Happy Birthday, Mr. Kissinger
The influential former secretary of state—courtier, careerist, proud American, conflicted Jew—turns 90
Kissinger’s role in the Soviet Jewry and Zionism-racism struggles is equally morally problematic, while also historically more complex. Having written his Harvard doctoral dissertation on the 19th-century Austrian Prince Metternich and the balance of power, Kissinger sought to teach realist doctrines to the American foreign-policy elite. This practitioner of realpolitik believed that countries have no friends, only interests, and that America should resist sentimental crusades. He viewed emigration as an internal Soviet issue and less pressing than the threat of nuclear destruction—even as he was proud that “quiet diplomacy” had boosted Soviet Jewish emigration levels from 700 in 1969 to almost 40,000 emigrants in 1972.
Kissinger made his offensive remarks while opposing the Henry Jackson-Charles Vanik amendment, which linked America’s granting “most favored nation” trade status to a country’s emigration policy. Kissinger abhorred such intrusive legislative grandstanding, leading to this tone-deaf exchange with Nixon: “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Nixon replied: “I know. We can’t blow up the world because of it.”
Other zingers—which I recently publicized in my book on Daniel Patrick Moynihan—include Kissinger mocking Moynihan’s passionate defense of Zionism by saying, “We are conducting foreign policy. … This is not a synagogue,” joking about whether the Irish-Catholic Moynihan wished to convert to Judaism, and dismissing Israel’s leaders during heated negotiations as “the world’s worst shits.”
As a conflicted Jew, a proud American, and a driven careerist perfectionist, Kissinger felt contradictory tugs when issues involving Israel crossed his desk. He had built his career as the German intellectual, not the striving Jew. His status as a Nazi refugee and a U.S. Army sergeant who helped de-Nazify Germany during World War II made his Germanic manner proof of brilliance, not a mark of Cain. The outsider even as an insider, he endured the president’s anti-Semitic rants—and then endured the same contemptuous cries of “Jew-boy” from harsh critics in Israel.
As both courtier and careerist, as both traumatized Holocaust survivor and crafty Run-Sammy-Run, Portnoy-like, all-American striver, Kissinger absorbed the anti-Semitism around him and encouraged it, seemingly to prove his independence from his “co-religionists.” In late 1974, while briefing the president aboard Air Force One, speaking of American Jews, Kissinger said: “Their power in the United States derives from campaign financing. It is not easy to explain to the American people why we must oppose 115 million Arabs who possess all the world’s oil, permanently, on behalf of a nation of 3 million.” Kissinger’s words unconsciously, pathetically, echoed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. George S. Brown, who explained “Jewish influence in this country” and American support for Israel by looking “where the Jewish money is.”
But it was Israel’s own behavior that most frequently frustrated Kissinger. At one point, he condemned Israel’s leaders as “a sick bunch” for their backstage maneuvering against him with reporters and members of Congress; and as an ambitious American leader trying to save the world, he resented this small country’s disdain for his country’s big-picture needs. In one of many Oval Office tantrums President Gerald Ford’s stenographers recorded, the secretary of state denounced the Israelis as “fools, “common thugs,” and “the basic cause of the trouble.” “This is terribly painful to me,” the ever-melodramatic Kissinger confessed. “I am Jewish. How can I want this? I have never seen such cold-blooded playing with the American national interest.” When accused of bullying Israel, Kissinger was not above playing the Shoah card, asking: “How can I, as a Jew who lost 13 relatives in the Holocaust, do anything that would betray Israel?”
In his legendary post-government career as consultant, author, and elder statesman, Kissinger has been much less insecure personally and much more focused on guaranteeing Israel’s security. In what might be seen by some as his own form of penitence, Kissinger has over the past three and a half decades used his unique perch to champion the American-Israel relationship as good for America—not just for Israel. Shortly after leaving office in November, 1977, Kissinger declared: “The security of Israel is a moral imperative for all free peoples.” Thirty-five years later, upon getting one of Israel’s highest civilian honors from his friend Shimon Peres, Kissinger spoke about Israel being “in many respects an island of stability and of domestic cohesion at a moment of upheaval everywhere else, although you couldn’t necessarily prove that from debates going on sometimes in the Knesset.”
While reflecting most Jews’ still surprisingly insecure odyssey in America, Henry Kissinger nevertheless embodies the American dream. You did not have to flee Nazi Germany as a young man to perceive pressures to fit in, to act “normal,” to abandon your unique religious and ethnic heritage in order to enjoy America’s bounty—or to delight in how far you have traveled socially, economically, culturally. “Can you believe she is a member of the Colony Club and wants to marry me?” Walter Isaacson quotes Henry Kissinger as saying in his 893-page biography, about his second wife, Nancy.
In fact, American Jewish history is filled with more Gatsbyesque Henry Kissingers than Wiesel-like Joseph Liebermans, Jews who remained religiously pious and flamboyantly Jewish while rising politically. American Jewish life is also filled with many older men and women who, having succeeded—and aged—recalibrated their internal identities and remade their external images to incorporate more Jewish elements into their lives. At his worst, of course, Kissinger was far too European, brutally sacrificing his dignity and his country’s conscience in implementing amoral policies. But at his best, he used realpolitik to advance American ideals that made the world, including America and Israel, a better, safer place—while the utopianism that underlies those ideals has been the key to much American Jewish success. This underlying American optimism helps explain Kissinger’s enduring greatness and influence, providing a deep sense of vision, mission, and security, even amid all our—and his—blind spots, shortcomings, and insecurities.
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