The myth of Henry Kissinger

In 1952, at the age of twenty-eight, Henry Kissinger did what enterprising graduate students do when they want to hedge their academic future: he started a magazine. He picked an imposing name—Confluence—and enlisted illustrious contributors: Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron, Lillian Smith, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr. The publisher James Laughlin, who was a backer of the magazine, described the young Kissinger as “a thoroughly sincere person (terribly earnest Germanic type) who is trying his hardest to do an idealistic job.” Like his other early production, the Harvard International Seminar, a summer program that convened participants from around the world—Kissinger gamely volunteered to spy on attendees for the F.B.I.—the magazine opened channels for him not only with policymakers in Washington but also with an older generation of German Jewish thinkers whose political experience had been formed in the early thirties, when the Weimar Republic was supplanted by the Nazi regime.

For Cold War liberals, who saw the stirrings of fascism in everything from McCarthyism to the rise of mass culture, Weimar was a cautionary tale, conferring a certain authority on those who had survived. Kissinger cultivated the Weimar intellectuals, but he was not impressed by their prospects for influence. Although he later invoked the memory of Nazism to justify all manner of power plays, at this stage he was building a reputation as an all-American maverick. He appalled the émigrés by running an article in Confluence by Ernst von Salomon, a far-rightist who had hired a getaway driver for the men who assassinated the Weimar Republic’s foreign minister. “I have now joined you as a cardinal villain in the liberal demonology,” Kissinger told a friend afterward, joking that the piece was being taken as “a symptom of my totalitarian and even Nazi sympathies.”

For more than sixty years, Henry Kissinger’s name has been synonymous with the foreign-policy doctrine called “realism.” In his time as national-security adviser and Secretary of State to President Richard Nixon, his willingness to speak frankly about the U.S.’s pursuit of power in a chaotic world brought him both acclaim and notoriety. Afterward, the case against him built, bolstered by a stream of declassified documents chronicling actions across the globe. Seymour Hersh, in “The Price of Power” (1983), portrayed Kissinger as an unhinged paranoiac; Christopher Hitchens, in “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” (2001), styled his attack as a charge sheet for prosecuting him as a war criminal.

Read the full article here in The New Yorker.

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