In order to understand the present-day imperialism of the United States, we may first need to understand Henry Kissinger. That’s the argument of Greg Grandin’s new book, which reveals how Kissinger paved the way for 21st century neoconservatives and their disastrous foreign policies, with his belief in willpower over reality, intuition over facts and ideology over the lessons of past experience. Order the highly acclaimed Kissinger’s Shadow today with a donation to Truthout!
Henry Kissinger ushered in the modern era of executive branch US military interventionism that has resulted in millions of deaths around the world. He rooted his “madman” violation of national sovereignty and bloodshed in philosophical theory that he studied as a Harvard academic. However, is he really just a ruthless power-hungry Machiavellian who feels no remorse for the massive loss of life that he oversaw? Are his philosophical “underpinnings” just window dressing to a non-fiction Dr. Strangelove?
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MARK KARLIN: In providing an intensively researched record of the mindset and impact of Henry Kissinger on modern US foreign policy and military intervention, you also offer many revealing – if not sometimes enigmatic and ignobly ironic – quotations by Kissinger. Let me first ask you about why you chose to begin the book with a prefatory 1963 Kissinger quotation?
“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.”
GREG GRANDIN: Conventional wisdom has Kissinger as the supreme political realist, a realpolitiker, which means a few things: a willingness to deal with the world as it is, rather than how it should be; a belief that the “truth” of the reality is derived from a simple observation of the facts of reality; and a belief that American military and diplomatic power should service American interests. But, in fact, Kissinger believes in none of those things. Thinking about Henry Kissinger helps us think about American power because Kissinger, more than any other postwar policy maker and defense intellectual, was extremely aware of his philosophical influences, and through his career he constantly tried to justify his policies by referencing those influences. Starting with his 1950 undergraduate thesis, which I dive into in the book, Kissinger reveals himself to be a radical existentialist, a radical subjectivist. He believed that reality existed, but humans had no access to it other than through action, and that whatever meaning or truth we took from that reality was based on our lonely, individual experience.
I realize that’s a bit abstract, but the larger point I make in the book is that a consideration of Kissinger helps us situate the adventurism of George Bush’s neocons in a longer history. They weren’t an anomaly but rather reflected a deeper current in America’s imperial political culture. An implied argument of the book is that American Exceptionalism is founded on a deep, anti-rational, will-to-power subjectivism – a subjectivism that can be found in Kissinger (as that quote reveals, the idea great men “make” reality) and in the neocons. Remember that great quote by a Bush staffer given to the journalist Ron Suskind in 2004, a staffer many believe was Karl Rove: Studying “discernible reality” was not the way the world worked any more, Rove said: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors …” The quote circulated widely, interpreted as the blind ideology of the Bush administration taken to its conceited conclusion, the idea that reality itself could bend to neocon will.
But Kissinger said it four decades earlier.
The second quotation, among a book filled with astonishing Kissinger statements, is one that begins (on page 202) with an assertion by you:
As a public official, Kissinger repeatedly mocked the principle of sovereignty. “I don’t see we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people,” he [Kissinger] once said of Salvador Allende’s election.
You mention that Kissinger rarely invoked democracy as a rationale for either advocating for military intervention that resulted (either primarily or secondarily) in the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Bangladesh, South and Latin America, East Timor, etc.) – or for defending tyrannical governments such as the Chinese in their brutal suppression of democratic movements, such as Tiananmen Square.
Can you reflect on Kissinger’s dismissal of democracy and human rights in the pursuit of US hegemony?
Well, I do think that Kissinger sacrificed hundreds of thousands lives, if not millions, to advance US interests. But other policy makers did that as well. That’s not what I think makes Kissinger unique, interesting, or useful to think about the evolution of American militarism. As I mentioned above, Kissinger’s awareness of history and philosophy is unique among policy makers, which helps us render explicit assumptions justifying American power that are often hidden, or lurking below the political unconscious. Kissinger is also unique in that nearly every other postwar policy maker and foreign policy intellectual of his stature, such as Arthur Schlesinger, George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, and Reinhold Niebuhr, eventually became critical, some extremely so, of American power. By 1957, Kennan was arguing for “disengagement” from the Cold War and by 1982 he was describing the Reagan administration as “ignorant, unintelligent, complacent and arrogant.”
Vietnam provoked Schlesinger to advocate stronger legislative power to rein in what in 1973 he would call the “imperial presidency.” Not Kissinger. At every single one of America’s postwar turning points, moments of crisis when men of good will began to express doubts about American power, Kissinger broke in the opposite direction. He made his peace with Nixon, whom he first thought was unhinged; then with Ronald Reagan, whom he initially considered hollow; and then with George W. Bush’s neocons, despite the fact that they all rose to power attacking Kissinger. The cliché goes that in the exception, one finds the rule, which I never really understood until I started studying Kissinger: his singularity as an individual helps illuminate the larger and steady drift to the right of the US, from the 1960s to this day.
Let’s move onto Kissinger’s involvement in the undermining of the Paris talks that were about to likely result in a peace treaty that would have ended the Vietnam War in 1968, but would have also likely meant that Hubert Humphrey would have ridden the euphoria over an end to the war to victory over Nixon in that year’s presidential election. Kissinger basically committed – let’s call it what it is – treason – in leaking details about the negotiations to the Nixon campaign. As a result, Nixon’s staff used a cut-out (Mrs. Chenault) to persuade the South Vietnamese government not to sign the treaty. The Vietnam War was needlessly prolonged for years, resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of more US lives – and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian lives.
In the end, the US left Vietnam with its tail between its legs, amidst chaos, while Kissinger was still secretary of state under President Ford (Nixon having resigned). What do you think Kissinger believes that he accomplished by sacrificing so many lives after sinking the 1968 peace talks and accelerating the war?
I don’t know what he believes, but that event is key, as you say. The intrigue not only launched Kissinger’s public career but kicked off a chain of events with catastrophic consequences: Nixon used Kissinger’s intelligence to urge South Vietnam to reject a potential ceasefire (which might have benefited Nixon’s Democratic rival, Humphrey); the negotiations collapsed; Nixon was elected president, after which he appointed Kissinger national security adviser; in office, Nixon and Kissinger bombed Cambodia to pressure Hanoi to return to the negotiating table; the bombing was illegal, so it had to be done in secret; pressure to keep it secret spread paranoia within the administration, leading to a series of crises (the murders at Kent and Jackson States in reaction to the invasion of Cambodia) and covert actions resulting in the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation. The war, meanwhile, dragged on pointlessly for years.
I don’t know if Kissinger gives it much thought. Part of his “existentialism” is an insistence that history is not a series of causes and events that can be traced to the present. Rather, as he has repeatedly said, history teaches by “analogy” (that is, it is always Munich 1938 and our enemy of the moment is always Hitler), not by an awareness of “blowback.” In any case, that plotting with Nixon launched his public career. But in the book, I try to show how it also created a fusion of self and state, in which Kissinger came to see his interests as indistinguishable from those of the national security apparatus.
By the way, Kissinger also sacrificing hundreds of thousands lives, if not millions, to advance those interests is not – at least for the purposes of historical analysis – primarily a moral question. Rather, the spectacular success of Kissinger, who came to the US as a German refugee fleeing the Nazis, helps reveal that unending militarism creates its own kind of meritocracy, and hence a powerful constituency invested in keeping that militarism going.
You do an extraordinary job of researching the European philosophical, historical and political science theoretical underpinnings that Kissinger appeared to use to justify his dismissal of the loss of life and the condoning of torture by US client states. However, to what extent would you speculate that Kissinger’s own lust for power propelled his rise to become the Godfather of US military intervention polices, more or less, for the last 45 years or so? If you could comment on, as a case in point, Kissinger’s unctuous and Machiavellian relationship with Richard Nixon. As you record in your book, the internationally renowned public intellectual of the last century, Britain’s Isaiah Berlin, combined Nixon and Kissinger into one word: “Nixonger.”
Kissinger knew that his power depended entirely on melding himself to Nixon. “I would be losing my only constituency,” he once said, about the consequences of displeasing Nixon. And this awareness is what led him to use, say, the mad bombing of Cambodia as an instrument of inter-office politics. For Kissinger, beyond bringing (he hoped) Hanoi to heel, bombing Cambodia was both the means and end of his never ending power struggle with real and perceived rivals. “Kissinger’s primary source of power,” Nixon’s speechwriter, William Safire, said in his memoir of his time in the White House, “was in his tuning-fork relationship with the President on matters that mattered to them the most.” Cambodia was one of the matters that mattered most to Nixon, understood as the key both to gaining an advantage over North Vietnam and winning his reelection. Some in the administration were opposed. This gave Kissinger an opening, letting him stake out a ne plus ultra position. He wanted to bomb. He wanted to bomb in a way that inflicted the most pain. And he wanted to bomb in absolute secrecy, completely off the books. He grasped the nettle, showing the White House, especially the tough-minded “Prussians” on Nixon’s staff, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and the militarists at the Pentagon that he was the “hawk of hawks.”
How does Kissinger’s effusive support of the Shah of Iran (and SAVAK) – along with Kissinger’s disastrous advice to admit the Shah into the US for cancer treatment after he was deposed – reflect his singular ability to appear a “statesman” while covertly and overtly initiating foreign and military policies that ended disastrously and resulted in repeated blowback?
The respected career diplomat, George Ball, called Kissinger’s unwavering support for the Shah – and for the torturers in SAVAK – an “act of folly.” Kissinger’s whole Middle East policy is often held up as a success of his diplomacy, but that is because people mostly focus on his shuttle diplomacy which helped wind down the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. But taking a step back and looking at the broader picture, it is clear that Kissinger was instrumental in laying the foundation for the catastrophe to come. Each of Kissinger’s Middle East initiatives has been disastrous in the long run. Just think about them from the vantage point of 2015: banking on Saudi despots, inflating the Shah, providing massive amounts of aid to security forces that tortured and terrorized advocates of democracy, pumping up the US defense industry with recycled petrodollars and so spurring a Middle East arms race financed by high gas prices, emboldening Pakistan’s intelligence service, nurturing Islamic fundamentalism, playing Iran and the Kurds off against Iraq, and then Iraq and Iran off against the Kurds, and committing Washington to defending Israel’s occupation of Arab lands. Kissinger’s hands are all over the modern Middle East.
Can you summarize how the neocons first used Kissinger as a punching bag while he was still secretary of state under Gerald Ford, but then embraced him and his advocacy of low-intensity “policing” around the world up to the present day?
The first generation of neocons, in and around the Gerald Ford presidency, identified Kissinger as a loser (for Vietnam), and appeaser (for Détente), and a sinner (for supposedly not believing in American righteousness). Rumsfeld, Cheney, the Kagans, the Kristols, Paul Wolfowitz, all came up attacking Kissinger. Wolfowitz, who served George W. Bush as Assistant Secretary of Defense, was part of the CIA’s infamous “Team B,” an ad hoc intelligence review which Ford set up to appease conservatives who insisted that the CIA (and Kissinger) was underplaying its estimates of Soviet power. In the White House, Cheney and Rumsfeld pushed the idea. “They wanted to toughen up the agency’s estimates,” Melvin Goodman, a former CIA analyst, said; “Cheney wanted to drive [the CIA] so far to the right it would never say no to the generals.” And he did, not just derailing Kissinger’s next round of negotiations with Moscow but setting the scene for the next round of intelligence cooking, which justified the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The political differences between Kissinger and the neocons are real, but it is important to point out that the terms of the criticism that the neocons used against Ford, Kissinger, and then Carter and Clinton, are exactly the same terms Kissinger used to criticize Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Throughout the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, every generation seemed to throw up a new cohort of “declinists,” militarists who warn about the establishment’s supposed over reliance on data and expertise, complain about the caution generated by too much bureaucracy, protest the enervement d’espirit that results from too much information. The solution to such lassitude is, inevitably, more war, or at least more of a willingness to wage war, which often leads to war. Kissinger, in the 1950s and 60s was part of one such cohort, contributing to the era’s rightwing lurch in defense thinking, the idea that we needed to fight little wars in grey areas with resolve. In the mid-1970s, ironically, he himself was a primary target of such a critique, at the hands of Ronald Reagan and the first generation of neoconservatives.
Given Kissinger’s promotion of a “madmen, happy trigger” Dr. Strangelove military policy, how can you explain his breakthrough resumption of relations with China, movement toward a co-existence with the then-Soviet Union and his support for a reduction in nuclear weapons?
Kissinger and Nixon went to China because they had to go to China – because their actions in 1968 pointlessly extended the Vietnam War, and they needed China’s help in extricating themselves. As to Moscow, even if we grant Kissinger that accomplishment, he himself immediately acted in a way to undermine it.
If Détente were allowed to mature, one could imagine it producing a number of salutary effects. But it didn’t mature, for two reasons largely the result of Kissinger. First, in the years following the end of the Vietnam War, Kissinger, in one region after another, in Asia, southern Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, put into place policies that helped doom his own grand strategy.
In a way, Kissinger did to the larger third-world what he did to Cambodia: he institutionalized a self-fulfilling logic of intervention. Action led to action, reaction demanded more action. Just as his secret bombing so roiled Cambodian society that, by early 1970, it made a major land invasion using US troops seem like a good idea, Kissinger’s global post-Vietnam War diplomacy so inflamed the international order that it made the neocon’s radical vision of perpetual war look like a reasonable option for many of the world’s problems. Second, once he was out of office, he threw in with America’s new militarists, who were intent on tearing down Détente.
On page 120, you write a paragraph that appears to be key to understanding Kissinger’s policies. You make an observation as if it were Kissinger thinking (in this case, Kissinger’s cynical policy toward a catastrophic Angolan civil war):
We have the demonstrative effect as both means ends; specific objectives are left unstated, aside from an implied circularity; we need to demonstrate resolve in order to protect our interests and defend freedom, with “interests” and “freedom” defined entirely as our ability to demonstrate our resolve.
Need I ask, does morality ever factor into Kissinger’s policies?
Kissinger has a very elastic understanding of morality, in which ends were constantly conflated with means. If one were to grant him the benefit of the doubt, as so many in our political class do, one could say that as an existentialist, as someone who does not believe there exists a larger moral order, the best one can do is create stability through a balance of power. That by being willing to wage war, perhaps, with luck, the opposite can be achieved: an extended period of peace. Thus a greater good can be achieved for the greatest number of people when great powers do what they need to do in order to create an orderly, stable, and peaceful interstate system, which, in turn, might nurture whatever fragile justice human beings are capable of achieving. Unfortunately for Kissinger, and for those who want to grant him the benefit of the doubt, the facts – “reality” – have demonstrated otherwise. Kissinger’s policies led to polarization and conflict at home and abroad, and are the immediate backstory to the inflamed world we now live in.
Help me out with this one. On page 223, you recall how in a 2014 review by Hillary Clinton in the Washington Post of Kissinger’s latest book, World Order, she states the she “relies” on Kissinger for advice. You write that [Hillary believes that] “Kissinger’s vision is her vision: ‘just and liberal.'” Uh, what’s up with that?
Well, Kissinger is 92, and at this point in life he is as much pure affect as he is power broker. The gestures Clinton mentioned in her review — I rely on his council; he checks in with me and gives me reports from his travels – are ceremonial, meant to bestow gravitas. Ironically, the worse things get in the world, the more Kissinger’s stock rises. He’s seen with nostalgia by our political class, as a serious person who had a serious vision. Again, the reality is otherwise.
In your concluding sentences, you write that Kissinger has never lost his … value [to the Washington ruling order], “especially when it comes to justifying war … And after Kissinger himself is gone, one imagines Kissingerism will endure as well.”
That is indeed an ominous prediction given that many critics argue that he is a war criminal. How has he managed to cultivate the image of a “statesman” when so many of his policies resulted in horrific carnage, sometimes grisly torture, and frequent failure, not to mention that he is an inveterate liar – and his made a fortune through Kissinger Associates without separating his role as advisor to ongoing administrations from the interests of many of his clients?
To the degree that Kissingerism is a weaponized version of Americanism, I fear it isn’t going away. Look, last year when promoting his book World Order, Kissinger responded to questions about his bombing of Cambodia and his overthrow of democracy in Chile by pointing to Obama. No difference, he said, existed between what he did with B-52s in Cambodia and what the president was doing with drones in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Chile? Look at what Obama did in Libya, he said, and what he wants to do in Syria.
It’s easy to dismiss such a defense, but, frankly, Kissinger is right in his assertion that many of the political arguments he made in the late 1960s to justify his illegal and covert wars in Cambodia, considered at the time way beyond mainstream thinking, are now an unquestioned, very public part of American policymaking. This was especially true of the notion that Washington has the right to violate the sovereignty of a neutral country to destroy enemy “sanctuaries.” “If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven,” Barack Obama has said, offering Kissinger his retroactive absolution.
It’s a perfect expression of American militarism’s unending carousal. Kissinger invokes today’s endless, open-ended wars to justify his diplomacy by air power in Cambodia and elsewhere nearly half a century ago. But what he did then created the conditions for today’s endless wars, both those started by Bush’s neocons and those waged by Obama’s war-fighting liberals like Samantha Power.
Look, just this week, Barack Obama announced that U.S. troops wouldn’t be leaving Afghanistan any time soon and he has also just announced a deeper commitment to fighting ISIS, including the sending of the first U.S. ground personnel into that country. And a new book by New York Times reporter Charlie Savage, Power Wars, suggests that there has been little substantive difference between George W. Bush’s administration and Obama’s when it comes to national-security policies or the legal justifications used to pursue policies of regime change in the Greater Middle East.
That’s what I mean that after Kissinger himself is gone, Kissingerism will live on.