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 analysis 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. “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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.