Walter Isaacson

Kissinger, Part I

VTR Date: July 23, 1992

Guest: Isaacson, Walter


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Walter Isaacson
Title: “Kissinger”, Part I
VTR: 7/23/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And, as an erstwhile American historian, I’ve always embraced and even celebrated the role that heroes, great leaders, extraordinary women and men of vision and power, have played in forging our national past.

Who, indeed, would have the temerity, the timidity, to ignore or deny great leaders’ part in molding our destiny?

Yet it may be too easy, too tempting in our moment of pygmies and drones, to indulge in hyperbole, perhaps even in nostalgia that is wistfully envious of larger persons in larger roles in supposedly better times past, nostalgia that in turn enlarges more upon their real contribution to the course of history than in truth history warrants.

Well, those were the thoughts with which I began another OPEN MIND with today’s guest a half dozen years ago, when he had just co-authored another totally intriguing and brilliantly crafted Simon and Schuster volume, “The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made”, about Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett, John McCloy, George Kennan, Charles Boland…all names quickly identified with high position and great responsibility if your age is right and your memory remains intact.

Well now, my guest has blessed us with still another enormously compelling, skillfully written, and even-handedly fair account of a very different kind of maker and shaker of America’s contemporary role in world events.

Walter Isaacson is Assistant Managing Editor of Time magazine. His massive new Simon and Schuster biography titled, simply: “Kissinger” is about possibly modern America’s most controversial world leader as Secretary of State.

Robert Caro, whose own magnificent volumes – first on Robert Moses, and continuingly now on Lyndon Johnson have so brilliantly cast new and important light on the relationship between personality and public policy – says that “It there weren’t such a word as ‘riveting’ it would have to be invented” to describe my guest’s path breaking book on Henry Kissinger. He’s right on target, too…and I would begin today by quoting what Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann’s accomplished biographer, wrote about Mr. Isaacson’s earlier “The Wise Men”…and by asking my guest if the same could possibly be said of Henry Kissinger: “They were men who knew where they stood, and their strength came from being rooted in an order that did not begin yesterday and will not end tomorrow”. Mr. Isaacson, that was a…an important statement about those wise men you wrote about earlier. What about Henry Kissinger?

Isaacson: I think Henry Kissinger was rooted in a European style of foreign policy, a real politic which believed in realism and balances of power. He studied Metternich, whereas the great American statesmen before him had worshipped at the feet of Woodrow Wilson or even back to Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. So Kissinger was a brilliant, brilliant statesman at balancing power. He knew how to sort America’s influence in the world, but what he did not have a feel for, I think, and at least I try to show in this volume…what he did not have a feel for were the deep values and the openness of American democracy…the messiness that comes with conducting foreign policy in a democratic system, and the fact that that’s a source of strength for our foreign policy, not a source of weakness.

Heffner: Yes, but you’re not talking obviously only about a sense of organization…not a sense of messiness…you’re talking about human values that you identify with those six men…but I gather not with Henry Kissinger.

Isaacson: Well, I don’t think Henry Kissinger placed much of an emphasis on human rights or the furtherance of democracy in foreign policy. He saw foreign policy as a balancing of national interests, or the assertion of national interests. Especially during the Cold War, it was America’s interest to stop the spread of Soviet influence, to stop the spread of Communism. That was a value, but it was also a balancing act…a balance of power type of diplomacy. And I think where he excelled was in the balance of power type of diplomacy.

Heffner: Are you saying then that you’re talking about an intellectual construct…Mr. Kissinger’s identified with Metternich and Europe, and the six wise men identified with an American tradition rather than the kinds of human values that shaped the rest of their lives, not just their conduct in foreign policy?

Isaacson: Oh, I think Kissinger is very much associated with the tradition that came out of Metternich, Bismarck, the people he studied and wrote his dissertations on when he was at Harvard, or a professor at Harvard. I think that is was very important for America to have such a steward of foreign policy in many ways as we came out of Vietnam because America’s role in the world was threatened…the Vietnam War had been devastating to both our credibility abroad and our will at home to conduct a serious foreign policy. So there was a chance after the Vietnam era that we were going to retreat back into isolationism. I think what Kissinger did and what was the strength of his diplomacy was that he was able to create a triangular balance…detente with the Soviet Union, an opening to China, use that balance where the United States stood in the middle there and could help play the two off against one another…help assert our interests and have a creative diplomacy in the Middle East, in the Far East, in China and with the Soviet Union and with arms control. So all of that was a, a very important contribution, especially as we came out of Vietnam, where I think the diplomacy didn’t have as long term of a stability and a foundation as it could have was because it was not based on the values, was not based on the appreciation of democracy, it was not based on the appreciation for human rights that has historically been the foundation lf America foreign policy, and in my mind the source of its strength.

Heffner: What about such personal characteristics as you indicate…and you’re very even-handed here…as I’ve indicated to you I came away from “Kissinger” without having had my anti-Kissinger feelings and emotions exacerbated.

Isaacson: Well, that’s good to hear because I mean Kissinger’s a very controversial character and I think most people approach Kissinger either thinking he was the greatest statesman we’ve ever had, or thinking he was a war criminal. Both…whether you’re a Liberal or a Conservative, you can either have strong appreciation for, or a great disdain for Henry Kissinger. It made it hard to write a biography because you’re tempted to cater to people’s prejudices, or you’re afraid you might reinforce prejudices, and I wanted to try as the title of your show says, to approach it with an open mind. I wanted to, to…after all these years with some books, no biography has ever been written of Kissinger, but there have been books that have been harshly critical, and there have been books that have been, you know, you know, adulatory of Kissinger, and I wanted to try to do a book that if you really despised Kissinger, this will not inflame your prejudices against him, but will help explain what he was all about. Likewise, if you think that Kissinger was the greatest statesman to walk the 20th century, you’ll see other facets. He was a complex man. His policies were complex and his personalities were complex. And those were related, and that’s what I tried to show in the book.

Heffner: The word “deviousness”…

Isaacson: Yes.

Heffner: …it does surface on occasions in your book, and in fact it surfaces a number of times. It’s not a, a word of…that the people who adored him would use…

Isaacson: Well, I think…in fact I’ve gotten a few…when the galleys of the book first circulated, Dr. Kissinger got one and he sent me a barrage of letters. I think that he felt that, especially in terms of his personality, I was far too critical. Of course, he’s a very sensitive individual. I think if he reread his own memoirs he would be outraged that it understated his great role…he’s probably feel the same thing if he read his Nobel Prize citation…he’s day “Well, that understates my role”. So…but yes, I mean he, he was quite upset, I think, with parts of the portrayal of his personality. I do think, I think that he was a master at playing various sides. He was a master at letting one…when he talked to one side, when he was negotiating in shuttle diplomacy he might emphasize the hills, and when he talked to the other side he might emphasize the valleys. He would never directly lie to one side of the other, but they would each get the impression that he was on their side, and there was a certain duplicity or deceitfulness that in some ways is offensive to the good old fashioned American mindset, but I don’t think diplomacy is ever operated very well without a little bit of stroking on both sides of the aisle.

Heffner: Now, wait a minute…let me ask…are you saying that “good old fashioned American mindset” might not have worked as well given the complications of the late 20th century?

Isaacson: I think that in the long run an open and straight-forward diplomacy is the best because it lays a foundation for the policies that will allow those policies to continue. For example, in pursuing détente and pursuing arms control, Kissinger made a lot of secret agreements…he went behind the back of the Secretary of State, State Department. He had secret exchanges of letters with Dobrynin, who was the Ambassador from Moscow and with the Soviet leaders. All of those things lead to a great arms control agreement…the first SALT agreement. It lead to a…quite a few deals that worked very will in the Middle East and in US/Soviet affairs. Yet in the long run there was a reaction against détente…people like Senator Henry Jackson from the Democratic Party, and of course Conservatives from the Republican Party, all reacted against détente, partly because he did not do a good job in laying the foundation, in being open about what he was doing, and people felt deceived, both in Congress, in the public and around the country. So I think he gathered a reputation for deceptiveness, for conspiratorial secretiveness in the way he created his diplomacy. In the short run, it made it work very well. In the long run, I think, the Ronald Reagan challenge to Gerald Ford when Reagan challenged Ford for the nomination…he did it by attacking Henry Kissinger, saying that Henry Kissinger had done a duplicitous diplomacy and sold out to the Soviets. Likewise that very same year Jimmy Carter was attacking from the Democratic side, attacking Henry Kissinger. So in the long run I think Kissinger opened himself up for attack.

Heffner: Do you think that Kissinger could have achieved what he did by way of détente without the little tricks of the trade, of his European trade?

Isaacson: It’s a very good question, and it’s a very complicated answer, a sort of a 900 page answer, because I think to be fair to him you have to look on a case by case basis. Could you have had the opening to China, if you did it all out in the open? I mean…that Kissinger took a secret trip to China and then, it was a worldwide news when he came back and announced that the United States was about to try to restore some relationships with China, and that Nixon would go to China. That was all done in secret. The State department was deceived. Could it have been done more publicly and more openly? No, I think that to some extent it had to be secret. But I think that he and Nixon reinforced one another, reinforced the dark sides of one another. They were both overly conspiratorial, overly secretive. So when you add it all up…the secret Vietnam negotiations in Paris when he didn’t inform that State Department and he didn’t inform South Vietnam’s President what he was negotiating. The secret negotiations on Berlin. The secret negotiations on China. The secret negotiations over SALT where our own arms control negotiators felt left out. The secret negotiations with Moscow…all of these things added up to such a conspiratorial way of conducting foreign policy that a backlash formed against him. So in each case you can say, “Ah, yes, that, that furtive, secretive way of doing it probably helped”, but I think, and you look at it as a whole, that policy did not succeed. And it was not very American…I mean that’s not the way Americans like to conduct business.

Heffner: That’s not the way Americans like to conduct business, but chapter by chapter in this intriguing book, you lead me to believe that whatever our proclaimed notions of public morality are, he did get done what needed to get done.

Isaacson: Yes, but…

Heffner: Now why, why, why then go back and look at it and say, “But it isn’t…he did it in ways not within the American tradition.”?

Isaacson: Because I think there was a great backlash to what he was trying to…

Heffner: …I hear…I hear…

Isaacson: …and I think that if you’re going to lay a foundation of a foreign policy, it’s like building a house of bricks without straw. I mean it doesn’t hold together in the long run.

Heffner: Well, do you think that achieving détente would carry, by definition, a burden so great that there would be this kind of reaction?

Isaacson: Well, I mean that’s what happened. He negotiated a detente with the Soviet Union that included “most favored nation” trade status and more immigration for Jews to Israel, but it was done in such a secretive way that Congress eventually voted down the “most…”. They attached the Jackson/Vanick Amendment, it was called. And that ended up destroying détente. You ended up having a lot of what Kissinger tried to do, including having another SALT agreement either delayed or destroyed because there was such a reaction to the way he conducted diplomacy. So it’s a complex question. But if you look at his predecessor, William Rogers, what he was trying to do in the middle East…He conducted it with great openness…he announced what America’s policy would be in the Middle East, and where we were trying to go, and it didn’t go anywhere because basically you, you just can’t deal in the bazaar, the trading bazaar of the Middle East with that sort of, I would think, almost naïve American openness, so it didn’t go anywhere. But then again, when everything is done in such a conspiratorial fashion, you end up having a reaction that destroys America’s credibility in the world, destroys public support for your foreign policy, undermines the foundation for détente and for the opening to China and for everything else. And so you end up having Kissinger and whoever was his President, at the time, Ford, being attacked from the Right by Ronald Reagan and from the Left by Jimmy Carter, and so you have to judge a policy-maker by the outcomes of his policies. And the outcomes were not all successful.

Heffner: Tell me about the outcome of open covenants, openly arrived at, and that good American notion.

Isaacson: Well, I mean, that’s a problem…I mean you’re, you’re saying that with a sense of irony, I assume, and, you know, Woodrow Wilson wanted a moral, open foreign policy. Jimmy Carter came into office with that. The question is how do you strike a balance, and that’s what I explore in the book. I think that when you look at the major event of our lifetime in foreign policy it was a triumph by the United States and the West over the Soviet Union and the Communism that happened in 1988, 1989, 1990…over the past few years…the collapse of Soviet Communism as a real threat. You have to look at how did that happen…well, Kissinger, and Nixon, and Ford and the Presidents that came later deserve a lot of the credit, including for some of the secretive diplomacy that helped with the SALT agreements, but also the build up of arms, and this balance between China and the Soviet Union that preserved America’s role in the world after Vietnam. That was one reason that I think we triumphed in the Cold War. However, to me, the most important, the most over-riding reason that the West triumphed and the United States triumphed in the cold War was because of our values. Because of our democratic system. Because of our system of liberal democratic capitalism, respect for the individual…that system with the openness and messiness that comes with a foreign policy that’s based on democracy and openness, that system proved more appealing and I don’t think that Kissinger had a fine enough appreciation for the power of the American system and the fundamental weakness of the Soviet system, and that that would be the ultimate reason…our values, really, would be the ultimate reason we would triumph in the Cold War.

Heffner: You quote in “Kissinger” a friend of his family who said “If he were 10% less brilliant, and 10% more honest, he would be a great man”.

Isaacson: I think that sums it up, and this is a man who…Goldman, knew Kissinger since childhood. I think it was a very friendly quote in a way. It was a quote said a long time ago before I even started writing my book. But I think that’s true. In some ways his brilliance and his conspiratorial, secretive, sometimes devious nature were all interwoven and it put him a little bit at risk of being not the grand American statesman on the order of General Marshall, say, who was the opposite…not exactly the most brilliant balancer of power in the world, but a man whose honesty pervaded the marrow of his bones.

Heffner: Was this in the matter of Marshall, “10%more honest, 10% less brilliant?”

Isaacson: Well, yes…I think if…I think that if you could have melded General Marshall and Henry Kissinger, you could have gotten 10% more of each.

Heffner: But would he be in Richard Nixon’s Administration?

Isaacson: Well, you know, that’s an important thing to explore, which is to what extent it was Kissinger’s personality that attracted him to Nixon, and was reinforced by Nixon’s own furtive…as we all know…I mean wire-tapping all the way through to Watergate. Nixon was a person who operated secretly, furtively…believed in a sort of conspiratorial approach. So that was Nixon’s doing, as well as Dr. Kissinger’s. I think that when you look at Kissinger, you have to try to say “Well how did he operate with Nixon, and to what extent did he reinforce that side of Nixon?”, because there were other people in the Nixon Administration who were reinforcing what you might call the “lighter” side, or the more open side of Nixon. And you have to try to disentangle what was Nixon’s influence and what was Kissinger’s influence. One way of doing that, which…an easy test…is that Gerald Ford followed and Kissinger worked for…as Secretary of State for Gerald Ford. Gerald Ford was the most decent, the most straight-forward, and the most honest and in some ways, if we’re going to use the comparison that Goldman did, he was “10% less brilliant, and 10% more honest”. Kissinger, even in the Ford Administration had that conspiratorial, somewhat secretive streak, but not nearly as much so as he did in the Nixon years.

Heffner: There’s a…it’s not you r one-liners alone that get me…it’s your chapters and your pages, I assure you. But you wrote, “The ghost of Spengler walked at his side”, character trait…
Isaacson: Yes.

Heffner: You’re talking about something that you couldn’t separate out from Kissinger…”the ghost of Spengler”…what did you mean?

Isaacson: Oswald Spengler was a European writer about the decline of history and was one of the people who was basically a pessimist about the course and the meaning of history in the world. One thing about Kissinger, and one thing about real politic or this realist approach to foreign policy, is that I think, and so do most other scholars, it’s fundamentally rooted in a certain pessimism about the course of history. And Stanley Hoffman, the great Harvard professor, who has written about 20th century foreign policy and written bout Kissinger in a brilliant way, he was the one who first compared and made that comparison of Spengler being…walking at Kissinger’s side. And I think what I was trying to convey in those passages is that Kissinger wrote his undergraduate dissertation about Kant and Spengler and others, and that he had this sense of pessimism about he course of history and eventually it ties into what we were talking about just few moments ago, which is a pessimism about America’s role in the world…that as…as was once said of Metternich, as Kissinger in fact once said of Metternich…he couldn’t derive the strength of his diplomacy from the will or from the goodness of his people. He had to derive the strength of his diplomacy from the cleverness of his diplomacy. In other words, he didn’t trust that the American…deep inside he didn’t seem to trust that the messy American system was going to triumph and that history was marching in the right direction.

Heffner: Is that your belief?

Isaacson: No, it isn’t. I mean…

Heffner: No, no, no. I mean is…is it opposite your belief because you seem to be saying Kissinger didn’t, doesn’t…I don’t know why we keep putting him in the past…

Isaacson: Yeah… (Laughter)

Heffner: …doesn’t believe in that messy American optimism and I gather you’re speaking for yourself when you imply that he should have, we would have been better off if he had.

Isaacson: I think you just have to look at the past four or five years. You have to look at the values that have triumphed in the world. I mean nobody would have predicted, even when I began this book, I never would have predicted the great triumph of history and of the values that our country represents. But if you look at that, you have to say optimism wins, not pessimism.

Heffner: Welter, coming to the end of this program, and I know you’ll stay and let us do another one, why tackle a cotemporary…a living contemporary?

Isaacson: (Laughter) Well, it’s always tricky writing about somebody who’s still alive, and I appreciate the fact that Dr. Kissinger…Kissinger gave me quite a bit of time, quite a few interviews and access to some papers, and even though he was upset at the final product, the reason to tackle Henry Kissinger is that nobody has done a biography of him. He’s such a polarizing figure, yet now that the cold War is over, it’s time to take a serious look to see where this man stood in history. The people who dealt with him are still alive…historians someday will be looking at all these memos that were written at the time, but those memos will be misleading because there will be two or three versions of every memo and half the memos were written to cover somebody’s rear end, and half were written to deceive the State Department…but you have to write at leas a first draft of history, when the people who got those memos and the people who wrote those memos, and the people who made those decisions were still alive. So I tried to interview, on all sides of the fence, on all parts of the spectrum, people from Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford to people like Morton Halperin and Daniel Ellsberg to the President Thieu of South Vietnam, all of the people who dealt with Kissinger. They still have their memories, they still have access to their papers, but they’re old enough that they no longer are trying to maneuver politically, so I thought it was the right time to take a crack at a biography of Dr. Kissinger that was critical, yet tried to be balanced.

Heffner: Is there a lot of mellowness on the part of the people you have mentioned, about their encounters with Henry Kissinger?

Isaacson: I think there’s a particular reflectiveness and mellowness with Richard Nixon who appreciates the very complex personality of Henry Kissinger. They had an amazing relationship, a rivalry, an admiration tinged with resentment. I know that having…you look through the papers and Richard Nixon’s’ insisting to Halderman and Ehrlichman that they force Kissinger to get psychiatric help, or that Kissinger not be allowed to take credit for things, and he would cut Kissinger off and yet, he knew that Kissinger was this architect of the foreign policy that he was trying to envision. So dealing with Richard Nixon and having him be reflective about Henry Kissinger was the most interesting part of the research for me.

Heffner: Walter Isaacson, thank you for stopping…

Isaacson: Thanks, Dick.

Heffner: …and doing this program with me today, and stand by. We’ll do another one.

Isaacson: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.