Kissinger the Freedom Fighter
Illustration: Thomas Fuchs
Sept. 18, 2015 6:00 a.m. ET
Surely no statesman in modern times, and certainly no American secretary of state, has been as revered and then as reviled as Henry Kissinger.
At the height of his fame, Kissinger appeared as a cartoon “Super K” on the cover of Newsweek, complete with tights and cape. Time magazine called him “the world’s indispensable man.” In 1974, his approval rating, according to the regular Harris survey, was an astounding 85%.
Since then, however, heaping opprobrium on Kissinger has become a thriving industry. The Nation magazine once caricatured him under a stars-and-stripes bedcover, gleefully ravishing a naked female whose head was the globe. The late Christopher Hitchens went further, accusing him of “war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Protest groups like Code Pink never tire of repeating such charges, most recently by disrupting a January hearing of the Senate Armed Forces Committee at which Kissinger was testifying.
The vitriol of the left is at first sight puzzling, especially when one considers how many of Kissinger’s initiatives were denounced by conservative critics at the time as too accommodating of America’s communist enemies. In his time as national security adviser, he played a key role in negotiating the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union. It was Kissinger who, with Zhou Enlai, opened diplomatic communications between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China. It was Kissinger who extricated the U.S. from the Vietnam War. And it was Kissinger who pressed for the end of white rule in Rhodesia.
Critics of every stripe tend to agree that Kissinger took foreign-policy realism too far. According to authors Marvin and Bernard Kalb, writing in the mid-1970s, he pursued “a global realpolitik that placed a higher priority on pragmatism than on morality.” His former Harvard colleague, the late Stanley Hoffmann, called Kissinger a Machiavellian who believed that “the preservation of the state…requires both ruthlessness and deceit at the expense of foreign and internal adversaries.” Even a relatively sympathetic writer, Walter Isaacson, concluded in his 2005 biography that “power-oriented realpolitik and secretive diplomatic maneuvering…were the basis of [Kissinger’s] policies.”
This view of Kissinger is in urgent need of revision. When one actually reads what he wrote, especially in the years before his rise to international prominence, it is astounding how little one finds of the Machiavellian realist. At least in the first half of his career, Henry Kissinger was an idealist.
To be sure, Kissinger was not an idealist in the sense often used to characterize that tradition in U.S. foreign policy, dating back to Woodrow Wilson, which emphasizes the subordination of the “might” of states to supranational laws, courts and assemblies. Rather, I am using the term “idealism” in its philosophical sense—a doctrine that elevates thought and perception above supposedly objective realities.
Idealism stands in opposition to philosophies that see human actions and events as determined by factors beyond our control, such as laws of history or economic development. Kissinger rejected the idea that such “necessity” was the crucial element in human affairs. He exalted the role of human freedom, choice and agency in shaping the world.
His unpublished senior thesis at Harvard, “The Meaning of History,” was an admiring critique of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of history. Kissinger’s central argument was that freedom is “an inner experience of life as a process of deciding meaningful alternatives.” “Perpetual peace” might indeed be the ultimate goal of history, as Kant famously argued, but from the point of view of the individual, there was nothing inevitable about that outcome. “Whatever one’s conception about the necessity of events, [and]…however we may explain actions in retrospect, their accomplishment occurred with the inner conviction of choice.”
From this point on, Kissinger was consistent in rejecting the idea that politics, especially international politics, was simply a matter of feeding data into some kind of social-scientific calculating machine. This applied especially to the place of economics in the contest between the West and the communist bloc.
Kissinger rejected the economic determinism of Marxism-Leninism, which saw all human affairs as rigidly driven by class struggle, but he was also critical of those who thought that the West’s superiority was just a matter of higher productivity. It was dangerous, he argued in his senior thesis, to allow “an argument about democracy [to] become a discussion of the efficiency of economic systems.” By contrast, the “inward intuition of freedom…would reject totalitarianism even if it were economically more efficient.” To the idealist, the contest with the Soviet Union had to be about more than relative growth rates.
President Lyndon Johnson hosts Henry Kissinger at the White House days after the 45-year-old Harvard professor was tapped by President-elect Richard Nixon as his national security adviser, Washington, Dec. 5, 1968. At left is the outgoing national security adviser, Walt Rostow. Photo: Associated Press
Why, if it was an economic contest, did the Cold War prove so hard for the much richer United States to win? To that question, Kissinger was able to offer a compelling answer. Quite simply, it wasn’t about economics. It wasn’t even about nuclear stockpiles, much less tank divisions. It was primarily about freedom.
In a remarkable interview with ABC’s Mike Wallace in July 1958, the young Kissinger made the startling argument that the U.S. was being insufficiently idealistic in its Cold War strategy. Asked by Wallace if he thought the U.S. could exist “in a completely socialist revolutionary world,” Kissinger replied:
“You could well argue that a capitalist society or, what is more interesting to me, a free society, is a more revolutionary phenomenon than 19th-century socialism, and this illustrates precisely one of our problems. I think we should go on the spiritual offensive in the world. We should identify ourselves with the revolution. We should say that freedom, if it is liberated, can achieve many of these things.…Even when we have engaged in constructive steps…we have always justified them on the basis of a communist threat, very rarely on the basis of things we wanted to do because of our intrinsic dynamism.”
The U.S., he continued, should say more than, “We must keep Latin America from going communist.” Its message to the southern hemisphere should be, “These are things we want to do because of the values we stand for.”
On the central Cold War question of Germany, too, Kissinger was an idealist, insisting on the principle of self-determination and opposing a permanent division of the country. He was dismayed when, to end the Berlin crisis of 1961, President John F. Kennedy pragmatically concluded, “A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”
While at the highest level the Cold War was a nuclear-armed standoff—not least when the superpowers were eyeball to eyeball in Germany—it was also a succession of hot conventional wars in what came to be known as the Third World: the new nations emerging as the old European empires crumbled. To the leaders of anticolonial movements, communism appeared to have much to offer: not only state-led industrialization but also a permanent grip on political power. What could the U.S. offer as an alternative?
Like many of his contemporaries, Kissinger exaggerated the Soviet Union’s capacity to win a contest defined in terms of output growth. But he was quite right to argue that the Western claim to superiority needed to be based on more than productivity.
What made democracy work in the West, Kissinger pointed out, were certain peculiar limitations on governmental power, not least the rule of law. These limitations were not naturally occurring in the “new countries,” he argued in his 1960 book “The Necessity for Choice.” Therefore, “unless we address ourselves to the problem of encouraging institutions which protect human dignity, the future of freedom is dim indeed.”
The aim was not to win a contest between rival models of economic development but above all to “fill…a spiritual void,” for “even Communism has made many more converts through the theological quality of Marxism than through the materialistic aspect on which it prides itself.”
“Unless we are able to make the concepts of freedom and respect for human dignity meaningful to the new nations,” Kissinger concluded, “the much-vaunted economic competition between us and Communism…will be without meaning.”
All this helps to explain why, when the question initially arose of how far to prop up the government of South Vietnam in the early 1960s, Kissinger believed that the country’s right to self-determination was worth American lives. True foreign-policy realists, like the University of Chicago’s Hans Morgenthau, vehemently disagreed.
Kissinger’s idealism was the idealism of a generation forged in the searing heat of World War II. As a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, who returned there in 1944 in an American uniform to play his part in the final defeat of Nazism, he had paid a personal price for the diplomatic failures of the 1930s.
After the euphoria of V-E Day, Kissinger astonished his parents by staying in Germany for two more years. “You’ll never understand it,” he wrote to them, “& I would never explain it except in blood & misery & hope. Sometimes when I look down our table and see the empty spaces of our good and capable men, the men that should be here to nail down what we fought for, I think of…the night Hitler’s death was announced. That night [we] agreed that no matter what happened, no matter who weakened, we would stay to do in our little way what we could to make all previous sacrifices meaningful.”
More than 20 years later, on the eve of his unexpected appointment as President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, Kissinger expressed his dismay at the failure of a new generation to feel a similar responsibility toward Vietnam. In an essay that he wrote for the Brookings Institution in 1968, he could hardly overlook “the contemporary unrest” that was sweeping American campuses. But he struggled to make sense of a “younger generation [who] consider the management of power irrelevant, perhaps even immoral” and whose “new ethic of freedom is not ‘civic’; it is indifferent or even hostile to systems and notions of order.”
As Kissinger observed, there was something unforgivable about the way the “protest movements [had] made heroes of leaders in repressive new countries,” oblivious to “the absurdity of founding a claim for freedom on protagonists of the totalitarian state—such as Guevara or Ho or Mao.” The student radicals failed to see that they were living through a fundamental transformation of the postwar international order. “The age of the superpowers,” Kissinger announced, “is drawing to an end.”
Kissinger testifying before the Santa Fe Foreign Relations Committee June 27, 1966. Photo: CSU Archives/Everett Collection
This international revolution, he argued in the essay, had “deep-seated” and “structural” causes. The first of these was what was already occasionally referred to as globalization: the multiplication of nation states since the breakup of the European empires, combined with unprecedented economic integration and the emergence of “problems of bureaucratization, pollution, environmental control, urban growth…[that] know no national considerations.”
The second driver of change was technology. Paradoxically, the “gargantuan” increase in destructive power made possible by innovations in nuclear technology tended to reduce the superpowers’ influence over smaller countries. This was not only because the superpowers seemed less and less likely ever to use their vast atomic arsenals; it was also because each new power that joined the nuclear club substantially reduced the value of membership. In this post-superpower world, “a radio transmitter [could] be a more effective form of pressure than a squadron of B-52s,” while annexing territory would count for less than acquiring nuclear weapons.
Yet what mattered more than these changes in the material world was how Americans thought about them. In his 1968 essay, Kissinger urged his fellow citizens to answer two simple questions: “What is it in our interest to prevent? What should we seek to accomplish?”
If the Vietnam War had done nothing else good, it had at least proved that the answer to these questions could not be “Everything”—for a U.S. that was “the trustee of every non-Communist area” would very soon “exhaust its psychological resources.” Nor, however, could the answers to Kissinger’s questions be “Nothing.” Generation gap or no generation gap, it was time for “the American mood” to stop “oscillat[ing] dangerously between being ashamed of power and expecting too much of it.”
If such arguments sound familiar, it is because they still resonate today. “Optimism alternating with bewilderment; euphoria giving way to frustration”: That was how Kissinger summed up the American trajectory in Vietnam. In our own day, we have relived that cycle in Iraq.
No doubt controversy will continue to rage about the actions that Kissinger took after he went to work in Washington in 1969, from his support for the bombing of Cambodia to his desire to see President Salvador Allende of Chile overthrown.
But even his most determined critics would have difficulty denying that he was prescient about the shape of the post-Cold War world: a new era of economic globalization, of technological revolution, of nuclear proliferation, but also an era in which international order was primarily a function of the ebb and flow of America’s faith in itself. Nearly a half-century later, Henry Kissinger’s idealistic analysis still applies.
Mr. Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. This essay is adapted from “Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist,” published later this month by Penguin Press.