Henry Kissinger

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In any fair world, Henry Kissinger would have spent the greater part of his adult life in leg irons or perhaps met with the business end of a meat hook, his thoughts and actions responsible for the needless death of so many. Alas, the universe does not dispense justice in a suitable manner. 

It’s a big complicated world,” Hillary Clinton said when attacked during the primary for her regard for the former Nixon and Ford Secretary of State, and that’s certainly true. The problems of three little people–or three million–don’t amount to a hill of beans when the wrong people are in power, and a wronger group than the incoming cabal of monsters could not be birthed in Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory.

Just prior to the election, Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic published excerpts from interviews with Kissinger about what might result from a Clinton or Trump triumph. It surprises me that at that late stage, the publication’s new Editor-in-Chief still believed Trump might govern as a “pragmatic liberal democrat.” By then, that hope had long vanished from my mind. Neither suggests what’s long seemed obvious about the President-Elect: He may be a dangerously mentally ill person whose words and actions defy rational analysis. The two men spoke again right after Trump’s alarming Electoral College victory.

An excerpt from the pre-election conversations:

Jeffrey Goldberg:

Since we last spoke, he’s said various things that must have made you go pale.

Henry Kissinger:

I disagree with several of Trump’s statements, but I do not historically participate in presidential campaigns. My view of my role is that together with like-minded men and women, I could help contribute to a bipartisan view of American engagement in the world for another period; I could do my part to overcome this really, in a way, awful period in which we are turning history into personal recriminations, depriving our political system of a serious debate. That’s what I think my best role is.

Jeffrey Goldberg:

Donald Trump does not rise in your mind to the level of a person who is so clearly unqualified for the presidency that you should preemptively say, “this person cannot function in this job?” More and more Republicans are saying that, especially national security professionals.

Henry Kissinger:

I’ve decided I’m not going into the name-calling aspect of the campaign. I’m approaching 94; I will not play a role in the execution of day-to-day policy, but I can still aid our thinking about purposeful strategy compatible with our role in shaping the postwar world. Before the campaign, I said over the years friendly things about Hillary. They are on the record. I stand by them. In fact, my views have been on the record for decades, including a friendly attitude towards Hillary as a person.

Jeffrey Goldberg:

Let me ask again: Is Donald Trump teachable?

Henry Kissinger:

Every first-term president has to learn something after he comes into office. Nobody can be completely ready for the inevitable crises. If Trump is elected, it is in the national interest to hope that he is teachable.

Jeffrey Goldberg:

You know, there’s a chance he would govern as a pragmatic liberal Democrat.

Henry Kissinger:

He has said things that sound like it. He has also said many much more contrary things. I simply do not want to get into this sort of speculation. I don’t know Trump well. I intend to make my contribution to the national debate on substance. There is no point in trying to get me into the personal aspects of the campaign.•

Like the first President he served, Kissinger became quite a baseball junkie, especially in his post-Washington career. At the 15:40 mark of this episode of The Baseball of World of Joe Garagiola, we see Kissinger, who could only seem competent when standing alongside that block of wood Bowie Kuhn, being honored at Fenway Park before the second game of the sensational 1975 World Series. During the raucous run by the raffish New York Mets in the second half of 1980s, both Nixon and Kissinger became fixtures at Shea Stadium. Nixon was known to send congratulatory personal notes to the players, including Darryl Strawberry. It was criminals rooting for criminals.

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When a small child, I thought Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove character was based on Henry Kissinger, not yet understanding of the chronology involved. He certainly seemed a fictional character, and one who could not have existed in the same way at any other time but during the Cold War, when information-gathering was far less than ideal and bold strokes based on half-knowledge seemed (to some) necessary.

Tom Carson has written an excellent Barnes & Noble review of Niall Ferguson’s 1000-page biography (part one!) of Nixon’s urbane henchman, a book that is frankly not yet on my must-read list and may never make it there, given the brevity of life. Carson judges the title absorbing if not unbiased (Kissinger sought out Ferguson to write his story), reminding that while the erstwhile Secretary of State was despised by the Left, he also wasn’t liked or trusted by the Right, and his often grandiose attempts at diplomacy have had ramifications for better and worse ever since. The opening:

Still craggily with us at age ninety-two, which certainly puts him one-up on countless Vietnamese, Cambodians, Chileans, and Bangladeshis in no position to volunteer their opinions of his foreign policy skills, Henry Kissinger isn’t someone too many people have ever been able to view with equanimity. Between early 1969 and early 1977, first as Richard Nixon’s uncommonly prominent NSC adviser and then as secretary of state under both Nixon and Gerald Ford, he was a figure unique in our history: a self-styled geopolitical maestro whose cachet exceeded that of the presidents he nominally worked for. If that often left Nixon seething — something he had a lot of practice at, of course — poor Ford, a newbie at international affairs when Nixon’s Watergate-driven resignation parked him in the Oval Office, didn’t have much choice except to keep Henry plummily running the show.

It’s a backhanded tribute to Kissinger’s mystique that even his enemies end up aggrandizing “the American Metternich” — his standard appellation back then, though maybe not in the Appalachians — as the ultimate wicked mastermind. If you ask almost any leftist of a certain vintage, he’s plainly destined to end up sharing a lake of fire with Darth Vader and Lord Voldemort. Nixon is despised, occasionally pitied, and sometimes cautiously respected, Ford is a historical nullity — but Kissinger? Kissinger is clammily loathed, as Hillary Clinton was reminded by the liberal old guard’s “Say it ain’t so” groans when Obama’s new secretary of state publicly embraced her most notorious predecessor.

Nobody ever calls him a mediocrity, although perhaps they should.•

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Not everyone believes in the Tao of Steve, but Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs’ authorized biographer, feels, as many of us do, that Apple has limped along since its co-founder’s death, offering new iterations instead of innovations. In a Financial Times article about the state of Apple and other topics, the former Time Managing Editor also analyzes the tense situation in Syria, seeing an intersection of Russian and American interests. An excerpt:

“I was at a dinner in Manhattan a few weeks ago, just as the Syria issue was heating up, with one of my previous biography subjects, Henry Kissinger. He gave a dazzling analysis (I would call it ‘incredible’ except that it was, in fact, exceedingly credible) of how Russia would see its strategic interests, and predicted that Russia’s president would soon insert himself into the situation by calling for an international approach to the problem. So I was impressed but not surprised when Vladimir Putin did precisely that a week later.

On some of the TV shows I went on to talk about Steve Jobs, I was asked instead about Syria – and the question was usually about whether we could possibly trust the Russians. Most of the guests got worked into a lather, saying that Barack Obama was being horribly naive to trust them. But I think it is perfectly sensible to trust the Russians: we can trust them to do what they perceive to be in their own strategic interest.

Some of Russia’s strategic interests clash with ours: they want to protect their client state Syria and minimise US influence in the region (and yank America’s chain when possible). But to a great extent, Russia’s interests in this situation actually coincide with ours – at least for the moment. Russia fears as much as the US does the rise of radical Islam just south of its borders. It doesn’t want chemical weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists. And it would like to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power.

That last interest seems to conflict with ours, since the US has called for regime change. But the Russians believe that toppling Assad is not the best idea when that might lead to al-Qaeda and other jihadist forces taking over much of Syria and getting control of some of the chemical weapons. Thus it is in Russia’s interest to get Assad to surrender his chemical weapons, rather than summarily topple him. That might actually be in the west’s interests as well.”

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Five years before the world-gripping Frost-Nixon interviews, the recently deceased David Frost contacted Henry Kissinger to ask him if he could help convince the ever-enigmatic Bobby Fischer to compete in the World Chess Championship in Iceland. The resulting Fischer-Spassky matches became legend. An excerpt from the declassified transcript of the Frost-Kissinger call (which is still censored to a degree):

David Frost:

I was calling you, A, to greet you and, B, I’ve had three calls this morning about a hilarious diplomatic matter that I just wanted to ask you whether you thought it was worth anyone at the White House, from yourself down, as it were, doing anything about. It’s an extraordinary story. Can I tell you about it?

Henry Kissinger:


David Frost:

It’s about America’s gist to the world of chess — Bobby Fishcer. I got to know him when he appeared on my show. He came to the party in Bermuda and so on.

Henry Kissinger:

That’s right.


David Frost:

Now the question is, is it worth someone doing that?

Henry Kissinger:

Yeah, I’ll do it. I do all the nutty things around here. Where is he?

David Frost:

Well, now, I’ve got two phone numbers. Now unfortunately,…he is staying at the moment with a Mr. Fred Saidy who is a Broadway writer of things like Brigadoon. And his son is a grand master in chess. S-A-I-D-Y in Douglaston Long Island. And the man who knows…

Henry Kissinger:

I think if I call him I should just call him and tell him a foreign policy point of view I hope the hell he gets over there.”

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Like the first President he served, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger became quite a baseball junkie, especially in his post-Washington career. At the 15:40 mark of this episode of The Baseball of World of Joe Garagiola, we see Kissinger, who could only seem competent when standing alongside that block of wood Bowie Kuhn, being honored at Fenway Park before the second game of the sensational 1975 World Series. During the raucous run by the raffish New York Mets in the second half of 1980s, both Nixon and Kissinger became mainstays at Shea Stadium. Nixon was known to send congratulatory personal notes to the players, including Darryl Strawberry. It was criminals rooting for criminals.

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Kissinger later called his interview with Fallaci "the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press."

The late journalist Oriana Fallaci had a dubious final chapter to her life when in the wake of 9/11, she lived in fear a Muslim planet. But in her younger days, she was one of the greatest interrogators in all of journalism. It’s not likely in this self-conscious age that many of today’s bigwigs would suffer her substance and style, but it’s not like too many interviewers are even trying.

In 1972, as the war in Vietnam raged, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sat down for an interview with Fallaci and regretted it almost immediately. The piece was published in the New Republic and anthologized in Interview with History. Here’s an excerpt:

Oriana Fallaci: And what do you have to say about the war in Vietnam, Dr. Kissinger? You’ve never been against the war in Vietnam, it seems to me.

Henry Kissinger: How could I have been? Not even before holding the position I have today…No, I’ve never been against the war in Vietnam.

Oriana Fallaci: But don’t you find that [Arthur] Schlesinger is right when he says that the war in Vietnam has succeeded only in proving that a million Americans with all their technology have been incapable of defeating poorly armed men dressed in black pajamas?

Henry Kissinger: That’s another question. If it is a question about whether the war in Vietnam was necessary, a just war, rather than…Judgements of that kind depend on the position that one takes when the country is already involved in the war and the only thing left is to conceive a way to get out of it. After all, my role, our role, has been to reduce more and more the degree to which America is involved in the war, so as then to end the war. In the final analysis, history will say who did more: those who operated by criticizing and nothing else, or we who tried to reduce the war and then ended it. Yes, the verdict is up to history. When a country is involved in a war, it’s not enough to say it most be ended. It must be ended in accordance with some principle. And this is quite different from saying that it was right to enter the war.

Oriana Fallaci: But don’t you find, Dr. Kissinger, that it’s been a useless war?

Henry Kissinger: On this I can agree.”

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