The Jewish key to Henry Kissinger

Is the ferocity of criticism for Kissinger related to the fact that he is Jewish?, asks Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson | The Times Literary Supplement | May 28, 2008

To say that Henry Kissinger is the most controversial of twentieth-century American Secretaries of State would be an understatement. No other holder of that office has inspired opprobrium of the sort heaped on Kissinger by journalists such as Seymour Hersh and Christopher Hitchens. The latter’s polemic, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2002), for example, accuses Kissinger of having “ordered and sanctioned the destruction of civilian populations, the assassination of inconvenient politicians, the kidnapping and disappearance of soldiers and journalists and clerics who got in his way”. Hitchens offers no explanation of his subject’s alleged record of “promiscuous violence abroad and flagrant illegality at home”. The reader is merely left to infer that Kissinger must be a terribly wicked man.

Quite apart from the distinctly thin documentary foundation of Hitchens’s footnote-free case for the prosecution – which quotes from little more than a few dozen primary documents, all from US archives – The Trial of Henry Kissinger suffers from a strange absence of historical perspective. It would in fact be much easier to implicate a number of Kissinger’s predecessors in civilian bombings, coups d’état and support for murderous regimes. Unlike the case of Chile, to give a single example, there is no question that the Central Intelligence Agency had a direct hand in the coup that overthrew an elected government in Guatemala in 1954. It also played an active role in the subsequent campaign of violence against the Guatemalan Left. Many more people (around 200,000) died in this campaign than were “disappeared” in Chile after 1973 (2,279). In any case, Richard Nixon was not the first President to seek to influence Chilean domestic politics. Both of his immediate predecessors did so. Yet you will search the bookshops in vain for “The Trial of John Foster Dulles” or “The Trial of Dean Rusk”.

The more books I have read about Henry Kissinger in recent years, the more I have been reminded of the books I used to read about the Rothschild family. When other nineteenth-century banks made loans to conservative regimes or to countries at war, no one seemed to notice. But when the Rothschilds did it, the pamphleteers could scarcely control their indignation. Indeed, it would take a great many shelves to contain all the shrill anti-Rothschild polemics produced by Victorian antecedents of Hitchens and his ilk. Which prompts the question: has the ferocity of the criticism which Kissinger has attracted perhaps got something to do with the fact that he, like the Rothschilds, is Jewish? (Nota bene: this is not to imply that his critics are anti-Semites. Some of the Rothschilds’ most fierce critics were also Jews. So are some of Kissinger’s.)

Jeremi Suri’s Henry Kissinger and the American Century puts Kissinger’s Jewishness centre-stage in an interpretation of his life that stands out among recent books on the subject for the extent and depth of the author’s research. Unlike Hitchens (to say nothing of Robert Dallek and Margaret Macmillan, two other writers who have recently published books critical of Kissinger), Suri has done some real digging before rushing into print. He cites documents from sixteen different archival collections. His sixty-seven pages of notes are a model of academic rigour. I should at this point declare an interest: I am currently researching a biography of Kissinger based (in part) on his own private papers at the Library of Congress, to which Suri did not have access. I hope this lends credence, rather than the reverse, to my positive judgement. Though I do not agree with all Suri’s conclusions, I salute his scholarship. This is surely the best book yet published about Henry Kissinger. (Jussi Hanhimäki’s 2004 study of Kissinger’s foreign policy is more comprehensive on Kissinger’s time in office, but is much less insightful.) Unlike so many previous writers – particularly those journalists steeped in the blood of the Nixon administration – Suri actually makes an attempt to understand his subject in the appropriate historical context rather than simply joining in the never-ending hunt for “smoking gun” quotations.

For Suri, Kissinger’s Jewish origins are the key to understanding both the man and the world’s reaction to him. Kissinger, writes Suri in one of his boldest sallies, was like “a hybrid of the Court Jew and the State Jew – what we might tentatively call the ‘policy Jew’”. He portrays his subject as ascending from academia to the corridors of power by doing “grunt work” for the goyim: first his Harvard mentor, William Elliott, then McGeorge Bundy, then Nelson Rockefeller, then Nixon and finally his successor Gerald Ford (about whom, like nearly all writers on Kissinger, Suri says much too little). But Kissinger’s Jewishness has a wider significance. In Suri’s account, it was Kissinger’s German-Jewish youth – born in 1923 at the height of the Weimar hyperinflation, ten years old when Hitler came to power, fifteen when his family emigrated to the United States in 1938 – that laid the foundation for a distinctly pessimistic world view. “Life is suffering, birth involves death”, wrote Kissinger in his sprawling Harvard senior thesis, “The Meaning of History”: “Transitoriness is the fate of existence. No civilization has yet been permanent, no longing completely fulfilled. This is necessity, the fatedness of history, the dilemma of mortality”. The influence of Oswald Spengler, Suri suggests, imbued Kissinger with a fear of “a return to the violence, chaos and collapse of Weimar Germany”. Kissinger entered the White House as Nixon’s National Security Advisor filled with foreboding, anticipating four years of “disorder at home, increasing tension abroad”. This, he suggests, helps to explain why Kissinger felt so much was at stake in Vietnam. As he put it in the first volume of his memoirs:

“Until I emigrated to America, my family and I endured progressive ostracism and discrimination . . . . I could never forget what an inspiration [America] has been to the victims of persecution, to my family, and to me during cruel and degrading years . . . . It seemed to me important for America not to be humiliated, not to be shattered, but to leave Vietnam in a manner that even the protesters might later see as reflecting an American choice made with dignity and self-respect.”

When Watergate struck the Nixon presidency, Kissinger feared “irreparable damage” that might take the US over the “edge of a precipice”.

I am not sure I quite buy these two arguments. Advising politicians politicians can be interesting, usually involves a measure of sycophancy, and is not a peculiarly Jewish activity. As for the Weimar trauma, I am inclined to think the experience of returning to Germany as a GI had a much greater impact. Still, these are matters of interpretation. Suri deserves credit for producing a more convincing account of his subject’s German-Jewish background than any previous biographer of Kissinger, including the broadly sympathetic Walter Isaacson.

Heinz (as he was originally named) and his younger brother grew up in an Orthodox household in Fürth, Bavaria, where their father Louis was a respectable schoolteacher, a firm believer in the benefits of German Bildung. Louis Kissinger’s world was shattered by the rise of the Nazis, but it was his wife Paula who had the wit to get the family out of Germany just months before the regime’s anti-Semitism erupted in full-blown pogroms. Kissinger lost at least a dozen relatives in the Holocaust, including his grandmother, Fanny Stern (who Suri says perished in the Belzec death camp). “I had seen evil in the world”, Kissinger commented in an interview many years later, “and I knew it was there, and I knew that there are some things you have to fight for, and that you can’t insist that everything be to some ideal construction you have made.” Suri is surely correct to see that an awareness of this searing experience is indispensable to our understanding of the man.

One puzzle that is not quite resolved here is why Kissinger abandoned his parents’ Orthodox allegiance, which they maintained after moving to New York’s Washington Heights by joining the most conservative synagogue in the neighbourhood. Was it the drudgery of the brush-cleaning factory where Kissinger worked for a time? Or was it, as Suri seems to imply, the experience of “eating ham for Uncle Sam” in the US Army after he was drafted in 1943? Suri’s account of Kissinger’s wartime career is tantalizing in other ways too. We do not hear enough about his work as a military administrator in the post-war occupation of Germany, a role which involved apprehending and interrogating Nazis. The link that Suri draws between these experiences and Kissinger’s subsequent close relationship with Konrad Adenauer seems tenuous.

As Suri shows, post-war Harvard provided the young veteran with an altogether more propitious environment than the military. With the proportion of Jews at the university rising from 17 per cent of enrolments in 1947 to 25 per cent in 1952, Kissinger can scarcely have felt like an outsider. He was also fortunate in his mentors: just as Fritz Kramer had spotted Kissinger’s intellectual potential in the army, so William Elliott soon identified him as “a combination of Kant and Spinoza”, hyperbole that Kissinger almost lived up to by producing a senior thesis so long that it prompted Harvard to impose a maximum word-count. Elliott’s influence, Suri suggests, was as much political as academic. As early as 1950, with Elliott’s encouragement, Kissinger was writing hawkish briefings for Paul Nitze, then Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. Running the long-lived International Seminar at the Cold War Summer School (a classic “soft power” initiative partly funded by the CIA) also provided him with first-class networking opportunities, particularly among the next generation of Western European statesmen and diplomats. As Suri says, Harvard at this time was truly a “Cold War University” – in marked contrast to the hotbed of liberal sentiment it became almost as soon as Kissinger departed for Washington.

In addition to illuminating Kissinger’s cultural roots, Suri does a good job of tracing the development of his strategic thought in the 1950s. He also gives a fair appraisal of Kissinger’s doctrine of limited nuclear war as a way of avoiding “impotence in the atomic stalemate” (as he put it in 1954). All-out nuclear war, Kissinger reasoned, “would not be an act of policy but of desperation”. There needed to be “options less cataclysmic than a thermonuclear holocaust”. Kissinger was therefore an advocate of increasing West German and Japanese conventional forces, while creating a “compact, highly mobile US strategic reserve” in the Middle East. He also recommended, in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957), a greater readiness to deploy and to use smaller “tactical” nuclear weapons. This has subsequently been misrepresented as a reckless “Doctor Strangelove” argument that underestimated the risks of nuclear escalation. But, as Suri shows, at the time Kissinger’s argument was welcomed by such luminaries as Bernard Brodie, Reinhold Niebuhr and even (albeit with qualifications) by President Eisenhower himself.

How far had Kissinger worked out a framework for American grand strategy before he entered the White House? Suri does not quite answer this question, but provides ample evidence to suggest it was quite a long way. For example, he early on grasped the significance of American “relative decline” as the rest of the world finally put the economic devastation of the Second World War behind it. This implied not only a basic acceptance of the division of Europe between the superpowers, but also a reconfiguration of the Western alliance system.

In lectures he wrote for Rockefeller in 1962, Kissinger advanced an argument for a new confederal “framework . . . for the free world” – an Atlantic Confederacy with an Anglo-American-French “Executive Committee”. At the same time, Kissinger made the case for an autonomous European nuclear force. As all this suggests, Kissinger still considered himself a European specialist. During his brief stint as an adviser to McGeorge Bundy, when Bundy was serving as President Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, Kissinger was mainly concerned with the division of Berlin.

Yet America’s principal foreign policy preoccupation by the mid 1960s lay far from Germany. Suri shows that Kissinger had formed a pessimistic view of American policy in Vietnam as early as 1965, when he first visited the country. He also shows how Kissinger became persuaded that “ending the war honourably” was “essential for the peace of the world” since “any other solution may unloose forces that would complicate prospects for international order”. Contrary to the assumptions made (and still cherished) by a generation of liberals, Kissinger felt the US “could not simply walk away from an enterprise involving two administrations, five allied countries, and thirty-one thousand dead as if we were switching a television channel”. Pace Hersh and Hitchens, Suri contends that there was nothing untoward in Kissinger’s bipartisan communications about Vietnam at this time.

As has often been remarked, there have been few odder couples in American politics than Nixon and Kissinger. Not the least of the oddities about their relationship was Nixon’s tendency to give vent to his own anti-Jewish prejudices, sometimes even in Kissinger’s presence. Yet Suri argues that their differences were always outweighed by fundamental similarities of outlook. In particular, Kissinger was impressed by Nixon’s faith in his own willpower and the effectiveness of firm, decisive action. As the President told his adviser, his long, hard ascent of the greasy pole had given him “the will in spades”; hence his readiness to take “action which is very strong, threatening, and effective”. On occasion, Kissinger could talk in similar terms. As he told Yitzhak Rabin in 1973: “When you use force it is better to use 30 per cent more than is necessary than 5 per cent less than is necessary . . . . Whenever we use force we have to do it slightly hysterically”. Suri details the two occasions when Kissinger used nuclear sabre-rattling to exert pressure on the Soviets – October 1969 and October 1973 – though he does not offer a clear verdict as to whether these actions were effective diplomatically, or needlessly reckless.

The obverse of occasional sabre-rattling was Nixon and Kissinger’s shared and unshakeable faith in regular “back channel” negotiations. Beginning in February 1969, Kissinger cultivated a hotline to Moscow via the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin. At first designed primarily (though never exclusively) to bypass the State Department, the back channel gradually evolved into a highly effective and highly sensitive system of superpower communications. Subsequent criticism of the policy of détente (from the Right more than the Left) cannot detract from the tangible achievements of Kissinger’s period in office: the Four-Power Agreement on Berlin, the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Helsinki Accords. Suri also seems to concur with the view that Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to China (or, as Margaret Macmillan would have it, Mao and Zhou Enlai’s opening to America) worked as a way of exerting pressure on the Soviets by shattering the illusion of a homogeneous Communist Second World.

In Suri’s version of events, Nixon and Kissinger approached the problem of Vietnam with a similar combination of tools: the unflinching use of force plus sustained back-channel negotiation, allied with the hope that either the USSR or the PRC could be induced to lean on Hanoi. Suri does not dismiss the strategy as doomed to fail. The use of force certainly hurt North Vietnam. Le Duan, General Secretary of the North Vietnamese Communist Party, later admitted that the mining of Haiphong “completely obliterated our economic foundation”. Equally, Kissinger’s tenacity in negotiation ultimately bore fruit in the form of the Paris Accords, signed on January 23, 1973. The question – which Suri does not quite answer – is how long that peace might have endured had not domestic opposition undercut American assistance to South Vietnam.

A similar question can, of course, be posed about Kissinger’s policy in the Middle East. Could more have been achieved? But there is a danger in posing unrealistic counterfactuals. An enduring peace in the Middle East was probably not attainable in the wartorn 1970s. What was attainable was a diminution in the power of the Soviet Union and a stabilization of Israel’s position relative to her Arab neighbours. These goals, as Suri points out, Kissinger was uniquely positioned to achieve. As a Jewish Secretary of State, he could credibly promise the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to “get [Rabin] to move in the right direction . . . to work on him”. At the same time, he could withstand the bitter claims of Menachem Begin that he was one of those “Jews, who out of a complex feared non-Jews would charge them with acting for their people, and therefore did the opposite”. And, having ousted the Soviets from Egypt, he could reassure Rabin, with equal credibility: “We are working for a common strategy, one element of which is a strong Israel”.

“Kissinger”, Suri writes, “was above all a revolutionary.” To those who have read their Hitchens, this may come as something of a surprise. Kissinger a revolutionary? The man who told the Argentine junta’s Foreign Minister, Cesar Guzzetti: “We wish [your] government well”? The man who promised his South African counterpart to “curb any missionary zeal of my officers in the State Department to harass you”? The man who told the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet: “We are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here”? Yet Suri has a case to make, even if he does not make it more than obliquely. An integral part of Kissinger’s grand strategy was always to establish priorities. In order to check Soviet ambitions in the Third World – the full extent of which we have only recently come to appreciate – some unpleasant regimes had to be tolerated, and indeed supported. Besides the various Latin American caudillos, the Saudi royal family, the Shah of Iran and the Pakistani military, these unpleasant regimes also included (though the Left seldom acknowledged it) the Maoist regime in Beijing, which was already guilty of many more violations of human rights than all the right-wing dictators put together when Kissinger flew there for the first time in July 1971.

Yet the real revolution Kissinger had to achieve was not so much in the realm of grand strategy as in that of domestic politics. As he himself put it in one of the many “heartland speeches” he delivered in the US in 1975 and 1976, his underlying aim was “to end the self-flagellation that has done so much harm to this nation’s capacity to conduct foreign policy”. In this he was ultimately unsuccessful. Indeed, US self-flagellation reached its zenith during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

Jeremi Suri, who was still an untenured junior professor at the University of Wisconsin when he wrote this book, draws back from passing an unambiguous verdict on Kissinger’s “revolution”. He does not say how far the strategic benefits of supping with sundry devils outweighed the domestic costs. Indeed, he leaves open nearly all the major questions about Kissinger’s grand strategy. What he has done is to provide an invaluable insight into the background of an American statesman who has surely received a disproportionate share of criticism relative to his predecessors. How far Kissinger’s Jewishness provides the real key to his inner motivations remains a matter for debate. (My own preference would be to see him as first and foremost a historian – one of the very select band of serious scholars of the past who end up actually making policy in the here and now.) But it certainly provides a part of the explanation for the vitriol that has come his way.

Jeremi Suri
358pp. Harvard University Press. £15.95 (US $27.95).
978 0 674 02579 0

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University. He is currently working on a Life of Henry Kissinger.


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