Henry Kissinger
Henry Kissinger; drawing by David Levine


He shall in strangeness stand no farther off
Than in a politic distance.
Othello, III, iii

Henry Kissinger has been something of an enchanter, difficult to describe, impossible to interpret. Instinctively one resorts to superlatives only to discover that they are euphemisms for avoiding something. Kissinger may be, as Vice President Rockefeller recently described him, “the most brilliant secretary of state in our history,” but the reality is that he has been the most powerful secretary of state in American history, the first to have consistently overshadowed the president without provoking even the semblance of a constitutional controversy. Yet so strong is the impulse to avert our gaze from the realities of American politics that, having acknowledged the unusual power he has acquired, we prefer to discount its long-run significance by pointing to the unusual circumstances that made it possible. There was, we are likely to say, a “power vacuum” at the top: Kissinger’s first president became immobilized by Watergate, his second by native dullness and inexperience.

While it is possible that presidential disabilities, natural and unnatural, furnished the necessary condition for Kissinger’s ascendance, they are not a sufficient explanation. Fortuna may help a man to power, as Machiavelli noted, but he must have the virtù to seize it and to work tirelessly to extend it merely to be able to keep it.

What, then, has been the nature of Henry Kissinger’s virtù, of the skills which have gained him power and eminence? Is it “strangeness” that he, a Jew who still carries with him his foreign origins, should come to be called “President of Foreign Policy” despite having had no prior claims based on private wealth, previous political power, extensive experience, or even scholarly distinction? Is it “strangeness” that our most intellectual Secretary should have been appointed and retained by such men as Nixon and Ford?

There has not been any attempt to raise, much less to explore, these questions in the several books which have been written about Henry Kissinger. Yet most of them presuppose certain answers to the questions. As the title The Arabs, Israelis, and Kissinger suggests, Edward Sheehan believes that Kissinger’s power is so much greater than that of ordinary people that “Kissinger” must be treated as a collective noun. Yet Sheehan also believes that Kissinger’s mode of exercising power is so intensely personal that if we can get hold of confidential documents or conduct exclusive interviews we can reveal something genuinely important about what Kissinger has been doing to a part of the world. Instead of explaining the nature of Kissinger’s power, Sheehan assumes it. As a result a certain incoherence settles between Sheehan’s sensible, even fair-minded conclusions and his assumptions. He awards Kissinger an indecisive grade, granting him positive points for having secured the two Sinai disengagement agreements, the separation of Syrians and Israelis in the Golan Heights, and the beginning of a coherent American policy toward the Arabs; and negative points for failing to head off the fourth Arab-Israeli war and for missing the opportunity for a more lasting settlement.

In suggesting as he does throughout his book that Kissinger’s highly publicized personal diplomacy tends to produce only stop-gap solutions, Sheehan joins a long list of commentators who find this to be Kissinger’s trademark. But this only forces the question that is left unanswered: Is Kissinger’s vaunted power merely a piece of grand flummery, or is it more dangerous, a pretense to a virtuosity no mortal possesses, no constitutional democracy can tolerate, and no foreign power, enemy or friend, should trust?

We get no help from The Anguish of Power, written by a long-time friend of the Secretary; we get, instead, more mystifications. The problem is not with Stoessinger’s judgments, which are unstartling: approval for the initiatives toward China, Russia, and the Middle East; disapproval for neglecting Europe, misjudging Portugal and Cyprus, for “tilting” toward Pakistan, and insulting the Japanese. Rather the problem is in the flimsy conception which Stoessinger adopts to explain what unites these several policies and makes them distinctively Kissinger’s. Because Kissinger has been strewing about terms like “tragedy,” “heroism,” “anguish,” and the “burdens” of statesmen ever since he was an undergraduate, Stoessinger accepts this rhetorical sludge uncritically and then tries half-heartedly and unsuccessfully to interpret Secretary Kissinger’s “practice” in the light of Professor Kissinger’s “theory.” If only Stoessinger had managed a degree of skepticism about his friend’s Wertherlike self-dramatization, he might then have considered whether “tragedy” and “anguish” are appropriate interpretative categories for a politician who has displayed a more than ordinary urge for power.

In its own way, the prevailing academic understanding of Kissinger has reinforced the Gulliver-figure created by the press and television and, at the same time, tickled the academy’s collective vanity. Kissinger provides positive proof that a man is not disabled by devotion to ideas, that homo academicus can best homo politicus on the latter’s own turf because, unlike the uninspired technicians who surrounded first Nixon, then Ford, academic man has acquired the deeper grasp of politics that ideas make possible. Accordingly, some academics respond to Kissinger like ecstatics in the presence of the logos, and deliver themselves of a Fourth Gospel that includes fatuous solemnities like the following:


Occasionally—very occasionally—someone arrives on the scene who has actually recorded what he thought, and deposited the record in a public place where all may have access to it. To know what a public man has thought—and to know it at the time he holds office—is to be privileged; this situation is so uncommon that it would be churlish to ignore the opportunity it offers.1

The fatal weakness of this approach is not its fulsomeness but its naïve understanding of ideas, especially the ideas of those whose education, from the start, was shaped by the possibility of being “called to Washington.” Even writers who have been sympathetic toward Kissinger have acknowledged that, intellectually, he was not driven by a passion for theoretical truth and that, temperamentally, he found academic preoccupations unfulfilling. Accordingly, it is a mistake to believe that, for Kissinger, “theory” is the constitutive or determining element of his actions. The mistake leads to overinterpreting his ideas qua ideas and underinterpreting them as expressions of a political ambition that was evident early on in his career. Behind all of Kissinger’s so-called “academic writings” was a political intention. The nature of it is revealed by his friendly intellectual biographer, Stephen Graubard, who remarked, apropos of Kissinger’s appointment by Nixon, that Kissinger was prepared to offer “his principal resource, his intelligence.”2

The notion that, potentially, one’s intelligence is for someone else a commodity to be offered in exchange for power, suggests that from the beginning Kissinger looked upon ideas in a political way, as counters in a game whose name was not contributing to scholarship but attracting the attention of those who determined the direction of foreign policy. His academic writings were a bid for political recognition. This is not to depreciate his abilities or his intellect, only to identify the governing intention in his intellectual work.

Once his intentions are exposed, the widely publicized contrast, between the Harvard professor and Nixon’s unintellectual, tough technicians of power, disappears. The fact that Kissinger survived them all and bested them at their game is evidence of his consummate political skill. What are its ingredients?

Kissinger’s genius is to have united three forms of activity—of the politician, the bureaucrat, and the scholar—whose integrity was thought to depend upon each being separated from the others. For some time now, the boundaries have been dissolving as politics became more bureaucratized, bureaucracies more politicized, and scholars began to feel more at home in government bureaus than in the stacks of libraries. The crucial center of politics is now located in the vast bureaucracies, not simply because more of life is being affected or processed by administrative officials, but because, increasingly, the primary decisions are being fought out there. Bureaucratic politics centers around the competitive, mostly hidden struggle for appropriations, influence, control over information, and access to higher echelons of policy and decision-making. From this politics flows the bureaucratic power to penalize, distribute, and favor that has attracted swarms of supplicants and clients. At the same time, ever since the New Deal, the bureaucracy has become the main federal consumer of academic knowledge and talent; indeed, an academic tone is now an integral part of the bureaucratic style, and vice versa.

This is the setting that has made possible the phenomenon of Henry Kissinger. His appointment as secretary of state in September, 1973, confirmed his mastery of the arts of bureaucratic politics. He did not suddenly acquire power by virtue of that appointment; rather the power which he had previously amassed within the bureaucracy meant that the authority of secretary could no longer be denied him.

Like Sejanus, Kissinger’s rise is instructive rather than edifying, and not least because it shows how a certain kind of virtù thrives amid a condition which, in a political way, was pathological. It will be recalled that from the outset the Nixon administration was deeply suspicious of the traditional government bureaucracy, believing that it was mainly staffed by officials who remained loyal to liberal notions of government regulation and social welfare. The basic strategy of the new administration was twofold: to establish small units “above” the traditional departments and closely controlled by the White House; and to infiltrate the older departments with appointees loyal to the White House rather than to their bureau or departmental chiefs.


From the moment that he took up his post as Nixon’s adviser on national security affairs, Kissinger worked tirelessly to establish the National Security Council as the agency in control of the coordination of foreign policy, defense strategy, and intelligence. Necessarily this brought him into direct conflict with some of the most powerful departments of the government and some of the most accomplished in-fighters in the recent annals of bureaucracy. In the end he won while the heads of State, Defense, and CIA have all rolled; one vice president has been disgraced, while the other, who was not only Kissinger’s patron but also the very symbol of power in America, was humiliated; plumbers and tappers have been exposed, even sentenced. And yet Kissinger has done more than survive and escape with only the slightest stains.

At the moment that others were losing power, office, and reputation, he was increasing his influence and authority. When Haldeman and Ehrlichman resigned, it was Kissinger’s former deputy, Haig, who stood closest to the president and master-minded the sordid business of denying presidential responsibility for the erasures on the tapes. When Ford became president and tried to get Kissinger to surrender his post as national security adviser and remain content with the State Department, Kissinger fought the president to a draw: he gave up the position in order to have it signed over to his former deputy.

In large measure, the world of bureaucratic politics is hidden from public view and what is not hidden tends to be misinterpreted because of the metaphorical language which, thanks to Max Weber’s genius, is typically used to describe the operation of bureaucracies. Merely to recite the most familiar of these metaphors is to appreciate the obscurantism at work: bureaucratic “rationality,” “regularity,” “methodicalness,” “process,” “hierarchy,” and “routinization.” The aggregate of these descriptions produces an impression of order and stability, of law-like behavior which, while it may be slow-moving, is reflective of a condition where things are under control.

Although it may appear absurd, even impious to suggest it, Admiral Elmo R. (“Bud”) Zumwalt, Jr., is rather more helpful than Max Weber in understanding a bureaucratic world that is nightmarish as well as rationalized. On Watch is a memoir of his tour of duty as chief of naval operations and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1970 to 1974. It is conceived by the admiral as a contribution to what he calls “Kissingerology,” which is something of a euphemism for an attack on Kissinger’s morals, patriotism, stability, and judgment. After allowances are made for Zumwalt’s personal animus and for his rather heavy attempt to come through as a simple old salt only trying to serve his country under trying circumstances, the book is useful for the details of bureaucratic tactics and chilling in its description of the atmosphere during Nixon’s last months.

Even in Zumwalt’s hostile account, Kissinger emerges as the most accomplished politician in this hermetic world where it is common practice to install secret channels of communication for every official channel; to work as hard at preventing information and documents from getting into the hands of rival bureaucrats as from getting into the hands of the press, even when one’s rivals are armed with a presidential directive that makes access to the information appropriate, even vital; to bypass heads of agencies and departments in order to establish contact with their subordinates, or, better yet, to plant one’s own agents in rival bureaucracies; and, above all, to block off access to the Oval Office while strongly implying that you are speaking in the president’s name.

In part, one is dismayed, if not surprised, by the obsessive secrecy, vanity, deceit, and disloyalty which prevailed, just as one is unnerved by the spectacle of men with deep enmities toward each other attempting to decide far-reaching matters of global strategy, and often under conditions of extraordinary stress. But the most troubling of Zumwalt’s revelations is one that emerges inadvertently. The first hint comes when Zumwalt gives the Navy’s version of the so-called “Admirals’ Spy Ring.” In 1972 a Navy yeoman was suspected of using his post in the White House to deliver top-secret documents concerning the India-Pakistan war to columnist Jack Anderson. Apparently Kissinger hesitated to press charges, because the yeoman threatened to testify that his naval superiors, also attached to the White House, had instructed him to forward certain documents to Admiral Moorer, then chairman of the JCS, despite a decision by Kissinger and the president that they did not want the admiral to see these particular documents.

Although Zumwalt tries to explain away the incident, he makes no effort to conceal his conviction that since the Army Chief of Staff was regularly being fed information denied the Navy, the latter was justified in organizing a system for acquiring that information by some other route. The political and constitutional implications of these evasions become clearer in Zumwalt’s recollections of 1974, the climactic year in his account. The pressures inside the government were building as knowledge of Nixon’s political and personal disintegration began to spread and to encourage more intrigues and vendettas. The picture tends to get out of focus because Zumwalt is preoccupied with the way that Kissinger has frustrated his efforts to get before the president and the public his fears concerning America’s military weakness and the dangerous, perhaps treasonous, concessions he sees in the SALT talks.

Nonetheless, the main outlines are disturbing, not because Zumwalt proves his case against Kissinger, but because he implicates enemies, friends, and himself, in short, everyone that mattered: which is to say that a condition had come into existence in which ambition could be countered only by unreason, civilian immorality by narrow patriotism. Thus Haig reports that Nixon was vacillating between a panicky pullout in Vietnam and a mad impulse to reduce that country to rubble (p. 399); at the same time, Haig, who is described as alternating between love and hate in his relationship with Kissinger, is secretly working on Nixon to undercut Kissinger’s pullout program (p. 419); meanwhile, Kissinger is raging against the new secretary of defense, Richardson, and threatening that “if Richardson doesn’t change his tune he’ll be treated the same as Rogers” (the former secretary of state whom Kissinger had successfully undercut); and Nixon is saying that “he wants to screw the universities, especially Harvard, by cutting back research and development money” (p. 419). At the end Haig is pictured as trying to hold a situation together while the president has come apart. Meanwhile the secretary of defense is confiding to his military chiefs that both Nixon and Kissinger are “two very sick people” (p. 508).

Alongside the paranoia in high places there emerges another possibility, one which Zumwalt describes without recognizing. From his account it is clear that the top military commanders hated Kissinger and despised the president, and that, as a result, their loyalty to their civilian superiors was being deeply strained. When Zumwalt decided to take his case against reduction of the defense budget before the public on television, his superior, Schlesinger, warned that the president would retaliate with further cuts; when Zumwalt persisted, Schlesinger reported that “the Commander in Chief has ordered you to get off the program.” But Zumwalt continued to balk, demanding that Schlesinger, the inferior authority to the president, command him not to appear on television.

After much hesitation, Schlesinger did so, only to have Zumwalt try to circumvent it (pp. 508-509). Another round followed in which the White House (which Zumwalt sees merely as Kissinger, Nixon, and Haig) threatened to court-martial and to “destroy” him, while declaring itself to be “threatened by the Joint Chiefs of Staff” because of a secret SALT agreement from which the chiefs felt that they had been excluded. Meanwhile Schlesinger was warning Haig that “there was no way the Chiefs could be made to back off this problem.” In concluding this particular episode Zumwalt takes care to report that once when he was being ushered out of the room by Schlesinger, the latter remarked “take care” and then “he followed me to the door and said, that was not said lightly” (p. 510).

Admiral Zumwalt is not a man for fine distinctions. He can become as apoplectic over the fact that Iceland’s minister of fisheries was a communist or that elections in Malta might bring “a doctrinaire Socialist” party to power as he is over what he considers Kissinger’s sellout to the Soviets during the SALT talks (p. 485). He is, therefore, something of a paradigm case of what an angered and frustrated military elite might do if faced with a president who appeared, as Nixon did to Zumwalt, “incapable of carrying on a rational conversation, much less exercising rational leadership…” (p. 460); or if faced with a situation, like the alert of October 1973, which the military strongly suspected had been called by Kissinger without the president’s knowledge (p. 448). Zumwalt saves us the trouble of speculating, for he tells us what he did do under comparable circumstances: “…I did something I would not have done if I had been sure that Richard Nixon, and not unelected, unaccountable Henry Kissinger, was making national policy about the [Arab-Israeli] war” (p. 435), i.e., he intrigued with Senator Jackson to release arms to Israel, or so he claims.

But what particularly baffles and outrages Zumwalt is that Kissinger’s rare ability at bureaucratic warfare is topped off with a flair for public performance that is historically new to both the academy and bureaucracy. Surely it must be unique in American history for an unelected official to be able to transform bureacratic action into public dramaturgy.


If, as scholar and bureaucrat, Kissinger has stood “no farther off than in a politic distance,” there still seems, nonetheless, a lingering “strangeness” to his rise to eminence. A striking proof of his extraordinariness is that we suppress the memory of how he got to Washington in the first place and we resist the possibility that he cannot be understood apart from the politics of which Richard Nixon was the symbol. Why, then, was Kissinger summoned to the White House and, once there, why did he flourish in an administration which, in its highest councils, was more corrupt, callous, and vicious than any other in American history?

For a man as naturally suspicious as Richard Nixon, a man who desperately needed reassurance and hated to be reminded of his ordinariness, it is difficult to imagine a choice which, on its face, could have made him more uneasy. Unless, that is, Nixon had been persuaded that the product of Harvard and the protégé of Rockefeller shared some of his own deepest beliefs. What is it that Dr. Kissinger, quoting his own writings, could have told the president that the latter wanted profoundly to believe? How, in short, might Kissinger have played tutor to the prince and contributed his share to the general phenomenon of which Watergate was the excremental symbol?

If there was one thing that a shabby opportunist like Nixon wanted, it was to be assured that his sordid deals and illegal acts were exalted because they served a higher purpose. What could have been more comforting to that barren and inarticulate soul than to hear the authoritative voice of Dr. Kissinger, who spoke so often and knowingly about the “meaning of history,” saying:

Anyone wishing to affect events must be opportunist to some extent. The real distinction is between those who adapt their purposes to reality and those who seek to mold reality in the light of their purposes.3

What greater solace could there be for the presidential recluse, sullen and withdrawn, than to be told, “What is leadership except the willingness to stand alone if the situation requires?”4 What more bracing tonic for one who had a pathological fear of appearing weak than to be taught that “history” demonstrates that “The price of our power is leadership,”5 that “Strength of will may be more important than power”?6

What greater encouragement could there be for one who was patently bored by bread-and-butter domestic controversies and craved the pomp and drama of international politics than to be counseled that America’s “preoccupation with domestic development” had produced leaders of a narrow vision, that now was the time to expand outlook and action to fit the great stage of “history” and its “tragic” mode?7 What greater balm for one who had struggled to rise above the mediocrity of his talents than to have his suspicions confirmed that the “multitude” had always been bent on reducing the exceptional man to its level?

The experience of a people tends to be confined to the level of its average performance. But leadership is the refusal to confine action to average performance; it is the willingness to define purposes perhaps only vaguely apprehended by the multitude. A society learns only from experience; it “knows” only when it is too late to act. But a statesman must act as if his inspirations were already experience, as if his aspiration were “truth.”8

Finally, there was Nixon’s contempt for constitutional niceties, his eagerness to countenance practically unlimited presidential authority in the name of “national security,” including the authority to invade the legal and political rights of individuals. It was fitting that, in this connection, Kissinger should have been appointed to the post of the president’s adviser on national security affairs.

It has been remarked before that neither as Secretary nor as Professor did Kissinger display much zeal for civil liberties or affection for dissidents. More telling is the fact that in his scholarly writing on foreign policy there is a striking absence of discussion about the traditional restraints—constitutional, political, and congressional—facing any president. The evidence is overwhelming that Kissinger was concerned essentially with actions that departed from the conventional norms of politicians and bureaucrats. The only Congress that figures prominently in his writings was the one held at Vienna in 1815. Freedom of action, rather than accountability, defined his conception of authentic statesmanship, and this seemed to require the old doctrine of mysteries of state (arcana imperii) and its corollary that, since the populace could not be expected to understand the mysteries, the statesman had to be prepared for some unpopularity:

…the very greatness of the statesman’s conception tends to make it inaccessible to those whose primary concern is with safety and minimum risk.9

The decade of the 1960’s [he wrote in 1960] will require heroic effort and we [sic] will not always have the solace of popular acclaim. 10

It may be that, later, when the adviser on national security declared Nixon to be a “hero,” he was paying his respects to his own handiwork.11

Despite their mutual enmity, an archetypal force would draw the two men together and fix them in a final and unforgettably American tableau. At the end, according to the popular story-tellers, the doomed president entreats the Jew, whom he has secretly reviled, to join with him in prayer. That the last act should be a religious ritual performed by two unreligious men identifies more certainly than anything else their common bond. It was their common deracination.

As a person and politician, Nixon was, in Homeric language, “hearthless,” the quintessential nowhere-man, friendless, classless, creedless in politics and religion. On the face of it, he seemed a political miracle. He had risen to the highest offices though he lacked any of the elements that, conventionally, politicians are supposed to have: a secure base of power in a region, a family fortune, or a significant interest group from which they can draw support and, in case of defeat, find temporary refuge. A politician does not recover from humiliating defeat, as Richard Nixon did after the California gubernatorial election of 1962, to win the highest office in the land simply because he tries hard. Rather to those who dominate a party as clearly defined in its economic interests as the Republican, Nixon’s emptiness was an asset, the equivalent of a blank check eager to be converted into a promissory note.

Kissinger completes the Faulknerian fable: the foreign-born Jew who gains the office which, next to the presidency, represents as it defines American values to the world. This is not the usual success story of the immigrant in the land of opportunity; for Kissinger was not an immigrant but a refugee, and one quite different from other refugees in that he seemed to flourish more easily in non-democratic institutions. Uprooted by Hitler, his family settled into the Bronx and its refugee culture; but soon the war forced him into the army and there began, according to his chroniclers, the first in a series of liberating experiences: the army freed him from the bleak existence of “his New York refugee ghetto”;12 introduced him to a wider world; recognized his remarkable abilities; and eventually rewarded him with some considerable authority in the postwar administration of a few conquered German towns.

It has been said by an admiring biographer that the army was Kissinger’s first educational institution,13 but that can mean many things. The army was, and to some extent is, an antidemocratic and anti-Semitic institution. It is not the ideal school for learning about democracy or for being socialized into a democratic culture. In reality, the army helped to dissociate Kissinger from the polity—and it should be added that, by every account, he was quite happy in the service—while attaching him to an institution whose postwar presence in conquered Germany was clear evidence that the American republic was fast becoming an imperium.

If the army gave Kissinger a rudimentary education in power politics, Harvard outfitted him with the intellectual resources, the “conceptual thinking,” as he would put it later, for analyzing and ordering American power in the postwar world. Harvard also kept him a refugee. For, as he was told by his first intellectual idol, Fritz Kraemer, “gentlemen” did not go to City College. Kraemer failed to add that the prewar type of gentleman was finding it harder to make it to postwar Harvard. Harvard was busy transforming itself from a citadel of inherited privilege to a Coliseum of the Meritocracy where the best and the brightest earned their privileges in ferocious competition.

In those days, when Senator McCarthy was searching for Reds among the Ivy, Harvard political science was not remarkable for its diversity of outlook, and it would have required the most delicate calipers of micropolitics to detect the ideological differences between Kissinger’s Harvard mentors and his former instructors in the Army Counter-Intelligence Corps. What was an article of patriotic faith for the latter was a truth of political science for the former. The Department of Defense in Washington and the Department of Government at Harvard agreed about a premise that was certainly true, that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime, and they both drew the same false conclusion, that the world was sharply divided into two hostile camps, the free and the enslaved.

Not surprisingly, while Richard Nixon was beginning a career of Red-hunting that would take him and his adviser to Moscow and Peking, Kissinger was learning how to “conceptualize” Nixon’s crude maxims, to substitute distinctions between “revolutionary” and “legitimate” states for distinctions between godless, materialistic, imperialistic communism and pacific, freedom-loving democracies.14

That Kissinger was nurtured in the cold war ideology, or that he made his contribution to it, is less important than the historical service which academic intellectuals were performing by this work.

…and in such cases,
Men’s Natures wrangle with
inferior things
Though great ones are their object.

As we have come to realize, the cold war was aimed at the transformation of the American consciousness as much as it was at the Soviet threat. Americans had to be taught to place a different value upon privacy, freedom, personal loyalties, and human life, because powerful and influential groups had come to see in the cold war not a momentary crisis, like a wartime emergency, but a state of affairs of indefinite duration. Americans would have to develop new national traits, perhaps new institutions and forms of control, if they were to fight this kind of war.

The book which brought Kissinger recognition, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957), was an attempt to break down inhibitions against the use of nuclear weapons and to get his audience to accept the notion that nuclear warfare, like war itself, was a normal instrument of policy. “Any war,” Kissinger declared, “is likely to be a nuclear war.”15 He argued that American policy makers, paralyzed by the fear of a nuclear holocaust, had abstained from using the “bargaining power inherent in our industrial potential and our nuclear superiority”16 to force concessions from the Soviets, perhaps even to alter basic Soviet directions. The nuclear age, he suggested, presents exciting “opportunities” as well as risks;17 if the US was not willing to accept the risks, it would, in effect, be giving the Soviets a “blank check.”

Our horror of nuclear war had caused us to overlook its strategic possibilities. Nuclear war should be the via media between “absolute peace” and “total victory.”18 More specifically, limited nuclear war might take the form of “local actions” which would have the effect of shifting the risk of initiating all-out war to the Soviet side.19 Kissinger did not bother raising the question of how the locals might feel about these actions. Fascinated by the possibilities of “small, mobile units with nuclear weapons,” he envisaged them being “used to make the countryside untenable for the invader” and “to keep the enemy constantly off balance by never permitting him to consolidate any territorial gains….”20 Horror is susceptible to being controlled by rational foresight: “In a limited war the problem is to apply graduated amounts of destruction for limited objectives and also to permit the necessary breathing spaces for political contacts”21—just like bloodying their noses a bit and then demanding, “Had enough?”

The fantasizer, of course, invariably gets carried away and before long he has persuaded himself that a nuclear war which from the beginning was understood by both sides to be limited in its objectives was preferable to a limited war fought with conventional weapons which might escalate into a nuclear war.22 Besides, when all was said and done, and all the Strangelove fantasies exhausted, there was the hard fact that limited nuclear war was far more suitable to the capacities of advanced technological societies than warfare which depended on “massed manpower” possessed by the Russians and the Chinese.23

The dissociation of thought from reality, which is so marked a feature of theories of strategy and deterrence, turns up in the practical implications which cannot be openly admitted, not even by their author to himself. To live in such a perilous world, Americans would have to overhaul their political system. Since no politician and few, if any, academics were prepared to contemplate that course, the implications had to be suppressed; but they reappeared in an inverted form. The Russians were invested with certain qualities which the Americans would need in the struggle.

The Russian challenge, Kissinger wrote, may be more remarkable for its “moral” rather than for its “physical” aspects. “Soviet gains” were due to “greater moral toughness, to a greater readiness to run risks, both physical and moral….”24 In addition to being “iron-nerved,” the Russians enjoyed another form of superiority of special interest to Kissinger: they were, he claimed, far better at conceptualizing and theorizing about politics. This gave them a distinct advantage over American “elites” which were hampered by the national penchant for relying on experience and pragmatic tests. America’s difficulties were “caused by national traits which are deeply ingrained in the American experience.”25

The dissociation of thought from reality and the attempt on Kissinger’s part to discredit traditional American modes of thought, such as the appeal to experience and to pragmatic tests, cast a different light on some of Kissinger’s most famous notions. What is the significance of formulations like the following?

Nothing is more difficult for Americans to understand than the possibility of tragedy…..26 Our [sic] idealism and impetuosity would gain depth if leavened by the European sense of tragedy.27

The answer is that, semantically, they are meaningless; but politically they tend to create the right amount of unconfidence. To be told that, as Americans, we have lacked “a feeling for nuance” and have not tasted the “tragic experience,”28 has the effect of making one distrustful of one’s own cultural experience. Yet the truth is that Kissinger’s own usages reveal that the large notions of “tragedy,” for example, have been lost on him, that it, along with “guilt” and “anguish,” has become totally severed from any cultural realities.

Here is a list of his several uses of “tragedy”:

  1. It is equivalent to “the impossibility of escaping conjecture”;
  2. to “a residue of uncertainty” that resists “objective analysis”;29
  3. to a misfit between “good intentions” and unfortunate results;30
  4. and, finally:

I believe there is the tragedy of a man who works very hard and never gets what he wants…. There is the even more bitter tragedy of a man who finally gets what he wants and finds out that he does not want it. 31

A sensibility ignorant that tragedy has to do with moral flaws rather than unlucky calculations; with a profound violation of the structure of existence rather than with the sophomoric wisdom that “two rights” may be in conflict;32 with the fall of the truly great and noble, not with the unhappiness of those who have been disappointed by life—such a sensibility will predictably pronounce Vietnam to have been “a Greek tragedy. We should never have been there at all.”33

This dissociation of thought from reality explains the inconsistencies between Kissinger’s practices and his precepts: between his writings that condemn both “personal diplomacy” and summit diplomacy34 and his practice which presupposes them; between his theoretical criticism of pragmatism and his political actions which are consistent with vulgarized pragmatism; or between his appeals to “history” and his indifference to American history.35

Words, ideas, theories—these are not handled as one would valued artifacts which require care. They are instead political instruments which are more or less useful, depending on whether one is a young scholar courting favor at Harvard and with the Council on Foreign Relations and Rockefeller; or the seasoned politician battling for survival in Washington. Thus it is not as though Kissinger’s words or ideas are wholly without pattern, any more than his actions are. Somehow the “risks” he finds exhilarating rarely include support of social democrats but typically bring him closer to tyrants such as the successor to Allende. Somehow he finds it more congenial to explore the risks of détente with the USSR or China than with the Western Communist parties trying to break away from Soviet influence. In the last analysis, it does not matter that Kissinger’s political idiom should seem unanchored in historical existence, because it is responsive to the only reality that matters to him, the reality of power.

If Kissinger has contributed his share to the deracination of the American consciousness, his rumored successor has coined an apt name for the kind of politics that suits such a consciousness—“technetronic.” It is no surprise that Jimmy Carter’s most visible theorist should have a biography similar to Kissinger’s. The new world, technetronic and multinational, requires that the nation of immigrants becomes a society of refugees from their own disabling past; and that an academic adviser to presidents shall, like Iago, be

…an abuser of the world, a practicer
of arts inhibited and out of warrant.

This Issue

December 9, 1976