In Defense of Henry Kissinger

He was the 20th century's greatest 19th-century statesman.

Kissinger’s diplomatic achievements reached far beyond Southeast Asia. Between 1973 and 1975, Kissinger, serving Nixon and then Gerald Ford, steered the Yom Kippur War toward a stalemate that was convenient for American interests, and then brokered agreements between Israel and its Arab adversaries for a separation of forces. Those deals allowed Washington to reestablish diplomatic relations with Egypt and Syria for the first time since their rupture following the Six ­Day War in 1967. The agreements also established the context for the Egyptian-­Israeli peace treaty of 1979, and helped stabilize a modus vivendi between Israel and Syria that has lasted well past the turn of the 21st century.

In the fall of 1973, with Chile dissolving into chaos and open to the Soviet bloc’s infiltration as a result of Salvador Allende’s anarchic and incompetent rule, Nixon and Kissinger encouraged a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, during which thousands of innocent people were killed. Their cold moral logic was that a right-wing regime of any kind would ultimately be better for Chile and for Latin America than a leftist regime of any kind—and would also be in the best interests of the United States. They were right—though at a perhaps intolerable cost.

While much of the rest of Latin America dithered with socialist experiments, in the first seven years of Pinochet’s regime, the number of state companies in Chile went from 500 to 25—a shift that helped lead to the creation of more than 1 million jobs and the reduction of the poverty rate from roughly one-­third of the population to as low as one-tenth. The infant mortality rate also shrank, from 78 deaths per 1,000 births to 18. The Chilean social and economic miracle has become a paradigm throughout the developing world, and in the ex­-Communist world in particular. Still, no amount of economic and social gain justifies almost two decades of systematic torture perpetrated against tens of thousands of victims in more than 1,000 detention centers.

But real history is not the trumpeting of ugly facts untempered by historical and philosophical context—the stuff of much investigative journalism. Real history is built on constant comparison with other epochs and other parts of the world. It is particularly useful, therefore, to compare the records of the Ford and Carter administrations in the Horn of Africa, and especially in Ethiopia—a country that in the 1970s was more than three times as populous as Pinochet’s Chile.

In his later years, Kissinger has not been able to travel to a number of countries where legal threats regarding his actions in the 1970s in Latin America hang over his head. Yet in those same countries, Jimmy Carter is regarded almost as a saint. Let’s consider how Carter’s morality stacks up against Kissinger’s in the case of Ethiopia, which, like Angola, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan, was among the dominoes that became increasingly unstable and then fell in the months and years following Saigon’s collapse, partly disproving another myth of the Vietnam antiwar protest movement—that the domino theory was wrong.

As I’ve written elsewhere, including in my 1988 book, Surrender or Starve, the left-leaning Ethiopian Dergue and its ascetic, pitiless new leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, had risen to power while the U.S. was preoccupied with Watergate and the fall of South Vietnam. Kissinger, now President Ford’s secretary of state, tried to retain influence in Ethiopia by continuing to provide some military assistance to Addis Ababa. Had the United States given up all its leverage in Ethiopia, the country might have moved to the next stage and become a Soviet satellite, with disastrous human-­rights consequences for its entire population.

Unlike his fellow Cold War-era Republicans, Kissinger has always been painfully conscious of the degree to which he is loathed.

Ford and Kissinger were replaced in January of 1977 by Jimmy Carter and his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, who wanted a policy that was both more attuned to and less heavy-handed toward sub-Saharan Africa. In the Horn of Africa, this translated immediately into a Cold War disadvantage for America, because the Soviets—spurred on by the fall of South Vietnam—were becoming more belligerent, and more willing to expend resources, than ever.

With Ethiopia torn apart by revolutionary turmoil, the Soviets used their Somali clients as a lever against Addis Ababa. Somalia then was a country of only 3 million nomads, but Ethiopia had an urbanized population 10 times that size: excellent provender for the mechanized African satellite that became Leonid Brezhnev’s supreme objective. The Soviets, while threatening Ethiopia by supplying its rival with weapons, were also offering it military aid—the classic carrot-­and-­stick strategy. Yet partly because of the M-­60 tanks and F­-5 warplanes that Mengistu was still—largely thanks to Kissinger—receiving from the United States, the Ethiopian leader was hesitant about undertaking the disruptive task of switching munitions suppliers for an entire army.

In the spring of 1977, Carter cut off arms deliveries to Ethiopia because of its human-rights record. The Soviets dispatched East German security police to Addis Ababa to help Mengistu consolidate his regime, and invited the Ethiopian ruler to Moscow for a week-long state visit. Then Cuban advisers visited Ethiopia, even while tanks and other equipment arrived from pro-Soviet South Yemen. In the following months, with the help of the East Germans, the Dergue gunned down hundreds of Ethiopian teenagers in the streets in what came to be known as the “Red Terror.”

Still, all was not lost—at least not yet. The Ethiopian Revolution, leftist as it was, showed relatively few overt signs of anti-­Americanism. Israel’s new prime minister, Menachem Begin, in an attempt to save Ethiopian Jews, beseeched Carter not to close the door completely on Ethiopia and to give Mengistu some military assistance against the Somali advance.

But Begin’s plea went unheeded. The partial result of Carter’s in­ action was that Ethiopia went from being yet another left-leaning regime to a full-­fledged Marxist state, in which hundreds of thousands of people died in collectivization and “villagization” schemes—to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands who died in famines that were as much a consequence of made-­in-­Moscow agricultural policies as they were of drought.

Ethiopians should have been so lucky as to have had a Pinochet.

The link between Carter’s decision not to play Kissingerian power politics in the Horn of Africa and the mass deaths that followed in Ethiopia is more direct than the link between Nixon’s incursion into a rural area of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge takeover six years later.

In the late 19th century, Lord Palmerston was still a controversial figure. By the 20th, he was considered by many to have been one of Britain’s greatest foreign ministers. Kissinger’s reputation will follow a similar path. Of all the memoirs written by former American secretaries of state and national­-security advisers during the past few decades, his are certainly the most vast and the most intellectually stimulating, revealing the elaborate historical and philosophical milieu that surround difficult foreign-­policy decisions. Kissinger will have the final say precisely because he writes so much better for a general audience than do most of his critics. Mere exposé often has a shorter shelf life than the work of a statesman aware of his own tragic circumstances and able to connect them to a larger pattern of events. A colleague of mine with experience in government once noted that, as a European-­style realist, Kissinger has thought more about morality and ethics than most self­-styled moralists. Realism is about the ultimate moral ambition in foreign policy: the avoidance of war through a favorable balance of power.

Aside from the successful interventions in the Balkans, the greatest humanitarian gesture in my own lifetime was President Richard Nixon’s trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1972, engineered by Kissinger. By dropping the notion that Taiwan was the real China, by giving China protection against the Soviet Union, and by providing assurances against an economically resurgent Japan, the two men helped place China in a position to devote itself to peaceful economic development; China’s economic rise, facilitated by Deng Xiaoping, would lift much of Asia out of poverty. And as more than 1 billion people in the Far East saw a dramatic improvement in living standards, personal freedom effloresced.

Pundits chastised Kissinger for saying, in 1973, that Jewish emi­ gration from the Soviet Union was “not an American concern.” But as J. J. Goldberg of The Jewish Daily Forward was careful to note (even while being very critical of Kissinger’s cynicism on the subject), “Emigration rose dramatically under Kissinger’s detente policy”— but “plummeted” after the 1974 passage of the Jackson­-Vanik amendment, which made an open emigration policy a precondition for normal U.S.­Soviet trade relations; aggrieved that the Americans would presume to dictate their emigration policies, the Soviets began authorizing fewer exit visas. In other words, Kissinger’s realism was more effective than the humanitarianism of Jewish groups in addressing a human­-rights concern.

Kissinger is a Jewish intellectual who recognizes a singular unappealing truth: that the Republican Party, its strains of anti-Semitism in certain periods notwithstanding, was better able to protect America than the Democratic Party of his era, because the Republicans better understood and, in fact, relished the projection of American power at a juncture in the Cold War when the Democrats were undermined by defeatism and quasi-­isolationism. (That Kissinger-­style realism is now more popular in Barack Obama’s White House than among the GOP indicates how far today’s Republicans have drifted from their core values.)

But unlike his fellow Republicans of the Cold War era—dull and practical men of business, blissfully unaware of what the prestigious intellectual journals of opinion had to say about them—Kissinger has always been painfully conscious of the de­ gree to which he is loathed. He made life-­and-death decisions that affected millions, entailing many messy moral compromises. Had it not been for the tough decisions Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger made, the United States might not have withstood the damage caused by Carter’s bouts of moralistic ineptitude; nor would Ronald Reagan have had the luxury of his successfully executed Wilsonianism. Henry Kissinger’s classical realism—as expressed in both his books and his statecraft—is emotionally unsatisfying but analytically timeless. The degree to which Republicans can recover his sensibility in foreign policy will help determine their own prospects for regaining power.

Presented by

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In