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Secrets and reasons for Henry Kissinger's pragmatic pessimism: a journey from Nazism to Mao and

Henry Kissinger in 2016, during a debate on the Vietnam War at the Lyndon B Johnson Presidential Library. (Marsha Miller / LBJ Library)
Henry Kissinger in 2016, during a debate on the Vietnam War at the Lyndon B Johnson Presidential Library. (Marsha Miller / LBJ Library)

Many have been written portraits of Henry Kissinger, who ceased to be an officer of the United States in 1977, and of all kinds: from the canonical Walter Isaacson, Kissinger: A Biography, even heretical, of Christopher Hitchens, Trial of Henry Kissinger. The former secretary of state himself wrote a memoir, The years in the White House.

But Barry Gewen, author of The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and his World, is convinced that there is not only a reason but an urgent one, for this new inquiry into the ideas of the powerful diplomat of the Realpolitik: "I believe that again it is current, and if today we discard it or ignore it, it will be at our own risk"He wrote in the prologue. “He is more than a historical figure. Is a philosopher of international relations it has a lot to teach us about how the modern world works — and sometimes how it doesn't. "

"I don't see why we have to stand still and watch a country become communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people," Kissinger said, in the photo with the dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1976 (General Historical Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
"I don't see why we have to stand still and watch a country become communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people," Kissinger said, in the photo with the dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1976 (General Historical Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

He added: "His style of realism —Think in terms of national interest and balance of powerr— offers the possibility of rationality, coherence and a long-term perspective necessary at a time in those three elements seem to be scarce ”.

In the 40 years since he left power, and even today, about to turn 97, Kissinger has dedicated himself to two things: polishing his reputation and spread their ideas. The first has been easier for him, since there is a passionate Barcelona vs. Real Madrid among its admirers and detractors, which keeps the flame of his name alive. The second, by contrast, Gewen believes, has been more elusive. "The Kissinger's thinking is so against what Americans believe, or want to believe", argument. "The Kissinger's lessons on history, power and democracy can be disturbing, even painful, for those who insist that the freedom and democracy are the goals of people everywhere or that the United States is a kind of moral beacon. "

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon and General Alexander Haig at a meeting at Camp David on Vientam. (Oliver Atkins / U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon and General Alexander Haig at a meeting at Camp David on Vientam. (Oliver Atkins / U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Commenting on this book in The New York TimesJohn A. Farrell, biographer of Richard Nixon, he recalled that in his essay Diplomacy Kissinger wrote admiringly about the cardinal richelieu: "He achieved great successes by ignoring, and actually transcend the essential dogmas of his time ”. Perhaps the admired figures speak of one, he suggested. "Kissinger, too, has little interest in dogmas." This is how he got the The left defender of human rights will denounce him for the 1973 military coup in Chile and the anti-communist right will accuse him of being soft on the Soviet Union.

Perhaps the only revealed truth that bent Kissinger was - as Gewen quotes in her book, and uses to title it - that human beings have to "live with the notion that tragedy is inevitable" In Germany, where he was born on May 27, 1923 with the name of Heinz, saw "how the processes of the democracy could fail disastrously" In 1938, shortly before the Night of the Broken Glass, his family - German Jews, originally called Lob- fled to London and settled on September 5 in NY, in Washington Heights, as full of immigrants as they were nicknamed the Fourth Reich.

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"As a witness to the rise of the Nazis, who killed several members of his family, observed that the democracy was not a universal wish and that, under certain circumstances, it could lead to the worst tyranny imaginable. Sometimes when people ‘Conquer your rights’ does it at the end of deprive other people of their own"Gewen synthesized.

For Kissinger the story is “one damn fact after another, unpredictable and uncontrollable”Which is why it is naive to place too many expectations on international diplomacy. Their role is "modest, basically negative: that is, not to lead the world on a predetermined path to universal justice but put one power against another to control various human aggressions and try, as best you can, avoid disaster"

Although he left power in 1977, Henry Kissinger (pictured with Donald Trump in 2017) has been a permanent voice in American politics. (Shealah Craighead / The White House)
Although he left power in 1977, Henry Kissinger (pictured with Donald Trump in 2017) has been a permanent voice in American politics. (Shealah Craighead / The White House)

In 1942 he had to join the army and became friends with Fritz Kaermer, another German-American, 15 years his senior, deeply Nietzschean, who told him about his street fights in the last days of the Weimar Republic so much with communists like with nazis. During the war they mobilized him to Europe, where he finished becoming an American, according to Gewen: "In 1945 he participated in the liberation of the Ahlem concentration camp, on the outskirts of Hanover, and won a bronze star for his role in dismantling an underground cell of the Gestapo"

With those experiences - the arrival of Adolf Hitler to power by the ballot box in 1933, the exile, the WWII- entered the University of Harvard in 1947. There he participated in the intellectual debate of many emigrants who were trying to understand how democracy could lose to totalitarianism: Hanna Arendt, Leo Strauss, and above all Hans Morgenthau, Whose book Politics between nations, from 1948, is one of the foundations of realism.

US President Gerald Ford with his Soviet counterpart Leonid Brezhnev and Henry Kissinger after the Vladivostok Summit. (David Hume Kennerly / Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library)
US President Gerald Ford with his Soviet counterpart Leonid Brezhnev and Henry Kissinger after the Vladivostok Summit. (David Hume Kennerly / Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library)

Morgenthau would be a mentor and friend to Kissinger, who would take his ideas to America's diplomacy as security adviser and secretary of state during the presidencies of Nixon and Gerald Ford. In her enormous investigation, Gewen stops there to analyze, without condemning or defending, the nuances of politics and diplomacy during the Cold War. And it reaches the two critical points of the official's management: the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile and the Vietnam war.

In fact, the first chapter of the book, which is very long compared to others, is dedicated to Chile. "I don't see why we have to stand still and watch a country become communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people", Gewen quoted Kissinger in what he called a "deeply anti-American" expression, of complete detachment from democracy.

Henry Kissinger with Mao Tse Tung, and behind them Zhou Enlai, in Beijing. (Oliver Atkins / gmu.edu)
Henry Kissinger with Mao Tse Tung, and behind them Zhou Enlai, in Beijing. (Oliver Atkins / gmu.edu)

"The statement sounds very different if you have the Hitler's rise"Gewen moderated the quote. From the perspective of his biography - and also that of the author, editor of The New York Review of Books- so much Chile and the Weimar Republic were examples of the same: how citizens can destroy their democracy by their own vote. The fact that Allende did not hold an ideology of human annihilation was not the point: the problem was his dangerousness for having been chosen in legal elections.

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Almost without considering Augusto Pinochet dictatorship that overthrew Allende — who died, by his own hand, resisting the blow in The coin-, Gewen concluded that the threat that the Chilean socialism planted in the Western Hemisphere was the rationale for United States support for a regime that violated human rights. And what, precisely, the Kissinger's tragic ambivalence before political freedoms.

US President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger with Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir in 1973. (National Archives and Records Administration)
US President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger with Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir in 1973. (National Archives and Records Administration)

In the case of Vietnam, the author anchored the story in the context of the Cold War and “the need to preserve the credibility and prestige "of the United StatesThis would explain the diplomat's accompaniment to the prolongation of the conflict in Southeast Asia for another four years. Vientam also marked a personal paradox for Kissinger: While he wanted to “implement policies to prolong” the fight, his friend Morgenthau emerged as a staunch opponent.

"The fact that the relationship between the two has survived those tensions speaks volumes about them, especially their similar assumptions and the concepts they shared," Gewen wrote. "The deepest opponent of the Vietnam war developed his stance with Kissinger's principles. The most prominent promoter of the war was thinking in Morgenthau's terms. ”

"He is a philosopher of international relations who has a lot to teach us about how the modern world works — and sometimes does not work —" says Henry Kissinger's new biography, pictured with Barack Obama and Joe Biden in 2010.
(Pete Souza / The White House)

Curiously, the text does not abound in the achievements of Kissinger's pragmatism that until today are respected in the United States: the détente policy with the Soviet Union, the opening of relations with China during Nixon and the negotiations for end the Yom Kippur War in 1973 in Middle East. Or perhaps it is precisely because the author was more interested in pursuing a dispassionate analysis of the most controversial issues.

"I do not claim to have exhausted the issues that worried Kissinger for an entire lifetime of reflecting on power between countries, but I do hope I have to some extent clarified the core elements of his thinking, the value of his pessimistic sensitivity and the kind of intellectual issues that someone at the highest levels must face, ”Gewen wrote. "Although his numerous critics would deny it, the Henry Kissinger's life and career have a lot to offer us"But only if we know where and how to look, and only if we can overcome the distractions of his sometimes charming, sometimes annoying and always remarkable personality."

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