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."