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The Flowering of Henry Kissinger

Kissinger: The Uses of Power

by David Landau
Houghton Mifflin, 270 pp., $5.95


by Alan Palmer
Harper & Row, 405 pp., $12.50


For a book that developed from the pages of the Harvard Crimson as part of the student revolt against the Vietnam war and Kissinger’s part in it, David Landau’s Kissinger: The Uses of Power opens with a prologue full of romantic nonsense. “Kissinger,” he writes, “is not a man who blindly seeks power…. It is true that he has an unusual impulse toward power and authority, but it is an impulse that springs from a strong sense of personal mission….” This sounds more like a press release from Herbert Klein than a put-down from a campus radical.

Or what is one to make of the passage in which Landau tells us, echoing one of Kissinger’s favorite philosophers,

Hegel’s belief in history as an organic process is really mystical in origin…it may perhaps best be described as an article of faith. It is a faith to which Kissinger adheres. His belief that the United States has global responsibilities…cannot be described as nationalistic or self-centered [my italics]; it is a vision exposed by Hegelian lumière.

Hegelian horsefeathers! Every imperialism in the last two centuries has broadcast mystical nonsense about its mission civilisatrice.

Worst of all is to be told that Kissinger’s view of the US role in the world “might best be described as a kind of muscular liberalism, designed to defend a pluralistic world order and prevent the emergence of forces which might threaten it.” That has been the State Department line since the cold war began. “His opposition to wars of national liberation, brutal and unjustified though it has been,” Landau continues, “does not spring from any desire to suppress movements for national independence and is not without its measure of compassion for the peoples who are fighting them.” Compassion is one quality wholly lacking in everything Kissinger has ever written.

Landau concludes that Kissinger’s opposition to wars of national liberation springs from the fear that “if such wars should appear to succeed, then other great powers with less noble intentions [my italics] will be spurred toward ideological quests.” Those two Kissinger assistants Landau thanks for talking with him “at some length”—what poop did they feed this bright fledgling radical journalist to make him serve up such apologetic tripe?

Wars of national liberation” is a new term for an old imperial problem—how to deal with popular unrest that threatens friendly or puppet regimes. We have been intervening against such movements for a century in Central America and the Caribbean. Kissinger has been concerned with them for a long time. He even launched new terms for them in the Rockefeller Brothers Fund report called “International Security: The Military Aspect,” which was prepared under his direction.

This says we need to create a military establishment “diversified” enough in its weaponry and tactics to deal even with “concealed wars” or “non-overt aggression.” The latter is a metaphysical hobgoblin well suited to the paranoia of the cold war. The report becomes clearer when it speaks of “concealed wars” which “may appear as internal revolution or civil war.” It cites Greece and Vietnam as examples. This report was published in January, 1958, and shows how sensitive he and his Rockefeller patrons were even then to Indochina.

The gradual penetration of a government by concealed foreign penetration” may present issues, the report said, which are “deliberately and intrinsically unclear.” But “our security” and that of “the rest of the non-Communist world” may depend, the report urged, on our willingness to act in these unclear situations that “fit neither the soldier’s classic concept of war nor the diplomat’s classic concept of aggression.”1 That is how we acted against Mossadegh in Iran and Arbenz in Guatemala and Papandreou in Greece. And that is how and why we are still in Vietnam today.

How little Kissinger’s basic views have changed since those days may be seen in an excerpt Landau quotes from a file of “not for attribution” Kissinger backgrounders he obtained. Kissinger told the press at San Clemente on June 26, 1970, that the Administration felt that, “precisely because we are here not only to liquidate one war, but because we have a larger responsibility to try to create what we hope is to be a more lasting peace what we do in Vietnam has to be measured in terms larger than Vietnam itself.” He said, “History teaches us that people do not forgive their leaders for producing disasters, even if what they do seems to reflect their immediate wishes.” He illustrated this in another backgrounder Landau quotes by pointing out that Chamberlain, so popular right after Munich, was discredited eighteen months later.

This is the “papa knows best” attitude that has marked Vietnam policy from the beginning, the strabismic analogy that equates a nationalist uprising in Asia with the struggle against Hitlerism, and the smug assurance that ordinary people in Vietnam and at home must suffer and die in the name of History, a synonym for American face and prestige. The phrasing is more sententious but the lumière is the same as Lyndon’s.


As a quickie by a youngster just graduated from Harvard, Landau’s book is a feat, the debut of a young man who will go far, I believe, in American journalism. Much in his account of Kissinger is useful and engrossing but written too swiftly, at times contradictory and not always reliable. The most sensational revelation in the book does not check out. He says at one point (p. 71) that when the Berlin wall went up, Kissinger recommended to President Kennedy that he “order an invasion of the Eastern sector” to tear it down. At another point (pp. 62-63) he says Kissinger’s recommendations at the time “embodied a willingness to threaten Moscow with the use of tactical [nuclear?] weapons over Soviet behavior in the divided city.” This, if true, would make Kissinger quite a giddy brinksman.

But Landau gives no source for the second statement. The first he credits to Daniel Ellsberg in a footnote which says, “Other officials also knew of the Kissinger recommendation.” The other officials are not named, and Ellsberg denies he told Landau that Kissinger had made such a recommendation at the time to President Kennedy. All Ellsberg says is that Kissinger, in a conversation with Ellsberg many months later, said, “We should have knocked the wall down.” One unnamed Landau source, who was not an official, told me he heard the same story but as hearsay and furnished the names of two others he said would really know. They both denied ever hearing the story before and both said the idea that Kissinger would make so reckless a recommendation was “out of character.” Kissinger himself, when asked, sent word through his secretary that the story was “total outrageous nonsense.”

At other times, despite his strong bias, Landau can be amazingly uncritical. When he describes the atmosphere of the Fifties in which Kissinger became an adviser on foreign and military policy, Landau accepts wholesale many of the premises and pretenses of the cold war. At one point he speaks of the postwar research institutes which sprang up “at Harvard and across the country” and says they “mass produced” a “whole generation of philosopher kings.” It would have been more sober to note that most of them were financed directly or indirectly by the Pentagon and that what they mass produced was not philosopher kings but military intellectuals, gurus for the gilded ashrams of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Air Force. We have already seen in our first installment (NYR, October 19) in how many of these Kissinger joined other consultants in military meditation.

Landau’s description of the Fifties swallows all its stereotypes. “These were the frightful days of Stalin,” he writes,

…the days of valiant Cold War confrontation, with the nations of the Free World locked in deadly combat with an ever-expanding Communist Bloc. And as a counterpoise to a hyperbolically growing Soviet world, there arose a “structuralist” tendency in American foreign policy….

All this overblown writing obscures the realities and echoes American propaganda. Is this how they teach recent American history at Harvard?

I would put the activity of these cold-war intellectuals in a very different perspective. To see the whole period clearly one must go back to that blinding flash over Hiroshima. It gave some of the most benighted a moment of vision. Only last March the State Department declassified and printed for the first time a secret memorandum written a quarter century ago shortly after the first bomb fell. The memo, virtually unnoticed when it was released, was written by the general who headed the Manhattan Project, which developed the atom bomb. “If the peoples of the major powers of the world really knew or could understand the peril inherent in atomic weapons,” Major General Leslie R. Groves wrote, “they would demand of their various governments a real solution to the problem of war.”2

Henry Kissinger’s writings and activity in the Fifties and Sixties must be seen as part of the movement to blur that vision. A whole generation of intellectuals, operating in the plush orbit of the Pentagon and the Council on Foreign Relations, worked to let institutional inertia and ancient habits have their way. They rationalized a nuclear arms race which immeasurably increased the peril. They distracted attention from the need for a wholly new world order. Instead of helping men to move away from catastrophe, they sold them that lunatic formulation, “the balance of terror,” an adaptation to the atomic age of the power politics already proven bankrupt by two world wars.

This generation of sometimes weirdo geopoliticians was not the fruit of a mental epidemic. It was a response to an urgent demand. After World War II, an American century seemed to have begun. American capitalism was expanding into every continent in the vacuum created by the devastation of its business rivals. But the new dangers seemed as great as the new opportunities. Soviet power had moved halfway across Europe to the Elbe. China was falling to communism. A Third World was rising as the old empires fell apart.

An even more fundamental threat was the technological revolution in warfare. For a century US investments in Latin America had been protected by gunboat diplomacy. Behind the Monroe Doctrine were the marines. The Truman Doctrine was the Monroe Doctrine extended. But how could the new investments in Europe, Asia, and Africa be safeguarded if people began to believe that war had become too dangerous a game to play? How to maintain an empire without a credible threat to use force? How to maintain a credible threat without a public conditioned to live with the bomb and like it?

The acid test of a policy,” Kissinger wrote in his book on Metternich, “is its ability to obtain domestic support.” In 1955, the year he left Harvard to work for the Council on Foreign Relations, the effects of Hiroshima had yet to wear off. Even General MacArthur that year told the American Legion war was now obsolete. His speech, though he sounded in it like Bertrand Russell, was made available to an audience of millions by The Reader’s Digest. It undercut the very basis of the cold war and the arms race. General MacArthur said these were fueled “by two great illusions,” the Soviet fear that we were “preparing to attack them” and our fear “that the Soviets are preparing to attack us.” He said both were wrong, that war could “mean nothing but mutual disaster.” “But,” he warned, “the constant acceleration of preparation may well, without specific intent, produce a spontaneous combustion.”3

  1. 1

    Prospect for America: The Rockefeller Panel Reports (Doubleday, 1961), pp. 113-114.

  2. 2

    Foreign Relations of the United States, 1946, Vol. 1, General: The United Nations, released March 16, 1972. Supt. of Documents, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402. $7.25, 1,544 pages. The quotation is from page 1202. The volume is an untapped gold mine for students of how US military and diplomatic policy was shaped in the wake of the nuclear age. General Grove’s own solution was a Pax Americana.

  3. 3

    The full text of the speech may be found on page 212 of A Soldier Speaks: Public Papers and Speeches of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur (Praeger, 1965). The speech, abridged, appeared in the May, 1955, Reader’s Digest.

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