Roger Kimball writes: I first really met Henry Kissinger over dinner at Bill Buckley’s house in Stamford, Connecticut, in the early 2000s. We had been introduced in passing once or twice before at various events. But it was at that small dinner party that we first had a real conversation. If memory serves, Abe Rosenthal, the former editor of The New York Times, and his wife Shirley Lord were also in attendance that night, as was Henry’s wife Nancy.
What did we talk about? I wish I could recall. I can do better with some later meetings. As I sat down to write this, I discovered to my surprise that I have written more than a hundred letters to Henry. Around the time that I shifted from “Dear Mr. Kissinger” (I did not know then that he preferred “Dr.”) to “Dear Henry,” he began inviting me to lunch, almost always at his New York club, The Brook, on Fifty-fourth Street near his office. Politics writ large was always part of the conversation, but so were other topics. I remember in particular one long luncheon at which we wrestled with Spinoza’s idea that human fulfillment or blessedness centrally involved amor Dei intellectualis, an intellectual love of God. I cannot at this distance say how it was that the old lens-grinder found his way into the conversation, but—without wishing to impute any theistic convictions to Henry—I may observe that the idea appealed to him.
Over the years, Henry and Nancy were extremely generous with invitations, both to their New York apartment and to their country house in South Kent, Connecticut. The guests were partly a cavalcade of celebrities, partly a constellation of personal friends. The categories often overlapped. The famous couturier Oscar de la Renta, for example, and his wife Annette were close friends and frequent, enlivening guests. At one large outdoor luncheon in Kent, the most notable guest was President George W. Bush. Security was tight. Every car was searched on its way up the long dirt drive and given a sniff by dogs trained to detect explosives. Sharpshooters with their rifles could be seen patrolling by the woods at the edge of the lawn. A clutch of Secret Service agents were distributed among the crowd, aloof, intense, Argus-eyed. When everyone was present and accounted for, we were herded inside as Marine One touched down and disgorged the president. It was an impressive day.
When Henry died at the end of November, halfway through his hundredth year, he had occupied a bubble of celebrity (and notoriety) for some six decades. Yet it is worth bearing in mind that the prolific author—more than twenty books—National Security Advisor, Secretary of State, Nobel laureate, and counselor to countless presidents, prime ministers, and other heads of state had originally walked a rocky, not to say inauspicious, path.
In 1938, nearly on the eve of Kristallnacht, he emigrated with his family from the Bavarian city of Fürth, Germany, via London to New York. He was fifteen. Like many Jewish refugees, the Kissingers found cheap lodgings in Washington Heights. Jobs and money were scarce. Eventually his father found work as a bookkeeper while Henry labored at a shop that made shaving brushes. He started by squeezing acid out of badger hairs and then graduated to the sales side of the operation. Aptitude and hard work quickly brought him success. Everything but his famous gravelly German accent soon assimilated to American life. He studied accounting at City College before being drafted into the army in 1943. He returned to Germany to do intelligence work and was awarded a Bronze Star for his efforts helping to track down Gestapo agents and other bad hats.
After the war, Henry matriculated at Harvard, where he was graduated summa cum laude. His senior thesis, “The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee, and Kant,” was a four-hundred-page behemoth that prompted Harvard to impose a 35,000-word limit on such documents. He earned a Ph.D. in the mid-1950s with a dissertation on the Congress of Vienna. This became his first book, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812–1822, a magisterial study of the reassembly of political legitimacy (a key Kissingerian concept) in a revolutionary period. Quite apart from its intellectual sophistication, the book is notable for its scintillating, epigrammatic prose. Henry may never have lost his heavy German accent, but he early on learned to deploy an English writing style that was clear, supple, idiomatic, and evocative.
Henry began his career as an ambitious academic teaching at Harvard. He ended as his era’s most distinguished diplomat, a public intellectual who trod the corridors of power from Washington to Beijing. Throughout his career he was guided by two overriding goals.
Intellectually, he was driven to understand the complex pageantry of events, “the meaning of history.” Unstoppable curiosity was a trademark of his character. Most of his writing was about history, foreign policy, or the unscripted alchemy of leadership. But he had long been concerned about the unchaperoned intrusion of technology into the metabolism of education. Reading books, he noted in one reflection, “requires you to form concepts, to train your mind to relationships.” Computers and the internet threaten that process: “Now there is no need to internalize because each fact can instantly be called up again on the computer.” In some ways such celerity is an advantage. But, he warned, “Information is not knowledge. . . . This new thinking erases context. It disaggregates everything. All this makes strategic thinking about world order nearly impossible to achieve.” In 2021, at the age of ninety-eight, Henry took up the subject of artificial intelligence. Together with Eric Schmidt, the former head of Google, and the computer scientist Daniel Huttenlocher, he published The Age of AI: And Our Human Future, an anatomy of and admonition about a subject that has since become fodder for daily headlines and apocalyptic hand-wringing.
In practical terms, as a diplomat, Henry strove to maintain or reestablish peace wherever his remit took him. “Equilibrium,” like “legitimacy,” was for him a central desideratum. Early on in A World Restored, Henry noted that the attainment of peace is the “overriding concern” of diplomacy. Nevertheless, he pointed out, “The attainment of peace is not as easy as the desire for it.” Indeed, “Not for nothing is history associated with the figure of Nemesis, which defeats man by fulfilling his wishes in a different form or by answering his prayers too completely.” It is part of the irony—if not, exactly, the meaning—of history that “[t]hose ages which in retrospect were most peaceful were least in search of peace.” These were lessons Henry himself later rehearsed in Vietnam, the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere.
Partly because he came to prominence during the wildly excoriated Nixon administration, Henry had early on been a conspicuous target for the Left. Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Oliver Stone, and many others lined up to condemn him as a “mass murderer” and “war criminal,” not to mention (my favorite) a “Satanist.”
Nor were certain elements of the neoconservative Right happy with Henry. His pursuit of détente with the Soviet Union they regarded as insufficiently confrontational. They were skeptical about his efforts, with Richard Nixon, to open up diplomatic relations with China. More recently, they have rejected his pointing out that the war in Ukraine could not profitably be understood as a simple battle between good (the Ukrainian side) and evil (the nasty Vladimir Putin). “Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus,” he wrote back in 2014. “Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then.” Which leaves us where? Without as neat a morality tale as we have been telling ourselves about Putin and Ukraine. “The demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy,” Henry observed; “it is an alibi for the absence of one.” All of which is to say that the Manichean temptation should be resisted in world affairs as well as in matters of theology. It is simple and dramatic to draw up armies of angels and devils. The actual troops on the world stage are seldom that easy to distinguish. In the case of Ukraine, Henry was probably correct:
Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other—it should function as a bridge between them.
Above all, perhaps, Henry possessed abundantly that most uncommon virtue, common sense. Asked about scenes in Germany of migrants celebrating the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, he noted that “It was a grave mistake to let in so many people of totally different cultures and religions and concepts, because it creates a pressure group inside each country that does that.” That is wisdom as simple as it is rare.
I am pleased that over the years Henry participated in several New Criterion events and contributed to our pages. It is occasionally said that he did not quite approve of Ronald Reagan’s aggressive policy towards the Soviet Union (“We win, they lose”). There may be some truth in that, but in a 2014 essay for us he noted that Reagan
was exactly the right man for those times. He knew how to . . . [define] the limits beyond which the Soviets would not be permitted to go, but, at the same time, [to lay] down perspectives for peace around which people could rally.
Longtime readers will recall that in 2012, Henry was the first recipient of The New Criterion’s Edmund Burke Award for Service to Culture and Society. The one thing everyone knows about Henry Kissinger is that he represented a “realist” as distinct from an “idealist” foreign policy. In his remarks at that event (published in our June 2012 issue), he spoke at least in part as a tertium quid, a Burkean conservative.
The difference between the idealist and realist view of foreign policy, he notes, turns on whether “power or values is the dominant force in international relations. The advocates of a realist foreign policy,” he slyly writes, “are caricatured with the German term Realpolitik, I suppose to facilitate the choosing of sides. . . . Values, it is claimed, are irrelevant to a ‘realist’ foreign policy; the balance of power is its dominant, or even sole, motive force.”
The “idealist” or “values-based” perspective assumes that American democratic ideals are “universal and transportable.” Consequently, “relations are bound to be adversarial with imperfectly democratic societies,” i.e., most of the world. “This school of thought calls on America to spread its values by the sponsorship of revolution and, if necessary, by force.”
Neither the realist nor the idealist school, however, can pass the Burkean test of accounting for “the full variety of human experience and the complexity of statesmanship.” The realist needs to be guided by a strong and clear moral vision, and the idealist requires an appreciation of historical and cultural particularity, an appreciation that breeds caution and humility in proportion to its thoroughness.
Henry ends, as I will, by quoting Bismarck: “The best a statesman can do is to listen carefully to the footsteps of God, get ahold of the hem of His cloak and walk with Him a few steps of the way.” Henry Kissinger was privileged to have grabbed on tight to that hem and to have walked a long way. RIP.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 5, on page 1
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