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January 11, 2016 7:42 am

Assessing Henry Kissinger

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Email a copy of "Assessing Henry Kissinger" to a friend
Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Photo: Screenshot.

Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Photo: Screenshot.

Niall Ferguson’s first volume of Henry Kissinger’s biography, which deals with his formative years, is masterful. It’s a difficult read, heavy with research and documentation. Kissinger is without doubt a brilliant man. Perhaps the most influential political adviser in the US of the late twentieth century. He served across the divide as adviser and Secretary of State, employed most notably by John F. Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. After he left government, he established his own consultancy to the world’s leaders. He is, as is anyone who takes a stand, both admired and reviled.

As Jews we would like to claim him as one of ours. But his whole career seems to have been a rejection of everything Jewish. The Nixon tapes have recorded him remaining silent as his master excoriates Jews in general. When he returned from the war in Europe, he told his father, “Certain ties bound in convention mean nothing to me. I have come to judge men on their merits.” It sounds to me as if he is implying that Jews do not judge others on their merits and that that is why he is rejecting Judaism. A pretty poor, if not dishonest, excuse. One almost feels sorry for someone who tried so hard to escape his heritage and yet the name stuck like a shadow regardless.

Ferguson has explored Kissinger’s religious background in Germany before the family managed to get out. He was forced out of a public school into a Jewish one when laws were passed against Jews attending. In his teens he joined Ezra, the Orthodox youth movement, where he wrote a paper on the recondite subject of muktzeh on Shabbat (what objects one may or may not move on the holy day), that would have done a yeshivah bochur proud. Almost as soon as he arrived in the States, like so many others at a time when antisemitism was so embedded in American academic, social, political, and commercial life, he turned his back on his Jewishness in the hopes of gaining acceptance and rising to heights of American society.

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We will have to wait for the next volume to discover if, during the Yom Kippur War, it was Kissinger who persuaded Nixon to send the arms that virtually rescued Israel from catastrophe. In his nineties, he has for the first time attended a Holocaust event, something he avoided like the plague for most of his life. He even supported Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery where the SS elite are buried. One can perhaps understand a person wanting to forget the discrimination and humiliation he and his family suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Kissinger devoted himself completely to his adopted country. It was historically his blessing and curse to reach the political heights during President Nixon’s terms of office. Much of his positive achievements as a negotiator have been colored by the venality of his patron and his own cloying sycophancy towards him. Regardless of the merits of the cases for and against, there is no doubt that he equaled many of the achievements (and compromises) of the Court Jews of 17th and 18th century Europe.

Kissinger’s critics accuse him of being an unprincipled pragmatist. Ferguson makes a persuasive case that he did indeed have ideals but that he realized that without pragmatism those ideals could and would be subordinated and undermined, as now seems to be the fate of liberal European and American idealism.

Kissinger admired Immanuel Kant, whose idealistic view of the human capacity for moral decision-making was reinforced by his important idea of the Categorical Imperative. Kissinger’s Harvard thesis, still the longest ever submitted, morphed into his book A World Restored, which examined the contributions of the nineteenth century European power-brokers Bismarck, Castlereagh, and Metternich. It argued for stability and practicality over revolution and uncontrolled idealism. His early contribution to the political debate was the concept of limited use of the nuclear option if it helped prevent a far greater catastrophe. He insisted that the US had to stand firm and show strength to tyranny and totalitarianism.

Among the many points Kissinger makes in his sweeping overview of modern political affairs is the paradox that: “Those ages which in retrospect seem most peaceful were least in search of peace. Those whose quest for it seems unending appear least able to achieve tranquility.” In a speech in 1957, he said, “It is the characteristic of a policy which bases itself on purely military considerations to be immoderate in triumph and panicky in adversity.” How true of American polices then and recently. In 1958 he said, “Most Americans are like spectators at a play that does not concern them…we are losing the cold war.” Such words are even more appropriate today where a failure to act often opens the doors to worse alternatives.

His greatest challenge was the resolution of the Vietnam War after President Johnson allowed it to escalate. Perhaps his most significant diplomatic achievement was the Nixon rapprochement with China. In Israel he was not liked because he was perceived as putting more pressure on Golda Meir than on the Arab states and the Palestinians. In Israel at the time, jokes at his expense were legion. Here is one I remember:

Golda Meir took him to the Western Wall and invited him to say a prayer. Kissinger turned to the wall and began, “Lord I want to thank you for enabling me, a refugee from Nazism, to rise to one of the most important positions in the United States of America.” And Golda said, “That is a very nice prayer, Henry.”

Kissinger continued,“And Lord I ask you to look favorably on my patron, Richard Milhous Nixon, and enable him to survive the challenges to his position and fulfill his role as a great president of the US.” Again Golda said, “That’s a lovely prayer, Henry.”

Kissinger turned back to the wall and continued “And finally Lord, help me persuade the Israeli government to make concessions in the interests of a lasting peace.”

And Golda turned to Kissinger and said, “Henry, you realize that’s only a wall you are talking to.”

Kissinger’s moderation between idealism and pragmatism is, in fact, a very Jewish position. Judaism allows its principles and laws to be sacrificed to save life, except in three cases: one cannot murder an innocent, commit adultery, or curse God. Survival trumps all the rest. The biggest challenge to the Western world today is the threat to its culture through the very idealism of concern for refugees and the persecuted, even when it may well mean the ultimate betrayal and defeat of Western values, by both the fascism and the religious barbarism.

Ferguson does an excellent job describing his subject’s brilliance and achievements in his rise on the world stage. What is clear here is that Kissinger deserves a much closer look and greater recognition of his ideals as much as his pragmatism. It would be wrong to say he was a crafty Machiavellian, devoid of moral values and ideals. I am looking forward to the next volume to see if Ferguson can maintain his thesis.

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  • apef

    thank you

    I do not want to read book. And am very interested in his jewish bona fides. i always assumed he was a nazi spy or something brought here to infiltrate the government…

    a crazy theory but

    only disprovable to me if i were to hear him say the kaddish or something…

    but a footnote , link or reference to his boyhood paper on Muktzah would be appreciated.

    since i would not read the book , because as i say, i would assume all of it were not true. despite ferguson’s best intentions he may be out of his league. and that would be to ferguson’s credit. or to any decent normal human beings credit to be unlike kissinger .. in the absence of real proof: i assume:

    kissinger developed a jewish identity prior to leaving for the US. otherwise a german in high office would raise eyebrows.

    if his whole life turn to power was due to high evaluation of merit and talent .. then i would say he was a total incompetent failure..

    but i do not believe he failed at what he set out to do.

    also more info on his father would be great..

    the deep story usually provided, was the US used his germanness to send him in deep as a US spy in germany armed forces or something… but then why would we not hear of that more if true? cause maybe it is the opposite of true.

  • Kissinger is and will be remembered as a man of peace among men on earth! How? All the wars events whish did take place after the 2ww from the Korean War and Vietnam War to Iraq invasion, etc. then intern civil wars of the Arab Spring, which did create space for terror groups to exist, attacking civilians worldwide and the event of refugees to day. When man sees the whole world ball as a shape picture man sees that how our planet is small. Let say that all the wars events which did happen never happened! What kind of wars will take place then? The wars event which did took place did actually prevent other wars the take place doing the past cold war time and in the future wars which certainly could and will be a catastrophe to the entire human life on earth. In the last few years sadden events did take place as the ISIS destructive force, refugees move from the Middle East, from Afghanistan and other Islam countries to western countries, in the meant time Chinese “ One belt one road” AIIB event comes up as a constructive move force. Without Kissinger things will look deferent to day. How can the constructive force as AIIB survive in the long run to prevent a catastrophic war to take place? Ms. Kissinger knows how China is important in the global world balance for peace among man. How can men? “Shape times” trough “earth constructions” shaping spaces for men to be able to think? For that men must know that “innovation has limits”, innovation can only survive when men knows the ‘innovations limits” which can only be known when men knows “that different cultures and their earth landscapes who has different needs of products to avoid overproductions, to avoid pushing products on men which men do no need. And the fundamental question of “economical rapid grows” and their effects. I guess that slow economical grows is best to have time to enter the world of “innovation” to control it self. I let this question to Mr. Kissinger, he knows better then me.

  • Kissinger is and will be remembered as a man if peace among men on earth! How? All the wars events whish did take place after the 2ww from the Korean War and Vietnam War to Iraq invasion, etc. then intern civil wars of the Arab Spring, which did create space for terror groups to exist, attacking civilians worldwide and the event of refugees to day. When man sees the whole world ball as a shape picture man sees that how our planet is small. Let say that all the wars events which did happen never happened! What kind of wars will take place then? The wars event which did took place did actually prevent other wars the take place doing the past cold war time and in the future wars which certainly could and will be a catastrophe to the entire human life on earth. In the last few years sadden events did take place as the ISIS destructive force, refugees move from the Middle East, from Afghanistan and other Islam countries to western countries, in the meant time Chinese “ One belt one road” AIIB event comes up as a constructive move force. Without Kissinger things will look deferent to day. How can the constructive force as AIIB survive in the long run to prevent a catastrophic war to take place? Ms. Kissinger knows how China is important in the global world balance for peace among man. How can men? “Shape times” trough “earth constructions” shaping spaces for men to be able to think? For that men must know that “innovation has limits”, innovation can only survive when men knows the ‘innovations limits” which can only be known when men knows “that different cultures and their earth landscapes has different needs of products to avoid overproductions, to avoid pushing products on men which men do no need. And the fundamental question of “economical rapid grows” and their effects. I guess that slow economical grows is best to have time to enter the world of “innovation” to control it self. I let this question to Mr. Kissinger, he knows better then me.

  • I did some visual thoughts doing some days about the article on Kissinger. Kissinger is a genius in time space beyond pragmatism, he knew what will happen in time space, and he could se into the future living among men who couldn’t see. He kept silence at the right times and when further on in time space to judge men on their merits! He is a devoted man to his country USA and a pure Hebrew mind for the stat of Israel. Man can not take a “nay” decision for nay in time space. Kissinger did make “nay” decisions to become “yea” by been life among men! Kissinger is an absolute ARTIST!

  • I did some visual thoughts doing some days about the article on Kissinger. Kissinger is a genius in time space beyond pragmatism, he knew what will happen in time space, and he could se into the future living among men who couldn’t see. He kept silence at the right times and when further on in time space to judge men on their merits! He is a devoted man to his country USA and a pure Hebrew mind for the stat of Israel. Man can not take a “nay” decision for nay in time space. Kissinger did make “nay” decisions to become “yea” by been life among men! Kissinger is an absolute ARTIST! Time will judge!

  • Mark Jay Mirsky

    Dear Rabbi Rosen,

    Thank you for the thoughtful review of the book on Kissinger. My own sense of him is complex, partly based on my experience of the Harvard world he moved through at the beginning of his career–but you quickened my curiosity about what the Fergusson book could tell me. The detail about his paper on Muktzeh is telling and speaks to the sadness of a life alienated not just from Judaism which he understood but in the role it played in his parents’ life. I believe it was the New York Times but it could have been elsewhere that reporting on the funeral of his father, he was excluded by the group of religious men with whom his father had prayed, from receiving the honors of a son, but not because of his politics. And yet his remarks about his mother whom he insisted, again, I seem to recall from a Times story, would recover from a coma when the doctors had given up on her, pointed out how deeply he was loyal to his family.

    It was possible to remain a Jew who identified with Judaism in Kissinger’s generation, but like many others, there was a subtle pressure on one not to–some at Harvard like Riesman felt the melancholy I believe of their separation, others like Erik Erikson, pretended that it was not relevant to their lives. And others, like the great critics, Harry Levin, felt they could only do so surreptitiously.

    Mark

  • The art of turning the bad image of man into a good one!

  • Nazi Germany is the one who did split men’s mind. Kissinger as Kantianism forgets that Emmanuel Kant almost never did relate his theories to “physics” which make men out of reality into a spilt world which do not exist. The reason Kissinger did spook to the wall. Whatever, the entire world to day is in a “split minded politics” which when man gets older starts to be aware of been a “Split mind” . Just as man when cooking a vegetable soup with to much oil, he will see that one kind of vegetable rise to the top surface of the soup not been able to observe the other vegetables under. The reason for unexpected sadden random terrifying events taking place to day which make history of man jumps as the rise of one kind of vegetable to the top surface of the soup. Voila! The next volume will surprise no one.

  • Nazi Germany is the one who did slip men’s mind. Kissinger as Kantianism forgets that Emmanuel Kant almost never did relate his theories to “physics” which make men out of reality into a spilt world which do not exist. The reason Kissinger did spook to the wall. Whatever, the entire world to day is in a “split minded politics” which when man gets older starts to be aware of been a “Split mind” . Just as man when cooking a vegetable soup with to much oil, he will see that one kind of vegetable rise to the top surface of the soup not been able to observe the other vegetables under. The reason for unexpected sadden random terrifying events taking place to day which make history of man jumps as the rise of one kind of vegetable to the top surface of the soup. Voila! The next volume will surprise no one.

  • Nazi Germany is the one who did slip men’s mind. Kissinger as Kantianism forgets that Emmanuel Kan almost never did relate his theories to “physics” which make men out of reality into a spilt world which do not exist. The reason Kissinger did spook to the wall. Whatever, the entire world to day is in a “split minded politics” which when man gets older starts to be aware of been a “Split mind” . Just as man when cooking a vegetable soup with to much oil, he will see that one kind of vegetable rise to the top surface of the soup not been able to observe the other vegetables under. The reason for unexpected sadden random terrifying events taking place to day which make history of man jumps as the rise of one kind of vegetable to the top surface of the soup. Voila! The next volume will surprise no one.

  • As a Bilderberg member he supports the Nazi nwo globalist mass murderers plot for a world government run by fascists.

  • Richard Schifter

    Your blog raises the question of whether Kissinger persuaded Nixon to order the resupply for the Israel forces during the Yom Kippur War. On the basis of the information that I received many years ago, the answer is: no, on the contrary, he opposed it. My source of information is the late Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who served as Chief of Naval Operations from 1970-1974.

    Given the information that the Pentagon received during the first days of the War, Zumwalt became greatly concerned. Kissinger was opposed to providing assistance. Secretary of Defense Schlesinger was uncertain. Nixon was preoccupied with the problem posed by Vice President Agnew’s resignation. Under these circumstances, Admiral Zumwalt decided to brief Senator Henry Jackson, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on the danger that Israel faced. Jackson familiarized himself with the data and then called Secretary Schlesinger, telling him that if the resupply were not ordered immediately, he would go public with a call on the White House to proceed with a major resupply effort. It was in response to that cal that the action was taken that saved Israel.

    • basha kline

      Thank you for that outline, it was interesting to read as often a Jew will go against his roots to preserve his position of status capo. It is not a situation that is admirable but hitherto, the knock-on effect which was applied at that time, led to solvency for the Jewish State and of course its inhabitants.

      • Steven

        Kissinger was a traitor to his Heritage he is the personification of what Isaiah in chapter 49 verse 17 speaks about.
        The world may remember him as a great Politician obsessed with Foreign Policy Jews however will remember him as a traitor to Judaism and G-D.

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