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by Jacob Heilbrunn
HENRY KISSINGER, who recently turned ninety-seven, is America’s most celebrated living statesman. None of his successors has come close to matching the extraordinary blend of acclaim and notoriety, admiration and criticism that he attracted as national security adviser and secretary of state to Richard M. Nixon and secretary of state to Gerald Ford. The British Foreign Office referred to him at the time as “the Wizard of the Western World’” and Playboy Bunnies voted him the man they would prefer to date in 1972—no small accomplishments for an expert on the Congress of Vienna who spent much of his early career at Harvard, where his cohort included the likes of Samuel Huntington, Stanley Hoffmann, and Zbigniew Brzeziński.
But Kissinger’s foreign policy wizardry was always accompanied by reproaches and rebukes, both public and private. The posthumously published The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for example, reveal that in a lengthy November 5, 1974 missive to Kissinger, Schlesinger expressed his dismay to his old friend about the direction of American foreign policy during the Nixon administration:
I cannot but feel that our foreign policy in recent years removed the United States from what historically has been the source of our greatest impact on mankind. We have most influenced the world as a nation of ideals, conveying a sense of hope and faith in democracy… It may well be said that such hope was often delusory and that it often concealed a tough sense of American self-interest. […] The conception of world affairs as a chess game played by foreign secretaries contains an instinctive preference for authoritarian states, where governments can be relied on to deliver their people, as against democracies, where people might always turn on their governments.
The Left and Right united in attacking him as an amoral practitioner of realpolitik who had subverted American ideals: to the former he was a war criminal who had wantonly deployed American power abroad; to the latter, an appeaser who had not deployed it enough. Ronald Reagan declared at the Republican Convention in Kansas City in 1976 that “Henry Kissinger’s recent stewardship of U.S. foreign policy has coincided precisely with the loss of U.S. military supremacy… Under Kissinger and Ford this nation has become No. 2 in military power in a world where it is dangerous—if not fatal—to be second best.”
Kissinger was undaunted. His two volumes of memoirs, which were published in 1979 and 1982, were bestsellers. In 2014, in a poll of American international relations scholars, he was named the most effective secretary of state in the previous fifty years. He has remained a coveted presence in the Oval Office, advising presidents from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, from George W. Bush to Donald Trump. Vice President Dick Cheney said, “I probably talk to Henry Kissinger more than I talk to anyone else.” Kissinger also advised Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state, observing “She ran the State Department in the most effective way I’ve ever seen.” Clinton reciprocated the sentiments in a 2014 review in the Washington Post of his book, World Order: “Kissinger is a friend and I relied on his counsel when I served as Secretary of State.” Yet in 2016, when she ran for the Democratic nomination, she became embroiled in a nasty dispute with her rival Bernie Sanders over her admiration for Kissinger. Sanders declared during a debate in February, “I am proud to say Henry Kissinger is not my friend” (as though he had a real choice in the matter). Decades after he exited government service, Kissinger continued to provoke disputes about his legacy and reputation.