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The People’s Obituary of Henry Kissinger—Before His Death

Karen Bleier / AFP

Henry Kissinger was 26 years old when he wrote a nearly 400-page undergraduate thesis arguing that “power is not only the manifestation but the exclusive aim” of history. In Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, New York University historian Greg Grandin tells how that tortured “philosophy of history” shaped the events of recent decades.

Far from the calculating practitioner of Realpolitik that even his most ardent detractors tend to imagine, the Kissinger that emerges from Grandin’s book is compulsively drawn towards action for its own sake. Over the course of his career as national security advisor, secretary of state, and, later, elite global consultant, Kissinger “institutionalized a self-fulfilling logic of intervention” and established a working “template for how to justify tomorrow’s action while ignoring yesterday’s catastrophe." 

“At every single one of America’s postwar turning points,” writes Grandin, “moments of crisis when men of goodwill began to express doubts about American power, Kissinger broke in the opposite direction.” America almost invariably broke with him.

The following conversation has been abridged for clarity and length.

Steven Cohen: You start your book reflecting on all the obituaries that are waiting to be written when Henry Kissinger dies. Why isn’t your book one of them? What compelled you to write this now?

Greg Grandin: Honestly, I saw a picture of Samantha Power [the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations] and Henry Kissinger at a Yankees game that so drove me over the edge. You know, Samantha Power wrote this book about genocide, including several genocides that Kissinger was implicated in, and then to see their banter about power and realism and human rights...I thought I would write a snarky book called The People’s Obituary of Henry Kissinger. That introduction, “An Obituary Foretold,” is kind of all that’s left from it. I don’t think I have the comic imagination to justify a full-length book that would have said anything new.

I had written on Kissinger earlier, mostly on Latin America. And I always felt that he was left out in a lot of the conversations on the rise of the right in America. Then I stumbled upon his undergraduate thesis. 

SC: Henry Kissinger seems particularly fixated on defining his own legacy. Is that part of what makes him an interesting person to write about, from a historian’s perspective?

GG: Well, he’s 92. He has an inordinate control over the documentation of his life. He is extremely powerful in all sorts of ways, so he has a lot of ability to set the agenda. On the other hand, there is this current of denunciation and Kissinger hatred that work against that. I find that interesting: that he can be so powerful and untouched and vilified at the same time. Too often people let his outsized personality and his talent for self-presentation get in the way.   

Part of my argument is against the commonplace assertion that Kissinger stands outside of the American tradition, that he would have been better in the 19th century, that he doesn’t like the messiness of domestic politics. But Kissinger is a product of postwar meritocracy, of the idea of self-creation, of manipulating the outside to be all things to all classes and all stations. Despite his German accent and a style that seems to be ajar with American frivolity, it is American meritocracy and democracy that make him possible.

SC: Having worked on Guatemala’s truth and reconciliation commission, how did you avoid the temptation to simply catalog Kissinger’s policies and their consequences? How did you rein in the sense of moral outrage that’s bubbling below the surface but never really gets indulged in your book?

GG: My political position and my ethical framework are that of a leftist anti-imperialist, but I also know the limits of leftist outrage, and I’ve always tried to be able to capture the complexity of social relations in ways that don’t necessarily lead you to dilute your political commitments but help you to reaffirm them in the face of nuance. 

In the case of Henry Kissinger, there were plenty of books denouncing him. I felt like appreciating the vitality of his intellectual framework and how that taps into a certain form of Americanism and how it gestures forward to neo-conservatism is a more useful task for the Left than just moral outrage. And again, you know, they can still read the Christopher Hitchens book [The Trial of Henry Kissinger].

SC: You’ve written before, in Empire’s Workshop, for example, about how foreign policy under Ronald Reagan facilitated the rise of the “New Right” conservative movement.  What do you think is most misunderstood about Kissinger’s role in that evolution?

GG: The worse things get, the more Kissinger’s gravitas and invocation of purpose are held up as something that’s missing in our foreign policy establishment. So he is offset against both the crazy adventurism of the neocons and the technocratic pragmatism of Obama, who people say knows how to project power but has no purpose, doesn’t know why. And Kissinger is more embedded in all of those traditions than people realize.

The New Right did come up attacking Kissinger, but at the same time, they—Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld—shared a strong affinity in thinking about the world, that whole metaphysical will-to-power, the idea that statesmen shouldn’t be trapped by information, that they need to act, that acting creates reality.

What distinguishes Kissinger from other postwar realists, be they liberal or conservative, is that, at some point, every one of them breaks with the national security state, and some of them fairly strongly so. But with every lurch to the right, Kissinger is there. From Nelson Rockefeller to Richard Nixon, from Nixon to Ronald Reagan, from Reagan to the neocons. Kissinger supported every push into the Middle East, so the idea that he stands opposed to the New Right is just false.

SC: In your book, you spend an entire chapter working your way through the complicated interplay of “secrecy and spectacle” that characterized Kissinger as a political actor. How he "supervised every aspect" of the "illegal, covert" bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War and then, when it became public, offered up the "ravaging" as a kind of "blood tribute" to the militarist Right. How do you see that dynamic between the secret and the spectacular reflected today, whether in relation to the drone program or revelations regarding mass surveillance and torture?

GG: Obviously, secrecy is still very much part of the discussion, and even more so now, with the surveillance state. And then you also have the spectacle of, say, the killing of Osama Bin Laden. It becomes almost a collective theater. What war as spectacle has done is turn a war-weary, relatively activist citizenry—that of the Vietnam War era—into a passive audience. The neoconservative tactic of “shock and awe” is both a full-flowering and an inversion of the logic of Kissinger’s bombing of Cambodia. But Kissinger justified those bombings in terms that are very recognizable today: that we have to destroy enemy sanctuaries, that foreign sovereignty can’t be an obstacle to those goals. Information about the national security state comes out all the time now, but when you don’t question the goals of foreign policy, it becomes a matter of proceduralism, of technique. The debate becomes a form of pageantry, with each party playing their respective part. So in that sense, secrecy and spectacle are not really opposing values. They actually reinforce one another.

SC: You start the book thinking about what’s going to be said of Kissinger when he dies. By the end, it’s no longer about him. Kissinger himself has almost transmuted into this nebulous doctrine of “Kissingerism.” Is this book a kind of ghost story, a haunting of American foreign policy?

GG: That’s a good way of putting it, yes. Kissinger, of course, is a real person. But Kissingerism will be with us long after he’s gone.

You know, it’s dangerous to focus on one person as a way of talking about a big system. But I think Kissinger reveals the system. He’s not singularly responsible for the system—if we expunge Kissinger from history, we still wouldn’t have a Virtuous Republic—but he illuminates it like nobody else.