IN 1938 HEINZ ALFRED KISSINGER, born 15 years earlier in German Bavaria, escaped Hitler’s Holocaust, reached the sanctuary of America, became Henry, joined the US Army in 1943 and emerged a decorated war hero with the rank of sergeant in the military intelligence unit stationed in Berlin. By the 1950s he was an academic luminary at Harvard; in the 1960s he began searching for a place in politics and government. The appointment with destiny came in January 1969. President Richard Nixon appointed him National Security Advisor.
Kissinger and the limelight were made for each other. Within the next five years, he swept aside the mouldy assumptions of chanceries, and reinvented the axis of global equations with breakthrough ideas implemented with breathtaking insouciance.
His first great success became an independent chapter in world history. It also proved to be a primary cause of his greatest failure.
On March 2, 1969, or within two months of his appointment, China attacked Soviet troops on the Ussuri river border; the shooting lasted six months. Kissinger read the meaning perfectly. The adhesive of communist ideology could not compete with the demands of national interest.
It is difficult to comprehend, at this distance, the dogmatic rigidity of the Cold War mindset. The two enemies genuinely believed that the other was evil; neither wanted to sup with the devil. Kissinger envisaged a détente between Washington and Beijing that would smash the bipolar order, freeze Russian troops on two frontiers, and undermine communist solidarity across the globe. Nixon, to his credit, gave Kissinger his head. The risks were high. The State Department was blindsided, and later furious when the audacious initiative became public. Suffice it to say, when Mao Zedong and Nixon had finished playing ping-pong, sold Taiwan into the margins, and negotiated a seat for Beijing at the UN Security Council, the sole hero was Henry Kissinger. The media preferred him to Nixon in any case.
Kissinger remained ever grateful to Pakistani President (General) Yahya Khan for being the enabler of his first, secret foray to Beijing. If word had leaked, or mission failed, Kissinger would have been dumped without ceremony by his political master. But the bamboo curtain in Beijing and the army shield in Islamabad hid their secrets well.
Unusually for a professional cynic, Kissinger allowed sentiment to colour his actions in the next challenge he faced: the Bangladesh liberation war. Indeed, he might have been more helpful to his friend and now client Yahya Khan had he been more objective. Reasonable analysis indicated that sustained economic neo-colonialism, followed by the Pakistan army’s barbaric massacres from March 1971, had provoked this national upsurge and the great exodus of millions of refugees to India. Instead, Kissinger personalised the problem, blaming Indira Gandhi and India for America’s abject failure to save the unity of Pakistan. Indira Gandhi, deeply indifferent to Kissinger’s posturing and defiant against Nixon’s threats of intervention, refused to betray the Bangladeshis or compromise India’s interests.
Kissinger, and indeed Nixon, gave vent to their bitter pique in private conversations, unaware that they were being taped by an internal White House recording mechanism. These tapes, declassified in July 2005, shocked Kissinger’s admirers and justified his critics. In 1971, a nasty Nixon had angrily dismissed Indira Gandhi as “an old witch”. Kissinger’s abusive slur against her is unprintable.
A sharp tongue can be the preferred partner of a brilliant mind, but when Dr Kissinger put it into play, he meant it to sting. No one will mourn him in Dhaka; he dismissed Bangladesh as a “basket case”. Always ready to spread invective, he called Indians habitually aggressive, adding, in case you had missed the point: “Indians are bastards anyway” as well as “most sexless” and “pathetic”.
Of all the epithets I find “sexless” most amusing, not least because Henry always took smug pride in being, to devise a term, “sexfull”. When single, he ensured raised eyebrows in Washington by dating Hollywood glamour. Inevitably, his lifestyle encouraged bad puns. The envious called him Kissingher.
Kissinger’s political thinking was shaped early: legitimacy was more relevant than justice. This was realpolitik. If superpowers recognised a new reality, it became established as fact. Kissinger sought to change facts in favour of his adopted country
Share this on
His political thinking was shaped early, in the thesis that won him a doctorate at Harvard: legitimacy was more relevant than justice. This was realpolitik. If superpowers recognised a new reality, it became established as fact. Kissinger sought to change facts in favour of his adopted country. Always articulate, always intellectual, he argued that while human rights were an “essential goal” of American policy, so was national security. “In some situations, no choice between them is required, making the moral issue relatively simple.” In other words, not always so simple then.
Democracy was casually, and even brutally, shunted aside. The assassination of Chile’s elected leader Salvador Allende in a 1973 coup orchestrated by General Augusto Pinochet is testimony enough. If other leaders, including Indira Gandhi, had reason to fear visible or invisible machinations, they did not hide any apprehensions.
Dr Kissinger loved sophisticated gossip as the seigneurial right of the intellectually privileged. He could spread a useful story with finesse. One which acquired wheels was an alleged exchange between him and Chairman Mao Zedong—or was it Premier Zhou Enlai? Story: Kissinger asks Mao or Zhou about the French Revolution. The reply: It is too early to tell.
During one of our conversations over lunch at his favourite New York club, more suited to epicures than eggheads, I asked about the veracity of this story. His eyes brightened, a large smile expanded towards a laugh. Accurate or amplified, as intellectual banter this anecdote is surely in a class of its own.
He first learnt of me through my book The Shade of Swords: Jihad and the Conflict between Islam and Christianity. When we met, he wanted an answer to what he described as the “Medina Question”: How had a collection of unknown Bedouin tribes without any record of achievement suddenly, within barely more than a decade in the 730s, risen to become one of history’s great world powers? I would offer Ibn Khaldun’s explanation: assabiya, the creation of group consciousness, common objectives and cohesion that overrides tribal disarray. The talk would end with the promise of more talk. Henry was kind enough to write an excellent blurb for my book about my family Blood Brothers, which naturally went on the front cover of the next edition. But he refused to say anything equally wonderful about my next book Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan. This could be, of course, because he thought it awful. It could also be because he did not want to endorse a polemic against the concept of Pakistan.
Dr Kissinger was nearly 90 when we shared a stage at the India Today Conclave, largely due to Aroon Purie’s chequebook. The audience knew something impressive was being said, but few could understand what it was. His guttural diction had become a deep jumble or rumble. On the other hand, prime ministers and presidents always knew what they were hearing, and often what he really meant.
It is remarkable that his two great achievements, the US-China détente in the 1970s, and the framework established to end the Yom Kippur War in 1973, have held despite five decades of extraordinary turbulence. Did the peace talks in Paris with Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho deserve the Nobel Peace Prize? Tho refused the gong. Kissinger was happy with the honour and of course the cash. The bombing did not pause. More than half the Americans killed in Vietnam died during the Kissinger years in Washington. America eventually cut and ran, leaving protégé South Vietnam to continue the war with fitful ammunition and fractious advisers. Kissinger lived long enough to see these bitter enemies, America and Vietnam, graduate to careful friendship.
Henry Kissinger survived failure with as much aplomb as he savoured success. We shall not see the likes of him again, not in the 21st century.