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 Bombâ€”first elaborated in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policyâ€”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.
"The White Revolutionary: Reflections on Bismarck," Daedalus, Summer, 1968.↩
Oriana Fallaci, The New Republic, November 4, 1972.↩
As related by Ralph Blumenthal in his biographical series for the New York Post, "Henry Kissinger: The Private and Public Story," June 8, 1974.↩