Kissinger evokes respect and vitriol in equal measure

Some Americans see him as a canny statesman while others think he should be tried for war crimes. Is there a middle ground?

Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers
“Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography” by Thomas A. Schwartz, Hill and Wang, 560 pp.

Entire libraries have been written about Henry Kissinger, and even now, decades after he left government, vitriolic disagreements rage about his legacy. Vanderbilt University history professor Thomas A. Schwartz concedes at the outset of his new book, “Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography” that he's taken on an impossible task: writing an objective biography of the country's 56th secretary of state. 

Kissinger’s defenders cite his steady-handed policy with the Soviet Union, his pragmatic deal-making everywhere from Israel to Vietnam, his efforts to establish a working relationship between the U.S. and China. His detractors recall his support for an anti-democratic military coup in Chile, his tacit support for genocide during the Bangladesh War of Independence, and his accommodation of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. One side says he richly deserved his Nobel Peace Prize. The other side says he should stand trial at the Hague for war crimes.

Schwartz is well aware of the strong opinions his subject evokes, and he claims he seeks for a more balanced view. “Most treatments of Henry Kissinger have highlighted his role as a foreign policy intellectual who advocated a policy of realpolitik for the United States, a foreign policy that eschewed moral considerations or democratic ideology and was geared to a ‘cold-blooded’ promotion and protection of America’s security and interests,” he writes. “This is not incorrect, but it is incomplete.”

Drawing on a vast amount of primary sources (including interviews with the man himself), Schwartz carefully charts Kissinger's evolution as one of the 20th century's most controversial statesmen, briefly sketching his subject's earlier stint as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army and as an academic before concentrating on his years as secretary of state and national security adviser for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. It was during this period that Kissinger conducted his famous “shuttle diplomacy” and developed his particular brand of diplomatic deal-making.

Kissinger called this realpolitik, and he practiced it by sketching out détente with the Soviet Union, opening relations with China, and extricating America from a shooting war in Vietnam, among other things. “This marriage between geopolitical realism and American domestic politics, engineered by Nixon and Kissinger, was always a tenuous one,” Schwartz writes, “but it served the electoral purposes of Nixon and even won Kissinger a Nobel Peace Prize.”

Throughout all this, Schwartz always remembers to add darkly fascinating personal elements. When writing about the tense negotiations about Vietnam, for instance, readers get a typical exchange that inadvertently underscores Nixon’s plentiful belligerent qualities. “We’re going to bomb those [expletives] all over the place,” Nixon growls at one point. “The only point I disagree is we can do all of this without killing too many civilians,” Kissinger responds. “You’re so [expletive] concerned about the civilians,” Nixon accuses, to which Kissinger answers, “I’m concerned about the civilians because I don’t want the world to be mobilized against you as a butcher.”

The obvious problem here is one intrinsic to any attempt at writing a biography of Henry Kissinger. It’s difficult to avoid pointing out that the secretary, who was the willing, eager servant of a president who wanted to “bomb the [expletive]” out of civilians, also shares that president's guilt.

Schwartz steps very carefully around that guilt. To take one example: The White House's 1970 decision to invade and bomb Cambodia, which was heavily criticized by the American public, especially college students, is characterized as something that Nixon mostly decided while Kissinger was out of the room. Likewise, in summarizing the condemnation Kissinger encountered in 1974 when he suborned a dictatorial coup in Cyprus, Schwartz writes, “Kissinger now found himself increasingly challenged by those who sought greater morality and respect for human rights in U.S. foreign policy” – an utterly damning bit of phrasing, but Schwartz clearly isn't intending it as a damnation.

Kissinger has been out of power for over 40 years, but he has raked in millions giving speeches and doing consulting work through his firm, Kissinger Associates. Presidents and presidential candidates make a point of being seen conferring with Kissinger, making a pilgrimage to his Park Avenue offices as a gesture of how serious they are about their international policy. The period when, as Schwartz puts it, he was “able to conduct a pragmatic and flexible foreign policy” on Nixon’s behalf was in many ways a turning point, and readers who watched that history as it was unfolding will almost certainly find “Henry Kissinger and American Power” disconcertingly evenhanded in assessing how Kissinger acquired the reputation upon which so much political clout rests. 

“I am convinced that it is not necessary to render a moral judgment on Henry Kissinger in order to learn from his career,” Schwartz writes, and this is true: it isn’t necessary. But even so, it might still be the right thing to do.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Kissinger evokes respect and vitriol in equal measure
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today