Henry Kissinger, who turns 90 this Monday, May 27, is one of the most influential Jews in American history—and one of the most controversial. In the 1970s, if Woody Allen was all about using Jewish smarts to manage the world’s insults and sorrows, Henry Kissinger was all about using Jewish smarts to manage the world.
This brilliant refugee from Nazi Germany with the gravelly voice, Teutonic accent, and thick Poindexter glasses, embodied the pinnacle of a certain type of Jewish aspiration and achievement in 20th-century America, becoming a Harvard professor in 1954, Richard Nixon’s foreign-policy mastermind in 1969, and the first Jewish secretary of state in 1973, as well as the era’s most surprising sex symbol. For the past four decades, he has remained the dean of America’s foreign-policy establishment, advising presidents and foreign governments alike. Just this month, at the Atlantic Council, Hillary Clinton wished him an early happy birthday. “Everywhere I go,” she said, “people talk to me about Henry.” Yet at the same time he remains a profoundly polarizing figure. In the last few years alone bloggers have called him a kapo who should have been gassed, and the late Christopher Hitchens pronounced him a “vile creature.”
Jews have similarly ambivalent feelings about the man. The Richard Nixon tapes released in 2010, in which one can hear Kissinger advising the president that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern,” triggered a new round of denunciations. Indeed, just as Kissinger has long struggled with his Jewish identity, Jews have long struggled with him.
The particularly Jewish indictment of Henry Kissinger features four major aspects: attacking Kissinger as a non-Jewish Jew who was actively ashamed of being Jewish; for his Machiavellian manipulations during the 1973 Yom Kippur War that critics believed spilled more Israeli blood than necessary; for his insensitivity to the plight of Soviet Jewry; and for undermining U.N. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s heroic fight against the General Assembly’s infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution out of a cowardly fear of being “too Jewish.” That each of these charges is backed up by vivid, epigrammatic, self-incriminating statements from Kissinger’s own mouth is not surprising, considering Kissinger’s rhetorical rowdiness in his heyday. Yet each situation was actually more complex than Kissinger’s devastating one-liners suggest and must be understood in the context of Kissinger’s own tragic, traumatic, and yet surprisingly characteristic nine-decade Jewish journey from Fürth to Fifth Avenue.
In the 1970s, many traditional Jews considered Henry Kissinger the ultimate contemptible German-American hofjude, the court Jew who succeeded in the world by betraying his people—and himself. In this popular Jewish narrative, Kissinger seemed to imagine that the price of his journey from persecuted Bavarian Jewish teenager who fled the Nazis in 1938, to Washington Heights immigrant yid, to Harvard whiz kid, and then to the White House was to deny his Jewish identity. Critics grumbled about the three S’s: that he married a shiksa on Shabbes and served shrimp—a pained judgment on his second wedding to the tall, blonde, well-bred WASP Nancy Maginnes. Kissinger fueled perceptions of self-hatred by rudely ignoring old friends who called him “Heinz” or tried to “bagel” him—today’s shorthand for the Jewish tendency when out in public to connect, subtly or otherwise, with a fellow member of the tribe. But, as befits an intellectual swashbuckler who coined memorable phrases such as “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” Kissinger distanced himself from his Jewish roots with damning wisecracks. “If it were not for the accident of my birth, I would be anti-Semitic,” he once quipped, and “any people who has been persecuted for two thousand years must be doing something wrong.” Another time, he told a friend, “I was born Jewish, but the truth is that has no significance for me. … America has given me everything.”
In fact, in a sense, Kissinger was right: He needed to negate his identity to climb as high as he did in the Nixon Administration. White House tapes capture Nixon’s contempt for Jews generally—and for his “Jew boy” foreign-policy maven particularly. Especially when Kissinger was national security adviser, Nixon tried banning all Jews from Middle Eastern matters, doubting their objectivity. At one point, after Kissinger analyzed an Israel-related issue, the president crudely asked: “Now, can we get an American point of view?” John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s closest aides, would recall that “For Kissinger, being Jewish was a vulnerability as he saw it, and he was not fond of being vulnerable. But Nixon liked him to feel that way.”
Yet despite Nixon’s contempt, he also needed Kissinger. Kissinger was the superstar diplomat who helped establish détente with the Soviet Union and Communist China, ending decades of isolation. Kissinger—perhaps the most influential, famous, and talented secretary of state since Thomas Jefferson—was, in foreign-policy circles, both pop star and powerhouse. And later, as the administration imploded in scandal, Kissinger became even more important, reassuring worried Americans and foreigners that all remained normal and functional—even when it was decidedly not.
This rivalry between Nixon and Kissinger—and its toxic turn, thanks to Watergate—provides the essential context to the Yom Kippur War. After Egypt and Syria surprised Israel on its holiest day, Kissinger can be heard saying on the tape that the “best result would be if Israel came out a little ahead but got bloodied in the process.” He believed an Egyptian-Israeli “standoff” could produce a “viable peace agreement.” These comments, as well as Kissinger’s two-and-a-half-hour delay before telling a vacationing Nixon in Key Biscayne, Fla., about the “war dangers,” impute to Kissinger an omnipotence he never had. Israel was so “bloodied” it almost collapsed, suffering 2,656 dead. Kissinger eventually jump-started the Middle East peace process with his “Super-K” peace shuttling that enhanced his legend and established the groundwork for 1979’s Israel-Egypt peace treaty.
All this evidence can be marshaled in a way that blames Kissinger for delaying Israel’s life-or-death military resupply to advance his Machiavellian vision. But that harsh interpretation overlooks the war’s chaos, Nixon’s Watergate distractions, Washington’s bureaucratic torpor, and America’s historic, generous resupply effort—all of which took place within one week. The official who truly resisted the resupply was a different neurotic Marrano with a Germanic-sounding last name—James R. Schlesinger, Nixon’s secretary of defense and Kissinger’s main rival within the administration. Schlesinger, who was born into a middle-class Jewish family of Lithuanian origins and converted to Lutheranism, initially doubted that Israel needed help, so confident was he—like most—that Israel would win easily. Kissinger and Schlesinger clashed over the timing, the volume of weaponry, and America’s direct involvement in the 1973 war. As historian Robert Dallek concludes in Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, Kissinger “persuaded Nixon to ignore Schlesinger’s advice and allow him to begin a large-scale resupply of Israel that would allow it to achieve a balanced outcome to the fighting.”
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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Professor Gil Troy, a Senior Fellow in Zionist Thought at the JPPI, the global think tank of the Jewish people, is an American presidential historian, and, most recently, the editor of the three-volume set Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People.