The Salad Days of Henry Kissinger
"He was a Rococo figure, complex, finely carved, all surface, like an intricately cut prism. His face was delicate but without depth, his conversation brilliant but without ultimate seriousness. Equally at home in the salon and in the Cabinet, he was the beau-ideal of [ an ] aristocracy which justified itself not by its truth but by its existence. And if he never came to terms with the new age it was not because he failed to understand its seriousness but because he disdained it."
With these words, a Harvard thesis-writer named Henry Kissinger introduced Clemens Metternich, Austria's greatest foreign minister. Metternich was a man whom Kissinger emulated, whose diplomatic life he has sought to relive. And the comparison of the two is far from inapt.
As Richard Nixon's most influential advisor on foreign policy, Kissinger has embodied the role of the 19th-century balance-of-power diplomat. He is cunning, elusive, and all-powerful in the sprawling sector of government which seeks to advise the President on national security matters. As Nixon's personal emissary to foreign dignitaries, to academia, and-as "a high White House official"-to the press, he is vague and unpredictable-yet he is the single authoritative carrier of national policy besides the President himself.
Like the Austrian minister who became his greatest political hero, Kissinger has used his position in government as a protective cloak to conceal his larger ambitions and purposes. Far from being the detached, objective arbiter of Presidential decision-making, he has become a crucial molder and supporter of Nixon's foreign policy. Instead of merely holding the bureaucracy at comfortable arm's length, he has entangled it in a web of useless projects and studies, cleverly shifting an important locus of advisory power from the Cabinet departments to his own office. And as confidential advisor to the President, he never speaks for the record, cannot be made to testify before Congress, and is identified with Presidential policy only on a semipublic level. His activity is even less subject to domestic constraints than that of Nixon.
Not that any of this is very surprising, however, because Kissinger has emerged from that strain of policy thinking which is fiercely anti-popular and anti-bureaucratic in its origins. Like the ministers who ruled post-Napoleonic Europe from the conference table at Vienna-and the Eastern Establishment figures who preceded him as policy-makers of a later age-Kissinger believes that legislative bodies, bureaucracies, and run-of-the-mill citizenries all lack the training and temperament that are needed in the diplomatic field. He is only slightly less moved by the academics who parade down to Washington to be with the great man and peddle their ideas. And when one sets aside popular opinion, Congress, the bureaucracy, and the academic community, there remains the President alone. The inescapable conclusion is that Henry Kissinger's only meaningful constituency is a constituency of one.
At a superficial level, the comparison with Metternich breaks down. As opposed to a finely carved figure, Kissinger is only of average height, slightly overweight, excessively plain, and somewhat stoop-ed. Far from beau-ideal, he is a Jewish refugee, and he speaks with a foreign accent. Despite the image of the gay divorcee, the ruminations about his social activity seem to be grounded more in journalism than in fact.
But without being a butterfly, Kissinger is a deeper and more soulful individual than the man he describes, and he possesses qualities which have attracted him a great deal more popularity in inner circles than his methods or policies would seem to warrant. He has none of the pedigreed arrogance of his predecessors, and when he likes, he exudes a personal charm and warmth that have struck immense sympathy among those who associate with him. Even those who have left his staff over policy decisions are quick to defend his intellect and his motivations. And if personality traits do not redeem bad decisions and repugnant policies, they do a great deal to make them more understandable; for at the top crust of Washington policy-making, it is the impact of decisive personalities-not that of impressive intellect-which ultimately spurs the winning recommendations and gives them decisive force. And if his reading of Metternich has taught Kissinger anything, it is that personality could ape beau-ideal, and that once in the seat of power, ultimate seriousness could be transformed to the diplomat's disdain.
"Whatever the tragedy of life, its content constitutes the creation of an individual soul, the reaction to its immanence contains the essence of personality."
HEINZ Kissinger was born in the small village of Fuerth, in Franconia, on May 27, 1923. His father was a professor at the gymnasium, or prep school, in Fuerth; his Jewish upbringing was marked by an early respect for scholarship. But by 1930, the Nazis had seized power in Franconia, and after eight years of social torture and humiliation, the Kissinger family was forced to abandon its home and migrate to America.
The experience was shattering to the young man of 15. He saw his parents, to whom he was deeply attached, uprooted and destroyed. He himself suffered the pangs of a refugee childhood in New York City. And it was only in the American army of occupation during World War II that he first made durable friendships and impressed people with his rare intellectual abilities.
After the war, he won a New York State scholarship and was admitted to Harvard. A thoughtful, unobtrusive man in his mid-twenties, he worked hard at his studies and slowly acquired vast confidence in his ability to do serious scholarly work. According to a colleague from his Harvard Faculty days, Kissinger was once informed as the result of a clerical error that he had received a failing grade. He immediately range up the professor involved and proclaimed, "Tell me. Is this a joke?"
A philosophy major and an attentive follower of the international scene, Kissinger had already acquired the hard-line instincts which were to fuel him in his later years. His refugee background had driven him to analyze and understand the historical process which had allowed the holocaust of the '30's to occur; America itself was too big and complicated for him to be interested in, but the world was what he knew. And if his experience had imparted him a sense of the tragic, it also instilled in him a deep feeling that there was something one must do to prevent the next decline.
Kissinger has been heard to remark around Washington that "Nixon will save us from the hardhats"; but in his undergraduate days, the men alertinging him to the danger of historical collapse were made of more sterling stuff. Kissinger read with particular concern the works of Oswald Spengler, whose dire predictions about the fall of the West had a measurable impact on the young refugee student. The historical forces shaping his early background had recked of decadence. A colleague, Stanley Hoffmann, would remark later that Kissinger "walked in a way with the ghost of Spengler at his side."
THE culmination of Kissinger's undergraduate work was a gargantuan 350-page thesis on the work of Spengler, Toynbec, and Kant. Unpretentiously titled "The Meaning of History," its only lasting impact seems to have been that it spurred the Government Department to impose a 150-page limit on the length of senior theses. But it was good enough to be graded summa -a rare thing in those days-and contained some fruitful insights into Kissinger's mind. In a section devoted to Spengler, he wrote that "Instinct is no guide to political conduct. Effective leadership is always forced-whatever its motives-to represent itself as the carrier of ideas, embodying purposes. All truly great achievements in history resulted from the actualization of principles, not from the clever evaluation of political conditions."
One pivotal influence on Kissinger was William Yandell Elliott, a large, flamboyant Virginian who became kingpin of Harvard's Government Department. A grandiose, hulking figure who often wore a white plantation suit and a Panama hat, Elliott was the sort of man who fancied himself Secretary of State if he so much as lunched with the President four times a year. During his life, he had tried his hand at poetry and novel-writing as well as teaching and policy-making; he had failed at each, but he was a man of impressive connections and formidable personality. "His books aren't very readable, his courses were a mess, but there was something there," one colleague said recently. "It was a gigantic ruin."
ELLIOTT "discovered" Kissinger. He spent long hours with his young prodigy-the two would often read and grade master's theses written by Elliott's graduate students-and provided Kissinger with impetus for his career. With Elliott, Kissinger founded and directed Harvard International Seminar, through which about 40 mid-career people from foreign countries-writers and artists as well as scholars and politicians-visited Harvard for two months of the summer every year. (It was later discovered that several of the foundations financing the Seminar were secret conduits for CIA funds. Kissinger claimed not to have known of CIA support.) Many of these people became high-ranking government officials in their countries in the years after their attendance at the seminar, and several-with whom Kissinger developed strong personal ties-became valued contacts for a man who was continually in the process of building his career.
It was at Elliott's recommendation that Kissinger went to work for the Council on Foreign Relations as an editor of Foreign Affairs and director of the Council's study on nuclear weapons. And it was through Elliott that he joined the Rockefeller Brothers Fund when that group became interested in sponsoring a series of reports on American foreign policy. Kissinger's interest then underwent a major shift from scholarship to policy. And it was his incorporation of 19th-century balance-of-power theory into the leading policy issue of the 1950's-thermonuclear relationships-where Kissinger made his mark.
The basis for Kissinger's political thinking was contained in his Ph.D. thesis, written in 1954 and later published under the title, A World Restored: The Politics of Conservatism in a Revolutionary Age. In it, he discussed the diplomatic deals and maneuvers by which a handful of foreign ministers-particularly Metternich and Viscount Castlereagh-restructured post-Napoleonic Europe and set the course of history for more than a century. In A World Restored, Kissinger argued that "stability based on an equilibrium of forces" was ultimately responsible for the relative calm of Europe in the decades preceding World War I. His fascination, however, lay clearly not with physical force as such, but rather with the clever ploys and double entendres of great power diplomacy.
The image of Europe's fate being played out in negotiations by foreign ministers who were free of popular constraints and who maintained almost unlimited autonomy with respect to their own heads of state is one that held unlimited appeal for him. And his sympathies lay not so much with the Castlereaghs who sallied forth from their island paradises when they found their interests threatened as with the statesmen who were naturally inclined to activist, interventionist roles-men like Metternich, who defended impotent Austria and finally commanded European peacemaking through the devious use of offers, deals, and threats:
"When the unity of Europe came to pass, it was not because of the self, evidence of its necessity, as Castlereagh had imagined, but through a cynical use of the conference machinery to define a legitimizing principle of social repression; not through Castlereagh's good faith, but through Metternich's manipulation."
IT WAS with this perspective that Kissinger wrote Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, which grew out of the Council on Foreign Relations studies. In it, Kissinger argued for the doctrine of "flexible response" and wound up advocating a policy of limited nuclear warfare. Not that he favored the most forceful possible use of drms; the central dilemma facing American policymakers in their dealings with the Soviet Union at that time was a choice between "massive retaliation" and no response at all. From a strategic point of view. Kissinger stated that the capability of response was vital to American security interests; from a technical viewpoint, he argued that it would be possible to choose a limit on the nuclear scale up to which it would be possible to threaten an escalation-and, if necessary, to carry out the threat.
The doctrine was rejected by most knowledgeable specialists in the arms field. The book was viciously reviewed by several influential arms specialists, a factor which re-inforced Kissinger's native insecurity and compelled him to backtrack and reverse many of the central policy recommendations. Nor were many aspects of the policy startling or innovative in themselves; the considerations surrounding the bomb and limited war had already been outlined in part by the work of Bernard Brodie, James Gavin, and Edward Teller, and the sections on diplomatic flexibility borrowed heavily from Metternich and the conferees at Vienna. The book's real departure was its fusing of diplomatic concerns with the theory of nuclear war: the result was a potent, hard-line combina-tion of cajolery, threat, and physical force.
The book was given a gala launching by the Council on Foreign Relations, and despite the criticism it received from experts, it was an instant public hit. On bestseller lists for 14 weeks, it made Kissinger an internationally known figure, won him a Pentagon consultantship, and attracted the attention of several influential policymakers and officials-such as Vice President Richard M. Nixon-who later played a role in enhancing his power and prestige.
In 1957, the creation of the Harvard Center for International Affairs gave Kissinger a chance to return to teaching and scholarship with his power base intact. The CFIA was being set up by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations as well as by McGeorge Bundy and Harvard's leading foreign policy specialists. In a struggle for the position of associate director, Kissinger-reportedly with the prodding of the Rockefeller group-edged out Edward Katzenbach, director of the Harvard-M.I.T. Defense Studies Program out of which the new Harvard Center grew.
KISSINGER'S return to Harvard was at once triumphal and antagonizing. He now had an immense coterie of associates, contacts, and patron saints in the outside world. His calendar was always full, and he continually angered students and colleagues by postponing their appointments as many as four or five times in a row. The unattractive twin pillars of his personality-insecurity coupled with unlimited intellectual arrogance-had been reinforced by the competitions and successes in the outside world.
But there was an ingrained fatalism in Kissinger-a feeling "that ultimately failure is one of the likely outcomes of any form of action," as his close colleague Stanley Hoffmann put it-which lent Kissinger's personality a soft spot not ordinarily found in such stern, arrogant men. "He has a human quality I value very much," a colleague at the Center for International Affaris said recently. "There's a deep melancholy about him, and a sense that you're dealing with a guy who has known unlimited tragedy and seen some of the bleakest parts of the human landscape."
And there is a deep sardonicism in his personality, a self-deprecating sense of humor which he would sometimes use to disarm his colleagues and at other times to make straightforward remarks which he would never have dared utter in a serious vein. "My problem," he once said to a Faculty coleague with a trace of a grin, "is that I was born arrogant"; the remark of a man who either thought himself above reproach or was perhaps entirely too blind about the roots of his own scornfulness.
Soon after he returned to Harvard, he began a practice which was to recur at other times in his academic career: playing both sides of the White House political fence. Ostensibly a Rockefeller man. Kissinger readily agreed to compose position papers for a Democratic Presidential candidate: Senator John F. Kennedy. He was the leading specialist on European security matters, true, but there was no reticence about consulting for a potential winner.
AND it was as a consultant for President Kennedy that Kissinger got his first real taste of what infighting and influence games in the White House were really like. Not that he had ever been naive and amiss; it was simply that the struggle for power was more subtle and refined that even he had imagined. After advising Kennedy on the Berlin crisis-and asking the President to enter negotiations with the Russians and flex the possibilities of response, which Kennedy never did-Kissinger boorishly chose to criticize the President's policy in the pages of Foreign Affairs. Even as Kennedy failed to be swayed by his advice, he travelled about the world like a man of consequence, advertising himself as the White House consultant on European security. Able to meet with Kennedy only from time to time, he insisted on getting regular access to him-a principle which he would deny today, because virtually no one on Kissinger's present staff sees Nixon but Kissinger himself.
And finally there was the competition from the fast-talking, native American intellectuals of Camelot, the hard-nosed, problem-solving, pragmatically arrogant men who rejected the notion of failure and believed they could master the world with the American military machine. In this milieu. Kissinger-the advocate of negotiations and graduated threats-was very much an outcast.
Finally, at Bundy's prodding. Kissinger was no longer used as a consultant. Embarrassed by the rebuff, he did not make it widely known that he had been dropped from Bundy's staff. According to one observer. Kissinger's falling out with the White House became common knowledge only after federal custodians had been seen carrying his security-classified safe out of the Center for International Affairs.
Kissinger learned well from the encounter; no longer would he be a pushy young man with advice, and never again would he conduct his infighting with a campaign on the outside. Subsequently "saved" as a White House consultant by two close friends-Carl Kaysen and Arthur Schlesinger-he became a State Department advisor on Vietnam in 1965 and latter supervised secret talks with the North Vietnamese which ultimately led to the negotiations of 1968. "It was a good performance," one collegue said of his Vietnam consultations. "His ego was under control."
WITH all his activity in the outside world, Professor Kissinger was very much a man unto himself. He saw very little of students, and much of his attachment to teaching seems to have sprung from the simple joy of intellectual exchange, the ego-feeding process of articulate, witty repartee. He taught one lecture course for undergraduates, contributed to a graduate seminar on Western Europe, and conducted another seminar on defense policy, full of government employees who were studying at Harvard and studded with guest speakers from the highest ranks of government. One Faculty member later called Kissinger's seminar "essentially a show. In a way, it was impressive just to see who he would bring." Secretary McNamara and the Joint Chiefs, for example, were among the visitors to the seminar. And the magic name of Harvard was their drawing card.
Contrary to popular legend, however, it was undergraduates rather than graduate students to whom Kissinger was most attracted. And it was a striking fondness, borne of the fact that undergraduates were intelligent and creative young people whose minds and interests were as yet unformed, not the graspy, greedy things who needed his association and friendship for the sake of their careers. Kissinger spent more time with undergraduates and, for a period, lunched with a group of them regularly. But by the late '60's, his non-Cambridge interests so dominated him that he saw little of academic life.
At the last stretch of his teaching career. Kissinger became Nelson Rockefeller's chief foreign policy advisor during the 1968 RepublicanPresidential campaign. During the campaign, Kissinger had made a number of highly caustic remarks about Richard Nixon; in Miami, he went so far as to declare that he doubted Nixon's fitness to be President. It must have later been a shock to many people that Nixon would have appointed this man to a top foreign policy post; Kissinger had been a Rockefeller man from way back, and he had publicly scorned the President-elect. And yet even as he continued to question Nixon's ability, he let it be known privately that he was willing to consider an offer from the winning camp.
BUT WHY had Kissinger placed such high hopes in Governor Rockefeller? Not because he was necessarily more "liberal," but because he was more intimately familiar with the nature of American interests-and more willing to overlook popular opinion in order to pursue them. For Rockefeller was one of that elitist milieu which was steadfast in its convictions and highly contemptuous of public will whenever it intruded on those convictions.
Kissinger's fear of Nixon stemmed from the belief that he was so deeply involved in the popular political process that he might give in to the transitory whims of public opinion rather than follow a course of action which was manifestly correct. Rockefeller was an interventionist in principle, a far more dedicated cold warrior and alliance-builder than Nixon, with his earthbound, contingent claims to popularity, could ever have been. And it was only after receiving assurances from Nixon that he would occupy a pivotol post in the new administration-that he would have a truly significant measure of control over policy decisions-that he consented to move from one salon to another, from the Rockefeller-funded drawing rooms in Cambridge to Nixon's Washington.