y father roundly disliked Henry Kissinger. Hindsight suggests this was prompted, at least at first, by the young Kissinger’s more-than-willing participation in the Nixon Administration, which he joined as national security advisor in 1969. And, yes, in that era to reach such heights in one’s 40s was rare. But above and beyond the trivialities of age, he viewed Kissinger as a man so wedded to notions of bipolarity — the Cold War’s two actors atop each pole — that his ability to reason independently of such aids was dubious. This seemed to come front and center when Kissinger was a key player in the escalation of the Vietnam War. On his watch, Laos and Cambodia were bombed and penetrated by the American military, an act considered illegal by some and futile by many.
In fact, these actions reeked of the arrogance Israel has in recent weeks demonstrated, going far and wide beyond the most dragon-slaying brief. And it was in the Middle East, a powder keg then as it is now, that my father sensed Kissinger’s deepest limitations. As a Jewish son of Germany, prewar Germany specifically, Kissinger nonetheless had a delicate grasp of the subject, and it was certainly not among Kissinger’s favorite political topics. This my father reproached as the bacterial sources of a future third world war residing not in Russia but in Palestine and Israel. This seemed apparent in both 1967 and 1973, when two wars were fought, the latter under Kissinger’s watch.
This led my father to sense that whatever Kissinger’s putative skills might be in regard to bipolar brokering — he would later push U.S.-Soviet détente to the fore — he possessed neither interest nor any particular skill in picking up on less-dramatic shifts in the global pulse. Kissinger was instrumental in Nixon’s opening to Mao’s China, a bold move for a one-time Red-baiting president, but not much concerned with South America, where a handful of military men, all anti-Communist tyrants, held approved sway. Nor did Indo-Pakistani tensions appear to concern him, aside, that is, from Moscow’s position toward the subcontinental rivals.
More to the point, my father, like many who had lived the 1950s, struggled to embrace a man who had embraced Nixon so decidedly, and would remain with him until his Little Big Horn, the Watergate scandal. Kissinger, by then secretary of state, was a loyal soldier through Nixon’s final days in the summer of 1974.
My father was dead by 1974, but like many he had seen the writing on the wall, all the more annoyed that Kissinger had done the opposite of asserting his moral distance from the stench of Nixon’s long-in-the-making fall.
As if to remedy this gash, it was Kissinger who reversed course and helped negotiate the tortuous Paris negotiations with North Vietnam, dealings that brought that awful war to a close in 1975. But the brokered peace, which Nixon hoped would be a “peace with honor,” was in fact entirely dishonorable. The United States was disgraced, as was the legacy of the nearly 60,000 American dead who had fought in that quagmire for the ages. More than four decades would pass before the U.S. disgraced itself in a similar but less politically charged fashion, leaving Afghanistan in the lurch not long before rising up to righteously decry Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The great nation that had once claimed to come to the aid of Afghanistan and promised to undo its Taliban enslavement walked away moments before its black-hat Cold War adversary committed its own kind of atrocity. Kissinger’s balance-of-power thinking had earlier helped prolong the amoral postwar duality on which the likes of a then-young Joe Biden was weaned.
After his run at the top, Kissinger, like many former ranking government superstars, redrew his image on the lecture circuit, as a university executive, and through countless articles in prestigious foreign affairs periodicals. His missteps were largely forgotten, as were many of those by Nixon, whose refurbished, wise old man version made it onto the cover of Time magazine in the years before his death in 1994. Attention span is a postmodern casualty of history’s insatiable velocity, all the more so in the web era.
Live to 100, as Kissinger did, and a great deal of dirt comes out in the wash. All the more so when the dead man spent his last year suggesting he’d never seen a world in such turmoil. Easy to say when you were once a vital part of a previous world you helped to shape, presumably (but not at all necessarily) for the better. To tweak The Beatles, legacy is a warm gun. For a time, Kissinger helped both to point it and to put it down, depending on the time and his own wish to fall on the “right” side of history. Which leaves the image of a statesman who rarely ignored the lure of opportunism, at the same time brilliant and sour — at rest in war and now in peace.