Touch of Evil

Christopher Hitchens

  • Kissinger: A Biography by Walter Isaacson
    Faber, 893 pp, £25.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 571 16858 2

In a rather more judgmental time, history was sometimes written like this: ‘The evils produced by his wickedness were felt in lands where the name of Prussia was unknown; and in order that he might rob a neighbour whom he had promised to defend, black men fought on the coast of Coromandel, and red men scalped each other by the Great Lakes of North America.’ ‘Evil’? ‘Wickedness’? The ability to employ these terms without awkwardness or embarrassment has declined, while the capacity of modern statesmen to live up to them has undergone an exponential rise since Lord Macaulay so crisply profiled Frederick ‘the Great’. Walter Isaacson’s new study of Kissinger shows beyond doubt that he rose to power by intriguing for and against an ally, the South Vietnamese military junta, whom he had sworn to defend, and that in the process of covering his tracks, consolidating and extending his power and justifying his original duplicity, he was knowingly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of non-combatants in lands where his name was hitherto unknown. He also played an immense part in the debauching of democracy in the North America of his adoption.

Walter Isaacson is one of the best magazine journalists in America, but he moves in a world where the worst that is often said of some near-genocidal policy is that it sends the wrong ‘signal’. He accordingly approaches the problem of evil with some circumspection. At one point he correctly characterises the Nixon regime as ‘pathological’, and he gives us a breathtaking passage in which Nixon conspires to have Kissinger put under the care of a psychiatrist – surely the great modern instance of what pop shrinks call ‘transference’. But there is a limit, imposed by the tradition of New York-Washington ‘objectivity’, on his willingness to call things by their right names. It became very plain to me, as I finished the book, that if I were to employ the argot of popular psychology I could say that I had been reading the profile of a serial murderer.

Isaacson is probably right to begin with young Henry’s abused German-Jewish boyhood. ‘My Jew-boy’, Nixon was later to call him – at least once on the White House tapes – and it’s clear that many of Kissinger’s traits were acquired early on in Fürth. His family was one of those which did not identify with the opposition in Bavaria, preferring to stress its patriotic character, its past loyalty to the Kaiser and its deep attachment to the Kleinburger class and only when this failed choosing the option of emigration. Once across the Atlantic, young Kissinger avoided political anti-Nazi circles and only found a mentor in the shape of one Fritz Kraemer, a Spenglerian Prussian who flourished in the US Army perhaps not least because he was one of the few German exiles to criticise Hitler from the right. Isaacson’s chapter on this man, who later disowned his famous junior for his total absence of any core of principle, is unusually interesting.

Reflecting on Nazism, Kissinger placed it in the category of revolution rather than counter-revolution. Though it contained the essential doctrine of ‘order’, he identified it with disorder. He remains fond of mangling a phrase of Goethe’s to make it appear that ‘order’ is to be preferred to justice, and has made this a rationale for more than one bloodbath. A mediocre dissertation that he wrote, seeking a place for himself in the conformist Harvard of the drear Fifties, was entitled Metternich: A World Restored. In it, Kissinger wrote: ‘The deviousness of Metternich’s diplomacy had been the reflection of a fundamental certainty: that liberty was inseparable from authority, that freedom was an attribute of order.’

What causes a Jewish exile to give admiring expression to the precepts of German reactionary statecraft? We can only surmise Kissinger’s mind, as revealed again in this letter home from Germany after the war. He conveys what he considers to be the lesson of the death camps:

The intellectuals, the idealists, the men of high morals had no chance ... Having once made up one’s mind to survive, it was a necessity to follow through with a singleness of purpose, inconceivable to you sheltered people in the States. Such singleness of purpose broached [sic] no stopping in front of accepted sets of values, it had to disregard ordinary standards of morality. One could only survive through lies, tricks ...

This is fascinating. Though we know from the memoirs of survivors what is obvious – that the business of survival was a ruthless one – we also know that forms of solidarity, morality, decency and conviction were also of help both in motivating and in organising survival and resistance. How else to explain the re-emergence of a leader like Kurt Schumacher, or the mere existence of a man like my friend Dr Israel Shahak? Of matters like this, Kissinger says nothing. Yet he presumes to write as if from experience, when in fact his war had been quite a cushy one.

More than this, he writes with something like relish, as if he enjoyed imparting the brute lesson that morality and solidarity were mere feeble sentiment. This identification with the sub-Darwinist depravity of those who worshipped only ‘strength’ is unpleasant, as is the opportunity seized by Kissinger to lecture those back home on how little they knew. How often, in later years, were we to be bullied by him and by Nixon, and told that ‘sheltered people in the States’ were to be despised when great enterprises of bombing, destabilisation and secret diplomacy were on foot. It’s the unchanging, minatory rhetoric of the reactionary veteran and Freikorps man; doubly objectionable in one who had seen so little service.

Kissinger’s fear of weakness and humiliation, and his pathetic adoration of the winning or the stronger side, has an interesting counterpart in much the same period. As he was working his way into Harvard, so we learn from Isaacson,

in late-night bull-sessions, Kissinger strongly opposed the creation of Israel. ‘He said it would alienate the Arabs and jeopardise US interests. I thought it was a strange view for someone who had been a refugee from Nazi Germany,’ Herbert Engelhardt, who lived downstairs, said. ‘I got the impression that Kissinger suffered less anti-semitism in his youth than I did as a kid in New Jersey.’

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