What Kissinger Did

What Kissinger Did

For a man with a Nobel Peace Prize on his resume, Henry Kissinger sure has supported a lot of wars, great and small. Among them was the Vietnam War, a contest he backed to the bitter end even after reputedly determining in 1967 that it was a lost cause in search of a face-saving — sometimes called an honorable — exit.

There was hardly any conflict Kissinger didn’t seem to favor while serving from 1969 to 1977 as National Security Advisor and then as US Secretary of State for presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford: whether the battle was in Chile, Angola, East Timor, or the secret bombing and subsequent invasion of Cambodia and Laos.

Once out of office and heading his own consulting firm, Kissinger hailed the American invasion of Panama to capture its president, Manuel Noriega, and in 2002 he was an early supporter of regime change in Iraq. That most of the fights Kissinger picked ended badly doesn’t seem to have affected him one whit — nor has it significantly tarnished his reputation as a man of deep intellect and geopolitical acumen.

In "Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman," historian, author and New York University professor Greg Grandin blames his subject for the militarization of American foreign policy and for setting precedents that have made it easier for subsequent presidential administrations to invade, or to carry out attacks in countries that are not at war with or even, in some cases, hostile to the United States.

Indeed, many of Kissinger’s former professorial colleagues at Harvard were appalled by the 1970 invasion of Cambodia, a peaceful and neutral country. They would have been more appalled had they known at the time that Kissinger had been overseeing a secret bombing campaign of that nation for more than a year, one that would continue for three more years.

Grandin argues that the rationale for the Cambodian bombing and invasion was a departure from American and international norms: that for the first time the United States determined that concern for its security trumped respecting the sovereignty of other nations and the sanctity of international borders.

Drawing on previous Kissinger biographies and historical accounts, as well as recently available government sources such as newly available White House tapes and declassified transcripts of secret telephone recordings, the author traces Kissinger’s political philosophy back to his salad days as a student and professor at Harvard. His senior thesis, grandly titled “The Meaning of History,” is a 400-page slog through the writings of a number of European philosophers.

In it, according to Grandin, Kissinger argues for old-fashioned American exceptionalism and robust freedom of action on the world stage. The author provides a few select quotes from the 1950 thesis, including: “ Meaning represents the emanation of a metaphysical context. Every man in a certain sense creates his picture of the world.” More than a decade later, in 1963, Kissinger wrote a bit more clearly: “There are two kinds of realists: those who manipulate facts and those who create them. The West requires nothing so much as men able to create their own reality.”

It is hard to deny that Kissinger both manipulated and created facts – and denied them, too, when the outcome of the policies he championed came under scrutiny. For example, he makes no connection between America’s actions in devastating Cambodia from 1970 to 1973 and the ascendancy of Pol Pot as that nation’s genocidal leader in 1975.

Grandin, who is the author of several other books including “Fordlandia,” presses his case relentlessly that Kissinger is not only responsible for what he wrought while in power, but also for much of what followed: for “the outsized role he had in creating the world we live in today, which accepts endless war as a matter of course.” Grandin paints Kissinger as something of an Ivy League cowboy, always ready for action, and his writing and research are compelling.

But, of course, before Kissinger there were other wars and conflicts. Much of the continental United States would still be in the hands of others if Americans had always been scrupulous about the sovereignty of others and the sanctity of borders, not to mention treaties it signed with Native American tribes. And right along there have been invasions of small unoffending nations such as Haiti, Panama, and the Dominican Republic – all well before Kissinger, who was born in 1923. Kissinger may have caught the wave, but he didn’t create it.

Grandin makes a stronger case for Kissinger as the ultimate political chameleon. He started out in politics supporting liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller and as sometimes advisor to Democratic administrations. But he read the tea leaves and cast his lot with Richard Nixon in 1968, a man he initially believed to be dangerous and unworthy of the presidency.

He would continue to advise Presidents and leaders of both parties through the decades, largely on the strength of his signature accomplishments: détente with the Soviet Union, opening up of relations with Communist China, and his shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East. His most recent book even got a warm review last year from Hillary Clinton, who wrote that he was a friend whose counsel she relied on while she was Secretary of State.