A new account of America's most controversial diplomat that moves beyond praise or condemnation to reveal Kissinger as the architect of America's current imperial stance
In his fascinating new book Kissinger's Shadow, acclaimed historian Greg Grandin argues that to understand the crisis of contemporary America—its never-ending wars abroad and political polarization at home—we have to understand Henry Kissinger.
Examining Kissinger's own writings, as well as a wealth of newly declassified documents, Grandin reveals how Richard Nixon's top foreign policy advisor, even as he was presiding over defeat in Vietnam and a disastrous, secret, and illegal war in Cambodia, was helping to revive a militarized version of American exceptionalism centered on an imperial presidency. Believing that reality could be bent to his will, insisting that intuition is more important in determining policy than hard facts, and vowing that past mistakes should never hinder future bold action, Kissinger anticipated, even enabled, the ascendance of the neoconservative idealists who took America into crippling wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Going beyond accounts focusing either on Kissinger's crimes or accomplishments, Grandin offers a compelling new interpretation of the diplomat's continuing influence on how the United States views its role in the world.
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About the Author
Greg Grandin is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. A professor of history at New York University, Grandin has published a number of other widely acclaimed books, including Empire's Workshop, Kissinger's Shadow, and The Empire of Necessity, which won the Bancroft Prize.
Read an Excerpt
The Long Reach of America's Most Controversial Statesman
By Greg Grandin
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2015 Greg Grandin
All rights reserved.
A Cosmic Beat
History [is] an endless unfolding of a cosmic beat that expresses itself in the sole alternatives of subject and object, a vast succession of catastrophic upheavals of which power is not only the manifestation but the exclusive aim; a stimulus of blood that not only pulses through veins but must be shed and will be shed.
— Henry Kissinger
You can almost hear Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" in the background. Henry Kissinger wrote the above passage in his 1950 Harvard thesis, submitted at nearly the exact moment Harry Truman announced that the United States would support the French in Vietnam and send troops to Korea, thus putting the country on the road to war in Southeast Asia. "The Meaning of History" focused almost exclusively on European philosophy, but reading through its pages knowing the role its author would later play in expanding the conflict into Laos and Cambodia, one can't but think of napalm and cluster bombs and wonder whether America's catastrophe in Southeast Asia was inevitable, if there was something in the very life-being of the United States, a will-to-infinity, for example, that drove it toward ruin in the jungle. Was there an inner historical logic that would manifest itself at My Lai, a bloodline that traced back to the first Puritan massacres of Native Americans?
Kissinger doesn't believe in historical inevitability. So were he to be asked this question, he would surely answer no. More importantly, Kissinger was offering the above definition of history — as a reflexive, pulsating projection of power without any intelligible objective other than the projection of power — not as a recommendation but as a warning, a cautionary description of the fate that often befalls great civilizations when they lose their sense of purpose, when they forget why they are projecting their power and only know that they can project their power. He was urging statesmen not to succumb to history's cosmic beat, not to fall into a "repetition" of the kind of unforced "cataclysmic wars" that brought down past great civilizations. It was advice more easily given than followed.
* * *
Many have pointed out the influence of the Prussian historian Oswald Spengler's best-selling The Decline of the West on the future statesman. Kissinger, Harvard's Stanley Hoffmann remarked, "walked, in a way, with the ghost of Spengler at his side." "Kissinger was a Spenglerian," another Harvard colleague, Zbigniew Brzezinski, said. Spengler, like Kissinger, is often associated with political realism, his deep pessimism regarding human nature reflected in the realpolitik of a number of prominent postwar intellectuals and policy makers such as George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, and Samuel Huntington.
But Spengler also waged a relentless assault on the very idea of reality. He insisted that there existed a higher plane of experience that was inaccessible to rational thought, a plane where instinct and creativity reigned. "We have," Spengler thought, "hardly yet an inkling of how much in our reputedly objective values and experiences is only disguise, only image and expression." To get behind image and expression, to penetrate perceived material power and interests and grasp what Spengler called destiny, one needed not information but intuition, not facts but hunches, not reason but a soul sense, a world feeling. "Often enough a statesman does not 'know' what he is doing," Spengler wrote, "but that does not prevent him from following with confidence just the one path that leads to success."
Kissinger was captivated by this metaphysical and quasi-mythological Spengler, more so than other postwar defense realists such as Kennan, Morgenthau, and Huntington. "All of life is permeated by an inner destiny that can never be defined," Kissinger wrote. "History discloses a majestic unfolding that one can only intuitively perceive, never causally classify." Spengler, he said, "affirmed that there are certain ultimate goals, which no hypothesis can prove, and no sophistry ever deny, expressed in such words as hope, love, beauty, luck, fear."
Most of Kissinger's thesis stayed at that level of romantic abstraction. But at different points in "The Meaning of History," and then later throughout his scholarly and public career, he fixed his sights on a specific target: the growing influence of positivism on postwar social science. Increasingly, at Harvard (as well as at other universities and think tanks, like the RAND Corporation), political scientists, economists, and international relations scholars were applying mathematics, formal logic, and methods associated with natural science to assess human behavior. Economistic formulas such as rational choice and game theory were used to describe and predict everything from individual behavior to nuclear strategy.
It would be an overstatement to say that Kissinger rejected these methods. Game theory calculations, especially those worked out by Kissinger's Harvard colleague Thomas Schelling, influenced both his dissection of Eisenhower's nuclear defense strategy and conduct of the Vietnam War. At the same time, however, Kissinger strongly criticized the idea of objectivity, that society is "governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature" and that these laws are knowable through observation. Kissinger was particularly drawn to Spengler's criticism of the "causal principle" as applied to historical interpretation. Spengler believed that cause-and-effect analysis was (as Spengler's intellectual biographer Stuart Hughes wrote) a "ridiculous simplification of the inextricable medley of converging elements that went to make up even the least important item of history."
Kissinger too dismissed what he called "mere causal analysis" as a kind of superstition akin to primitives trying to explain what causes a steam engine to move forward. Such a "magic attitude," he said, is an effort to escape the meaninglessness of existence by finding meaning in "data."Causal reasoning focuses on the "typical" and the "inexorable," affirming the false doctrine of "eternal recurrence" — that is, the belief in historical inevitability. If something happened once it was bound to happen again, and again. Kissinger rejected this idea. Instead, he affirmed the existence of a realm of consciousness that superseded the material world, a realm that Spengler called "destiny" but Kissinger preferred to describe as "freedom." "Reality that is subject to the laws of causality," Kissinger wrote, represents only the outer, surface appearance of things. But "freedom is an inward state" and "our experience of freedom testifies to a fact of existence which no thought-process can deny."
According to Spengler and Kissinger, it is at the moment when the "causality-men" (Spengler's term) and the "fact-men" (Kissinger's term) take over that a civilization is in most danger. As the dreams, myths, and risk taking of an earlier creative period fall away, intellectuals, political leaders, and even priests become predominantly concerned with the question not of why but of how. "A century of purely extensive effectiveness," Spengler wrote (referring to the rationalism of modern society, which strives for ever more efficient ways of doing things), "is a time of decline." The intuitive dimensions of wisdom get tossed aside, technocratic procedure overwhelms purpose, and information is mistaken for wisdom. "Vast bureaucratic mechanisms," Kissinger said, develop "a momentum and a vested interest of their own."
Western culture was history's highest expression of technical reason: it "views the whole world," Kissinger wrote, "as a working hypothesis." The "machine" was its great symbol, a "perpeteum mobile" — a perpetual motion machine that asserted relentless "mastery over nature." And the vastly powerful and obsessively efficient United States was the West's vanguard. As such it was especially vulnerable to falling prisoner to what Spengler called the "cult of the useful." At Harvard, the Vatican of American positivism, filled with the country's high priests of social science, Kissinger looked around and asked: Would American leaders command or fall slave to their own technique? "Technical knowledge will be of no avail," the twenty-six-year-old student-veteran warned, "to a soul that has lost its meaning."
For all of that, Brzezinski and Hoffmann were only half right when they labeled Kissinger a Spenglerian. Spengler wrote as if decline was inevitable, as if the cycle he described — in which each civilization experiences its spring, summer, autumn, winter — were as unavoidable as the spinning of the earth. Once societies pass their great creative stage and the logicians, rationalists, and bureaucrats arrive on the scene, there is no turning back. Having lost a sense of purpose, civilizations lurch outward to find meaning. They get caught up in a series of disastrous wars, propelled forward to doom by history's cosmic beat, power for power's sake, blood for blood's. "Imperialism is the inevitable product" of this final stage, Kissinger wrote, summing up The Decline of the West's argument, "an outward thrust to hide the inner void."
Kissinger accepted Spengler's critique of past civilizations but rejected his determinism. Decay was not inevitable. "Spengler," Kissinger said, "merely described a fact of decline, and not its necessity." "There is a margin," he would write in his memoirs, "between necessity and accident, in which the statesman by perseverance and intuition must choose and thereby shape the destiny of his people." There were limits to what any political leader could do, he said, but to hide "behind historical inevitability is tantamount to moral abdication."
Based on his reading of Spengler (and other philosopher-historians, such as Arnold Toynbee, who warned of the "suicidalness of militarism"), Kissinger might have come to the conclusion that the best way to avoid decline was to avoid war altogether, to put America's great resources to building a sustainable society at home rather than squander them in adventures in places far and wide. But Kissinger took a different lesson from Spengler: it wasn't war that was to be avoided but war fought without a clear political objective. He in fact advocated fighting wars far and wide — or at least advocated for a willingness to fight wars far and wide — as a way of preventing the loss of purpose and wisdom that Spengler identified as taking place during civilization's final stage.
* * *
By late 1950, Kissinger, having finished his undergraduate studies and started the doctoral program in Harvard's Department of Government, had advanced a searing critique of "containment," a policy associated with another "realist," George Kennan, which committed Washington to limiting the global spread of Soviet influence. Kissinger conceded, in a series of memos he composed in December 1950 and March 1951 for his adviser, the intellectual historian William Y. Elliott, that "our 'containment' policy contained the germs of a profound idea." But Washington's "timidity" prevented those germs from sprouting. The problem, according to Kissinger, was that containment was applied in too literal a fashion as an effort to "physically counter every Soviet threat where it occurred." Such an application had the effect of both fragmenting the United States' strength and granting Moscow the power to decide where and when Washington would fight. Thus containment, Kissinger wrote, had effectively become "an instrument of Soviet policy."
The Soviets, Kissinger argued, had to be disabused of their idea that "any adventure could be localized at their discretion." The United States should make it clear that it might retaliate anywhere in the world. Importantly, Washington should reserve the right to wage war "not necessarily" at "the point of aggression." Rather than fighting in Korea, say, Washington could hit Russia at the place and time of its choosing, preferably with "highly mobile" strike forces. Moscow also had to be convinced that "a major war with the United States" — which he called "the only real deterring threat" (Kissinger's emphasis) — was a significant possibility.
Kissinger composed these memos just a few months after he had completed "The Meaning of History," at a moment when Washington's three-year-old Cold War stance was being tested in Korea. In them, Kissinger was essentially applying Spengler's criticism of the risk aversion inherent in bureaucratic structures to a concrete policy: containment. One of the problems of bureaucracies, Kissinger pointed out, is that they tend to compartmentalize functions, which in the case of foreign relations meant severing diplomacy from warfare. For the rest of his career, Kissinger would insist that you can't practice the first without the possibility of the second; diplomats needed to be able to wield threats and incentives equally. Here, in analyzing the weaknesses of containment, Kissinger was arguing that statesmen had to overcome their caution and think of containment as both a military and a political doctrine, remaining alive to putting into place whatever combination of war and diplomacy was required to check Soviet expansion, to see the whole globe and be willing to act in any part of it, and not in reaction but proactively. They cross a line in Korea, we strike in Baku. "Hit-and-run actions" aimed "to disperse their armies," Kissinger said.
By the middle of the 1950s, Kissinger, having finished his doctorate, had established himself among an influential cohort of defense intellectuals. At Harvard during these years, he published a lively journal, Confluence, and helped run a prestigious International Seminar, which afforded him the opportunity to build a network of intellectuals and politicians, including Hannah Arendt, Sidney Hook, Arthur Schlesinger, Daniel Ellsberg, and Reinhold Niebuhr, among others. As a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, he researched nuclear strategy and advised the liberal Republican patrician Nelson Rockefeller. He maintained his contacts in the military intelligence community, serving on a number of government committees related to covert operations and psychological warfare: the Operations Research Office, the Psychological Strategy Board, and the Operations Coordinating Board. In 1953, Kissinger also approached the Boston Division of the FBI, telling one of its agents that he was "strongly sympathetic to the FBI" and was willing to pass along information on his Harvard colleagues. "Steps will be taken," the interviewing agent wrote in his report, "to make Kissinger a Confidential Source of this Division."
In a series of essays and his 1957 book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, Kissinger expanded his earlier critique of containment to cover Eisenhower's doctrine of massive nuclear retaliation. The problem with that doctrine, Kissinger argued, was its "all-or-nothing" absolutism, which posited using nuclear weapons only in retaliation against a Soviet or Chinese strike. Such a policy "makes for a paralysis of diplomacy," Kissinger said, for as time went on, the advantage would steadily tilt away from the United States toward its adversaries: "As Soviet nuclear strength increases, the number of areas that will seem worth the destruction of New York, Detroit or Chicago will steadily diminish." There was very little Moscow or Peking could do over which Washington would risk total nuclear war (as, Kissinger said, the impasse in Korea demonstrated).
Excerpted from Kissinger's Shadow by Greg Grandin. Copyright © 2015 Greg Grandin. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
Prelude: On Not Seeing the Monster 1
Introduction:An Obituary Foretold 5
1. A Cosmic Beat 17
2. Ends and Means 36
3. Kissinger Smiled 53
4. Nixon Style 78
6. The Opposite of Unity 111
7. Secrecy and Spectacle 133
8. Inconceivable 156
9. Cause and Effect 173
10. Onward to the Gulf 187
11. Darkness into Light 203
Epilogue: Kissingerism without Kissinger 220