Oriana Fallaci

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It may have looked suspiciously like an open casket, but Alfred Hitchcock certainly had a casting couch. He wasn’t the chaste monk of the macabre he made himself out to be. It was just three years ago that Tippi Hedren described how her career was held hostage post-Birds by Hitchcock, all because she wouldn’t give in to his sexual blackmail

Oriana Fallaci interviewed the British suspense master in 1963 when his crowpocalypse screened in Cannes, but while she had a good understanding of the cruelty beneath the surface of the filmmaker she so admired, she clearly was hoodwinked by his narrative of being a devoted, even sexless, husband, entitling the piece, “Mr. Chastity.” What follows is most of her introduction, which paints the director as tiresome and homophobic, and the Q&A’s first few exchanges.

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For years I had been wanting to meet Hitchcock. For years I had been to every Hitchcock film, read every article about Hitchcock, basked in contemplation of every photograph of Hitchcock: the one of him hanging by his own tie, the one of him reflected in a pool of blood, the one of him playing with a skull immersed in a bathtub. I liked everything about him: his big, Father Christmas paunch, his twinkling little pig eyes, his blotchy, alcoholic complexion, his mummified corpses, his corpses shut inside wardrobes, his corpses chopped into pieces and shut inside suitcases, his corpses temporarily buried beneath beds of roses, his anguished flights, his crimes, his suspense, those typically English jokes that make even death ridiculous and even vulgarity elegant. I might be wrong, but I cannot help laughing at the story about the two actors in the cemetery watching their friend being lowered into his grave. The first one says to the other, “How old are you, Charlie?” And Charlie answers, “Eighty-nine.” The first one then observes, “Then there’s no point in your going home, Charlie.” …

My opportunity to meet him and really kiss his hand came at the Cannes Festival, where Hitchcock was showing The Birds, a sinister film about birds that revolt against men and exterminate them by pecking them to death. Hitchcock was coming from Hollywood, and I rushed to Nice airport to greet him. Three hours later I was in his room on the fourth floor of the Carlton Hotel, gazing at him just as my journalist colleague, Veronique Passani, had gazed at Gregory Peck the first time she met him–and she had subsequently managed to marry him. Not that Hitchcock was handsome like Gregory Peck. To be objective, he was decidedly ugly: bloated, purple, a walrus dressed like a man–all that was missing was a mustache. The sweat, copious and oily, was pouring out of all that walrus fat, and he was smoking a dreadfully smelly cigar, which was pleasant only insofar as it obscured him for long moments behind a dense, bluish cloud. But he was Hitchcock, my dearest Hitchcock, my incomparable Hitchcock, and every sentence he spoke would be a pearl of originality and wit. In the same way that we assume that intellectuals are necessarily intelligent, and movie stars necessarily beautiful, and priests necessarily saintly, so I had assumed that Hitchcock was the wittiest man in the world.

He’s isn’t. The full extent of his humor is covered by five or six jokes, two or three macabre tricks, seven or eight lines that he has been repeating for years with the monotony of a phonograph record that’s stuck. Every time he opened a subject, in the sonorous voice of his, I foresaw how he would conclude; I already read it. Moreover, he would make his pronouncements as if he knew it himself: hands folded on his breast, eyes cast up toward the ceiling, like a child reciting a lesson learned by heart. Nor was there anything new about his admission of chastity, of complete lack of interest in sex. Everyone knows that Hitchcock has never known any woman other than his wife, has never desired any woman other than his wife; because he’s not interested in women. This doesn’t mean that he likes men, for heaven’s sake; such deviations are regarded by him with pained and righteous disgust. It only means for him sex does not exist; it would suit him fine if humanity were born in bottles. Nor, for him, does love exist, that mysterious impulse from which beings and things are born; the only thing that interests him in all creation is the opposite of whatever is born: whatever dies. If he sees a budding rose, his impulse, I am afraid, is to eat it.

With the blindness of all disciples or faithful admirers, I took some time to realize his failings. In fact our interview began with bursts of laughter for a good half-hour. But then the bursts of laughter became short little laughs, the short little laughs became smiles, the smile grew cold, and at a certain point I discovered that I could no longer raise a laugh, nor could I have done so even if he had tickled the soles of my feet. That was when I realized the most spine-chilling thing about him: his great wickedness. A person who invents horrors for fun, who makes a living frightening people, who only talks about crimes and anguish, can’t really be evil, so I thought. He is, though. He really enjoys frightening people, knowing that every now and then somebody dies of a heart attack watching his movies, reading that from time to time a man kills his wife the way a wife is killed in one of his movies. Not knowing all the criminals whose master he has been is sheer torture to him. He would like to know about all such authors, to compliment each one and offer him a cigar. Because he can laugh about death with the wisdom of the sages? No, no. Because he likes death. He likes it the way a gravedigger likes it.•

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Oriana Fallaci conducted a famously contentious 1963 interview with Federico Fellini, which marked the brutish end of what had been a lively friendship begun in the previous decade, the director’s ego and the journalist’s envy getting the best of the moment. In the preface, Fallaci wrote of Fellini’s colorful experiences in New York City when he lived there in 1957. The passage:

I have known Fellini for many years; to be precise ever since I met him in New York for the American première of his movie The Nights of Cabiria, at which time became good friends. In fact, we often used to go eat steaks at Jack’s or roast chestnuts in Times Square, where you could also do target shooting. Then, from time to time, he would turn up at the apartment I shared in Greenwich Village with another girl called Priscilla to ask for a cup of coffee. The homely brew would alleviate, though I never understood why, his nostalgia for his homeland and his misery at his separation from his wife Giulietta. He would come in frantically massaging his knee, “My knee always hurts when I am sad. Giulietta! I want Giulietta!” And Priscilla would come running to look at him as I’d have gone running to look at Greta Garbo. Needless to say, there was nothing of Greta Garbo about Fellini, he wasn’t the monument he is today. He used to call me Pallina, Little Ball. He made us call him Pallino, sometimes Pallone, Big Ball. He would go in for innocent extravagances such as weeping in the bar of the Plaza Hotel because the critic in the New York Times had given him a bad review, or playing the hero. He used to go around with a gangster’s moll, and every day the gangster would call him at his hotel, saying, “I will kill you.” He didn’t understand English and would reply, “Very well, very well,” so adding to his heroic reputation. His reputation lasted until I explained to him what “I will kill you” meant. With half an hour Fellini was on board a plane making for Rome. 

He used to do other things too, such as wandering around Wall Street at night, casing the banks like a robber, arousing the suspicions of the world’s most suspicious police, so that finally they asked to see his papers, arrested him because he wasn’t carrying any, and shut him up for the night in a cell. He spent his time shouting the only English sentence he knew: “I am Federico Fellini, famous Italian director.” At six in the morning an Italian-American policeman who had seen La Strada I don’t know how many times said, “If you really are Fellini, come out and whistle the theme of La Strada.” Fellini came out and in a thin whistle–he can’t distinguish a march from a minuet–struggled through the entire soundtrack. A triumph. With affectionate punches in the stomach that were to keep him on a diet of consummé for the next two weeks, the policemen apologized and took him back to his hotel with an escort of motorcycles, saluting him with a blare of horns that could be heard as far away as Harlem.•

 

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In 1966, when Playboy was still based in Chicago, Hugh Hefner thought most people would soon be enjoying his lifestyle. Well, not exactly his lifestyle.

The mansion, the grotto and the Bunnies were not likely for most, but he believed technology would help us remove ourselves from the larger world so that we could create our own “little planet.” The gadgets he used to extend his adolescence and recuse himself five decades ago are now much more powerful and affordable to almost everyone. Hefner believed our new, personalized islands would be our homes, not our phones, but he was right in thinking that tools would make life more remote in some fundamental way.

In 1966, Oriana Fallaci interviewed Hefner for her book, The Egotists. Her sharp introduction and the first exchange follow.

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First of all, the House. He stays in it as a Pharaoh in a grave, and so he doesn’t notice that the night has ended, the day has begun, a winter passed, and a spring, and a summer–it’s autumn now. Last time he emerged from the grave was last winter, they say, but he did not like what he saw and returned with great relief three days later. The sky was then extinguished behind the electronic gate, and he sat down again in his grave: 1349 North State Parkway, Chicago. But what a grave, boys! Ask those who live in the building next to it, with their windows opening onto the terrace on which the bunnies sunbathe, in monokinis or notkinis. (The monokini exists of panties only, the notkini consists of nothing.) Tom Wolfe has called the house the final rebellion against old Europe and its custom of wearing shoes and hats, its need of going to restaurants or swimming pools. Others have called it Disneyland for adults. Forty-eight rooms, thirty-six servants always at your call. Are you hungry? The kitchen offers any exotic food at any hour. Do you want to rest? Try the Gold Room, with a secret door you open by touching the petal of a flower, in which the naked girls are being photographed. Do you want to swim? The heated swimming pool is downstairs. Bathing suits of any size or color are here, but you can swim without, if you prefer. And if you go into the Underwater Bar, you will see the Bunnies swim as naked as little fishes. The House hosts thirty Bunnies, who may go everywhere, like members of the family. The pool also has a cascade. Going under the cascade, you arrive at the grotto, rather comfortable if you like to flirt; tropical plants, stereophonic music, drinks, erotic opportunities, and discreet people. Recently, a guest was imprisoned in the steam room. He screamed, but nobody came to help him. Finally, he was able to free himself by breaking down the door, and when he asked in anger, why nobody came to his help–hadn’t they heard his screams?–they answered, “Obviously. But we thought you were not alone.”

At the center of the grave, as at the center of a pyramid, is the monarch’s sarcophagus: his bed. It’s a large, round and here he sleeps, he thinks, he makes love, he controls the little cosmos that he has created, using all the wonders that are controlled by electronic technology. You press a button and the bed turns through half a circle, the room becomes many rooms, the statue near the fireplace becomes many statues. The statue portrays a woman, obviously. Naked, obviously. And on the wall there TV sets on which he can see the programs he missed while he slept or thought or made love. In the room next to the bedroom there is a laboratory with the Ampex video-tape machine that catches the sounds and images of all the channels; the technician who takes care of it was sent to the Ampex center in San Francisco. And then? Then there is another bedroom that is his office, because he does not feel at ease far from a bed. Here the bed is rectangular and covered with papers and photos and documentation on Prostitution, Heterosexuality, Sodomy. Other papers are on the floor, the chairs, the tables, along with tape recorders, typewriters, dictaphones. When he works, he always uses the electric light, never opening a window, never noticing the night has ended, the day begun. He wears pajamas only. In his pajamas, he works thirty-six hours, forty-eight hours nonstop, until he falls exhausted on the round bed, and the House whispers the news: He sleeps. Keep silent in the kitchen, in the swimming pool, in the lounge, everywhere: He sleeps.

He is Hugh Hefner, emperor of an empire of sex, absolute king of seven hundred Bunnies, founder and editor of Playboy: forty million dollars in 1966, bosoms, navels, behinds as mammy made them, seen from afar, close up, white, suntanned, large, small, mixed with exquisite cartoons, excellent articles, much humor, some culture, and, finally, his philosophy. This philosophy’s name is “Playboyism,” and, synthesized, it says that “we must not be afraid or ashamed of sex, sex is not necessarily limited to marriage, sex is oxygen, mental health. Enough of virginity, hypocrisy, censorship, restrictions. Pleasure is to be preferred to sorrow.” It is now discussed even by theologians. Without being ironic, a magazine published a story entitled “…The Gospel According to Hugh Hefner.” Without causing a scandal, a teacher at the School of Theology at Claremont, California, writes that Playboyism is, in some ways, a religious movement: “That which the church has been too timid to try, Hugh Hefner…is attempting.”

We Europeans laugh. We learned to discuss sex some thousands of years ago, before even the Indians landed in America. The mammoths and the dinosaurs still pastured around New York, San Francisco, Chicago, when we built on sex the idea of beauty, the understanding of tragedy, that is our culture. We were born among the naked statues. And we never covered the source of life with panties. At the most, we put on it a few mischievous fig leaves. We learned in high school about a certain Epicurus, a certain Petronius, a certain Ovid. We studied at the university about a certain Aretino. What Hugh Hefner says does not make us hot or cold. And now we have Sweden. We are all going to become Swedish, and we do not understand these Americans, who, like adolescents, all of a sudden, have discovered that sex is good not only for procreating. But then why are half a million of the four million copies of the monthly Playboy sold in Europe? In Italy, Playboy can be received through the mail if the mail is not censored. And we must also consider all the good Italian husbands who drive to the Swiss border just to buy Playboy. And why are the Playboy Clubs so famous in Europe, why are the Bunnies so internationally desired? The first question you hear when you get back is: “Tell me, did you see the Bunnies? How are they? Do they…I mean…do they?!?” And the most severe satirical magazine in the U.S.S.R., Krokodil, shows much indulgence toward Hugh Hefner: “[His] imagination in indeed inexhaustible…The old problem of sex is treated freshly and originally…”

Then let us listen with amusement to this sex lawmaker of the Space Age. He’s now in his early forties. Just short of six feet, he weighs one hundred and fifty pounds. He eats once a day. He gets his nourishment essentially from soft drinks. He does not drink coffee. He is not married. He was briefly, and he has a daughter and a son, both teen-agers. He also has a father, a mother, a brother. He is a tender relative, a nepotist: his father works for him, his brother, too. Both are serious people, I am informed.

And then I am informed that the Pharaoh has awakened, the Pharaoh is getting dressed, is going to arrive, has arrived: Hallelujah! Where is he? He is there: that young man, so slim, so pale, so consumed by the lack of light and the excess of love, with eyes so bright, so smart, so vaguely demoniac. In his right hand he holds a pipe: in his left hand he holds a girl, Mary, the special one. After him comes his brother, who resembles Hefner. He also holds a girl, who resembles Mary. I do not know if the pipe he owns resembles Hugh’s pipe because he is not holding one right now. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and, as on every Sunday afternoon, there is a movie in the grave. The Pharaoh lies down on the sofa with Mary, the light goes down, the movie starts. The Bunnies go to sleep and the four lovers kiss absentminded kisses. God knows what Hugh Hefner thinks about men, women, love, morals–will he be sincere in his nonconformity? What fun, boys, if I discover that he is a good, proper moral father of Family whose destiny is paradise. Keep silent, Bunnies. He speaks. The movie is over, and he speaks, with a soft voice that breaks. And, I am sure, without lying.

Oriana Fallaci:

A year without leaving the House, without seeing the sun, the snow, the rain, the trees, the sea, without breathing the air, do you not go crazy? Don’t you die with unhappiness?

Hugh Hefner:

Here I have all the air I need. I never liked to travel: the landscape never stimulated me. I am more interested in people and ideas. I find more ideas here than outside. I’m happy, totally happy. I go to bed when I like. I get up when I like: in the afternoon, at dawn, in the middle of the night. I am in the center of the world, and I don’t need to go out looking for the world. The rational use that I make of progress and technology brings me the world at home. What distinguishes men from other animals? Is it not perhaps their capacity to control the environment and to change it according to their necessities and tastes? Many people will soon live as I do. Soon, the house will be a little planet that does not prohibit but helps our relationships with the others. Is it not more logical to live as I do instead of going out of a little house to enter another little house, the car, then into another little house, the office, then another little house, the restaurant or the theater? Living as I do, I enjoy at the same time company and solitude, isolation from society and immediate access to society. Naturally, in order to afford such luxury, one must have money. But I have it. And it’s delightful.•

 

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The Electra and Oedipus of the Apollo space program, Oriana Fallaci and Norman Mailer were two writers with egos massive enough to observe humankind’s mission to the Moon as not only material for New Journalism reportage of an historical quest but also as backdrop to investigations of their own psyches. In 1967, the year after Fallaci published If the Sun Dies… and two years before Mailer stormed through a series of long-form articles for Life magazine that became Of a Fire on the Moon, the pair sat down for an interview with Fallaci serving as the inquisitor. In Mailer’s face–“noble and vulgar,” she called it–Fallaci claimed to be searching for America. It actually wasn’t a bad place to look: Like his country, Mailer could be at turns soaringly brilliant and shockingly brutal–and completely delusional about his behavior in regards to the latter. His remarks about domestic violence, for instance, were beyond horrifying, and they unfortunately weren’t merely macho showboating. The discussion opened Fallaci’s collection of (mostly) non-political interrogations, The Egotists. Three excerpts follow.

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Oriana Fallaci:

The problem I want to talk about is a difficult one, but we have to deal with it. The fact is we Europeans used to love you Americans. When you came to liberate us twenty years ago, we used to look up to you as if you were angels. And now many of us don’t love you anymore; indeed some hate you. Today the United States might be the most hated country in the world.

Norman Mailer:

You used to love us because love is hope, and we Americans were your hope. And also, perhaps, because twenty years ago we were a better people, although not as good as you believed then–the seeds of the present ugliness were already there. The soldiers with whom I fought in the Pacific, for example, were a little better than the ones who are fighting now in Vietnam, but not by much. We were quite brutal even then. One could write a novel about Vietnam along the lines of The Naked and the Dead, and the characters would not need to be worse than they are in the book.The fact is that you have lost the hope you have vested in us, and so you have lost your love; therefore you see us in a much worse light than you did before, and you don’t understand that the roots of our ugliness are the old ones. It is true that the evil forces in America have triumphed only after the war–with the enormous growth of corporations and the transformation of man into mass-man, the alienation of men from their own existence–but these forces were already there in Roosevelt’s time. Roosevelt, you see, was a great President, but he wasn’t a great thinker. Indeed, he was a very superficial one. When he took power, America stood at a crossroad; either a proletarian revolution would take place or capitalism would enter a new phase. What happened was that capitalism took a new turn, transforming itself into a subtle elaboration of state capitalism–it is not by chance that the large corporations in effect belong to the government. They belong to the right. And just as the Stalinists have murdered Marxism, so these bastards of the right are now destroying what is good in American life. They are the same people who build the expressways, who cut the trees, who pollute the air and the water, who transform life into a huge commodity.

Oriana Fallaci:

We Europeans are also very good at this. I mean this is not done by only right-wing Americans.

Norman Mailer:

Of course. It is a worldwide process. But its leader is America, and this is why we are hated. We are the leaders of the technological revolution that is taking over the twentieth century, the electronic revolution that is dehumanizing mankind.•

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Norman Mailer:

I still have hope you seem to have lost. Because of the youth. Some of them are subhuman, but most of them are intelligent.

Oriana Fallaci:

That is true. But they are also stuffed with drugs, violence, LSD. Does that help your hoping?

Norman Mailer:

Theirs is an extraordinary complex generation to live in. The best thing I can say about them is that I can’t understand them. The previous generation, the one fifteen years ago, was so predictable, without surprises. This one is a continuing surprise. I watch the young people of today, I listen to them, and l realize that I’m not twenty years older than they are but a hundred. Perhaps because in five years they went through changes that usually take half a century to complete, their intelligence has been speeded up so incredibly that there is no contact between them and the generation around thirty. Not to speak of those around forty or fifty. Yes, I know that this does not happen only in America; this too is a global process. But the psychology of American youth is more modern than that of any other group in the world; it belongs not to 1967 but to 2027. If God could see what would happen in the future–as he perhaps does–he would see people everywhere acting and thinking in 2027 as American youth do now. It’s true they take drugs. But they don’t take the old drugs such as heroin and cocaine that produce only physical reactions and sensations and dull you at the same time. They take LSD, a drug that can help you explore your mind. Now let’s get this straight: I can’t justify the use of LSD. I know too well that you don’t get something for nothing, and it may well be that we’ll pay a tragic price for LSD: it seems that it can break the membrane of the chromosomes in the cells and produce who knows what damage in future children. But LSD is part of a search, a desperate search, as if all these young people felt at the same time the need to explore as soon as possible their minds so as to avoid a catastrophe. Technology has stripped our minds until we have become like pygmies driving chariots drawn by dinosaurs. Now, if we want to keep the dinosaurs in harness, our minds will have to develop at a forced pace, which will require a frightening effort. The young have felt the need to harness the dinosaurs, and if they have found the wrong means, it’s still better than nothing. My fear had been that America was slowly freezing and hardening herself in a pygmy’s sleep. But no, she’s awake.•

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Norman Mailer:

Damn it, I don’t like violence. But there’s something I like even less, and that’s a need for security. It smells of the grave and forces you to react with blood. 

Oriana Fallaci:

You dislike violence? You who knifed a wife and can’t miss a boxing match?

Norman Mailer:

The knife in my wife’s belly was a crime. It was a grave crime, but it had nothing to do with violence. And as for the fights, well, boxing is not violence. It’s a conversation, an exchange between two men who talk to each other with their hands instead of their voices: hitting at the ear, the nose, the mouth, the belly, instead of hitting at each other’s minds. Boxing is a noble art. When a man fights in a ring, he is not expressing brutality. He expresses a complex, subtle nature like that of a true intellectual, a real aristocrat. A pugilist is less brutal, or not at all brutal after a fight, because with his fists he transforms violence into something beautiful, noble and disciplined. It’s a real triumph of the spirit. No, I’m not violent. To be violent means to pick fights, and I can’t remember ever having started a fight. Nor can I remember ever having hit a woman–a strange woman, I mean. I may have hit a wife, but that’s different. If you are married you have two choices: either you beat your wife, or you don’t. Some people live their whole life without ever beating her, others maybe beat her once and thereon are labeled “violent.” I like to marry women whom I can beat once in a while, and who fight back. All my wives have been very good fighters. Perhaps I need women who are capable of violence, to offset my own. Am I not American, after all? But the act of hitting is hateful because it implies a judgement, and judgement itself is hateful. Not that I think of myself as being a good man in the Christian sense. But at certain times I have a clear consciousness of what is good and what is evil, and then my concept of the good resembles that of the Christian.•

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Audio of Oriana Fallaci being interviewed in 1972 by Stephen Banker at the time of the publication of Nothing, and So Be It, her account of the dangerous season she spent as a war correspondent in Vietnam.

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Whether squaring off with Muhammad Ali, Henry Kissinger or a head-transplant surgeon, Oriana Fallaci was just crazy enough to survive them all–to thrive, even. Here’s an excerpt from a 1977 People interview by Sally Moore, which begins with a question that would never have been asked of a male journalist:

People:

Have you ever had a sexual relationship with an interview subject?

Oriana Fallaci:

No. That’s a matter of pride. They’ll never catch me at that one. The most humiliating thing a woman can be is a coquette. The world thinks, if a man sleeps with a woman he interviews, he’s a journalist. If a woman does it, she’s a whore.

People:

Do you ask very personal questions of people you interview?

Oriana Fallaci:

No—only of those in power. With them, you must do anything. They have no rights. I asked the Shah of Iran about his women, Golda offered to speak with love about her husband. Arafat? I don’t think he loves women, so there wasn’t any problem. Indira spoke about the problems of being a woman leader; it was tragic for her marriage.

People:

Why do people in power fascinate you?

Oriana Fallaci:

Because, you must remember, we’re not speaking of normal people but of those who rule our lives, command us, decide if we live or die, in freedom or in tyranny.

People:

Do you regret any of your interviews?

Oriana Fallaci:

Only that I’ve sometimes been too kind. When I fall in love with a character, as I did with Indira, I have reasons to regret. But then she wasn’t a dictator yet. Then there was that American Lieutenant [Robert] Frishman of the U.S. Navy, whom I interviewed in Hanoi. He was acting so cowardly in front of the North Vietnamese. It makes me crazy to see a man in chains, humiliated, so I was very good to him. Then he came home the hero. He pretended not to recognize me, and I got furious. I was kind with Thieu [South Vietnam’s ex-president], because the moment I saw him I judged him to be a victim of American policy. He was crying.

People:

Then where does your reputation for brutality come from?

Oriana Fallaci:

Americans invented a character that doesn’t exist. What I am—forgive an act of pride—is courageous. Most of our colleagues don’t have the guts to ask the right questions.”

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I don’t think people should be exalted, any of us. No statues should be built. Even the best of us are disappointing–small and petty and vain and vengeful. We often take out our unhappiness on others. Even when being seemingly generous–celebrating our country, our community, our family, our friends–we’re often just celebrating ourselves. And we should never do that. We should remain humble.

Neil Armstrong was just flesh and bones like the rest of us. He had his bad days and his flaws. But it’s amazing that he displayed such humility while accomplishing so much and braving every challenge. Not everyone can afford to be so modest. Some people have so many strikes against them that they have to convince everyone else–even themselves–that they belong. But it’s great that the one of us who went the furthest, and got there first, stayed so down-to-earth. Neil Armstrong was above and beyond, and I’m not only talking about atmosphere and stratosphere. 

From Oriana Fallaci’s 1966 book about the space program, If the Sun Dies:

“The third old man was thirty-four and looked like John Glenn’s young brother: the same freckles, the same fair coloring, the same ease; he had even been born in Ohio. Nevertheless certain things distinguished him from John Glenn–his lack of vivacity, his diplomacy and his shoulders that were extraordinarily rounded for such a strong physique. His mouth was ironical, but an irony full of caution. His voice was quiet, his movement economical. His name was Neil Armstrong and they picked him with the second group. The most interesting piece of information about him, for me, was that he didn’t have a service background. The only astronaut civilian I was to meet. And perhaps because of this he entered like someone visiting the dentist. And I felt indeed like a dentist, I was tempted to ask: Is it a molar that hurts or a canine? I would not have been at all surprised if he had answered: ‘No, Doctor, it’s an incisor.’ Sound track:

‘What a fine thing, Mr. Armstrong! You’re not from the service!’

‘I came from NASA, where I was an electronics engineer and a jet test pilot. It isn’t different. I mean, I’ve got as much discipline as the others and discipline is the main thing you need if you’re going into space. Besides, the reason they pick servicemen isn’t because they’re more suitable than civilians; they pick them because they’ve got them all neatly packaged and pre-selected so it’s easier to dig up the right man. You know everything about a serviceman, including how far you can trust him. But they knew everything about me too: I’ve been with NASA for several years.’

‘However, becoming an astronaut must give you great joy.’

‘I wouldn’t know. Let me think….”

‘Haven’t you thought about it before?’

‘To me it was simply being transferred from one office to another. I was in one office and then they moved me into this one. Well, yes, I suppose I was pleased. It’s always nice to gain in status. But I don’t have any personal ambition. My one ambition is to contribute to the success of this program. I’m no romantic.’

‘Do you mean that you don’t have a taste for adventure?’

‘For heaven’s sake, I loathe danger, especially if it’s useless; danger is the most irritating aspect of our job. How can a perfectly normal technological fact be turned into adventure? And why should steering a spacecraft be risking your life? It would be as illogical as risking your life when you use an electric mixer when making a milkshake. There should be nothing dangerous about making a milkshake and there should be nothing dangerous about steering a spacecraft. Once you’ve granted this concept, you can no longer think in terms of adventure, the urge of going up just for the sake of going up…’

I observed his mouth. Perhaps not the molar, not the canine, nor the incisor. It was probably the wisdom tooth.

‘Mr. Armstrong, I know somebody who would go up even if he knew he wouldn’t come back. Just for the urge to go up.’

‘Among us astronauts?’

‘Among you astronauts.’

‘I rule him out. If you knew him, he’d be a boy, not an adult.’

‘He’s an adult, Mr. Armstrong.’

‘But who?’

‘It doesn’t matter. Let’s talk about you. Leaving aside the milkshake, I suppose you’d be sorry not to go up?’

‘Yes, but I wouldn’t get sick about it. I don’t understand the ones who are so anxious to be the first. It’s all nonsense, kid stuff, just romanticism unworthy of our rational age. I rule out the possibility of agreeing to go up if I thought I might not come back, unless it were technically indispensable. I mean, testing a jet is dangerous but technically indispensable. Dying in space or on the Moon, is not technically indispensable and consequently if I had to choose between death while testing a jet and death on the Moon, I’d choose death while testing a jet. Wouldn’t you?’

No, it wasn’t the wisdom tooth that hurt. That one was healthy. It was something else, Father, a lack of pain, I would say, a good cry such as children have when they want the Moon, no matter if they have to die to get the Moon, that exquisite infancy which stays in us, as a gift, even when we are adults with all our teeth, our prudence.

‘No, confronted with such a dilemma, I’d unhesitatingly choose to die on the Moon: at least I’ll get a look at the Moon.’

‘Kid stuff. Nonsense. Die on the Moon! To get a look at the Moon! If it were a matter of staying there for a year or two…maybe…I don’t know. No, no, it would still be too high a price to pay because it’s senseless.’

‘Did you spend all you young years at NASA, Mr. Armstrong?’

‘I spent them traveling: Europe, Asia, South America. So I saw what there was to see, I understood what there was to understand, and here I am.’

‘Were you in the war, Mr. Armstrong?’

‘Sure, I was in Korea. Seventy-eight combat missions. I’d be lying if I said they’d done me any good.’

‘Do you have any children, Mr. Armstrong?’

‘Sure. One seven and one two. How could I not have children at my age?’

‘Ten minutes,’ said the Bureaucrat. ‘Hurry!’

He stood up. ‘I’d better say goodbye. I have to go in the centrifuge.’

‘I don’t envy you, Mr. Armstrong.’

‘Yes, it’s very disagreeable: perhaps the thing I hate most. But indispensable.’

‘Time’s up! Stop!’

‘Goodbye.’

‘Goodbye.'”

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Very happy to find an online version of the 1970 Look magazine interview with Walter Cronkite that Oriana Fallaci conducted, though it was scanned haphazardly so if you want to read it you have to rotate it several times or print it out. But it’s worth it, as the Q&A was the meeting of two very different journalists while they both were in their prime. An excerpt:

Walter Cronkite:

Anyhow, let’s begin our conversation. What’s the subject?

Oriana Fallaci:

The one we are already talking about: Walter Cronkite, of course—who he is, what he thinks. Yes, overall, what he thinks. I share this curiosity with God knows how many million people. Each time I listen to you, I wonder: What are his opinions? He doesn’t express them, and he must have them!

Walter Cronkite:

You bet I do. Very strong opinions. Yet I would never give them with the news because this would hurt my objectivity. From time to time, CBS has suggested that I do commentaries or analyses, but I have always refused. Should I take a position with analysis or commentary, then the public would decide that I am prejudiced in editing the news. The public does not understand journalism. They do not know how we work, they do not believe that we can hold strong private thoughts and still be objective journalists. So I choose to do only unbiased reporting. I give you the news, and I don’t help you make the judgment. You make it all alone. Don’t you agree?

Oriana Fallaci:

Not completely. I say rather: Look, I do not possess the whole truth, so I can only give you the truth that I saw and heard and touched and even felt. Which is very uncomfortable because it is the perfect way to make everybody unhappy. Like when the reactionaries call me a Communist, or the Communists call me reactionary. . . .

Walter Cronkite:  

But this means that you are objective! The point is that the public doesn’t understand objectivity, they judge us on the facts that we give them. Besides, your journalism is different from mine, you explain facts more than give news, and you are not as cautious as I am. You can afford the luxury of being emotional.

Oriana Fallaci:

Yes. No solid German stock, all furious Florentine stock. Yet I admire your detachment so passionately. Only a couple of times, if I am not wrong, you have shown emotion on TV. When John Kennedy died and when the first man landed on the moon.

Walter Cronkite:

Uhm . . . ‘Go, baby, go!’ I yelled so. The moon excited me a lot. But there are other examples. At the Democratic Convention in Chicago. for instance, I got very angry. We had such a bunch there on the Convention floor. And certainly when I found out that Kennedy was dead, that I had to say it, I choked up quite a bit. God, it was hard! You know, Oriana, I never go on the air in shirt-sleeves or with my hair uncombed. That day, Charles Collingwood relieved me, and when I got up after four hours and a half, I saw my jacket hanging over the back of my chair. So I realized that I was in shirt-sleeves and that I had not even combed my hair. But something else happened. When I went to my office to call my wife, both my lines were busy because the switchboard was jammed with calls. Then my phone rang, I grabbed it and the voice of a woman came on: “May I have the News Department of CBS?’ So I said, ‘This is the News Department of CBS.’ And she said, ‘Well, I want to say that it is absolutely criminal for CBS to have that man Cronkite on the air at a time like this, when everybody knows that he hates the Kennedys. But there he is, in shirt-sleeves, crying his crocodile tears.’ I said: ‘Madam, what’s your name?’ She gave me her name . . . let’s say it was Mrs. Smith. And I said: ‘Mrs. Smith, you are speaking to Walter Cronkite and you are a goddamn idiot.'”

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Walter Cronkite’s first evening news broadcast on CBS, 1963:

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It wasn’t her most unusual assignment, but Oriana Fallaci spent a year focused on NASA in the mid-60s when the space race was in high gear. The result was If the Sun Dies, a book-length mélange of reportage and personal impressions about humans hurtling into the future. Fallaci was known for her ferocious Q&A interviews, but she was also a brilliant prose writer. A bigoted ass at times, but really brilliant. Here are the first three paragraphs from her book about life among the boldest rocketeers the world has ever known, in which she travels to Los Angeles to do research and finds the city to be odd and denatured:

“You couldn’t see the stone, so thick and lush was the grass. I tripped over it and fell flat, alongside the road. Nobody came to help me. But then who could? There was nobody walking along the road, nobody along the roads of the whole city. Nobody existed, nobody with feet and legs, with a body on his legs, a head on his body. Only automobiles existed, sliding by, smooth, controlled, always at the same speed, at the same distance, never a man inside, nor a woman. There were human forms behind the steering wheels, yes, but so straight they were, and still, that they could not be men or women; they were automatons, robots. Isn’t modern technology perfectly able to make robots identical to ourselves? Isn’t the first rule for robots ‘remember that you must not interfere with the actions of humans unless they ask you to’? And was I asking anyone to intervene? On the contrary. Stretched out on the grass by the roadside, my cheeks burning with embarrassment, I was only hoping that they wouldn’t notice me and laugh at me. And the robots obeyed, sliding by, smooth and controlled, always at the same speed, at the same distance, not even asking their computers whether the woman lying there was dead or alive and if she was alive why she wasn’t getting up. I wasn’t getting up because I had noticed something absurd. The grass didn’t smell like grass.

I stuck my nose into it and sniffed. No, it didn’t smell like grass, it had no smell at all. I grasped a blade and tugged. No, it didn’t come out and it didn’t break. I scrabbled underneath with my fingernail, looking for a speck of earth. No, you couldn’t even get hold of a speck of earth. How odd. Yes, it was the color of earth, it had the consistency of earth. And the grass that was planted in it was the same color as grass, it had the consistency of supple fresh grass, even watered with an ingenious sprinkler system to keep it green and make it grow; my God, I couldn’t be delirious, dreaming, the grass was grass, yes, of course it…Was it grass? I sniffed it again. Again I grasped a blade between my thumb and forefinger and tugged. Again I scrabbled underneath with my fingernail, looking for a speck of earth, and like a dagger-thrust in my brain the doubt became certainty. The grass was plastic. Yes, and perhaps all the grass I’d seen there, the grass plots along the avenues, along the highways, in front of the houses, the churches, the schools, looked after by gardeners, watered, treated like real grass, grass that grows and dies, was all plastic. A huge shroud of plastic, of grass that never grows or dies, a mockery.

I jumped up as if I’d been stung by a thousand wasps, hurried back to my hotel, flung open my door of my suite and almost fell over the cactus plant that adorned the living room. It was a big cactus, green, lush, bristling with thorns, and on top there was a flower. I felt the flower, I bent it and twisted it. It remained intact. I poked my finger between the thorns, squeezed the fleshy part, hoping for a drop of liquid. I felt only the sponginess of rubber. I squeezed the thorns with both hands, desperately praying that they would prick me, that they would tell me I’d made a mistake. They only tickled me gently, the thorns were made of aluminum and rounded points. And the plant in the corridor? False, too. And the hedge in the garden? False of course. And probably those trees too around which there were never any flies or birds, every blade of grass, every branch, every leaf was false in this city where nothing green sprouted and grew and died. The daisies, the azaleas, the rhododendrons, the rose in that vase…The vase was on the TV and I approached it without hope. I gently removed a rose, raised it to my face, let it drop, and the rose went crack; it shattered on the floor in a thousand splinters of glass. On the floor a cold frost, a spark of light remained. I had reached Los Angeles, first stage of my journey into the future and into myself.”

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Oriana Fallaci reflected on some of her most famous interview subjects in a 1969 Life article in which the grand inquisitor was the one being quizzed:

Robert F. Kennedy: A very cold and shy man. He blushed at every question. I never managed to provoke him. One of my worst interviews.

Barbra Streisand: We liked each other very much, but she and her press agent complained about the story. I sent them both to hell.

John Glenn: The second time I saw him, after his fall, he was a better man, I thought, not playing the Boy Scout so much.

Federico Fellini: We are total enemies now. He wished me to die. I don’t wish him to die–but I don’t give a damn whether he lives.

Paul Newman: He seems like a nice American boy who reads the Times and Washington Post daily. I think I’d like him as a neighbor.”

••••••••••

More Oriana Fallaci posts:

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So, this is an interesting find, to say the least. I was looking for something completely different and stumbled across “The Dead Body and the Living Brain,” a 1967 Look magazine article by Oriana Fallaci about pioneering head-transplant experimentation. (Unfortunately, the PDF file has the pages sideways and out of sequential order.) In the piece, Fallaci reports on the sci-fi-ish experiments that Prof. Robert White was doing with rhesus monkeys at a time when consciousness about animal rights was on the rise. White’s unusual work continued until his death in 2010. The opening:

“Libby had eaten her last meal the night before: orange, banana, monkey chow. While eating she had observed us with curiosity. Her hands resembled the hands of a newly born child, her face seemed almost human. Perhaps because of her eyes. They were so sad, so defenseless. We had called her Libby because Dr. Maurice Albin, the anesthetist, had told us she had no name, we could give her the name we liked best, and because she accepted it immediately. You said ‘Libby!’ and she jumped, then she leaned her head on her shoulder. Dr. Albin had also told us that Libby had been born in India and was almost three years, an age comparable to that of a seven-year-old girl. The rhesuses live 30 years and she was a rhesus. Prof. Robert White uses the rhesus because they are not expensive; they cost between $80 and $100. Chimpanzees, larger and easier to experiment with, cost up to $2,000 each. After the meal, a veterinarian had come, and with as much ceremony as they use for the condemned, he had checked to be sure Libby was in good health. It would be a difficult operation and her body should function as perfectly as a rocket going to the moon. A hundred times before, the experiment had ended in failure, and though Professor White became the first man in the entire history of medicine to succeed, the undertaking still bordered on science fiction. Libby was about to die in order to demonstrate that her brain could live isolated from her body and that, so isolated, it could still think.”•


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From a 1969 Life piece about the interlocutor Oriana Fallaci, who recalls introducing a young Muhammad Ali to her aggressive interviewing style:

Question:

Has anyone actually threatened to break your nose off for something you wrote?

Oriana Fallaci:

Something like it happened with Cassius Clay. I had seen him a couple of times, and I went back to his house in Miami to finish the interview. He was eating a melon. I said, Good Morning, Mr. Clay. He keeps on eating the melon and suddenly belches very loud. I think he is just being impolite and I sit down with my tape recorder. And then oooaaagh. He belches again. A big one. Well, I said, let’s go on anyway. And just at that moment, buurp, buurp, whoops, whoops. I turned to him and shouted, I am not going to stay with an animal like you. And I was undoing my recorder, when he took the microphone and threw it against the wall. My microphone! I saw it flying past my head and I took my fists and bam, bam. Went against him. He stood there. So enormous. So tall. And he watched me in a way an elephant watches a mosquito. Black Muslims suddenly came out of all the doors into the room. Evil. Evil. They began to chant. You came for evil. It was like a nightmare. I backed out to my cab, trying to keep my dignity, but really afraid, and went straight to the airport. After the interview was published, Cassius Clay said he was going to break my nose if he ever saw me again. I said, we’ll see, if he breaks my nose, he is going to jail and we will have beautiful news in the papers. I saw him later in New York. I passed with my nose in the air, and he went by without looking at me.”

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Ray Bradbury explains to Oriana Fallaci why we should travel into space, in the 1966 book, If The Sun Dies:

“For the same reason that makes us bring children into the world. Because we’re afraid of death and darkness, and because we want to see our image reflected and perpetuated to immortality. We don’t want to die, but death is there, and because it’s there we give birth to children who’ll give birth to other children and so on to infinity. And this way we are handed down to eternity. Don’t let us forget this: that the Earth can die, explode, the Sun can go out, will go out. And if the Sun dies, if the Earth dies, if our race dies, then so will everything die that we have done up to that moment. Homer will die, Michelangelo will die, Galileo, Leonardo, Shakespeare, Einstein will die, all those will die who now are not dead because we are alive, we are thinking of them, we are carrying them within us. And then every single thing, every memory, will hurtle down into the void with us. So let us save them, let us save ourselves. Let us prepare ourselves to escape, to continue life and rebuild our cities on other planets: we shall not long be of this Earth! And if we really fear the darkness, if we really fight against it, then, for the good of all, let us take our rockets, let us get well used to the great cold and heat, the no water, the no oxygen, let us become Martians on Mars, Venusians on Venus, and when Mars and Venus die, let us go to the other solar systems, to Alpha Centauri, to wherever we manage to go, and let us forget the Earth. Let us forget our solar system and our body, the form it used to have, let us become no matter what, lichens, insects, balls of fire, no matter what, all that matters is that somehow life should continue, and the knowledge of what we were and what we did and learned: the knowledge of Homer and Michelangelo, of Galileo, Leonardo, Shakespeare, of Einstein! And the gift of life will continue.”

More from If The Sun Dies:

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Oriana Fallaci was one of the people who overreacted after the tragedy of 9/11, seeming to believe that the West was at war with Islam rather than terrorism. But she was pretty spot-on in her assessment of Muammar el-Qaddafi when coversing with that shock jock Charlie Rose in 2003.


More Oriana Fallaci posts:

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No, I don't have gold in my ear. Please stop asking me that.

Before I reluctantly return Oriana Fallaci’s out-of-print 1976 book, Interview with History, to my shelves, I bring you one more excerpt. I’ve previously presented segments of her tête-à-têtes with Henry Kissinger and Indira Gandhi, and now we look at her meeting with Golda Meir, who was then Israel’s Prime Minister.

Even though Fallaci differed politically with Meir on crucial issues, the journalist acknowledged a sort of love for the politician, who physically resembled her mother. The interview actually took place twice because the first set of microcassettes were stolen from Fallaci’s Jerusalem hotel room. (Fallaci believed that Muammar al-Qaddafi was behind the thievery.) An excerpt from the women’s exchange on the topic of feminism:

“Oriana Fallaci: Shall we talk about the woman Ben-Gurion called ‘the ablest man in my cabinet?’

Golda Meir: That’s one of the legends that have grown up around me. It’s also a legend I’ve always found irritating, though men use it as a great compliment. Is it? I wouldn’t say so. Because what does it really mean? That it’s better to be a man than a woman, a principle on which I don’t agree at all. So here’s what I’d like to say to those who make me such a compliment. And what if Ben-Gurion had said, ‘The men in my cabinet are as able as a woman’? Men always feel so superior. I’ll never forget what happened at a congress of my party in New York in the 1930s. I made a speech and in the audience there was a writer friend of mine. An honest person, a man of great culture and refinement. When it was over he came up to me and exclaimed, ‘Congratulations! You’ve made a wonderful speech! And to think you’re only a woman!’ That’s just what he said in such a spontaneous, instinctive way. It’s a good thing I have a sense of humor….

Oriana Fallaci: The Women’s Liberation Movement will like that, Mrs. Meir.

Golda Meir: Do you mean those crazy women who burn their bras and go around all disheveled and hate men? They’re crazy. Crazy. But how can one accept such crazy women who think that it’s a misfortune to get pregnant and a disaster to bring children into the world? And when it’s the greatest privilege we women have over men.”

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Nixon and Gandhi, together in 1971, despised one another. He referred to her behind the scenes as an "old witch."

I recently brought you an excerpt of Oriana Fallaci’s spellbinding 1972 session with Henry Kissinger from the journalist’s great out-of-print book, Interview with History. I’m returning for passage of Fallaci’s 1972 Q&A with Indira Gandhi, one of the most complex and thorniest political leaders of that era.

By the time Fallaci had published her book in 1976, she had renounced her admiration for Gandhi, who had been India’s tough-as-nails Prime Minister and a feminist icon. In 1975, Gandhi, rather than resign as Prime Minister after being convicted of election fraud, declared the Indian version of martial law, had her political opponents imprisoned and repealed many of the citizens’ freedoms. She had, in effect, become a dictator.

Fallaci wrote a new introduction to the four-year-old interview that expressed bitter disappointment in the fallen idol. (“I didn’t hide my regret and shame at having portrayed her in the past as a woman to love and respect.”) Here’s a portentous excerpt from the interview that was conducted in New Delhi:

“Oriana Fallaci: Mrs. Gandhi, I have so many questions to ask you, both personal and political. The personal ones, however, I’ll leave for later–once I’ve understood why many people are afraid of you and call you cold, indeed icy, hard…

Indira Gandhi: They say that because I’m sincere. Even too sincere. And because I don’t waste time with flowery small talk, as people do in India, where the first half hour is spent in compliments: ‘How are you, how are your children, how are your grandchildren and so forth.’ I refuse to indulge in small talk. And compliments, if at all, I save for after the job is done. But in India people can’t stomach this attitude of mine, and when I say, ‘Hurry up, let’s get to the point,’ they feel hurt. And think I’m cold, indeed, icy, hard. Then there’s another reason, one that goes with my frankness: I don’t put on an act. I don’t know how to put on an act; I always show myself for what I am, in whatever mood I’m in. If I’m happy, I look happy; if I’m angry, I show it. Without worrying about how others may react. When one has had a life as difficult as mine, one doesn’t worry about how others will react.”

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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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