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All About Henry

Kissinger

by Marvin Kalb and Bernard Kalb
Little Brown, 577 pp., $12.50

Henry Kissinger
Henry Kissinger; drawing by David Levine

Diplomacy may be, as is often said, a liar’s game. But to play that game well, a semblance of sincerity is essential. As a master of the art, Henry Kissinger has always understood this. “Sincerity has meaning only in reference to a standard of truth of conduct,” he once wrote in an admiring analysis1 of the German master of power politics. “It was not that Bismarck lied, but that he was finely attuned to the subtlest currents of any environment and produced measures precisely adjusted to the need to prevail. The key to Bismarck’s success was that he was always sincere.”

This was a lesson Kissinger learned well. “I attach great importance to being believed,” he told an interviewer.2 “When one persuades or conquers someone, one musn’t deceive them.” Those who have been subjected to Kissinger’s charm, logic, and persistence have often felt that he sincerely understands and sympathizes with their point of view. This is what has made him such a superb negotiator and catapulted him to international popularity.

Kissinger has hoisted himself to the top by a combination of fine tuning, sensitivity to the currents of power, favors from influential protectors, and judicious switches when new opportunities arose. One of the few holdovers from the Nixon administration to emerge with his reputation relatively unscathed, he may become as indispensable to Gerald Ford as he was to Nixon.

The story of the Jewish refugee’s rise to fame, if not yet fortune, has taken on the qualities of a morality tale. Men on the make have always had a special place in the hearts of Americans. Their success confirms a national mythology, and their fall is seen as high tragedy. So it has been with Richard Nixon, and so it may yet be for Kissinger, who, like so many others less brilliant and less skillful, rode a politician’s chariot to power.

Kissinger’s odyssey from Nazi persecution to world adulation is now an old story, told in loving detail by Marvin and Bernard Kalb in their bloated chronicle, Kissinger. Perhaps less well known, however, are some of the people who helped him on his way. First there was Fritz Kraemer, now a “special adviser for politico-military affairs” in the Pentagon, and given, according to the Kalbs, to “walks in the countryside around Washington with a sheathed sword hidden in his sleeve.” In 1943, however, Kraemer was a thirty-one-year-old German refugee who lectured American soldiers on Nazism. In the audience was another refugee, twenty-year-old Henry Kissinger, who wrote Kraemer a fan letter offering his services. The older man was so impressed by the admiring GI, in whom he saw what he later described as a “historical musicality,” that he recommended young Kissinger for the job of German interpreter in division headquarters.

Six years later, armed with a BA from Harvard and immersed in the academic politics of graduate school, Kissinger found another protector in William Yandell Elliott. A brilliant eccentric whose early promise had withered into pompous crankiness, Elliott was a rigid conservative and cold warrior. But he remained a powerful figure at Harvard, not least because of his contacts in Washington, to which he commuted regularly. With his solid lines to the conservatives in Congress, the State Department, and Wall Street, Elliott had connections that Kissinger appreciated.

In view of Kissinger’s interest in philosophy and history it might have seemed logical for him to seek out Carl Friedrich, the renowned political theorist of the government department, rather than the flamboyant cold warrior who liked to be called “Wild Bill,” and who, because of his military-industrial contacts, was also referred to as “Mr. Missileman.” In fact, Kissinger originally chose Friedrich as his tutor, but soon switched, telling him, as Friedrich recalls: “I am interested in the practical politics of international relations, and you are interested in philosophy and scholarship.”3

Elliott proved to be a wise choice. He obtained scholarships for his disciple, and later rewarded Kissinger by putting him in charge of the Harvard International Seminar, which brought upwardly mobile young foreigners to Cambridge for a summer of bull sessions. Whatever the intellectual value of those many hours exchanging “points of view,” they did provide Kissinger with contacts that later proved immensely useful.

The seminar, as it turned out, was not nearly so high-minded as it appeared. In 1967 it was revealed to be a CIA front, funded through the Rockefeller and other foundations, which obligingly laundered the agency’s subsidy. It was all part of the good struggle against communism to which Elliott, and many other intellectuals at Harvard and elsewhere, were dedicated. Kissinger denied that he knew the CIA was involved. But when the story broke, his first reaction was anxiety over what might be said about his participation. “Oh my God, this is terrible,” Kissinger said. “People are going to say I’m working for the CIA.”4

Like virtually every other graduate student at Harvard, Kissinger wanted to stay on once he had completed his degree. But the university was reluctant to grant him tenure. To enhance his bargaining power, he applied for a job then open as managing editor of Foreign Affairs, the quarterly journal of the Council on Foreign Relations. As the watering-ground of the Eastern liberal foreign policy establishment, the Council was an ideal place for a man of Kissinger’s ambitions. Although he was turned down for the job, he was offered a short-term post as study director for a panel on cold war military strategy with participants drawn from Wall Street and Washington. Kissinger gratefully accepted the offer, “not only because it seems directed in the main line of my own thought,” he told the directors, “but also because the Council seems to furnish a human environment I find attractive.”

Among the attractions of that environment was the opportunity to meet the lawyers and financiers who exerted powerful influence on American foreign policy. While at the Council Kissinger attached himself to Nelson Rockefeller, whom he had met at a panel on military security that Rockefeller had set up at Quantico, Virginia. Duly impressed by the young academician’s hard-headed approach to the cold war, Rockefeller took him on as director of a family-financed project on national security. Its reports, prepared by Kissinger and released by the Rockefellers in 1958, concluded that “the willingness to engage in nuclear war when necessary is part of the price of our freedom.”

It was this seemingly casual approach to nuclear war that made Kissinger the model for Dr. Strangelove. He had elaborated his views in greater detail a year earlier in his book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, which emerged from the Council study and was published under its auspices. Kissinger’s argument for a strategy including limited nuclear war obviously responded to the anxieties of the times. The book, to Kissinger’s and the Council’s astonishment, became a best seller, and its author one of the scarier figures of the military-industrial-academic complex. Because or perhaps in spite of its success, Harvard swallowed its doubts and invited Kissinger to return with tenure.

With a firm base of operations in Cambridge, with access to Rockefeller, and with other useful ties to the world of finance and government nurtured during his stint at the Council, Kissinger joined the select band of cold war intellectuals who shuttled between Cambridge and Washington. But unlike many of his Harvard colleagues, he never found a place in Camelot and was gradually eased out by those, such as McGeorge Bundy, whose influence, though not ambitions, were greater than his own. While in the wilderness he wrote a few more books, one of which, The Troubled Partnership, with its condemnation of America’s wish to dominate its European allies, makes wry reading today. Faithful to the hand that subsidized him, he served as foreign policy adviser to Nelson Rockefeller, whose recommendations during the Fifties included a bomb shelter in every back yard.

Having allied himself so firmly with Rockefeller, and having failed to make much of an impression upon Kennedy or Johnson, Kissinger was unprepared for Nixon’s tap on the shoulder in December, 1968. But while surprising, the choice was not illogical. Nixon needed someone with ties to the Eastern liberal establishment, who was not sullied by intimate association with the Democrats, who had no independent political base, and who shared his cold war views. That such a man could also be snatched away from his arch-rival, Rockefeller, increased Kissinger’s desirability. Nixon would have his own Harvard brains trust.

Thus fine tuning had brought Kissinger to the threshold of the most powerful office in the world. Flattering his master, faithfully carrying out his policies, and remaining conspicuously loyal, Kissinger soon became indispensable to Nixon. Whatever differences there may have been between them were over methods, not objectives. Both had freed themselves from a preoccupation with ideology, both reveled in the exercise of power, and both relished a politics of confrontation.

“Power,” Kissinger once confessed in a sentiment clearly shared by Nixon, “is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” In politics the pleasures such an aphrodisiac stimulates are many: groveling minions, honor guards, black limousines, jet diplomacy. Surpassing all these, however, is the pleasure of forcing an opponent to submit. The militarist does this by the application of force; the diplomat by the hint of force and by his talents of persuasion.

The Kissinger-Nixon diplomacy has rested on the twin pillars of confrontations and personal deals. Often they are used in tandem: first the mailed fist and then the sympathetic ear. Thus the Christmas terror bombing of North Vietnam and then the settlement; the decision to let the Arabs and the Jews kill each other awhile, and then the Cairo-Jerusalem shuttle extravaganza; the mining of Haiphong harbor followed by Nixon’s public relations descent upon Moscow.

Like Nixon, Kissinger has often been hypnotized by what John F. Kennedy used to call the shadow rather than the substance of power. When the Russians put up the Berlin Wall in 1961, he demanded that the United States tear it down to demonstrate its “credibility” to Bonn. When the Pakistanis were killing thousands in Bangladesh, he sent an aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal to intimidate the Indians from intervening. When during the Yom Kippur war the Russians suggested that a joint Soviet-American force be sent to Egypt, he called a full-scale nuclear alert.

Kissinger’s temptation to brandish the Bomb—first elaborated in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy—is sometimes irresistible. The nuclear alert of October, 1973, was his own decision. Nixon, who was preoccupied with the Saturday Night Massacre at the time, casually made Kissinger Commander in Chief while he tended to more important matters, such as firing Archibald Cox. Kissinger, characteristically, tried to keep the alert a secret from the American people, although presumably not from the Russians, and was furious the next morning to find it reported in the news. Although he solemnly promised that he would explain the reasons for that thrilling display of military might, Kissinger has never done so. Even the Kalbs, who have trouble wiping the stardust from their eyes in viewing their hero, consider that episode one of his less illustrious moments.

Yet to assume that the nuclear alert was simply an overreaction on Kissinger’s part is to miss the point. Its purpose was to signal the Russians that they could not tip the balance in Egypt’s favor. Similarly, sending the carrier to the Bay of Bengal was to show China, which Kissinger was busy wooing at the time, that the United States would not allow Pakistan, Peking’s erstwhile ally, to be dismembered by a Russian-supported India. Kissinger’s muscle-flexing was, of course, a fiasco. Bangladesh gained its independence, India became even more dependent on the Soviet Union, and the United States was left holding the hand of the collapsing Yahya Khan regime. Locked into his visions of global power balances, Kissinger lost track of the real issues.

Kissinger also hauled out the big stick in 1970, when the Russians seemed to be building a submarine base in Cuba. Assembling the press for a high-level leak, he warned of a “grave confrontation” with Russia unless the base was dismantled, and told an astonished Soviet ambassador that another “missile crisis” was in the making. William Rogers, who was then filling the office, if not exercising the powers, of Secretary of State, and whose functions were being steadily devoured by Kissinger, complained that this “crisis” was all a tempest in a teapot and accused his White House rival of “engaging in cold war rhetoric.”

While in many ways a master of subtlety, Kissinger is remarkably crude in his approach to power politics. It is the strong opponent who counts, and every event is judged by its relation to the current struggle for dominance among the great powers. Just as the revolt of the Bengalis and the thirty-years war in Vietnam were seen as part of the cold war, so in the Middle East it was Moscow’s “penetration” of the area that troubled Kissinger, not the tiresome quarrel between Arabs and Jews.

How Kissinger’s obsession with Realpolitik can unhinge his touch with reality has been dramatized most recently in Cyprus. There he winked at the overthrow of Makarios—whom he reportedly considered “the Castro of the eastern Mediterranean”—and casually accepted the installation by the military junta in Athens of their henchman Nikos Sampson. He did nothing to dissuade the Turks from invading the island, despite the pleas of the fragile Caramanlis government in Greece, and then had the arrogance to complain that “a foreign government must not expect that every time there is a crisis the secretary of state will come rushing into the area and spend all his time settling that particular crisis”—as if anyone had asked him to compound his meddling. Kissinger’s “tilt” toward Turkey, like his support of the Greek colonels during their long dictatorship and his hostility toward Makarios, has nothing to do with the ancient enmity between Greeks and Turks. Rather he sees Cyprus only as the cockpit of a cold war struggle between Russia and America for influence in the eastern Mediterranean. In that struggle a strong Turkey is a better ally than a weak and no longer militarized Greece; a partitioned Cyprus offers safer shores for the roaming Sixth Fleet than a republic unified in neutrality.

Liberals view Kissinger’s politics as immoral, although for him they are merely amoral. “I have no fixed opinions. I have never been a doctrinaire,” Bismarck said a century ago in words that his admirer would approve. “Liberal, reactionary, conservative—those I confess seem to me luxuries.” But even on their own terms, Kissinger’s policies are often short-sighted and self-defeating. A Cyprus partitioned and torn by civil strife hardly represents a trump card in the Mediterranean power game with Russia. A government of Greek colonels detested by its own people and dependent on American support was hardly a reliable ally. And if Turkey welcomes American aid in dividing Cyprus it is also capable of throwing out lines to Moscow, as it has done in the past. A policy that consciously accepts the humiliation of a democratic ally, the devastation of an unarmed people, and tacit support for the dismemberment of a land whose independence was formally guaranteed by three of its allies is not only ruthless politics but bad Realpolitik. It marks the triumph of abstract logic over reality.

This is where Kissinger’s greatest weakness lies. Although he is a superb negotiator—tactful, imaginative, indefatigable, and sensitive to nuance—his approach to politics is rigid and unimaginative. His talent is as a dealer, not as an innovator. Credit for the innovations in American foreign policy over the past half-dozen years—the opening to Peking, the expanded détente with Moscow, the withdrawal from Vietnam, the limitation on defensive missiles—properly belongs to Nixon. As the Kalbs point out, Nixon advocated a new approach to China before he was elected; as a conservative Republican, he was the first president since Eisenhower in a strong political position to bring it off.

With his penchant for abstract theorizing, Kissinger speaks a good deal about “conceptualizations.” But some of his concepts—such as the so-called “pentagonal balance of power” and the “linkage” of seemingly unrelated issues in negotiation—are of dubious value. What five great powers are in equal balance? Where, for that matter, is the “realism” in playing gunboat diplomacy in the Bay of Bengal and the eastern Mediterranean while the world monetary and trading system approaches a breakdown? A Realpolitik that is bored by anything less than nuclear confrontation is not one that inspires confidence.

As a game player and a dealer, Kissinger naturally finds adversaries more interesting than allies, negotiating with the former and issuing diktats to the latter, as he has to Japan and the Europeans. Allies are tiresome necessities, but adversaries pose a challenge that can be capped with the sweet triumph of a hard-bargained deal. Even if they later turn out to be ephemeral—such as the so-called “settlement” in Vietnam, the Middle East “truce,” and the stalled SALT II talks—it is the initial deal that the world remembers. Politicians like Brezhnev and Chou make good bargaining partners, for they are shrewd players of the power game. The problem comes with ideologues who resist both intimidation and promises, such as the Cubans and the North Vietnamese, or with independent characters like Makarios who are hard to buy off. Stymied by those who would not deal, Nixon and Kissinger sought an elusive “victory” in Vietnam, and stubbornly persisted in maintaining the embargo on trade with Cuba.

In Kissinger’s view of foreign policy, the objective is often less important than the manner in which it is pursued. “Others judge us—and set their own course—by the steadiness of our performance as well as the merit of our ideas,” he declared in 1971. Nowhere was this approach more disastrous than in Vietnam, where the war was prolonged for four years, at enormous cost in lives and money, in pursuit of a settlement that would presumably leave national “prestige” intact. The importance of Vietnam was not strategic, for the domino theory had long been abandoned by Nixon. Rather it was symbolic, a pawn in the global struggle for power.

Kissinger could have worked out a settlement in Vietnam in 1969, had he and Nixon been willing to cut loose from the generals in Saigon. They could have had an agreement on their own terms in October, 1972, when Hanoi dropped its demand that Thieu be ousted. Indeed they could probably have reached the same compromise much earlier had Kissinger not waited until the spring of 1972 formally to withdraw his insistence that North Vietnamese troops be evacuated from the South (although he hinted to the Russians that he was willing to do so in 1970). And they certainly could have had an accord in December, 1972, before the terrible Christmas bombings—as Tad Szulc has demonstrated in his fascinating reconstruction5 of the cease-fire agreement—had Kissinger not overestimated his ability to manipulate Thieu into acceptance.

It was clear from the time of the first bombing halt in 1968 that Hanoi would never pull its troops out of the South. Therefore, except as a cover for Vietnamization, as Szulc observed, “there is no satisfactory reason for Kissinger to have refused to recognize reality for three years.” The inescapable conclusion of that sorry record—the Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding—is that Vietnamese and American lives were needlessly sacrificed so that the Nixon administration could emerge from the war with “honor.” The price of that strategy was 15,000 Americans dead, 110,000 wounded, $50 billion spent, and 600,000 South Vietnamese civilians dead and wounded, not to mention even greater casualties for North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.

It all culminated, as we know, in the Christmas terror bombing of the North after a settlement was reached and the world duly informed that “peace is at hand.” The purpose of that pitiless action, we have learned from Szulc’s investigation, was to force Hanoi to make marginal concessions, thus placating Thieu, who was outraged at the accord with Le Duc Tho that Kissinger had presented to him as a fait accompli. When Thieu refused to go along with it, Kissinger had to cancel his secret plan to sign the settlement in Hanoi on October 31. The North Vietnamese, suspecting that Washington had reneged on the agreement, made a dramatic revelation of the secret negotiations.

Contemptuous of Thieu, Kissinger had failed to keep Saigon informed of his secrecy-shrouded talks, or to take its anxieties seriously. While surreptitiously negotiating a settlement that would leave North Vietnamese troops in the South, he continued to string Thieu along with outlandish hints of American support for an invasion of the North. When Thieu refused to sign what he called the “prefabricated package” worked out for him between his American allies and his North Vietnamese enemies, Kissinger exploded in rage. “This is the greatest failure of my career!” he thundered. “I’m sorry about that,” Thieu’s diplomatic adviser replied, “but we have a country to defend.”

Although telling his journalist friends that he opposed the bombing, Kissinger actually supported it because his own obsession with secret diplomacy had led to the breakdown of negotiations. It was indeed one of the greatest failures of his career. As early as 1969, after his first secret meetings with the North Vietnamese, he said that a negotiated settlement could be reached only after a final paroxysm of battle. The brief but terrible bombing of Christmas, 1972, served as that final paroxysm, inducing Hanoi to make the minor concessions that the Administration’s prestige and Thieu’s sensitivities demanded. If the method seemed brutal for those who suffered it, it was presumably for Hanoi’s own good. “A lasting peace,” Kissinger told the delegates at a conference on the Middle East the following year, is often an “agonizing” task. He illustrated this with a revealing quotation:

Pain that cannot forget
falls drop by drop
upon the heart,
until in our despair
there comes wisdom,
through the awful
grace of God.

Kissinger’s technique, like that of Theodore Roosevelt, whom he and Nixon so much admire, and whom they praised so fulsomely in their speeches, evidently rests on the big deal and the big stick. But a good many of the world’s problems are not susceptible to personal charm or to confrontation diplomacy. Brezhnev may back down when Kissinger calls a nuclear alert, and Sadat may purr when told he is the greatest Arab leader since Saladin. But who is there to flatter or intimidate in the face of the collapse of the world monetary system, or the growing gap between the rich and poor nations, or the spread of famine, or the mounting inflation that is undermining democratic government?

Nobody, alas, which is why Kissinger has been so ineffectual in dealing with these problems. Economics bores him not because the problems are unreal, but because they are not subject to carrot-and-stick diplomacy. These issues, which in the long run are far more important than who rules in Saigon or how many Soviet ships there are in the Indian Ocean, are shunted aside. For Kissinger economics is interesting only as a bludgeon—cutting off credits to Allende’s Chile, an economic blockade of Cuba—or as a pay-off for a political deal—atomic reactors to Egypt and grain shipments and most-favored nation status for the Soviet Union. Otherwise it interests him about as much as the fate of the Italian lira concerned Nixon.

In Nixon he found a perfect partner for his game of Realpolitik. It was often played with considerable skill, as in the Yom Kippur war, when a scenario was arranged with the Pentagon to explain why the Israelis were not getting the military deliveries they wanted. According to the Kalbs, Kissinger was furious over the deliberate “stalling” on these deliveries by his bureaucratic rival, the Secretary of Defense. “We must put the fear of God into Schlesinger,” the omnipresent Kalbs report Kissinger fuming to his faithful deputy, Alexander Haig. “They are working against Presidential orders.” Nixon, we are told, was so distressed when he heard of the slow-down that he “exploded” to Schlesinger at a White House meeting: “Get the supplies there with American military planes!…Get moving!”

This, at any rate, is Kissinger’s version as told to the Kalbs. Others involved in the decision, however, tell a different story. The supposed “feud” between Kissinger and Schlesinger was apparently carefully arranged to camouflage an Administration decision to let the Arabs and the Israelis bleed for a while so that they would be more amenable to a compromise settlement—those “drops” of “pain” that lead to “wisdom.” Kissinger’s role was to play the good guy in discussions with the pleading Israeli ambassador, blaming the trickle of American supplies on Schlesinger. This served to deflect pressure from the Jewish community—which was quietly assured by the Israelis that Kissinger was doing everything he could—while retaining a semblance of impartiality with the moderate Arab states. After the Kalbs’ account appeared, Kissinger and Schlesinger denied there was any rift between them, and admitted that Nixon did not even attend the meeting where he presumably “exploded” at the Secretary of Defense.

This strategy, as an exercise in power politics, was a shrewd one and may even have helped to bring about the Middle East disengagement, which is one of Kissinger’s more impressive accomplishments. Here one can say that the Middle East was spared further killing, unlike Vietnam where his “settlement” has kept the war going as bloodily as before. But the Kalbs give only the version of the story that makes Kissinger look good to his liberal constituency. Since their book is based on privileged access to their subject, and even on privileged leaks, the source of their information can be readily guessed.

In their effort to make Kissinger appear the good guy in a corrupt administration, “Lancelot among the brigands,” in their phrase, the Kalbs gloss over such idiosyncrasies as his fascination with military power and his obsession with secrecy. “Henry always enjoyed those military briefings,” Melvin Laird told the authors, “and he tended to believe them—especially when they fit into his strategy.” It is an intriguing comment that would have been worth pursuing as a way of analyzing not only Kissinger’s big stick approach to diplomacy but the bureaucratic infighting that pitted him against both Rogers, whom he supplanted, and Laird, who was Nixon’s first Secretary of Defense.

Now that Laird has returned to the suburbs of the White House, Kissinger may find his relations with the President less intimate than when Nixon was around. Kissinger had always tried to shut Laird out of major policy decisions, and when the Pentagon Papers story broke, blamed him for the leak. It is not surprising that Kissinger had little use for Laird, who opposed the bombing of Hanoi and the mining of Haiphong harbor, who had grave doubts about the invasion of Cambodia and the tilt toward Pakistan, and who questioned the weapons systems perpetually being hustled by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to whom Kissinger lent such an attentive ear.

As Nixon’s ambassador to the liberals, Kissinger periodically reassured his academic and journalist friends that he too agonized over the policies they found abhorrent. He spread the word that he had “nagging doubts” about the mining of Haiphong, although there is no indication that he ever expressed them to Nixon. As the Kalbs admit—and they ought to know—“Kissinger, in moments of crisis, has often managed to convey the impression to congenial columnists that he really opposed some of the President’s hard-line decisions and that he stayed at the White House…only to offset the influence of the Goldwater conservatives.”

To those congenial listeners he portrayed himself as a man beseiged. “Haldeman nearly got me. He nearly got me,” he melodramatically proclaimed to a friendly columnist as his carefully orchestrated Vietnam settlement almost collapsed under the weight of Saigon’s outrage. The Kalbs’ suggestion of internecine warfare in the White House is intriguing, but unfortunately they do not pursue it. It would be interesting to know how Kissinger dealt with the atmosphere of corruption, and his own role in decisions that were illegal and immoral.

But the problems that trouble liberals—America’s support of military dictatorships in such places as South Korea, Brazil, and Greece; its encouragement of the overthrow of Allende in Chile and Makarios in Cyprus; chrome purchases from Rhodesia; and indifference to the violation of human rights in countries receiving US aid or seeking special tariff treatment—mean little to Kissinger. He supported the decision to invade Cambodia, although four of his staff assistants resigned in protest, because in his view, the Kalbs explain, “the use of American power in Cambodia was not a moral question.”

Kissinger’s position in the wire-tapping scandals also reveals a disturbing moral vacuum. Whether he proposed the taps or merely submitted names is less important than his easy acceptance of the White House mentality. The purpose of the taps, it is worth recalling, was to conceal from the American people the illegal bombing of Cambodia. Not only were taps installed on his own staff and on certain newsmen, including Marvin Kalb, but also on the top aides of Laird and Rogers—although neither Cabinet official was ever so informed. While Kissinger may well have despised Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and felt they were out to “get” him, his own obsession with secrecy and news management was also part of the moral climate of Watergate.

In his insistence on orchestrating every aspect of foreign policy, he deemed it essential to have total control over the distribution of information. Even before moving over to the State Department he set up a system that excluded the highest Cabinet officials from key policy decisions. All bureaucratic power in foreign and defense policy was placed in his hands. Few decisions could be made without going through an elaborate system of committees of which he was in charge. “Everyone reports to Kissinger, and only Kissinger reports to the President,” was the way one official summed it up.

Once in control of policy, Kissinger used the press to retail the information that he desired. This was done through a judicious system of leaks to favored journalists, who obligingly allowed themselves to be used, and who were even grateful for the privilege. The willingness of some of the best-known journalists to play along with Kissinger, and to take pride in being part of his unofficial inner circle, demonstrates how the press can be bought off, not by money, and not by intimidation, although Agnew tried hard enough, but by cronyism: the favored leak, the special interview, the chummy drink after the secretaries have gone home, the “what would you do in my place?” approach.

Precisely because they found the Nixon administration so tawdry, liberal journalists were captivated by Kissinger. They were impressed by his intellect, flattered by his attention, amused by his jokes, and in return were willing to print his version of the news. Those who refused to go along risked being banished from the inner circle: no more leaks, no interviews, no seats on the Air Force jets that shuttled so imperiously from one troubled capital to another. Journalists who could not “get the news” were hounded by their publishers, and getting the news often meant understanding “Henry’s” position. It was a closed system.6

Not only were the Kalbs on Kissinger’s approved list, but Marvin Kalb was granted the ultimate honor of an exclusive television interview. They give credit where it is due, beginning their page of acknowledgments with this offer of appreciation: “Our thanks go first to Henry A. Kissinger, who, as an historian as well as a statesman, understands the critical importance of primary sourcing. He has been generous with his time and his knowledge.” It can fairly be said that his generosity has been rewarded.

The enormous, but uncritical and often fawning, book which the brothers Kalb have produced is a Washington insider’s account, redolent with gossip, detail, and self-serving quotations which could have come only from the subject himself and his most sycophantic aides. Unable to view their subject dispassionately, the Kalbs too often take him at his own word and gloss over events that reflect badly on him. They not only fail to examine adequately the failures in Kissinger’s record—we are told, for example, that he “did not have time” to deal with the Pakistani repression in Bangladesh, and that he was so busy concentrating on “linkage” that he failed to notice the boondoggle of the Russian wheat deal—but put the blame on Nixon, the Pentagon, or the “bureaucracy” for the more ruthless aspects of US diplomacy during the Kissinger years. This is a pity, for the Kalbs are capable of something more searching, and Kissinger’s accomplishments are real enough to stand full scrutiny.

But even through this laundered account one gets a glimpse of the complex man who is something less than the Miracle Worker. One sees his hypersensitivity to criticism, his insistence on personalizing any disagreement, his self-pity and much-advertised paranoia, his lack of self-confidence (which may explain his fear of appearing “soft” and his hard-line position on military policy), his insensitivity to those serving under him, and his obsequiousness toward those of higher standing. These are not unique traits, and are not more contemptible than those of many great men. But they are important if we are to understand the person Kissinger is.

The Kalbs barely hint at the flaws in Kissinger’s character, although at one point they comment that he “has always been a political chameleon, able to take on the coloration of his environment.” It is a tantalizing observation which, if explored, might have told us a good deal about the way he has operated within the bureaucracy and how the critical decisions over war and peace were really made—not in the jets that obviously impressed the Kalbs and other newsmen, or in the endless rounds of toasts from Peking to Riyadh, but in the struggles over men and money, over power and influence within the administration that Kissinger served.

It might also have told us something about his great success as a negotiator. Being “finely attuned” to personalities and power situations has indeed helped Kissinger’s rise to the top. It was through a combination of flattery and apparent sincerity that he was able to move from Kraemer to Elliott to Rockefeller to Nixon. At the critical moment he gave Nixon a gentle shove toward resignation and attached himself to Gerald Ford. The same qualities that brought the ambitious refugee from the Bronx to Washington have also helped him to persuade Arabs, Israelis, Russians, and Chinese that he really understands their points of view and has their own best interests at heart.

His distaste for ideology of any kind and his contempt for Wilsonian idealism no doubt have helped him in dealing with commissars and potentates who find his cynical Realpolitik a welcome change from the self-righteous moralizing they have come to expect from American officials. Kissinger has always known how to sell himself, and often gained what he wanted by offering the right payoff at the crucial moment. Although he was reportedly taken aback when President Ford referred to him as a “horse trader,” the description is apt.

Kissinger’s bargains are impressive: the Middle East cease-fire, the opening to China, the expanding détente with Russia. Some of these, perhaps all, would have been achieved without him, but probably not so soon, nor with so much public support. Nor can he take full credit for them, for the policies he negotiated are Nixon’s. Whether the deals will endure is another matter: the Palestinian question could lead to another Arab-Israeli war, the line to Peking depends on continued enmity between Russia and China, the new coziness with Moscow has done nothing to slow down the arms race, and in Vietnam the war continues with American-supplied proxies.

Meanwhile, the bills are coming due from Kissinger’s failures: his inability to reach an accord with Moscow on offensive missiles, mounting friction with Europe over trade and politics, deteriorating relations with Japan as a result of deliberate affronts, and a short-sighted disregard for the world economic crisis, which, if unchecked, could sweep away prosperity and democratic governments as well.

Kissinger’s diplomacy is praised for its lack of ideology (although a distaste for ideology is often, as in his case, a thinly disguised preference for the status quo). It is also indifferent to human rights, as his silence in the face of the repression of Soviet dissidents and Chilean and Greek democrats clearly shows. But what is most dangerous is that Realpolitik has become a goal in its own right, obscuring the purposes for which it is ostensibly being exercised. Power has indeed been Kissinger’s aphrodisiac. This is why he was able to operate so successfully within Nixon’s White House.

With no clear standards and no discernible concept of the national interest other than the insatiable quest for power and prestige, Kissinger’s diplomacy is not a foundation on which to build what he calls a “structure of peace.” Rather it is a series of feats—brilliantly engineered, dazzlingly choreographed, and lovingly reported by the press. These feats are already proving to be ephemeral because they are personal deals that have left deeper economic and political conflicts unresolved. So widely admired today for his unquestioned intelligence, style, and negotiating prowess, Henry Kissinger is more likely to be remembered as an agile manipulator than as a great architect.

  1. 1

    “The White Revolutionary: Reflections on Bismarck,” Daedalus, Summer, 1968. 

  2. 2

    Oriana Fallaci, The New Republic, November 4, 1972. 

  3. 3

    As related by Ralph Blumenthal in his biographical series for the New York Post, “Henry Kissinger: The Private and Public Story,” June 8, 1974. 

  4. 4

    Ibid. 

  5. 5

    “Behind the Cease-Fire Agreement,” Foreign Policy, Summer, 1974. 

  6. 6

    For an interesting analysis see Roger Morris: “Henry Kissinger and the Media: A Separate Peace,” Columbia Journalism Review, May-June, 1974.