Henry Kissinger's Coming of Age

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I grew up in a family with German-Jewish refugees that had distant ties to Henry Kissinger's family, so my fascination with the 56th secretary of state has been almost lifelong. When I was an adolescent, his differences with the American Jewish community on issues such as the plight of Soviet Jewry were a source of deep frustration. It was only in adulthood that, having studied Kissinger's works and spent time with him, I came to deeply appreciate his legacy.

Kissinger assumed the title of secretary of state five decades ago, but no one since has either exercised the position's authority more effectively in precarious times nor comprehended its daunting responsibilities with greater subtlety.

Kissinger did so because he was unique; more than anyone in modern American history, he thought long and with profound insight about the characteristics needed for international leadership while possessing the requisite drive, single-mindedness, and patriotism to mold himself into a world-historical figure.

Through careful study of the ancient Romans and of modern history, Kissinger grasped the creative genius of the statesman: someone with deep strategic foresight, capable of boldly conceiving a better future and of fostering this new reality in the face of immense obstacles—including the chasm between the statesman's vision and the public's ability to comprehend.

One need only compare Kissinger's academic work, which brings strategy alive by allowing us to see the challenges that men like Metternich, Castlereagh, or Napoleon faced, to that of the epigones who inhabit international relations departments today. Today's "experts" obsess about systems theories that abstract from political responsibility, strategy, or the understanding of culture, and ultimately turn the study of the relations between leaders and nations into an aseptic and ahistorical field.

It was precisely Kissinger's understanding of the need for statesmanship that enabled Richard Nixon's opening to Communist China in a period of American humiliation in Vietnam, significantly strengthening America's hand against the Soviets. Kissinger's brilliant shuttle diplomacy during and after the Yom Kippur War saved Israel, humiliated the Soviets by bringing Egypt firmly into the U.S. camp, and laid the groundwork for an Egypt-Israeli peace—all against the backdrop of the Arab oil embargo and, eventually, the looming Watergate scandal. While his opening to China and his drive for détente would later face criticism, they were essential to afford America space to recover from Vietnam and refocus itself in the long struggle that would eventually see a peaceful end to the Cold War's thermonuclear arms race as well as the demise of the Soviet Union.

Kissinger's deep sense of history, framed in part around what he termed "revolutionary states" some six decades ago, gave him deep credibility. Even in the later stages of his life, he was a leading critic of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and among the first to warn of the challenge Vladimir Putin posed to the world order. Like many, I wish he would have included Xi Jinping's China among these "revolutionary states," something he failed to do.

Kissinger's first experience with a revolutionary state, of course, came in his native Germany, which he fled with his immediate family as a 15-year-old in 1938. The magisterial biography of Kissinger by Niall Ferguson and the superb book by Jeremi Suri, among other studies, highlight how the young Heinz Kissinger was shaped by his father's ascension into respectable, educated, middle-class German life as a Gymnasium professor.

Louis Kissinger's commitment to Bildung—the inner cultivation, intellectual, and civic refinement that arose by mastering the classics of German literature, history, and music—shaped Kissinger, as did close study of Jewish texts.

Given his profound attachment to the highest aspirations of German culture, Louis Kissinger never recovered from the profound betrayal by his fellow Germans during the Third Reich. Moreover, he never regained his professional footing, and his wife, like many refugees from the Nazis, had to make ends meet by cleaning apartments. (Henry Kissinger himself worked for years in a brush factory to supplement the family income.)

Kissinger studiously denied the role his childhood experiences in Nazi Germany played in shaping his geopolitical understanding. But as Barry Gewen argues compellingly, Kissinger's understanding of the fragility of democratic life and the challenge of democratic statesmanship were intimately shaped by his experiences.

As a student of history who himself earned his rightful place in history, Kissinger was acutely sensitive not just to his own self-portrayal—including overcompensating for his immigrant background in a desire to assimilate. He was also keenly aware how others understood and misunderstood him.

Kissinger was an American and global statesman. Shaped by Bildung, reshaped first painfully by the tragedy of German Jewry and then joyously by profound love for America, he was guided by a vivid approach to history and profound insights into human nature. In our era of reductionist, slogan-oriented and data-driven policies, Kissinger stands out, having put into practice the refined approach to grand strategy he himself championed.

Read in Newsweek.