Briefly, On Henry Kissinger

The good, bad, and ugly of the very long and very impactful life of Henry Kissinger is in the books. We should read it very carefully.

Andrew Donaldson

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Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State and national security advisor for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, discusses the Vietnam War with LBJ Presidential Library director Mark Updegrove on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. LBJ Library photo by Jay Godwin 04/26/2016..

Henry Kissinger long ago passed from being a mere mortal man to being an avatar for debate. Having now finally shuffled off his mortal coil at the age of 100, the debate over who and what Kissinger was, did, and represented will be an academic exercise for another hundred years.

Skipping the grave dancing of social media and without rehashing the entire Cold War that defined the peak of Kissinger’s influence and power, instead we can have a more productive discussion about how we got Henry Kissinger in the first place.

How did one man get so much power, fame, and influence that two Presidents of the United States let him wield almost unilateral authority over foreign policy during such turbulent times? We know the answer is a mix of Kissinger’s own political abilities combined with a legendarily ruthless approach to getting and keeping his own hands on the levers of power. He took advantage of Nixon’s fall and Ford’s weak tenure to do so. Kissinger became a walking example of “the great man” theory in his own time, and parlayed it into an even longer career of advising, pontificating, and talking about just how great he was while the next generation of wannabe greats came and kissed his ring as a step to their own ambitious climbs.

George Will made the observation in his Washington Post reflection that Kissinger saw global conflict like the Cold War as something to manage. There are quotes galore of Kissinger talking about managing world affairs, maintaining “balance”, how he “admired the Chinese” as “scientists of equilibrium, artists of relativity” and on and on. “”The management of a balance of power is a permanent undertaking, not an exertion that has a foreseeable end,” he wrote in his book about his years in the White House.

One man having nigh unaccountable power prattling on about abstractions like balance and management when there were millions of lives at stake should have been a huge red flag. Kissinger took pride in trying to get all the “sentimentality” out of foreign policy. And while there is validity to that, doing so in totality strips…

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Andrew Donaldson

Writer. Mountaineer diaspora. Veteran. Managing Editor @ordinarytimemag on culture & politics, food writing @yonderandhome, Host @heardtellshow & other media