Authors: Greg Grandin
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For Eleanor and Manu, again
There are two kinds of realists: those who manipulate facts and those who create them. The West requires nothing so much as men able to create their own reality.
âHenry Kissinger, 1963
Thomas Schelling, a Harvard economist and future Nobel Laureate, once asked Henry Kissinger what was more terrifying: seeing the monster or not seeing the monster?
It was early May 1970, just a few days after Richard Nixon appeared on TV and told the nation that the United States had sent ground troops into Cambodia. Nixon said that the operation was necessary to clear out enemy sanctuaries along the border with Vietnam. But his speech also made clear that something much more profound than military strategy had led to his decision to send ground troops into a neutral country. “We live in an age of anarchy,” the president said. “We see mindless attacks on all the great institutions which have been created by free civilizations in the last 500 years.” Nixon suggested that he had invaded Cambodia not just in response to a foreign threat but to domestic disorder: “It is not our power but our will and character that is being tested tonight.” For months, Nixon and Kissinger, his national security adviser, had said they had a plan to get the United States out of Vietnam. Now, suddenly, they were widening the war into a neighboring country. Four days after Nixon's speech, National Guardsmen opened fire at Kent State, killing four students who were protesting the invasion. Nine more were wounded. Two weeks later, at Jackson State, police shot into a group of protesting African American students, killing two and wounding twelve.
Schelling bore some intellectual responsibility for America's involvement in Vietnam. He had a mind like a computer, which he used to apply mathematical formulas to military strategy. Whether one was “deterring the Russians” or “deterring one's own children,” he said, the problem was the same: to figure out the proper ratio of threat to incentive. Lyndon B. Johnson and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, directly applied Schelling's theories, bombing North Vietnam as a form of behavior modification. Schelling also had a large influence on the men who would take over America's Vietnam policy from Johnson and McNamara, particularly on Henry Kissinger. Kissinger had taught at Harvard before he joined the Nixon White House and he considered Schelling a friend. He had adopted the economist's insights, especially the idea that “bargaining powerÂ â¦ comes from the capacity to hurt,” to cause “sheer pain and damage.” It was a sentiment that Kissinger would try to operationalize in Southeast Asia.
By 1970, though, Schelling had turned against the war, and the US invasion of Cambodia prompted him, along with eleven other prominent Harvard professors, to travel to Washington to meet with Kissinger and register their objections.
This was no ordinary group of antiwar intellectuals. Over the years, different labels have been applied to the kind of men who moved easily between Washington and Cambridge, between the classroom and the war room: the Eastern establishment, the best and the brightest, the power elite. These were them. The Harvard delegation included two Nobel laureates, a future Nobel laureate (Schelling), physicists, chemists, economists, and political scientists. Many of them were former advisers to presidents going back to Harry Truman. A number of the group had been involved in executing policies that led to early American involvement in Vietnam.
Serious men, they took their break with the administration seriously. “This is too much,” one told a reporter, referring to the invasion. Others were disturbed about the coarsening of public discourse brought on by the war. “âProfessors' and âliberals'âsame thing,” was how Nixon's undersecretary of defense, David Packard, dismissed the delegation. One member, Ernest May, a Harvard dean and military historian with close ties to the Pentagon, told Kissinger: “You're tearing the country apart domestically.”
Kissinger's former colleagues weren't aware that Nixon and Kissinger had already been secretly bombing Cambodia and Laos for over a year (and would continue to bomb for three more before Congress put an end to it). They knew only about the invasion, and that was bad enough. “Sickening,” Schelling said. Today in the United States, a shared and largely unquestioned assumption, irrespective of political affiliation, holds that Washington has the right to use military force against the “safe havens” of terrorists or potential terrorists, even if those havens are found in sovereign countries we are not at war with. This assumption was the premise of George W. Bush's 2002 invasion of Afghanistan and Barack Obama's expansion of drone attacks in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, along with his most recent military operations against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. This reasoning was not widely held in 1970. Schelling's Harvard delegation rejected Kissinger's attempt to justify the invasion by citing the need to destroy communist “sanctuaries.” As one reporter summed up the group's objections, violation of a neutral country's sovereignty “could be used by anyone else in the world as a precedent for invading another country, in order, for example, to clear out terrorists.” Even if the invasion succeeded on its own terms and cleared out enemy sanctuaries, Schelling later told a journalist, “it still wouldn't have been worth the invasion of another country.”
The meeting with Kissinger took place in the old Situation Room in the White House basement. Schelling began by introducing the group and stating its purpose, but Kissinger interrupted him: “I know who you areÂ â¦ you're all good friends from Harvard University.” “No,” said Schelling, “we're a group of people who have completely lost confidence in the ability of the White House to conduct our foreign policy and we have come to tell you so. We are no longer at your disposal as personal advisers.” Kissinger, Schelling recalled later, “went gray in the face, he slumped in his chair. I thought at the time that he suffered serious depression.” At one point, Kissinger asked if someone could tell him what “mistakes” the administration had made. It was then that Schelling asked Kissinger the question about monsters: “You look out the window, and you see a monster. And you turn to the guy standing next to you at the very same window, and say, âLook, there's a monster.' He then looks out the window and doesn't see a monster at all. How do you explain to him that there really is a monster?”
Schelling continued: “As we see it, there are two possibilities: Either, one, the President didn't understand when he went into Cambodia that he was invading another country; or two, he did understand.”
“We just don't know which one is scarier,” Schelling said.
Henry Kissinger has been accused of many bad things. And when he dies, his critics will get a chance to rehearse the charges. Christopher Hitchens, who made the case that the former secretary of state should be tried as a war criminal, is himself gone. But there's a long witness-for-the-prosecution listâreporters, historians, and lawyers eager to provide background on any of Kissinger's actions in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, East Timor, Bangladesh, against the Kurds, in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Cyprus, among other places.
There have been scores of books published on the man over the years, but it is still Seymour Hersh's 1983
The Price of Power
that future biographers will have to top. Hersh gave us the defining portrait of Kissinger as a preening paranoid, tacking between ruthlessness and sycophancy to advance his career, cursing his fate and letting fly the B-52s. Small in his vanities and shabby in his motives, Kissinger, in Hersh's hands, is nonetheless Shakespearean because the pettiness gets played out on a world stage with epic consequences.
Denunciations will be balanced by more favorable views. Kissinger has many devotees. And once his detractors and admirers are dispensed with, the obituary will move on to those who urge balance. Transgressions, they'll say, need to be weighed against accomplishments: dÃ©tente with the Soviet Union, opening up Communist China, negotiating arms treaties with Moscow, and his shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East. It's at this moment that the consequences of many of Kissinger's policies will be redefined as “controversies” and consigned to matters of opinion, or perspective, rather than fact. On the heels of George W. Bush's reckless hubris and Barack Obama's reactive pragmatism, Kissinger's sober statesmanship is, as a number of commentators have recently claimed, needed more than ever.
There'll be color commentary, colleagues and acquaintances who will reminisce that he had a wry sense of humor and a fondness for intrigue, good food, and high-cheeked women. We'll be reminded that he dated Jill St. John and Marlo Thomas, was friends with Shirley MacLaine, and was affectionately known as Super K, Henry of Arabia, and the Playboy of the West Wing. Kissinger was brilliant and had a temper. He was vulnerable, which made him vicious, and his relationship with Richard Nixon was, as one reporter put it, “deeply weird.” They were the original frenemies, with Kissinger flattering Nixon to his face and bitching about him behind his back. “The meatball mind,” he called his boss as soon as the phone was back on the hook, a “drunk.”
Nixonger, Isaiah Berlin called the duo.
Born in FÃ¼rth, Germany, in 1923, Kissinger came to America when he was fifteen, and summaries of his life will stress his foreignness. “Jewboy,” Nixon called him. Kissinger's view of the world, conventionally described as valuing stability and the advance of national interests above abstract ideals like democracy and human rights, is often said to clash with America's sense of itself as innately good, as an exceptional and indispensable nation. “Intellectually,” his biographer, Walter Isaacson, writes, his “mind would retain its European cast.” Kissinger, notes another writer, had a worldview that a “born American could not have.” And his Bavarian accent did grow deeper as he grew older.