Kissinger´s contradictions. How Strategic Insight and Moral Myopia Shaped America’s Greatest Statesman. Timothy Naftali. FA. December 2023

After more than six decades on the world’s stage, during which he both brilliantly persuaded and deceived the powerful and created state-to-state relationships that survive him, Henry Kissinger now belongs to the history he helped make. The only American official ever to have held all of the levers of foreign-policy making—for two years he served simultaneously as national security adviser and secretary of state—he has no peers in the history of U.S. foreign relations in the superpower era. President Harry Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, comes close. But Acheson’s influence, though global, was largely over the shaping of the Western alliance, not the world order. Kissinger’s true equals were advisers to the monarchs of European great powers (Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, Prince Klemens von Metternich, and Otto von Bismarck), which speaks to the uniqueness of his role in the modern age and to the peculiarity of what became a codependent relationship with the elected leader of a democratic superpower. 

Kissinger was a man of contradictions. Gifted with a steely intellect and overweening self-confidence, Kissinger was nevertheless emotional and, at times, gripped by insecurity. A rapacious reader, he could nevertheless be the captive of set ideas. When events contradicted those ideas, Kissinger would descend into pits of anxiety. Although committed to peace and fluent in the language of diplomacy, he was a risk-taker who believed in not only in threatening violence but in applying it, as well. It would take an unusual partner to get the best out of Kissinger. The circumstances that would make his career possible not only required individual genius but chance.


Although Kissinger, who was born in Fürth, Germany in 1923, was devoted to his adopted country, he nevertheless participated in American government with critical detachment. As a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in the mid-1950s, he had written that the trademark American search for certainty, which he felt derived from “American empiricism,” had “pernicious consequences in the conduct of policy.” As he wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1956 (and repeated in his seminal 1957 book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy),“Policy is the art of weighing probabilities; mastery of it lies in grasping the nuances of possibilities. To attempt to conduct it as a science must lead to rigidity for only the risks are certain, the opportunities are conjectural.” In the same essay, he wrote:

Empiricism in foreign policy leads to a penchant for ad hocsolutions; the rejection of dogmatism inclines our policy-makers to postpone committing themselves until all facts are in; but by the time the facts are in, a crisis has usually developed or an opportunity has passed. Our policy is therefore geared to dealing with emergencies; it finds difficulty in developing the long-range program that might forestall them.

In part, this was a sensible argument for history and not political science as preparation for future leaders. But it was also a call for a U.S. grand strategy, a goal rarely sought by any White House, but the lodestar of the powerful men he studied as a graduate student in diplomatic history.

Kissinger’s first foray into government service would bring disappointment. When the newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy drafted a team of Harvard all-stars to work for his administration, Kissinger had his first taste of presidential power, working a consultant to the National Security Council. The experience was humbling. “[I]f I cannot work in dignity, and with a modicum of respect” he wrote to his friend Arthur Schlesinger, the Kennedy White House gadfly who had helped bring Kissinger to Washington, “there is no point in continuing.” Threatening to resign would become a leitmotif in Kissinger’s career. The problem for him in 1961 was that Kennedy was exactly the American empiricist that he had spent years critiquing. “I am worried,” he lamented to Schlesinger, “about the lack of an over-all strategy which makes us prisoners of events … the result have been an overconcern with tactics.”

Kissinger feared that Nixon might see him as disloyal.

During that year’s Berlin Crisis, Kissinger complained to Schlesinger of being “in the position of a man riding next to a driver heading for a precipice who is being asked to make sure that the gas tank is full and the oil pressure adequate.” The real problem, however, was that his ideas were not that welcome in Kennedy’s Oval Office. Kissinger shared the culture of boldness fostered by the young president; but unlike Kennedy, Kissinger did not worry about the danger posed by nuclear weapons. As he had written in the 1950s, he not only believed in the possibility of a limited, survivable, nuclear war but argued that planning for the limited use of nuclear war was necessary to deter the Soviet Union. As Kennedy faced his first major superpower crisis, Kissinger sought to implement that concept. In an October 1961 top secret memo entitled “NATO Planning,” which was not fully declassified until 2016, Kissinger wrote that “no action of any kind can be undertaken unless we have decided in advance what to do if it is unsuccessful.” Kissinger suggested planning for a limited use of nuclear weapons in the event that NATO’s conventional forces were overwhelmed in trying to maintain access to divided Berlin. Kennedy, however, wanted to de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. military strategy for defending the allied position in Berlin. Kissinger found himself out of step with the most powerful man in the world.

Eight years later, Kissinger would join forces with a president who proved to be a better fit intellectually. In 1961, Kissinger had described the Kennedy administration as “our best, perhaps our last, hope” with the implication that Kennedy’s opponent in the 1960 presidential election, Richard Nixon, would not have been a suitable alternative. But when circumstances (and Kissinger’s ambitious angling) brought Kissinger into Nixon’s orbit, Kissinger found a chance to work for someone with grand visions when it came to foreign policy. The eight years that began in 1969 were the most consequential for international politics in the second half of the twentieth century (with the notable exception of the period from 1989 to 1991). They witnessed the final years of the Vietnam War, the collapse of noncommunist power in Southeast Asia, genocide in Cambodia, the broadening of a U.S.-Soviet détente, a strategic U.S. opening to communist China, a civil war in Jordan, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, an Indo-Pakistani War, a military coup in Chile, the Yom Kippur War in Israel, and the ensuing global oil crisis. Right in the middle of this period, Nixon’s presidency began to gradually implode in the wake of revelations of Nixon’s abuses of power and participation in a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice—which meant that for large segments of this period, Kissinger was flying solo.  

After the disappointment of the Kennedy experience, Kissinger wrote “I have always believed that to be effective, an adviser should either be an intimate of his principal or else he should retain a position of independence.” With Nixon, Kissinger enjoyed neither of those advantages, which made him permanently insecure as Nixon’s partner in building what they called a “structure of peace.” Because he realized he could never become personally close to the president—whether due to Nixon’s antisemitism or inability in middle age to acquire any new intimates—Kissinger feared that Nixon might see him as disloyal, and so Kissinger would often spend as much energy spinning his wheels in ultimately pointless bureaucratic games in Washington as he did trying to extricate the United States from a losing war in Southeast Asia. To prove his own loyalty to Nixon and to detect any betrayals, Kissinger asked the FBI to wiretap members of his own staff when news of the secret bombing in Cambodia leaked to The New York Times. Ironically the staffer who was most disloyal to Kissinger was his deputy, the ambitious Alexander Haig, who would feed Nixon dark interpretations of Kissinger’s motives but who, it appears, was never wiretapped.


Kissinger remained as committed to the application of force in the service of international order as he had been in the Kennedy era, and he quickly revealed himself to be the most hawkish member of Nixon’s national security team. Early in the administration, when North Korea shot down an U.S. reconnaissance plane over international waters in April 1969, Kissinger was the lead voice advocating a strike on a North Korean airbase in retaliation. As Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, recorded in a diary entry, “this is really tough for Kissinger because the risk level is enormous and he is the principal proponent. He feels strongly that a major show of strength and overreaction for the first time in many years by the United States President would have an enormous effect abroad and would mobilize great support here.” According to Haldeman, Kissinger also suggested that if the North Koreans retaliated against the South Koreans, Washington should “go to nuclear weapons and blow them out completely.”

Nixon declined Kissinger’s advice regarding North Korea. But Nixon agreed with Kissinger’s belief in the need to send a message with violence, and decided to launch a wave of secret bombings of North Vietnamese military bases in Cambodia. The Soviets and the Chinese were expected to get the message, even if the American people were kept in the dark. By that point, Kissinger had become obsessed with what he saw as the challenge of maintaining American credibility as the country withdrew from Vietnam. Kissinger never accepted that the war was lost, but he faced stubborn opposition from Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, a former congressman who understood that in a democracy the government maintained a distant foreign war at its political peril. Laird maneuvered Nixon into accepting that he would have to withdraw an ever-increasing number of servicemen.

Kissinger feared that, for the American public, these withdrawals were proving addictive—the policy equivalent of “salted peanuts,” as he put it. With each withdrawal, Kissinger’s anxiety increased that Washington would lose the capacity to scare the North Vietnamese into negotiating. His solution to the problem was to escalate the air war and, in 1970, to extend the combat zone for U.S. troops into neutral Cambodia.

Kissinger and Nixon also looked for additional sources of pressure on Hanoi. The elaborate “triangular diplomacy” that became the hallmark of Kissinger’s career– détente with Moscow, including the first nuclear arms limitation agreement in history, coupled with the opening of relations with Beijing—began as a way to offset the effects of the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia. After initially doubting the wisdom of Nixon’s suggestion that the United States prepare to re-establish contact with China, Kissinger reveled in the secrecy of the backchannel negotiations with Beijing, and understood the benefits that taking this risk could bring. It is likely that no U.S. diplomat before or since has engaged in the kind of high-wire act that Kissinger pulled off during his many secret meetings in 1971, which paved the way for Nixon’s triumphal visits to China and the Soviet Union the next year. Hanoi had much more agency in the Cold War than Nixon and Kissinger believed; and it would take a decision on the part of North Vietnam’s leadership to break the logjam in the excruciating negotiations between Kissinger and the North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho in the fall of 1972; but the triangular diplomacy, which involved Hanoi’s two most important sources of military aid, didn’t hurt.

Even more complex was Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy following the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The war had frightened Kissinger. He hadn’t predicted the surprise Arab attack on Israel, but was initially certain Israel would easily defeat the Arabs and worried that an Israeli victory would upset détente with the Soviets. When Israel instead teetered on the edge of military collapse, Kissinger supported a U.S. military airlift. Once the tide had turned, Kissinger sought to impose a structure on Israel and its neighbors that would bind them all to Washington and pry them away from Moscow. Kissinger never could push Moscow out of Syria (where it remains today), but Washington gained Egypt as a lasting ally, an achievement that had once seemed impossible given U.S. support for Israel.


For all his diplomatic genius, Kissinger had a huge moral blind spot. He could see the world only from 30,000 feet—or through the eyes of the powerful. Just as he had viewed the concept of limited nuclear war clinically (and in a way that the two presidents he was serving didn’t share), he did not give much weight to the human consequences of the tactical choices implicit in the strategic architecture that he and Nixon were building. In many ways, despite his experiences as a child immigrant in the 1930s and a U.S. solider in World War II, he remained a cool, antiseptic technician of power.

By the time the United States started the secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969, that country had already been dragged into the Vietnam War: for a decade, the North Vietnamese had taken advantage of the porous border between Cambodia and South Vietnam to supply its forces and its southern allies near Saigon. But the joint U.S.-South Vietnamese invasion in 1970 obliterated what was left of Cambodian neutrality. Although Hanoi’s military support for the Khmer Rouge was the greatest cause of Cambodian instability, the U.S. intervention, first in the form of secret bombing then in the form of an invasion, contributed to the conditions that enabled the rise of what became a genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. And yet, in his memoirs, Kissinger would not accept any responsibility for destabilizing Cambodia. Blaming the U.S. bombing for that outcome made “as much sense as blaming Hitler’s Holocaust on the British bombing of Hamburg,” he scoffed.

Kissinger’s blind spot extended far past Southeast Asia. In 1972, Kissinger engineered U.S. covert action to coordinate Iranian and Israeli support of Kurdish forces fighting the pro-Soviet Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, tying down much of Iraq’s army, which Saddam might otherwise have sent to fight Israel. But when the shah of Iran, for his own reasons, decided to settle a border dispute with Iraq and withdraw his support in 1975, Kissinger did nothing as Iraqi forces brutalized the Kurds.

Kissinger was a cool, antiseptic, technician of power.

In Chile, the Nixon administration continued the policy started by Kennedy of deploying covert action to prevent the socialist Salvatore Allende from ever becoming president. In September 1970, Kissinger supervised the CIA’s efforts to arrange a military coup to prevent Allende, who had just received the largest number of votes in a national election, from becoming president that year. “I don’t see why we have to let a country go Marxist,” Kissinger announced to the board that recommended U.S. covert action to Nixon, “just because its people are irresponsible.” Known as “Track II,” this covert action failed to produce the desired outcome. Three years later, there were no American puppet-masters in the military coup, led by the brutal Augusto Pinochet, that brought down Allende. But Kissinger welcomed the result and refused to apply any pressure on the new, pro-U.S. regime to prevent human rights abuses—indeed, Kissinger did the opposite. In June 1976, after the Pinochet’s junta had detained thousands of innocent Chileans, torturing an estimated 30,000 and executing at least 2,200 of them, Kissinger told Pinochet in a private meeting that “My evaluation is that you are a victim of all left-wing groups around the world, and that your greatest sin was that you overthrew a government which was going communist.”

In Iraq and Chile, Kissinger was arguably one step removed from clearly immoral and illegal acts. But nothing separates him from the slaughter of civilians in North Vietnam in 1972 in what became known as “the Christmas bombings.” This military operation remains one of the ugliest U.S. foreign policy decisions of the Cold War. By the fall of 1972 Kissinger had brilliantly negotiated a framework with Hanoi for an American withdrawal from the war, but his efforts had met with sharp disapproval from South Vietnam. To signal to Saigon that Washington remained a reliable ally, Kissinger advocated bombing North Vietnam.

There was no justification for this assault, which involved 729 sorties by B-52s that dropped 15,000 tons of bombs. The assault killed an estimated 1,000 Vietnamese civiliansbut had no impact on either side’s military strength or negotiating position. Nixon, as president, deserves ultimate responsibility, but as declassified documents and secret recordings that Nixon made would reveal decades later, Kissinger had pressed a reluctant Nixon to unleash violence on Vietnamese civilians in the north for purely symbolic reasons. A throughline in Kissinger’s complex career was the conviction that whenever American credibility was at stake, the blood of foreign citizens had to be shed.

Such disregard for the value of individual human lives was typical of the statesmen who served the imperial monarchies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, long before the entrenchment of liberal values in Western societies. In the case of Talleyrand’s brutality toward the enslaved population of Haiti, for example, the blind spot was societal, as opposed to personal. Kissinger, serving a liberal democratic republic in the second half of the twentieth century, had no such excuse for his amorality.


Kissinger’s influence didn’t ebb after he left the State Department in 1977. He almost became secretary of state again as part of a co-presidency briefly considered by former California Governor Ronald Reagan and former U.S. President Gerald Ford during the Republican Convention in 1980. But even without a cabinet post, Kissinger remained available for high-level presidential commissions and routinely provided advice to subsequent presidents. Most importantly, he continued to tend the garden of the extraordinary power elite he had worked with by passing messages, sharing analyses, connecting people, and remaining relevant in an ever-changing world.

Long after others might have left matters alone, Kissinger remained obsessed with his legacy. Kissinger’s three-volume memoir would become the first stop for students of the tumultuous period in global affairs that lasted from 1969 to 1977. Kissinger’s version of events massaged way his emotionalism, his preference for the use of force, his indifference to human rights, and the moral compromises he had to make to keep close to a paranoid and bigoted leader such as Nixon.

And yet even if one corrects for the self-serving elisions of Kissinger’s accounts, there is no denying the extraordinary nature of his accomplishments. He achieved immortality in global affairs, building relationships for the United States that endure. And he leaves a legacy briming with cautionary tales for future practitioners of American power. As he implied in 1957, when he warned of the dangers of dogma for policymakers, there were no rules to his realpolitik. It was as idiosyncratic as the men—Nixon and Kissinger—who implemented it. It was also largely foreign to the American tradition of statecraft. Bereft of any sense of politics or human empathy, it was an approach so dissonant with the institutions of a liberal democracy that it had to be carried out in secret. Ironically, Kissinger’s positive legacy derives from those instances where his genius for elite interactions, his ambition, and his exceptional stamina led to negotiated agreements that made the use of violence in defense of realpolitik more difficult.

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