Why Washington Couldn’t Quit Kissinger

Isaac Chotiner / New Yorker
Why Washington Couldn’t Quit Kissinger Despite his controversial record, the former Secretary of State never fell out of the good graces of the D.C. establishment. (photo: Patrick McMullan/Getty)

Despite his controversial record, the former Secretary of State never fell out of the good graces of the D.C. establishment.

Henry Kissinger, the former national-security adviser and Secretary of State who served in the Nixon and Ford Administrations and became the most famous American diplomat of the twentieth century, died this week, at the age of a hundred. Kissinger’s legacy remains one of the most debated and contentious artifacts of the Cold War era. Although he has been excoriated, and sometimes called a war criminal, by writers such as Seymour Hersh and Christopher Hitchens, he remained in the good graces of Administrations of both parties well after his time in government, was a frequent presence on the party and social circuit in New York and Washington, D.C., consulted with a wide range of governments and appeared on corporate boards, and published best-selling books. All the while, his critics accused him of a catastrophic record in countries from Vietnam to Chile to Argentina.

To talk about this divide, and Kissinger’s legacy, I spoke by phone with Richard Haass, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, who served as the head of that organization for two decades, until earlier this year. A former diplomat who worked on peace in Northern Ireland and served in Colin Powell’s State Department during the George W. Bush Administration, Haass is one of the most recognizable figures in the foreign-policy establishment, and he knew Kissinger well and interviewed him at length. During our conversation, the transcript for which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how Kissinger should be remembered, his role in extending the Vietnam War, and whether Washington élites were too forgiving of Kissinger’s mistakes.

What is Dr. Kissinger’s legacy?

His legacy, to begin with, is that he’ll be seen as the greatest scholar-practitioner of the era.

Just to begin with.

I think he’ll be seen as someone who, in his eight years in government with Nixon and Ford, transformed U.S. relations with China and stabilized U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. I think great-power relations will be a central part of his legacy. The other big, positive part will have to do with the Middle East, his handling of the 1973 war, and essentially setting the foundation for what became the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty negotiated by the Carter Administration.

I heard you say, about him being the greatest scholar-practitioner of the era, “I believe that Henry combines scholarship, as well as ability, to be effective in government. And when you add them up, I believe he stands apart from anyone else who has served over this three-quarters of a century.” What do you think made him unique?

I stand by that. I would say he was one of the four great post-World War Two Secretaries of State, with George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and James Baker. What I think allowed Henry to stand apart was that he wasn’t just a skilled practitioner, a skilled negotiator, a skilled bureaucrat, but he was someone who also just had this enormous understanding of history. I remember, as a graduate student, fifty years ago, when I read the book that grew out of his doctoral dissertation on the post-Napoleonic era.

Is this the Metternich book?

Yeah. It was impossible not to be stunned about someone’s grasp of history, but also his ability to write New Yorker-quality portraiture of the characters involved. Then his ability to toggle, back and forth, between the small and the big. He could zero in on a conversation, or on a diplomatic note. Then take a step back and try to say, “Let me explain to you why this was really significant and what was going on behind the scenes.” There’s not a lot of people who have that ability to engage both in detail but also then take a step back, or a step up. You can count those people on the fingers of one hand.

Maybe not even any hands anymore, with him passing away. How well did you know him, personally?

Right. First met him forty-nine years ago. Were we intimate? No. Over the five decades, we had dozens and dozens of conversations, meals. In my twenty years as president of the Council, he would speak there often. We didn’t play golf together on weekends.

But you interviewed him several times, right?


There are obviously some more controversial parts of Kissinger’s legacy: the rise of Pinochet in Chile, the bombing of Cambodia, the genocide in Bangladesh. What did Kissinger say when you would ask him about these things?

I’d have to go back and look at the transcripts. Let me sort of give you a more general answer. I haven’t refreshed my memory on all these things.

I know you’re the former head of the Council on Foreign Relations. It’s not like you can respond to everything that’s happened in foreign policy.

Yeah. I hear you. Let me put it this way—here’s what I’m comfortable saying. I thought the critics, in some cases, had a point. I think what happened in, say, East Pakistan, what became Bangladesh, his prioritization of the relationship with Pakistan, whether it was because of his dislike of India and [Indira] Gandhi, or because of Pakistan’s role as a go-between with China, I just thought his priorities were misplaced. He was slow to see what was going on, and to react to it. The idea that he stood by the Pakistani leadership of the day was just wrong.

What happened in Vietnam is a much more complicated conversation. I think that there’s real questions about the value of having extended the war as long as it was, only to end up with the agreement we got. It’s hard to make the case that it was all wonky. He was always concerned about credibility. My own view is that he placed too much emphasis on all that, and, historically, the sacrifices were seen as excessive given U.S. interests.

You’re referring to the fact that the peace deal that he helped negotiate in 1973 was similar to what was on offer five years before, in 1968?

Yup. Differences didn’t justify the years, the human and other resources that were poured into what was ultimately going to be, I thought, both a discretionary cause, what I would call a war of choice, and a likely-to-fail cause.

More than half the American troops killed in Vietnam died in and after ’68, I think, and untold numbers of Vietnamese and Cambodians.

Right. Henry would justify it in terms of his foreign-policy priorities. I just think, in this case, his calculations were questionable.

The stuff that’s on the Nixon tapes, about Jews going into ovens and that not being an American priority, the things we’ve heard him say about Indians, talking about Cambodia and not distinguishing civilians—that wasn’t the type of language he would use with you?

We never used it either publicly or privately. I’d also say, and I’ve been in four Administrations, I wasn’t privy to those conversations, but I’ve been in all sorts of situations where, depending upon who the person was talking with, or the mood, or the room, people participated in conversations, or heard things, didn’t push back against them, that they would not be proud of. We’ve all been in those situations.

I haven’t been in conversations where people say horribly racist things about countries that they have some control over policy-wise. I guess what you’re saying is that this is not completely unheard of in American foreign policy.

Or American life. Maybe you are more pure than I am, but we have all been in social situations where we haven’t called people out every time they use language, or said things that we thought were abhorrent.

Let me ask you a broader, strategic question here, about things like the opening to China. It’s not that the opening to China was wrong, and not just that it was done with this back channel through Pakistan, which was engaged in committing mass killing. It’s that essentially China would’ve been opened well before, if it hadn’t been for strident anti-Communists like Nixon, who would call anyone who dared open up to China soft on Communism. Do you think that that’s a fair critique?

Short answer is yes. I can’t remember who said that “Only Nixon could go to China because only Nixon didn’t have Nixon to worry about.” But just because there might be an opportunity to do something, the fact is that, one, they took the risk. Then they handled it as well as they did. I mean, the proof is in the pudding. The fact that they, for example, came to an understanding with China about Taiwan, that essentially has allowed these two countries to develop a relationship, whatever you want to say about this relationship, that has essentially finessed their differences over Taiwan for half a century. That, to me, is quite remarkable, diplomatically. I don’t think something like that kind of an accomplishment was inevitable.

Kissinger made some pretty controversial comments about Tiananmen Square when it happened, saying that “No government in the world would have tolerated having the main square of its capital occupied for eight weeks.” We see that China, today, still celebrates him. Do you think that Kissinger had some sympathy for the Chinese Communist Party’s form of government?

No, I don’t think it was sympathy for the form of government. It’s true that he is revered there. When Kissinger would meet with Xi Jinping, Kissinger had done something Xi Jinping had never done, which is that he had formally met with Mao and Zhou Enlai. I don’t think his views were all that different from my boss’s, at the time, the forty-first President. Brent Scowcroft for a while was Henry’s deputy at the National Security Council, and was his successor under Ford, and shared the view that the priority ought not to be China’s internal workings. The principal purpose of American foreign policy toward China ought to be to influence Chinese foreign policy. I think that was, by the way, a view that Henry held not simply about China but about the Soviet Union, about the world. He was a realist.

Wait, wait, you said that he didn’t want to interfere in China’s domestic decisions but, rather, he just wanted to influence their foreign policy, and that was the view he held about the Soviet Union and the world?

Yeah, I happen to think it’s correct, that in foreign policy you’ve got to emphasize where you’re likely to have your influence. So to sacrifice the ability to work with China in terms of foreign policy, you wouldn’t get the political change you want.

But, just to clarify, the idea that Kissinger did not want to meddle in states, internally: this is a guy who prolonged the Vietnam War and helped overthrow the government in Chile. I don’t want to get too carried away.

No, no. I think that’s fair. When it came to anti-Communism, I think that was one of Henry’s weaknesses, and he got it wrong, some would say. He tended to see local versions of Communism or socialism or leftism too much in a global, full warlike setting.

It’s not just the things about Indians or Jews going into ovens being a foreign-policy concern. It’s also these memos telling essentially the Argentinean junta to speed up its process of torturing and disappearing dissidents. I do wonder if the human dimension of this sometimes gets lost.

Look, it’s a fair question, and that’s why, coming back to where we began the conversation, there’s going to be this debate about him, and it is not one-dimensional. For a lot of people, what you’ve just raised will take priority. For Kissinger, the big emphasis was on what you might call the tectonic plates of the diplomacy, and not the more human side. Again, he was a realist. That was his bias. For some, it was right. For others, it was wrong.

Well, also, I mean, we’re Americans. We have one perspective. Chileans might have another. Cambodians or Vietnamese or Indonesians—


People from East Timor—

By the way, he’ll be celebrated. Just very positive comments coming out of a lot of Europe.

. . . Southern Africa.

It’s going to be reflective of particular policies and how people perceive them and how they were affected by them. But, in parts of the Middle East, obviously, he’ll also be celebrated.

About your interviews with him: you said you didn’t have the transcripts, but, broadly speaking, he wasn’t asked much, by people who interviewed him, about Cambodia, or things like that.

The honest answer is I don’t know. When we would interview him, it was more on current things.


The last few interviews were more in terms of him-at-the-hundredth-birthday type things. He did interviews with Charlie Rose and with others, obviously, Walter Isaacson and others. So they might be better than me on that.

Yeah. It’s one thing to bring up something tough normally. At someone’s birthday event, it’s a little harder.

You think?

You talked about him as mixing “the small and the big,” the micro and the macro. There’s a story in Gary Bass’s “The Blood Telegram,” a book about Pakistan and Bangladesh, where at a White House meeting they’re reporting on a massacre in East Pakistan, later Bangladesh, and Kissinger asks about a former student of his. The C.I.A. person says something like “The guy’s almost surely dead.” Kissinger just waves it off stoically and says, “Muslims didn’t dominate the subcontinent by being gentle,” or something like that. I thought this was a moment where you had the micro and the macro. You had the personal story confronting the giant decisions of policy. I thought it was an interesting window into the man.

That wasn’t exactly the way I intended it. I meant it more when he was writing about history, he would go back and forth between specific incidents, and then larger lessons, or insights. Again, Kissinger had a fairly tragic view of history, not surprising for someone who was born in Germany and left in 1938. In many cases, he would see certain things as simply inevitable. It’s what happens in history. Bad things happen in history all the time. For Henry, you couldn’t prevent that sort of thing.

That lesson of “Bad things happen in history. Focus on things you can influence.” It’s harder to apply that to an area that he was influencing, potentially in a way that was causing bad things to happen, no? His approach to the 1971 crisis, I think it’s fair and right to be critical of it. I mean the lesson of “bad things happen.” It’s one thing if you’re a major stakeholder who’s playing a role in them.

I take your point.

I know there’ve been a lot of critiques that argue that Kissinger had too much influence over the Washington establishment. Do you think that that’s a fair critique?

Influence is something you either have or you don’t. People didn’t have to listen to him. They didn’t have to meet with him. They chose to. He also wasn’t simply a historical figure. He was a current figure. Plus, he continued to write. Again, Henry wasn’t simply living off his old Rolodex. He was generating important content.

I meant more the birthday events, and the celebrations of him.



Well, we did it all because his career, in many ways, started at the Council on Foreign Relations. When he wrote his nuclear-weapons book, which became this bizarre best-seller, that came out of a Council on Foreign Relations study group. So there was this interesting bond, and Henry credited the Council with the launch of his career. It’s what put him in touch with Nelson Rockefeller, which is what put him in touch with Richard Nixon. He basically thinks his life might have turned out very differently if it hadn’t been for his involvement in the Council on Foreign Relations.

That leaves a lot to think about.

He said, “For all I know, without it, I would’ve been a Harvard professor.” [Laughs.]

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