A Harvard-Henry Kissinger Détente?

The former professor and world leader will appear on campus.

A series of low-key announcements—a March 7 posting on a Harvard 375th anniversary speaker, a March 19 posting under a tab on President Drew Faust's website, followed by a March 26 prompt for "Featured Events" on the Harvard homepage ("Now Available: Tickets for 'A Conversation with Henry Kissinger'")—signaled a thaw in the long chill that appears to have kept Harvard and Henry A. Kissinger '50, Ph.D. '54, L '55, at a considerable distance from one another. According to the announcement, Kissinger, "who served as national security adviser and secretary of state during the Nixon and Ford administrations after 15 years as a member of the Harvard faculty," will appear in conversation at Sanders Theatre on April 11 at 4:00 p.m. The event came about when Faust called on Kissinger in New York to extend an invitation to campus as part of Harvard's observance of its 375th anniversary—and he accepted.

President Faust will make a welcome, and then the conversation will be moderated by Graham T. Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School (where he was dean from 1977 to 1989), and an expert on nuclear weapons, terrorism, and international security. Panelists will be Joseph S.  Nye Jr., Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and Kennedy School dean from 1995 to 2004 (and assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs and deputy under secretary of state for security assistance, science, and technology in the Clinton and Carter administrations, respectively); and Jessica Blankshain, a doctoral student in the school's political economy and government program (she is studying the "organizational economics of the U.S. military" and is a teaching assistant in Allison's course, taught with adjunct lecturer David E. Sanger, on "Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy, and the Press").

Allison and Kissinger jointly served on the Eminent Persons Group that prepared for the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit—attended this past weekend by President Barack Obama and other world leaders.

In a statement accompanying the March 7 release, Faust said:

Henry Kissinger has played a central role in some of the most consequential U.S. foreign policy matters of the past half-century. He continues to be a highly influential figure in thinking about global affairs, and he has ties to Harvard that extend back more than 65 years. His visit will provide an important opportunity for a Harvard audience to hear a figure of historic significance reflect on some of the most profound challenges facing the United States and the world.

On the World Stage

Kissinger was a member of the Harvard faculty from 1954 to 1969, in the government department and the Center for International Affairs, as his official biography notes. Throughout that service, he consulted to government agencies and other institutions on security and defense matters. He then served as national security adviser from 1969 to 1975, and secretary of state from 1973 to 1977—a period that included the use of escalated force (notably the bombing of Cambodia and of Hanoi) in Southeast Asia and the tumultuous end of America's involvement with the war in Vietnam; the opening of relations with the People's Republic of China; and the policy of détente with the Soviet Union. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, jointly with Le Duc Tho, for negotiating an armistice in Vietnam (Le Duc Tho declined the prize, because he felt Kissinger had violated the truce); and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the nation's highest civilian honor) in 1977. During Kissinger's tenure in office, his focus on major strategic issues and his decisions in humanitarian conflicts around the world—ranging from the bloody overthrow of the Allende government in Chile to Indonesia's suppression of the independence movement in East Timor—made him a controversial figure. One recognition he has never received is an honorary degree from his alma mater and first scholarly home.

Following his public service, Kissinger's academic affiliation was with Georgetown University and its Center for Strategic and International Studies (a prospective chair at Columbia University met with student and faculty opposition, and Kissinger reportedly declined to pursue it). He engaged in an international corporate and strategic consulting business (through Kissinger Associates, incorporated in 1982); became a prolific author—of a lengthy, multivolume memoir, and, most recently, of On China; and remained engaged with world leaders around the globe.

…But Removed from Harvard

But he has had little formal connection to his alma mater. As previously reported, Kissinger's children both attended Yale College; he has taught there; and last year he donated his papers to Yale and made a financial contribution to digitize other papers at the Library of Congress for scholarly use. (Read Yale's full announcement here.)

For a class of 1950 reunion event, though, Kissinger and James R. Schlesinger '50, Ph.D. '56, whose service as secretary of defense overlapped Kissinger's at Foggy Bottom, appeared at an international-affairs panel at the Harvard Club of New York, "mediated" by Brent Scowcroft, on February 4, 2000. On that occasion, recalling their enormous postwar entering class at its enrollment in September 1946, Kissinger indulged in a bit of nostalgia (before turning to a serious discussion of international affairs):

Kissinger recalled his appreciation to Harvard for admitting him even though he had not applied until May 1946—in contrast to the “snotty letters” he got from other colleges. He remembered bunking in the gym for four weeks, until he was assigned to a room in Claverly Hall, and a run-in over the dog he had brought with him: which was, perhaps, an early lesson in diplomacy—the dean, he noted, “said they would start disciplinary proceedings, which he thought would take to the end of the academic year,” unless the dog were sighted again.

Speaking in that pre-9/11 context, Kissinger said, “Jim and I represent every point of view from A to B,” and went on to paint a similarly broad canvas:

During the Cold War, he said, “There was no fundamental debate about the national interest of the United States.” After Vietnam, American policy focused on managing the relations among America, China, the Soviet Union, Europe, and Japan to effect moderate behavior at the outset of arms-control negotiations and against a background of recurrent conflict in the Middle East. Within the government, he said, there was no disagreement on this strategy although—alluding to the cool relations he has since had with Cambridge—“there were huge disagreements between us and 98 percent of the Harvard faculty.” The result, he said, was that the United States “demonstrated its superior resilience and strength,” and the Soviet Union disintegrated, “which none of us expected.”

Taking an even longer view…Kissinger discerned two contending strains in American policy. The first, tracing to Theodore Roosevelt, he described in terms of pursuing the national interest. The second, a Wilsonian theme, he defined as driven by the sense of the United States as a morally superior nation, bent on improving other nations. Of the latter, Kissinger the realpolitiker said, “It’s not as simple as was thought in those days, and is thought in many circles again” today.

As an example, he pointed to “the trend in both political parties” to confront China. “To what end?” he asked acidly, maintaining that a more prudent approach would be to manage the inevitable strains arising from China’s emergence as a world power. He portrayed that confrontation as emblematic of another belief current in American politics, “that we have the capacity to spread democracy by some kind of dispensation,” and alluded to the difficulty of doing so in Russia and Indonesia, for example. Americans naively wish for instant democracy abroad, Kissinger said, even though “it took 400 years in the West, with an Enlightenment, religions separate from the state, and a whole series of other things.”

He also addressed issues that would arise, sooner than anyone then knew, in Iraq and elsewhere:

Anticipating questions from the audience, Kissinger said that “humanitarian intervention” in another nation’s affairs, though sometimes justifiable, was not always “benign.” In early modern Europe, he argued, such interventions were based on religious grounds, not on the claims of democratic governance or political ideologies—and the results were “catastrophic” crusades that cost millions of lives. Accordingly, like the other panelists, he was particularly skeptical about the prospects for success in the Balkans, and about the precedent set by NATO in Kosovo but not applied in Chechnya.

This discussion played out at a Harvard outpost, not at the University in Cambridge. Now, as a result of who knows what feats of diplomacy, Henry Kissinger is returning to campus.

Panelist Backgrounds

Graham Allison's research has been featured in Harvard Magazine in "Russia's 'Loose Nukes'" (September-October 2000), a report on the prospects for reviving nuclear-generated electricity, and a report on energy alternatives as the world tries to cope with global warming.

Joseph Nye's research on national security, "soft power," and related topics has been featured in Harvard Magazine in "Toward a Liberal Realist Foreign Policy" (March-April 2008) and "On Not Going It Alone" (July-August 2006, a book review).

According to the Belfer Center website, Blankshain—whose doctoral work is advised by Allison—graduated from Princeton with a degree in operations research and financial engineering, and also earned a certificate in public policy from that university's Woodrow Wilson School. She then spent two years working for the Boston Consulting Group.


You might also like

Steven Pinker on Apple’s Vision Pro

Professor of psychology on the science and history behind the Vision Pro.

The State of Black America

Harvard African American scholars take stock of a difficult moment. 

Threats Foreign and Domestic

Joseph Nye discusses geopolitics and Harvard’s challenges.

Most popular

Murphy Time

Harvard’s greatest football coach—and one of the best anywhere

Harvard Files Amicus Brief in Graduate Student Unionization Case

The University argues that the relationship between graduate students and universities should remain academic, not managerial, and student labor unions would “damage private sector graduate education.”

Labor Litigator

Attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan takes on the app economy.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults