Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Fintan O’Toole: Henry Kissinger’s 100th birthday allows us to reflect on a dark century

The centenarian embodies, perhaps more than anyone else, the failure of the United States to learn the moral lessons of the 20th century’s most catastrophic depravities

The great American satirist Tom Lehrer remarked that “political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize”. It is tempting to add that birthday parties for centenarians become obsolete when Kissinger’s 100th birthday is a cause for celebration.

Just over 50 years ago, on March 1st, 1973, Kissinger was in the White House, discussing the plight of Soviet Jews with his boss, President Richard Nixon, whom he then served as national security adviser. The Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, had asked Nixon to press the Soviets to allow more of them to emigrate.

Kissinger did not know that Nixon was recording the conversation. Perhaps if he had known he would not have delivered his advice quite so bluntly: “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

Kissinger’s absolute commitment to the belief that the US could do whatever it liked within its sphere made him, for all his elegance of thought and expression, a great enemy of human dignity

For most of Kissinger’s century on earth, he has been a vastly influential figure in America’s relations with the rest of the world. His longevity has made him, in the foreign policy establishment, the grandest of all the grand old men.


But that shocking dismissal of the idea of a second Holocaust, delivered to a president he knew to be a vicious anti-Semite, captures Kissinger’s strange descent into utter amorality. Here was a Jewish man, who had himself fled from almost certain death at the hands of the Nazis, blithely dismissing the idea of another episode of mass extermination.

Kissinger, the first foreign-born person to become US secretary of state (under Nixon’s replacement Gerald Ford), is the 20th century’s most famous and arguably most consequential diplomat. While he was secretary of state, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine no fewer than 15 times.

The magazine hailed him as “the world’s most indispensable man”. He remained so recognisable long after he left office that he has featured as a cartoon character in both The Simpsons and Family Guy.

He is the archetype of the glamorous global political power player. It was, after all, Kissinger – renowned for his multiple affairs with women much more obviously appealing than himself – who said that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”. (Though it was also Kissinger, in his slavering sycophancy towards Nixon, who showed that proximity to even greater power can turn the Lothario rather limp.)

He is a brilliant intellectual with tremendous analytic power, a fluent (though often prolix) writer and a skilled political operator. He had the great negotiator’s gift of being able to read his opposite numbers perfectly while giving little of himself away.

As a diplomat, Kissinger’s triumphs are very real and, so far, lasting. He negotiated the first treaties with the Soviet Union to limit the nuclear arms race. He opened the first serious diplomatic contacts between the US and China. He laid the groundwork for peace between Israel and Egypt.

In the light of these historic achievements, Kissinger’s admirers are inclined to forgive his personal misdeeds in office. What does it matter that he wiretapped his own staff or that he stayed silent while Nixon whined in his presence about the treachery of the Jews?

Kissinger’s amorality matters, however, because he embodies, perhaps more than anyone else, the failure of the United States to learn the moral lessons of the 20th century’s most catastrophic depravities. It was he who showed that erudite rationality could sit comfortably with tolerance for barbarism.

Kissinger knew all about barbarism – first-hand. He was born (and originally named Heinz Albert) in the German industrial town of Fürth, and was nine years old when Hitler came to power. Fürth is five miles from Nuremberg, where the Nazis staged their infamous rallies.

Kissinger recalled that he had “often ... been chased through the streets, and beaten up” as a boy growing up in Nazi Germany. Yet it is striking that he generally dismissed the idea that this childhood had any real influence on him. “I did not,” he insisted, “find it traumatic.”

Yet how could this possibly be? Kissinger’s father was dismissed, like all other Jews, from his teaching post. His father’s brother Karl was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Dachau.

Young Heinz himself was obsessed with soccer, but he and other Jewish boys were forbidden from playing with or against Aryan children. As Kissinger recalled: “I used to sneak out to catch the local soccer team play, even though, as a Jew, you ran the risk of getting beaten up if you were there and they recognized you.”

The Kissingers were fortunate in that they had close relatives in the US who helped them to emigrate there in 1938. They left on the same day that the main synagogue in nearby Nuremberg was destroyed by the Nazis – a portent of the fate of all those Jews who could not escape.

According to Kissinger’s official biographer Niall Ferguson, “of 1,990 Jews who had lived in Fürth in 1933, fewer than 40 were left by the end”. There is no reason to think that the Kissingers would have not been among those who perished.

Yet, consider a beautifully written passage in Kissinger’s account of his time in the Nixon administration, Years of Upheaval. He is describing the disgraced president in the Oval Office on the eve of his resignation in August 1974.

He remembers his boss “alone with his back to the room, gazing at the Rose Garden through the bay windows. I knew the feeling from the time when as a boy I had left the places where I had been brought up to emigrate to a foreign land: attempting to say goodbye to something familiar and beloved, to absorb it, so to speak, so that one can never be separated from it.”

There is something both deeply poignant and utterly weird about this passage. Kissinger describes his flight, at the age of 15, from his homeland, under threat of annihilation, as if it is analogous to the melancholy self-pity of a criminal politician having to leave power.

Again: why all of this underplaying of the trauma of his early years? It is not that he could avoid it, even if he wanted to.

In the last months of the second World War, Kissinger, by then a sergeant in the US army, worked in a unit that hunted down Gestapo sleeper cells. In April, 1945 he and his colleagues stumbled on the small concentration camp at Ahlem, outside Hanover.

Inside were dying and desperately ill and emaciated Jewish prisoners left behind by the fleeing Nazis – and piles of corpses. At the time, Kissinger wrote: “Human dignity, objective values have stopped at this barbed wire.”

This nihilistic conclusion is completely understandable in a 22-year-old physically encountering an unspeakable moral catastrophe. But it is also wrong.

The camps and gulags of the European nightmare did not extinguish human dignity. They did not obliterate objective values. On the contrary, they made horrifically obvious the cost of the abandonment of concern for the unique dignity of every human being and for the importance of objective values.

It is perhaps because he did not, in his own subsequent career, draw these basic lessons from the Holocaust that Kissinger played down the trauma of his early experiences. It seems to have been crucial to him that he should identify not with victimhood, but with power.

In some respects, this coldness enabled him to function as an influence for rationality. In the Cold War world that shaped his intellectual and political life, Kissinger was able to pursue a strategy of realism – strip the conflict of its ideological drama and define the great task as the balancing of power between the two antagonists, the US and the Soviet Union.

Central to this task was the acceptance of absolute spheres of influence. The Soviets could do whatever they wanted in theirs – even exterminate Jews in gas ovens. This would be a “humanitarian” problem, but not America’s business.

The corollary, though, was the US could also do whatever it liked – and whatever it thought necessary to uphold its authority – within its sphere. It is Kissinger’s absolute commitment to this belief that made him, for all his elegance of thought and expression, a great enemy of human dignity.

Kissinger’s willingness to place vast numbers of human lives in his weighing scales in order to balance out Soviet power was at its most egregious in the destruction of Cambodia

Thus, while it is obvious from his private archives that Kissinger was long sceptical about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, he always supported it in public because to do otherwise would be to undermine America’s projection of power.

Kissinger’s willingness to place vast numbers of human lives in his weighing scales in order to balance out Soviet power was at its most egregious in the destruction of Cambodia. He was directly involved in the unleashing of mass bombing on the country – and in keeping this undeclared war a secret from the American people.

As a Pentagon report put it in 1973, “Henry A. Kissinger approved each of the 3,875 Cambodia bombing raids in 1969 and 1970″ as well as “the methods for keeping them out of the newspapers”.

These raids killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. They also led to the coming to power of the Khmer Rouge, whose genocidal regime killed perhaps two million more.

Kissinger’s determination to keep this bombing secret (his wiretapping of his own subordinates was an attempt to discover who leaked it to the press) highlighted another aspect of his mentality: a disdain for the very democracy that the US was supposed to be upholding against communism.

Within the US, Kissinger consistently interpreted the workings of democracy – mass opposition to the Vietnam War or the exposure of Nixon’s crimes in the Watergate scandals – as annoyances. They were interfering with his grand strategies.

Abroad, he regarded democratic movements that threatened America’s authoritarian allies with the same contempt. Thus, he saw in the election of the socialist Salvador Allende as president of Chile “a challenge to our national interest”.

Eight days after Allende’s election, Kissinger informed the head of the CIA that “We will not let Chile go down the drain”. Kissinger personally supervised covert efforts to prevent Allende from taking office and, when they failed, was an enthusiastic supporter of preparations for a military coup.

The military regime of Augusto Pinochet used murder, rape and torture on a huge scale. When American diplomats raised concerns about these crimes, Kissinger personally reassured Pinochet of his uncritical support. He disparaged his own staff for giving him briefings about “nothing but human rights”.

In this determination to give carte blanche to “our” mass murderers, Kissinger was at least consistent. In 1971, he ensured that the US supported Pakistan in its campaign of mass killings and rapes to try to suppress rebellion in what became Bangladesh.

In 1975, he gave the green light to the Indonesian regime to launch an invasion of East Timor. By 1980, this genocidal assault had left a minimum of 100,000 people dead from murder, starvation and disease and about half of the entire population confined to concentration camps.

All of this was justified by Kissinger as what Stanley Hoffman described as “a determination to resist even marginal challenges of the balance of power as soon as they arise”.

It was done, grotesquely, in the name of the one value that Kissinger seemed to cling to: equilibrium. As Hoffman wrote in the New York Review of Books in 1979, Kissinger’s “is a world in which power is all: equilibrium is not just the prerequisite to order, the precondition for justice, it is order, it amounts to justice”.

Kissinger’s century is a dark time in which democracy is defended by overthrowing it, the balance of power is a balance of terror, reason justifies extreme violence, and the only lesson from the Holocaust is that power always trumps morality.