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The Inevitability of Defending Henry Kissinger

Barry Gewen’s biography is an exercise in downplaying the critics and justifying the abuse of power.

Henry Kissinger meets with Richard Nixon in 1974 at the White House.
National Archive / Newsmakers / Getty Images

Barry Gewen introduces his study of Henry Kissinger, The Inevitability of Tragedywith an anecdote that may be more telling than he intended. “A couple of years ago, I was having dinner with a friend,” he recounts, “when he leaned across the table and whispered to me, ‘Barry, Henry Kissinger is  evil.’” Throughout this book, Gewen defends Kissinger’s record as flawed but indispensably instructive for Americans now amid the country’s converging, collective tragedies. This is a familiar argument. What’s unusual is the friend’s way of delivering his denunciation. Was he acting theatrically, just for fun? Or was he tempering genuine outrage with ironic humor to  get through to Gewen—a critic, essayist, and longtime editor at the New York Times Book Review who has promoted Kissingerian Realism for years.

The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World
by Barry Gewen
W.W. Norton & Company, 480 pp., $30.00

The Inevitability of TragedyGewen’s first book, is a manifesto or summa of his efforts to convert Kissinger’s critics and would-be prosecutors into his students. Kissingerian Realism, he explains, is “shaped by pessimism and a dim view of humanity,” by a sense of the fragility of political order, and by little “confidence in either the workings of democracy or the inevitability of progress.” Kissinger believed that policy “must start from that grim vantage point” and that tragedy erupts unpredictably in international relations and in all politics, deranging democratic majorities as often as greedy, war-mongering elites. This can’t be stopped by moralistic condemnations but must be finessed and contained, however painfully, by acts of power-balancing—arranged by deft, omniscient political actors such as Kissinger and explained by interpreters such as Gewen. 

Kissinger, Gewen writes, acquired his “dim view of humanity” while growing up in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and 30s, when its democratic institutions were being overtaken by Nazism. In 1938, the 15-year-old Kissinger and his family escaped to America, as did thousands of other Jews, shaken by the collapse of democracy and high culture and fearing for their lives. Only a relatively few intellectuals and political actors among them would embrace Kissingerian-style Realpolitik in its tragic fullness, but Gewen strains to link Kissinger with the tragedy-minded émigré public intellectuals Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt, neither of whom ever wrote or spoke publicly in his favor. The true exception, whom Gewen portrays at length, was the political scientist Hans Morgenthau, 19 years older than Kissinger and a deeply principled, if darkly pessimistic, conservative political philosopher and foreign-policy remonstrant who became his mentor and remained his friend even when they disagreed strongly about the Vietnam War. 

What Gewen doesn’t say is that some high policymakers have found Morgenthau’s and Kissinger’s “grim vantage point” perversely reassuring because it  reinforces presumptions of their own dark omniscience, unappreciated by the rest of us. The inevitability of tragedy helps them to excuse their blunders and outrages as necessary costs of braving what Donald Rumsfeld memorably called the “unknown unknowns” that bedevil all grand strategists. These omissions and concessions might matter less if they did not fit so comfortably into a sustained pattern of excuse-making for Realpolitik at the New York Times Book Review—an institution with far more power than any individual biographer to shape Kissinger’s legacy.

Gewen acknowledges that serious, well-informed people have condemned Kissinger’s work as immoral and destructive.  But he mentions many of the most substantial charges only very briefly on his way to rebutting or mitigating them. He notes, for example, only in passing, book-length indictments of Kissinger made by Christopher Hitchens and Seymour Hersh. He doesn’t mention Gary Bass’s  The Blood Telegram which documents Kissinger’s energetic complicity in the Pakistani massacres of Bengalis. Many of Kissinger’s and Nixon’s bloody maneuvers—in Cambodia, in Vietnam—weren’t as necessary or inevitable as their admirers and apologists assert. Gewen cites the condemnations not so much to engage with them as to give his own assessments an aura of truth-seeking candor. “To be sure, valid objections could be raised against specific Kissinger policies, even in his own terms of weighing means against ends—the invasion of Cambodia, for example, or the tilt toward Pakistan during the Bangladesh crisis—and there is certainly truth to Seymour Hersh’s assertion that ‘Nixon and Kissinger remained blind to the human costs of their actions.’ Callousness has always been the besetting sin of realpolitik, and it is not difficult to find examples of almost brutal coldness in Kissinger’s record.”

That brutal coldness—much of it driven by Kissinger’s fear that nations were poised to fall like dominoes to Communism—bears a lot of responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of bodies of innocent non-combatants lying in graves in countries where Kissinger and Nixon intervened.  Gewen, unfazed, opines that since “the masses demand firmness and immediate results,” it’s little wonder that, as Morgenthau put it, “the diplomat’s reputation for deviousness and dishonesty is as old as diplomacy itself.” Some of his other reckonings take us  through long, conflicted, hydra-headed accounts of Kissinger’s and Nixon’s interventions, enumerating, for example, their reasons for supporting, covertly, the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government in Chile. 

Gewen’s first chapter on Allende’s rise and demise would have come later in a standard chronological biography, but Gewen calls this his “intellectual biography” of Kissinger’s worldview, not his personal life. Like the book’s prologue, the “Chile” chapter opens with a comment that puts Kissinger in the worst possible light—this time, Kissinger’s declaration, “I don’t see why we have to stand by and watch a country go Communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.” Gewen paraphrases briefly the shocked, liberal-democratic reaction to that comment but then presents Allende and his socialists as subversive of the constitutional democracy that elected them. Telling us that they nationalized some large corporations, imposed wage increases, introduced a “humanist socialist” curriculum in the schools, and even declared that they and Fidel Castro’s Cuba were “marching toward a common goal,” Gewen finds “a core of truth” in the “straightforward formula: Allende=Castro=Communism=Soviet domination”—enough truth, 
he thinks, to justify his claim that Chile presented “perhaps  the  classic example of the potential clash between other countries’ free elections and American security.” But only the discredited “domino” theory made it seem so, and Gewen says next to nothing about the far more authoritarian General Augusto Pinochet, who ousted Allende’s government in a 1973 coup and imposed a brutal American-backed regime for the next 16 years.  

Gewen follows his opening account of Chile immediately with a chapter on another democracy’s election of a would-be dictator, this one far more primal in Kissinger’s early experiences and thinking: Adolf Hitler’s duplicitously “democratic” makeover of his National Socialist Party to facilitate its constitutionally legitimate victory of 1932 in the Weimar Republic’s Depression-wracked democracy. From this, Gewen writes, Kissinger learned that “democracy has no sure answer to the demagogue who is able to win the support of the public through fair means and foul”—an echo of Hannah Arendt’s warning that most people would be better off under regimes that restore and enforce some pre-democratic customs and order than they are under unstable democracies. Kissinger’s doctoral dissertation, published as A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, presented foreign ministers who upheld such regimes after the defeat of Napoleon’s “democratic” conquests. 

Gewen’s accounts of Allende and Hitler resonate with Kissinger’s inclinations to look past democratic procedures and humanitarian ideals to assert that most political interactions depend not on law or trust or good will but on each side’s recognition that the other has enough power to advance its interests violently if benign interactions break down. In  a 2007 essay titled “Why Are We in Iraq? A Realpolitik Perspective,” Gewen instructs us: “Wishful, pious thinking about democratic values, with no understanding of the facts on the ground, has proved to be the surest way of undermining any real hope we have, not only for protecting America but for strengthening and extending democracy as well. It is a truth our modern Wilsonians seem to have forgotten, or, in some cases, never to have grasped. But it is a truth the Realists have known all along.”

Kissinger, he wrote, would have preferred to see  Saddam Hussein replaced by another–but better–strongman, such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf. Now in The Inevitability of Tragedy, Gewen writes as if, in Chile, democracy was more dangerous than Pinochet and that in the Weimar Republic, it was no match for the seduction by “the Nazi dream factory.” 

But some consequential truths about Kissinger’s foreign policy Realism are missing from Gewen’s book. He writes that  Kissinger’s three-volume memoirs offer “a one-of-a-kind window into decision-making in the White House at a critical moment of American history (though perhaps best read with the volumes of White House tapes at one’s side).” Yet he doesn’t mention important episodes from the famous tapes that Nixon recorded in the Oval Office and that he reluctantly turned over to the Watergate special prosecutor. For example, Gewen’s book offers only one brief mention of Kissinger’s enthusiastic support of Pakistan’s slaughter of Bengalis in 1971, even though that enthusiasm is fully recorded on the Oval Office tapes that Gewen suggests we keep “by our side.” Why doesn’t he tell us that, as Nixon biographer John A. Farrell has written in his  review of Gewen’s book, the tapes from December 1971 record Kissinger ranting, “I consider this our Rhineland,” while Nixon “fretted in private that his national security adviser might need psychiatric care.”? Farrell cautions that “for all of the merits that Gewen identifies in Kissinger, realism, too, is no guarantee against delusion.” 

Speaking of delusion: A few months after the 2017 inauguration, Gewen recommended that members of the foreign-policy establishment draw lessons from Kissinger’s decision to work for Nixon as they considered working for Trump. In the article “Kissinger’s Moral Example,” Gewen reprises Kissinger’s thinking about whether to accept Nixon’s offers to serve as his national security advisor in 1969 and, later, as his secretary of state. Kissinger justified those decisions by assuming, in Gewen’s paraphrase, that  “someone  was going to be in the White House … making the life and death decisions.  The power of the American government was not about to disappear if he retreated to a university or to some high-paying consultancy.” From this, Gewen concludes that “as the latest members of the foreign-policy establishment weigh working for Donald Trump, Kissinger’s past service, more than ever, offers numerous lessons for the present.” 

What lessons? Kissinger had no need to learn how to balance statesmanship with democracy, which hadn’t exactly thrived in his formative years in Germany. Arriving in the United States as a teenager, he learned to love baseball and embraced his new country as a place “where tolerance was natural and freedom was unchallenged.” The U.S. Army returned him to Germany in American uniform in 1944 as an infantryman and part-time intelligence officer who distinguished himself by exposing a Gestapo sleeper cell. But most of Gewen’s account of Kissinger’s patriotism draws from encomia to heartland America that Kissinger wrote decades later as a high public official with strong Realpolitik incentives to wave the flag. When Gewen quotes Kissinger’s patriotic reminiscences, he makes much of Kissinger’s annoyance at his elitist academic colleagues. Only once does Gewen hint at any complexity in Kissinger’s feelings, noting that in 1939 he had written to a friend that “my personal impression of America is very two-sided: In some regards I admire it; in others I despise the approach to life here.” 

Such ambivalence was much more characteristic of Strauss, Arendt, and Morgenthau. Shaken by Hitler’s constitutionally and popularly “democratic” ascent to power and by his lightning-like degradation of German high  Kultur,  they became political philosophers and public intellectuals—unlike Kissinger, whom Gewen characterizes as “a historian and a statesman, not a political thinker.” Although they had little faith in democracy, they were not anti-democratic, Gewen tells us, but “ademocratic, or nondemocratic, or at worst undemocratic,” focusing instead on judging events by “whether they serve totalitarian domination or not,” as Arendt put it. But Arendt never presumed to speak for Kissinger, and Gewen seems to be straining again to make Kissinger’s thinking about democracy seem more philosophically insightful than politically opportunistic.

Gewen’s “Vietnam” chapter shows Kissinger and Nixon working frantically and deviously (and Kissinger often fawningly in the Oval Office but quite oppressively with his own staff) to prolong the disastrous war, beginning with Kissinger’s diplomatic double-dealing in passing information and misinformation to both American political parties and to South and North Vietnam in peace negotiations during the 1968 presidential election seasons, when he was signaling his availability to both the Humphrey and Nixon campaigns. They tried in vain to salvage American “credibility” and “honor” in the fight against world communism while Morgenthau denounced the war and the ideology that they invoked to justify it. It was during those six pivotal years from 1969 to 1975 that the tactically versatile, attention-cultivating, assiduously networking Kissinger rose to prominence in Washington and abroad, shaping or misshaping the strain of Realpolitik that Gewen commends.  

Gewen’s own attraction to the darker side of politics and human potential has shown up in his own understandable impatience with American naiveté. In a 2005  Times  essay titled  “Forget the Founding Fathers,” he wrote that Americans’ “sheltered, basically oafish naïveté”  prompted  the historian Louis Hartz to rue their “vast and almost charming innocence of mind.” In what Gewen and Kissinger see as an ever more Hobbesian world, Americans would do better to become a bit less moralistically earnest and a bit more dishonestly wise. 

He may have reached that conclusion after carrying  his interest in labor reform from graduate school at Harvard to New York City, where he worked  for years at the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, writing speeches, congressional testimony, and reports while serving also as associate editor  of the leftist journal  The New Leader,  writing a monthly books column there for a decade before he was hired by The New York Times Book Review. There, in the course of three decades, he has become, in effect, the arbiter of a portion of its reviews of non-fiction books on politics and history, in which reputations of writers on foreign policymaking and power can be bolstered or dented.    

During and following the Iraq War, Gewen edited a string of reviews that turned the  Times Book Review  into a war hawk’s damage-control gazette, as I  showed in some detail  in  The Nation  in 2007. Most of those reviews, instead of invoking tragic realism to justify or excuse what had clearly become a fiasco, criticized the war’s critics as narrow or myopic. The Book Review’s  top editor at the time, Sam Tanenhaus, was ultimately responsible for its choices of books and reviewers, which are also approved by other editors at a weekly meeting. My Nation  article blamed Tanenhaus, but, as Gewen told an interviewer a few years later, “Each preview editor really is the gatekeeper on books that he or she is looking at,” and when I queried him about the Iraq-related reviews, he replied that “the assignments were a group decision” but that “I edited them.”     

In 2006, the Book Review had Kissinger review a biography of Truman’s formidable Secretary of State Dean Acheson in which Kissinger not-so-subtly coronated himself by describing what the job demands. In 2011, the Book Review had Kissinger review a biography  of George F. Kennan by the historian John Lewis Gaddis, who had reviewed Kissinger’s  Years of Renewal  for the  Times  in 1999. Gaddis had called that book “a remarkable achievement” and praised Kissinger’s moral grounding and candor about his foreign policy goals, and Gaddis collaborated with Kissinger after that on projects at Yale that burnished Kissinger’s reputation.  Not surprisingly, Kissinger’s review of Gaddis’s biography of Kennan praised it for being “as close to the final word as possible on one of the most important, complex, moving, challenging, and exasperating American public servants.”  

“We always ask our reviewers about any potential conflicts of interest,” a spokesperson for Pamela Paul, the Book Review’s current top editor,  told the historian Greg Grandin  in  2015 when he questioned her about a glowing review  of Niall Ferguson’s authorized (and egregiously hagiographical) biography,  Kissinger: The Idealist. Not only was the  Times’s  reviewer, Andrew Roberts, a longtime friend of Ferguson, but Roberts had even declined Kissinger’s offer to write the biography before Ferguson wrote it. Yet the  Times  published Roberts’s coronation of Ferguson next to  a review of Grandin’s own Kissinger’s Shadow  by the historian Mark Atwood Lawrence, who characterized it as “one of the most innovative attacks on Kissinger’s record and legacy” but called its contention that Kissinger’s sins and blunders have set precedents for a lot of what has gone wrong “more provocative than convincing.” 

When I queried Gewen about the apparent bias in such reviews, he replied, “I’m more concerned if we are consistently presenting a single foreign policy point of view, and I don’t think that’s the case. This does not mean that we are open to all points of view—I can’t imagine that we would ever ask Noam Chomsky to review for us.” It may be that Chomsky strikes Gewen as an anti-American Johnny one-note, but no such perception has stopped the United States Military Academy at West Point from inviting him to speak and take questions from several hundred cadets, who greeted him with respectful applause. If the American military is willing, even eager, to learn from its critics, why can’t the  Times Book Review  let its readers learn from Kissinger’s critics in its pages, too? Why do we more often find David Frum, the sinuous former Iraq War hawk and speechwriter for George W. Bush, lampooning leftists’ “Great Awokening” or, a year later, the former war hawk Joe Klein congratulating Frum on the humility and repentance in his book Trumpocalypse?  (Frum has praised The Inevitability of Tragedy in a blurb for its book jacket as beautifully written—a book that upsets easy moralism and cheerful optimism in haunting prose.”)                          

Kissinger may not be as simplistically “evil” as Gewen’s dinner companion insisted but neither are his record and thinking as instructive as Gewen would have us conclude. It’s emblematic of Gewen’s evasions that he mentions only once and in passing the late  Jonathan Schell, who criticized Kissinger’s policy proposals concerning nuclear weapons, Vietnam, and much else for more than twenty years in The New Yorker, The Nation, and many other venues. Gewen doesn’t mention Schell’s 2003 book The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, yet it reads now as a powerful rejoinder to Gewen’s preoccupations with democracy’s tragic follies and his indifference to democracy’s many triumphs against the “refreshed ignorance” of authoritarian powers that flood streets with soldiers and police. Schell draws deeply on Arendt’s understandings of power to assess nonviolent, democratic movements’ displacement of national security states in British colonial India, apartheid South Africa, and the Soviet bloc and, with it, the Berlin Wall.

Established power and democratic vitality are co-dependent in any successful politics, but Gewen’s rendering of Kissinger’s Realpolitik leaves very little room for democracy. Gewen has every right to propound that view in his own books and essays. But a publication with the broad reach and public mission of the New York Times Book Review shouldn’t skew its offerings so heavily in that same one direction.