Kissinger Returns

The former Secretary of State discusses foreign policy with fellow scholars.

Joseph Nye and Henry Kissinger

After a prolonged absence, Henry Kissinger ’50, Ph.D. ’54, returned to Harvard on April 11 for a conversation on foreign policy before a full house of students and others in Sanders Theatre.  Now the chairman of Kissinger Associates, a consulting firm, Kissinger was U.S. Secretary of State from 1973 until 1977. He also served as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs from 1969 until 1975, working under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Prior to his government service, he was a professor of government at Harvard from 1954 until 1969, as well as a member of the Center for International Affairs.  Both ROTC and Kissinger left Harvard in 1969; now both have come back at the invitation of President Drew Faust.

Faust offered a laudatory preamble to Kissinger’s appearance, introducing him as “among the most legendary of Harvard’s graduates,” and mentioning that despite a late application (in May), he was accepted at Harvard and arrived as a 24-year-old sophomore with a Bronze Star from World War II—one of thousands of returning veterans who crowded the campus. Kissinger, who had emigrated from his native Germany in 1938, also brought a cocker spaniel named Smokey with him, and kept the dog in his Claverly Hall room in defiance of College rules; Faust guessed that the sophomore’s success in escaping unpunished after the administration learned of the canine presence was an early sign of his diplomatic skill. (In his later remarks, Kissinger elaborated on the story, suggesting that the diplomacy was entirely that of a Harvard administrator.)

Kissinger, Faust noted, was not only a Phi Beta Kappa member but a summa cum laude graduate; his 388-page senior thesis, she said, “prompted a 150-page limit on all future government department theses.”

Not all present shared her welcoming spirit.  A gray-ponytailed protester rose at the end of Faust’s remarks to shout, “I’d like to make a citizen’s arrest of Henry Kissinger!  This man’s a war criminal! He’s responsible for millions of deaths!  Shame on Harvard!” He did not resist as security took him from the room. When Faust immediately suggested that “we welcome back Henry Kissinger,” sustained applause indicated that the audience did not side with the dissident. (During the later question period, a far more civil, but equally confrontational, interlocutor commented on the irony of Kissinger’s 1973 Nobel Peace Prize and again made the “war criminal” accusation.)

In his opening statement, Kissinger indicated that the initiative for his appearance came from Faust, and that the original idea was for a lecture by the 88-year-old scholar, but that he felt a public conversation would be more interesting. Hence, joining him onstage were Dillon professor of government Graham Allison, who moderated; Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor Joseph Nye; and Jessica Blankshain, a doctoral student in political economy and government at the Harvard Kennedy School. (Read further background on the panelists here.)

To start, Kissinger reminisced a bit about attending Harvard on the GI Bill and sleeping on a cot in the gymnasium for the first two weeks. “I got credit for courses I had taken in the army, but no credit for courses I had taught in the army,” he said. He got “spectacular grades” in chemistry and asked chemistry professor George Kistiakowsky if he should consider concentrating in the field, but the teacher’s answer was “If you have to ask—No.” In later years, Kistiakowsky “had occasion to complain about some of my views,” Kissinger said. “I told him he could have easily solved his problem.”


Scholarship vs. Statesmanship

Kissinger contrasted the situation of the statesman with that of the journalist or academic—those “outsiders” who do not practice foreign policy but have abundant, publicly expressed views on the subject. The outsider, he said, “can pick his topic, can work on it as long as he wants, can choose the best possible vision of it, and has the option of changing his mind. None of these is available to the statesman.” Furthermore, when the outsider errs, “you have the option of writing another book. For the statesman, it is irrevocable.”

When asked about the interplay of morality and pragmatism, he noted that “In philosophy courses you deal with absolutes. In statesmanship you deal with nuances.” For example, while “anybody in high office will want to make a contribution to peace,” the reality of Vietnam in 1969 was that “there were 550,000 troops, 9,000 miles away from the United States, in the middle of a Cold War. The question was how to end the war in a manner that did not inflame the whole situation. We now have exactly the same problem in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every war the United States has fought since the end of World War II has started with great enthusiasm. Soon, the only question is, how quickly can you withdraw?”


China, Conflict, and Meetings with Mao and Others

Nye raised the subject of Kissinger’s most recent book [On China, 2011] and its attempt to refute the view of inevitable conflict between the United States and China. Kissinger remarked, “If statesmen in 1914 had known what the world would look like in 1919, would they have gone to war, considering the cataclysmic impact of that war? The answer is pretty clear.” He added, “In a nuclear-armed world, to deal with international relations purely in terms of conflict is inadequate. It is particularly true of China and the United States. Both nations are subject to isolation. We are, because of geographic isolation, and China because they have long been the dominant country in their region. China and the United States recognize that they live in a world of great danger. But some problems, like the environment and climate change, can only be dealt with on a global basis. State leaders on both sides have to make a decision, before they get into these crises, of working on cooperative solutions.”

As Immanuel Kant had been mentioned earlier, Allison observed that Kant’s picture of perpetual peace was quite at odds with traditional “realistic” analysis. Kissinger answered, “I don’t like the distinction between realist and idealist—I don’t think it’s a meaningful distinction. ‘Realists’ look only at power. But you can’t look only at power—states always represent an idea of justice. In the nineteenth century, Bismarck was considered the ultimate realist. But he said, ‘The best a statesman can do is to listen to the footsteps of God, catch hold of the hem of His coat, and walk with Him a few steps of the way.’ ” Kissinger added that “crusades have usually caused even more casualties than other wars.”

Kissinger reminisced about Mao Zedong: “That Chairman Mao caused unspeakable suffering is an indisputable fact….It is also a fact that he was a considerable strategic thinker in foreign policy, side by side with his messianic views.” Meetings with Mao “were never scheduled,” Kissinger said; the visitor would simply be informed that “ 'the Chairman will see you now.' He received you in a very undistinguished room, the floor covered with books. But he was a very commanding presence. He would begin with a question—‘What do you think of this?’ Then he would comment on your answer, very often sarcastically.” One such response was, “You Americans remind me of swallows who fly up into the air when a storm approaches and flap their wings. But the flapping of wings does not affect the coming of the storm.”

Kissinger also recalled Anwar Sadat, “a leader I had huge regard for.” In one instance of “shuttle diplomacy,” Sadat was asked how many tanks Egypt wanted to place in an area from which the Israelis were willing to withdraw. Sadat’s statement to Kissinger was to “tell [Israeli prime minister] Golda Meir that I will put in no tanks. If we want to go to war, [negotiated] restrictions don’t matter. If we don’t want war, then no tanks are necessary.”

Regarding the winding down of the Vietnam War, Kissinger opined, “I believe that by 1972, if America had stayed united, we would have had a better outcome than what was achieved.” Asked about things he might do differently, he admitted, “We did not address the problem of developing countries and the associated global issues until too late in the Ford administration.” Whatever his regrets, he noted that “In office, you have to act as if you are fully confident in your actions, because you are not rewarded for your doubts.”


Russia, Chile, and Siding with Adams House

In the question-and-answer period, one interlocutor raised the question of Russia and Vladimir Putin. “Russia is a country that for the greatest part of its history has defined itself by its imperial activity,” Kissinger explained. “It is not like China, which has believed that its domestic culture was so unique that it could serve as an example to the rest of the world. Russia expanded in all directions. Russia now is in a position almost the opposite of its history. It has a 3,000-mile frontier with China that is a strategic nightmare, with 30 million Russians on one side and a billion Chinese on the other. It has a 2,000-mile frontier with the Muslim world that is an ideological nightmare…and a border with Europe that is a historical nightmare, a consequence of 300 years of Russian imperialism….It is a country whose demographics are in decline, and has one of the most unfavorable demographic balances. Putin has created a middle class that will assert itself. I do not think we can confidently influence Russian domestic policy. The tendencies seen in recent demonstrations there will almost certainly assert themselves.”

As a general matter, he noted, “The decisions governments make that are important are always very narrow decisions—51 to 49. You have to steel yourself to act on insufficient information.”

A questioner from the audience raised the question of the 1973 military coup that overthrew the democratically elected Marxist president of Chile, Salvador Allende. “Immediately before the coup, we were totally preoccupied with Vietnam and similar issues,” Kissinger said. “All political parties in Chile had at first supported the coup because they thought it would be a step toward democracy. The coup itself was not encouraged by the United States. But we were upset with Allende….I do not understand why we are so upset about Allende, yet so delighted when Mubarak was overthrown.”

Kissinger’s simplest answer of the day came in response to a facetious question from an undergraduate who noted that Kissinger’s onetime home, Adams House, had recently declared war on Currier House, and solicited diplomatic guidance in resolving the crisis. “Of course,” said the former Secretary, “I support Adams House.” 

For additional reaction to the Kissinger visit, read the articles by journalist and adjunct lecturer in public policy David Ignatius ’72 in the Washington Post and by Tisch professor of history and professor of business administration Niall Ferguson in Newsweek.

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