The Humbling of Henry Kissinger
from U.S. Foreign Policy Program

The Humbling of Henry Kissinger

Shaun Best/Reuters

The truth is that his tenure as secretary of state was often rocky, and as full of setbacks as acclaim.

Originally published at The Atlantic

December 14, 2023 3:19 pm (EST)

Shaun Best/Reuters
Article
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Brilliant, witty, and ambitious, Henry Kissinger made diplomacy the stuff of unrivaled celebrity. He thrived on attention, and would have been thrilled by the flood of coverage that marked his death last week. Whether the obituaries and commentaries put his record in a positive or negative light, almost all of them treated Kissinger as the master of events.

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This may be how he wanted to be remembered, but it’s not what really happened. No matter how often Kissinger is described as the Cold War’s most powerful secretary of state and a peerless elder statesman, the truth is that his tenure was often rocky, as full of setbacks as acclaim. By the time he left government, he was viewed by many of his colleagues as a burden, not an asset. Once out of office, the advice he gave his successors was sometimes spectacularly wrong, and frequently ignored

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In President Richard Nixon’s first term, Kissinger presided over three big diplomatic transformations—withdrawal from Vietnam, the opening to China, and détente with the Soviet Union. When he became secretary of state, his policy dominance was virtually unchallenged. He was the first (and, to this day, only) person ever to run the State Department while serving simultaneously as the president’s national security adviser. Outside of government, he enjoyed unprecedented global renown. Less than a month after his Senate confirmation, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet when Kissinger left office barely three years later, most of his ambitious schemes were unrealized. Others had simply been rejected. On the left, many revile Kissinger for the human costs of the policies he pursued; on the right, some still admire his unsentimental use of military force. In fact, the real story of Kissinger’s tenure as secretary of state is a tale in which, again and again, he encountered the limits of his power, and found himself unable to impose his will.

The policies Kissinger developed largely in secret to help wind down the Vietnam War enjoyed far less support once the war was over and they were subjected to more normal, open debate. His influence ebbed steadily. In 1975, Gerald Ford, who had succeeded Nixon a year earlier, forced Kissinger to give up the national-security job. Ford created further checks on Kissinger’s power by picking two former congressional colleagues, Donald Rumsfeld and George H. W. Bush, as secretary of defense and CIA director, respectively. Congress itself voted into law a series of challenges to Kissinger’s policies, something it had consistently failed to do under Nixon. Perhaps worst of all, the secretary of state bore some of the blame for Ford’s defeat in the 1976 election. The president’s campaign managers told reporters they saw him as a vulnerability. So did Ronald Reagan, whose bid for the Republican nomination centered in part on a promise to fire Kissinger.

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Kissinger’s lost dominance was especially pronounced in what was arguably the central arena of his policy: the stable relationship—known as “détente”—that he sought to establish with the Soviet Union. His problems began with arms control. In November 1974, soon after Ford became president, Kissinger arranged a quick summit with the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, hoping for a breakthrough in negotiating a long-term treaty to limit each side’s strategic nuclear forces. But he was never able to turn the framework they agreed on into a real treaty. One obstacle was a congressional requirement that U.S. and Soviet forces be equal—at a time when Soviet missiles were getting steadily bigger and more numerous. Outside experts claimed that Kissinger’s framework couldn’t meet that test. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Paul Nitze—a senior national-security official under Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson—insisted it would give Soviet forces a three-to-one advantage. (Privately, Nitze was far angrier, calling the secretary of state a “traitor to his country.”)

Even harder for Kissinger to handle was opposition within Ford’s inner circle. Rumsfeld, once he became defense secretary, was ready to take disagreements with Kissinger right into the Oval Office, telling the president that the United States had been losing its nuclear edge for a decade. At the CIA, Bush approved an assessment largely endorsing Nitze’s critique. Outside the administration, Reagan echoed the same charges. No surprise, then, that Ford eventually put the talks aside.

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Kissinger found the ideological dimension of Soviet-American relations still more vexing. He had promised Soviet leaders to expand trade ties by granting Moscow “Most Favored Nation” tariff status, but he could not manage congressional demands for freer emigration from the Soviet Union. The initiative collapsed, but not before senior figures in both Congress and the Kremlin concluded that Kissinger had been deceiving them. On human rights more generally, the secretary of state was isolated within his own administration. He did persuade the president not to meet with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the most famous and outspoken Soviet dissident, but three other members of the Ford Cabinet defied him and conspicuously attended an AFLCIO dinner in Solzhenitsyn’s honor. Even the young Dick Cheney, then the deputy White House chief of staff, dissented: Détente, he argued, didn’t have to be all “sweetness and light.”

Learning little from this opposition, Kissinger continued to hurt himself with scarcely concealed disdain for opponents of the Soviet regime. (“You know,” he once joked, “what would have happened to them under Stalin.”) The impact reached well beyond Washington. When Reagan delegates to the 1976 Republican convention wanted to repudiate Kissinger, they drafted a platform plank titled “Morality in Foreign Policy.” Ford and his advisers—who had already banned official use of the word détente—felt they had to allow it to pass.

Apart from arms control and human rights, Kissinger also had trouble imposing his views on Soviet-American competition in the Third World. When he wanted to launch a covert program to arm rebels against Moscow’s client regime in Angola, news quickly leaked to The New York Times. Congressional Democrats, predictably, voted to block the weapons transfer altogether. Less predictably, many Republican senators—liberals, moderates, and conservatives alike—also joined in, giving the measure a two-to-one majority. The president’s own party was deserting its celebrity diplomat.

Kissinger was furious, just as he had been earlier in 1975 when, with the fall of Saigon approaching, he proposed a big increase in arms supplies for South Vietnam. To make it happen, however, congressional approval was necessary—and again wanting. Ford ultimately chose not to fight the issue. Instead, in a speech at Tulane University, he declared the war “finished as far as America is concerned.” The White House did not even let Kissinger know that the game-over announcement was coming.

Much of the commentary on Kissinger’s career has presented him as the embodiment of unchecked presidential power over foreign policy. But the pushback against his policies grew steadily stronger as their downsides became better known. In the 1970s, Congress became far more assertive on foreign policy, legislating issues including arms control, human rights, foreign military sales, and covert action. Kissinger frequently railed against the decade-long decline in national-security budgets, but this too was part of his legacy. So were other institutional reforms, such as the Carter administration’s creation of a human-rights bureau in the State Department and the annual publication of global-human-rights reports. Other forms of pushback were less foreseeable: The “most powerful secretary of state in the post-World War II era” surely never imagined what Jimmy Carter’s high-profile envoy to China—Leonard Woodcock, the former head of the United Auto Workers—would tell his Beijing staff at their first meeting: “Never again shall we embarrass ourselves before a foreign nation the way Henry Kissinger did with the Chinese.”

After he left office, Kissinger kept much of the advice he gave his successors confidential, probably thinking that a little mystery about the extent of his influence would only help his new consulting business. But enough is known about some of his Oval Office meetings to challenge the common picture of presidents and advisers listening reverently while Henry Kissinger shared his wisdom. Kissinger’s sustained effort to reorient Reagan’s policies toward the Soviet Union provides a striking example. Together with Nixon, he argued that Mikhail Gorbachev was cynically exploiting the president’s naive antinuclear sentiments so as to tear apart the Western alliance. Under perestroika, they argued, the Soviet threat was actually increasing, not diminishing. Reagan ignored them—and over time harvested a global Soviet foreign policy retreat.

Kissinger’s shortfalls in office and after are not the whole story, of course. In his first weeks as secretary of state, he was plunged into a crisis—Egypt’s surprise Yom Kippur attack on Israel, followed by the OPEC oil embargo. The cease-fire and disengagement agreements he negotiated bolstered American influence in the Middle East, a region to which he had paid little previous attention. He seemed, to quote the title of my colleague Martin Indyk’s recent book, the “master of the game.”

Yet here, too, the master’s record seems ripe for reassessment—and not just for his early, forgivable missteps. At the start of the Yom Kippur War, Kissinger thought it might be best to keep a low profile and meet Israel’s needs indirectly, by contracting with private companies to deliver arms. Nixon ordered his celebrity policy maker to stop dithering and organize a U.S. airlift. “Do it now!” he barked. More serious is the charge that, even at the height of his power, Kissinger had, of all things, a too-limited conception of what diplomacy could achieve. The most it should try to accomplish, he felt, was to stabilize the world, not to alter—much less transform—it. Hence, the secretary of state was reluctant to take on the hardest parts of the Middle East puzzle—above all, the clash between Israelis and Palestinians, still atop the headlines half a century later.

Indyk traces Kissinger’s hesitation to the same sources others have cited: his conservative view of history, his immersion as a scholar in the diplomacy of 19th century Europe, and his personal experience of 20th-century totalitarianism. All of these drove home the value of stability. But, in looking to explain this conception of diplomacy, we should not leave out what Kissinger surely learned from his own bumpy record as secretary of state. No matter what the tributes and obituaries say, every day on the job confirmed the limits of his power, the difficulty of overcoming them, and his ability to make mistakes when he tried to do so.

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