Henry Kissinger — former secretary of state and assistant to two presidents for national-security affairs, Cold War statesman, historian, and political celebrity — passed away in November shortly after celebrating his 100th birthday. Quite possibly, no other person to hold his positions has had his or her life and tenure so hotly litigated and relitigated. This is impressive, given that Kissinger was a government employee for only eight years. Even more impressive is that, despite an abundance of Kissingerology, the late statesman’s most enduring contributions remain largely unknown.
After the news of his death became public, social and print media erupted in celebration, accusing Kissinger of genocide and war crimes. But the attacks, whatever one makes of their substance, were curious in the double standards they held the late secretary to. Kissinger’s “sins” were not unique, nor did he bear primary responsibility for them. The war in Vietnam, including the Cambodia bombing, and the coup in Chile are at the top of the list of his alleged offenses. But the Nixon administration’s strategy in Vietnam was an escalation of what John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had already done there and in Laos, and the coup in Chile was not much different from what Dwight Eisenhower orchestrated in Guatemala. In Cambodia, the Nixon administration attempted to destroy the stronghold of Khmer Rouge communist rebels, which the Vietcong used for supply and training. To that extent, the campaign was a success and defensible for easing the pressure on the U.S. forces in Vietnam, but it failed to destroy the Vietcong leadership or the Khmer Rouge. Many Cambodians perished during the campaign, but the number pales in comparison with the 1 million who died in Pol Pot’s genocide. If there is a criticism to be made on humanitarian grounds, especially with the benefit of hindsight, it is that the operation was too limited in its scope. Kissinger also advised Richard Nixon on Vietnam and Chile, but the administration’s policies were executed with the unanimous consent of the cabinet and under presidential orders. Nixon bears the most responsibility for them.
When Melvin Laird, a secretary of defense under Nixon, died in 2016, there was no celebration of the death of a war criminal even though Laird commanded the military that executed the war in Vietnam. Nor was there any reference to the coup in Chile, despite Laird’s full-throated endorsement of it at the time. The name of Vernon Walters is unfamiliar to most Americans even though, as the acting director of the CIA, he oversaw the coup in Chile. The blame skips them all to arrive at Kissinger’s grave.
Kissinger’s unique identity and character help explain why he is held to double standards. It is difficult not to suspect that being a German Jew with a heavy accent — and not just that, but a Republican at a time when few Jews found themselves in Republican administrations — had something to do with it. But Kissinger bears a share of the responsibility, too. Often, former cabinet officials go away. He never did — and he lived a long life. When he died, it had been nearly 47 years since he had left the government, and he spent all those years not just writing books but appearing on television and in print media, arguing with the Left and the Right, giving speeches to elite audiences at home and abroad, and commenting on every foreign issue of high and sometimes of low significance. Moreover, he did not wait for historians to assess him. He was his own advocate, vigorously defending what he had done in government and thereby making himself synonymous with those actions.
It is a pity, for there is much more to the man, and his legacy is most relevant today for reasons that have nothing to do with Vietnam or Chile.
Kissinger owed his fame to Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, a book he published in 1957. The discussion over how best to employ nuclear weapons did not reach the government until 1948, because President Harry Truman considered them terror weapons never to be used again. Their deterrent value during the Berlin airlift in 1948 changed his mind and triggered a debate over the best declaratory policy. Only four years later, the first thermonuclear weapon, Ivy Mike, was detonated, adding a new layer to the nuclear discussion. So, in 1954, the Eisenhower administration adopted the massive-retaliation declaratory policy, announcing that any attack by an aggressive force would result in a disproportionate response, including the use of thermonuclear weapons.
In Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, Kissinger challenged massive retaliation. Assessing the moral quandaries and strategic feasibility of Eisenhower’s doctrine, he concluded that the U.S. policy was not the most effective deterrent. His most interesting observation was that deterrence relies on credibility, but the threat of thermonuclear war in response to minor incursions was not credible. Rather, the retaliatory threat should to some extent correspond to the magnitude of the aggression. Four years later, the Kennedy administration adopted the policy of flexible response. The Berlin crisis of 1958–61 vindicated Kissinger’s thesis practically, with the Soviet Union backing off its claim to West Berlin after the Kennedy administration substituted a conventional-military threat for the nuclear one. Perhaps Kissinger’s most enduring legacy, flexible response remains the declared U.S. policy to this day. Few academics in history could have claimed so great an influence.
Read the rest at National Review.
Shay Khatiri is a Senior Fellow at Yorktown Institute.