What did Kissinger do in power that has given him such an extraordinary afterlife? He was a consummate showman, a master of the on-the-record and the off-the-record briefing, a darling of the paparazzi, as comfortable in a Tehran nightclub as he was at a Washington summit and likely to be photographed attending both. But is showmanship really enough? In a recent essay in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik described the three sides of Abraham Lincoln’s political personality: Barnum Lincoln, who knew how to put on a gaudy performance; Bardo Lincoln, who knew how to commune with the dead; and Wigwam Lincoln, who knew how to nab a presidential nomination. The showman, the philosopher, the operator. It is exceptionally rare to be the triple threat. Kissinger was no Lincoln. But these two books disagree as to the talents that underlay his ascendancy. According to Gewen, it was Kissinger’s intimate familiarity with European political thought that gave him his heft. Deep down he was a tragic thinker. For Schwartz, it is Kissinger’s skill in hand-to-hand political combat, whether in the West Wing or on his endless rounds of shuttle diplomacy. Deep down he was a master manipulator. Yet, finishing these books, I find it hard not to wonder if it wasn’t all just a show.

Gewen seeks a context for Kissinger’s political outlook in the writings of three fellow Jewish-European émigrés to the US, who shared his sense of the impermanence of security, instilled by their experience of fascism: Leo Strauss, who sought wisdom in the esoteric ideas of elite statesmen; Hannah Arendt, who wanted to anchor politics in the creativity of human action; and Kissinger’s friend and rival Hans Morgenthau, who hoped to underpin international relations with a realist understanding of national self-interest (the two men fell out over the Vietnam War, which Kissinger prosecuted while trying to end it, and Morgenthau came to believe was a betrayal of American interests). But it is another European writer – a visitor to America rather than an émigré – who seems to have had the greatest influence on Kissinger. Alexis de Tocqueville saw American democracy as a combination of short-term instability and long-term durability: chaotic on the surface, immensely powerful underneath. He was also scathing about the ability of democratic politicians to conduct diplomacy, given the pressures they were under to play to the gallery. He thought foreign affairs were best left to those of a more aristocratic temperament, whether actual aristocrats or simply those of an elite turn of mind (luckily for Tocqueville he happened to be both).

Kissinger was born without elite privileges. His father, Louis, was a Jewish schoolteacher in Bavaria, who hoped things might still turn out OK even after Hitler came to power. He fled to America with his family in 1938 when that proved a terrible miscalculation. His older son, Heinz – who, aged 15, became Henry on the family’s arrival in New York – never forgot the lesson. Kissinger rose by his own efforts, working in a shaving brush factory during the day, studying accountancy by night at the City College of New York. The army was the making of him: recruited to military intelligence, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was the chief administrator of the city of Krefeld during the American advance into Germany in 1945. He was just 21. After the war Kissinger went to Harvard, and ended up with a PhD (on Castlereagh and Metternich). He had none of Tocqueville’s intellectual distance from American life. America was his home. But Kissinger did share Tocqueville’s sense that American democracy had two faces, which should be considered separately. In its everyday functioning it was trivial and often hopelessly myopic. ‘No one thinks further ahead than the next minute,’ Kissinger liked to complain – a line that could have been lifted straight from Democracy in America. At the same time he recognised the extraordinary strength granted by America’s natural advantages and by what he believed was the good sense of its people. He had little faith in its democratic institutions but great confidence in the unpretentious instincts of its solid citizens – ‘the silent majority’, as Nixon was to call them.

Once Kissinger became Nixon’s national security adviser, and later secretary of state, he used this outlook to take an exceptional, and convenient, amount of political licence. In this respect he was certainly no Kerensky, who had demonstrated a naive faith in the aptitude of a democracy to take difficult decisions, especially in wartime. Kissinger’s attitude was far more Leninist. He placed himself not in the vanguard of a proletariat that had power but didn’t know how to use it, but in the vanguard of Middle America. Unelected and unaccountable to anyone but the presidents he served, he claimed to speak for people who were unable to speak for themselves. This meant he didn’t need to tell them what he was up to. The bombing of Cambodia in 1969 – one of the crimes for which Hitchens wanted him prosecuted – was ‘undertaken in secret from the American people’, Schwartz says, ‘in order to preserve their honour’. If Kissinger had let on about what he was doing, the superficial side of American democracy – its grandstanding politicians and whining press – might have tried to rein him in. Far better just to get on with it and have the people thank him later. His approach helps explain the great affinity he felt for China’s communist leadership, and they for him: each saw in the other a determination to take the long view, a contempt for the scattergun workings of democratic institutions, and a deep level of comfort with highly concentrated political power. Kissinger’s disdain for democracy in practice, while he paid lip-service to its values in principle, also gave him an easy get-out when things went wrong. Appearing before a Senate Committee in 1975 to explain why the US had been driven out of Saigon so ignominiously, he knew exactly where to lay the blame. As he told his aides afterwards, ‘I said 25 times it was Congress’s fault!’ The elected politicians had denied him the money he needed to get the job done, which in this case had meant propping up the deeply corrupt South Vietnamese regime long enough to allow the US to get out with its dignity intact. Apparently only Kissinger understood how important America’s dignity was. America’s democratic politicians were too busy bickering to notice.

Sometimes he went too far in explaining how things were meant to work. In a notorious interview with the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in the run-up to the 1972 presidential election, he said the key to his ‘movie star status’ was that ‘I’ve always acted alone. Americans like that immensely. Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse.’ It turned out that Americans didn’t much like having the cowboy take time out to tell them how great he was. But mostly he got away with it. After Nixon’s resignation in 1974, polls showed that for the second consecutive year Kissinger was America’s most admired man, judged by 85 per cent of Americans to be doing a ‘splendid job’. On a trip to Moscow later that year, Schwartz writes, Kissinger told Brezhnev that his personal popularity was at 80 per cent, ‘which is extraordinary for a non-elected official’. ‘Or an elected official,’ Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the US and long-time Kissinger fan, ‘chimed in to say, adding, without any evident scepticism: “number one in history”.’

This, of course, was the point: it was far easier for a non-elected official to stay above the fray, especially when all the public saw of him was his jet-setting, his wise-cracking and his countless TV appearances with deferential interviewers. Earlier in 1974, after the Opec oil embargo had really started to bite, Kissinger boasted privately to the deputy national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft: ‘If I was the president I would tell the Arabs to shove their oil and tell the Congress we will have rationing rather than submit.’ But he wasn’t the president, so he never had to consider what such a policy might do to his personal ratings.

The real problem with Kissinger’s approach was not so much its arrogance as its fundamental incoherence. By insisting that America was both deeply vulnerable in the short term and immensely powerful in the long run, he had a justification for everything. If he needed to cut and run, he could argue it was because America’s politicians didn’t have the requisite grit. If he needed to dig in, it was because only he knew how things would pan out in the end. During the dog days of the Vietnam War he was worried the North Vietnamese would ‘try to wait us out’, knowing that American public opinion was likely to lose patience. He concluded it was essential to project strength through massively enhanced bombing campaigns, to demonstrate that the US had the stomach for the fight. He did this precisely because he believed the US might not have the stomach for the fight. At the same time, he argued that American interests were ultimately best served by ending the war and concentrating on more important battles, including the pursuit of détente with the Soviets. But that meant the US should not appear to be pulling out, in case it looked as though short-term anxieties had prevailed. This produced the Dr Strangelove philosophy of withdrawal through escalation and the policy of the ‘decent interval’ before defeat: a war lost, but lost slowly and painfully enough that no one would think America’s allies had been abandoned in a panic. It was smoke and mirrors. Morgenthau said of Kissinger’s approach that any loss of prestige from a withdrawal was a ‘matter for speculation’, whereas the loss of prestige from pursuing the war was a ‘matter of fact’. In truth, all talk of national honour was speculative. The realists were making it up as they went along.

Kissinger could never quite decide whether what really mattered in diplomacy was the mask or what lay behind the mask. He disdained his colleagues’ obsession with personalities, insisting that only someone with an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work could read the room. At the same time he often claimed that he alone could forge the personal relationships on which any successful negotiation depended. He thought he could put people at their ease while putting them on notice that he understood what they were up to. He believed in the fundamentals of international order: money, military might, hard-won alliances, the unsentimental currency of the balance of power. Yet he also insisted that ‘the appearance [of power] is frequently its essential reality.’ He liked to create the impression that his levity was a front for a level of insight that would otherwise be overwhelming. Nixon said to Mao of Kissinger’s reputation as a playboy: ‘Anyone who uses pretty girls as a cover must be the greatest diplomat of all time.’ And anyone who believed that would believe anything. Of Kissinger’s press conferences, during which he charmed hard-bitten journalists with his hints at the high dramas behind the scenes, one critic commented: ‘It was as if he were in a Hasty Pudding production called “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Diplomacy but Were Too Afraid to Ask”.’ Having it both ways was his greatest gift. He was forever indicating that international politics was too complicated for anyone else to understand, yet it was only he who could communicate to a wider public what it was all about.

Gewen argues that deep insecurities lay behind Kissinger’s own masked existence, connected with his childhood experiences in Nazi Germany. He was haunted by the knowledge of how quickly apparent certainties could evaporate, and order could descend into chaos. This gave him a perpetual sense of gloomy distance from those around him. ‘Americans,’ Kissinger said, ‘find it difficult to comprehend a policy conducted with a premonition of catastrophe.’ It seems likely, however, that his real nightmare was shared by many Americans in the 1960s and beyond: nuclear annihilation. He insisted that his primary goal was always to minimise the risk of nuclear war. In that context, the constant chopping and changing made a certain kind of sense. Kissinger knew that as long as the talking continued, the bombing hadn’t started yet. One of the reasons he was so averse to being pinned down was his fear that any decisive outcome was also an opportunity to stop jostling for advantage and to start brooding on revenge. ‘Victories and defeats,’ as John Stoessinger put it, summarising Kissinger’s thinking, ‘merely lead to other wars. Only a settlement without victory or defeat could lead to stability.’ Talk of national honour was a useful holding device, because honour could never be satisfied: it always needed burnishing. That meant Kissinger had to be on permanent standby to jump on yet another plane and weigh into yet another international dispute, since you never knew when America’s interests might be put in jeopardy by someone else’s war. He had a habit of hyperbole, endlessly insisting that the next crisis, wherever it happened to be, ‘would determine our world role for decades to come’. There was never any profound philosophical insight behind these grandiose claims. They were simply an acknowledgment that in a world armed to the teeth, where everyone is feeling in the dark, it is better to keep going. The only alternative is to stop.

Gewen characterises Kissinger’s outlook as ‘pessimistic (and exhausting) realism’. The word in brackets is the one that counts. Kissinger’s primary political resource was his stamina, rather than his intelligence or his Machiavellian ruthlessness. He kept going longer than anyone else. He travelled further, partied harder, stayed up later and briefed more relentlessly. He was a surprisingly good listener as well as a good talker, known for his willingness to hear out long harangues from statesmen used to receiving no comeback, and still he came back for more. He had an instinctive understanding of flattery and a willingness to endure abuse from those on whom he depended. He listened to hour after hour of Nixon’s antisemitic tirades, sometimes delivered as if he’d forgotten that he was talking to a Jew, and sometimes fully conscious of it. Kissinger limited himself to saying in response, ‘Well, Mr President, there are Jews and then there are Jews,’ though he later told a journalist: ‘You can’t begin to imagine how much antisemitism there is at the top of this government.’ In many ways he was a natural courtier, forever setting more store by the country’s dignity than his own.

Mary Wollstonecraft understood the relationship between tyrants and their courts in primarily sexual terms. As with the relations between men and women, no one could be honest about the power dynamic at work. There was always a tendency for thwarted passion to be dressed up as though it were reasonable, and for cold reason to pass itself off as the expression of heightened emotion. Kissinger was the master of this game. His days seem to have been shot through with sexual tension and barely concealed emotional distress. Whenever he felt personally slighted he would marshal all the supposedly impartial evidence at his disposal to attack his enemies – what Schwartz calls ‘Cold War exaggerations covering up bureaucratic manoeuvring’. Whenever he wanted to outflank his enemies he would accuse them of jealousy and amour propre. If that didn’t work, he would tell the president they had lost their minds. When the South Vietnamese leader, Nguyen Van Thieu, tried in 1972 to block Kissinger’s latest peace initiative with the North, he raged in the Oval Office: ‘Thieu is an unmitigated, selfish, psychopathic son of a bitch. He has to be insane.’ (This, remember, is the man whose regime Kissinger wanted to prop up for the sake of American honour.) After Nixon’s overwhelming victory in that year’s presidential election, Kissinger told his boss that Thieu was ‘80 per cent’ of the problem, but that was something they could not publicly acknowledge. ‘The onus for blocking a deal,’ Gewen writes, ‘had to be directed at North Vietnam.’ ‘I have come to the reluctant conclusion that we’ve got to put it to them in Hanoi, painful as it is,’ Kissinger informed Nixon on 14 December. The result was the brutal ‘Christmas bombing’ campaign unleashed on the North a few days later. The New York Times columnist James Reston called it ‘war by tantrum’. He wasn’t wrong.

While​ Kissinger was playing his geopolitical love games in the White House, the wider world watched with a mixture of amusement, admiration and horror as he squired a succession of beautiful women in public. Along with being America’s most celebrated diplomat, he was also its unlikeliest sex symbol. The jowly and growly Kissinger became a byword for the aphrodisiac effects of power. He played up to it. When the Ford administration’s budget cuts forced him to take commercial flights rather than presidential planes, he told the press he was happy to make the switch: ‘There are no air stewardesses on Air Force One.’ What a card! But the womanising, too, seems to have been just for show. One biographer described his home as exhibiting ‘the décor of an early Holiday Inn’, and a girlfriend said his living room ‘had the air of a hastily assembled dentist’s waiting room’. When she looked in his bedroom, with dirty laundry lying about, it ‘had so repulsive an aspect that it is hard to imagine anyone living there’. ‘I just don’t think Henry was interested in sex,’ one of his frequent dates reported, and a historian who has surveyed the subject concluded: ‘All the available evidence points away from actual consummation.’ Kissinger channelled his lustful instincts into infighting and persistent one-upmanship. His love life was an extension of politics by other means.

What he longed for was the perfect prince. He spent his life looking for a true ‘gentleman’ politician to whom he could offer his services. He thought he had found one in Nelson Rockefeller, the New York governor, his first big political backer. Rockefeller was born into money and social influence, and tried to win the presidency as a moderate Northern Republican who appealed to decent American values. Kissinger admired Rockefeller’s patrician manner and apparent distaste for the baser instincts of his party. Unfortunately, what Rockefeller lacked was the winner’s touch. He ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in 1960, 1964 and 1968, losing the first and last of these contests to Nixon, who understood the baser instincts of his party all too well. So Kissinger switched to serving Nixon, a man he never much liked or trusted, but whom he couldn’t help admiring for his raw cunning and perseverance. Both men were outsiders to the Republican establishment, which, far from bonding them, made them suspicious of each other. But they put up with all the unpleasantness – Kissinger suffering Nixon’s foul-mouthed, paranoid rants; Nixon enduring Kissinger’s supercilious lectures and thin-skinned grievances – for the sake of what they could accomplish together. Nixon gained an adviser who saw in him a path to greatness, Kissinger a president who would take him along for the ride. They loved talking grand strategy together because it made each man feel like he had the world in the palm of his hand. When Nixon went to China in 1972, an opening crafted for him by Kissinger, they both got their rewards. Nixon was feted as visionary and Kissinger as a strategic genius. Even George McGovern said of the visit: ‘I applaud the president’s imagination and judgment.’

It​ was only when Nixon was brought down by his baser instincts that Kissinger’s luck really kicked in. It was widely assumed that Ford would have to dispense with his services, because he was so closely associated with the president’s disgraced predecessor. Instead, Ford bound himself all the more tightly to his inherited secretary of state, convinced that Kissinger alone could guide him through the minefield of international relations. Kissinger also managed to persuade him to pick Rockefeller as his vice president. Ford was in many ways Kissinger’s ideal president: smart enough to be grateful for his advice, dumb enough not to recognise that a lot of it was snake oil. The apotheosis of their relationship came in late 1976, when Ford was running against Carter for the presidency and struggling in the polls. Kissinger agreed to coach him for a crucial televised debate on international affairs. He tried to explain to his inexperienced and credulous boss that the correct line on the Russians involved distinguishing Eastern European nations from their Soviet puppet masters. The recently agreed Helsinki Accords, which Carter was trying to paint as a sellout, had recognised Europe’s national borders. This meant that the Russians had signed up to the principle of national autonomy, even if they had the military might to ignore it in practice. Didn’t this show that talking had its benefits? It was a subtle defence of Kissinger’s approach to détente – no clear-cut victories or defeats, just endless concessions to reality – and it was lost on Ford, who was nonetheless impressed by Kissinger’s apparent conviction. When asked in the debate whether Helsinki didn’t imply that communism was a permanent fixture in Europe, Ford responded: ‘There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.’ When the questioner expressed bafflement, Ford went on: ‘I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of these countries is independent, autonomous; it has its own territorial integrity. And the United States does not concede that these countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.’ He was trying to channel Kissinger’s mix of sophistry and indignation but it came out as ignorant nonsense. His gaffe was quickly recognised as the worst in the history of presidential debates. In a close contest, it may have done him terminal damage.

Instead of blaming Kissinger for having been too clever by half in the debate prep, Ford blamed himself for being too slow-witted to do the briefing justice. Schwartz describes what happened next:

Meeting with Kissinger a few days after the debate, Ford asked him rather plaintively: ‘Are you going to resign because your president let you down?’ Kissinger responded quickly: ‘Don’t even think of what happened. One little glitch.’ Ford jumped at the compliment, telling Kissinger: ‘I thought it went well except for that one slip.’ Kissinger added: ‘You have confirmed in that debate the country’s need for you and the disaster that Carter would be.’

The prince begging the courtier’s forgiveness. The courtier magnanimously supplying it, and throwing in a little flattery to boot. The prince lapping it up. No wonder Kissinger found Ford so congenial. Once Carter had won, and Ford was out, Kissinger never gave up looking for his prince. He knew there would be no more Rockefellers, since his old mentor was already a man out of time. He was wary of hitching himself to another Nixon. If only he could find another Ford! Incredibly, in 1988 he thought he had. Kissinger was – or at least professed himself to be – a great admirer of Dan Quayle. He advised George H.W. Bush to pick him as his running mate in 1988 and described the notoriously dim Quayle as ‘one of the best informed senators on national security affairs that I know’. What was going on? When Kissinger told his friend Arthur Schlesinger that he found Quayle to be ‘well-informed and intelligent’, Schlesinger took it to mean ‘that Quayle listens reverently to Henry and that Henry thinks Quayle may be president someday’. When that dream died, he moved on to George W. Bush. In 2008 he was cited by both Obama and Hillary Clinton as they sought the Democratic nomination, though Kissinger was disappointed that Obama failed to invite him back into the fold once he became president. When Trump was elected, he called on the nonagenarian Kissinger for advice, almost as though it were one of the ceremonial duties attaching to the office of president. God knows what they made of each other. But it was also a perfect Kissinger moment. What he wanted was for the public to feel its old sense of reassurance that Super K was at the president’s side. Fleetingly with Trump – and perhaps it could only have been with Trump – he finally got it.

Kissinger has long been a weathervane for American society. His ubiquitous presence, coupled with his elusive political persona, means that people keep finding in him what they want to. His critics have tended to belong to three categories, reflecting three broad stands of American opinion. For many on the left, his record in office is an affront to international law and a betrayal of the idea of human rights. Neoconservatives, including many of those around George W. Bush, have long considered him far too flexible on matters of principle, particularly when it comes to standing up to dictators. Meanwhile, the ethnonationalists, whose persistent influence on American politics eventually gave us Trump, have always regarded Kissinger as an untrustworthy and disloyal foreigner – a cosmopolitan Jew of no fixed loyalty and no true American instincts. In 1975, the paleoconservative campaigner Phyllis Schlafly co-authored an 846-page book called Kissinger on the Couch. In it, she describes him as ‘a pudgy spider at the centre of a web’, who uses his ‘cunning’ and ‘sophistication’ to entrap presidents. ‘We are not, anywhere in this book, accusing anyone of being a traitor or of being guilty of treason,’ she goes on. But ‘if the reader feels that the evidence makes a case for de facto treason, that is his conclusion.’ It didn’t require the internet for this sort of poisonous rhetoric to become a springboard for populism. In 1982, while walking through Newark airport, Kissinger encountered Ellen Kaplan, a supporter of the cult leader and political extremist Lyndon LaRouche, who had long claimed that the former secretary of state was a secret homosexual, Nazi and murderer. Kaplan screamed at him: ‘Is it true you sleep with young boys at the Carlyle Hotel?’ The strain of American politics that produced QAnon isn’t new. What is new is its having a spokesperson in the Oval Office.

On 10 September 2001, Christopher Hitchens told an audience at the University of Washington that the next day would see the family of a murdered Chilean general bring a lawsuit against Kissinger in a federal court in Washington. Kissinger’s support for the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende, and his indulgence of the Pinochet regime, was seen by his opponents on the left as the worst of his crimes. Now Hitchens was triumphant: ‘So comrades and friends, brothers and sisters, we shall be able to say tomorrow – 11 September 2001 – will long be remembered as a landmark day in the struggle for human rights.’ Not exactly. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington changed everything, including for Hitchens, who began his journey towards full-throated condemnation of ‘Islamofascism’, support for the Iraq War and American citizenship. Far from cementing his moral distance from his nemesis, 9/11 brought Kissinger and Hitchens into the same space. Hitchens discovered that it isn’t so easy to avoid Kissingerian positions during a long career pontificating about international politics, and that dressing double standards up as philosophical principle doesn’t always help. Kissinger wasn’t a great philosopher or a great strategist. He was like so many others: a political opportunist doing his best to keep one step ahead of the people determined to bring him down. His guiding principle, in the shadow of catastrophe, was to keep moving. His hold on American public life had a lot to do with his exoticism and he knew it. Though he liked to complain about the boring sameness of European statesmen, who, he felt, had sacrificed grand visions in favour of party political manoeuvring, he must also have understood that he would have struggled to stand out among them. There were plenty of Heinz Kissingers doling out advice to European leaders. But there was only one Henry, with the ear of the president of the United States. Unelected, unaccountable, never really representing anyone but himself, he rose so high and resided so long in America’s political consciousness because his shapeshifting allowed people to find in him what they wanted to find. He contained multitudes. Henry Kissinger: America’s democratic man.

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Vol. 43 No. 1 · 7 January 2021

David Runciman seeks to pin down Henry Kissinger (LRB, 3 December 2020). At Harvard on a Kennedy Scholarship in 1966-67, I attended two series of seminars by Kissinger. One of them was on strategic nuclear policy; the other, conducted jointly with a fellow European immigrant, Stanley Hoffmann, was on postwar Europe. There was little overlap in the style, atmosphere or student participants at the two series. The first, held around the imposing oval table of the Law School, was full of earnest young men with CIA crewcuts whom I never otherwise saw on campus. They had come to hear from the author of Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, already by the mid-1960s a standard work, about how to apply the doctrine of graduated response in a nuclear war. ‘If they take out Miami, don’t take out Leningrad’: the aim was, by acting so reasonably, to offer opportunities for de-escalation before mutually assured destruction (MAD-ness) prevailed. The second series, attended mainly by trainee academics, was a genial tour d’horizon of Western European policy development from 1945 to the mid-1960s. The two avuncular presiding professors interspersed more formal contributions with jokey anecdotes illustrating European cultural superiority. I felt embarrassed on behalf of the ‘colonial’ Americans who made up most of the audience.

Over the course of that year, I became increasingly uncomfortable at how very different Kissinger was with different subjects and different audiences. Here was someone who seemed to identify strongly with his adopted homeland, yet could with the flip of a switch revert to a European identity. Runciman concludes that his ‘shapeshifting allowed people to find in him what they wanted to find’. Yes, up to a point. The real Kissinger is a chameleon, as those seminars in the mid-1960s showed. But he was also someone who demanded that you accept his cultural and intellectual superiority.

David Forrester
London N7

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