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The Great Degeneration


High Financier

The Ascent of Money

The War of the World



The Cash Nexus

The Pity of War

The House of Rothschild

Volume II: The World’s Banker, 1849–1999

The House of Rothschild

Volume I: Money’s Prophets, 1798–1848

Paper and Iron


An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, New York 10014


Copyright © 2015 by Niall Ferguson

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Photograph credits appear here.

ISBN 978-0-698-19569-1



Gerald Harriss (1925–2014)

Karl Leyser (1920–1992)

Angus Macintyre (1935–1994)


Also by Niall Ferguson

Title Page






CHAPTER 1 Heimat 

CHAPTER 2 Escape

CHAPTER 3 Fürth on the Hudson

CHAPTER 4 An Unexpected Private

CHAPTER 5 The Living and the Dead

CHAPTER 6 In the Ruins of the Reich


CHAPTER 7 The Idealist

CHAPTER 8 Psychological Warfare

CHAPTER 9 Doctor Kissinger

CHAPTER 10 Strangelove?

CHAPTER 11 Boswash


CHAPTER 12 The Intellectual and the Policy Maker

CHAPTER 13 Flexible Responses

CHAPTER 14 Facts of Life

CHAPTER 15 Crisis


CHAPTER 16 The Road to Vietnam

CHAPTER 17 The Unquiet American

CHAPTER 18 Dirt Against the Wind


CHAPTER 19 The Anti-Bismarck

CHAPTER 20 Waiting for Hanoi

CHAPTER 21 1968

CHAPTER 22 The Unlikely Combination

EPILOGUE: A Bildungsroman





Illustration Credits



Indeed I cannot conceive a more perfect mode of writing any man’s life, than not only relating all the most important events of it in their order, but interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought; by which mankind are enabled as it were to see him live, and to “live o’er each scene” with him, as he actually advanced through the several stages of his life…. I will venture to say that he will be seen in this work more completely than any man who has ever yet lived. And he will be seen as he really was; for I profess to write, not his panegyrick, which must be all praise, but his Life…. [I]n every picture there should be shade as well as light.

— BOSWELL, Life of Johnson 1

The task of the biographer, as James Boswell understood, is to enable the reader to see, in her mind’s eye, his subject live. To achieve this, the biographer must know his subject. That means reading all that he wrote as well as much that was written about him. It also means, if the subject is living, not merely interviewing him but getting to know him, as Boswell got to know Johnson: conversing with him, supping with him, even traveling with him. The challenge is, of course, to do so without falling so much under the subject’s influence that the reader ceases to believe the disclaimer that the work is a life, not a panegyric. Boswell, who grew to love Johnson, achieved this feat in two ways: by making explicit Johnson’s boorish manners and slovenly appearance, but also (as Jorge Luis Borges noted) by making himself a figure of fun — a straight man to Johnson’s wit, an overexcitable Scot to Johnson’s dry Englishman.2 My approach has been different.

In addition to the help of all those thanked in the acknowledgments, this author has had one noteworthy advantage over his predecessors: I have had access to Henry Kissinger’s private papers, not only the papers from his time in government, housed at the Library of Congress, but also the private papers donated to Yale University in 2011, which include more than a hundred boxes of personal writings, letters, and diaries dating back to the 1940s. I have also been able to interview the subject of the work on multiple occasions and at considerable length. Not only has this book been written with Henry Kissinger’s cooperation; it was written at his suggestion.

For this reason, I can predict with certainty that hostile reviewers will allege that I have in some way been influenced or induced to paint a falsely flattering picture. This is not the case. Although I was granted access to the Kissinger papers and was given some assistance with the arrangement of interviews with family members and former colleagues, my sole commitment was to make my “best efforts to record [his] life ‘as it actually was’ on the basis of an informed study of the documentary and other evidence available.” This commitment was part of a legal agreement between us, drawn up in 2004, which ended with the following clause:

While the authority of the Work will be enhanced by the extent of the Grantor’s [i.e., Kissinger’s] assistance… it will be enhanced still more by the fact of the Author’s independence; thus, it is understood and agreed that… the Author shall have full editorial control over the final manuscript of the Work, and the Grantor shall have no right to vet, edit, amend or prevent the publication of the finished manuscript of the Work.

The sole exception was that, at Dr. Kissinger’s request, I would not use quotations from his private papers that contained sensitive personal information. I am glad to say that he exercised this right on only a handful of occasions and always in connection with purely personal — and indeed intimate familial — matters.

This book has been just over ten years in the making. Throughout this long endeavor, I believe I have been true to my resolve to write the life of Henry Kissinger “as it actually was”—wie es eigentlich gewesen,  in Ranke’s famous phrase (which is perhaps better translated “as it essentially was”). Ranke believed that the historian’s vocation was to infer historical truth from documents — not a dozen documents (the total number cited in one widely read book about Kissinger) but many thousands. I certainly cannot count how many documents I and my research assistant Jason Rockett have looked at in the course of our work. I can count only those that we thought worthy of inclusion in our digital database. The current total of documents is 8,380—a total of 37,645 pages. But these documents are drawn not just from Kissinger’s private and public papers. In all, we have drawn material from 111 archives all around the world, ranging from the major presidential libraries to obscure private collections. (A full list of those consulted for this volume is provided in the sources.) There are of course archives that remain closed and documents that remain classified. However, compared with most periods before and since, the 1970s stand out for the abundance of primary sources. This was the age of the Xerox machine and the audio tape recorder. The former made it easy for institutions to make multiple copies of important documents, increasing the probability that one of them would become accessible to a future historian. Nixon’s and Kissinger’s fondness for the latter, combined with the expansion of freedom of information that followed Watergate, ensured that many conversations that might never have found their way into the historical record are now freely available for all to read.

My motivation in casting the widest and deepest possible net in my trawl for material was straightforward. I was determined to see Kissinger’s life not just from his vantage point but from multiple vantage points, and not just from the American perspective but from the perspectives of friends, foes, and the nonaligned. Henry Kissinger was a man who, at the height of his power, could justly be said to bestride the world. Such a man’s life requires a global biography.

I always intended to write two volumes. The question was where to break the story. In the end, I decided to conclude the first volume just after Richard Nixon announced to the world that Kissinger was to be his national security adviser, but before Kissinger had moved into his office in the West Wing basement and actually started work. There were two reasons for this choice. First, at the end of 1968 Henry Kissinger was forty-five years old. As I write, he is ninety-one. So this volume covers more or less exactly the first half of his life. Second, I wanted to draw a clear line between Kissinger the thinker and Kissinger the actor. It is true that Kissinger was more than just a scholar before 1969. As an adviser to presidents and presidential candidates, he was directly involved in the formulation of foreign policy throughout the 1960s. By 1967, if not before, he had become an active participant in the diplomatic effort to begin negotiations with the North Vietnamese government in the hope of ending the Vietnam War. Yet he had no experience of executive office. He was more a consultant than a true adviser, much less a decision maker. Indeed, that was former president Dwight Eisenhower’s reason for objecting to his appointment. “But Kissinger is a professor,” he exclaimed when he heard of Nixon’s choice. “You ask professors to study things, but you never put them in charge of anything…. I’m going to call Dick about that.”3 Kissinger was indeed a professor before he was a practitioner. It therefore makes sense to consider him first as what I believe he was before 1969: one of the most important theorists about foreign policy ever to be produced by the United States of America. Had Kissinger never entered government, this volume would still have been worth writing, just as Robert Skidelsky would still have had good reason to write his superb life of John Maynard Keynes even if Keynes had never left the courtyards of Cambridge for the corridors of power in His Majesty’s Treasury.

It was in London, in a bookshop, that Boswell first met Johnson. My first meeting with Kissinger was also in London, at a party given by Conrad Black. I was an Oxford don who dabbled in journalism, and I was naturally flattered when the elder statesman expressed his admiration for a book I had written about the First World War. (I was also impressed by the speed with which I was dropped when the model Elle Macpherson entered the room.) But I was more intimidated than pleased when, some months later, Kissinger suggested to me that I might write his biography. I knew enough to be aware that another British historian had been offered and had accepted this commission, only to get cold feet. At the time, I could see only the arguments against stepping into his evidently chilly shoes. I was under contract to write other books (including another biography). I was not an expert on postwar U.S. foreign policy. I would need to immerse myself in a sea of documents. I would inevitably be savaged by Christopher Hitchens and others. And so in early March 2004, after several meetings, telephone calls, and letters, I said no. This was to be my introduction to the diplomacy of Henry Kissinger:

What a pity! I received your letter just as I was hunting for your telephone number to tell you of the discovery of files I thought had been lost: 145 boxes which had been placed in a repository in Connecticut by a groundkeeper who has since died. These contain all my files — writings, letters, sporadic diaries, at least to 1955 and probably to 1950, together with some twenty boxes of private correspondence from my government service….

Be that as it may, our conversations had given me the confidence — after admittedly some hesitation — that you would have done a definitive — if not necessarily positive — evaluation.

For that I am grateful even as it magnifies my regret.4

A few weeks later I was in Kent, Connecticut, turning pages.

Yet it was the documents, more than their author, that persuaded me. I remember vividly the ones I read. A letter to his parents dated July 28, 1948: “To me there is not only right or wrong but many shades in between…. The real tragedies in life are not in choices between right and wrong. Only the most callous of persons choose what they know  to be wrong.” A letter from McGeorge Bundy dated February 17, 1956: “I have often thought that Harvard gives her sons — her undergraduates — the opportunity to be shaped by what they love. This, as a Harvard man, you have had. For her faculty, she reserves the opportunity — dangerous, perhaps fatal — to be shaped by what they hate.” A letter from Fritz Kraemer, dated February 12, 1957: “[U]ntil now things were easier. You had to resist only the wholly ordinary temptations of the ambitious, like avarice, and the academic intrigue industry. Now  the trap is in your own character. You are being tempted… with your own deepest principles.” A diary of the 1964 Republican National Convention: “As we left… some Goldwaterite was checking off names on a list. I was not on it. But he knew me and said, ‘Kissinger — don’t think we’ll forget your name.’” Another diary of a visit to Vietnam in the fall of 1965: “[Clark] Clifford then asked me what I thought of the position of the President. I said I had great sympathy for the difficulties of the President, but what was at stake here was the future world position of the United States…. Clifford asked me whether I thought the Vietnamese were worth saving. I said that that was no longer the issue.” The more I read, the more I realized that I had no choice. I had to write this book. I had not been so excited by a collection of documents since my first day at the Rothschild Archive in London more than ten years before.

This book, then, is the product of a decade of painstaking archival research. In writing it, I have faithfully adhered to the three propositions of the great philosopher of history R. G. Collingwood.

1. All history is the history of thought.

2. Historical knowledge is the re-enactment in the historian’s mind of the thought whose history he is studying.

3. Historical knowledge is the re-enactment of a past thought incapsulated in a context of present thoughts which, by contradicting it, confine it to a plane different from theirs.5

In trying to reconstitute the past thoughts of Kissinger and his contemporaries, I have nearly always given preference to the documents or audio recordings of the time over testimony from interviews conducted many years later, not because documents are always accurate records of what their authors thought, but because memories generally play bigger tricks than letters, diaries, and memoranda.

Yet there are limitations to the traditional historian’s methods, no matter how critical a reader he has trained himself to be, particularly when one of the defining traits of his subject is (or is said to be) secretiveness. Let me illustrate the point. A few weeks after finishing chapter 20—which deals with Kissinger’s ultimately abortive attempt to open negotiations with the North Vietnamese through their representative in Paris, Mai Van Bo — I went to dinner with the Kissingers. The chapter had been by far the hardest to write of the entire book, but I felt that I had succeeded where others had failed in making sense of the secret peace initiative that the Johnson administration had code-named PENNSYLVANIA. I had shown, I thought, that the novice diplomat had allowed himself (despite his earlier academic strictures on the subject) to become the captive of his own negotiation, prolonging it far beyond what was justified and falling into Hanoi’s trap, which was to flirt with the idea of talks without actually committing to them, in the hope of reducing if not halting the American air attacks on their major cities.

Mrs. Kissinger, who did not intend to join us for dinner, surprised me by sitting down. She had a question. There was a pause. “Why do you suppose,” she asked me, “that Henry was really  making all those trips to Paris?”

I had completely missed — because it was nowhere documented — that Kissinger’s prime motive for being in Paris in 1967 was the fact that she was studying at the Sorbonne that year.

The history of Kissinger’s relationship with his second wife may serve as a warning to all biographers, but particularly to biographers of Henry Kissinger. Walter Isaacson correctly established that Kissinger had first met Nancy Maginnes in 1964 at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco.6 But in chronicling Kissinger’s career as a less than secret “swinger” during his time as Nixon’s national security adviser, Isaacson assumed that she was no more than Kissinger’s “most regular date.” In his chapter on Kissinger’s “Celebrity,” he listed no fewer than a dozen other women whom Kissinger went out with in the early 1970s.7

Isaacson was right that his fellow journalists had missed the story. Nancy Maginnes went wholly unmentioned by The New York Times  until May 28, 1973—nine years after their first meeting — when the newspaper reported that she (characterized as “a frequent companion of Dr. Kissinger”) had arranged for his fiftieth birthday dinner to be held at the Colony Club, of which she was a member.8 Four months later, when she was Kissinger’s guest at a dinner for the UN diplomatic corps at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Times  was informed by a spokesman for the secretary of state, “She’s just another guest, not a hostess.”9 On December 21, 1973, another Kissinger spokesman “flatly denied” that he was going to marry Nancy Maginnes.10 On January 3, 1974, Kissinger himself declined to “make any comment on my personal plans.”11 The next day they were spotted dining together with none other than the proprietor of The Washington Post;  the newspaper promptly published Kissinger’s denial that they intended to wed.12 Despite being subsequently sighted at an ice hockey game and at a cocktail party with Vice President Gerald Ford, the couple succeeded in completely surprising the media with their wedding on March 30. Indeed, Kissinger went straight to the ceremony from a press conference at which he made no reference whatsoever to his private life.13 The announcement was not made until half an hour after they had taken off for their honeymoon in Acapulco. As the Post  reported in aggrieved tones,

So eager were the couple for privacy that the one reporter who saw them leaving the [State] Department was forcefully restrained by a uniformed guard so that she could not approach them. Her building pass was then taken and information copied down before it was returned. An aide to Kissinger had drawn his car up so as to prevent anyone from following the couple from the basement parking area.14

This at a time when The Washington Post  was leading the campaign to expose the far bigger secret of Richard Nixon’s complicity in the Watergate scandal!

Yet the secrecy surrounding Kissinger’s second marriage cannot be explained solely by “the aversion to publicity expected of a well-bred lady.”15 For it was Kissinger, too, who ensured that their relationship remained a purely private matter for close to ten years. To understand why that was, the biographer needs a kind of knowledge that cannot always be found in documents: knowledge of the inner and largely unwritten life that a man lives in his roles as a son, a brother, a lover, a husband, a father, a divorcé. In addition, to understand how  the Kissingers preserved their privacy for so long, the biographer must understand the complicity that then still existed between the news media and the political elite. For the reality was that press barons and Beltway reporters alike knew full well about Kissinger and Maginnes; knew that for years they were together either in New York or in Washington roughly one weekend in every two. It was just that they tacitly agreed not to print what they knew.

No biographer finds out everything, because not everything can be known — not even to the subject himself. No doubt there are important events I have missed, relationships I have misunderstood or underestimated, thoughts that simply were not written down and are now forgotten even by their thinker. But if so, this has not been for want of effort. I leave it to the reader to decide how far I have succeeded in being, in some sense, Kissinger’s Boswell — and how far I have avoided precisely that trap.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

April 2015


After all, didn’t what happened to me actually happen by chance? Good God, I was a completely unknown professor. How could I have said to myself: “Now I’m going to maneuver things so as to become internationally famous?” It would have been pure folly…. One might then say it happened because it had to happen. That’s what they always say when things have happened. They never say that about things that don’t happen — the history of things that didn’t happen has never been written.

— HENRY KISSINGER to Oriana Fallaci, Nov. 4, 19721


Surely no statesman in modern times, and certainly no American secretary of state, has been as revered and then as reviled as Henry Kissinger.

When Oriana Fallaci interviewed him in November 1972, Kissinger had not yet attained the zenith of his fame. Looking back on their encounter a few years later, Fallaci sardonically parodied the magazine covers of the time:

This too famous, too important, too lucky man, whom they call Superman, Superstar, Superkraut, and who stitches together paradoxical alliances, reaches impossible agreements, keeps the world holding its breath as though the world were his students at Harvard. This incredible, inexplicable, unbearable personage, who meets Mao Tse-tung when he likes, enters the Kremlin when he feels like it, wakens the president of the United States and goes into his bedroom when he thinks it appropriate. This absurd character with horn-rimmed glasses, beside whom James Bond becomes a flavorless creation. He does not shoot, nor use his fists, nor leap from speeding automobiles like James Bond, but he advises on wars, ends wars, pretends to change our destiny, and does change it.2

Clad as Superman, tights, cape, and all, Kissinger did in fact appear as a cartoon “Super K” on the cover of Newsweek  in June 1974. Successive Newsweek  covers had depicted him as “The Man in the White House Basement,” as “Nixon’s Secret Agent,” and as an American Gulliver, swarmed over by Lilliputian figures representing “A World of Woes.” Time  magazine was even more captivated. While in office, Kissinger appeared on its cover no fewer than fifteen times. He was, according to one Time  profile, “the world’s indispensable man.”3

Of course, there was an element of humor in all this. The joke was already doing the rounds by late 1972: “Just think what would happen if Kissinger died. Richard Nixon would become president of the United States!”4 The compound word “Nixinger” was briefly in vogue to imply Kissinger’s parity with the president. On the cover of Charles Ashman’s Kissinger: The Adventures of Super-Kraut,  published in 1972, the eponymous superhero appeared disheveled, with telltale lipstick on his cheek.

Yet Kissinger’s popularity was real. That same year he came in fourth in Gallup’s “Most Admired Man Index”; in 1973 he was number one. In May of that year, 78 percent of Americans were able to identify Kissinger, a proportion otherwise achieved only by presidents, presidential candidates, and the biggest stars of sport and screen.5 By the middle of 1974 his approval rating, according to the regular Harris survey, was an astounding 85 percent.

All secretaries of state, sooner or later, are interviewed by Charlie Rose. Only Henry Kissinger appeared on Rose’s show nearly forty times, to say nothing of his cameos in the soap opera Dynasty 6 and The Colbert Report . All secretaries of state are caricatured in the newspapers. Only Kissinger became an animated cartoon character in three television series (in Freakazoid, 7 The Simpsons, 8 and Family Guy ).9

Yet as Kissinger was all too well aware even in 1972, this kind of celebrity can easily flip into notoriety. “The consequences of what I do, I mean the public’s judgment[s],” he assured Oriana Fallaci, “have never bothered me.

I don’t ask for popularity, I’m not looking for popularity. On the contrary, if you really want to know, I care nothing about popularity. I’m not at all afraid of losing my public; I can allow myself to say what I think…. If I were to let myself be disturbed by the reactions of the public, if I were to act solely on the basis of a calculated technique, I would accomplish nothing…. I don’t say that all this has to go on forever. In fact, it may evaporate as quickly as it came.10

He was right.

Fame is double-edged; to be famous is also to be mocked. In 1971 Woody Allen parodied Kissinger in a half-hour “mockumentary” made for PBS and entitled Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story . Hurriedly written and filmed after Allen had finished “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * *But Were Afraid to Ask, ” the film was due to air in February 1972 but was almost certainly pulled for political reasons.11 (PBS claimed it could not show the film in an election year without giving other candidates equal coverage, but the reality was that the government-funded broadcaster could not persuade Allen to drop his sharpest digs at, among others, Pat Nixon and feared arousing the ire of the White House.)12 Typical of the film is the scene in which Wallinger — played by Allen — is heard on the phone demanding “an injunction against the Times . It’s a New York, Jewish, Communist, left-wing newspaper, and that’s just the sports section.” In another scene, Wallinger is asked to comment on President Nixon’s (authentic) statement that “we shall end the war [in Vietnam] and win the peace.” “What Mr. Nixon means,” Allen mumbles, “is that, uh, it’s important to win the war and also win the peace; or, at the very least, lose the war and lose the peace; or, uh, win at least part of the peace, or win two peaces, perhaps, or lose a few peaces but win a piece of the war. The other alternative would be to win a piece of the war, or lose a piece of Mr. Nixon.”

INTERVIEWER: There’s a lot of talk around Washington that you have an extremely active social life.

WALLINGER: Well that’s greatly exaggerated I think, I… I… like attractive women, I like sex, but, um, but it must be American sex. I don’t like un-American sex.

INTERVIEWER: Well how would you distinguish American sex?

WALLINGER: If you’re ashamed of it, it’s American sex. You know, uh, that’s important, if you feel guilt… and shame, otherwise I think sex without guilt is bad because it almost becomes pleasurable.13

Responding to the objection by the PBS top brass that the film was in bad taste, Allen quipped, “It’s hard to say anything about that administration that wouldn’t be in bad taste.”14

Wisecracks about the Nixon administration were standard fare for Manhattan comedians long before the president’s downfall. For Kissinger, being second only to Nixon in the government meant being second only to him as a target — in every available medium. The satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer’s ditties are now mostly forgotten, but the same cannot be said for his remark that “political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize.”15 Earlier, the French singer-songwriter Henri Salvador had composed the irritatingly catchy “Kissinger, Le Duc Tho” to mock the lack of progress in the negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam. The cartoonist David Levine

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produced perhaps the most savage of all pictorial attacks on Kissinger — more than a dozen in all, including two that even the left-liberal New York Review of Books  found too egregious to publish: one of a naked Kissinger, his back covered in macabre tattoos, the other of Kissinger under a stars-and-stripes bedcover, gleefully ravishing a naked female whose head is the globe. (Despite protests from his staff, Victor Navasky published the latter caricature in The Nation .)16

It is as if Henry Kissinger’s personality — his very name — hit some neuralgic spot in the collective brain of a generation. In Joseph Heller’s 1979 novel Good as Gold,  the protagonist, a middle-aged professor of English literature named Bruce Gold, is working on a book about none other than:


How he loved and hated that hissing name.

Even apart from his jealousy, which was formidable, Gold had hated Henry Kissinger from the moment of his emergence as a public figure and hated him still.17

Inane though it is, Eric Idle’s song for Monty Python shows that the neuralgia was transatlantic:

Henry Kissinger, 

How I’m missing yer, 

You’re the Doctor of my dreams. 

With your crinkly hair, 

And your glassy stare, 

And your Machiavellian schemes.18 

An entire era is distilled in the moment at Madison Square Garden when Idle and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones made “silly faces” behind Kissinger’s back after they had all seen Muhammad Ali fight. As soon as Kissinger had gone, the two English entertainers “collapsed howling in a heap on the floor.”19


Some laughed at Kissinger. Others froze. “An eel icier than ice” was how Fallaci put it. “God, what an icy man!”

During the whole interview he never changed that expressionless countenance, that hard or ironic look, and never altered the tone of that sad, monotonous, unchanging voice. The needle on the tape recorder shifts when a word is pronounced in a higher or lower key. With him it remained still, and more than once I had to check to make sure that the machine was working. Do you know that obsessive, hammering sound of rain falling on a roof? His voice is like that. And basically his thoughts as well.

To enter the realm of journalism about Henry Kissinger is to encounter much in this hysterical vein. He was, Fallaci went on, “the most guilty representative of the kind of power of which Bertrand Russell speaks: If they say ‘Die,’ we shall die. If they say ‘live,’ we shall live.” He based “his actions on secrecy, absolutism, and the ignorance of people not yet awakened to the discovery of their rights.”20

Sometimes the hysteria tips over into outright lunacy. Wild allegations against Kissinger can be found on a host of websites purporting to expose the nefarious activities of the Bilderberg Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission, organizations allegedly established by the “Illuminati” to realize their evil scheme for “world government.”21 Such claims come in at least four flavors: Anglophobe, paranoid anti-Communist, deranged-fantasist, and leftist-populist.

The Anglophobe version derives from the work of the Georgetown University historian Carroll Quigley, who traced a British plot against America back to Cecil Rhodes and Alfred Milner and identified J. P. Morgan, the Council on Foreign Relations, and The New Republic  magazine as key conspirators.22 According to the former Trotskyite Lyndon LaRouche, “Sir” Henry Kissinger was all along a “British Agent of Influence” (the evidence: his honorary knighthood and a 1982 Chatham House speech).23 LaRouche’s associates have also alleged that William Yandell Elliott, Kissinger’s Harvard mentor, belonged to “a network of unreconstructed Confederates who continued Britain’s Civil War against the United States through cultural and other means.” Their aim was “to establish… a new ‘dark age’ of globally extended medieval feudalism, built on the ruined remains of the United States and any nation which strove to establish itself on any approximation of American principles.” This network bound together the Ku Klux Klan, the Tennessee Templars, the Round Table, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), and the Harvard International Seminar run by Kissinger.24

A much graver though equally unfounded allegation is that Kissinger was a Soviet spy. According to Gary Allen — a member of the John Birch Society and speechwriter for the segregationist George Wallace — Kissinger was not only “an agent of the mightiest combine of power, finance, and influence in American politics: The House of Rockefeller”; he was also a Communist with the KGB code name “Bor.” Having inveigled his way into the White House, his “conspiratorial campaign” was “to effect the clandestine unilateral strategic disarmament of the United States by means of the prolongation of the Vietnam War .”25 Similar charges were leveled in a rambling tome entitled Kissinger on the Couch  (1975) by the ultraconservative antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly and retired admiral Chester Ward, who accused Kissinger of making “the entire population of the United States hostages to the Kremlin.”26 The bizarre claim that the Soviets had recruited Kissinger in postwar Germany can be traced back to a 1976 article by Alan Stang in the far-right magazine American Opinion,  which cited testimony from the Polish defector Michael Goleniewski that Kissinger had worked for a Soviet counterintelligence network code-named ODRA. Goleniewski’s evidence was good enough to expose at least six Soviet moles operating inside Western intelligence agencies, including the British traitor George Blake, who had been “turned” when captured during the Korean War and whose activities cost the lives of at least forty MI6 agents. However, the allegations against “Bor” were never substantiated, and Goleniewski’s later claim to be the Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich — the son of Nicholas II and heir to the Russian throne — irreparably damaged his credibility in sane minds.

The out-and-out fantasists do not even pretend to have documentary evidence. The Texan journalist Jim Marrs’s best-selling Rule by Secrecy  identifies Kissinger as part of a wholly imagined conspiracy involving the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, and the Freemasons.27 In a similar vein, Wesman Todd Shaw calls Kissinger the “master architect of the New World Order… one of the single most evil individuals still living, or to have ever lived.”28 Len Horowitz asserts that Kissinger is part of a global conspiracy of pharmaceutical companies that are intentionally spreading the HIV-AIDS virus, a claim that appears to rest on an alphanumerical breakdown of Kissinger’s name (which, we are told, “deciphers to 666”).29 According to Alan Watt, Kissinger’s motive for his “AIDS project” was to address the problem of overpopulation; he also blames him for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.30 A plainly unhinged woman writing as “Brice Taylor” insists that, when she was a child, Kissinger turned her into a “mind-controlled slave,” repeatedly making her eat her alphabet cereal in reverse order and taking her on the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland.31 Maddest of all is David Icke, whose “List of Famous Satanists” includes not only Kissinger but also the Astors, Bushes, Clintons, DuPonts, Habsburgs, Kennedys, Rockefellers, Rothschilds, and the entire British royal family — not to mention Tony Blair, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Joseph Stalin. (The comedian Bob Hope also makes the list.) According to Icke, Kissinger is “one of the Illuminati’s foremost master minds of the agenda.” Not only is he a “Satanist, mind controller, child torturer, creator of wars of mass murder and destruction”; he is also a “shape-shifter” with a “reptilian bloodline.” “By ‘Satanists,’ of course,” Icke helpfully explains, “I mean those involved in human sacrifice.”32

No rational people take such nonsense seriously. But the same cannot be said for the allegations made by conspiracy theorists of the left, who are a great deal more influential. In his People’s History of the United States,  Howard Zinn argues that Kissinger’s policies in Chile were intended at least in part to serve the economic interests of International Telephone and Telegraph.33 In place of evidence, such diatribes tend to offer gratuitous insult. According to Zinn, Kissinger “surrendered himself with ease to the princes of war and destruction.”34 In their Untold History of the United States,  the film director Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick refer to Kissinger as a “psychopath” (admittedly quoting Nixon).35 The doyen of “gonzo” journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, called him “a slippery little devil, a world-class hustler with a thick German accent and a very keen eye for weak spots at the top of the power structure”—adding, for good measure, “pervert.”36 One left-of-center website recently accused Kissinger of having been somehow involved in the anthrax attacks of September 2001, when anthrax spores were mailed to various media and Senate offices, killing five people.37 In terms of scholarship, the conspiracy theorists make as valuable a contribution to historical knowledge as the creators of the cartoon series The Venture Bros.,  which features “a mysterious figure dressed in a black uniform and accompanied by a medical bag that he affectionately calls his ‘Magic Murder Bag’… Dr. Henry Killinger.”


All this vitriol is at first sight puzzling. From January 20, 1969, until November 3, 1975, Henry Kissinger served as assistant to the president for national security affairs, first under Richard Nixon, then under Gerald Ford. From September 22, 1973, until January 20, 1977, he was secretary of state — the first foreign-born citizen to hold that office, the highest-ranking post in the executive branch after the presidency and vice presidency. Nor was his influence over U.S. foreign policy confined to those years. Before 1969, he played important roles as a consultant and an unofficial envoy for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Under Ronald Reagan, he chaired the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, which met between 1983 and 1985. From 1984 until 1990, he served as a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He was also a member of the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy (1986–88) and the Defense Policy Board (from 2001 to the present). In 1973 the Norwegian Nobel Committee jointly awarded Kissinger and Le Duc Tho the Nobel Peace Prize, citing their perseverance in the negotiations that produced the Paris Peace Accords. Four years later Kissinger received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and, in 1986, the Medal of Liberty. In 1995 he was made an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George.

Nor can it easily be argued that these offices and honors were wholly undeserved. He was responsible — to name only his most obvious achievements — for negotiating the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union. While he held office, the United States ratified the nuclear arms Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international convention banning biological weapons, and the Helsinki Final Act, Article 10 of which (little though Kissinger liked it) committed signatories on both sides of the iron curtain to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” It was Kissinger who, with Zhou Enlai, opened diplomatic communications between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, arguably one of the turning points in the Cold War. It was Kissinger who negotiated the end of the Yom Kippur War between the Arab states and Israel and whose shuttle diplomacy paved the way for the Camp David Accords.

How, then, are we to explain the visceral hostility that the name Henry Kissinger arouses? In The Trial of Henry Kissinger,  the British journalist Christopher Hitchens went so far as to accuse Kissinger of “war crimes and crimes against humanity in Indochina, Chile, Argentina, Cyprus, East Timor, and several other places” (in fact, the only other place discussed in his book is Bangladesh), alleging that Kissinger “ordered and sanctioned the destruction of civilian populations, the assassination of inconvenient politicians, the kidnapping and disappearance of soldiers and journalists and clerics who got in his way.”38 Genocide, mass killing, assassination, and murder all feature in the indictment.

Hitchens was a gifted polemicist; his abilities as a historian are more open to question. Nevertheless, for each of the cases he cited, more thoroughly researched studies exist that come to comparable if less bombastically stated verdicts: William Shawcross’s study of the “catastrophe” and “crime” in Cambodia;39 Gary Bass on the bloodbath in Bangladesh;40 José Ramos-Horta on East Timor;41 Jonathan Haslam and Peter Kornbluh on Chile;42 not forgetting Noam Chomsky on the missed opportunity for peace in the Middle East in 1970–71.43 Moreover, the charges of criminality have gained credibility from the attempts in 2001 and 2002 by various judges and lawyers in Argentina, Chile, France, and Spain to compel Kissinger at least to give evidence in cases relating to Operation Condor, the clandestine campaign by six South American governments to “disappear” left-wing activists. In the light of all this, it is not surprising that so many journalists now freely bandy about terms like “mass murderer,” “killer,” and “monster” when Henry Kissinger’s name comes up.

This volume covers the first half of Kissinger’s life, ending in 1969, at the moment he entered the White House to serve as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser. It therefore does not deal with the issues listed above. But it does deal with the foreign policies of Nixon’s four predecessors. As will become clear, each one of these administrations could just as easily be accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. There is no doubt whatever, to take just a single example, that the Central Intelligence Agency had a direct hand in the coup that overthrew the elected government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in Guatemala in 1954. It also played an active role in the subsequent campaign of violence against the Guatemalan left. Nearly a hundred times as many people (around 200,000) died in this campaign than were “disappeared” in Chile after 1973 (2,279). Yet you will search the libraries in vain for The Trial of John Foster Dulles . According to a study by the Brookings Institution, the United States used military action or threats of military action three times more often in the Kennedy years than in the Kissinger years.44 Interventions ranged from an abortive invasion of Cuba to a bloody coup d’état in South Vietnam. And yet no great polemicist has troubled to indict Dean Rusk as a war criminal.

A similar argument might be made about American administrations after 1976. Twenty-five years after publishing Sideshow,  William Shawcross argued that “after 9/11 the US had no choice but to overthrow Saddam [Hussein], who had defied the world for years and was the only national leader to praise that merciless attack.”45 In an article in The New York Times,  coauthored with Kissinger’s friend and colleague Peter Rodman, Shawcross argued that “American defeat in Iraq would embolden the extremists in the Muslim world, demoralize and perhaps destabilize many moderate friendly governments, and accelerate the radicalization of every conflict in the Middle East. Our conduct in Iraq is a crucial test of our credibility.”46 Replace Iraq  with Vietnam  and Muslim  with Communist,  and you have precisely the argument that Kissinger made in 1969 against abandoning South Vietnam to its fate. Hitchens, too, discovered late in life that there were many worse things in the world than American power, going so far as to argue in 2005 that “prison conditions at Abu Ghraib [had] improved markedly and dramatically since the arrival of Coalition troops in Baghdad.”47

The interesting question, then, is why the double standard? One possible, if facile, answer is that no amount of self-deprecating humor would ever have sufficed to parry the envy of Kissinger’s contemporaries. On one occasion, at a big dinner in Washington, a man approached him and said, “Dr. Kissinger, I want to thank you for saving the world.” Without missing a beat, Kissinger replied, “You’re welcome.”48 Asked by journalists how they should now address him, following his swearing-in as secretary of state, Kissinger replied, “I do not stand on protocol. If you just call me Excellency, it will be okay.”49 The many lists of Henry Kissinger quotations all include the following one-liners:

People are generally amazed that I would take an interest in any forum that would require me to stop talking for three hours.

The longer I am out of office, the more infallible I appear to myself.

The nice thing about being a celebrity is that, if you bore people, they think it’s their fault.

There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.

Each of these employs the same rhetorical device, the reductio ad absurdum. Reputed to be arrogant, Kissinger sought to disarm his critics by saying things so arrogant as to be patent self-mockery. Those who had been raised on the Marx Brothers doubtless recognized the influence of Groucho. But it was a characteristic feature of the “counterculture” generation of the 1960s and 1970s that it did not find the Marx Brothers funny. “The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer” are among Kissinger’s most frequently cited words. Rarely are they acknowledged to be a joke, prefaced by “Before the Freedom of Information Act, I used to say at meetings…” and followed in the official “memcon” by “[laughter].” If Kissinger had genuinely been “afraid to say things like that” since the Freedom of Information Act, presumably he would not have said them.50

In dictionaries of quotations, Kissinger has more wisecracks to his name than most professional comedians. “Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation.” “If eighty percent of your sales come from twenty percent of all of your items, just carry those twenty percent.” And a line worthy of Woody Allen himself: “Nobody will ever win the Battle of the Sexes. There’s just too much fraternizing with the enemy.” His finest aphorisms, too, deserve to endure: “To be absolutely certain about something, one must know everything or nothing about it,” “Each success only buys an admission ticket to a more difficult problem,” and perhaps the most famous of all, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” Yet the sharpness of Kissinger’s wit seems ultimately to have been in inverse proportion to his popularity. Perhaps the boasting about sex was simply a mistake. Kissinger’s line about the aphrodisiac quality of power was, once again, intended to be self-deprecating. Of the women he dated, he once said, “They are… attracted only to my power. But what happens when my power is gone? They’re not going to sit around and play chess with me.”51 This is not the language of Don Juan. Once again Kissinger was too candid with Oriana Fallaci:

When I speak to Le Duc Tho, I know what I have to do with Le Duc Tho, and when I’m with girls, I know what I must do with girls. Besides, Le Duc Tho doesn’t at all agree to negotiate with me because I represent an example of moral rectitude…. [T]his frivolous reputation… it’s partly exaggerated, of course…. What counts is to what degree women are part of my life, a central preoccupation. Well, they aren’t that at all. For me women are only a diversion, a hobby. Nobody spends too much time with his hobbies.52

This was true. The glamorous women with whom Kissinger very publicly dined in the years before his second marriage were generally left to their own devices after dessert as Kissinger returned to the White House or State Department. We know now (see the preface) that none of these relationships was more than a friendship: Kissinger loved Nancy Maginnes, and she put up with the smoke screen in the gossip columns as the price of her privacy. Yet the starlets, combined with the attendant publicity, could only fuel the jealousy of others. Nor could Kissinger resist another one-liner: “I am,” he announced at a party given for the feminist Gloria Steinem by the television talk show host Barbara Howar, “a secret swinger.”53 There was of course nothing secret about it. A two-page spread in Life  magazine in January 1972 pictured Kissinger not only with Steinem and Howar but also with “movie starlet” Judy Brown, “film star” Samantha Eggar, “movie actress” Jill St. John, “TV star” Marlo Thomas, “starlet” Angel Tomkins, and “bosomy pinup girl” June Wilkinson.54 Nor were all Kissinger’s dates from the second tier of acting talent. The Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann had been nominated for an Oscar two years before she caused Kissinger to miss the announcement of his own nomination as secretary of state. Candice Bergen was a rising star when, over dinner, Kissinger gave her “the sense of shared secrets — probably the same set he gave every antiwar actress.” For the press, the story was irresistible: the dowdy Harvard professor reborn in Hollywood as “Cary Grant with a German accent.”55 When Marlon Brando pulled out of the New York premiere of The Godfather,  its executive producer Robert Evans unhesitatingly called Kissinger — and Kissinger obligingly flew up, despite blizzard conditions and a schedule the next day that began with an early-morning meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss the mining of Haiphong harbor and ended with a secret flight to Moscow:

REPORTER: Dr. Kissinger, why are you here tonight?

KISSINGER: I was forced.

R: By who?

K: By Bobby [Evans].

R: Did he make you an offer you couldn’t refuse?

K: Yes.56

As they fought their way through the throng, Evans had Kissinger on one arm and Ali MacGraw on the other.

The obvious retort to all this is that hostility to Kissinger had much more to do with actions like the mining of Haiphong harbor than with appearances at movie premieres. Still, less irenic motives for animosity cannot be dismissed out of hand. As early as January 1971, the columnist Joseph Kraft could report that Kissinger’s “closest friends and associates” had come to see him as “a suspect figure, personifying the treason of the intellectuals,” because he was working “to reinforce and legitimize the President’s hard-line instincts on most major international business.”57 The previous May, thirteen of his Harvard colleagues — among them Francis Bator, William Capron, Paul Doty, George Kistiakowsky, Richard Neustadt, Thomas Schelling, and Adam Yarmolinsky — had traveled to Washington to meet with him. Kissinger had expected to host a private lunch for them. Instead, according to one well-known account of the meeting, Schelling began by saying he should explain who they were. Kissinger was perplexed.

“I know who you are,” he said, “you’re all good friends from Harvard.”

“No,” said Schelling, “we’re a group of people who have completely lost confidence in the ability of the White House to conduct our foreign policy, and we have come to tell you so. We are no longer at your disposal as personal advisers.” Each of them then proceeded to berate him, taking five minutes apiece.58

The group’s stated reason for breaking with Kissinger was the invasion of Cambodia. (As their spokesman Schelling put it, “There are two possibilities. Either, one, the President didn’t understand… that he was invading another country; or, two, he did understand. We just don’t know which one is scarier.”)59 No doubt Schelling and his colleagues had cogent reasons to criticize Nixon’s decision. Still, there was something suspiciously staged about their showdown with Kissinger. Each one of those named above had experience in government, and at high levels. Bator, for example, had served as deputy national security adviser to Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, and had therefore enjoyed a ringside seat for the escalation of the war against North Vietnam. As Bator confessed to The Harvard Crimson,  “Some of us here at Harvard have been working on the inside for a long time.” Neustadt, too, admitted that he had “regarded the executive branch as… home for twenty or thirty years…. This is the first time in years that I’ve come to Washington and stayed at the Hay-Adams and had to pay the bill out of my own pocket.”

For these men, publicly breaking with Kissinger — with journalists briefed in advance about the breach — was a form of self-exculpation, not to say an insurance policy as student radicals back on the Harvard campus ran riot. When Neustadt told the Crimson,  “I think it’s safe to say we’re afraid,” he did not specify of what. Others were more candid. As Schelling put it, “If Cambodia succeeds, it will be a disaster not just because my Harvard office may be burned down when I get home, but it will even be a disaster in [the administration’s] own terms.” The historian Ernest May, who had rushed down from an emergency faculty meeting called to address student demands about examinations, told Kissinger, “You’re tearing the country apart domestically.” The country he meant was not Cambodia. After their meeting with Kissinger, as if to underline their contrition for past misdeeds, Neustadt and two of the others joined a much larger “Peace Action Strike” of Harvard students and faculty led by the antiwar firebrand Everett Mendelsohn. But the campus radicals were not propitiated. That same day the Center for International Affairs, where both Bator and Schelling had their offices, was invaded and “trashed” by demonstrators.60


Even if they have not always objected to his policies, critics have long taken exception to Henry Kissinger’s mode of operation. Driven by “excessive ambition,” he was “a consummate network-builder, operating on a nearly worldwide scale.”61 He was “the media’s best friend.”62 “A distinguished journalist once complained that it took him three days after every conversation with Henry Kissinger to recover his critical sense; unfortunately, in the meantime he had written his column.”63 Kissinger, we are told, loved secrecy almost as much as the diabolical Richard Nixon, with whom (in the eyes of Harvard, at least) he had made his Faustian pact.64 He wiretapped even members of his own staff, notably Morton Halperin.65 He was a sycophant, willing to put up with Nixon’s obnoxious anti-Semitism.66 But he was also deeply insecure, needing to be reassured by Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman “almost every day, certainly at least every week… that the President really did love him and appreciate him and couldn’t get along without him.”67 One of Kissinger’s most relentless critics, Anthony Lewis of The New York Times,  posed the question: “How [could]… Kissinger involve himself in their horrors[?]… How could he humiliate himself, use locker-room language, engage in such things as wiretapping?” The answer, Lewis argued, was “not in doubt: he did what had to be done to acquire and keep power — and to exercise it in secret.”68 In all these accounts, Kissinger is like an American equivalent of Kenneth Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time  novels — at once hateful and unstoppable.

The other possibility is that a great deal of what has been said against Kissinger stems from those with grudges against him. When, for example, George Ball described Kissinger as “self-centered and conspiratorial,” he was expressing the view of a State Department insider who resented the way he undermined Nixon’s now-all-but-forgotten secretary of state William P. Rogers.69 Raymond Garthoff was another official with an ax to grind: while negotiating the terms of SALT with the Soviets, he had been kept in the dark about Kissinger’s “back channel” to the Soviet ambassador.70 Hans Morgenthau once memorably described Kissinger as, like Odysseus, “polytropos,  that is, ‘many-sided’ or ‘of many appearances.’”

From that quality stems the fascination with which friends and foes, colleagues and strangers behold him. That quality encloses the secret of his success. Kissinger is like a good actor who does not play  the role of Hamlet today, of Caesar tomorrow, but who is  Hamlet today and Caesar tomorrow.71

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The Israeli press later boiled this down to a charge of “two faced diplomacy.”72 But was Morgenthau entirely disinterested in his criticism? Older than Kissinger by nearly ten years and, like Kissinger, of German-Jewish origin, he is regarded to this day as the founder of the “realist” school of U.S. foreign policy. Yet his Washington career — as a consultant to the Pentagon under Johnson — had ended when he refused to the toe the line on Vietnam. If anyone flinched to hear Kissinger hailed as the archrealist, it was Morgenthau.

A favorite theme of Kissinger’s critics was that he was fundamentally hostile, or at least indifferent, to democracy. “A policy commitment to stability and identifying instability with communism,” Morgenthau wrote, “is compelled by the logic of its interpretation of reality to suppress in the name of anticommunism all manifestations of popular discontent…. Thus, in an essentially unstable world, tyranny becomes the last resort of a policy committed to stability as its ultimate standard.”73 Similar sentiments can be found in multiple polemics. According to Richard Falk, Kissinger’s effectiveness stemmed from “his capacity to avoid unpleasant criticisms about… domestic indecencies”—a “Machiavellian posture” that was a welcome relief to the world’s dictators.74 Why a man who had fled the Third Reich and found success in the United States should be averse to democracy is not immediately obvious. But writer after writer has resolved the paradox by arguing that, in the words of David Landau, Kissinger was “a child of Weimar,” haunted by “the dread specter of revolution and political anarchy, the demise of all recognizable authority.”75 “Witnessing these events firsthand,” writes Jeremi Suri, “Henry Kissinger could only conclude that democracies were weak and ineffective at combating destructive enemies…. The solution was… to build space for charismatic, forward-looking undemocratic decisionmaking in government.”76 Thus he “often acted against what he saw as dangerous domestic opinion. To do otherwise, in his eyes, would repeat the mistakes of the democratic purists in the 1930s and bow to the weaknesses and extremes of mass politics… to the people protesting in the streets.”77 As we shall see, the defect of this argument is that Henry Kissinger was not yet ten years old when the Weimar Republic died, an age at which even quite precocious children are unlikely to have formed strong political opinions. His earliest political memories were of the regime that came next. Did growing up under Hitler somehow prejudice Kissinger against democracy? Bruce Mazlish offered the psychoanalytical interpretation that Kissinger’s “identification with the aggressor” was his way of “dealing with the Nazi experience.”78 As we shall see, however, a much more straightforward reading is possible.

In this context, it is a strange irony of the Kissinger literature that so many of the critiques of Kissinger’s mode of operation have a subtle undertone of anti-Semitism. The more books I have read about Kissinger, the more I have been reminded of the dreadful books I had to read twenty years ago when writing the history of the Rothschild family. When other nineteenth-century banks made loans to conservative regimes or to countries at war, no one seemed to notice. But when the Rothschilds did it, the pamphleteers could scarcely control their indignation. Indeed, it would take a great many shelves to contain all the shrill anti-Rothschild polemics produced by Victorian antecedents of today’s conspiracy theorists (who, as we have seen, still like to drag in the Rothschilds). This prompts the question: might the ferocity of the criticism that Kissinger has attracted perhaps have something to do with the fact that he, like the Rothschilds, is Jewish?

This is not to imply that his critics are anti-Semites. Some of the Rothschilds’ fiercest critics were themselves Jews. So are some of Kissinger’s. Bruce Gold, Heller’s Kissinger-hating professor, advances the “covert and remarkable hypothesis that Henry Kissinger was not a Jew”—a hypothesis based partly on his father’s insight that “no cowboy was ever a Jew.”

In Gold’s conservative opinion, Kissinger would not be recalled in history as a Bismarck, Metternich, or Castlereagh, but as an odious shlump  who made war gladly and did not often exude much of that legendary sympathy for weakness and suffering with which Jews regularly were credited. It was not a shayna Yid  who would go down on his knees on a carpet to pray to Yahweh with that shmendrick  Nixon, or a haimisha mentsh  who would act with such cruelty against the free population of Chile…. Such a pisk  on the pisher  to speak with such chutzpah !79

To say that American Jews have been ambivalent toward the man who is arguably their community’s most distinguished son would be an understatement. Even sympathetic biographers like Mazlish and Suri use questionable phrases like “court Jew” or “policy Jew” to characterize Kissinger’s relationship with Nixon.80


The crux of the matter, nevertheless, is how we judge Kissinger’s foreign policy — both its theory and its practice. For the vast majority of commentators, the theory is clear-cut. Kissinger is a realist, and that implies, in Anthony Lewis’s crude definition of the “Kissinger Doctrine,” “an obsession with order and power at the expense of humanity.”81 According to Marvin and Bernard Kalb, Nixon and Kissinger “shared a global realpolitik  that placed a higher priority on pragmatism than on morality.”82 In the 1960s, Stanley Hoffmann had been more than a colleague to Kissinger; he had been a friend and admirer, who had welcomed his appointment by Nixon. Yet by the time Kissinger published the first volume of his memoirs, he, too, had joined this club. Kissinger had, he wrote in a venomous review, “an almost devilish psychological intuition, an instinct for grasping the hidden springs of character, of knowing what drives or what dooms another person.” He also had “the gift for the manipulation of power — exploiting the weaknesses and strengths of character of his counterparts.” But

[i]f there was a vision beyond the geopolitical game, if the complex manipulation of rewards and punishments needed to create equilibrium and to restrain the troublemakers was aimed at a certain ideal of world order, we are left free to guess what it might have been…. [His] is a world in which power is all: equilibrium is not just the prerequisite to order, the precondition for justice, it is  order, it amounts to justice.83

Like so many other less learned authors, Hoffmann concluded that both Nixon and Kissinger (the former “instinctively,” the latter “intellectually”) were “Machiavellians — men who believed that the preservation of the state (inseparable in Machiavelli from that of the Prince) requires both ruthlessness and deceit at the expense of foreign and internal adversaries.”84 This kind of judgment recurs again and again. According to Walter Isaacson, “power-oriented realpolitik  and secretive diplomatic maneuvering… were the basis of [Kissinger’s] policies.”85 John Gaddis calls the Nixon-Kissinger combination “the triumph of geopolitics over ideology,” with their conception of American national interests always paramount.86 Kissinger, says Suri, was “hardened against idealistic rhetoric that neglected the ‘realistic’ importance of extensive armed force and preparations to use it.”87 He invariably placed the “demands of the state above other ethical scruples.”88

So deeply rooted is this view of Kissinger as an amoral realist — a “hard-boiled master of realpolitik  who will not sacrifice one iota of American interest”—that the overwhelming majority of writers have simply assumed that Kissinger modeled himself on his “heroes” Metternich and Bismarck.89 Kissinger did indeed write about both men in, respectively, the 1950s and the 1960s. But only someone who has not read (or who has willfully misread) what he actually wrote could possibly think that he set out in the 1970s to replicate their approaches to foreign policy. One of the quirks of the “Killinger” literature is that, by comparison, so little is made of Kissinger’s book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy . With its cold, calculated argument for the graduated use of nuclear weapons, this might very easily be presented as evidence that Dr. Kissinger was indeed the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Yet Kissinger’s critics prefer different battlegrounds to those of Central Europe, the core conflict zone of the First and Second World Wars, which even a limited nuclear war would have laid waste.


The Cold War, which was the defining event of Henry Kissinger’s two careers as a scholar and as a policy maker, took many forms. It was a nuclear arms race that on more than one occasion came close to turning into a devastating thermonuclear war. It was also, in some respects, a contest between two great empires, an American and a Russian, which sent their legions all around the world, though they seldom met face-to-face. It was a competition between two economic systems, capitalist and socialist, symbolized by Nixon’s “kitchen debate” with Khrushchev in Moscow in 1959. It was a great if deadly game between intelligence agencies, glamorized in the novels of Ian Fleming, more accurately rendered in those of John le Carré. It was a cultural battle, in which chattering professors, touring jazz bands, and defecting ballet dancers all played their parts. Yet at its root, the Cold War was a struggle between two rival ideologies: the theories of the Enlightenment as encapsulated in the American Constitution, and the theories of Marx and Lenin as articulated by successive Soviet leaders. Only one of these ideologies was intent, as a matter of theoretical principle, on struggle. And only one of these states was wholly unconstrained by the rule of law.

The mass murderers of the Cold War were not to be found in Washington, much less in the capitals of U.S. allies in Western Europe. According to the estimates in the Black Book of Communism,  the “grand total of victims of Communism was between 85 and 100 million” for the twentieth century as a whole.90 Mao alone, as Frank Dikötter has shown, accounted for tens of millions: 2 million between 1949 and 1951, another 3 million by the end of the 1950s, a staggering 45 million in the man-made famine known as the “Great Leap Forward,” yet more in the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution.91 According to the lowest estimate, the total number of Soviet citizens who lost their lives as a direct result of Stalin’s policies was more than 20 million, a quarter of them in the years after World War II.92 Even the less bloodthirsty regimes of Eastern Europe killed and imprisoned their citizens on a shocking scale.93 In the Soviet Union, 2.75 million people were in the Gulag at Stalin’s death. The numbers were greatly reduced thereafter, but until the very end of the Soviet system its inhabitants lived in the knowledge that there was nothing but their own guile to protect them from an arbitrary and corrupt state. These stark and incontrovertible facts make a mockery of the efforts of the so-called revisionist historians, beginning with William Appleman Williams, to assert a moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War.94

All Communist regimes everywhere, without exception, were merciless in their treatment of “class enemies,” from the North Korea of the Kims to the Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh, from the Ethiopia of Mengistu Haile Mariam to the Angola of Agostinho Neto. Pol Pot was the worst of them all, but even Castro’s Cuba was no workers’ paradise. And Communist regimes were aggressive, too, overtly invading country after country during the Cold War. Through which foreign cities did American tanks drive in 1956, when Soviet tanks crushed resistance in Budapest? In 1968, when Soviet armor rolled into Prague, U.S. tanks were in Saigon and Hue, their commanders little suspecting that within less than six months they would be defending those cities against a massive North Vietnamese offensive. Did South Korea invade North Korea? Did South Vietnam invade North Vietnam?

Moreover, we now know from the secret documents brought to the West by Vasili Mitrokhin just how extensive and ruthless the KGB’s system of international espionage and subversion was.95 In the global Cold War, inextricably entangled as it was with the fall of the European empires, the Soviet Union nearly always made the first move, leaving the United States to retaliate where it could.96 That retaliation took many ugly forms, no doubt. Graham Greene had it right when he mocked The Quiet American,  whose talk of a “third force” sounded just like imperialism to everyone else. But in terms of both economic growth and political freedom, it was always better for ordinary people and their children if the United States won. The burden of proof is therefore on the critics of U.S. policy to show that a policy of nonintervention — of the sort that had been adopted by the Western powers when the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and fascist Italy took sides in the Spanish Civil War, and again when the Germans demanded the breakup of Czechoslovakia — would have produced better results. As Kissinger pointed out to Oriana Fallaci, “the history of things that didn’t happen” needs to be considered before we may pass any judgment on the history of things that did happen. We need to consider not only the consequences of what American governments did during the Cold War, but also the probable consequences of the different foreign policies that might have been adopted.

What if the United States had never adopted George Kennan’s policy of containment but had opted again for isolationism after 1945? What, conversely, if the United States had adopted a more aggressive strategy aimed at “rolling back” Soviet gains, at the risk of precipitating a nuclear war? Both alternatives had their advocates at the time, just as there were advocates of both less and more forceful policies during Kissinger’s time in office. Anyone who presumes to condemn what decision makers did in this or that location must be able to argue plausibly that their preferred alternative policy would have had fewer American and non-American casualties and no large negative second-order effects in other parts of the world. In particular, arguments that focus on loss of life in strategically marginal countries — and there is no other way of describing Argentina, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile, Cyprus, and East Timor — must be tested against this question: how, in each case, would an alternative decision have affected U.S. relations with strategically important countries like the Soviet Union, China, and the major Western European powers? For, as Kissinger himself once observed, the statesman is not like a judge, who can treat each individual case on its merits. The maker of grand strategy in the Cold War had to consider all cases simultaneously in the context of a prolonged struggle against a hostile and heavily armed rival.

From this standpoint, the real puzzle of the Cold War is why it took so long for the United States to win it. Far wealthier than the Soviet Union by any measure (according to the best available estimates, the Soviet economy was on average less than two-fifths the size of the American throughout), technologically nearly always in front, and with a markedly more attractive political system and popular culture, the United States on the eve of Henry Kissinger’s appointment as national security adviser was already a mighty empire — but an “empire by invitation” rather than imposition.97 American service personnel were stationed in sixty-four countries.98 The United States had treaties of alliance with no fewer than forty-eight of them.99 Not only were American forces generally better armed than anyone else; the United States was not afraid to use them. Between 1946 and 1965, according to one estimate, there had been 168 separate instances of American armed intervention overseas.100 U.S. forces were permanently based in key countries, including the two major aggressors of World War II, Germany and Japan. Yet the Cold War was set to endure for another twenty years. Moreover, throughout the era of superpower rivalry, the United States tended to have a harder time than its rival when it came to imposing its will outside its own borders. According to one assessment of seven Cold War interventions by the United States, only four were successful in the sense of establishing stable democratic systems: West Germany and Japan after World War II, and Grenada and Panama in the 1980s. Even if the list is expanded to include the striking success of South Korea, the colossal failure of Vietnam hangs like a cloud of acrid smoke over the American record.101

In the summer of 1947, George Kennan published his anonymous essay in Foreign Affairs,  “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” one of the foundational texts of the strategy he called “containment.” In a startling passage, Kennan likened the seeming power of the Soviet Union to that of the grand merchant family in Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks .

Observing that human institutions often show the greatest outward brilliance at a moment when inner decay is in reality farthest advanced, [Mann] compared the Buddenbrook family, in the days of its greatest glamour, to one of those stars whose light shines most brightly on this world when in reality it has long since ceased to exist. And who can say with assurance that the strong light still cast by the Kremlin on the dissatisfied peoples of the western world is not the powerful afterglow of a constellation which is in actuality on the wane?… [T]he possibility remains… that Soviet power… bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.102

Kennan was forty-three when he wrote those words. He was eighty-seven when the Soviet Union was finally dissolved in December 1991.

Why was this? Why was the Cold War so interminable and so intractable? A large part of the interest of this book lies in the fact that, by rejecting both historical materialism and economic determinism from an early stage of his career, Henry Kissinger was able to offer a compelling answer to that question. The Cold War was not about economics. It was not even about nuclear stockpiles, much less tank divisions. It was primarily about ideals.


Was Kissinger, as nearly all his critics assume, really  a realist? The answer matters a good deal. For if he was not in fact a latter-day Metternich or Bismarck, then his conduct as a policy maker ought not to be judged by the standard realist criterion: were American interests best served, regardless of the means employed? “Realism,” Robert Kaplan has written, “is about the ultimate moral ambition in foreign policy: the avoidance of war through a favorable balance of power…. [A]s a European-style realist, Kissinger has thought more about morality and ethics than most self-styled moralists.”103 Like Mazlish’s skeptical allusion to Kissinger’s “higher moral purposes,”104 this is closer to the target than the wild accusations of amorality and immorality favored by the conspiracy theorists, though it is still wide of the bull’s-eye.

Asked in 1976 to assess his own achievement as a statesman, Kissinger replied, “I have tried — with what success historians will have to judge — to have an overriding concept.” There is no question, as we shall see, that Kissinger entered the White House in 1969 with such a concept. He had indeed spent most of the preceding twenty years devising and defining it.105 As he famously observed, “High office teaches decision making, not substance. It consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it. Most high officials leave office with the perceptions and insights with which they entered; they learn how to make decisions but not what decisions to make.”106 But to an extent that says much about modern standards of scholarship, remarkably few of those who have taken it upon themselves to pass judgment on Henry Kissinger have done more than skim his published work, which prior to 1969 included four weighty books, more than a dozen substantial articles for magazines such as Foreign Affairs,  and a fair amount of journalism. The first task of a biographer who undertakes to write the life of a scholar — even if that scholar goes on to attain high office — ought surely to be to read his writings. Doing so reveals that Kissinger’s intellectual capital had a dual foundation: the study of history and the philosophy of idealism.

Kissinger’s wartime mentor, Fritz Kraemer, once described his protégé as being “musically attuned to history. This is not something you can learn, no matter how intelligent you are. It is a gift from God.”107 His Harvard contemporary John Stoessinger recalled an early meeting with Kissinger when they were both first-year graduate students: “He argued forcefully for the abiding importance of history. Quoting Thucydides, he asserted that the present, while never repeating the past exactly, must inevitably resemble it. Hence, so must the future…. More than ever… one should study history in order to see why nations and men succeeded and why they failed.”108 This was to be a lifelong leitmotif. The single thing that differentiated Kissinger from most other students of international relations in his generation was that he revered history above theory — or rather, Kissinger’s theory of foreign policy was defined by the insight that states and statesmen act on the basis of their own historical self-understanding and cannot be comprehended in any other way.

Yet there was something that preceded Kissinger the historian, and that was Kissinger the philosopher of history. It is here that the most fundamental misunderstanding has occurred. Like nearly all Kissinger scholars, Oriana Fallaci took it for granted that Kissinger was “much influenced” by Machiavelli and was therefore an admirer of Metternich. Kissinger gave her a frank and illuminating answer:

There is really very little of Machiavelli that can be accepted or used in the modern world. The only thing I find interesting in Machiavelli is his way of considering the will of the prince. Interesting, but not to the point of influencing me. If you want to know who has influenced me the most, I’ll answer with the names of two philosophers: Spinoza and Kant. So it’s curious that you choose to associate me with Machiavelli. People rather associate me with the name of Metternich. Which is actually childish. On Metternich I’ve written only one book, which was to be the beginning of a long series of books on the construction and disintegration of the international order of the nineteenth century. It was a series that was to end with the First World War. That’s all. There can be nothing in common between me and Metternich.109

To my knowledge only one previous writer has fully understood the significance of that candid response.* Far from being a Machiavellian realist, Henry Kissinger was in fact from the outset of his career an idealist, having immersed himself as an undergraduate in the philosophy of the great Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant. Indeed, as the historian Peter Dickson pointed out as early as 1978, Kissinger considered himself “more Kantian than Kant.”110 His unpublished senior thesis, “The Meaning of History,” is at root an overambitious but deeply sincere critique of Kant’s philosophy of history. More than a quarter of a century after its completion, Kissinger was still citing Kant to explain why he discerned “a clear conflict between two moral imperatives” in foreign policy: the obligation to defend freedom and the necessity for coexistence with adversaries.111 Though habitually categorized as a realist, Dickson argued, in reality Kissinger owed much more to idealism than to the likes of Morgenthau.112 I believe this is correct. Indeed, it is compellingly borne out by Kissinger’s World Order,  published in his ninety-first year, which quotes Kant at length.113 I also believe that the failure of writer after writer to understand Kissinger’s idealism has vitiated severely, if not fatally, the historical judgments they have passed on him.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the young Kissinger was an idealist in the sense in which the word is often used to characterize the tradition in U.S. foreign policy that emphasized the subordination of “might” to supranational laws and courts.114 Rather, I am using the term “idealism” in its philosophical sense, meaning the strand of Western philosophy, extending back to Anaxagoras and Plato, that holds that (in Kant’s formulation) “we can never be certain whether all of our putative outer experience is not mere imagining” because “the reality of external objects does not admit of strict proof.” Not all idealists are Kantian, it need hardly be said. Plato regarded matter as real and existing independently of perception. Bishop Berkeley insisted that reality was all in the mind; experience itself was an illusion. In Kant’s “transcendental” idealism, by contrast, “the whole material world” was “nothing but a phenomenal appearance in the sensibility of ourselves as a subject,” but there were such things as noumena, or “things in themselves,” which the mind shaped into phenomena on the basis of experience rather than “pure reason.” As we shall see, Kissinger’s reading of Kant had a profound and enduring influence on his own thought, not least because it made him skeptical of the various materialist theories of capitalist superiority that U.S. social scientists devised as antidotes to Marxism-Leninism. He showed no interest whatever in the version of idealism developed by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as a comprehensive theory of history, in which the dialectical fusion of theses and antitheses propelled the world inexorably onward. For Kissinger, the burning historical question was how far Kant’s view of the human predicament — as one in which the individual freely faced meaningful moral dilemmas — could be reconciled with the philosopher’s vision of a world ultimately destined for “perpetual peace.” It was no facile allusion when Kissinger referred to Kant’s essay in his address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 1973, just two days after he had been confirmed as secretary of state:

Two centuries ago, the philosopher Kant predicted that perpetual peace would come eventually — either as the creation of man’s moral aspirations or as the consequence of physical necessity. What seemed utopian then looms as tomorrow’s reality; soon there will be no alternative. Our only choice is whether the world envisaged in the [United Nations] charter will come about as the result of our vision or of a catastrophe invited by our shortsightedness.115

As we know, the Cold War did not end in catastrophe. In its aftermath, though still a long way from perpetual peace, the world has become a markedly more peaceful place, with striking declines in the levels of organized violence in all regions of the world except the Middle East and North Africa.116 How far that outcome owed anything to Henry Kissinger’s vision is, to say the least, a question that has not hitherto received an adequate answer. Suffice for now to say that, having escalated alarmingly during the 1960s, global violence, as measured by total deaths due to warfare, fell sharply between 1971 and 1976.

Presciently, Peter Dickson foresaw what Kissinger’s predicament would be if the Cold War did indeed end, as it did, with a more or less bloodless American victory:

[Kissinger’s] notion that discord can surreptitiously lead to cooperation, the concept of self-limitation, and his characterization of foreign policy as a hierarchy of imperatives were all designed to inject a sense of purpose… [in]to American political culture as a whole… to restore meaning to history when Americans began to question seriously their nation’s role in the world…. Kissinger’s political philosophy constitute[d] a major break with the rationale of all postwar policy, which rested on the notion of America as a redeemer nation, as the guarantor of freedom and democracy…. [I]f at some future time the United States succeeds in fulfilling the role of redeemer, then Kissinger will be seen as a defeatist leader, as an historical pessimist who underestimated the appeal and relevance of democratic ideals and principles.117

It is surely no accident that the most bitter denunciations of Kissinger came after the Soviet threat had — as if by magic — disappeared.


I have spent a substantial proportion of the last twenty years trying to understand better the nature of power and the causes of war and peace. Though I initially focused on the German Reich and the British Empire, my

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focus since moving across the Atlantic has been, perhaps inevitably, on that strange empire that dare not speak its name, the United States of America. My critique has been, if nothing else, nonpartisan. In 2001 I summed up Bill Clinton’s foreign policy as a case of “understretch,” in that the administration was too preoccupied with domestic scandal and too averse to casualties to make proper use of America’s vast capabilities.118 Three years later, in the early phase of the Bush administration’s occupation of Iraq, I published a meditation on the American predicament: the heir to a British tradition of liberal imperialism, convinced of the benefits of free trade and representative government, yet constrained — perhaps fatally — by three deficits: a fiscal deficit (in the sense that spiraling welfare entitlements and debt must inevitably squeeze the resources available for national security), a manpower deficit (in the sense that not many Americans want to spend very long sorting out hot, poor countries), and above all, an attention deficit (in the sense that any major foreign intervention is likely to lose popularity within a four-year election cycle).119 I foresaw the direction we would take under Bush’s successor—“an imminent retreat from the principles of preemption and the practice of unilateralism”—well before his identity was known. I also anticipated some of the consequences of the coming American retreat.120

Yet in researching the life and times of Henry Kissinger, I have come to realize that my approach was unsubtle. In particular, I had missed the crucial importance in American foreign policy of the history deficit:  the fact that key decision makers know almost nothing not just of other countries’ pasts but also of their own. Worse, they often do not see what is wrong with their ignorance. Worst of all, they know just enough history to have confidence but not enough to have understanding. Like the official who assured me in early 2003 that the future of a post-Saddam Iraq would closely resemble that of post-Communist Poland, too many highly accomplished Americans simply do not appreciate the value, but also the danger, of historical analogy.

This is the biography of an intellectual, but it is more than just an intellectual biography because, in the evolution of Kissinger’s thought, the interplay of study and experience was singularly close. For that reason, I have come to see this volume as what is known in Germany as a bildungsroman — the story of an education that was both philosophical and sentimental. The story is subdivided into five books. The first takes Kissinger from his childhood in interwar Germany through forced emigration to the United States and back to Germany in a U.S. Army uniform. The second is about his early Harvard career, as an undergraduate, a doctoral student, and a junior professor, but it is also about his emergence as a public intellectual as a result of his work on nuclear strategy for the Council on Foreign Relations. The third describes his first experiences as an adviser, first to a candidate for the presidency — Nelson Rockefeller — and then to a president — John F. Kennedy. The fourth leads him down the twisted road to Vietnam and to the realization that the war there could not be won by the United States. The fifth and final book details the events leading up to his wholly unexpected appointment as national security adviser by Nixon.

Kissinger was a voracious reader, and so a part of his education self-evidently came from writers, from Immanuel Kant to Herman Kahn. Yet in many ways the biggest influences on him were not books but mentors, beginning with Fritz Kraemer — Mephistopheles to Kissinger’s Faust. And the most important lessons he learned came as much from his own experience as from their instruction. I have concluded that four precepts in particular should be considered as the essential assets in the intellectual capital that Kissinger brought with him as he entered the White House in January 1969: his sense that most strategic choices are between lesser and greater evils; his belief in history as the mother lode of both analogies and insights into the self-understanding of other actors; his realization that any decision is essentially conjectural and that the political payoffs to some courses of action may be lower than the payoffs of inaction and retaliation, even though the ultimate costs of the latter course may be higher; and finally, his awareness that realism in foreign policy, as exemplified by Bismarck, is fraught with perils, not least the alienation of the public and the slippage of the statesman into regarding power as an end in itself.

In aspiring to loftier ends, I believe, the young Kissinger was indeed an idealist.

Book I

CHAPTER 1 Heimat 

Fürth ist mir ziemlich egal.  (Fürth is a matter of indifference to me.)



Where exactly is a biographer to begin when his subject flatly denies the significance of his childhood for his later life?

It has often been suggested that growing up in the Germany of the 1930s “cast a traumatic shadow over [Kissinger’s]… adolescence.” For example: “The feeling of constantly being liable to unpredictable violence obviously laid deep in Kissinger’s psyche a kind of groundwork on which his later attitudes (even to nuclear war) could be built.”2 Another author has speculated that in the 1970s Kissinger “feared a return to the violence, chaos and collapse of Weimar Germany.” His attitudes to both the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, so the argument runs, are intelligible only in the light of his youthful experiences in Germany. Indeed, his entire philosophical and political outlook is said to have deep German roots. “The experience of Weimar Germany’s collapse… convinced… [him] that democracy had a very dark side.” That same experience supposedly made him a lifelong cultural pessimist.3

Kissinger himself has repeatedly dismissed such theories. “My life in Fürth,” he declared in 1958, during a visit to his Bavarian birthplace, “seems to have passed without [leaving] any deeper impressions; I cannot recall any interesting or amusing incident.”4 Interviewed by Al Ellenberg of the New York Post  in March 1974, he laconically conceded that he had “often… been chased through the streets, and beaten up” as a boy growing up in Nazi Germany. But he was quick to add, “That part of my childhood was not a key to anything. I was not consciously unhappy, I was not acutely aware of what was going on. For children, these things are not that serious…. It is fashionable now to explain everything psychoanalytically. But let me tell you, the political persecutions of my childhood are not what control my life.”5

In his memoirs of his career in government, Kissinger alludes only once to his German boyhood.6 His birthplace, he remarked in 2004, meant little to him.7 Those who seek the key to his career in his German-Jewish origins are therefore wasting their time.

I experienced the impact of Nazism and it was very unpleasant, but it did not interfere in my friendship with Jewish people of my age so that I did not find it traumatic…. I have resisted the psychiatric explanations [which] argue that I developed a passion for order over justice and that I translated it into profound interpretations of the international system. I wasn’t concerned with the international system. I was concerned with the standing of the football team of the town in which I lived.8

Kissinger’s readiness in later life to revisit Fürth has served to reinforce the impression that his youth was not a time of trauma. He paid a visit during a trip to Germany in December 1958, when his return — as the associate director of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University — rated two paragraphs in the local paper.9 The media attention was far greater seventeen years later when, as U.S. secretary of state, he traveled to Fürth to receive a “citizen’s gold medal,” accompanied by his parents and younger brother, as well as his wife.10 The event was a carefully choreographed celebration of (in Kissinger’s words) “the extraordinary renewal of the friendship between the American and German peoples.” Before an audience of Bavarian worthies, he and the German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, exchanged what today might seem like diplomatic platitudes.

In the shadow of a nuclear catastrophe [declared Kissinger]… we must not bow to the supposed inevitability of historical tragedy…. Our shared task is to collaborate in building a system of international relations which ensures the stability of continents and the security of peoples, which binds the peoples of the world together through their common interests, and which demands restraint and moderation in international affairs. Our goal is a peace for which all of us work — small as well as big states — a peace that is enduring because all wish to uphold it — strong as well as weak states.11

Yet the more memorable speech was the unscheduled one given by Kissinger’s father, Louis, making his first visit to Germany since 1938. Though noting that he had been “forced to leave” Germany in that year, he generously referred to Fürth’s earlier tradition of religious tolerance. (“While, in past centuries, intolerance and prejudice were predominant in many German cities, in Fürth the various faiths lived together in harmony.”) His son was being honored in his birthplace not just because of his worldly success but because, like Trygaeus, the hero in Aristophanes’s comedy Peace,  he

has seen it as his life’s work to dedicate his time and energy to furthering and maintaining peace in the world. Working together with the President of the United States, he has the great idea of ushering in an era of understanding and peaceful collaboration between nations…. It is a gratifying feeling for us parents that today the name Kissinger is seen around the world as interchangeable with the term “peace”; that the name Kissinger has become a synonym for peace.12

It was December 1975. Angola was sliding into civil war, less than a month after the end of Portuguese colonial rule. A matter of days before the Kissingers’ trip to Fürth, the Pathet Lao, supported by Vietnam and the Soviet Union, had overthrown the king of Laos, and the Indonesian military had invaded the briefly independent state of East Timor. Just eight days after the medal ceremony, the CIA’s head of station in Athens was shot dead. The newspapers that month were full of terrorist outrages: by the Irish Republican Army in London, by the Palestine Liberation Organization in Vienna, by South Moluccan separatists in the Netherlands. There was even a fatal bomb explosion at New York’s La Guardia airport. To some young German Social Democrats, it seemed incongruous to honor the American secretary of state at such a time.13 Perhaps only the older Germans present understood the significance of Kissinger’s call for “a world, in which it is reconciliation and not power that fills peoples with pride; an era, in which convictions are a source of moral strength and not of intolerance and of hate.”14 These were no empty phrases. For the Kissinger family, what was “especially moving” about this “homecoming” was the fact that the country they had once fled now feted them.15

May 1923 was the month Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born in Fürth. That, too, was a year of turmoil in the world. In January the town of Rosewood, Florida, had been razed to the ground in a race riot that left six people dead. In June the Bulgarian prime minister, Aleksandar Stamboliyski, was overthrown (and subsequently killed) in a coup. In September General Miguel Ángel Primo de Rivera seized power in Spain, while Japan was devastated by the Great Kanto Earthquake. In October another military strongman, Mustafa Kemal, proclaimed the Republic of Turkey amid the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The world was still reeling from the political aftershocks of the First World War. In many countries, from Ireland to Russia, bloody civil wars were only now coming to an end. The revolution in the latter had been a human catastrophe, claiming the lives of millions — including its leader, Lenin, who that same month was forced to retire to his estate at Gorki, his health never having recovered from an assassination attempt in 1918.

Nowhere, however, was the upheaval of 1923 greater than in Germany. In January French and Belgian troops had occupied the coal-rich Ruhr area in retaliation for Germany’s failure to fulfill its obligations under the Treaty of Versailles. The German government called for a general strike. The crisis was the coup de grâce for the German currency, which nose-dived into worthlessness. The country threatened to fall apart, with separatist movements in the Rhineland, Bavaria, Saxony, and even Hamburg, where the Communists attempted to seize power. In Munich on November 8 Adolf Hitler launched a putsch from the huge beer hall known as the Bürgerbräukeller. He would not have been the first uniformed demagogue to seize power with such a stunt; Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome had succeeded just over a year before. It took a concerted effort by the head of the Reichswehr, Hans von Seeckt; the leader of the German People’s Party, Gustav von Stresemann; and the banker Hjalmar Schacht to restore the authority of the central government and begin the process of currency reform and stabilization.

It was into this chaos, in the Middle Franconian town of Fürth, that Heinz Kissinger was born.


Stifling in its narrow dreariness, our ungardened city, city of soot, of a thousand chimneys, of clanging machinery and hammers, of beer-shops, of sullen, sordid greed in business or craft, of petty and mean people crowded together, with poverty and lovelessness…. In the environs, a barren, sandy plain, dirty factory streams, the slow, murky river, the uniformly straight canal, gaunt woods, melancholy villages, hideous quarries, dust, clay, broom.16

Fürth lacked charm. The author Jakob Wassermann, who was born there in 1873, recalled its “peculiar formlessness, a certain aridity and meagreness.”17 The contrast with its ancient neighbor, Nuremberg, was especially striking. One of the three most important cities of the Holy Roman Empire, Nuremberg was all “ancient houses, courtyards, streets, cathedrals, bridges, fountains and walls.”18 Separated by just five miles — a short train ride away — the two cities were, in Wassermann’s words, an incongruous “union of antiquity and recentness, art and industry, romance and manufacturing, design and dissolution, form and deformity.”19 Even more sharp was the contrast between grimy industrial Fürth and the pretty, hilly countryside around Ansbach to the south, a landscape of “flower gardens, orchards, fish ponds, deserted castles, ruins full of legends, village fairs, simple people.”20

First referred to in the eleventh century, Fürth alternately prospered then suffered from the fragmentation of political authority in medieval and early modern Germany. For a time, sovereignty over the town was shared between the bishop of Bamberg and the margrave of Ansbach. But such loose arrangements exposed the town to devastation during the Thirty Years’ War that ravaged Germany during the first half of the seventeenth century. (Not far southwest of Fürth is the Alte Veste, where Albrecht von Wallenstein defeated the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus in 1632.) A Bavarian possession from 1806, Fürth was a beneficiary of two concurrent nineteenth-century processes: the industrialization of continental Europe and the unification of Germany. It was no accident that the first railway in Germany, the Ludwigsbahn, was built in 1835 to link Nuremberg to Fürth.21 The little town on the banks of the Rednitz sprang into life as one of the hubs of South German manufacturing. Fürth became famous for the mirrors made by companies like S. Bendit & Söhne, as well as for spectacles and other optical instruments. Bronze goods, wooden furniture, gold leaf decoration, toys, and pens: Fürth made them all, often for export to the United States. Its breweries, too, were renowned throughout South Germany. This was scarcely mass production. Most firms were small, with 84 percent of them employing fewer than five people at the turn of the century. The technology was relatively primitive and working conditions — especially in the mercury-intensive mirror industry — often hazardous. Still, there was no mistaking the dynamism of the place. Its population quintupled between 1819 and 1910, from 12,769 to 66,553.

Travelers in search of picturesque Bavarian vistas found Fürth an eyesore. On their way to Nuremberg, the British artist Arthur George Bell and his wife approached Fürth by rail in the early 1900s. They, too, were struck by the contrast between town and country:

The fields and pastures, the vineyards and hops plantations, undivided by hedges, are enlivened with groups of peasants. Men, women, and children, all equally hard at work, are to be seen toiling in primitive fashion with clumsy agricultural instruments, such as the hand-sickle, long since abandoned elsewhere, and it is no unusual thing for a threshing machine, drawn by a pair of cows or oxen, to creep slowly along whilst the driver trudges, half asleep, beside it….

As the train nears Fürth[, however], the premonition of the approaching destruction of all that is primitive and rural becomes ever more accentuated, and it is through a heavy pall of smoke, between rows of unsightly houses, that the final stage of the journey is performed.22

Fürth, in short, was an ugly, smoggy agglomeration of sweatshops, a modern excrescence in an otherwise picturesque kingdom.

Yet even Fürth retained some vestiges of the medieval past. At the end of September each year the townsfolk celebrated (as they still do) the St. Michael’s Festival (Michaeliskirchweih or “Kärwa” in local dialect), a twelve-day carnival dating back to the construction of the St. Michael’s church around 1100. The town also had its own mystery play derived from the legend of Saint George, in which the mayor’s daughter was rescued from the local dragon by a plucky peasant lad named Udo.23 Despite such quaint customs, Fürth was in fact a staunchly Protestant town, like most of Franconia. More than two-thirds of the population were Lutheran, and like most nineteenth-century Protestant towns on both sides of the Atlantic, the Fürthers had a rich secular associational life. At the turn of the century the town had around 280 associations, ranging from the singing groups to stamp collectors.24 In 1902 a new town theater had opened its doors, funded entirely by 382 private subscriptions. As a cultural center, Fürth was no match for Nuremberg, but it could at least hire its own Meistersinger: their inaugural performance was of Beethoven’s Fidelio .25 However, opera was not the Fürthers’ favorite pastime. That was without doubt soccer. The Spielvereinigung Fürth was founded in 1906 and won its first national title just eight years later under an English coach named William Townley. Here, too, Fürth had to contend with its bigger and grander neighbor. In 1920 the two teams met in the championship final (Fürth lost). Four years later the German national side was made up exclusively of Fürth and Nuremberg players, though the rivalry between the two clubs was so intense that the players traveled in separate rail coaches.

Soccer was and remains a working-class sport, and its popularity in Fürth from the early 1900s showed how industry was changing the town. The same was true in politics. Already at the time of the 1848 Revolutions, Fürth had acquired a reputation as a “nest of Democrats” (a term then connoting political radicalism). Fürthers were also active in the formation of the new Bavarian Progressive Party (Fortschrittspartei), founded in 1863. Five years later the Fürth socialist Gabriel Löwenstein established the workers’ association “Future” (Zukunft), which soon became part of the nationwide German Social Democratic Party (SPD). In the 1870s the SPD could win the Erlangen-Fürth district only by joining forces with the left-liberal People’s Party.26 But by the 1890s the Social Democrats commanded a plurality of votes in Reichstag elections; only a united front of “bourgeois parties” in the second round of voting kept the SPD candidate out, so that it was not until 1912 that “Red Fürth” sent a Social Democrat deputy to the Reichstag.27

The town acquired its red reputation for two distinct reasons. The first and more obvious was the large concentration of skilled and usually unionized workers in the town’s manufacturing industry. The second, however, was the large proportion of Jews in the population. To be sure, not all of Fürth’s Jews were men of the left like Löwenstein. But enough were to make the elision of socialism and Judaism a plausible rhetorical trope with the increasingly numerous demagogues of the German right.


There had been a Jewish community in Fürth since 1528. Thirty years before, Nuremberg had followed the example of many other European cities and states by expelling Jews from its territory. But Fürth offered a refuge. Indeed, by the late sixteenth century Jews were being encouraged to settle there as a way of diverting trade away from Nuremberg.28 Already by the early 1600s Fürth had its own rabbi, a Talmudic academy, and its first synagogue, built in 1616–17 and modeled on the Pinkas synagogue in Prague. Rabbi Schabbatai Scheftel Horowitz, who lived there between 1628 and 1632, praised “the sacred community of Fürth, a small city but one which appeared to me to be as great as Antioch because here erudite people were gathered together for daily study.”29 The Thirty Years’ War was a perilous time for Jews in Germany, but the Fürth community got off lightly, apart from some damage to the synagogue when it was used by a Croatian cavalry regiment as stables.30 Two new synagogues were built in the 1690s: the Klaus and the Mannheimer. By the early nineteenth century the town had seven in all, four of which were grouped around the Schulhof, along with the congregational offices, ritual bathhouse, and kosher butcher. The Jewish population by this time accounted for just under a fifth of the population of Fürth, though that proportion would subsequently decline (to just 4 percent by 1910) as the town expanded. At its numerical peak in 1880, the Jewish community numbered 3,300, making it the third largest in Bavaria, after Munich and Nuremberg, and the eleventh largest in Germany.31

Yet in one crucial respect the Jewish community of Fürth was divided: between a Reform or liberal minority and an Orthodox majority. Proponents of Reform, like Isaak Loewi, who became chief rabbi in 1831, wished (among other things) that Jewish worship should conform more to the style of Christian worship. Under his influence, the main synagogue was given a more churchlike layout, with standing desks replaced by pews and the addition of an organ in 1873; worshippers no longer wore the tallit .33 These changes were part of a wave of assimilation among German Jews, who sought to efface the outward differences between themselves and German Christians in the hope of thereby achieving full equality before the law. A few Jews went even further, either converting to Christianity or embracing the radical skepticism of the political left. But the majority of Fürth Jews reacted against the Reform movement. Thus, while the liberal congregation controlled the main synagogue, the other smaller synagogues around the Schulhof were the domain of Orthodoxy. The division extended into the realm of education. The children of Reform Jews attended the public Gymnasium or the Girls’ Lyceum, along with their gentile contemporaries, while the children of Orthodox families were sent to the Jewish High School (Realschule ) at 31 Blumenstrasse, where there were no Saturday lessons.34

To an extent that is often forgotten, Jewish assimilation succeeded in pre-1914 Germany. Formally, to be sure, there remained restrictions. The Bavarian Judenedikt  of 1813 had granted Jews Bavarian citizenship but had set a limit on their numbers in any one place — which explains the stagnation of the Fürth community in the mid-nineteenth century and its absolute decline after 1880. That statute remained in force until 1920, despite a brief period of relaxation after the 1848 Revolutions.35 Yet in practice the Jews of Fürth had ceased to be second-class citizens by 1900 at the latest. Not only could they vote in local, state, and national elections; they could also serve as magistrates. They played leading roles in the local legal, medical, and teaching professions. As one Fürth Jew recalled, his hometown produced “the first Jewish attorney, the first Jewish deputy to the Bavarian diet, the first Jewish judge in Bavaria, the first Jewish headmaster.”36 Among the distinguished products of the community were the publisher Leopold Ullstein, born in Fürth in 1826, who by the time of his death in 1899 was one of Germany’s leading newspaper proprietors. In 1906 another luminary, the pencil manufacturer Heinrich Berolzheimer, bequeathed to the town the Berolzheimerianum as a “home for popular education” to “serve the whole population… regardless of social class, religion or political opinions.” This building, with its large public library and auditorium, symbolized the apogee of South German — Jewish integration.

Yet there was always a seed of doubt. The author Jakob Wassermann was born in Fürth in 1873, the son of an unsuccessful businessman. Looking back on his unhappy childhood in a memoir published in 1921, Wassermann recalled how the mid-nineteenth-century restrictions “like those on numbers, on freedom of movement and on occupation… [had] provided constant nourishment for sinister religious fanaticism, for ghetto obstinacy and ghetto fear.”37 Admittedly, those restrictions had ceased to operate by the time of his youth, so much so that his father would exclaim contentedly, “We live in an age of tolerance!”

As far as clothing, language and mode of life were concerned, adaptation was complete. I attended a public government school. We lived among Christians, associated with Christians. The progressive Jews, of whom my father was one, felt that the Jewish community existed only in the sense of religious worship and tradition. Religious worship, fleeing the seductive power of modern life, became concentrated more and more in secret, unworldly groups of zealots. Tradition became a legend, and finally degenerated into mere phrases, an empty shell.38

Wassermann’s recollections need to be read with caution. He was doubly an outsider, an autodidact atheist who despised his father’s mechanical observance, and a lover of German literature who felt the tiniest hint of racial prejudice as a personal affront. Yet his account of the religious and social life of the Fürth Jews is unmatched and illuminating. “Religion was a study,” he recalled “and not a pleasant one. A lesson taught soullessly by a soulless old man. Even today I sometimes see his evil, conceited old face in my dreams…. [He] thrashed formulas into us, antiquated Hebrew prayers that we translated mechanically, without any actual knowledge of the language; what he taught was paltry, dead, mummified.”

Religious services were even worse. A purely business-like affair, an unsanctified assembly, the noisy performance of ceremonies become habitual, devoid of symbolism, mere drill…. The conservative and orthodox Jews conducted their services in the so-called shuls, tiny places of worship, often only little rooms in obscure, out-of-the-way alleys. There one could still see heads and figures such as Rembrandt drew, fanatic faces, ascetic eyes burning with the memory of unforgotten persecutions.39

When the young Wassermann expressed interest in the works of Spinoza, he was warned, “in a tone of sibylline gloom, that whoever read these books must become insane.”40

Wassermann rightly saw through the facade of assimilation. One night the family’s Christian housemaid took him in her arms and said, “You could be a good Christian, you have a Christian heart.” Her words frightened the boy “because they contained a tacit condemnation of being Jewish.”41 He sensed the same ambivalence in the families of his gentile playmates: “In childhood my brothers and sisters and I were so closely bound up with the daily life of our Christian neighbors of the wor

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king and middle classes that we had our playmates there, our protectors…. But watchfulness and a feeling of strangeness persisted. I was only a guest.”42

To live as a Jew in Fürth was to grow accustomed to things Wassermann found intolerable: “A sneering appellation in the street, a venomous glance, a scornfully appraising look, a certain recurrent contempt — all this was the usual thing.”43 What was worse was to discover that such attitudes were not peculiar to Fürth. As a conscript in the Bavarian army, Wassermann also encountered

that dull, rigid, almost mute hatred that has penetrated the national organism. The word anti-Semitism  does not serve to describe it…. It contains elements of superstition and voluntary delusion, of fanatic terror and priest-inspired callousness, of ignorance and rancor of him who is wronged and betrayed, of unscrupulousness and falsehood as well as of an excusable weapon of self-defense, of apish malice as well as of religious bigotry. Greed and curiosity are involved here, blood-thirstiness and the fear of being lured or seduced, love of mystery and scanty self-esteem. In its constituents and background it is a peculiarly German phenomenon. It is a German hatred.44

Wassermann was once asked by a foreigner, “What is the reason for the German hatred of the Jews?… What do the Germans want?” His reply was striking.

I should have answered: Hate….

I should have answered: They want a scapegoat….

But what I did say was: A non-German cannot possibly imagine the heartbreaking position of the German Jew. German Jew — you must place full emphasis on both words. You must understand them as the final product of a lengthy evolutionary process. His twofold love and his struggle on two fronts drive him close to the brink of despair. The German and the Jew: I once dreamt an allegorical dream…. I placed the surfaces of two mirrors together; and I felt as if the human images contained and preserved in the two mirrors would have to fight one another tooth and nail.45

These words were published in 1921, just two years before the birth of Henry Kissinger. Idiosyncratic Wassermann may have been — an exemplar, some would say, of Jewish “self-hatred”—but his anatomy of German-Jewish melancholy was darkly prophetic.46


The Kissingers descended from Meyer Löb (1767–1838), a Jewish teacher from Kleineibstadt who in 1817 took his surname from his adopted home of Bad Kissingen (complying with an 1813 Bavarian edict that required Jews to have surnames).47 By his first wife he had two children, Isak and Löb, but she died giving birth to the latter in May 1812. Meyer Löb then married her sister, Schoenlein. Of their ten children, only one — Abraham Kissinger (1818–99) — had issue. The descendants of Isak and Löb Kissinger were tailors; the descendants of Abraham were teachers.48 Abraham himself was a successful weaver and merchant. He and his wife, Fanny Stern, had nine children in all, including four sons, Joseph, Maier, Simon, and David (1860–1947), all of whom became rabbis. David Kissinger taught religion to the Jewish community of Ermershausen, a village on the Bavarian-Thuringian border. On August 3, 1884, he married Karoline (Lina) Zeilberger (1863–1906), the daughter of a prosperous farmer, who provided her with a ten-thousand-mark dowry.49 They had eight children: Jenny (who died aged six in 1901), Louis (born on February 2, 1887), Ida (born in 1888), Fanny (1892), Karl (1898), Arno (1901), Selma and Simon.50

Louis Kissinger’s youth was an advertisement for what an intelligent, hardworking Jewish boy could achieve in imperial Germany. At the age of eighteen — without even a diploma, much less a university degree — he embarked on a teaching career. His first job was in Fürth, at the private Heckmannschule for (mainly Jewish) boys, where he was paid 1,000 marks per annum, plus 255 per month for health and old age insurance, to teach German, arithmetic, and science for four hours a day. He remained at the post for fourteen years.51 Despite formally becoming a citizen of Fürth in 1917,52 he seems to have contemplated moving, applying for posts in northern Bavaria and Upper Silesia, but he declined these jobs when offered them. Instead, at the age of thirty, he opted belatedly to sit his school-leaving examination — the Reifeprüfung —at the Fürth Realgymnasium, the town’s senior boys’ school. Equipped with his diploma, he was able to attend courses at Erlangen University. More important, he was able to apply for a more prestigious post at one of Fürth’s public schools: the senior girls’ school known today as the Helene-Lange-Gymnasium. With his appointment as Hauptlehrer  (literally “chief teacher”) in 1921, Louis Kissinger became in effect a senior civil servant. Though he continued to teach arithmetic and science — and appears also to have given occasional instruction at the town’s business school (Handelsschule )53—his preferred subject was German literature. “Kissus,” as the girls nicknamed him, was not a strict teacher. He enjoyed introducing his pupils to classics of German poetry like Goethe’s “Der Adler und die Taube” (“The Eagle and the Dove”) and Heinrich Heine’s “Jetzt wohin?” (“Now where?”). The latter would later acquire a painful personal significance. In the poem, written in the wake of the 1848 Revolutions, the exile Heine wonders where he should go if he faces a death sentence in his German homeland.

Where to now? My foolish feet 

To Germany would gladly go 

But my wiser head is shaking 

And seems to tell me “No”: 

The war may well be over, 

But martial law is still in force…. 

I sometimes get to thinking 

To America I should sail, 

To the stable yard of freedom 

Whence egalitarians hail. 

But I’m fearful of a country 

Where the people chew tobacco 

Where they bowl without a monarch 

Where they spit without spittoons. 

Louis Kissinger surely shared Heine’s preference for the land of his birth. Like Heine, he felt as much a German as a Jew.

That Louis Kissinger was a German patriot is not in doubt. He was a member of the national association expressly set up to represent “German citizens of the Jewish faith” (the Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens).54 Unlike the majority of German men of his generation, he did not fight in the First World War, but this was for health reasons.55 Other members of the Kissinger family are known to have served in the Bavarian army, which was notably friendlier toward Jews than its larger Prussian counterpart, Jakob Wassermann’s experiences notwithstanding. Louis’s brother Karl saw active service; his future father-in-law, as we shall see, was also called up. Two of his cousins lost their lives in the war.56 To many German Jews of that era, there was no better proof of their commitment to the Reich than this sacrifice. The claim that Jews were underrepresented on the front lines and in the casualty lists was angrily rebutted by patriotic organizations like the one to which Louis Kissinger belonged. Unlike some of his contemporaries, however, Louis felt under no pressure to dilute his religious faith as proof of his patriotism. He adhered firmly to the Orthodox part of the Fürth community, attending the Neuschul synagogue presided over by Rabbi Yehuda Leib (Leo) Breslauer, rather than the rival Reform congregation of Rabbi Siegfried Behrens. Like Breslauer (and unlike his brother Karl), Louis was uneasy about the Zionist movement, which called on the Jews to establish their own nation-state in Palestine — an idea that was proving especially attractive to Bavarian Jews.57 As his wife later recalled, “He [Louis] knew about [the Zionist leader Theodor] Herzl and everything. He knew but he was never [convinced]…. He was deeply religious but like a child, he believed everything… and he studied Zionism but he couldn’t accept it. He felt so German.”58

Paula Kissinger — the woman who spoke those words — was born thirty-five miles to the west of Fürth in the village of Leutershausen, on February 24, 1901. Her father, Falk Stern, was a prosperous farmer and cattle dealer and a pillar of the local Jewish community, serving as its chairman (Vorsitzender ) for fifteen years. Three years after his daughter’s birth, Falk and his brother David pooled their resources to buy the imposing house that still stands at number 8 Am Markt. Paula was brought up in an Orthodox household, learning to read Hebrew fluently and always eating at home in order to keep kosher. As in Fürth, however, religious separation did not imply social segregation. Paula’s closest childhood friend was a Protestant girl named Babette “Babby” Hammerder. “You never saw or felt any anti-Semitism ’til Hitler came,” Paula later recalled. “In fact, they sought you out, they looked for you, they wanted you.”59 Paula was just twelve when her mother, Peppi, died. A bright girl, she was sent by her grieving father to the girls’ school in Fürth, where she lived with her aunt, Berta Fleischmann, whose husband ran the kosher butcher’s in the Hirschenstrasse.

Despite being a widower in his mid-forties, Falk Stern was drafted in June 1915 and served in the infantry in Belgium until his discharge eleven months later. On his return from the front, Paula was summoned back to Leutershausen to keep house for her father and uncle. “I was eighteen,” she later remembered, “and… terribly lonesome in that small town, which had no intellectual [life]… nothing to keep your mind busy. I had to go to the next town to get books from the library.” She already dreamed of going to “faraway places” like Capri, but instead she was confined to the kitchen. “My aunt… taught me how to cook and I hated it. I wanted to read, and when she came I was sitting there and reading instead of doing my work.”60 Escape came when her father married Fanny Walter in April 1918. Not long after that, Paula took a job as an au pair in Halberstadt in North Germany, where she looked after the four children of a wealthy Jewish metal manufacturer. It was not quite Capri, but the family’s summer villa in the Harz Mountains was an improvement over the kitchen in Leutershausen. It was on a visit to her relatives in Fürth that Paula was introduced to the new teacher at her old school. Though Louis Kissinger was fourteen years her elder, they fell in love. In December 1921 they became engaged. Eight months later, on July 28, 1922, they were married.

Louis and Paula Kissinger married amid a revolution no less violent than the one that had driven his favorite poet Heine into exile ninety years before. Even before the formal armistice ended the First World War, the imperial regime had been toppled by the revolutionary wave that swept through Germany. On November 9, 1918, Fürth came briefly under the control of a Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council; the red flag flew high above the town hall. In April 1919 the revolutionaries sought to align themselves with the Munich “revolutionary central council,” set up in imitation of the Soviets in Russia. But as elsewhere in Germany, the Fürth Social Democrats repudiated the Bolshevik model and within just four days the city authorities (the Magistrat and the Kollegium der Gemeindebevollmächtigten) were restored to power.61 The revolution did not end there, however. In every year between 1919 and 1923, there was at least one attempt from either the left or the right to overthrow the new Weimar Republic (named after the Thuringian town where its constitution was drafted). Political violence was accompanied by economic insecurity. Intent on proving the unsustainability of the reparations debt imposed on Germany under the Versailles Treaty, Weimar’s ministers pursued a conscious policy of deficit finance and money printing. The short-term benefit was to boost investment, employment, and exports. The long-term cost was a disastrous hyperinflation that inflicted permanent damage on the financial system, the social order, and the political legitimacy of the republic. On the eve of the First World War, the exchange rate of the German mark had been fixed, under the gold standard, at 4.20 marks to the dollar. By Sunday, May 27, 1923—the day of Heinz Kissinger’s birth62—a dollar bought nearly 59,000 paper marks. The annual inflation rate was approaching 10,000 percent. By the end of the year the rate was 182 billion percent. A paper mark was worth precisely one trillionth of a prewar mark.

Needless to say, the Kissingers’ newborn baby was oblivious to all this, but he was not unaffected by it. For no social group was harder hit by the inflation than higher civil servants like Louis Kissinger. Workers were able at least partly to protect themselves against spiraling prices by striking for higher wages. A respectable schoolmaster could do no such thing. In the postwar years, unskilled workers’ wages initially held up in real terms, finally falling by around 30 percent in the collapse of 1922–23. By contrast, when adjusted for inflation, a civil servant’s salary fell by between 60 and 70 percent. At the same time, the cash savings of middle-class families like the Kissingers were wiped out. In the great leveling produced by the Weimar hyperinflation, men like Louis Kissinger were among the biggest losers. It was not until January 1925 that he could afford to move his growing family from their cramped first-floor apartment at 23 Mathildenstrasse to nearby 5 Marienstrasse, where Heinz’s brother, Walter, was born.


Henry Kissinger once joked that if it hadn’t been for Hitler, he might have spent his life “quietly as a Studienrat  in Nuremberg.” In fact, as a boy he did not seem very likely to follow in his studious father’s footsteps. When they were first sent to kindergarten, their mother later recalled, he and his brother “hated it and… were terribly naughty and hard to handle…. They would run away and I had to find them.”63 Later, the two attended the old Heckmann private school, where his father had first taught: a photograph from 1931 shows Heinz with his teacher, a man named Merz, and eight other students (five of whom are identified as Jewish).64 Contemporaries later differed about Heinz Kissinger’s academic ability as a boy. Menahem (formerly Heinz) Lion, who ended up living in Israel, later admitted to having been “envious of his essays…. They were remarkable for their form, their style, and their ideas, and they were often read out to the class.”65 But others remembered him as an “average” pupil at school.66 Shimon Eldad, who taught him English and French when he attended the Jewish High School, recalled a “good but not outstanding student…. He was a spirited and scintillating youth, but I didn’t notice anything special in him. His English didn’t exactly excite me, and it seems that way still today.”67

It seems clear that the Kissinger brothers were brought up in a fairly strict Orthodox household. Menahem Lion remembered going “together to synagogue every morning before school. On Saturdays Lion’s father taught them both the Torah. They attended an Orthodox youth club, Ezra, together.”68 Tzipora Jochsberger had similar memories.69 A cousin, John Heiman, who came to live with the family when Kissinger was seven, later described

one Saturday when he and Henry took a stroll beyond the eruv,  a sort of understood boundary encircling [the Jewish community]. Outside the eruv,  under the teachings of their religion, Orthodox Jews were not permitted to carry anything in their hands or in their pockets…. [W]hen he and Kissinger crossed the boundary, Henry stopped and reminded him that “carrying” was forbidden. They took their handkerchiefs from their pockets and tied them to their wrists.70

Yet as he grew into a teenager, Heinz Kissinger increasingly rebelled against his parents’ way of life. Their idea of entertainment was to hear Fidelio  at the Fürth Theater. For pleasure, Louis Kissinger read the great works of Friedrich Schiller and Theodor Mommsen and even researched and wrote local history. Heinz’s passion, by contrast, was for soccer.71

The Spielvereinigung in those days was a team worth following. They were German champions in 1926 and 1929—beating Hertha BSC Berlin in the final on both occasions — and got as far as the semifinals in 1923 and 1931. In the same period, they also won the South German Cup four times. The Fürth-Nuremberg rivalry had the intense quality of other neighborly feuds in European soccer, such as Rangers-Celtic in Glasgow. Heinz Kissinger was soon an ardent Fürth fan. As he later recollected,

Fürth was to soccer as Green Bay was to [American] football. It was a small town… that in a ten-year period won three German championships…. I started playing when I was about six. My grandfather had a farm [at Leutershausen] near Fürth, and they had a big courtyard and we played pickup games there. I played goalie for a brief period, then I broke my hand. After that, I played inside-right and then mid-field. I played until I was fifteen. I really wasn’t very good though I took the game very seriously.

Though no great athlete, Heinz Kissinger was already a shrewd tactician, devising for his team “a system that, as it turned out, is the way the Italians play soccer…. The system was to drive the other team nuts by not letting them score, by keeping so many people back as defenders…. It’s very hard to score when ten players are lined up in front of the goal.”72 So ardent did his soccer mania become that for a time his parents banned him from attending Fürth fixtures.

Soccer was not the only passion that brought Heinz Kissinger into conflict with his parents. As his boyhood friend remembered,

Heinz Kissinger spent many hours in my home. They lived near us and Heinz would ride over on his bike. He liked being with us. It seems to me he had a problem with his father. If I’m not mistaken, he was afraid of him because he was a very pedantic man…. His father was always checking Heinz’s homework, and kept a close watch on him. Heinz told me more than once he couldn’t discuss anything with his father, especially not girls.

As Lion later related, “the only time that Kissinger brought home a less than satisfactory report card was when he started paying attention to girls — or girls started paying attention to him. He was only twelve at the time and the girls were already chasing after him, but he didn’t pay any attention to them. His first love was a charming blonde.” According to Lion, the two boys used to take girlfriends for walks in the local park on Friday evenings. When Lion returned late from one of these walks, his parents blamed Kissinger’s influence and forbade their son to see “the Kissinger boy” for a whole week. Later they sent Lion off to a summer camp for six weeks “to get him away from Heinz Kissinger, who had earned a reputation as a skirt chaser.”73 Memory plays tricks, and this story had probably improved in the telling over thirty years. Still, even Kissinger’s mother noted her elder son’s penchant for “keeping everything locked up inside — never discussing your innermost thoughts!”74 Corporal punishment was not unknown in the Kissinger household, as in most households of the time.75 It paid to keep mischief quiet.


Ball games, bicycles, girlfriends, and summer vacations at Granddad’s house;76 at first glance, Heinz Kissinger’s childhood was not much different from what he might have experienced growing up in the United States. And yet the bright and rebellious boy can scarcely have been oblivious to the dramatic changes going on around him as Germany lurched from depression to dictatorship — especially as the principal scapegoat for the country’s misfortunes was the religious minority to which he belonged.

Why was it that the assimilation of the German Jews, which appeared to have been so successful prior to 1914, was so dramatically reversed thereafter, culminating in their near annihilation? There are few more difficult questions in history. One argument — which was Jakob Wassermann’s — is that assimilation was never complete and that there always remained a strain of exceptionally aggressive anti-Semitism in German culture. Another is that we should understand the surge of support for anti-Semitic policies as a backlash against assimilation, precipitated in large measure by economic crisis. It is surely no coincidence that the high points of electoral support for anti-Semitic parties came immediately after the hyperinflation of 1922–23 and the depression of 1929–32. Jews were in relative terms the most successful ethnic group in Germany: they were less than 1 percent of the population but had significantly more than 1 percent of the wealth. Moreover, territorial and political changes to the east of Germany led to an influx of so-called Ostjuden,  who attracted public disapprobation precisely because they were not assimilated.77 The virulently anti-Semitic magazine Der Stürmer  began weekly publication in Nuremberg in April 1923, the month before Heinz Kissinger’s birth. The front-page masthead for each issue read simply “The Jews Are Our Misfortune.” Even before the Nazis came to power, steps were already being taken in Bavaria to restrict the rights of Jews, notably the 1929 vote by the Bavarian Landtag  to ban ritual slaughter by Jewish butchers.78

To some extent, the Jews of Fürth could comfort themselves that their gentile neighbors were ideologically hostile to National Socialism. When the various far-right organizations held a special “German Day” in Nuremberg on September 1–2, 1923, those attending were given short shrift if they passed through Fürth, where people wearing swastika insignia found themselves being asked to remove them or risk having them torn off. As they arrived at Fürth railway station, one group of brownshirts from Munich were assailed by a hundred-strong crowd chanting “Down with Reaction!” “Kill them!” and “Down with Hitler!” When the SA (Sturmabteilung) men started to sing the Erhardtlied,  an early Nazi favorite, the crowd retorted with the Internationale  and shouts of “Heil Moskau!”79 When a branch of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) was established in Fürth shortly after the “German Day,” only 170 people joined.80 And when the party tried to hold a meeting in Fürth on February 3, 1924, the event ended in chaos when the speaker was forced to flee by Communist hecklers. True, the far-right Völkische Bloc did well in the May 1924 national elections, winning over 25 percent of the Fürth vote, compared with just 6.5 percent at the national level. But it did much less well when elections were held again seven months later, slumping to just 8 percent of votes cast. As in Germany as a whole, it was splinter parties like the Economic Party that flourished in the relatively stable economic conditions of the mid-1920s. When the Nazis held a rally in Fürth in September 1925, they fielded a star-studded cast of speakers, including Hitler himself and Julius Streicher, the editor of Der Stürmer . They hoped to fill the Geismann Hall, one of the town’s biggest venues, but less than a third of the expected fifteen thousand people turned up. The local party leader Albert Forster — later the gauleiter of Danzig — ruefully welcomed Hitler to the “citadel of the Jews” (Hochburg der Juden ). Hitler responded with a speech lamenting the fact that Germans had become “slaves of Jewry” (“Sklaven… für das Judentum” ).81 Nazi Party membership in Fürth was down to 200 by 1927. Visits by Hitler in March 1928 and Streicher a year later did nothing to stop the rot. The party’s share of the local vote sank to just 6.6 percent in the elections of May 1928.

In Fürth, as in the rest of Germany, it was the Depression that saved Hitler’s movement. The entire period from 1914 to 1933 was an economic disaster for Fürth because the town’s economy was so heavily reliant on exports. Even in the period of relative prosperity between 1924 and 1928, unemployment remained very high — above 6,000 at the beginning of 1927, though things improved in the course of the year as the prospects of the brewing and building industries seemed to brighten. But then conditions began to deteriorate again. At the end of June 1929 there were 3,286 workers receiving one of three forms of welfare available to the unemployed. By February 1930 that number had soared above 8,000. By the end of January 1932 it reached a peak of 14,558. In effect, half of all the workers in Fürth were out of a job. Employment in the once buoyant mirror industry had slumped from around 5,000 to just 1,000. Toy exports had collapsed.82 It was not only workers who were affected but small businessmen, too. By October 1932, 185 formerly independent craftsmen were reliant on public welfare. But welfare payments were so modest that many people were reduced to begging and to petty crime.83

The causes of the Great Depression continue to be hotly debated. Certainly, a large part of the explanation lies in the policy errors made in the United States during the period. The Federal Reserve first allowed a stock market bubble to inflate by keeping monetary conditions too loose, then allowed the banking system to implode by keeping monetary conditions too tight. Congress increased already high protectionist tariffs. Not until 1933 did the federal government respond to the crisis with anything resembling fiscal stimulus. There was also a complete breakdown in international policy coordination. The large public debts incurred during and after the First World War might have been rationally restructured; instead there were moratoriums and defaults after austerity policies had failed. The Germans made matters worse for themselves by creating a welfare state they could not afford, allowing the trade unions to drive real wages up, and tolerating anticompetitive practices in their industries. But forces were at work beyond the influence of any policy maker. Despite the war, there was an oversupply of young men. Because of the war, there was overcapacity in agriculture, iron, and steel and shipbuilding.

None of this was remotely intelligible to the unemployed and impoverished people living in a provincial Franconian industrial town. The challenge is to explain why, of all the explanations offered to them for the crisis, Adolf Hitler’s was the one they ended up embracing. The big breakthrough for the Nazis came in the Reichstag election of September 14, 1930, which saw their share of the national vote rise from 2.6 to 18.3 percent. In Fürth they won 23.6 percent of votes cast, up fourfold from 1928. This was the beginning of a sustained ascent. Hitler won 34 percent of the Fürth vote in the first round of the 1932 presidential election. In the Bavarian Landtag  elections, the Nazis’ share of the vote rose to 37.7, exceeding the Social Democrats’ for the first time. In the Reichstag election of July 31, 1932, the Nazis won 38.7 percent of the vote. They lost ground in the election of November 6, 1932, but then surged to 44.8 percent of the Fürth vote in the election of March 5, 1933. In that election, more than 22,000 Fürthers voted Nazi (see table).





May 4, 1924




December 7, 1924




May 20, 1928




September 14, 1930




July 31, 1932




November 6, 1932




March 5, 1933




As at the national level, the Nazis won votes disproportionately from the old “bourgeois parties”: the National People’s Party, the People’s Party, and the Democratic Party. Defections from the Social Democrats, Communists, and Catholic Center Party were more rare. This transfer of allegiance was in many ways led or mediated by economic splinter groups like the German Nationalist Clerical Workers’ Association and conservative organizations like the monarchist Royal Bavarian Homeland League, the “Faithful to Fürth” society, and veterans’ associations like the Kyffhäuser League.85 Typical of the proto-Nazi associations that flourished in South Germany in the Weimar period was Young Bavaria, which proudly proclaimed its rejection of “the exclusive rule of pure reason, a legacy of the French Revolution.”86 An equally important factor was the strongly “German national” tone of some Protestant clergy, which echoed the often explicitly religious language of some Nazi propaganda.87 For the historian Walter Frank, born in Fürth in 1905 and already an ardent German nationalist in his teens, the transition from h

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is father’s German Nationalist milieu to the National Socialists was easy. He was among many academic overachievers who gravitated toward the Nazis at this time; Ludwig Erhard, another talented Fürther of the same generation, was unusual in being immune to their charm without being a socialist.88

The remarkable thing is that all these socially respectable groups ended up giving their votes to a movement that systematically used violence as an electoral tactic and explicitly advocated it as a governmental strategy. Part of the explanation is simply that the Nazis ran more effective campaigns than their rivals. First, NSDAP membership in Fürth rose from 185 in March 1930 to 1,500 in August 1932. The new recruits worked hard for their party. After police restrictions were lifted in early 1932, the party held almost weekly events in Fürth, organizing no fewer than twenty-six meetings in the two weeks before the first election of that year.89 In the run-up to the second election of 1932, the Nazis held eight major election meetings and almost nightly “evening discussions” (Sprechabende ). But violence also played a crucial role.

That the streets of Fürth became increasingly dangerous was not entirely the Nazis’ fault. On the left, the Communist Party (KPD) and socialist organizations like the Reichsbanner also liked to stage rowdy demonstrations and to disrupt the meetings of their political opponents. As in the 1920s, the Nazis found much of Fürth to be hostile territory. On April 9, 1932, fifteen SA men were set upon by Iron Front members as they left the pro-Nazi Yellow Lion pub. Two months later Nazi supporter Fritz Reingruber was beaten up for being a “Swastikist”; the same fate befell another Nazi caught selling the NSDAP newspaper, the Völkische Beobachter .90 The police watched helplessly on the evening of July 30 as a mob threw potatoes and stones at a Nazi motorcade going from Fürth airport to the Nuremberg stadium; the car carrying Hitler himself was among the vehicles hit.91 There was more muted hostility in January 1933 when Sturmabteilung, Schutzstaffel (SS), and Hitler Youth members participated in the town’s annual Fasching  (Mardi Gras) parade. A public meeting in the Geismann Hall ended in yet more violence when KPD members refused to stand for the national anthem.92

Fürth was not Chicago. Firearms played no role in the gang warfare between Communists and Nazis. Yet the effect of all this unruly behavior was insidious. At one and the same time, it made people yearn for the old German ideal of “tranquillity and order” (Ruhe und Ordnung ) and accept that further violence might be necessary as a means to that end. With Hitler’s appointment as Reich chancellor on January 31, 1933, the Nazis seized their moment, staging a large torch-lit parade through the town center, from the Kurgartenstrasse through the Nürnbergstrasse and the Königstrasse to Dreikönigsplatz. Now they took the offensive. On the night of February 3, between sixty and seventy SA men attacked the Communist pub Am Gänsberg. After the Reichstag fire at the end of the same month had provided the perfect pretext for emergency legislation “For the Protection of the People and the State,” the election of March 1933 could be conducted in a new atmosphere of official intimidation. On March 3 there was another large-scale torch-lit parade through Fürth. On the evening of March 9 a crowd of between ten and twelve thousand people gathered outside the Rathaus to watch the raising of the red Nazi flag together with the reassuring old imperial black, white, and red flag above its tower, and to hear the Landtag  deputy and Streicher sidekick, Karl Holz, proclaim the “German Revolution.” “Today,” Holz declared, “marks the beginning of the great clean-up in Bavaria. Out with the black Mamelukes [sic ]. Even Fürth, which was once red and totally jewified [verjudet ], will once again be made into a clean and honest German town.”93

Those words foretold a far graver threat to the Jews of Fürth — including the loyal patriot Louis Kissinger and his family — than even the most pessimistic among them yet understood.

CHAPTER 2 Escape

If we could go back 13 years over the hatred and the intolerance, I would find that it had been a long hard road. It had been covered with humiliation, with disappointment.

— HENRY KISSINGER to his parents, 19451


It was late September 1934. On the eve of the annual St. Michael’s Festival in Fürth, the town preacher Paul Fronmüller spoke for many when he gave thanks to God “for sending us Adolf Hitler, our rescuer from the alien onslaught of the godless horde, and the builder of the new Reich, in which the Christian religion will be the foundation of our life as a people.”2

For the majority of Fürth’s Christian population, life had already improved after barely eighteen months of Nazi rule, and it continued to get better with scarcely a pause until the summer of 1938. In January 1933 the number of welfare claimants was more than 8,700. By June 1938 it would be down below 1,300.3 The Nazi economic recovery was real, and Fürth felt it.

The town looked different, too. The Rathaus was bedecked with bright red National Socialist flags; swastikas and portraits of the Führer were becoming ubiquitous. Some street names had also changed. Königswarterstrasse was now “Adolf-Hitler-Strasse”; the main square was renamed Schlageterplatz, after the proto-Nazi “martyr” Albert Leo Schlageter, who — on the eve of Heinz Kissinger’s birth — had been executed by the French for sabotaging trains in the occupied Ruhr. True, Fürth had nothing to match the annual Nuremberg rallies, weeklong festivals that attracted up to a million members of the party and affiliated organizations from all over Germany. But there were still at least fourteen official holidays and festivals, like the May 1 “Festival of the People” (appropriated from the Social Democrats’ May Day) and the April 20 celebration of Hitler’s birthday.4 And for those who preferred a night at the opera to a street parade, the new director of the reopened and refurbished city theater, Bruno F. Mackay, offered a wholesomely Germanic diet including Goethe’s Egmont,  Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe,  and Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm . When Hitler himself paid a visit to Fürth on February 11, 1935, he was treated to a performance of Wenn Liebe befiehlt  (“When Love Commands”), an innocuous operetta. The echo of the Nazi slogan Führer befiehl, wir folgen!  (“Führer Command, We’ll Follow!”) was apt.

Yet behind the good cheer of National Socialist propaganda lay a reality of coercion and terror. What the Nazis euphemistically called “synchronization” (Gleichschaltung ) began on March 10, 1933, with the arrest of between fifteen and twenty Communist Party, Communist trade union, and Social Democratic officials and the occupation of the Social Democratic trade union headquarters. The left-liberal Lord Mayor (Oberbürgermeister ) Robert Wild was sent on indefinite leave; his deputy resigned on grounds of age. A week later the purge of left-leaning officials continued with the forced retirement of the chief of police, the director of the city hospital, the chief medical officer, and the head of the health insurance fund. More arrests of Communist activists followed on March 28 and April 25: most were detained in “protective custody” (Schutzhaft ), another Nazi euphemism, signifying that they had been sent to the newly created penal camp at Dachau, a hundred miles to the south.

Synchronization proceeded relentlessly; each week brought further restrictions on the Nazis’ political opponents. The press ceased to be free on April 1, with the announcement that henceforth the Fürther Anzeiger  would be the “official organ of the NSDAP in the Fürth district.” The local council was reconstituted so that a majority of its members were now Nazis, including the new Lord Mayor, Franz Jakob (previously a Nazi deputy in the Bavarian parliament), and his two deputies. The local libraries were also purged with a ceremonial burning of “subversive” books on the night of May 10–11.5 The next day the Fürth branch of the Social Democratic Party dissolved itself, in advance of the nationwide ban on its activities on June 22. On June 30 the party’s leaders in Fürth were arrested and sent to join their Communist counterparts in Dachau. All the old middle-class parties, who had lost so many of their supporters to the Nazis, were either dissolved or merged with the NSDAP. Young Bavaria was absorbed into the Hitler Youth. Similar fates befell all Fürth’s independent economic organizations and sporting associations — even the singing and gardening clubs.6

From the earliest phase of the National Socialist regime, however, it was the Jews who were targeted for the most relentless persecution. After their leaders had been arrested, the ordinary rank-and-file Communist and Social Democratic voters had the chance to conform and consent. This chance was not given to anyone whom the Nazis defined as Jewish by race, which included converts to Christianity and even the issue of mixed marriages. To understand what it was like to grow up as a Jew in Nazi Germany, it is necessary to grasp the way the regime systematically sliced away the rights of Jews, week after week, month after month. With every passing year between 1933 and 1938, the level of insecurity went up. The experience was especially harrowing in a town like Fürth. Not only had it earned the Nazis’ contempt as a “jewified” town. It was also next door to Nuremberg, one of the “capitals of the movement” and home of the odious Julius Streicher, editor of Der Stürmer  and now gauleiter of Middle Franconia. Moreover, Fürth was in Bavaria, where the SA leader Ernst Röhm was state commissar and the Reichsführer-SS  Heinrich Himmler was in charge of the Political Police. All this meant that anti-Semitic measures and “spontaneous” actions tended to come sooner to Fürth than elsewhere and to be implemented with more zeal.7

Readers who have no experience of life in a totalitarian state must struggle to imagine what it is like, in the space of five years, to lose the right to practice one’s profession or trade, to use public facilities from swimming pools to schools, and to speak freely; more important, to lose the protection of the law from arbitrary arrest, abuse, assault, and expropriation. This was the fate of the Jews of Germany between 1933 and 1938. In Fürth it began on March 21, 1933, with the suspension and temporary arrest of the director of the town hospital, Dr. Jakob Frank. Two other Jewish doctors and a nurse were also fired. A week later all nine Jewish doctors in Fürth lost their posts.8 The Nazis then turned their attention to Fürth’s large Jewish business community. On March 25 the well-known general store Bauernfreund-Pachmayr was forced to close amid allegations that mouse droppings and animal hair had been found in its food.9 Six days later a NSDAP demonstration heralded the next day’s nationwide boycott of Jewish business, ostensibly in retaliation for the anti-German boycott proposed by some American Jewish organizations. On the morning of April 1, SA men began putting up posters throughout the town center that urged citizens to “Boycott the Jews! Boycott their cronies [Handlangern ]” and listed all 720 of Fürth’s Jewish-owned businesses, which represented at least 50 percent of wholesalers, 24 percent of manufacturers, and 15 percent of retailers — remarkable market shares for less than 4 percent of the population.10 One especially prominent target of the boycott was the Jewish-owned Fortuna cinema.11 Next it was the turn of Jewish civil servants — including teachers in public schools like Louis Kissinger — who were ejected from their posts under the April 1933 “Law for the Restoration of the Career Civil Service.” Another major legislative milestone were the so-called Nuremberg Laws, drafted at the party’s annual gathering in 1935, the first of which — the “Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor”—prohibited mixed marriages as well as interracial sex and banned Jews from employing non-Jews as domestic servants. The second “Reich Citizenship Law” deprived Jews of full citizenship.

Discrimination against Jews was mandated centrally but enforced and sometimes also extended locally. The segregation of Jews — their exclusion from public spaces — proceeded at different paces from region to region. In Fürth, for example, it was at the height of the summer heat, in August 1933, that Jews were banned from using the public bathing area in the River Rednitz. In April 1934 a ceiling of 1.5 percent was imposed on the proportion of Jewish pupils that could study at public schools. By 1936, however, all the major Fürth schools — the Girls’ Lyceum, the Humanistic Gymnasium, the Oberrealschule, and the Commercial School — could proudly proclaim themselves “Jew-free” (judenrein ). Henceforth all Jewish children had to attend either the Jewish Realschule or the Jewish Volksschule.12

As rights were stripped away, so too was dignity. The Fürther Anzeiger  published a steady stream of anti-Semitic articles in the sneering style of Streicher. The author of one typical story described hearing Jewish schoolchildren singing the German national anthem. “Oh you comical Jew folk,” he gloated. “How you must fear the Germany that is now being built.”13 On May 27, 1934, Streicher himself was made an honorary citizen of Fürth. In his acceptance speech, he did not mince his words: “We are heading toward serious times. If another war comes, all the Jews in Franconia will be shot, [because] the Jews were responsible for the [last] war.”14 The annual Fasching  parade the following year featured a number of grotesquely anti-Semitic floats, with clowns dressed as caricature Jews in various humiliating postures.15 But anti-Semitism in Bavaria was much more than playacting. Already in 1933 there was more than a hint of physical menace in the way the SA conducted the boycott campaign. Where this might lead became clear on the night of March 25, 1934, when the village of Gunzenhausen, around thirty miles southwest of Fürth, erupted in a pogrom that left two of the local Jewish community dead: one from hanging, the other from stab wounds.16

By this time the “national revolution” was threatening to run out of control, to the extent that — in Fürth as elsewhere — the army had to step in to restrain the SA.17 But even after the so-called Night of the Long Knives (the purge of the SA leadership, including Ernst Röhm, between June 30 and July 2, 1934), the persecution continued, though now with legalistic trappings. Theodor Bergmann, a leading member of the Fürth Jewish community, was arrested for insulting an “Aryan” woman; he committed suicide while in a concentration camp. On March 10, 1935, Dr. Rudolf Benario was arrested and dragged from his sickbed, despite suffering from a high fever. He and Ernst Goldmann were sent to Dachau, where they were both shot — in yet another infamous euphemism—“while trying to escape.”18 A year later three Jewish youths, also from Fürth, were sentenced to twelve, ten, and five months, respectively, for having the audacity to tell “horror stories” (Greuelnachrichten ) about the treatment of Jews in Germany.19 Such grim ironies abounded in Fürth. On November 26, 1937, a seventy-two-year-old Jew from the town was sentenced to eight months in prison for daring to suggest that Jews in Germany were being persecuted. A year later three Fürth Jews were arrested and charged under the Nuremberg Laws with “racial defilement.” They received jail sentences of between five and ten years.20


For Louis Kissinger, the stripping away of his hard-won respectability as a senior staff member at a public high school was a bewildering nightmare. On May 2, 1933, along with Studienrätin  Hermine Bassfreund, the other Jewish teacher at the Fürth Girls’ School, he was “sent on mandatory leave” and then, a few months later, “permanently retired.”21 He was not yet fifty. His son Walter remembered how he “withdrew into his study” after his dismissal.22 But it was not just the premature termination of his career that shocked Louis. As his wife later recalled, “the colleagues of my husband, the former colleagues, ignored him completely as if he would never have [existed].” To keep himself active, he founded “a school that Jewish children who couldn’t go to public schools any more could [attend]…. He taught them commercial sciences, which he had taught before.”23 Curiously, he did not move to teach at the Jewish Realschule, where both his sons began studying in the summer of 1933. It is not entirely clear from the existing records why they went there so early — before the Jewish quotas had been imposed on the public schools.24 According to Kissinger, his parents intended that he should go to the Gymnasium after four years at the Realschule (which would not have been unusual for a boy from an Orthodox family).25 By that time, however, the quota was in place.

The Realschule, which was just around the corner from the Kissingers’ home, was by no means a bad institution. Its director, Fritz Prager, had recruited at least one able teacher, Hermann Mandelbaum, who taught arithmetic, geography, and writing as well as economics and shorthand. Mandelbaum liked to make his pupils squirm with difficult questions. His catchphrase in class was “Who’s chattering?” (Wer schwätzt? )26 But Kissinger’s mother recalled that “the teachers [at the Realschule] were not of the first grade, and Henry, who was very gifted, was bored. Both [boys] were not happy in school…. [T]he children were frustrated, really, and they didn’t do their best.”27 Such evidence as survives confirms that Kissinger did not shine there.28 A further cause of frustration was the way Nazi legislation was excluding the boys from all their favorite extracurricular activities. Barred from public swimming pools, from playing soccer with gentiles, and from watching their beloved Spielvereinigung, the boys had to join the Zionist Bar-Kochba sport association and to use the facilities of the new Jewish Sports Club, founded in October 1936 with its playing fields in the Karolinenstrasse.29 As Kissinger later remembered,

Jews were segregated from 1933 on… but there was a Jewish team and I played in the junior team. We could only play against the other Jewish teams…. During that period… watching and participating in sports provided me with relief from the environment. I used to sneak out to catch the local soccer team play, even though, as a Jew, you ran the risk of getting beaten up if you were there and they recognized you.30

Not all of Kissinger’s contemporaries had memories of street violence. Jules Wallerstein, who attended the same school as the Kissingers, recalled that until 1938, “My friends were Jewish and non-Jewish. We played soldiers, went to each other’s homes and made fun of some of the Nazi leaders. My non-Jewish friends never called me foul names or called me a dirty Jew.”31 But others — notably Frank Harris (Franz Hess) and Raphael Hallemann, the son of the director of the Jewish orphanage — confirm Kissinger’s account.32 It was no longer safe for a Jewish boy to walk through the streets of Fürth.

Yet there were other forms of recreation than sport. It was at some point during the Nazi period that the young Heinz Kissinger joined the Orthodox organization Agudath (Union), the political arm of Ashkenazi Torah Judaism, a creation of the First World War that for a time called itself Shlumei Emunei Yisroel (the Union of Faithful Jewry). Agudath’s aim was to strengthen Orthodox institutions in Europe independently of the Zionist movement and ultimately to unite Western European and Eastern European Orthodoxy — a fact of which Kissinger was reminded forty years later by the Orthodox rabbi Morris Sherer, who joked that he had “under lock and key a paper you wrote back then” for Agudath.33 This long-forgotten “paper” is the earliest of Henry Kissinger’s writings to survive. It consists of the minutes of a meeting of the Esra Orthodox youth group run by Leo Höchster, a slightly older Jewish boy.34 At the time of the meeting, on July 3, 1937, Heinz Kissinger was just fourteen years old; Höchster was eighteen. Five other “members” attended the meeting: Alfred Bechhöfer, Raphael Hallemann, Manfred Koschland, Hans Wangersheimer, and Kissinger’s friend Heinz Lion. The original is in Kissinger’s own hand in a combination of Sütterlin (the old German script) and Hebrew. It is worth quoting in full for the light it sheds on his early religious and political outlook.

We met in our room punctually at 3:45 [p.m.]. First we discussed dinim  [religious laws]. We set out the dinim  about tevet  [what is forbidden]. We talked about muktseh  [excluded things, i.e., things that may not be carried on the Sabbath].

One distinguishes between four forms of muktseh: 

muktseh me-hamat isur —[excluded] because of a specific prohibition [e.g., a pen, which is used for writing, a prohibited activity on Shabbat ]

muktseh me-hamat mitsva —[excluded] to prevent one carrying out a Mitzvah  [commandment inappropriate on Shabbat ] (e.g. [wearing] Tefillin ) [a reference to the small black leather boxes containing verses from the Torah that observant Jews wear during weekday morning prayers but not on Shabbat ]

muktseh me-hamat avera— [excluded] so that one doesn’t commit an avera  [sin; for example, an object like an altar for worshipping idols, a sinful act]

muktseh me-hamat mius —[excluded] because it is hateful [hässlich ], therefore is inappropriate for Shabbat  [for example, something dirty].

Then there is also a 5th form of muktseh,  for example when one says before Shabbat  that one will not take something if it is muktseh  for the relevant Shabbat .

Then it was time to see who was the best in the group at [remembering] this. The decision was reached that Heinz Lion and I each received half a point.

For the most part this was simply a Torah study group, drilling the younger boys in the finer points of Hilchatic law. But the tone changes completely in the final sentences:

Then we discussed the impending partition of Palestine. A partition would be the greatest sacrilege [hilul ha-Shem ] in the history of the world. A Jewish state governed not by the Torah  but by a general law code is unthinkable. That was the end [of the meeting].

Heinz K.35

Events in distant Palestine were having their impact even in Franconia. Since April 1936 an Arab revolt had been raging against British Mandatory rule in Palestine. In large measure a response to increasing Jewish immigration, the revolt — which had begun as a general strike but quickly escalated into violence against both Jewish settlers and British forces — had forced the British to review the governance of the former Ottoman province. Heinz Kissinger and his friends were meeting just four days before the publication of the keenly anticipated report of the Royal Commission chaired by Earl Peel, which would recommend partition of Palestine into a small Jewish state along the coastal plain but also including Galilee, a residual Mandatory corridor from Jerusalem to the coast (including Haifa), and a larger Arab territory to the south and east, which would be joined to the neighboring kingdom of Transjordan. (That the report would recommend partition along these lines had already been anticipated in the British press since early April, so it is not so strange that an obscure Orthodox youth group in Fürth already knew its contents.) Though they wanted much more territory, the Zionist leaders Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion were willing to accept the Peel Commission’s report as the basis for negotiation, not least because it envisaged large-scale population transfers that would have resettled up to 225,000 Arabs outside the planned Jewish state. But the report was rejected by both the Arabs and non-Zionist Jewish groups like Agudath, and ultimately the idea of partition was shelved by the British themselves.36 It is remarkable that Henry Kissinger was already at the age of just fourteen an ardent opponent of Palestinian partition. Even if the view that it would be the “greatest sacrilege in the history of the world” was not his own but that of the group of which he was a member, he certainly did not dissent from it when recording the minutes of their meeting. Nor did he dissent from their repudiation of the idea of a secular Jewish state, based (as Israel would be) on a law code other than the Torah. At least one of the boys in the Höchster group would later end up a refugee in Palestine and in due course a citizen of Israel. But this was never likely to be the fate of Heinz Kissinger, who seemed to have embraced wholeheartedly his father’s anti-Zionism.


It was time, nevertheless, to leave Germany. Two of Louis Kissinger’s brothers had already done so. In June 1933 Karl Kissinger, who helped manage his father-in-law’s shoe store business, had been arrested and sent to Dachau, where he was subjected to beatings and death threats. After his wife secured his release more than a year later, in December 1934, they resolved to emigrate and in 1937 moved to Palestine with their three children, Herbert, Erwin, and Margot. Another of Louis’s brothers, Arno, moved to Stockholm in the mid-1930s, where he was later joined by their father, David, in early 1939. A Leutershausen friend, Karl Hezner, urged Louis to follow his brothers’ example. But Louis was more than ten years older than Karl and Arno. As his wife later put it, “It wasn’t so easy to give up everything and go away with two children to an uncertain future.”37 His father, David, and brother Simon urged them not to give up on Germany. And there was a further obstacle to emigration. Paula Kissinger’s father had been diagnosed with cancer.

Yet Paula had to put her children first. What kind of future did they have in Germany, where the “Hitler State” showed every sign of enduring and where the position of Jews seemed much more likely to deteriorate than to improve? After graduating from the Jewish Realschule, Heinz had enrolled for three months in a Jewish teacher-training college in Würzburg, for want of any better option.38 As his mother later told Walter Isaacson, “It was my decision and I did it because of the children. I knew there was not a life to be made for them if we stayed.”39

It was, to say the least, fortunate for the Kissingers that one of Paula’s mother’s elder sisters had already emigrated to the United States, years before Hitler was even heard of. Her daughter — and therefore Paula’s cousin — Sarah Ascher had been born in Brooklyn but now lived in Larchmont, Westchester County. When Paula suggested sending Heinz and Walter across the Atlantic to safety, her American cousin urged the whole family to come. On October 28, 1937, she signed the crucial “affidavit of support” that pledged to give the Kissingers financial support if they came. (Quotas on immigration to the United States dating back to the 1920s meant that without such a pledge even refugees from Nazism could not be admitted.)* Though her income was just $4,000 a year, Sarah Ascher had stocks worth $8,000 and other savings worth $15,000, so her pledge was credible.40 (The Kissingers in fact had wealthier U.S. relatives, the descendants of Louis Baehr in Pittsburgh, but their assistance was not required.) On April 21, 1938, Louis and Paula Kissinger — officially identified as “German nationals, Jews by race and belief”—notified the Emigration Advisory Bureau in Munich of their intention to emigrate.41 The request had to clear multiple hurdles, but it was processed and approved in less than three weeks. First, Louis Kissinger applied to the Fürth police for passports.42 The Gestapo then had to check that none of the family had a criminal record. The mayor of Fürth gave his approval on April 29, followed by the Gestapo on May 5,43 the municipal finance office on May 6,44 and German customs on May 9.45 After receiving payment of 12 marks and 70 pfennigs, plus 5 marks 28 for a character reference, the police issued the four passports on May 10.46

It wa

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s not until August 10 that the Kissingers officially told the Fürth police of their intention to depart, however. There were painful farewells to make, not least to Paula’s ailing father — the first occasion in their lives when Heinz and Walter had seen their father moved to tears.47 “When my family was about to leave the country of my birth,” Kissinger recalled many years later, “I called on my grandfather, to whom I was very attached, in the little village where he lived, to say good-bye. He was suffering from cancer, and I knew I would never see him again. My grandfather took the finality out of the encounter by telling me that we were not really parting, because he would pay me a final visit at my parents’ home a few weeks hence. Though I did not really believe it, the prospect proved remarkably consoling.”48 They also had to bid farewell to most of their possessions; Nazi regulations ensured that Jews who quit the Reich left behind not only most of their savings but also most of their furniture (worth, in the Kissingers’ case, an estimated 23,000 marks, including the piano).49 There was a regulation-sized crate that Jews leaving the Third Reich were allowed to fill; Kissinger recalled his mother making the doleful selection of what could come with them.50 On August 20 the family set sail from one of the Belgian Channel ports, bound for England. They spent just over a week in London, at the Golders Green home of Paula’s aunt Berta and her husband, Sigmund Fleischmann — formerly the kosher butcher in Fürth — with whom Paula had lodged as a schoolgirl. Then, on August 30, 1938, they took the train to Southampton and boarded the Île de France,  bound for New York. Heinz Kissinger was fifteen years old. His best friend, Heinz Lion, had already left for Palestine in March.

The Kissingers were just 4 among 1,578 Bavarian Jews who emigrated in 1938.51 They did not leave Germany a moment too soon.


On the same day the Kissingers informed the Fürth police of their departure, the principal Nuremberg synagogue was destroyed. The main synagogue in Munich had suffered a similar fate the previous June. The more radically anti-Semitic elements within the Nazi Party — not least Hitler himself — were growing impatient with mere segregation. With good reason, the Jewish community in Fürth began preparing for trouble. The most valuable scrolls and silver ornaments were removed from the synagogues for safekeeping.52 A further warning of the impending storm came on October 16, 1938, when a mob attacked the Leutershausen synagogue and broke the windows of Jewish homes, including Falk and Fanny Stern’s farmhouse. In the wake of the pogrom, Stern was forced to sell the house he had bought with his brother thirty-four years before. He and Fanny moved to his sister Minna Fleischmann’s house in Fürth, where he would succumb to cancer on May 26, 1939. By that time Fürth, too, had ceased to be a safe place for Jews.

Kristallnacht— the “Night of Broken Glass”—was a moment of truth in the history of the Third Reich. Whatever facade had been erected to give a semblance of legality to the regime’s racial policy was torn away by a nationwide orgy of violence and vandalism. The pretext for the worst pogrom in German history since the Middle Ages was the murder in the German embassy in Paris of the diplomat Ernst vom Rath by a seventeen-year-old Jewish exile from Hanover named Herschel Grynszpan, who had been incensed by the deportation from Germany of his parents, who were Polish nationals. He shot vom Rath at point-blank range on November 7, 1938. Two days later the diplomat was dead. This was Hitler’s cue. With Goebbels’s excited encouragement, he unleashed an ostensibly “spontaneous” assault on the Jewish population.

There was a farcical quality to the way these orders were carried out in Fürth. November 9 was the anniversary of the abortive “beer hall putsch” of 1923, a day when the Nazis commemorated their martyrs. As a result, the local party bigwigs were celebrating bibulously in the Café Fink when the order came through to attack the Jews and, in particular, to destroy the town’s synagogues. The mayor was red-faced and brimming over with beer. He had no objection at all to organizing a pogrom. But he was concerned about the consequences of burning down so many synagogues, most of them located in the densely built town center. With that curious mixture of callousness and punctiliousness so characteristic of the Nazis, he summoned the chief of the town’s fire brigade, Johannes Rachfahl, and ordered him to prepare to protect all buildings in the vicinity of the synagogues that were about to be incinerated. Rachfahl was flabbergasted: “The Herr Oberbürgermeister likes his little joke” was his immediate reaction. He patiently explained to the mayor the impossibility of controlling the kind of fire there would be if all the synagogues around the Schulplatz were set ablaze. Reluctantly the mayor compromised. Only the main synagogue would be burned down.53

At around one a.m. in the small hours of November 10, a force of 150 SA men broke down the iron gates of Schulhof and then smashed in the oak doors of the main synagogue. Once inside they broke pews and ornaments, then piled up whatever Torah scrolls they could find, doused them with petrol, and set them ablaze. Dragged from his bed, Dr. Albert Neuburger, a leading member of the Jewish community, was left semiconscious and bloody after his head was used as a battering ram to break down the door of the community’s welfare office. At 3:15 a.m., with the main synagogue now burning fiercely, the fire brigade was summoned to the scene, but the SA prevented their hoses from being used on the synagogue. Indeed, the Oberbürgermeister  ordered them to let the fire spread to the caretaker’s house and the adjoining prayer hall (Betsaal ). Also destroyed that night was the ritual bathhouse and the synagogue at 30 Mohrenstrasse. The Jewish cemetery was also vandalized, as were the Jewish hospital, the Realschule, the orphanage, and many Jewish-owned shops, including the café in the Moststrasse. Anti-Semitic slogans were painted on the walls of the orphanage—“We will not let a Jew murder a German”—and the Realschule—“Croak Judas! Revenge for Paris!”

Nor was that all. The entire Jewish community, including the children from the orphanage, were now herded into the Schlageterplatz (today known as Fürther Freiheit) and left standing there in the November cold for five hours. Entertainment was provided by an assault on the Kissingers’ rabbi, Leo Breslauer, culminating in the forcible shaving off of his beard. Watching with horror was the young Edgar Rosenberg, whose recollections capture not only the fear but also the horrible dissension among the helpless victims.

At about 5:30… the Jews were ordered to execute a smart about-face in the direction of the Schulhof: the sky had turned crimson; the synagogues burned. And at that moment the time-honored religious schisms among us, which seem not to desert us even in days of wrath, burst eerily into the open. For now the orthodox Jews — the members of the Neuschul, the Mannheimer Shul, the Klaus Shul — set up a heart-rending wail to see their bet knesset  aflame; but these seemed above all to intimidate, even terrify, the reformed Jews, who took it for granted that these pious howls could only inflame the troopers and turn it into a bloodbath. In this they over-reacted.54

There would be no bloodbath; not here, not yet. At nine a.m. all the women and children were sent home, while the men were marched to the former Berolzheimerianum (it too had been renamed), where the verbal and physical abuse continued. Rosenberg remembered “my nosy townsmen… crowd[ing] into the streets, spitting, yodeling, screaming, ‘Well, high time!’ and ‘None too soon!’ and bursting into a chorus of ‘Jew Sow’ and ‘Croak Judas!’… [then] break[ing] the ranks of the Brownshirts to get a good close-up of the Jew Kahn [sic ], the religious whose beard has been ripped off.”55 In total, 132 men were subsequently sent to Nuremberg and then on to Dachau, including the Kissinger brothers’ teacher Hermann Mandelbaum, who was held there for forty-seven days, and Rosenberg’s father, who subsequently escaped to Switzerland.56

The pillage was not over. Back in Fürth, the Jewish community’s leaders were forced to sign a document selling the two Jewish cemeteries, hospital, and much other community property to the municipality for the risible sum of one hundred marks. They were also threatened with death if they refused to reveal the whereabouts of a nonexistent, supposedly hidden synagogue. (Their assailants had in mind a school for sick children called the Waldschule, which had been established by a Jewish philanthropist in 1907.) In the succeeding days, a number of Jewish firms were also compelled to sell their real estate for similar negligible sums — a prelude to the law of November 12, 1938, which formally excluded Jews from German economic life and paved the way for the formal “Aryanization” of all Jewish-owned firms.57 Later on the morning of November 10, the SA men returned to march through the still smoldering Schulhof in triumph. They had blood as well as ashes on their hands. One man had died of the injuries inflicted on him during the night; another had committed suicide. Rabbi Breslauer survived, but he was so badly brutalized that, even years later, “he could not speak loudly because of the tortures to which the Nazis had subjected him on Kristallnacht.”58

To the victims of the pogrom, it seemed incredible. As one incredulous eyewitness put it, “When I was a young man we took dance classes, Jews and Christians together, intermingling without any problems. There was virtually no anti-Semitism… until the time of Hitler. We Jews never believed that there could be such anti-Semitism in Fürth.”59

And yet there was. It took thirteen years to bring those responsible for the events of November 10, 1938, in Fürth to justice. Of five ringleaders who survived to face prosecution in 1951, just one was found guilty. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. A year later, a second case came to trial in Karlsruhe; two more defendants were convicted and sentenced to, respectively, two years and four months. By that time, however, many far worse crimes had been committed against the Jews of Fürth.


Fürth is but a dull town and a measure of its unimportance beneath the stars came home to me… in 1945. [While] Nuremberg lay in dust and ashes, a heap of broken icons and crumbled idols, a tribute to its Babylonian wickedness, Fürth was still there, all of a piece, squatting pacifically in the sun…. Of course, the missing synagogue left a certain hole in the jigsaw puzzle….

Nuremberg… has… its golden tradition and its trumpeted trials; the reader is easily oriented: ah, says he, Nuremberg, I know that: Albrecht Dürer, the Nazi Congress, the Tower, Justice Jackson, the hangings, the bratwursts; but whenever I whisper “Fürth,” the echo replies: spell it.60

Edgar Rosenberg was one of those Fürth-born Jews who survived World War II, having escaped to the United States, via Haiti, after Kristallnacht . He was ironically surprised to find so much of his hometown still intact when he returned in an American uniform at the end of the war.

Not that Fürth was unscathed. The war that Hitler launched in September 1939 pitted Germany against seemingly weaker opposition than the war he himself had fought in twenty-five years before. By the summer of 1940, Germany bestrode the European continent, triumphant after defeating France and driving the British Expeditionary Force back across the Channel from Dunkirk. Yet the resources of the British Empire remained enormous. As early as August 1940 and again the following October, Royal Air Force planes dropped bombs on Fürth and Nuremberg, an industrial conurbation high on the British list of targets for strategic bombing. This was but a foretaste of what lay ahead. There were sporadic raids in 1941 and 1942, but in 1943—by which time Germany was also at war with both the Soviet Union and the United States — the scale of aerial bombardment soared. On the night of August 10–11, 1943, the entire district of Wohrd in Nuremberg was destroyed. In 1944 there were twelve major Allied air raids on Middle and Upper Franconia, which killed over a thousand people. Three times that number were killed by devastating strikes on January 2 and February 21–22, 1945. By the end of the war, 6 percent of prewar buildings in Fürth had been totally destroyed, 30 percent moderately to badly damaged, and 54 percent slightly damaged.61 According to reports of a small raid on Nuremberg-Fürth in March 1945, “the majority of the bombs fell on fields of ruins.”62

The last film to be screened in Fürth before the final collapse of the Third Reich was a light comedy with a cruelly fitting title: It Began So Harmlessly  (Es fing so harmlos an ).63 Perhaps that was how Hitler’s accession to power appeared in retrospect to those who had voted Nazi in 1932 and 1933. But there had never been anything harmless about Hitler from the vantage point of German Jews. In January 1939, even before the outbreak of war, he had made a chilling prophecy: “If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”64

With the outbreak of war, the Nazis felt emboldened to fulfill that threat. Of 1,990 Jews who had lived in Fürth in 1933, fewer than 40 were left by the end. Of those who had not emigrated by the war’s outbreak, most—511 in all — were deported by train to German-occupied territory in Eastern Europe, where they were either shot, gassed, or worked to death.65 The first deportation was to Riga on November 29, 1941. This was followed on March 22–24, 1942, by a large-scale deportation to Izbica. From there the deportees were sent to the death camps at Sobibór or Bełzec or to the forced labor camp at Trawniki. A month later another contingent of Fürth Jews was dispatched to Krasniczyn. Those remaining were sent to either Theresienstadt (September 10, 1942) or Auschwitz (June 18, 1943). The Nazis concluded the liquidation of Fürth’s Jewish community by deporting a small group of converts and Mischlinge  (“half-breeds”) on January 17, 1944. Among the victims were all 33 pupils at the Jewish orphanage, who were sent to Izbica, along with the director of the orphanage, Dr. Isaak Hallemann, and his family.66 (His proposal to move the orphanage to Palestine had been rejected by the Jewish community on the ground that the benefactors of the orphanage had specified Fürth as its location.)67 By 1945 all that remained of the “Bavarian Jerusalem” was a handful of survivors and a few repurposed buildings. The old Jewish cemetery had been totally destroyed, the gravestones used as stone for building air defenses, the burial ground flooded to create a makeshift reservoir for the fire brigade.68

If the Kissingers had not left Germany when they did, there can be little doubt what their fate would have been. It is unlikely that Heinz Kissinger would have lived to see his twentieth birthday. Of his close family, according to his own estimate, thirteen relatives were killed in the Holocaust, including his father’s three sisters, Selma, Ida, and Fanny; their husbands, Max Blattner, Siegbert Friedmann, and Jakob Rau; his great-uncle Simon, along with his sons Ferdinand and Julius; and Paula Kissinger’s stepmother, Fanny Stern.69 Although she was not a blood relative, Kissinger had regarded Fanny as his grandmother. “For [her],” he later recalled, “I was a genuine grandchild and for me, I didn’t know she was my stepgrandmother, so that was a very warm, caring relationship.” Deceptively, the family continued to receive pro forma postcards from her even after her deportation. They subsequently learned that she had been sent to the death camp at Bełzec, only to perish on a forced march westward after the camp was dismantled.70 Falk Stern’s sister Minna died at Theresienstadt and her husband, Max, at Auschwitz. Also among the victims were Kissinger’s cousins Louise Blattner, Lilli Friedmann, and Norbert Rau.71

In fact, the figure of thirteen understates the number of Henry Kissinger’s relatives who perished at the hands of the Nazis. According to “The Kissingers,” a manuscript family history compiled by either Charles Stanton or Martin Kissinger, the correct figure is twenty-three. Even that figure may be too low. Of all the known descendants of Meyer Löb Kissinger, no fewer than fifty-seven died in the years of the Holocaust. This total may of course include people who died outside German-occupied territory of natural causes, but it may also exclude victims of the Holocaust whose deaths were not documented. Suffice to say that the figure of twenty-three is a minimum; the total number of Kissinger’s relatives killed was probably closer to thirty.

What was the impact of this calamity on Henry Kissinger? Thirty years after the end of the war, now secretary of state, he was invited to return to his birthplace to receive a medal of honorary citizenship.72 For his parents’ sake, he accepted and they accompanied him. His father was publicly forgiving, his mother privately implacable. (“I was offended in my heart that day, but said nothing,” she later said. “In my heart, I knew they would have burned us with the others if we had stayed.”)73 Kissinger himself has always been at pains to deny that the Holocaust was crucial to his development. “My first political experiences were as a member of a persecuted Jewish minority,” he said in an interview in 2007.

And… many members of my family, and about 70 per cent of the people I went to school with, died in concentration camps. So that is something one cannot forget…. [Nor is it] possible to have lived in Nazi Germany and to… be emotionally indifferent to the fate of Israel…. [But] I do not agree with [the view] that analyzes everything in terms of my alleged Jewish origin. I have not thought of myself in those terms.74

Kissinger was still a devoutly Orthodox Jew when he left Germany in August 1938. But at some point between then and 1945, something happened to change that. As a result, for most of his adult life, he characterized himself as Jewish by ethnicity rather than by faith: “I’m not a religious man in the sense of practicing a particular religion. Of course I’m Jewish and always affirm that, but I am religious in the sense that I do believe — in the sense of Spinoza — that there probably is a fitness in the universe which we can no more understand than an ant could understand an interpretation of our universe.”75

And yet it was not the horror of the Shoah, despite its calamitous impact on his family, that brought Kissinger to this realization of the limits of human understanding. It was the searing experience of waging war against the Nazis.

CHAPTER 3 Fürth on the Hudson

Almost a year has passed since I left Germany. You will certainly have often recalled my promise to write as soon as possible. Yet it was not just laziness that prevented me from writing. Rather it was the fact that in these eight months so much has changed within me and around me that I have neither the desire nor the peace to write letters.


New York was not merely the vital metropolis, brimming with politics and contention, that has since become a sentimental legend; it was also the brutal, ugly, frightening, the foul smelling jungle… the embodiment of that alien world which every boy raised in a Jewish immigrant home has been taught… to look upon with suspicion.



It is tempting to draw a stark contrast between the country the Kissingers left behind in the summer of 1938 and the one they settled in. The German Reich, now firmly in Hitler’s ruthless grip, stood on the brink of an abyss of lawlessness and violence. The United States was the land of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” the song Franklin Roosevelt had chosen as the theme tune of his 1932 presidential election campaign. The Kissingers had narrowly avoided burning synagogues in Fürth. The Manhattan skyline that greeted them as the Île de France  sailed in past Brooklyn — on a day of welcoming sunshine — was dominated by the dazzling Empire State Building, the highest skyscraper in the world. Germany was the land of oppression. America was the land of the free.

There were, of course, profound differences between the family’s old and new homes. And yet it would be a mistake to understate the problems of the United States in 1938—problems that very quickly had a direct bearing on the Kissingers’ lives. They, like most refugees to the United States, probably arrived with somewhat unrealistic expectations of their newly adopted homeland.3 If so, they were soon disabused of them.

Unlike in Germany, in the United States the Depression was not yet over in 1938. On the contrary, after four years of recovery, the economy had slumped back into recession in the second half of 1937. In October 1937 the stock market had capitulated. “We are headed right into another Depression,” Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau warned. From peak to trough, stocks fell by a third. Industrial production slumped 40 percent. A total of two million workers had been laid off by the end of the winter of 1937–38, driving the unemployment rate back up to 19 percent. Roosevelt and his sidekicks complained of a “capitalist strike”; the capitalists retorted that the New Deal had created too much uncertainty for business to invest with confidence. The New Dealers within the administration blamed monetary and fiscal tightening for the “Roosevelt Recession.” The most influential American Keynesian, Harvard’s Alvin H. Hansen, argued in his 1938 tract, Full Recovery or Stagnation,  that only massive government deficits could maintain full employment — and certainly, it took the approach of war and unprecedented public borrowing to generate recovery. From the vantage point of Republicans, however, deficits were one of the things eroding business confidence.4 Meanwhile, the still-large agricultural sector of the economy languished. Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor captured the agony of the economic migration from the Dust Bowl in An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion,  published in 1938.5

It was not only Nazi Germany that could be described as a “racial state.” In the United States, racial segregation extended far beyond the South. Signs like “We Cater to White Trade Only” could be seen in shops all over America. Lynchings claimed more than one hundred lives between 1930 and 1938. It was in 1938 that Gunnar Myrdal began the research that would produce An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy .6 Thirty states still retained constitutional or legal bans on interracial marriage, and many of these had recently extended or tightened their rules. It was not only African Americans and American Indians who were affected; some states also discriminated against Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, “Malays” (Filipinos), and “Hindus” (Indians). Moreover, the influence of eugenics in the United States had added a new tier of discriminatory legislation that was not only similar to that introduced in Germany in the 1930s but also the inspiration for some Nazi legislation. No fewer than forty-one states used eugenic categories to restrict marriages of the mentally ill, while twenty-seven states passed laws mandating sterilization for certain categories of people. In 1933 alone California forcibly sterilized 1,278 people. Hitler openly acknowledged his debt to American eugenicists.7

Meanwhile, the political power of the segregationists in Congress was waxing, not waning. They successfully stymied an Anti-Lynching Bill in 1938. They also prevented Roosevelt from enacting minimum wage legislation; South Carolina’s senator Ellison Smith (“Cotton Ed”) boasted that in his state a man — meaning a black man — could live on fifty cents a day.8 The year 1938 marked the effective end of the New Deal in the face of such congressional opposition. In the midterm elections held that year, the Republicans won thirteen governorships, doubled their representation in the House, and gained seven new Senate seats. Roosevelt’s attempt to replace at least some southern Democrats with New Dealers abjectly failed.9

The American right was fighting back in more ways than one. In June 1938 Texas congressman Martin Dies chaired the first hearings before the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities. Fear of Communism was stoked by dissension within the U.S. labor movement, with AFL representatives openly accusing their CIO rivals of running “a seminary of Communist sedition.”10 Labor market friction was especially severe in New York. In September 1938 the city was hit by an unofficial truck drivers’ strike.11 Another labor dispute led to the bombings of seven fur shops on West 29th Street.12

In Germany the government itself had been taken over by criminals. In the United States the criminals wielded power in different ways. The 1930s were the heyday of gangsters like Meyer Lansky (born Meyer Suchowljansky), Bugsy Siegel (born Benjamin Siegelbaum), and Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Salvatore Lucania), who had successfully switched from bootlegging to gambling and other rackets after the end of Prohibition in 1933. It was Luciano who, emerging as the dominant figure in the New York Mafia underworld, established “The Commission” in order to impose some kind of central governance not just on the Five Families of New York but on organized crime throughout America. Luciano’s reign had effectively ended in 1936, when he was arrested and successfully prosecuted by special prosecutor (later governor) Thomas E. Dewey for running a prostitution racket. But his place was soon taken by Frank Costello (born Francesco Castiglia).13 And the links from such men to the political machines that ran urban America were real. For every Dewey there was at least one corrupt ward boss in the pay of the Mob.

And yet, amid all this turmoil, the United States remained an astonishingly dynamic and creative society. The year Henry Kissinger arrived in New York was the year when Errol Flynn starred in The Adventures of Robin Hood  (one of four films he appeared in that year), Jimmy Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces,  Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby,  and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Carefree.  Ronald Reagan was kept busy in ten B movies, including Accidents Will Happen, Going Places,  and Girls on Probation . In truth, the best film in American cinemas in 1938 was French: Jean Renoir’s antiwar masterpiece La Grande Illusion,  while the most commercially successful was Disney’s full-length cartoon Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs  (which had opened in December the year before). But the Oscar for Best Picture went to Frank Capra’s adaptation of the Broadway screwball comedy You Can’t Take It with You,  in which Jimmy Stewart, playing a banker’s son, becomes romantically entangled with a member of an eccentric immigrant household. Set in Manhattan, the movie made light of the social cleavages of the time (though it is best remembered today for its timeless exchange about income tax). Also appearing regularly in American cinemas in the year of the Kissingers’ arrival were Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, W. C. Fields, Henry Fonda, Judy Garland, Betty Grable, Bob Hope, Edward G. Robinson, Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy, and John Wayne — not forgetting Shirley Temple, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and the Marx Brothers. If Hollywood ever had a true golden age, then this was it.

As ubiquitous as the movies in American life was the radio. In 1938 most American households were served by NBC’s two principal networks, which offered everything from Amos ’n’ Andy  to Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra. The songs most likely to be heard on air in 1938 included the originally Yiddish hit “Bei Mir Bistu Shein,” recorded by the Andrews Sisters, “A-Tisket A-Tasket” by Ella Fitzgerald, “I Can’t Get Started” by Bunny Berigan, “Jeepers Creepers” by Al Donahue, and the Gershwins’ “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” sung by Fred Astaire. But it was Bing Crosby who was America’s preeminent crooner, counting among his 1938 hits “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” For all t

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he economic difficulties of the time, this was also the golden age of the big band: Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw — all these bandleaders were at the peak of their powers, touring the nation with their big brass and reed orchestras. Yet the radio sensation of 1938 was not musical; it was Orson Welles’s dramatization of H. G. Wells’s science fiction novel The War of the Worlds,  which caused panic across the nation when broadcast on October 30.

Among the year’s best-selling books was The Yearling,  a tale of hardship in rural Florida, which won its author, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a Pulitzer Prize. British authors were strongly represented in the bookstores that year, among them A. J. Cronin, Howard Spring, and Daphne du Maurier, whose Rebecca  was a bestseller in the United States. A further intimation of the deepening political crisis on the other side of the Atlantic was provided by The Mortal Storm,  an anti-Nazi love story by another English writer, Phyllis Bottome. Broadway offered less challenging fare in the form of the musical Hellzapoppin,  which began a run of more than a thousand performances in the month the Kissingers arrived in New York.

The Depression was also a remarkable time in the history of American sport. On June 22, 1938, in a richly symbolic fight, the African American heavyweight boxer Joe Louis knocked out the German Max Schmeling in front of seventy thousand people at Yankee Stadium, the second of their two encounters in the ring. The Yankees themselves won four successive World Series titles between 1936 and 1939, a period that saw the ailing Lou Gehrig retire and the young Joe DiMaggio shoot to fame as the “Yankee Clipper.” New York seemed to dominate American sports. In December, the Giants defeated the Green Bay Packers to win the National Football League title. It was the kind of performance that inspired improvised games of street football in neighborhoods like Washington Heights and Harlem.14 Here, perhaps, was the most striking contrast between Germany and America, at least for a teenage boy: soccer was nowhere to be seen. For fifteen-year-old Heinz Kissinger, it was time to study batting averages.


In one crucial respect, New York was not such unfamiliar territory for a family like the Kissingers. It was among the most Jewish cities in the world. There had been a Jewish community in the city since the early 1700s, but it was from the late nineteenth century that the Jewish population of the city exploded as a result of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe. In 1870 there had been around 60,000 Jews in New York. By 1910 there were more than one and a quarter million, around a quarter of the total population. Jews were arriving in New York at the rate of 50,000 a year between 1915 and 1924, until legal restrictions on immigration (enacted in 1921 and 1924) drove the annual influx down below 20,000. At their peak share in 1920, the Jews accounted for just over 29 percent of the population of New York City. At that time, the city’s Jewish population was larger than that of any European city including Warsaw. By 1940, to be sure, the Jewish share had fallen below 24 percent.15 Nevertheless, the city retained a distinctively Jewish character. Or, to be more precise, parts of it did.

Jews had been leaving Manhattan in droves since the early 1920s. In particular, the Lower East Side’s Jewish population had collapsed from 314,000 to 74,000. Yorkville, Morningside Heights, and East Harlem had also seen steep declines.16 By the time of the Kissingers’ arrival, there were more Jews in Brooklyn (857,000) and the Bronx (538,000) than in Manhattan (270,000). One exception to this rule was the area of Manhattan known as Washington Heights, in the far north of the island, where there was still a very high concentration of Jewish settlement. Those who had expected the newcomers’ children to be absorbed or assimilated into the wider population were proved wrong. By the end of the 1920s, 72 percent of Jewish New Yorkers lived in neighborhoods with at least 40 percent Jewish populations.17 Ethnic segregation actually increased in the 1920s, as Jewish property developers built smart new streets like the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, and stayed high through the 1930s. Washington Heights was an example of the “new kind of ghetto, a closed community of middle-class Jews whose social life was carried on exclusively with Jews of appropriate status.”18 This segregation was not wholly voluntary. There were subtle “restrictions” on Jewish residents in certain apartment buildings in Jackson Heights Queens, and in the Fieldston section of Riverdale.19 But mostly Jews lived in close proximity to one another because they preferred, for a variety of reasons, to do so. In the words of Nathaniel Zalowitz,

There [are] Ghettos for foreign born Jews and Ghettos for native born Jews. Ghettos for poor Jews and ghettos for middle class and for rich Jews, for Russian Jews and for German Jews. The East Side is one kind of Ghetto, Washington Heights another kind, West Bronx a third, Riverside Drive a fourth… and Brooklyn has a dozen different kinds and styles of Ghettos of its own…. [As a result] four-fifths of all Jews… practically have no social contact with the Gentiles.20

The German-Jewish exiles were therefore latecomers to a long-running process. Most, as we have seen, came after the summer of 1938: the total number of German refugees from January 1933 to June 1938 was just 27,000.21 In the period 1938–40, however, 157,000 came to the United States, of whom just under half were Jewish.22 Most settled in New York, despite the efforts of organizations like the interdenominational organization “Selfhelp” to get them to move inland.23 Jews were socially rather than geographically mobile. After fifteen to twenty-five years, half of Jewish immigrants achieved white-collar status.24 By the 1930s, Jews owned two-thirds of the 24,000 factories in New York City, the same proportion of the more than 100,000 wholesale and retail firms, and two-thirds of the 11,000 restaurants.25 But they moved en masse to more affluent neighborhoods within New York’s five boroughs, sticking together in the same streets and apartment buildings.

Jews were not in fact the largest religious minority in New York. By the 1930s, that position was occupied by Roman Catholics, mostly of Irish or Italian origin.26 Indirectly, this helped the Jews preserve their own religious and cultural identity, since Catholics were not only more numerous but also highly resistant to becoming assimilated into the Protestant “native” population — still a decided majority of the U.S. population as a whole — through intermarriage or education. On the other hand, there was no love lost between New York’s different religious and ethnic groups. For ethnic conflict was not unique to Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. It occurred — albeit on a much less violent scale — in the United States, too. Jews knew to avoid the established German areas like Yorkville on the Upper East Side. But anti-Semitism was by no means uniquely German. For New York’s Irish-Americans, who had borne the brunt of nativist antagonism in the second half of the nineteenth century, the arrival of poor southern Italians and Eastern European Jews provided an opportunity to turn the tables. So Jewish refugees also had to steer clear of Irish neighborhoods like Bainbridge and Kingsbridge in the Bronx. Interethnic competition over jobs and housing was commonplace. The Depression intensified such conflicts as the proportion of the population in employment slumped from 46 percent in 1930 to 38 percent in 1940. During the “Roosevelt Recession,” unskilled workers had the highest unemployment rates; this affected the Irish and Italians more than Jews, because the latter had been much quicker than other immigrant groups to move into more skilled sectors of the economy.27

Jewish upward mobility extended to the realm of politics. In the course of the 1920s, the formerly Republican New York Jews had been brought into the fold of the Democratic Party’s “ethnic coalition,” along with other immigrant groups. Governor Alfred E. Smith and his successor, Franklin Roosevelt, could count on Democratic bosses like Brownsville’s Hymie Schorenstein. Another Jew, Herbert H. Lehman, was elected to succeed Roosevelt as governor of New York in 1932; he held the post for four successive terms. And another, Irwin Steingut, became speaker of the New York State Assembly in 1935. Two years before, the election of the Republican — City Fusion candidate Fiorello La Guardia as mayor of New York City had ended Tammany Hall’s stranglehold on public sector jobs.28 La Guardia’s victory was hailed as an Italian victory, but it was equally a Jewish victory as his mother, Irene Coen, was a Jew from Trieste. (Significantly, the wholly Jewish Nathan Straus had decided not to run for the post as it seemed to him “extremely doubtful… that it would be advisable for there to be a Jewish Governor and a Jewish Mayor.”)29 La Guardia soon signaled his allegiance, becoming the vice chairman of the American League for the Defense of Jewish Rights, one of the organizations set up to boycott German goods in retaliation for the Nazis’ anti-Jewish boycott in Germany.30 The Jewish vote was in fact quite evenly split between La Guardia and his opponents in 1933, which explains why all candidates worked so hard to attract Jewish voters. Under La Guardia’s mayoralty, however, Jews began to get more and more elected and unelected posts in the city government. In 1937 more than two-thirds of all Jews voted for La Guardia, and in 1941 very nearly three-quarters. In presidential elections, New York Jews overwhelmingly endorsed Roosevelt in 1932, 1936, and 1940 (when FDR won no less than 88 percent of their votes).31

The sharp increase under La Guardia in the number of Jews getting city government and teaching jobs angered the long-dominant Irish-Americans. The mainly Irish “Christian Front” was openly hostile to the “Jew Deal.” Anti-Semitism manifested itself in vandalism and anti-Jewish specifications in help-wanted advertisements.32 Even the former governor Al Smith (a political progressive) could say,

All my life I’ve been hearing about the plight of the poor Jews some place in the world…. As I look around the room tonight, I see the Governor here, Herby Lehman. He’s Jewish. Take the Mayor, he’s half Jewish. The President of the Board of Aldermen, my old job, Bernie Deutsch, he’s Jewish and so is Sam Levy, the Borough President of Manhattan. I’m beginning to wonder if someone shouldn’t do something for the poor Irish here in New York.33

Under the strain of the Depression, the Democratic ethnic coalition threatened to fall apart.

It did not help that key members of the New York Communist Party were Jews.34 Post — First World War socialism had also found its strongest support among New York’s Jews.35 And Jews accounted for between 20 and 40 percent of the New York vote for the American Labor Party between 1936 and 1941.36 As in Europe, so in America, it was not so hard for demagogues to equate “Reds” with “Jews.” In reality, the real bias in Jewish politics was toward liberalism, broadly defined.37

Events in Europe only widened all these domestic cleavages. To be sure, a Gallup poll on December 9, 1938 (a month after the Kristallnacht  pogrom), showed that the American public overwhelmingly condemned Hitler’s persecution of the Jews.38 But few Americans were willing to increase immigration quotas to accommodate refugees, while more than two-thirds agreed that “with conditions as they are we should try to keep them out.” Roosevelt himself was sympathetic but gently pushed aside Governor Lehman’s argument (after Hitler’s annexation of Austria) that the immigration quota should be increased. Asked after Kristallnacht  by a reporter, “Would you recommend a relaxation of our immigration restrictions so that the Jewish refugees could be received in this country?” Roosevelt replied bluntly, “That is not in contemplation. We have the quota system.” After Senator Robert Wagner of New York and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts introduced a bill to allow twenty thousand German children under fourteen years of age to enter outside the quota limits, two-thirds of those polled in January 1939 said they opposed the bill. In mid-1939, a Fortune  poll asked, “If you were a member of Congress, would you vote yes or no on a bill to open the doors… to a larger number of European refugees?” Eighty-five percent of Protestants, 84 percent of Catholics, and nearly 26 percent of Jews answered no.39 More than two-fifths of Americans surveyed in 1940 were opposed to mixed marriages between gentiles and Jews. Just under a fifth of Americans considered Jews a “menace to America,” and nearly a third expected “a widespread campaign against Jews in this country,” which more than 10 percent said they would support. Just under half of Americans polled in 1942 thought that Jews had “too much power in the United States.”40

The parallel world of a Nazi America imagined in Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America  is not without its credibility. In October 1938, just weeks after their arrival, the Kissingers could have read a report of a meeting of the New York branch of the Daughters of the American Revolution at which one speaker called for curbs on “the alien menace,” including an end to the admission of refugees to the United States, as well as an investigation of “alien, atheistic, communistic and radical professors” at New York University and Hunter College.41 Other organizations were explicitly anti-Semitic, notably the Defenders of the Christian Faith, founded in 1925 by the Kansas preacher and Nazi sympathizer Gerald B. Winrod, and the Silver Shirt legions, which flourished in 1930s South Carolina under the leadership of William Dudley Pelley, a Methodist preacher’s son who dreamed of being the “American Hitler.”

Especially influential in New York was the National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ), founded by the Detroit-based priest Charles E. Coughlin, whose radio broadcasts against the “Jewish Communist threat” had up to 3.5 million listeners, mostly lower-class Catholics. Coughlin went so far as to defend the Kristallnacht  pogrom in one of his tirades on the radio station WMCA and to publish the bogus “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in his periodical Social Justice . The NUSJ had its own branch at West 59th Street, where a substantial number of policemen were said to be members.42 Coughlin was also the inspiration for the Christian Front, formed by anti-Semitic Irish Catholics like John Cassidy in Brooklyn in 1938. An even more radical group were the Christian Mobilizers, who refused to drop their pro-Hitler stance even after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. The climax of this process of radicalization was the arrest of Christian Front members by the FBI in January 1940. They were charged with planning a coup against the government, which would have been accompanied by terrorist bombings of Jewish neighborhoods and assassinations of Jewish congressmen.43

The most overtly pro-Nazi organization in New York, however, was the Freunde des Neuen Deutschland — known from 1936 as the German-American Bund (Amerikadeutscher Volksbund). Its New York Gau  (centered on Yorkville) was the hub of the Nazi movement in the United States. By the late 1930s, according to the Justice Department, this organization had between 8,000 and 10,000 members (the American Legion put the figure higher at 25,000), most of them recent immigrants or nonnaturalized Germans, as well as its own German-language newspaper, the Deutsche Weckruf und Beobachter  (“The German Alarm Call and Observer”). To some, it was a mere pawn of Berlin, but probably only a small minority of its members were genuine fifth columnists.44 The Bund did not confine itself to organizing parades of brown-shirted activists.45 It also sought to put pressure on the long-established German-language newspaper the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung,  as well as on German-American clubs like the Steuben Society of America and the Roland Society, to support the Hitler regime. It was only the increasing strength of anti-Nazi feeling in the United States — especially after Kristallnacht —that deterred more German-Americans from backing the Bund.46

The approach of war only worsened interethnic relations in New York. “New York is a veritable powder keg,” wrote one advocate of U.S. neutrality, “and our entry into the war might touch it off.” Predictably, Coughlinites strongly backed the anti-interventionist America First Committee, which also had the support of Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. Few Irish-Americans had an appetite for fighting another war on the same side as the British Empire. By contrast, New York’s Jewish organizations agreed with the administration’s view that “the choice [was] between Hitler and civilization.”47


Like most New York neighborhoods, Washington Heights — the area of Manhattan where the Kissingers made their home — is not a precise geographical location. If you had asked where it was in 1938, you might well have been told “the area around 159th Street near the intersection of Broadway and Fort Washington Avenue” or “the area to the north and west of Harlem.” Looking back, a near contemporary of Kissinger’s defined it somewhat differently:

For me, the early boundaries of the neighborhood were 173rd Street to the south, 177th Street to the north, South Pinehurst Avenue to the west and Broadway to the east. The only exceptions were if I was in Jay Hood Wright Park, I could go to the extreme rear, which was at Haven Avenue, one block west of South Pinehurst. If I was on Broadway, I could go to 181st Street to the movies; or if on Ft. Washington Avenue, I could go to 178th Street to the “Y.”… On the corner of 181st Street and Broadway was… the Harlem Savings Bank and, opposite it, the RKO Coliseum.48

Hilly and surrounded on three sides by rivers, Washington Heights was the last part of Manhattan to be urbanized, a process that was still not quite complete in the 1930s. The developers favored five- and six-story brick apartment buildings, but parks like Fort Tryon and Inwood Hill made this one of Manhattan’s most verdant districts. That may explain its appeal to the mostly middle-class exiles from Hitler’s Germany.

By the outbreak of World War II, Washington Heights had such a large population of German-Jewish refugees that it was jokingly known as the “Fourth Reich.”49 Other nicknames were “Cincinnati,” a pun on the German question “Sind Sie net’ die Frau soundso? ” (“Aren’t you Mrs. So-and-so?”) and “Kanton Englisch, ” another pun meaning “Not a word [Kein Ton ] of English.”50 Altogether, between 20,000 and 25,000 German-Jewish refugees settled there, close to a quarter of the nearly 100,000 Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany to the United States.51 But Jews were never more than three-eighths of the Washington Heights population, and by the time of the war that proportion had fallen.52 The fact that the refugees were relatively elderly (22 percent were over forty) and favored small families meant that they were never likely to compete with the Irish and Greek populations.53 Partly for that reason, Washington Heights was less outwardly Jewish than, say, Brownsville in Brooklyn.

Washington Heights was, by almost any definition, a middle-class neighborhood. Median family income in 1930 had been just over $4,000, three times what it was in the Lower East Side, but half what it was in the Upper West Side, home of the wealthy “alrightniks.”54 The refugees, however, arrived with little cash. Often, like the Kissingers, they had only a crateful of furniture. What made Washington Heights so attractive was that it was both bürgerlich  and affordable. Rents were relatively low, and because most apartments had between six and eight bedrooms (some of which had originally been intended for servants), it was possible to sublet for cash.55 As in other parts of New York, the different ethnic groups engaged in residential self-segregation by street and even apartment building, so that in some streets all-Jewish buildings could be found not far from all-Irish ones.56

The degree of separateness of the Jewish community came as a surprise to many of the newcomers. Writing in 1951, the Frankfurt-born Ernest Stock — who had arrived in New York in 1940—recalled, “It came as a shock to discover how much [the United States] is a series of rather tight ethnic enclaves…. German Jewish professionals frequented the homes of other German professionals, whereas, in New York, Jewish doctors and lawyers tend to visit the homes of other Jewish doctors and lawyers.”57 For such professionals, it was far from easy to find work. Physicians had to pass state medical examinations; German-trained lawyers had almost no chance of practicing again. The best option was to set up a small business catering mainly to one’s fellow Jews. Already by 1940 there were eight kosher butchers in Washington Heights. Jewish bakeries also sprang up, specializing in poppyseed-covered barches .58 A few Washington Heights firms succeeded in finding a wider market, notably the Odenwald Bird Company and the Barton candy store. But most stayed small. For many men, the choice was between idleness and door-to-door sales; for many women, between their own housework and that of others.59

Even to their fellow Jews in New York, the refugees were to some extent alien. According to one refugee, American Jews regarded the newcomers as “conceited”: “they ‘stick together and won’t mix with the rest of us,’ they are ‘arrogant,’ they are ‘schemers,’ they are ‘mercenary’—a long list of accusations sounding not too much unlike the ideas about Jews generally harbored by anti-Semites.”60 For nearly everyone in Washington Heights, life in pre-Hitler Germany had been better than their new exile existence. A popular joke had one dachshund saying to another, “In Germany I ate white bread every day.” The second replies, “That’s nothing, in Germany I was a Saint Bernard.”61

For those refugees who could not at first find work — and Louis Kissinger was one of them — life in Washington Heights revolved around “agreeable socializing with coffee and cake.”62 Lublo’s Palm Garden offered “Viennese cuisine” (though the proprietor was in fact from Stuttgart). Other German-Jewish restaurants in the neighborhood included Orner’s, the College Inn, and Restaurant Derrick. There one might pass the time reading Aufbau,  the weekly newspaper published by the Deutsch-jüdischer Club (later the German-Jewish Club, later the New World Club) or its smaller local rival Jewish Way,  published in German by Max and Alice Oppenheimer from 1940 to 1965.63 Alternatively, there was the Prospect Unity Club, with its headquarters at 558 West 158th Street. Other associations included the Immigrant Jewish War Veterans and Agudath Israel of Washington Heights. For younger people there was the Maccabi Athletic Club, which had its clubhouse on 150th Street, or ALTEO (All Loyal To Each Other), another youth organization.64

Such clubs, however, were less important in the life of the refugee Jewish community than the numerous religious and charitable organizations (chevras ) they founded. Jewish immigrants to New York tended to begin by creating small synagogues for themselves and their landslayt  (countrymen), usually meeting in rented rooms. In the second generation, Jews in places like Brooklyn and Flatbush built more formal “synagogue centers” (“a pool with a school and a shul”), which mixed the religious and the secular (from physical fitness to Zionism). Secularization was hard to resist. By the 1930s, the typical New York Jew did not regularly attend religious services; he would turn out for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when temporary “mushroom” synagogues had to be set up.65

The Jews of Washington Heights were different. This was partly because of circumstances that predated the arrival of the German-Jewish refugees. In the mid-1920s a group of wealthy Orthodox Jews had financed the foundation of Yeshiva College, which was (and is) located on Amsterdam Avenue and West 185th Street. Under the leadership of Bernard Revel, the college grew out of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, but it was intended to be much more than a seminary. Revel was motivated partly by the restriction of Jewish admission to the Ivy League universities in the years after the First World War. His aim was to take Orthodox Judaism “out of the ghettos” by combining study of the Talmud with a broad liberal arts program.66 Washington Heights was therefore already a center for Jewish scholarship ten years before the Kissingers arrived there. It was also home to several Jewish congregations, including the Hebrew Tabernacle, the Fort Tryon Jewish Center, and Washington Heights Congregation. Yet the newcomers proved reluctant to become involved with any of these institutions.

To other Jews in New York, the German Jews were Yekkes,  characterized by their “exaggerated discipline in daily life, love of order taken to grotesque lengths [and] overvaluing of humanistic education.” Compared with Jews who had come to America from Eastern Europe, certainly, the German Jews seemed much more buttoned-up in their worship. People arrived early, services began punctually, they sat on fixed pews in rows facing the same way, they had formal choirs led by cantors, and there was none of the swaying or chanting in prayer to be seen in the synagogues of the Lower East Side or Brooklyn.67 Though strict in their observance of religious law — they were more likely to keep kosher than other New York Jews68—Orthodox German Jews did not dress like Hasidim.69 Men wore hats (or less commonly, yarmulkes) at all times, but they shaved — in Washington Heights, beards were for rabbis only. Women dressed plainly but not anachronistically: “One black dress, one blue dress, and one brown dress are considered an entirely adequate wardrobe.”70

Predominantly Orthodox, predominantly South German, the refugees brought with them cleavages that meant little in the United States.71 In Germany, where all Jews were required to belong to single local communities (Gemeinde ), there had been a rift between followers of communal or unitary Orthodoxy, led by Seligman Baer Bamberger, and those of separatist Orthodoxy, led by Samson Raphael Hirsch. Confusingly, the former were more conservative in their mode of observance but favored coexistence with proponents of Reform and even of Zionism; the latter, while somewhat closer to Reform in their mode of worship, strongly rejected both Reform and Zionism. The persistence of such differences explains why the Orthodox German-Jewish refugees founded so many new congregations.72 By 1944 there were twenty-two “refugee communities” in New York.73 Of the twelve founded in Washington Heights, four were unitary and four separatist.74 The first to be established was Kultusgemeinde Gates of Hope in 1935, followed three years later by the Synagogengemeinde Washington Heights, Tikwoh Chadoshoh (New Hope), and K’hal Adath Jeshurun (also known as “Breuer’s,” after its rabbi, Joseph Breuer). The only new Liberal congregation was Beth Hillel, founded in 1940 by exiles from Munich and Nuremberg.75

It is doubly significant that the Kissingers opted to join K’hal Adath Jeshurun. Breuer, who had been born in Hungary but from 1926 until 1938 had been head of the Samson Raphael Hirsch School in Frankfurt, was a strict separatist, whose ideal was the all-embracing, exclusively Orthodox community (kehilla ).76 For Breuer, the synagogue was merely the center of a complex of institutions and services, which included a separate school (yeshiva ), ritual bath, kashruth  supervision (of kosher food producers), and even a monthly newsletter. In an early edition, the German-language Mitteilungen  (“Notices”) warned newcomers to the United States:

Here in this country… there is no organized community. Whatever there is of organization is voluntary and subject to the changes inherent to voluntary organizations. The authority over Jewish questions, including Kashruth, is not established. Rabbis whose knowledge of the law qualifies them to be authorities may not be recognized by the community as such. Others lacking the knowledge may have forced themselves into authoritative positions from where they unscrupulously give their pronouncements.77

Accordingly, the Mitteilungen <

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/i> listed retailers and products that could be relied upon to be kosher. Moreover, like their rabbi in Fürth, Leo Breslauer, Breuer was strongly anti-Zionist. In September 1940, he published a revealing summation of recent Jewish history.

Emancipation led to Assimilation, whose proponents were the men of the so-called Reform Judaism [movement]. Complete alienation and mass baptism were the inevitable consequences. Assimilation led to the revival of anti-Semitism, which is always what happens according to G*d’s eternal truths. Anti-Semitism precipitated the Zionist movement, which just continued the madness of Assimilation under a different flag, and directed it down no less disastrous, because wholly un-Jewish, paths. The result of it all is the catastrophe of the present time, with all its horrible manifestations.78

It was the Zionist sympathies of the Yeshiva Rabbi Moses Soloveitchik that persuaded Breuer to set up his own Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.79 The only puzzle is why the Kissingers stuck with Breuer when their former rabbi, Leo Breslauer, arrived in New York and set up his own synagogue, Kehillath Yaakov.80 Kissinger suspected it was because Breuer was the more charismatic figure. He soon grew accustomed to hearing his fiery sermons once a week.81

The great counterbalance to the influence of men like Breuer was public school. Young refugees like Heinz and Walter Kissinger swiftly found themselves existing in two worlds: the backward-looking Orthodox world of their religious community and the self-consciously progressive world of the secular high school. At first sight, this seems strange. American public schools remained broadly Christian, in the sense that they observed Christian holidays. The priorities of interwar educationalists were also explicitly secular and integrative. Extracurricular activities — from athletics to journalism — were intended to train “efficient citizens.” Yet the belief of Orthodox parents that their children could enjoy the benefits of secular education without losing their religious faith had profound consequences. While Irish-American and Italian-American families often eschewed the public system in favor of Catholic schools, Jews enthusiastically adopted the public schools in their neighborhoods. Jewish pupils were soon overrepresented in the new extracurricular activities.82 Increasingly, they were taught by Jewish teachers: by 1940, more than half of all new teachers in New York public schools were Jewish.83 This symbiosis manifested itself in the board of education’s recognition of Hebrew as a foreign language worthy of study.

George Washington High School, which would give the future Harvard professor his introduction to American education, was not the most Jewish high school in New York City. That honor belonged to Seward Park in the Lower East Side, where 74 percent of the pupils were Jewish, followed by New Utrecht (in Bensonhurst) and Evander Childs (in Pelham Parkway). Nevertheless, between 1931 and 1947, around 40 percent of pupils at George Washington were Jewish, compared with around 20 percent who were white Protestant, 5 percent who were African American, and 4 percent who were Italian or Irish. In this period, Jewish boys were conspicuously overrepresented in academic clubs and the honor society Arista, and underrepresented in all sports except basketball. However, they were also underrepresented as presidents and as editors of the school newspaper, among the most prestigious positions a student could hold. Here the native-born students were still dominant.84

For an intelligent Jewish boy, George Washington High offered not just formal education but socialization. Born in the United States rather than in Germany, the future chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan recalled more clearly the pleasures than the pains of his years at George Washington: watching the Giants at the Polo Grounds, following the Yankees on the radio, going to see Hopalong Cassidy at the cinema, and listening to the Glenn Miller band at the Hotel Pennsylvania.85

Yet there was another, less appealing side to teenage life in Washington Heights. As many had feared, the outbreak of war exacerbated already serious ethnic friction. Gangs like the Amsterdams and the Shamrocks attacked Jewish boys with cries of “Kill the Jews!”86 Anti-Semitic groups like the Christian Front and the Christian Mobilizers carried out attacks on synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in Washington Heights.87 Coughlin’s NUSJ explicitly protested against the Jewish community, mobilizing the local Irish population against supposedly job-destroying Jewish innovations like self-service stores.88 To German-Jewish refugees, the failure of the authorities to clamp down effectively on such violence and intimidation was a sobering reminder that they could not be complacent about their new home. As one journalist complained, “We are tired of approaching a police captain, hat in hand, saying ‘Please Captain McCarthy (or O’Brien)… My boy was hit because he is a Jew. Will you send a cop?’ And we are damned sick and tired of watching the sickly Hitler-like grin and hearing the usual answer: ‘Ah, the boys are just playing.’”89 It was not until 1944 that any gang members were prosecuted and the Catholic hierarchy openly disavowed their behavior.

Until the end of their lives, many of the refugees of Washington Heights felt — and were made to feel — more “American Jewish” or “German Jewish” than “American.”90 As the character of their neighbors changed — as African Americans and Puerto Ricans moved into the area south of 158th Street — the Jewish population of Washington Heights felt even more beleaguered — one reason for their political switch to the Republican Party in the early 1950s.91


What impression did New York make on the fifteen-year-old Heinz Kissinger? Many years later, in his memoirs, he stressed the contrast between Germany and America.

Until I emigrated to America, my family and I endured progressive ostracism and discrimination…. Every walk in the street turned into an adventure, for my German contemporaries were free to beat up Jewish children without interference by the police. Through this period America acquired a wondrous quality for me. When I was a boy it was a dream, an incredible place where tolerance was natural and personal freedom unchallenged…. I always remembered the thrill when I first walked the streets of New York City. Seeing a group of boys, I began to cross to the other side to avoid being beaten up. And then I remembered where I was.92

As we have seen, however, the risk of being beaten up also existed for a Jew in Washington Heights. Another writer has speculated that the young Kissinger found assimilation relatively easy (“as a German Jew [he] was prepared by his own culture to take on, in large part, the trappings and spirit of another culture while retaining his inner integrity”).93 An alternative hypothesis is that his parents’ membership in an Orthodox community in fact prevented assimilation and, in particular, “reinforced Henry Kissinger’s now deeply rooted discomfort with mass democracy.”94 Such assessments are surely wide of the mark.

From the moment the Kissingers’ ship docked at the terminal on Manhattan’s West Side (“Hell’s Kitchen”), the family was preoccupied with practicalities. Although they had sufficient means to have their papers processed on board, sparing them the indignities of Ellis Island, the Kissingers had painfully little to live on. There had been five bedrooms in their apartment in Fürth. Now they were reduced to two. After a brief stay with their aunt, they moved to Washington Heights, first at 736 West 181st Street and then in a cramped apartment at 615 Fort Washington Avenue (well to the west of Broadway, in a solidly Jewish neighborhood). The fact that they got an apartment at all was no mean feat; in the rush of immigration that followed Kristallnacht,  many new arrivals initially found themselves in communal accommodations like the Congress House on West 68th Street run by Rabbi Stephen Wise and his wife.95 Kissinger later recalled the hardships of the time.

My brother and I… slept in the living room. We had no privacy. Today I can’t imagine how I did it, [but] in those days I didn’t think… I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I didn’t think I was suffering…. Today when I visited my mother in that apartment, where she stayed until she died, I couldn’t believe I lived there and slept in the living room on the double couch. [I] did my school work in the kitchen. But all these books say that I suffered as a refugee…. [I]t’s not true… it’s nonsense.96

The family’s single biggest problem was that Louis Kissinger could not find work. Handicapped by his imperfect English,* ill at ease in his new surroundings, he confided in his wife, “I am the loneliest man in this big city.” As she later recalled, “I didn’t know how to get started, he didn’t know how to get started.” At first, they lived on money from another relative in Pittsburgh.97 Although Louis finally succeeded in getting a bookkeeping job in the firm of a friend, he was plagued by ill health and depression; henceforth Paula was the family’s breadwinner, after the Council of Jewish Women helped train her as a servant and caterer.98 Younger and more adaptable than her husband, she mastered English quickly and lost no time in building a small catering business — a typical refugee story.99 The pressure was therefore on her sons — and especially the elder of them — to begin earning money. As soon as they were able to, the Kissinger boys enrolled at George Washington High School. It was a big school, with around three thousand students100 and an ethos of “sink or swim.” Surviving examples of Kissinger’s schoolwork suggest that he adapted swiftly to his new milieu.101 In January 1940, however, he switched to evening classes in order to take a full-time job, paying $11 a week, in the shaving brush factory owned by his mother’s cousin’s husband. The factory was located downtown, at 22 West 15th Street, and the work was far from pleasant. Kissinger toiled from eight a.m. until five p.m., squeezing acid out of the badger bristles from which the brushes were made, until he was promoted into the shipping department, which meant delivering brushes all over Manhattan. After the forty-minute subway ride back to Washington Heights and a hasty dinner, he then had to get through three hours of night school. Yet the sixteen-year-old’s performance did not suffer. That semester he achieved scores of 95 for Grade 3 French, 95 for Grade 2 American History, 90 for Grade 1 American History, 90 for Grade 6 English, 85 for Grade 7 English, and 75 for Advanced Algebra.102 For all its flaws, the Jewish Realschule in Fürth had put Kissinger ahead of his classmates in math, history, and geography.103 He was ahead in other ways, too, already reading Dostoevsky for pleasure.

The single biggest obstacle to overcome was of course linguistic. As Kissinger later recalled, “In those days nobody said, ‘These poor refugees, let’s teach them in German.’ They threw us into a school and we had to do it in English and… I had to learn English very fast. I didn’t know any when I came here.”104 That was not strictly true, as he had studied English in Germany and had a rudimentary ability to read it. But there is a world of difference between studying a foreign language and studying in  a foreign language. It was one thing to exchange “Heinz” for “Henry.” It was another to sound  American. According to one account,

The school record noted that the new student had a “foreign language handicap.” It was a “handicap” that contributed to the shyness of his George Washington days as well as to his sense of being a loner. His command and use of the new language would later win the respect of diplomats throughout the world, but his accent — once described by a German-born friend of his as “ridiculously Bavarian rather than Prussian”—would stay with him until adulthood. “I was terribly self-conscious of it,” he would say years later.105

Much has been written about Kissinger’s distinctively Central European accent, the persistence of which seems strange, given that his younger brother largely lost his, in common with most refugees young enough to attend a U.S. high school.106 It was the older refugees who clung to German. As late as April 1941, the Kissingers’ synagogue was still debating whether to switch its services and newsletter from German into English.107 As one contemporary noted, “The importance of this can hardly be overestimated: often the German accent makes the difference between complete integration in American life and permanent status as an ‘outsider.’”108 It is indeed remarkable that someone so intelligent and ambitious retained his German accent for so long, at a time when speaking accentless English was seen as the prerequisite for social mobility.109 However, it was from his arithmetical rather than his linguistic skills that the young Kissinger hoped to make a living. After graduating from George Washington, he applied to City College of New York to study accountancy.110

The old world was losing its power over the young man. His father and mother devoutly attended the K’hal Adath Jeshurun synagogue. Leo Hexter, another refugee from Fürth to Washington Heights, recalled Kissinger’s “thirst for religious knowledge.”111 But in a first sign of rebellion against his parents’ Orthodoxy, he joined a youth group organized by the Reform synagogue Beth Hillel.112 Like many of the newcomers from Germany, Kissinger found his faith changing under the new influences he encountered in New York. He was, he recalled, “certainly not Orthodox” any longer, as he was regularly working on Jewish holidays, as was his brother.113 As one contemporary put it, writing not long after the war, “A great many of [the German-Jewish refugees] never come to shul  except on High Holidays…. In the United States… religious observance has been gradually abandoned…. The fight for a living in the new country, they claimed, was too exhausting…. There was also the argument that in a world where one’s relatives are burnt to death, there could be no God.”114

Of course, few people in the United States could anticipate at this stage the magnitude of the horrors that would later become known as the Holocaust. But none were better acquainted with the Nazi regime’s potential for violence than the refugees newly arrived in New York. Among the very few pieces of Kissinger’s writing to survive from this period is a sketch for a newspaper entitled “Voice of the Union: Eine Zeitung im Aufbau ! [Newspaper under construction],” dated May 1, 1939, and marked “World-wide edition — Publication in Germany prohibited.” It is emphatically secular in tone, foreseeing the need to lend assistance to future waves of refugees from Nazism:

Members of the Union,

Six years have passed since a massive event — bigger in scale than any natural disaster — intervened deeply in our fate. Its effects are greater than anyone could ever remotely have anticipated. National Socialism is relentless in its will to annihilate and it acknowledges no restrictions!

At first, the Jewish people were hit the hardest, but the spirit of Hitler is spreading its poison further, over lands and seas; it destroys families, house and home, and penetrates into the smallest parts of our lives. Only a few people were able to grasp the full extent of this misfortune soon enough. Too many believed that there was still a way out and that the civilization of the twentieth century would protect us from the worst. Today we know that this hope was a great illusion. As the pressure became ever greater, there began the great problem of emigration. I need not say any more. We all know the sad road of emigration, made the rockier by the fact that many countries closed their doors to us. One country remained our hope: the USA. We who have had the good fortune to come here to the classical land of freedom wish to prove our gratitude by playing a part in the great system of assistance for those who will come in the future through the foundation of “the Reunion of Comrades.”115

Kissinger’s thinking on Zionism was also evolving. In 1937 he had described the idea of a secular Jewish state in Palestine as “unthinkable.” Before leaving Germany, however, he had written to a friend, “My future lies in America, but my hope lies in Palestine… the land of our mutual yearning.” But by the summer of 1939 his attitude had changed: “Look at what has become of this illusion. ‘Our’ Palestine is a toy of great power politics, torn apart by civil war and handed over to the Arabs.”116 Some of those members of Agudath Israel with whom Kissinger had associated in Fürth had become even more strident in their anti-Zionism since moving to the United States. Indeed Rabbi Breslauer came close to supporting the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta.117 But Leo Hexter later denied that Kissinger followed this lead.118

The reality was that the teenage Kissinger found himself in the midst of a real-life “reunion of comrades”—one that was forcing him not only to question his earlier beliefs but also to lose faith in his former friends. Writing to one of them in July 1939, he candidly revealed his ambivalence about this new home, “New-York”:

My personal impression of America is very two-sided: in some regards I admire it, in others I despise the approach to life here. I admire American technology, the American tempo of work, American freedom. It is powerful what America has achieved in its short history. This is only possible in nations that live in such security and that have never experienced serious crises. You need to have been to the skyscraper area of New York to understand what modern technology can create. You need to have driven on an American highway into the countryside to be able to understand the exaggerated patriotism of Americans. But the greater the light, the greater the shadow sides are. Alongside the most beautiful houses in the world you see here the most wretched, alongside excessive wealth, unspeakable poverty. And then this individualism! You stand completely on your own, no one cares about you, you have to make your own way upwards.119

Much of this was in fact quite typical of German-Jewish refugees, who were at once dazzled by the scale of the American achievement as embodied in New York and dismayed by its more rough-hewn aspects.120 But Kissinger had a further, and deeper complaint: “The American trait I dislike the most is their casual approach to life. No one thinks ahead further than the next minute, no one has the courage to look life squarely in the eye, difficult [things] are always avoided. No youth of my age has any kind of spiritual problem that he seriously concerns himself with.” American superficiality had direct social consequences for the earnest young German: as he admitted, this was “one of the main reasons why I have had difficulty making friends with any American.”

Yet it was not the lack of new friends that was the real problem. It was the presence of old ones — three “former schoolmates” who, like Kissinger, had ended up in New York.121 One of these was Walter Oppenheim, whose family had made the same journey as the Kissingers, from Fürth to Washington Heights. The others were Hans (later John) Sachs and Kurt Reichold. On the surface, the young refugees were learning to work hard and play hard like true New Yorkers. They didn’t just slave by day and study by night. They went to baseball* and football games, following both the Yankees and the Giants. They played tennis.122 They went to dancing classes. They learned to drive. And they dated girls, among them Kissinger’s future wife Anneliese Fleischer.123

But it was another young women, named Edith, whose arrival from Fürth turned the reunion of friends into a maelstrom of romantic rivalry. In March 1940, Kissinger — already taking pride in his command of written English — had mailed Edith two of his school book reports. She had never replied. After simmering for two weeks, the young man penned a third missive, in which he laid bare his adolescent soul:

Since you do not seem to be in the habit of answering letters, even if one goes through considerable trouble in securing you one’s bookreports [sic ], I am forced however reluctantly to write you a third and final time. I am indeed mystified over that silence of yours, the least thing you could have done was to confirm the receipt of the documents. But now as to the purpose of my letter: I would be very grateful to you, if you were to return to me as soon as possible the 2 bookreports and the essay, because I am collecting them. If you do not want to write to me, you can give them to Hans or Oppus [Oppenheim’s nickname] when you see them again.

“Here perhaps I ought to stop. But a solicitude for your welfare… urges me to give you some advice… which can be offered all the more freely, as you can see in it only the disinterested warning of a parting friend.” (Quotation from Washington’s farewell address). While I wanted for a long time to clarify my position and, as far as possible, the one of the rest of us too, towards you orally, I realize now, that this is the only way left to me. I write you this letter, because I feel that it would be unfair towards you, to make you believe, that there exists something like an amity among us five where this amity was only artificially construed in order to give some of us an opportunity to see you. In short, what you see of us is only our best side, and hardly ever will you see any of us as he really is. It is therefore, that I want to caution you against a too rash involvement into a friendship with any one of us.

Kissinger was sixteen. He had been in New York less than two years. He was in the grip of an intense teenage crush and a violent jealousy of his rivals:

You are the first girl of our class, to come here, and a rather attractive one at that, so that it is only natural that there should be a general desire to win your friendship. The two chief exponents, that try or tried to gain your friendship, are, excluding me, Oppus and Kurt. I think it is necessary, to write you some of their disadvantages, since the only thing you see are their advantages. I want to caution you against Kurt because of his wickedness, his utter disregard of any moral standards, while he is pursuing his ambitions, and against a friendship with Oppus, because of his desire to dominate you ideologically and monopolize you physically. This does not mean that a friendship with Oppus is impossible, I would only advise you, not to become to [sic ] fascinated by him lest you become too dependent upon him.

To substantiate this, it is necessary, that I explain to you, what has happened among ourselves since your arrival in this country. Oppus was the first one to learn of it and he therefore considered it as his prerogative to contol [sic ] access to you by withholding your address. This was especially directed against Kurt, partly because of an old feud, dating back to your days in Fuerth, and partly because Oppus felt, that Kurt’s crooked ways should not always succeed. In this scheme, he wanted me to try to gain your friendship. However, I refused to see you, a fact which I will explain later on. — After some time Kurt learned of your arrival in this country. A quarrel with Oppus was only averted because Kurt did not want to spoil his chances of getting your adress [sic ]. Long discussions followed, culminating in a meeting of all five of us and the decision to invite you to a meeting at Kurt’s.

Now as to my first refusal to see you. This was motivated by one of three reasons. Firstly I did not want to quarell [sic ] with my friends in return for a doubtful friendship with you. Secondly, I did not want to make a fool out of myself. I knew that if I saw you, I would again be captivated by you and make a fool out of myself, which I subsequently did. Thirdly, I had the feeling, that you considered me more of a clown than anything else. However, I later revised all these three points of view, because I realized, that I was only running away from myself.

While concluding, may I reiterate again, that I would regret it very much if you were to ascribe purely selfish motives to my writing this letter. I wrote it, because I got sick and tired of pretending to be somebody, which I am not and in order to be of some help to you, if possible, as far as your relations with the other members of our former class are concerned.

In the hope, that within these limits set, the letter succeeded, I sign,

very truly yours,


Many an intelligent young man, on having his advances rebuffed, has written with equal vehemence to the object of his affections. But what makes this letter stand out — aside from its still Teutonic punctuation and occasional minor misspellings — is its analytical precision and psychological penetration. Amid the Sturm und Drang of being sixteen, Kissinger had anatomized the relationships between the friends and how the reunion had changed them, reviving the old rivalry between Oppenheim and Reichold and intensifying the feelings of insecurity that had made Kissinger seem aloof (“I had the feeling, that you considered me… a clown”). In the end, “Kissus” had enough sense not to mail his solipsistic screed, instead preserving it as a testament to the dark intensity of his life as a young immigrant.

In an earlier letter to another girl, this time writing less awkwardly in German, Kissinger had given an account of his life since coming to New York “in 2 phases: My spiritual and my general life.” What he had to say about the former was revealing:

As I already mentioned at the beginning [of this letter] a great deal has changed within me. The 8 months here have turned me from an idealist into a skeptic. That does not mean I no longer have any ideals. It means that, since 95 % of my previous ideals have suffered shipwreck, I no longer have any clearly delineated goals, but I have broader ideas that are not yet clear to me. I am not so much pursuing a durable ideal as trying to find one.125

Coming to America had changed nearly everything for the young man. He had been emotionally as well as geographically displaced. He little knew in July 1939, on the eve of the most destructive war in all history, that the “durable ideal” he sought would find him first — in the unlikely setting of a U.S. Army training camp, preparing for a perilous journey that would take him all the way back to Germany.

CHAPTER 4 An Unexpected Private

Having set ourselves the task of seeing Mephisto as a distinct individual, we must see him as more than just Faust’s other (less important) ego…. We also need to draw Mephisto out from the shadow that Faust casts right over him and to stand him next to his opponent or partner…. Only through ever more purposeful development of the ego can we ultimately reach the path to the Übermensch. 

— FRITZ KRAEMER, “The Pact Between Mephistopheles and Faust,” 19261

In politics, as in any other field of human activity, character, values and faith are at least as important as those other factors which may be described, roughly, as “economic.” I revenge myself by thinking that it is far more fantastic to believe that the world of realities consists almost exclusively of “wages,” “raw materials” and “industrial production.”



On September 11, 1941, in a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, the aviator-turned-demagogue Charles Lindbergh accused “Jewish groups in this country” of “agitating for war.”

Lindbergh had been a national celebrity since his solo, nonstop Atlantic crossing from New York to Paris in 1927. By 1941, as the leading spokesman for the America First Committee, he was the most influential of all the voices urging the United States to stay out of the Second World War. “Instead of agitating for war,” Lindbergh declared,

the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.

Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastations. A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not.

Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.

The leaders of the Jewish people, Lindbergh conclude

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d, “for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war…. We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction.”3

Less than three months later, on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, nullifying at a stroke this and other arguments for American neutrality.

The young Henry Kissinger could certainly not have been accused of “agitating for war.” When the news of Pearl Harbor reached New York, he “was at a football game… watching the New York Giants play the Brooklyn Dodgers, who at that time had a football team. It was the first professional game I’d seen… and when I came out, they had a Sunday paper… with a headline about an attack on Pearl Harbor. I didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was.”4 Kissinger was now a student at City College of New York, an institution long popular with academically ambitious immigrants, which was just a twenty-minute subway ride from his parents’ apartment. He was doing well, obtaining As in nearly every course (ironically, his only B was for history). In his free time, he liked to watch football or baseball, or to play tennis at the courts under the George Washington Bridge.5 A career in accountancy seemed to beckon.6

Yet the studious young man was hardly blind to the approach of war. The German-Jewish refugee community in Washington Heights had been watching developments in Europe with growing anxiety, not least because so many families — including the Kissingers — had relatives still living in Germany. Contrary to Lindbergh’s claims, few people in Washington Heights had been “agitating for war.” Yet war, when it came, was a kind of relief for the refugees, if only because it rendered obsolete the accusation that their interests as Jews were different from America’s national interest. The monthly magazine published by the Kissingers’ synagogue quoted Jeremiah 29:7: “And seek the welfare of the city whither I have banished you and pray in its behalf unto the Lord: for in its welfare shall ye fare well.” As Rabbi Breuer put it, “In this grave hour, not only the feeling of deepest gratitude drives us to do our duty…. With the welfare and the future of this country the future and welfare of our people is [sic ] closely connected.”7

It was by no means inevitable, however, that Henry Kissinger — along with around 9,500 other German-Jewish refugees — would end up donning an American uniform to fight against the land of his birth. In June 194 °Congress had passed the Alien Registration Act, which imposed a number of restrictions on residents of the United States who had been born in Germany and had not yet been naturalized. Among these was exclusion from the military. This created an anomaly, since the Selective Training and Service Act had introduced the draft for all men resident in the United States between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-six. It was not until March 1942 that the Second War Powers Act introduced a system of accelerated naturalization, which allowed “enemy aliens” who had served honorably in the armed forces for at least three months to become citizens.8 Only with the reduction of the draft age to eighteen the following November did Kissinger become eligible for conscription. Even then, there remained restrictions on the jobs that could be assigned to a “selectee” of German origin. Indeed, Kissinger’s brother, Walter, was pulled out of the 26th Infantry Division and sent to the Pacific Theater on account of his German origins.9 It took time for the head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), William J. (“Wild Bill”) Donovan, to convince the army that men of German origin had “specialized qualifications” that were “urgent[ly] need[ed]” in combat units.10

In all, around 500,000 Jews served in the American army, of whom 35,000 lost their lives.11 The participation rate for Jewish refugees was somewhat higher than the national average.12 Now that America was in the war, such men had a unique combination of incentives to fight. As one refugee soldier put it, “I, who have been robbed of all I possessed and driven out of my homeland, have so much more reason for wanting to get a whack at Hitler than has the average American citizen who has not yet suffered from him.”13 Such men were “not following blindly a leader, fighting a battle they don’t know what for. All are not only fighting for America but fighting for the eternal rights of their Jewish people…. Among them is the right of freedom of religion, giving each soldier the right to worship and practice his religion the way he wants.”14 As we shall see, however, the realities of army life sometimes seemed calculated to make a mockery of such fine sentiments.


Henry Kissinger’s draft notice arrived not long after his nineteenth birthday. The angst-ridden teenage refugee was now a studious young New Yorker, going steady with Anneliese [Anne] Fleischer — an unassuming local girl of whom his parents approved — seemingly destined for a life of blameless obscurity as an accountant in Washington Heights.15 Once again history had intervened. In mid-February 1943, after a farewell family dinner at the Iceland Restaurant near Times Square, Kissinger found himself on a train bound for Camp Croft, five miles south of Spartanburg, South Carolina, a sprawling complex of barracks and shooting ranges capable of accommodating, and inflicting basic training on, up to twenty thousand men at a time. On arrival, as Kissinger described it to his brother, he was unceremoniously “pushed around and inoculated, counted, and stood at attention.”16 For the next seventeen weeks, he was at the mercy of his lieutenant, whom he grew to hate “beyond description and probably for no real reason.”17 On June 19, having survived three months of basic training, Kissinger was entitled to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. Raising his right hand, he swore the following oath:

I hereby declare… that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, and particularly to Germany, of whom (which) I have heretofore been subject (or citizen); that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion: So help me God.18

He was now an American soldier.

Camp Croft was as different as could be imagined from the insular, homogeneous refugee community of Washington Heights. In theory, soldiers enjoyed freedom of religion; in practice, there was scant regard for the rules and rites that an Orthodox Jew was supposed to observe. By design, the draft put men from every walk of life, from every section of society, into uniform. Only the continued segregation of African Americans prevented the army from being a truly integrative institution.19 But it was not only drill and target practice that the new recruits were being introduced to; there was also gambling, drinking, and whoring, the favorite recreations of the average GI. Kissinger’s candid advice to his younger brother about how to survive basic training speaks for itself.

[Keep] your eyes and ears open and your mouth closed….

Always stand in the middle because details are always picked from the end. Always remain inconspicuous because as long as they don’t know you, they can’t pick on you. So please repress your natural tendencies and don’t push to the forefront….

Don’t become too friendly with the scum you invariably meet there. Don’t gamble! There are always a few professional crooks in the crowd and they skin you alive. Don’t lend out money. It will be no good to you. You will have a hard time getting your money back and you will lose your friends into the bargain. Don’t go to a whore-house. I like a woman, as you do. But I wouldn’t think of touching those filthy, syphilis-infected camp followers….

You and I sometimes didn’t get along so well, but I guess you knew, as I did, that in the “clutch” we could count on each other. We are in the clutch now.20

Some Jewish GIs did their best to abide by the rules of their religion, even at boot camp.21 For others, however, “eating ham for Uncle Sam” was less difficult than they might have expected. There was, of course, no shortage of abusive anti-Semitic language at a place like Camp Croft. But as another Jewish conscript observed — the novelist Norman Mailer — in such a heterogeneous army, there was a term of racial or ethnic abuse available for almost everyone: Jew, Italian, Irishman, Mexican, Pole.22 Officially, moreover, the army outlawed anti-Semitism, promoting the idea that the United States was fighting for “Judeo-Christian values.”23 In any case, for northern recruits who had never previously visited the South, camps like Camp Croft provided an introduction to a whole new world of prejudice. One foreign-born Jewish GI from New York was astonished when some southerners called him a “damn Yankee.”24 As another soldier recalled,

There were Catholics, Protestants and Jews. Some were functionally illiterate southern dirt farmers. Others — the schoolboys — were much more educated. Some had nearly finished college…. The Army homogenized them all — even… the talkative high-school egghead. It made no difference what anyone thought was home. This was a new world, with new standards…. You were judged by one chief measure — whether you could be relied upon when the chips were down.25

In one important respect, Jews stood out, even if they were not observant. They accounted for a disproportionate number of the “eggheads,” generally doing much better than average in the Army General Classification Test taken by every new recruit. This mattered because any soldier scoring above 110 became eligible for what appeared to be one of the army’s most attractive opportunities: the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). The rationale behind the ASTP was threefold: to increase the supply of potential officers; to increase the number of technical specialists in the army; and to prevent colleges being financially eviscerated by the draft. Announced in December 1942, the program sent academically able soldiers to colleges all over the country for accelerated courses in engineering, foreign language, medical, dental, and veterinary studies — subjects considered valuable by the army. In three twelve-week terms, separated by just a week, ASTPers were supposed to cover the equivalent of the first year and a half of college. By December 1943 there were around 300,000 of these so-called “quiz kids” in four hundred different universities and colleges, of whom 74,000 were studying basic engineering and 15,000 advanced engineering.26 Henry Kissinger was one of them; so was his brother.

For those selected, the ASTP was a heavenly release from the discomforts of basic training and the prospect of immediate consignment to the war as infantry replacements. The “quiz kids” were free from noon Saturday until one a.m. Monday morning, allowing those allocated to colleges near their homes to visit family and friends. Compared with the likes of Camp Croft, college accommodation was “one step short of paradise — food served on stainless steel trays, with as much cold milk as you could drink, and clean bedding in the dorm.”27 True, the work was demanding — courses were highly compressed — and about one in five of those admitted to the program dropped out in the first two terms. But intensive engineering was certainly far better than the available alternative — hence the song (to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean”):

Oh, take down your service flag, Mother, 

Your son’s in the A.S.T.P. 

He won’t get hurt by his slide rule, 

So the gold star never need be. 

He’s just a Joe College in khaki, 

More boy scout than soldier is he, 

So take down your service flag, Mother, 

Your son’s in the A.S.T.P. 

The Air Corps may take all the glory. 

The Infantry takes all the guts. 

But wait till we tell you our story 

How we sat out this war on our butts. 

Six months ago, we were all soldiers, 

We thought we’d fight Japs overseas, 

Now the Army’s a dim recollection 

Since we got in the A.S.T.P. 

Oh, after this war game is over 

And grandchildren sit on our knee, 

We’ll blush when we have to tell them 

That we fought in the A.S.T.P.28 

Even the insignia of the program — a lamp with a burning light — was nicknamed the “flaming pisspot.”29

Kissinger was not complaining. After further vetting at Clemson College in South Carolina, he had the good luck to be sent to study engineering at Lafayette College, a liberal arts college in Easton, Pennsylvania. Since its elegant nineteenth-century campus is located just over eighty miles from New York, he could spend weekends at home with his family and girlfriend. His roommate and fellow “quiz kid,” Charles J. Coyle, vividly remembered life with the young Kissinger. “He took the ‘normal’ course of study in stride,” Coyle later recalled, “and then spent his enthusiasm… in piecing together new bits of reasoning. He seemed not so much concerned with what the instructors were saying as he was intent on what they were planning to mean.” Even by the standards of the ASTP, Kissinger was exceptionally bookish. But what Coyle was most impressed by was Kissinger’s unusually aggressive reading style.

[I] spent half my time tripping over books that he ate up and the other half in awe of his trap-like brain…. He didn’t read books, he ate them with his eyes, his fingers, his squirming in the chair or bed, and with his mumbling criticism. He’d be slouching over a book and suddenly explode with an indignant, German-accented “BULL-SHIT!” blasting the author’s reasoning. Then he’d tear it apart, explosive words prevailing, and make sense of it…. Like everything else he did right, he was precise in picking up vocabulary and pronunciation and to my Brooklyn ears it was a new experience to hear a man in a temper taking the time to put in “-ing” on his four-letter words…. The guy was so damned bright and so damn intellectual it was strange to most of us — and we were the ones who’d been selected for our intelligence. He’d come into the living room of our suite. Three or four of us would be talking, probably about sex. He’d flop on the couch and start reading a book like Stendhal’s The Red and the Black —for fun!30

Another sign of Kissinger’s intellectual seriousness was his unmilitary appearance.

No one dressed sloppier than he did. It was, to use his word, “ridiculous.” Army clothes never fit anybody unless they were altered or tailored but those were two words Henry never thought of. For him, dressing was a farce. He could dress faster with each piece of clothing facing the wrong direction, and do it differently each time, than it took me to slip into fatigues. At inspection time, everybody who passed Henry could find a different piece of clothing that needed adjusting.31

But Kissinger was not at Lafayette to grace a guard of honor. Between October 1943, when he was formally enrolled, and April 1944, he took twelve courses, including chemistry, English, history, geography, mathematics, physics, and military science. His scores ranged between 80 and 95 percent, apart from a perfect 100 in chemistry and a disappointing 72 percent in math.32 “Mr. Kissinger is without doubt one of the finest students I have in all my classes,” wrote his physics instructor. “He has a keen mind, shows an active interest in all his work, comes to class thoroughly prepared daily, does all assigned work and frequently goes beyond the requirements set for the remainder of the class…. I can certainly recommend Mr. Kissinger most highly for any type of work requiring an individual having an alert, keen, thorough, analytical, and inquiring mind.”33 Unfortunately, that was not the type of work the army now had in mind for him.

In truth, the ASTP was always vulnerable to any increase in the armed services’ demand for combat manpower, and by the end of 1943—when Congress set the army’s size at 7.7 million — that demand was surging. The commanding general of the Army Ground Forces, Lesley J. McNair, had always doubted (wrongly) that a college education significantly enhanced a soldier’s combat quality. The problem as he saw it was not a lack of skills but a lack of raw numbers, not least because of Congress’s overgenerous deferment rules, which exempted 5 million men from the draft for occupational reasons as well as deferring it for fathers. Ultimately, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson yielded to pressure from the generals. On February 18, 1944, it was announced that ASTP would be wound up.34 Eight out of ten “quiz kids” were summarily ordered back into the infantry.

This was the kind of illogical snafu for which the U.S. Army has long been famed.35 More than a hundred thousand men had been handpicked for their brains. They had spent months acquiring new and valuable knowledge. During those months, they had missed out on the opportunity for promotion. And now they were to be sent back to square one, without any regard whatever for their innate intelligence or new skills. “Throw your slide rule into the sea,” the quiz kids now sang bitterly, “and march on to the POE [point of embarkation].” The initials of the program’s basic training center at Camp Hood (ASTPBTC) were now said to stand for “All Shot to Pieces by the Congress.” Chinese speakers were sent to Europe; Italian and German speakers (among them Walter Kissinger) to Asia. Worse, the returning “quiz kids” were liable to be abused as “boy scouts” or, worse, “youse dumb college fucks.” Because so many ASTPers were assigned as riflemen, one critic half-seriously wondered whether “the disbanding of the ASTP was a plot to place the best brainpower in the country in the most vulnerable positions, where the largest number were likely to be killed.” One victim of the new policy later asked, “Why did we cull out the most intelligent people in the military service and then throw them into the meat grinder where they would sustain the highest casualties?”36 When the news reached Lafayette that “we were all to be shipped to the Infantry as privates,” Charles Coyle recalled, “we all screamed and moaned, and Henry ‘—ing’ed in his fashion.”37 The only way to avoid the meat grinder was to switch to medical school, since the army still acknowledged the need for more doctors. Kissinger took the test, but the only available place went to Leonard Weiss, who Kissinger later acknowledged had “saved me from being a doctor.”38


Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, was the antithesis of Lafayette College, with its quaint quadrangles and wood-paneled libraries. Situated in the flat, hot countryside just north of the town of Forest Hill, the camp consisted of rows of “tar paper shacks,” each containing twenty-four double-deck bunk beds. In summer the heat was sweltering; the tiny windows in each shack provided next to no relief.39 From November 1943, this was home to the 84th Infantry Division, to which Henry Kissinger, along with 2,800 former ASTP men, had been assigned. The division’s nickname—“the Railsplitters”—did not imply a great need for intellectuals. Kissinger and his fellow former quiz kids had a long train ride in which to contemplate the reversal of their fortunes.40 Donald Edwards, another ASTPer, recalled arriving at Claiborne to the accompaniment of a military band. As one of the newcomers muttered, “Better if they played a funeral march as far as I am concerned.”41 They had gone from being academic highfliers back to being mere cogs in the vast American military machine.

The 84th Division was one of forty-five U.S. Army divisions that were assigned to the European theater of war. Each division at full strength consisted of around 14,000 men, subdivided into three regiments, each of 3,000 men, plus the division artillery. Each regiment in turn was made up of three battalions, comprising approximately 850 men apiece, each battalion of five companies, each company of four platoons, and each platoon of three twelve-man squads.42 After six weeks of accelerated basic training, Private Henry Kissinger, serial no. 32816775, was assigned to G Company in the 2nd Battalion of the 335th Infantry Regiment. He was now just another GI, a doughboy, a dogface.43

Life at Camp Claiborne was as hard as life at Lafayette had been cushy. Some days were spent on forced marches “where we had to go nine miles in a little over an hour,” others on “twenty-five-mile hike[s] with full pack.” There were “water ration” days, when men were confined to one canteen of water for the whole day. Then there were “field problems,” which entailed sleeping in pup tents in snake-infested swamps. There was swimming practice ahead of amphibious operations, as well as training in parachute use. Tedious hours were spent wiping the oily brown Cosmoline off new rifles and stenciling serial numbers onto duffel bags, helmets, and boots.44 Recreational facilities were available in the nearest large town, Alexandria, in the form of bars, where GIs fought, and whorehouses, where they contracted VD.45 Closer to the camp was “Boomtown… that damn collection of shacks.”46

“My infantry division was mainly Wisconsin and Illinois and Indiana boys, real middle Americans,” Kissinger later recalled. “I found that I liked these people very much. The significant thing about the army is that it made me feel like an American.”47 In fact, some soldiers nicknamed him “Ja” precisely because of his German accent.48 But his work as company education officer, briefing soldiers once a week about the “current orientation of the war,” earned him popularity.49 As Charles Coyle recalled, “He was able to take the daily and weekly sources of news, contradictory, confusing and puzzling as they were, and present his interpretation of them to the extent that each of us… felt just a little bit more in control of what the next day would bring…. We claimed that Henry was the only man that could out-opinion Time  magazine… but constructively.”50 Already the bookworm had learned the value of humor as a defense, as Coyle recalled. “He was too smart to get into a fight. Henry would just be patient with the kids from the hills, and they ended up liking him. Sometimes he would ridicule the army, sometimes he would ridicule himself, and there were times when he would ridicule some of us. But he did it with a smile. It was typical New York humor.”51

Sometimes, however, Kissinger had to listen. Most army lectures were soporific affairs in terms of both content and delivery. But one day there came the exception that proved the rule. His name was Fritz Kraemer. Like Kissinger, he had been born and raised in Germany. Like Kissinger, he was a mere private. But he was, in the words of his immediate superior, “a most unexpected sort of a ‘private.’”


Henry Kissinger later called Fritz Kraemer “the greatest single influence on my formative years.”52 It is tempting to call him the Mephistopheles to Kissinger’s Faust; certainly, Kraemer knew Goethe’s play intimately, having written an insightful essay about it at the age of seventeen.53 Born in industrial Essen in 1908, Fritz Gustav Anton Krämer (he later dropped the umlaut) was the son of an ambitious lawyer who had married the daughter of a wealthy chemicals manufacturer. A sickly child, young Fritz spent four of his school years studying at home with private tutors.54 He was also the product of a broken home, something of a rarity in those days. While his father rose through the legal ranks to become the public prosecutor (Erster Staatsanwalt ) in Hagen and later Koblenz, his mother established a boarding school for “difficult children” in a village in the hills outside Frankfurt.55

Fifteen years older than Kissinger, Kraemer spent his formative years during those of the First World War, the November Revolution, and the Weimar Republic. He came to believe that the war “had destroyed all foundations — lives, institutions, values, and faiths. He vividly remembered battles, blockade, hunger, the Bolshevik Revolution, the coup against the Kaiser, the Versailles Treaty, the French occupation of the Rhineland, the loss of his family’s fortune to inflation, and revolution in Germany’s streets.” For many middle-class Germans of Kraemer’s generation, precisely these experiences made Hitler an attractive national “redeemer.” But Kraemer was unusual. He studied abroad, first in Geneva, then at the London School of Economics, finally in Rome. He married a Swede. Repelled as much by fascism as by socialism, he embraced a conservatism that at times verged on self-parody. From the age of seventeen, he wore a monocle (“in his strong eye… so the weak eye would be forced to work harder”) and habitually wore jodhpurs and knee-length riding boots.56 But his was an unusual conservatism, very different from that of the German National People’s Party, which historians tend to see as the heir of the Wilhelmine Conservative Party, but which was easily swallowed up by the Nazis.

Peter Drucker, the future management “guru,” first encountered Kraemer in 1929, when they were both students in Frankfurt. Walking by the River Main one cold April day, he was startled to see a kayak containing “a cadaverous man, naked except for the scantiest of black bathing trunks and a monocle on a wide black ribbon… furiously paddling upstream,” with “the black, white and red pennant of the defunct German Imperial Navy” fluttering as he rowed.57 With his “big, triangular, sharp nose that jutted out of his face like a sail[,] high cheekbones[,]… sharp chin[,] and piercing slate-gray eyes,” Kraemer made Drucker think of “a cross between a greyhound and a timberwolf.” Known to his fellow students as “the young Fritz” because of his resemblance to and admiration for Frederick the Great, “Kraemer considered himself a genuine Conservative, a Prussian monarchist of the old pre-Bismarck, Lutheran and Spartan persuasion… opposed alike to the ugliness and barbarism that was coming up so fast behind the Nazi swastika, and to the well-meaning and decent but weak and gutless liberalism of the ‘good German.’”58 Not yet twenty-one, Kraemer told Drucker that he had “only two ambitions in life: he wanted to be the political adviser to the Chief of the General Staff of the Army; and he wanted to be the political mentor of a great Foreign Secretary.” Drucker asked why Kraemer himself did not aspire to be the “great Foreign Secretary.” Kraemer replied, “I am a thinker and not a doer…. I don’t belong in the limelight and don’t make speeches.”59

Always an elitist — better, a moral aristocrat — Kraemer had a Nietzschean contempt for the vulgarities of populist politics but an equal aversion to what he called “cleverling” intellectuals. Neither this nor his sartorial idiosyncrasies should deceive us. In later life, he would come to be seen as the éminence grise of neoconservatism, a kind of cross between Leo Strauss and Dr. Strangelove. But Kraemer was nothing of the sort. His academic training was in fact in international law, a highly unlikely focus for an orthodox Prussian conservative. At Geneva he studied with Eugène Borel, an authority on international law, and William E. Rappard, the academic and diplomat who had helped persuade Woodrow Wilson that the League of Nations should be based in Geneva, and who served as director of the League’s Mandate Department.60 In London Kraemer’s professors included Philip Noel Baker, who had acted as assistant to the League’s first secretary-general, and Arnold McNair, founder (with Hersch Lauterpacht) of the Annual Digest of International Law,  who went on to become Whewell Professor of International Law at Cambridge.61 Finally, in Frankfurt, Kraemer became a pupil of Karl Strupp, one of the leading German experts on international law.62 It was under Strupp’s supervision that Kraemer wrote his doctoral dissertation on “The Relationship Between the French Treaties of Alliance, the League of Nations Covenant, and the Locarno Pact.” Published in 1932, it provides invaluable insights into Kraemer’s intellectual development.

Kraemer’s core argument was that the League of Nations and Locarno Pact (as well as the Kellogg-Briand Pact) were contradicted by France’s postwar defensive alliances with Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia. In particular, the French

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alliances were incompatible with Article 10 of the League Covenant, which had committed signatories “to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League.” Not only should that article have made bilateral defensive alliances redundant, Kraemer argued, but the French “alliance system” also placed a “permanent” and “general  political pressure” on Germany (not to mention Hungary), which significantly and unacceptably restricted its freedom of movement.63 It therefore constituted an inadmissible “league within the League.”64 Three things stand out about this argument. The first is its historical character: nearly half the dissertation is an analysis of the pre-1914 European alliance system. The second is its clear distinction between power and law—Macht  and Recht —as exemplified by Kraemer’s bald assertion that it “is self-evident that England entered the war [in 1914] not because of Belgium but because it was France’s ally.”65 Like his mentor Strupp, Kraemer reasoned that whatever might formally be stated in a treaty of mutual defense, in practice such a relationship has meaning only if it implies combined action against a common enemy. As such, its very existence increases the risk of war. In a crucial passage, Kraemer warns against forgetting that “the absolute security of one  state, since it is predicated on the exclusion of the free play of opposing political forces and the suspension of the balance of power, must necessarily become the hegemony of the power that enjoys that security, and thus [implies] insecurity for all others.”

Like the overwhelming majority of Germans, then, Kraemer rejected the international order established by the post-1918 treaty system: not just the Treaty of Versailles, with its objectionable assertion of German “war guilt,” but the entire complex of treaties of which France was a signatory. Nevertheless (and this is the third striking point about the dissertation) he did so in a way that implicitly accepted the legitimacy of the League of Nations as an institution. Like that of Strupp and his contemporary Albrecht Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Kraemer’s position was that Wilson’s idealistic vision of collective security was being subverted by the cynical behavior of France and England. By the standards of 1920s Germany, this was a liberal, not a conservative standpoint. Not entirely coincidentally, both Strupp and Mendelssohn-Bartholdy were Jews. Both lost their academic posts within a short time of the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. Such was the intellectual pedigree of the man who would become Henry Kissinger’s Mephistopheles.

Despite his taste in teachers, Kraemer was outwardly a Prussian monarchist — almost a caricature of a German conservative — and nearly all contemporaries took him at face value. The reality was rather different. His father, Georg Krämer, had in fact been born a Jew, though he had converted to Christianity at the age of nineteen; his mother, whose maiden name was Goldschmidt, was also a convert. A Protestant, a Ph.D., and a reserve officer, Georg Krämer had striven to become a model Prussian. Though his Jewish origins, his divorce, and then the war had slowed his progress, by 1921 he had worked his way to the coveted post of public prosecutor. With his veteran status and “wholly conservative” outlook, the elder Krämer was able to ride out the initial Nazi purge of those they defined as Jews, but in 1935 he was forced into retirement under the terms of the Reich Citizenship Law, which rendered all “non-Aryans” second-class citizens.66 In January 1941 he was arrested for failing to wear the yellow star, by then mandatory for Jews. In May 1942 he was forced to give up his home to an “Aryan” family. Two months later he was deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp. He died there of malnutrition on November 1, 1942.67

Unlike his father — about whom he never spoke — Fritz Kraemer had the good sense to leave Germany as soon as Hitler came to power, immediately giving up his position as clerk to a municipal court judge and moving to Italy. After securing Italian validation of his German Ph.D. at the University of Rome, he accepted a post at the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law in Rome (UNIDROIT), which had been set up in 1926 as an auxiliary organ of the League of Nations.68 As a student of international law, Kraemer practiced what he preached. When a German naval attaché sought to prevent him from flying the imperial flag on his kayak, Kraemer went to court, arguing that under international law he was free to fly whichever flag he chose.69 But Mussolini’s Italy was hardly the best place to thumb one’s nose at the Third Reich, especially as the two dictators drew closer to each other. In 1937, fearing that he was no longer safe in Italy, Kraemer sent his wife and son back to Germany, to stay with his mother. With Drucker’s help, he was able to get a visa to travel to the United States.70 Unable to find a university post, Kraemer initially worked on a Maine potato farm, before finding a job at the Library of Congress, where he began work on “a historico-juridical reference book on ‘The Parliaments of Continental Europe from 1815 to 1914.’”71 At the same time, he attempted to help his mentor Strupp and his wife, who had left Germany but got no farther west than Paris before Strupp’s death.72

One important lesson Kraemer learned from his experiences in the 1930s — and one that he would instill in his pupil Henry Kissinger — was the primacy of the moral over the material. “I find,” he wrote in a letter in November 1940,

that even good friends denounce as romantic and rather fantastic my conviction that in politics, as in any other field of human activity, character, values and faith are at least as important as those other factors which may be described, roughly, as “economic.” I revenge myself by thinking that it is far more fantastic to believe that the world of realities consists almost exclusively of “wages,” “raw materials” and “industrial production,” or of other measurable entities the value of which can be expressed in exact figures. I am, indeed, entirely unable to understand how anybody with even a rudimentary knowledge of history can fail to perceive that a man’s love for his wife, children or country, his feeling of honour, his sense of duty, his willingness to sacrifice himself for some idea or ideal, or perhaps the repercussions produced in his soul by a beautiful sunset are quite as likely to influence the shaping of our political reality as — let us say — a piece of labour legislation. Thousands of the most modern tanks will be of no use for the defense of a country, if the men in these tanks are unwilling to fight for their country to the end. The best laws, the most progressive legislation, are not worth the paper on which they are written, if the moral qualities of the judges who have to apply them are doubtful.

To this credo Kraemer remained faithful all his life. But he recognized that the spirit of the age was materialistic, both in Europe, where varieties of socialism vied with one another, and in America, where the disciplines of economics and political science were ascendant. It was at around this time — presumably as a result of encounters with the American intelligentsia — that Kraemer’s hostility to intellectuals hardened. “Those who with pride and more often with arrogance call themselves the intellectuals must learn,” he wrote darkly, “that a ‘brilliant’ brain, the mere technical perfection of the methods of thinking and analyzing, are not the only and not even the highest values in this world. If without profound convictions, without faith, and without self-discipline they continue to play with their brains, our civilization, very probably, will be doomed.”73

In May 1943 Kraemer was given the opportunity to turn words into deeds when he was drafted. Much more than Kissinger, Kraemer had to be viewed with suspicion by the U.S. military. True, he had the kind of knowledge that the army needed as it came to grips with fighting the Germans. Not only was he fluent in German and English, he spoke no fewer than ten other languages. But there was much else that was fishy. In order to protect his wife and son, who were both still in Germany (and remained there until the end of the war), Kraemer had explicitly stated on a pre-induction form that he would prefer not to fight against the country of his birth. In reality, he had no objection whatever to fighting against the Nazis, but “as a lawyer I had carefully worded the statement in such a manner that on the one hand I would be accepted for service and that on the other there would be, technically, no ‘high treason’ with ensuing German reprisals against my family, should the nonclassified questionnaire fall into the wrong hands.”74 Nor was that all. Kraemer’s FBI file reveals that from early 1942 he was repeatedly investigated by the bureau, first at the instigation of Paul F. Douglass, the devoutly Methodist president of the American University, in whose Washington home Kraemer had lodged while he was working at the Library of Congress. (Douglass’s suspicions were aroused by the picture of Kaiser Wilhelm II on Kraemer’s dresser, his “distinctly Jewish” features, and his idiosyncratic habit of entering upstairs rooms by climbing up the outside wall and through the windows.) Another informant was perplexed by the fact that Kraemer was “probably 100 per cent pro-German but also definitely anti-Hitler.” A “first-class exhibition dancer” who wore riding breeches and boots because he had no other clothes, a Prussian monarchist who also spent time at the distinctly liberal World Fellowship Center in Albany, New Hampshire, a married man who (according to another informant) “had been intimate with scores of girls,” Kraemer was suspect in multiple ways.75 This explains why, although he was sent directly (without basic training) to the special Military Intelligence Training Center at Camp Ritchie, Maryland — which specialized in turning out interrogators — he was passed over by OSS and ended up instead with the 84th Infantry Division. Kraemer wondered if the OSS decision had to do with his “marked skepticism regarding the Eastern [Russian] dictatorship.”76 But his anti-Soviet sentiments were the last thing the U.S. authorities were worried about.

Fortunately for Kraemer, the disquiet of J. Edgar Hoover was not shared by General Alexander R. Bolling, who took over command of the 84th Division in June, the month of the D-Day landings in Normandy. A decorated veteran of the First World War and, before that, of the unsuccessful expedition to capture the Mexican revolutionary general Pancho Villa, Bolling understood better than most generals that morale can be built through explanation. Legend has it that he heard Kraemer barking commands in German during an exercise. “What are you doing, soldier?” the general asked. “Making German battle noises, Sir,” Kraemer replied — upon which he was assigned to headquarters.77 In reality, Kraemer had already been transferred to the division’s G-2 section — with responsibility for lecturing “on enemy order of battle, general indoctrination, and current events”—before Bolling’s appointment. But Bolling recognized Kraemer’s talent; more important, he saw that the rationale for fighting Germany could scarcely be more convincingly conveyed than by a caricature German apparently supplied by central casting. As Kraemer himself put it, “I knew better perhaps than most other men what dictatorship meant and why this war was being fought.”78 Significantly, Kraemer remained a private. But as one officer put it, “His bareness of rank is… a condition upon which depends, to a great extent, the success of his mission.”79


It was the summer of 1944, and the men of G Company were resting after a ten-mile hike through the Louisiana heat. Suddenly they found themselves being addressed by a monocle-wearing private carrying a riding crop. “Who’s in command here?” he barked. A startled lieutenant admitted that he was. “Sir,” said Kraemer, “I’ve been sent by the general, and I’m going to speak to your company about why we are in this war.”80

The G Company men were impressed by what they heard, and none more so than Private Kissinger. As he later recalled, “The subject was the moral and political stakes of the war…. Kraemer spoke with such passion, erudition, and overwhelming force, as if he were addressing each member of the regiment individually. For the first time in my life and perhaps the only one… I wrote to a speaker to say how much he had moved me.”

The letter Kissinger wrote was almost naïvely direct: “Dear Pvt. Kraemer. I heard you speak yesterday. This is how it should be done. Can I help you in any way? Pvt. Kissinger.”81 But Kraemer appreciated the lack of flannel. “His letter had no frills,” he later recalled. “None of that ‘exhilarating,’ ‘wonderful,’ et cetera, stuff I dislike. ‘This—’ I said—‘This is a man of discipline and initiative.’” A few days later he invited the younger man to dinner at the enlisted men’s club, “at which he questioned me about my views and spoke to me about his values,” Kissinger recalled. “Out of this encounter grew a relationship that changed my life.”82

It seems unnecessary to engage in psychological speculation about Kissinger’s need for a surrogate father at this stage in his life.83 Kraemer was an impressive figure: older, far better read, with strong opinions formed and tested in some of the great intellectual centers of the interwar period. He was unabashed about speaking in German about German ideas.84 The more remarkable thing was Kraemer’s apparently near instantaneous recognition of Kissinger’s intellectual potential. According to Kraemer’s account, within just twenty minutes he realized that “this little nineteen-year-old [sic ] Jewish refugee, whose people knew nothing really of the great currents of history that were overcoming them,” was a kindred spirit. He had “the urgent desire not to understand the superficial thing but the underlying causes. He wanted to grasp things.”85 Kissinger was “musically attuned to history. This is not something you can learn, no matter how intelligent you are. It is a gift from God.” Kraemer later hotly denied that he had been Kissinger’s “discoverer,” arguing that he had merely “evoke[d] him to himself.” “Henry,” he told his protégé, “you are something absolutely unique, you are unbelievably gifted.”86 Later, when they were working together in Europe, Kissinger recalled how Kraemer “sort of taught me history. He was very interested in history and we would walk at night and talk at night and that generated my systematic interest in history. Kraemer… was focused on statesmanship and on the relationship between values and conduct. And on the impact of society on the individual, illustrated by historic examples.”87

At the time of their meeting, of course, both men were acutely aware of how far their own fates as individuals were about to be determined by vast historical forces — or rather, by the statesmanship of others.


On or around September 21, 1944, Winston Churchill sailed past Henry Kissinger, entirely oblivious of his existence. The prime minister was on board the luxurious Queen Mary  and was speeding back to London from Quebec, where he and Britain’s most senior military chiefs had spent five arduous days conferring with President Roosevelt and the top brass of the U.S. Army and Navy. Private Kissinger, by contrast, was on an overcrowded troopship, bound for the front line in Western Europe.

The second Quebec conference came at a crucial juncture in the Second World War. Operation Overlord, launched on June 6, 1944, had been a success. Allied troops had established a bridgehead in Normandy. Operation Dragoon (August 15) saw an equally successful amphibious assault on southern France. Paris and Brussels had been liberated. By September the Allies had fought their way as far as the Dutch-German border. The vast economic and manpower advantage that the Allies had enjoyed since the German attack on the Soviet Union and the entry of the United States into the war now made the final outcome inevitable. In the East, in the wake of the Red Army’s Operation Bagration, Romania and Finland sought peace with Stalin; the German Army Group North found itself cut off on the Courland peninsula in Latvia. But the Axis armies were far from beaten, and the mood at Quebec was less than self-congratulatory; indeed, at times it was acrimonious. Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke had confided to his diary on the way to Canada that Churchill “knows no details, has only got half the picture in his mind, talks absurdities and makes my blood boil to listen to his nonsense.” Churchill made a point of reminding Roosevelt that “if Britain had not fought as she did at the start, while others were getting under way, America would have had to fight for her existence.” The British proposed marching on Vienna to preempt Stalin’s ambitions in Central Europe, but an increasingly frail Roosevelt seemed unmoved by Churchill’s warnings about “the rapid encroachment of the Russians into the Balkans and the consequent dangerous spread of Russian influence in the area.” The British also pressed to be given a bigger naval role in the war against Japan; Churchill was adamant that Singapore should be recovered “in battle.” Admiral Ernest J. King, the American chief of naval operations, left no one in any doubt that he preferred to beat Japan without the Royal Navy (which he called a “liability”), prompting “blunt speeches and some frayed tempers.” There was yet more dissension when Churchill and Roosevelt initialed the plan drawn up by U.S. Treasury secretary Morgenthau to return Germany to being “a country primarily agricultural and pastoral in character,” a plan vehemently and presciently opposed by Brooke on the ground that Germany would be needed as an ally against “the Russian threat of twenty-five years hence.”88

First, however, Germany had to be defeated. With Hitler’s armies falling back behind the borders of the pre-1939 Reich, the end appeared to be in sight. Some even dared to hope the war might “be over by Christmas,” as if forgetting how wrong those words had been thirty years before. Roosevelt was right to warn that “the Germans could not be counted out and one more big battle would have to be fought.”89 By the time of the Quebec conference, the Allied advance in Western Europe was losing momentum. As supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe, the cool, cautious cardplayer Dwight D. Eisenhower struggled to rein in the egotistical Bernard Montgomery and the bloodthirsty George Patton, both of whom chafed at Ike’s strategy of steady advance along a broad front. Even as the Quebec conference drew to a close, Montgomery’s bold attempt to use airborne forces to go around the northern end of the Siegfried Line was foundering at Arnhem. Worse, continuing supply problems arising from the Allies’ failure to secure the Scheldt estuary were slowing down progress along the entire western front.90 Meanwhile, German resistance was hardening rather than crumbling, thanks to the Nazi regime’s formidable combination of bureaucracy, propaganda, and terror, as well as to the growing awareness of ordinary Germans that defeat would bring harsh retribution before it brought peace.91

The ordinary Americans of the 84th Division knew little, if anything, of all this. As they bade farewell to Camp Claiborne on the night of September 6–7, 1944, to the jaunty strains of “Over There” played by the camp band, the mood was optimistic.92 One private, Donald Edwards, noted in his diary, “Everyone was hoping that the breakthrough which was occurring in France would continue so that the 84th Division would be nothing more than a peace keeping outfit.”93 Indeed, Edwards bet another soldier that the war would be “finished in three months.”94 Rumors swept up and down the train: “We were headed for China, India, Burma, Italy, Greece, France, or England.” But it was a long enough journey — more than two full days rolling through Memphis, Atlanta, Richmond, Washington, and Baltimore — just to get to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. There the “big talk at the camp PX [post exchanges, the camp general store] was that the old 84th… was to have a good deal. ‘Yeah,’ said a permanent Kilmer cadreman, ‘you guys got a good deal — Army of Occupation.’”95

With its two-story wooden buildings painted in multiple colors, Camp Kilmer was a smarter place than Camp Claiborne, but after ten days of drill and calisthenics — punctuated by cheerful lectures on how to abandon a sinking ship, on what to do if taken prisoner, and on “straightening your personal affairs”—it was time to leave. Grumbling under the weight of their thirty-pound backpacks and duffel bags, the men were conveyed by trains and ferry to Manhattan’s Pier 57, where they boarded HMS Stirling Castle,  a converted Castle Line passenger ship. Whatever excitement Kissinger and his comrades may have felt was short-lived. G Company was given the job of cleaning the ship prior to general embarkation as well as being designated KP (“Kitchen Police”), which meant assisting the ship’s cooks for the entire voyage. Not only were conditions on the converted liner unpleasantly cramped, but the ship’s kitchens also proved to be vermin-infested and the cooks to be foul-mouthed limeys. “The trouble was that it was English food prepared by English cooks and eaten by Yanks who were accustomed to American chow…. It was either raw or overdone or it had too little seasoning.” The coffee tasted “like mud,” the peas were “like pebbles,” the potatoes “as tough as rocks,” and the meat “tougher than boulders.” Worse was to come. No sooner had the Stirling Castle  set sail on September 21 than it ran into thick fog just off New York. After just five hours at sea, the ship collided with a tanker and was forced to spend the night at anchor with its lights on and foghorn blaring before returning to harbor the next morning. The man who had bet they would see the Statue of Liberty again before Christmas collected his winnings much sooner than he had expected.96 Fully a week elapsed before the repaired ship could sail again.

An Atlantic crossing in September 1944 was not without its hazards, the biggest of which was still posed by German submarines. (In that month alone, thirteen Allied ships were sunk by U-boats.) However, the convoy in which the Stirling Castle  sailed was able to reach Liverpool without incident after eleven tedious days. Even the weather was unremarkable.97 The men of the 84th were welcomed ashore by a British military band and marched through the city to the main railway station, the majority marveling at the preponderance of old stone housing, small vehicles driving on the wrong side of the road, and narrow-gauge locomotives. Their destination was Crawley Court, a country estate between Winchester and Stockbridge.98 For some GIs, this was their introduction to the British class system. As one private complained to another after acting as KP for the officers’ mess, “This reminds me of an old southern plantation before the Civil War. All the slaves standing around to serve their master with every detail. I sometimes think I’ll drop some soup on someone’s head.”99 Kissinger had the advantage of having relatives in London, the Fleischmanns, whom he was able to visit on a two-day leave.100 Other GIs saw a very different side of British life when they visited London. Even in the “dim-out” (the partial blackout that was in force now that German air raids had diminished), the “open flesh market” at Piccadilly Circus was a breathtaking spectacle.101 There was a strong temptation to make the most of any such opportunity. As October drew to a close, the news from the continent was not encouraging. And as one badly wounded man told the rookies of the 84th, “Those fucking Germans are the best soldiers in the world. They never seem to give up unless it’s hopeless. They’re real tough.”102

Private Henry Kissinger would soon discover the truth of these words.

CHAPTER 5 The Living and the Dead

So I am back where I wanted to be. I think of the cruelty and barbarism those people out there in the ruins showed when they were on top. And then I feel proud and happy to be able to enter here as a free American soldier.

— HENRY KISSINGER to his parents, November 19441

That is humanity in the 20th century. People reach such a stupor of suffering that life and death, animation or immobility can’t be differentiated any more. And then, who is dead and who is alive, the man whose agonized face stares at me from the cot or [the man] who stands with bowed head and emaciated body? Who was lucky, the man who draws circles in the sand and mumbles “I am free” or the bones that are interred in the hillside?

— HENRY KISSINGER, April or May 19452


The 84th Infantry Division crossed the English Channel from Southampton on November 1–2, 1944, landing at Omaha Beach. Aboard the HMS Duke of Wellington,  GIs of voting age got to cast their absentee ballots in the presidential election, the fourth in a row to be won by Franklin Roosevelt. Though old enough, Henry Kissinger did not vote — a surprising omission considering how often he and his comrades had been told they were fighting for political as well as religious freedom.3 As they clambered from the landing craft that took them ashore, the young Americans looked with fascination at the relics of D-Day that still littered the beach and its immediate surroundings. After a ten-mile march with full packs, however, they had grown indifferent to the sight of burnt-out German tanks. In heavy rain, the men were loaded in groups of twenty aboard two-and-a-half-ton trucks. As their convoy passed through Saint-Lô, there was something new to marvel at: the spectacle of a town reduced to rubble. They had only the briefest glimpse of Paris before heading north through Belgium and on to the Dutch-German border.4

On November 25, just over six years since his family had fled Nazi persecution, Henry Kissinger found himself once again on German soil. Ahead of him lay the Siegfried Line — the formidable wall of fortifications, tank traps, and pillboxes that the Nazis had built along Germany’s western frontier. It felt like a moment of triumph. Late that night, Kissinger wrote a hasty but exultant note to his parents.

It is very late and I haven’t much time, but I must write a letter, just so that I can affix to it the legend “Somewhere in Germany.” So I have made it. Out in the darkness that envelopes [sic ] this town, rows and rows of shattered buildings line the roads. People wander through the ruins. War has come to Germany.

So I am back where I wanted to be. I think of the cruelty and barbarism those people out there in the ruins showed when they were on top. And then I feel proud and happy to be able to enter here as a free American soldier.5

In truth, the Allies had been more or less stuck in front of the Siegfried Line (or “West Wall”) since Aachen had fallen on October 21, more than a month after the first troops had crossed the German border. Allied supply lines were now as overstretched as German supply lines were compressed. The loss of momentum since the summer had given the Germans the chance to reorganize. There were now around fifty new infantry divisions and a dozen panzer divisions ready to resist further Allied advances. The 84th was to be in the vanguard of just such an advance as part of XIII Corps, which in turn was part of the Ninth Army under Lieutenant General William H. Simpson.6 The enemy welcomed the newcomers with a volley from their feared 88mm guns (originally antiaircraft artillery that by 1944 had been adapted for use against tanks). The men of G Company were bivouacked on a wooded hillside near Herzogenrath, to the northwest of Aachen.7 As one of them remembered, “We were all scared stiff and hit the ground whenever anything came within hearing distance.”8

Even before the German 88s opened up, the Americans had encountered a second enemy: the mud. The weather was “cold, wet and grey,” and as the 84th’s official historian recalled, “The roads were muddy and the fields [sugar beet] were swamps…. After weeks of bombing and big guns, of trucks and tanks that dug into the roads, always sinking deeper and deeper, and the complete absence of a living thing not in uniform, it was grim”:

Now and then we fought the enemy, for a few hours or a few days. The mud we fought always, every miserable minute. The mud was Germany. It is amazing what

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a little mud in the wrong place can do. It will make your rifle a worthless piece of junk. It will jam it just when you need it most. It will ooze through your shoes and through your socks and eat away your feet. It will make your foxhole a slimy, slippery, smelly jail. It will creep into your hair, your food, your teeth, your clothes and sometimes your mind. The enemy’s best ally in the Siegfried Line was trench foot.9

In some cases, the ravages of trench foot and frostbite were so bad that amputation was necessary.10 Hunger, too, was a problem. In his first letter home from “somewhere in Germany,” Kissinger begged his parents to send him not only a replacement scarf but also “CANNED MEAT COOKIES CANDY PS As you see, I am starved.”11

Before Kissinger’s arrival, on the night of November 10, the 335th Infantry Regiment had been sent to the line near Aachen as part of a temporary assignment to the 30th Infantry Division.12 C Company had its first contact with the enemy that night when a German patrol approached their foxholes.13 This, however, was not the main event. On November 12, Field Order 3 had sent the 84th into action north of Aachen as part of an attempt to break through the Siegfried Line and clear the Geilenkirchen salient of enemy forces (Operation Clipper). This was no easy task. The Germans had clear fields of fire across the flat, open fields between the Rivers Würm and Roer. Impediments to the Allied advance included large and well-concealed pillboxes with six-foot walls and surrounding trenches; minefields that had to be cleared using heavy chains as “flails”; and the antitank obstacles known as “dragon’s teeth,” which consisted of three or four rows of triangular reinforced-concrete obstacles.14 True, the Allies had the advantage of air superiority over the now terminally weakened Luftwaffe. But this advantage was negated when the weather was murky or when — as often happened — radio communication from the front line to the rear broke down. As they advanced laboriously across beet fields from one village to the next — Alsdorf to Ofden, Hongen to Gereonsweiler, and so on toward Prummern — the riflemen of the 84th were exposed not only to machine gun and sniper fire, but also to German howitzers, mortars, and tanks.

The “Amis” fought well. At dawn on November 19, the 3rd Battalion of the 334th Regiment successfully repulsed a counterattack by the 10th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, proceeding to mop up what was left of the small salient at Geilenkirchen.15 But the going was tough. When G Company came under artillery fire outside Gereonsweiler on November 22, “each man in the section expected to find everyone else dead in the morning.” It was indeed there that the company suffered its first two fatalities.16 There were further casualties when a frontal assault on the Würm-Lindern-Beeck triangle of villages failed. Only by approaching them one by one was the 84th able to get to Leiffarth, which brought the Americans within striking distance of the River Roer.17 The 2nd Battalion lost half its front-line troops in one of these attacks.18

At one point, G Company found itself pinned down by enemy machine guns, which made a sound “like a curtain tearing” as they spat out twenty-five rounds a second.19 With several soldiers wounded and one NCO killed, the company dug in, but it was menaced from all sides. On the night of the twenty-ninth, “a German tank went around our right flank and came up behind us. Several soldiers got out of the tank and yelled for us to surrender. No one answered.” Second Lieutenant Charles McCaskey was killed by a sniper.20 “Water was so scarce that the men used to drink out of mud holes and tank tracks. Soon they would be eating snow.”21 On the night of December 2, after four days of uninterrupted fighting, the company was pulled out of the line and sent to Palenberg for some rest. There was hardly a man who did not attend a religious service on the Sunday after the first attack. Just a few days later, however, they were back in the firing line.22 Soon the Americans came to appreciate a new hazard of this kind of warfare: uncoordinated or even fake surrenders by individual Germans, which could be fatal for would-be captors. With every passing week, the list of those who had “gone for a beer” (been wounded) or “gone to the bar” (been killed) grew longer.23 As one weary infantryman muttered, “There are only two ways to leave here. Either back to the hospital or you’re dead.”24

The casualties among American infantrymen were certainly high. In all, nearly 110,000 Americans lost their lives in northwestern Europe, more than 356,000 were wounded, and over 56,000 were taken prisoner. On average, U.S. infantry divisions suffered losses of 17 percent killed and 61 percent wounded.25 For Kissinger’s battalion, the 2nd of the 335th Regiment, around 9 percent of enlisted men were killed in action or died of wounds.26 But his company, G Company, suffered disproportionately high casualties. Of the original 182 men, 21 were killed in action, 40 wounded, and 1 taken prisoner — losses of more than a third.27 So Private Henry Kissinger was indeed fortunate that, at some point after his arrival in Europe, he was transferred from G Company to the G-2 section of divisional headquarters.28 According to Kissinger’s war record, from then until the end of the war, he was a “Special Agent in charge of Reg[imenta]l CIC [Counter Intelligence Corps] team charged with the security of tactical troops, the prevention of sabotage, and security of lines of supply.”29

Now Kissinger had the chance to take stock. On the night of November 29, he wrote once again to his parents, still marveling at where he was.

Night has fallen. A pale moon illuminates this German town. The muddy streets are deserted. In the distance one hears artillery….

So here I am in Germany. Those who have sown the wind have indeed reaped the whirlwind. Nary a house is whole or undamaged in the town. Store fronts are ripped open, goods strewn all over the street. Roofs are caved in and rubble senseless and insensate is thrown all over. People live in houses with cardboard in place of windows, with quagmires instead of streets. Incongruously such personal things as arm-chairs, sofas, pictures, books are on street corners, in gardens, in doorways. Our headquarters is in an abandoned railway-station. Amidst the twisted wreckage of control-towers, the shattered remnants of rails one sometimes finds such incongruities as a sign stating “Local to…,” “express to….”

Kissinger’s new job was to “evacuate[e]… [German] civilians considered unreliable” as well as to comb through captured German mail for intelligence. Especially striking are his first reflections on the vanquished Germans he was encountering. Kissinger could feel compassion, even for the “unreliable civilians” (meaning committed Nazis) he was helping to weed out: “Germany now knows what it means to wander and to be forced to leave places dear to one’s heart. I had to assist in the evacuation of civilians considered unreliable. It is tragic no matter how [much] you hate the Germans. A suit-case in one hand, a handkerchief in the other, people part. Yet they don’t go far and will be able to come back soon. They are not mistreated. We are no Gestapo.” He felt the same flicker of empathy when he read a letter from a German girl, which

in its universal pathos, is characteristic of this war. In big, childish hand-writing it stares at me. A young girl writes to the buddy of her fiancé who has been killed. “… You know him and appreciate what I have lost. I can not believe that I will not see him again, that is impossible. — Believe me, it is a terrible pain, I can not think it out, always I must go back to the thought, it is all a bad dream and lies, yes lies. And in this insanity, yes it is insanity, I know I am a fool, I wait for my Hans. And one day he just must come back.”

But Kissinger’s bottom line was unequivocal: “Well, they started it.” And now they had lost it.

Like many Americans in late 1944, Kissinger made the mistake of thinking the war was nearly over. “Germany is licked,” he told his parents. “One look at the prisoners convinces one of that. None of them thinks they can win…. Their arrogance is gone and so is their cockiness. Dazed and dishevelled they shuffle in.” He drew the same inference from the captured letters he saw.

Each one is penetrated with a sense of doom and hopelessness that is inescapable. Here is one excerpt: “Cologne is in ruins. No gas, no water, no electricity, no newspapers for 2 weeks. How will it all end?” Here is another: “Bonn has been levelled by a big terror-attack in 12 minutes. We are still alive. How long?” Another: “Why don’t you surrender to the Americans? It is still the best way out.” And so they go, advices to play sick, longing for relatives, defeatism, that is the point to which Hitlerism has brought Germany.30

Kissinger was clearly enjoying his new role. “I have to work long hours,” he wrote home, “up at 7 and hardly to bed before 1 A.M. I have forgotten what a day off is, but who minds? I enjoy my work and that’s all that matters.” It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that his new job was entirely cushy. True, it got him out of the freezing foxholes where his former G Company comrades were spending the most uncomfortable and dangerous winter of their lives. But because of the highly fluid nature of the fighting at this juncture of the war, as one rifleman remembered, “no real front could ever be described, since it ebbed and flowed.”31 When the Germans launched their Führer’s last desperate bid to regain the initiative on the western front, Special Agent Kissinger soon found himself in an exceptionally exposed situation — one that might easily have cost him his life.


Operation Autumn Mist began on December 16, 1944. The increasingly delusional Hitler imagined that German armor might be able to repeat the triumph of May 1940, slicing through enemy defenses in the Ardennes and racing all the way to the Channel coast. But this was blitzkrieg on empty. Each of the eighteen hundred tanks that spearheaded the offensive had just a single load of gasoline; only if they succeeded in capturing Allied fuel dumps would they stand any chance of reaching Antwerp as planned. This time, however, the Germans encountered far stiffer resistance than four years previously. Of the two German thrusts, the one led by Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army toward Malmédy and Liège was the first to grind to a halt. Farther south, General Hasso von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army fared better. It was the hard task of the 84th Division to try to arrest his progress before the German panzers reached the River Meuse.

The German offensive was not confined to the Ardennes; there were also smaller attacks to the north, in the Aachen area.32 As early as December 19, however, the 84th was preparing to rush seventy-five miles south.33 The Allied position around the ancient Walloon town of Bastogne was precarious. The nearby towns of Laroche and St. Vith were on the point of being captured. If the Allies could not hold Marche-en-Famenne, between Namur and Bastogne, “it seemed very likely that the Germans would roll on to the Meuse.”34 General Bolling liked to lead from the front. At nine a.m. on December 20, he and his senior staff left Palenburg in two cars, bound for the Ardennes.35 The fog of war was thick at this point; by the time they reached Marche, it was dark and the roads were choked with fleeing civilians. German tanks on the outskirts of the town were close enough to shell the center. The 334th Regiment had to be hastily rerouted to avoid enemy-controlled sectors. Such was the confusion that at one point Bolling himself had to direct the traffic.

Bearing down on Marche were the 2nd Panzer Division and the 116th Panzer Division. As the 84th Division’s historian put it, “With nothing on our left flank, above Hotton, and nothing on our right flank, below Marche… the 84th was an island of resistance, holding back what was… threatening to become a tidal wave of German Panzers,” among them Tigers equipped with 88s. Their orders were to hold the line from Marche to Hotton “at all costs.”36 It was at this time that the Germans dropped demands for surrender on the besieged Allied troops in Bastogne. “The fortune of war is changing,” declared the leaflets. “This time the U.S.A. forces… have been encircled by strong German armored units.”37 (General Anthony McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne Division famously replied, “Nuts.”) At Marche the American line of defense was so thinly stretched that there were gaps of more than a mile between companies.38 It took guts to defy the German Panzers. In one early encounter, “an E company man knocked out the lead German tank with a bazooka, stopping the attack.”39 The experience of Kissinger’s former company was not atypical. Shivering in their foxholes, they contemplated “Jerry armor extending as far their eyes could see…. We just didn’t dare take our shoes off since being unready for even a moment might mean a German patrol and death.”40 The fighting was especially bitter at Rochefort, which the 3rd Battalion had to abandon after sustaining heavy losses.41 The after action report provides graphic detail.

So aggressive was the initial attack, supported by tanks and artillery, that the enemy had to be driven out of the streets with grenades and other weapons of close combat. Dead enemy littered the streets…. All day long, [our] dwindling forces continued to beat off attack after attack while attempting to disengage itself. At 1500, the B[attalio]n Commander gave the order to get out, but was informed by Co[mpany] I that its vehicles had been knocked out by enemy fire. At this time, the Bn commander sent messages to Regiment that his escape route was out, all roads blocked, and the supply route impossible. (A four tank convoy couldn’t get through.) The enemy fire was terrific, streets a living inferno and enemy personnel were in buildings surrounding the battalion C[ommand] P[ost].42

Even where the Americans were successful in holding the line, mopping-up operations were messy: “It was necessary to enter every room of every house and barn.”43

To read such accounts is to understand why Kissinger made light of his own experiences. Compared with the ordinary rifleman he might have been, his new job was indeed relatively safe. As he told his brother in a letter dated just over a month after the defense of Marche:

I not only say  that I am not in danger where I am, I actually am not. Or, as a witty comrade of mine put it in a letter to his wife the other day: “I am in much less danger over here than I will care to admit after the war.”…

I am… connected with Divisional Headquarters, and it is in the nature of things that only under very special circumstances, the members of Div. Hqrs. are exposed to danger. This, at least, is true of any front, where the enemy air force and long range artillery are virtually non-existent. Now, there can be little doubt that at this late date the opposing forces are totally deficient in both these branches of their Armed Forces. It is to be expected, therefore, that your absent-minded and slightly myoptic [sic ] brother will be run over by a street car one day rather than killed in action.* 44

This was the style of self-deprecating humor that Kissinger had been honing since coming to America (not least because it was without question the best way for a highly intelligent German-Jewish immigrant to win friends). In reality, his very presence in Marche was hazardous in the extreme. True, the United States had P-47 Thunderbolt fighters in the air, as well as the 84th’s own highly effective mobile artillery on the ground.45 But that did not stop German shells—88s, mortar shells, and even a V-1 rocket on one occasion — from pulverizing the narrow streets of the town center where the divisional HQ was based.46

Kissinger had no illusions about the danger he was in, having seen, before the division even reached Marche, “a military report stating in an entirely matter of fact way, that the town in question, the place we were to go to, had fallen into enemy hands…. [W]e were driving straight into the lion’s mouth… on roads that seemed dangerously empty.”47 Indeed, the American position in Marche was so precarious that, as late as January 10, the daily situation map in the Stars and Stripes  newspaper still showed it as being in German hands.48 As a former German citizen in American uniform — and, of course, as a Jew — Kissinger would very likely have faced execution if he had been captured. Another former refugee in a similar situation recalled, “There is no doubt about it that you were thinking that you might be captured…. A former citizen of the Jewish faith — Goodbye Charlie!” After all, a soldier’s religion was indicated by a single letter on the lower-right-hand corner of his dog tag; for Jews it was either J  or H  (Hebrew). Early in 1945, an entire team of U.S. interrogators (IPWs) of German-Jewish origin were captured by the Germans; they were shot on the spot. When the historian Werner Angress was captured on D-Day plus 9, he was thankful he had taken the precaution of changing the H  on his dog tag to a P  (Protestant).49

Kissinger not only spoke German, he also had some basic French, though Kraemer’s was fluent. It therefore fell to him to reassure the many terrified Belgian civilians they encountered that “no one would break through to this particular place.” As he told his brother,

Women with black scarfs around their shoulders would immediately pass my word on to the quickly assembling crowds. The latin capacity for being dramatic under almost any circumstances showed itself in such splendid remarks as “Il dit qu’ils ne passeront jamais” (He says that they shall never pass). This neat phrase, as you may remember, was successfully used by a French General in the First World War with regard to the flaming fortress of Verdun. French Generals of World War II, in pathetic proclamations to under-equipped, ill-led troops, used the very same words, but Verdun, nonetheless, disappeared like a tumbling stone in the avalanche of the gray-clad armies. Obviously, the magic of words has its limits. In spite of my own reassuring remarks and in spite also of what I might almost call my knowledge of the limitation of German power, I felt uneasy…. The obvious despair of the people and their apparent lack of faith in our capacity for protecting them was not without effect.50

The GIs tried to cheer themselves and the Belgians up by throwing candy to the children they passed and propositioning every young woman in sight.

The convoy halted. I jumped off the truck, stopped a girl with a bicycle, and asked how large the town was and how nice. As usual one of the men asked me in English to find out whether she would sleep with him. I was just starting on my standard reply to similar demands: “Gentlemen, the art of seduction is a highly personal art, you will kindly seduce your girls your-selves,” when she remarked, distinctly unembarrassed, that she understood perfectly, although otherwise she knew no English.51

Such light relief was a badly needed salve for frayed nerves. Rumors abounded of “German soldiers in American uniforms and parachutists that had been seen drifting from the skies.” Kissinger was sent to find a locksmith to open the door of the town courthouse. The task was not made easier by American sentries with “itchy fingers.”

Stumbling through the darkness toward the school house assigned to us for quarters I was halted three times in as many minutes and asked the password by guards whose voices sounded decidedly impolite. [Kissinger’s accent can hardly have been reassuring.] I would have been somewhat less amused and thrilled had I known then what I learned weeks later, namely, that we did not have any contact with friendly units either to the right or to the left. In other words, we hang [sic ] there in the dark loosely connected with the rear by long roads easily cut by an enemy, whose whereabouts were highly uncertain, and our flanks were completely unprotected. We and our town were hardly part of a front line but a mere strong point established at a road centre to defend it and deny its use to the enemy…. During the following days the situation grew, almost audibly, more dangerous.52

Kissinger’s most memorable experience in Marche had an almost surreal quality. It vividly illustrates the kind of welcome American soldiers grew accustomed to in liberated countries, but it also underlines how perilous his situation was. One pitch-black night he got out of bed in the school building where he was billeted and noticed a light in the cellar: “Up floated the sounds of an old gramophone and the shuffling of dancing feet. Several men shouted my name like exited [sic ] school boys meeting a friend unexpectedly at a bar, where they had already been drinking for a while. Actually nobody had any alcohol but the mere presence of the girls made them slightly drunk… with emotion.”

The soldiers, mostly journalists with the army newspaper, were being entertained by a Belgian family: “a very broad mother, all smiles and friendliness, a grinning father (the concierge of the school) and assorted daughters, daughters-in-law and their girl friends.” It did not take long before the young men and women were dancing.

A kitchen stove gave more heat than was necessary and dancing we bumped into other couples continuously, while sweat began to flow from our foreheads. One of the girls was a “foreigner” from a big town, very soft and [an] extremely good dancer, she had merely visited friends and was now caught in the town…. My rifle, helmet, and bayonet I had thrown into a corner, when everybody had dragged me into the circle while the girls gave little shrieks of delight finding out that I could even make jokes in French and tell them silly stories. In a pleasantly exuberant mood I did some Russian dancing,* which caused the enthusiasm to rise further. My comrades began to hold hands with the girls, while a French-speaking captain sat on the sofa in the corner engaged in a more serious conversation with some more mature women. A girl in black told us that her husband had been shot by the Germans, because he had worked for the underground. She fetches [sic ] his picture from somewhere, showed it to us, and was very sad for a little while. Father and Mother described with many gestures the sufferings of the populations during the occupation, which of course, led to the eternal question: Do you think they will be back again? We lied some more, although by that time we knew that fighting was going on 6 km S and SW of the town.53

The following evening the group reassembled, and the dancing grew more intimate.

Again we danced in the kitchen that was too hot. We played games (always liked by those who don’t believe in the art of conversation as a subtle opening for less subtle sequences): games which inevitably led to some boy fervidly kissing a girl, while the others were held dancing half walking around in a circle. I made the best of it and chose as my partner the soft and nice-looking girl from the big town.54

And then the shelling started. Windows were shattered. The soldiers who had been guarding the building came clattering down the stairs to seek shelter. The shells were so close now that they seemed to be landing in the courtyard behind the school. “God damn it,” someone muttered, “this one was close, can’t be more than 20 yards away.” The brothers of the dancers began to fret that they would be taken as slave laborers if the Germans captured Marche. The other civilians resumed their questioning of the French-speaking Americans: “Wasn’t it time to leave? Tomorrow morning at the earliest?” Kissinger came close to blurting out, “Get out of this trap as soon as you can, particularly the young men,” but managed to restrain himself. Meanwhile, with literary panache, “the man who had written [a] book in prewar days asked the soft girl from the big town what she wanted most in a man. Very pale she said ‘La tendresse.’” Still the shells kept falling.

Every 30 seconds or so, the cellar shook in agony. Nobody shrieked in that crowd of civilians, not even the small children. The women prayed. The soldiers talked in half whispers to each other, exchanging their ideas on the caliber of the firing guns, their possible distance from us, and the type of shells. The air very soon grew stiff. The place seemed a submarine that had been under water too long.55

It was at this point that Kissinger (and Kraemer) did something very foolish indeed.

Feeling “helpless and uncomfortable,” unnerved by “flashing visions of a shell hitting into the midst of these people who were leaning, very pale and suddenly tired, against the brick wall,” Kissinger found himself thinking “with dismay… of the simple and naked danger of being wiped out in this barrage, how stupid it would be, after all these years of struggle and tenacity, to be killed in a cellar passively and rather useless not even knowing where the attack came from.” Unwilling — perhaps even unable — to remain “in this hole that seemed like a prearranged coffin,” he asked if anyone would come up with him “to see what was going on.” It was said with a smile of mock bravado; in fact, as Kissinger admitted to his brother, he was actuated more by claustrophobia than by bravery. Another intellectual in uniform — a mathematician “whose mind, in some respects, is as abstract as mine”—volunteered to join him. This act was psychologically effective: both men “were thrilled by our own adventurousness” and climbed up the stairs and out into the street “with tense nerves, but greatly lessened fear.” This was, of course, the height of irrationality. The school cellar had not been perfectly safe, to be sure. But to walk out in the open in the midst of a barrage of shells was significantly to increase the chance of death or severe injury. Kissinger and his companion could think of nothing else to do but to walk to their workplace in the courthouse. They found to their surprise “officers, more or less well dressed… working without the slightest sign of being disturbed” and “men typ[ing] orders as usual.” The barrage appeared to have stopped, though Kissinger in his anxious state could not recall if shells had continued to fall after he emerged from the shelter. At a loss for something to do, he returned to his bedroom on the third floor of the school. Despite momentary “visions once more of being blown into the street by an 88 mm shell hitting the third floor squarely,” which he allayed by moving so as not to sleep directly under one of the huge beams in the ceiling, he was soon asleep “and woke only infrequently, when the Art[iller]y (ours or theirs?) (God knows) became particularly noisy.”56

Roughly three-quarters of Allied soldiers killed in the Second World War were the victims of artillery shells, mortars, grenades, or bombs dropped by planes. If Private Henry Kissinger had been unlucky that night, he would have been added to a long list of American soldiers who fell victim to their own recklessness under fire. Three things are striking about the episode (even after allowance is made for Kraemer’s influence on the letter’s self-consciously literary composition). The first is that the protagonist felt unable passively to await his fate in a crowded cellar “after all these years of struggle and tenacity.” The second is his readiness to take a risk. The third is his ability to conceal his fear with nonchalance. These traits would reappear more than once in Kissinger’s postwar life.


The story goes that Kissinger was one of those who remained behind when a large part of the 84th Division left Marche.57 This is fiction. The very day after exposing himself to enemy artillery, he was withdrawn from the town as divisional HQ was moved to a château a few miles away from the front line. Kissinger was not sorry to leave; he “had the impression that the grey green uniforms were very near” and certainly did not envy his former comrades—“half heroic and half forsaken and sacrificed”—who were left behind in the now eerily empty town. They expected to have a “bitter fight.”58 It never came. As the official historian of the 84th puts it, the fight for Marche had been “Manteuffel’s last gasp. The German drive to the Meuse was finished.”59

Just a few weeks later, ordered by his colonel to buy some “good Belgian pipes,” Kissinger was able to revisit Marche and, his mission accomplished, to pay a couple of social calls: first to “a house where I had once spent a harmless evening with the parents of an unusually charming daughter,” where he “kissed the hands of the slightly amazed daughter” and entertained her father by sketching a map of the Ru

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ssian advance to the East, and then to the old schoolhouse, where he found only the mother and previously invisible grandfather. As one of the successful defenders of Marche, Kissinger was warmly received: “They smothered us with coffee, excellent bread, real butter and home made prune-marmelade [sic ], urging us to take second, third, and fourth helpings.”60 By now the town was in the hands of the British 53rd (Welsh) Division, who patronizingly told the Americans they were relieving, “We came here to help you.”61

The tide was now turning in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. On January 3, the Allies launched a three-pronged attack on the enormous German salient that the Ardennes offensive had created. Patton’s Third Army struck northward from Bastogne, while Montgomery’s XXX Corps struck southward from Marche along with — under Monty’s command — the U.S. First Army, including the 84th Infantry Division. The Allied offensive was supposed to be primarily an armored attack, but the generals had not reckoned with the weather. There was exceptionally heavy snow, and the temperature plummeted to as low as 13 degrees (Celsius) below zero (8 degrees Fahrenheit). So thick was the ice on the roads that tanks simply skidded off. It therefore fell to the infantry to take the lead.

The mud around Aachen had been bad; the ice of the Ardennes—“the Belgian Siberia”—was worse. “We always thought [Hell] was a hot, fiery place,” recalled the veterans who wrote G Company’s history, “but in the Ardennes we learned it was a cold, frozen one…. The depression among the troops was terrible…. The men’s overcoats were frozen stiff, breath turned into ice on the garments…. It was so bad that the men just had to keep digging to stay warm; they didn’t dare try to sleep or they’d freeze to death.”62

Nor were they battling only the cold. Though now retreating, and with little realistic hope of ever again advancing, the Germans had by no means lost their fighting spirit.63 Tanks and artillery were able to inflict heavy casualties on the slowly advancing Americans.64 An especially lethal hazard of the Battle of the Bulge were the “tree bursts” caused by shells fired into wooded areas, which peppered troops with both shrapnel and splinters of wood.65 Determined to prevent an orderly German withdrawal to the Siegfried Line, Allied commanders gave their men little respite.66

Kissinger was no longer a rifleman, but he and other men attached to divisional headquarters were not far behind the sharp end of the American offensive. They were certainly less exposed than the men of G Company to enemy small-arms fire, but they were not much less vulnerable to the cold, the shells, and the exhaustion. Kissinger has never sought to represent himself as a war hero; quite the reverse. But the reminiscences of his comrade in arms David C. Laing in 1986 confirm that he was still sharing many of the risks and hardships of the ordinary infantryman when the 84th reached Gouvy after the closing of the Bulge.67 From divisional and company histories, we can therefore trace the long, hard route he took: from Dochamps to Samrée, from Bérismenil to Ollomont, from the château de Biron to Laroche and finally to Houffalize, the fall of which was regarded as marking the end of the battle.68 This was war at its most punishing. The 84th Division had suffered heavy casualties by the time it was granted a proper rest at Xhoris.69

The Battle of the Bulge was over; the war was not. Indeed, there was an unpleasant feeling of going back to square one when, on February 7, the men of the 84th found themselves back in front of the Siegfried Line — more or less exactly where they had been on the eve of the Germans’ Ardennes offensive. Divisional HQ was now in Lindern, and it was from there that the plans were carefully worked out for Operation Grenade: the crossing of the River Roer, an operation made all the more difficult by the German destruction of dams, which flooded much of the surrounding countryside. On February 23, after a formidable artillery barrage, the 1st Battalion led the way across the river, advancing swiftly on to Körrenzig, Rurich, and Baal, where the Germans attempted a counterattack. Within two days the 84th had taken Houverath, Hetzerath, and Granterath. Cold, clear weather and more open country meant that the Allies could now capitalize on their superiority in the air. Despite the first sightings of the new German jet planes, G Company had less to fear from the Luftwaffe than from snipers.70 They also now encountered for the first time the irregular militia known as the Volkssturm: the barely trained, poorly armed groups of teenagers and old men who were the clearest indication that the Third Reich was running out of effective military manpower.71 It was at this point — the last week of February 1945—that the Americans began to take much larger numbers of Wehrmacht prisoners, a sure sign that German resistance was crumbling.72

Better weather and weaker opposition meant that the American advance could finally accelerate, as the tanks belatedly took over the lead. The men of the 84th now found themselves fighting a very different kind of war as part of Task Force Church. After the agonizing footslog of the Ardennes, the advance through Germany was “a wild ride from one town to the other,” with Bolling once again leading from the front and the infantry mopping up in the wake of the motorized spearhead.73 Houverath, Harbeck, Golkrath, Hoven, Genhof, and Genieken: the place-names soon became a blur to the average GI. From Süchteln the Americans swept northward, encountering only a few serious pockets of resistance, not least because the Germans had expected them to head due east, into the country’s heavy industrial heartland, the Ruhr. It was only after Boisheim that the Americans swung eastward, toward Krefeld.74 On March 4 the first members of the division reached the Rhine after “a wild night and a wild shooting party”—“like mob fighting mob”—in the village of Mörs.75 Krefeld, by contrast, yielded with minimal resistance. Although plans had been hatched in Berlin to make Krefeld the “Stalingrad of the West,” or to leave only scorched earth behind if the city had to be abandoned,76 the commander charged with its defense saw no sense in making a last stand with inadequately armed forces and incomplete defenses. In any case, the Germans needed every available man to try to stop the Americans from capturing the bridge across the Rhine at Uerdingen.

The Americans had been welcomed as deliverers by the Belgians. Their reception by German civilians was very different. Matzerath was the first German town to be overrun by the 84th Division with its civilian population still intact. The Americans were surprised to find ordinary Germans filled with apprehension. “Apparently they were told we could kill them all,” according to the divisional historian.77 By contrast, in Krefeld “the general atmosphere was submissive and, on the part of many civilians, even cooperative.” Some waved white handkerchiefs and sheets as the Americans entered the city.78 But these were signs of surrender, not of welcome. In the course of very nearly a month of rest and recuperation in Krefeld, the Americans came to realize that “we were definitely not wanted. The Germans were more unfriendly than any other place we had been.”79

Legend has it that Kissinger was now appointed “the administrator of Krefeld… decree[ing] that the people in charge of each municipal function — gas, water, power, transportation, garbage — report to him…. Within eight days he built a civilian government,” having “weeded out the obvious Nazis.”80 It was certainly not unknown for soldiers of German origin to be given considerable authority in the early phase of the Allied occupation of Germany.81 There is, however, no documentary evidence to support the story that Henry Kissinger played this kind of role, aside from a letter of recommendation written by Kraemer in 1949.82 Indeed, Kissinger’s name is conspicuously absent from all the scholarly literature on Krefeld under American occupation, though he was certainly there for three weeks.

One of the industrial centers selected by the Royal Air Force for strategic bombing, Krefeld by March 1945 was in ruins, having been the target of major air raids in June 1943 and January — February 1945. Around 60 percent of prewar housing had been damaged and 27 percent was completely destroyed.83 The population had been reduced to 110,000 by the time the Americans arrived, compared with 172,000 in 1939.84 For those who remained, life had effectively moved underground into massive concrete bomb shelters. When Alan Moorehead of the Daily Express  and Christopher Buckley of the Telegraph  reached Krefeld, they found tens of thousands of German civilians living in a vast bunker under the main railway station.85 Conditions were squalid. For people there, “the war [had] ended in the ruin of nearly every normal thing in life.”86 A similar seven-story bunker in Uerdingen was entirely without water and electricity when the Americans discovered it.87 On the other hand, the Nazis had made it a priority to keep the Ruhr economy going to the bitter end. Although the major public utilities — post, telephone, transport, electricity, gas, and water — were subject to disruption, they still continued to function. Supplies of food and coal had been maintained. What was lacking when the Americans occupied Krefeld was local government. Nearly all officials, including the Oberbürgermeister,  the chief of police, and the party Kreisleiter,  had fled across the Rhine by March 1, along with nearly all the regular armed forces. There was no one authorized to surrender the town.88

This vacuum of power took the U.S. Army by surprise; they had been expecting resistance by a fanatical underground, not ordinary Germans desperate to return to the surface. As a precaution, it was decided to keep people in their shelters for all but one hour a day and to enforce the “nonfraternization” policy that had been ordered by Eisenhower. The result was anarchy. Battle-hardened GIs, suddenly relieved from combat, ran riot. For G Company, “Krefeld turned out to be a soft deal. There were terrific quarters and plenty of wine, cognac, and schnapps.”89 No army on earth knew better how to throw a party than the Americans. Within a few days, “there were 15 motion picture units in bars, stores, and courthouses. There were U.S.O. shows, including Lily Pons, division band shows, Red Cross girls, and doughnuts.” There was even ice cream.90 But these officially sanctioned pleasures were much less popular than the illicit delights of fraternization.91 For the doughboys of the 84th Division, there had been nothing like it since Piccadilly Circus.

From the point of view of the German civilians, however, liberation from the Nazis meant house searches, looting of valuables, and at least three cases of rape. People whose houses were still intact found themselves summarily expelled to make way for American officers because the rules against fraternization — selectively enforced — prohibited Germans and Americans from sharing accommodation.92 Curfew rules varied from one part of town to another, depending on whether it was controlled by the 84th Division or the 102nd. There were numerous arrests, many of them unwarranted in the eyes of the locals. Worst of all, vengeful Eastern European slave workers (soon to be known as DPs—“displaced persons”) ran amok, plundering the food stores at Vorster Strasse and ransacking nearby farms. According to one account, as many as twenty-four Germans were murdered in the violence.93

For one elderly man in the suburb of Linn, a veteran of the First World War and an anti-Nazi, American occupation meant chaos.94 His diary entry for April 9 summed up his disillusionment: “Robbery and theft day and night are the order of the day…. It reminds one of the Thirty Years War.”95 Another diarist lamented that the decision to confine Germans to their bomb shelters was preventing nothing but the restoration of normality.96 A third complained that a group of soldiers not only plundered but also vandalized his house, tearing pages out of books “like wild men” (wie die Wilden ).97 When he protested that the Americans were essentially turning a blind eye to murder by their “allies,” the DPs,98 an American translator told him bluntly, “We did not come to Germany to free your country from the Russians; you brought them here yourselves. The Americans have come to free Holland, Belgium, and France from the Germans.”99 This kind of attitude was widespread in the U.S. Army; indeed, it was positively encouraged by anti-German films and literature designed to justify the nonfraternization policy. Despite the legend of Kissinger in Krefeld, it was only after the distinctly more magnanimous British took over the city on April 23 that anything like orderly administration was reestablished in the town.


What, then, was Henry Kissinger’s real role in Krefeld? His 1947 Harvard application makes it clear: “By February 1945 I was placed in charge of a Regimental Counter-Intelligence Corps [CIC] team. Our principle [sic ] tasks were the prevention of espionage and sabotage, such as the large-scale German penetration efforts during the Battle of the Bulge.”100 The CIC’s secondary role was to dissolve the Nazi Party, to arrest members of specified groups such as senior military officers for interrogation, and to exclude Nazis from the civil service.101 The restoration of civilian administration, in other words, was not the Americans’ top priority. Kissinger certainly had a hand in trying to restore essential public services, but this was to serve the needs of the U.S. troops, not German civilians. Of much more importance was the process of denazification to which Washington was firmly committed.

The United States was not wrong to regard Germany in 1945 as a hotbed of fanaticism. Although the war-weary majority of the population were ready to submit to whatever regime was imposed on them by the victorious Allies, there remained a core of ideologically convinced supporters of the Hitler regime who were prepared not only to fight until the bitter end but also to make that end as bitter as possible for both internal and external foes.102 The Americans may have exaggerated the scale of fanaticism in Germany in 1945, but they did not imagine it. The leader of the Office of Strategic Services’ Psychological Warfare Division, Saul K. Padover, was among the first American experts on Germany to reach Krefeld. His first impressions were contradictory. The old man in whose house he slept on the first night was craven in the extreme, to the point of lunacy. But the cocky Hitler Youth who showed him around the ruins of Krefeld the next day appeared to have been thoroughly brainwashed by Goebbels’s propaganda. Even the former members of the Social Democratic and Catholic Center Parties who had managed to lie low for the past dozen years seemed strangely cut off from reality.103 The meetings Padover had were part of an effort by the Americans to work out which Germans, if any, they could work with. They were naturally suspicious of those who put themselves forward. One official, Richard Lorentzen, had been authorized by the departing Nazi Oberbürgermeister  Alois Heuyng to form a “residual authority.”104 Amid the chaos of the first week of March, Lorentzen presented himself to the Americans, explained his position, and recommended the appointment of the former mayor of Kleve, an anti-Nazi lawyer named Dr. Johannes Stepkes, as Bürgermeister .105 But could either Lorentzen or Stepkes be trusted? Suddenly the army needed men who could quickly and accurately carry out background checks on potential German collaborators to weed out the committed Nazis. It was a task to which Henry Kissinger was ideally suited.

“Administration… is not the only problem facing the occupation forces,” begins the first surviving report coauthored by Henry Kissinger in his capacity as a CIC agent, which dates from March 17, 1945, little more than two weeks after the Americans had taken Krefeld. “There is also a political problem. For twelve years the Nazis have had a stranglehold on those in public office. Officialdom and Nazism have, as a result, become almost synonymous in the public mind. It becomes the duty therefore of the occupying authorities to clean the city administration of these cliques of Nazi ideologists.” The document is based on the testimony of eight informants, among them priests and members of the pre-1933 socialist or liberal parties — groups the Americans regarded as reliably anti-Nazi. Lorentzen, Stepkes, and his secretary, Heinrick Kesting, were all certified as non-Nazis. But the same could not be said of ten other officials, including the city auditor, the inspector of schools, the head of the license bureau, and even the man in charge of the Krefeld abattoir, who were classified either as “ardent Nazis” or as “opportunists.”106 News of their summary dismissals soon spread. The Linn diarist noted with satisfaction on March 28 that “a number of Nazi hacks” (Nazibonzen ) had been removed from office by the Americans.107 Kissinger’s new career as a Nazi catcher had begun. He was almost certainly the coauthor of an impressively detailed CIC report on the Krefeld Gestapo, dated April 18, 1945;108 its methodology and style closely resemble those of a later report on the Darmstadt Gestapo, which does bear his signature.109

The process of denazification was by its very nature an exercise in historical research but also in psychology. The task of distinguishing ardent Nazis from fellow travelers was far from easy, and the kind of evidence to be gleaned from interrogating suspects was unlikely to make it easier. The biggest difficulty, we now appreciate, was the extent to which the repressive force of the Hitler state had been directed at Jews and other ideologically stigmatized minorities like Communists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 1933 fewer than 1 percent of Krefeld’s population had been Jews, yet they and other suspect groups had accounted for over half of the 3,500 investigations undertaken by the town’s dozen Gestapo officers. There was, in other words, a sharp distinction between “ordinary Germans” and targeted enemies of the regime. The former were not harassed and were treated comparatively leniently when they transgressed. The latter the Gestapo systematically persecuted: spying on them, harassing them, beating them, torturing them, driving some of them abroad, and with increasing frequency after 1939, deporting them to their deaths. By the summer of 1942, nearly all Krefeld’s Jews had been sent to the death camps. Only those in mixed marriages remained, and the Gestapo thirsted to get rid of them, too. By the end of the war, 90 percent of the 832 Krefeld Jews who had not emigrated from Germany in the 1930s were dead, only 83 of them through natural causes.110 By the time Kissinger arrived there, just four Jews remained in Krefeld, and they were in hiding. By contrast, just one in ten of the ordinary Germans investigated by the Gestapo ended up in a concentration camp or protective custody. Ordinary Germans were in fact just as likely to denounce other people to the Gestapo as to be investigated by them. More than two-fifths of cases brought against Krefeld Jews before the war were initiated by denunciations, double the proportion started by the Gestapo and its spies.111 It was not difficult to identify the worst offenders, like August Schiffer or Ludwig Jung, the Gestapo chief from 1940 to 1945.112 The difficulty was to know where to draw the line between the active perpetrators and the much larger number of Germans who had paved the way to the death camps with mere malice or indifference. Few of the victims had survived to testify; few of the accessories to murder had an interest in telling the truth.

It was his ability to overcome such difficulties that earned Henry Kissinger both promotion and decoration. Once again, however, myths have sprung up around these events. According to one recent account, for example, “Kissinger famously crossed enemy lines, posing as a German civilian, to interrogate Nazi soldiers in April 1945. He received a Bronze Star for his courage and acumen.”113 It was in fact his mentor Kraemer who ended up behind enemy lines (at Geilenkirchen), and he was captured. Only by persuading his captors to lay down their arms was he able to extricate himself, a feat for which Kraemer was awarded a Bronze Star and a battlefield commission.114 He and Kissinger were now firm friends. On their nights off, Kissinger recalled, they would “walk the streets of battle-scarred towns… during total blackouts, while Kraemer spoke of history and post-war challenges in his stentorian voice — sometimes in German, tempting nervous sentries.”115 It was not in Krefeld that Kissinger earned his Bronze Star, much less behind enemy lines. It was on the other side of the River Rhine, which he and his comrades in the 84th Division crossed at Wesel on April 1, 1945.


The final phase of the war in Europe was in many ways exhilarating for the men of the U.S. Army. Compared with the hard slog that had followed D-Day, they swept from the Rhine to the Elbe in an American version of blitzkrieg. The challenges were increasingly logistical: how to keep this highly motorized force supplied with gasoline and tires, how to keep the best-fed army in history provided with “chow.” Often, as at Krefeld, they encountered next to no resistance. (Civilians in areas that had been heavily bombed were, perhaps paradoxically, more likely to wave white flags and welcome Allied troops than those farther removed from the industrial centers.) Demoralized Volkssturm units — which included boys as young as eleven — were also quite likely just to give up. Positively enthusiastic about their liberation, though difficult to restrain from acts of vengeance or plunder, were the DPs.

Periodically, however, the Americans would run into stiff resistance from Wehrmacht and especially SS units that were determined to fight to the last bullet, if not the last man. This was the 84th Division’s experience as it crossed the River Weser, when it was hit by German “screaming mimis”116 and again at Buckeburg on the other side.117 It remains hard to understand why young men, sometimes equipped with nothing more than an antitank Panzerfaust  or machine gun, were willing to risk and usually lose their lives against overwhelmingly superior forces, especially with the war so obviously lost. The extent to which they were being terrorized into doing so, with an exponentially growing number of summary hangings for “defeatism” and similar offenses, was not immediately obvious to those they were shooting at. The more obvious explanation was that many young Germans were indeed fanatical Nazis, inspired by education or propaganda or both to give the Third Reich an ending worthy of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung . This diagnosis gave a heightened importance to the work of CIC agents like Kissinger. If the Nazis were indeed planning to wage a partisan or terrorist campaign against the occupying forces, it was vital to disrupt it before it could gather momentum. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that, in the end, the zones of Germany occupied by the Western powers reemerged as an economically dynamic and democratic Federal Republic. But that happy outcome did not seem at all likely in 1945. Indeed, in the smoldering ruins of the Third Reich, an anti-Allied insurgency seemed a far more likely scenario. It should not be forgotten that between 3,000 and 5,000 people were in fact killed by members of Werwolf and Freikorps “Adolf Hitler” groups before and after the German surrender.118

By April 9—eight days after Goebbels’s Werwolf Radio had begun broadcasting its bloodthirsty incitements to partisan warfare — the 84th Division had reached the outskirts of Hanover, the riflemen happily riding atop Sherman tanks.119 The next day’s attack was launched in dense fog, allowing the Americans to take the defenders by surprise. After a short skirmish, it was all over. As in Krefeld, the GIs were soon making the most of a “tremendous supply of wine, food, and schnapps.”120 The newly promoted Sergeant Kissinger found the locals “docile. As a matter of fact when we entered our jeep was mobbed and we were cheered so that for a minute I thought I was in Belgium. More deponent sayeth not,” suggesting that fraternization was again the order of the day.121

Now the hard work for CIC began. On April 13 Kissinger and his fellow agent Robert Taylor arrested and interrogated Willi Hooge, a member of the Hanover Gestapo. Hooge admitted that six of his Gestapo colleagues had been left behind in the Hanover area to form the backbone of an underground resistance organization. Early the next morning Kissinger and Taylor led armed raids on the six suspects’ homes. All but one of the men, Hermann Wittig, were absent, but their wives were arrested. The interrogation of Wittig produced two more names; they in turn were arrested. Adolf Rinne was tracked down to a cottage on the edge of the Deister Forest; Erich Binder to a nearby farm, where he was working under a fake identity. Binder was the most senior Gestapo officer involved, and it was his interrogation that definitively confirmed Hooge’s original story.122 The statements of the arrested men are notable not only for their admissions of involvement in a planned campaign of sabotage against American forces in occupied Germany, but also for the evidence they provided of earlier acts of violence in various parts of German-occupied Europe.123

It was primarily for breaking up this Gestapo sleeper cell that Kissinger was awarded the Bronze Star on April 27, though the official citation referred more broadly to “meritorious service in connection with military operations against the enemy in Germany, 28 February to 18 April 1945.”124 What happened in Hanover was, wrote his superior officer, an “outstanding accomplishment,” reflecting Kissinger’s “unusual ability.”125 By the time Kissinger was promoted to staff sergeant four months later, according to the official letter of recommendation, “his exceptional knowledge of the German people and his linguistic ability [had] enabled him to capture many high ranking Nazi Officials including at least a dozen Gestapo agents…. This young man takes his work very seriously.”126

That Kissinger was serious about his role as a CIC agent is scarcely surprising. With every passing day of the Allied occupation, horrifying new evidence of the crimes of the Nazi regime was coming to light. Even before he left New York, Kissinger and his family had been aware of what would come to be called the Holocaust. As early as December 1942, Rabbi Breuer was referring publicly to “the news of unimaginable mass murders, carried out against hundreds of thousands of our unfortunate brothers and sisters.”127 Later he described the “victims claimed by a bestial criminality” as “countless.”128 But it was another thing altogether to see the consequences of genocide for oneself.

On April 10, just days before the roundup of the Gestapo sleeper cell, Kissinger stared the Holocaust in the face when he and other members of the 84th Division stumbled upon the concentration camp at Ahlem. For many years, this was an event Kissinger did not talk about. Indeed, his presence only came to light because one of his fellow GIs, a radio operator named Vernon Tott, decided to publish the photographs he had taken on that day. Seeing Ahlem, Kissinger later acknowledged, was “one of the most horrifying experiences of my life.”129

The camp at Ahlem, which was located five miles west of Hanover, was one of sixty-five satellites of the major Hamburg concentration camp at Neuengamme. It consisted of little more than five stables that had been converted into barracks and surrounded by two barbed-wire fences, one of them electrified, with an elevated guard post at each of the four corners. Formally, it was a labor camp, not a death camp, though the distinction had little meaning by 1945. The prisoners were forced to work at the neighboring quarry, which was being enlarged to house an underground factory complex code-named Doebel I and II, part of the empire of enslavement and annihilation operated by the SS Main Economic and Administrative Office (Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt).130 Conditions in the quarry were atrocious, while the food and shelter provided at the camp were woefully insufficient. By January 1945, nearly a quarter—204—of the 850 Jewish prisoners originally sent to Ahlem had died. Four days before the arrival of the Americans,

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the camp commandant ordered the able-bodied prisoners to be marched to Bergen-Belsen, one of the many “death marches” that marked the last phase of the Nazi racial state. According to one account, between 220 and 250 prisoners were too ill to move and were left (though another source gives much lower numbers). The intention had been to kill this remnant and burn down the camp buildings in the hope of effacing the evidence of the criminal acts that had been committed there. The only reason this did not happen was the unanticipated speed of the American advance.

It was therefore the dying as well as the dead that the Americans found at Ahlem. As Tott put it, the camp was “Hell on Earth.” Outside there were piles of emaciated bodies, some in trash cans, some in pits. There were also numerous corpses inside the barracks and around 750 bodies buried in a nearby mass grave. Tott counted only thirty-five survivors — men and boys “full of lice and disease.”131 “In one… bunk,” he later recalled, “there was a boy, about fifteen years old, who was lying in his own vomit, urine and stool. When he looked at me, I could see he was crying for help…. Our troop had just come through six months of bloody battle but what we were seeing here made us sick to our stomachs and some even cried.”132 Donald Edwards was a messenger who had seen his share of death and destruction since the 84th Division had landed in Normandy. “What I’ve just seen,” he told his best friend, “I don’t think I’ll ever forget. The war will probably fade from memory, but those were the most pathetic human beings I have ever seen or hope to see in my whole life.”133 Wherever they turned, the incredulous soldiers encountered new horrors. The stench inside the barracks was “beyond description.” As Edwards observed, “When they show on Movietone news how the concentration camps looked, they’ll never be able to convey the stench.”134 The barracks themselves were so cramped, the Americans could scarcely walk between the two rows of wooden bunks: “On the floor were piles of human excretion. Vomited food was also present on the floor. Dirt had been allowed to accumulate on the wood floor until it was no longer possible to clean it. Every tick [straw mat on the bunks] stenched with urine. Inside the hut, we noted several huge bull whips as well as some cat-o-nine tails. We knew their use.”135 The Americans also suspected that one of the buildings was a gas chamber.

Yet perhaps the most shocking thing was what the survivors told them. “What’s been the worst thing that happened to you?” Edwards asked a Polish Jew who spoke English. “The beatings by the SS guards,” he replied. “Whenever they wanted to, they just hit you. It might be with a butt, a whip or their hands. They seemed to like to hit us.”136 The welts all over his body confirmed his account. Benjamin Sieradzki was originally from Zgierz, a suburb of Łódz, and was just eighteen years old. He had watched as his parents were physically dragged away from the Łódz ghetto for “resettlement” (they were in fact taken to Chełmno and gassed). After the liquidation of the ghetto, he and his sister had been sent to Auschwitz, but he was then selected for work and ended up being moved to Ahlem on November 30, 1944. When the Americans found him, he weighed just eighty pounds and was suffering from tuberculosis and typhoid as well as malnutrition.137 Henry Pius was also from Łódz. As the Americans had approached Ahlem, a fearful German civilian had asked him, “What are you going to do with us?” “Look at me,” he replied, “am I physically in any shape to fight or hurt anyone?”138

For ordinary American GIs like Vernon Tott and Don Edwards, the monstrous scenes at Ahlem were unforgettable. But it was worse still for their Jewish — and especially German-Jewish — comrades. Edwards remembered how his fellow messenger Bernie Cohn “began to sob quietly” after they left the camp.139 How did Henry Kissinger react? Sixty years later, his memories remained fresh: the “shocking incongruities” like “the SS people who… [had] stayed because they thought they’d be needed to administer a continuing enterprise”; the “barely recognizable human” state of the prisoners, who were so weak that “it took four or five of them to get hold of one SS man and he was brushing them off”; the “immediate instinct… to feed them and… to save lives,” which in fact killed some prisoners who were no longer able to digest solid food.140 His kindness was also remembered. One survivor, Moshe Miedzinski, remembered that it was Kissinger who told him, “You are free.”141

Yet these accounts date from many decades after the liberation of Ahlem. Altogether more powerful, because written very shortly after the event, was the two-page manuscript that Kissinger entitled “The Eternal Jew”—an ironical reference to the Nazis’ anti-Semitic propaganda film Der ewige Jude . This document is of such importance — recording as it does Kissinger’s immediate, anguished reactions to the worst crime ever committed by a supposedly civilized society — that it deserves to be reproduced without abridgement or comment:


The concentration camp of Ahlem was built on a hillside overlooking Hannover. Barbed wire surrounded it. And as our jeep travelled down the street skeletons in striped suits lined the road. There was a tunnel in the side of the hill where the inmates worked 20 hours a day in semi-darkness.

I stopped the jeep. Cloth seemed to fall from the bodies, the head was held up by a stick that once might have been a throat. Poles hang from the sides where arms should be, poles are the legs. “What’s your name?” And the man’s eyes cloud and he takes off his hat in anticipation of a blow. “Folek… Folek Sama.” “Don’t take off your hat, you are free now.”

And as I say it, I look over the camp. I see the huts, I observe the empty faces, the dead eyes. You are free now. I, with my pressed uniform, I haven’t lived in filth and squalor, I haven’t been beaten and kicked. What kind of freedom can I offer? I see my friend enter one of the huts and come out with tears in his eyes: “Don’t go in there. We had to kick them to tell the dead from the living.”

That is humanity in the 20th century. People reach such a stupor of suffering that life and death, animation or immobility can’t be differentiated any more. And then, who is dead and who is alive, the man whose agonized face stares at me from the cot or Folek Sama, who stands with bowed head and emaciated body? Who was lucky, the man who draws circles in the sand and mumbles “I am free” or the bones that are interred in the hillside?

Folek Sama, your foot has been crushed so that you can’t run away, your face is 40, your body is ageless, yet all your birth certificate reads is 16. And I stand there with my clean clothes and make a speech to you and your comrades.

Folek Sama, humanity stands accused in you. I, Joe Smith, human dignity, everybody has failed you. You should be preserved in cement up here on the hillside for future generation[s] to look upon and take stock. Human dignity, objective values have stopped at this barbed wire. What differentiates you and your comrades from animals[?] Why do we in the 20th century countenance you?

Yet, Folek, you are still human. You stand before me and tears run down your cheek. Hysterical sobbing follows. Go ahead and cry, Folek Sama, because your tears testify to your humanity, because they will be absorbed in this cursed soil, dedicating it.

As long as conscience exists as a conception in this world you will personify it. Nothing done for you will ever restore you.

You are eternal in this respect.142

CHAPTER 6 In the Ruins of the Reich

After totally defeating our enemies, we brought them back to the community of nations. Only Americans could have done that.

— HARRY TRUMAN to Henry Kissinger, 19611

To me there is not only right or wrong but many shades in between…. The real tragedies in life are not in choices between right and wrong. Only the most callous of persons choose what they know  to be wrong…. Real dilemmas are difficulties of the soul, provoking agonies, which you in your world of black and white can’t even begin to comprehend.

— HENRY KISSINGER to his parents, July 19482


It would take a Hieronymus Bosch to do justice to Germany in the aftermath of World War II. It was a country of ruins and cadavers. By the end, the war had cost the lives of at least 5.2 million German servicemen — nearly three in every ten men mobilized — and more than 2.4 million German civilians. Total mortality approached 10 percent of Germany’s prewar population. To a remarkable extent, these casualties were inflicted in the final year of the war. More German soldiers lost their lives in the last twelve months of fighting than in the whole of the rest of the war. Civilian casualties also soared. In total, between 300,000 and 400,000 German soldiers and civilians lost their lives every month between D-Day (June 6, 1944) and Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945. The Germans had launched a war that propelled the Wehrmacht as far afield as the Caucasus and the Channel Islands, from Norway to North Africa. But retribution was meted out to them largely on German soil. The death toll of the final year was inflated still further by the Nazi regime’s own murderous character, which grew more pronounced even as its end drew nigh. Of just over 714,000 concentration camp inmates who still remained in January 1945, around 250,000 perished in death marches, including 15,000 of the 60,000 evacuated from Auschwitz. For most of its existence, the Hitler state had targeted minorities, in particular Jews. In its death throes, however, the “national revolution” devoured its own offspring. Between 1942 and 1944 German courts passed more than 14,000 death sentences, nearly ten times the number during the first three years of the war. But these figures do not include the numerous extrajudicial executions carried out by the SS. The pathology of Nazism was a bloodlust that seemed to grow with the feeding.

In the end, the killers killed themselves. It was not only the top Nazi leaders who, like Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler, opted for suicide rather than face the victors’ justice. Many ordinary Germans chose death over defeat. In April 1945 there were 3,881 recorded suicides in Berlin, nearly twenty times the figure for March. It is tempting to see this wave of self-immolation as a final triumph of Hitler’s Wagnerian vision. But some of those who took their own lives were responding to authentically intolerable aspects of their country’s conquest. One Red Army officer remarked that the first-echelon troops stole the watches, the second wave raped the women, and the third echelon made off with the household goods.3 The two main Berlin hospitals estimated the number of rape victims in the capital at between 95,000 and 130,000. Altogether it seems likely that Soviet soldiers raped over two million German women, part of a systematic campaign of violent vengeance encouraged by Stalin’s propaganda.4 Also vengeful, as we have seen, were the six or seven million slave laborers whom the Nazis had imported to the Reich to work in their industrial war machine, as well as those concentration camp survivors who had the strength left to avenge themselves.

Into this charnel house poured the expelled: ethnic Germans driven from their traditional homes to the east of the Rivers Oder and Neisse. This was in part a consequence of Stalin’s decision, more or less sanctioned at the Tehran Conference (November 27–December 1, 1943), to move the Polish border westward, so that East Prussia, West Prussia, Pomerania, Posen, and Silesia all ceased to be German territory. But the stream of refugees also included Germans from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia. In the final year of the war around 5.6 million Volksdeutsche  had fled westward to elude the Red Army or Slav neighbors bent on retaliation for the Germans’ earlier ethnic cleansing. They were followed after the German surrender by around seven million more. The number of people who died in this great upheaval may have been as high as two million.5 The survivors merely added to the number of mouths to feed in the rump Germany. This was no small challenge. At the end of 1945 the economy was “practically at a standstill.”6 Production was down to perhaps a third of its 1936 level. Not until the last quarter of 1948 did western German industrial output recover to 75 percent of its prewar level.7 There were chronic shortages of food, fuel, and shelter.

Yet perhaps the most pernicious legacies of the Third Reich were not material but spiritual. A substantial proportion of the population continued to adhere to at least parts of Hitler’s racialist Weltanschauung, blaming their harsh treatment at the hands of the Allies on the all-powerful Jews who supposedly ran Moscow and Washington. Nazism had corrupted German society in other ways, too. Bribery, black marketeering, and peculation were rampant; in this, Hitler’s Germany was like all one-party states with planned economies. Like its totalitarian rival, the Soviet Union, the Third Reich had fostered mendacity and mistrust. The habits of denunciation that the Gestapo and the SS had encouraged were hard to break.

For the men who had been fighting Germany — in some cases for close to six years — it was no easy thing to shift from waging total war against a formidably ruthless military machine to occupying and governing a devastated and demoralized country. It did not help that the occupation of Germany was itself a multinational enterprise. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the Big Three had agreed vaguely to divide Germany into zones of occupation, and this duly happened. The area from the River Elbe to the new Polish frontier along the Oder and Neisse Rivers — what had once been central Germany — became the Soviet zone of occupation. Western Germany was carved up between Britain, the United States, and France, while Berlin became a four-power island in the Soviet zone. Austria, too, was carved up; the Vienna of Graham Greene’s Harry Lime was another four-power condominium, like Berlin. In the words of an American intelligence officer, “The Russians got the agriculture (Prussia); the British, the industry and coal (the Ruhr); and the Americans, the scenery (Bavaria and the Alps).”8

There was no glory in occupying even the scenic part of Germany. In the words of the man who took over the American zone from Eisenhower, General Lucius D. Clay, managing “a defeated area while the war was still going on in the Pacific was about as dead-looking an end for a soldier as you could find.”9 The professional warriors itched to be off to fight the Japanese; most conscripts just longed to get home. For that reason, Clay struggled to retain good-quality officers in Germany.10 As he later recalled, “It was hard work, and it was not fun…. If we had not had our army officers to call on originally, and then to persuade them to stay as civilians, I do not think that we could ever have staffed the occupation.”11 Among those who stayed in Germany was Sergeant Henry A. Kissinger.

For Kissinger, the U.S. Army had proved an unexpectedly congenial environment. He had enjoyed the “camaraderie” of the 84th Division. His unit had been, he later recalled, “the classic American group, and it was a very significant unit experience. They were the only group I’ve ever been with in America that didn’t ask me about my German origin, to a point where I’d even forgotten, where I thought I had lost my accent, unbelievable as it seems today.”12 “Henry forgot about the past,” recalled one of his comrades, himself of Syrian descent. “He was fighting for America. He was fighting as a soldier against the Nazis not because the Nazis did something bad for the Jews, but because the Nazis were the enemy of America. He was more American than I have ever seen any American.”13 The contrast between this experience of assimilation and what he saw on his return to Germany could scarcely have been starker. The revelation of the concentration camps shocked the most battle-hardened Americans; even Patton was physically sickened by what he saw at the Buchenwald subcamp at Ohrdruf. For many GIs, the exposure of the crimes of the Nazis provided a vindication of the war itself, reconciling them with the sufferings they had endured in combat.14 But for a German Jew like Kissinger, the impact of the Holocaust was another thing entirely.

The mass graves at Ahlem had been but a foretaste of the personal loss that lay ahead. After the war’s end, Kissinger recalled, “I started looking for members of my family… and didn’t find any.”15 As we have seen, his grandmother and at least a dozen other members of the Kissinger family were among the victims. Fanny Stern had been sent to Bełzec but appears to have died in a death march during the final days of the conflict. How did her grandson make sense of such horror? “It crossed my mind it might have been the fate of my parents and to some extent… my own fate,” he once admitted. But “I must say I was so shocked by the human tragedy that I did not put it immediately into direct relationship to myself…. When I came back [to Germany] of course I experienced aspects of the Holocaust in a way that were unimaginable when I was a child, but those were then from the point of view of a member of the army of occupation and so I insisted… on allowing me to develop my own thinking, rather than presenting [myself] as some traumatized victim.”16

This distancing of himself from the counterfactual of his own fate had his parents not escaped to America — like the temporary use of Henry  as a surname when dealing with Germans — was an essential defensive measure. Any other approach might have been debilitating. But distancing did not preclude understanding. As is abundantly clear from a letter Kissinger wrote to the aunt of a concentration camp survivor — possibly Harold Reissner, one of the few survivors of the Fürth Jewish community, who had been liberated from Buchenwald—“Mr. Henry” was able to empathize very well indeed with the victims of the “Final Solution,” offering insights that in some ways anticipated the later writings of Primo Levi. “A completely erroneous picture exists in the [United] States of the former inmates of the concentration camps,” wrote Kissinger, because of people “who out of inner goodness surround everything with an idealistic hue, who in their eagerness to do good, report conditions as they would like them to be, not as they are.”

The popular conception of a former concentration camp inmate in the States is that of a man broken in body and spirit, who carries his cross of misery, bravely but nonetheless futilely, who can never forget what has been and whose memories bar positive action in the future. This man is to be treated with infinite compassion and understanding, as befits one who has returned from the dead. This man supposedly yearns for love, for sympathy….

[But] concentration camps were not only mills of death. They were also testing grounds. Here men persisted, and in a sense fought for survival, with the stake always nothing less than one’s life, with the slightest slip, a fatal error. Such was the filth, the compulsion, the debasement that a person had to be possessed of extraordinary powers, both of physique and of will to even want to survive. The intellectuals, the idealists, the men of high morals had no chance…. But having once made up one’s mind to survive, it was a necessity to follow through with a singleness of purpose, inconceivable to you sheltered people in the States. Such singleness of purpose broached no stopping in front of accepted sets of values, it had to disregard ordinary standards of morality. One would only survive through lies, tricks, and by somehow acquiring food to fill one’s belly. The weak, the old had no chance.

And so liberation came. The survivors were not within the ordinary pale of human events anymore. They had learned that looking back meant sorrow, that sorrow was weakness, and weakness synonymous with death. They knew that having survived the camp, surviving the liberation was no problem.

So they applied themselves to the peace with the same singleness of purpose and sometimes the same disregard of accepted standards as they had learned in camp. Above all they wanted no pity. Pity made them uncomfortable, jumpy….

All these people want is a chance for the future, a chance they will follow with a strict consequentness [sic ]. They will resent pity, they will be suspicious of oversolicitousness. They have seen man from his most evil side, who can blame them for being suspicious? They will resent having somebody plan every little detail for them. And in all fairness, who can blame them for that? Have they not lived in the land of the dead and so what can be so terrifying about the land of the living?17

The man who wrote these words was just twenty-two years old.

Many another man in Kissinger’s position might have been driven to a lifelong hatred of all Germans. For a time he was certainly “very hostile” toward them. His own parents were, he recalled, “on the vengeful side. But they had no concrete idea what that meant.”18 As a counterintelligence agent with responsibilities for denazification, he found himself “in the position one dreamt about when one was persecuted, that I had almost unlimited power to take revenge. In the sense that I could arrest I had unlimited power to arrest anybody and just section them off to a camp. There were no procedures that existed for the first weeks.” But Kissinger did not act vengefully, for reasons he explained to his parents:

You, dear father, say: be tough to the Germans. Like all generalities, that is a platitude. I am tough, even ruthless, with the persons whose participation in the party is responsible for all this misery. But somewhere this negativism must end, somewhere we must produce something positive or we’ll have to remain here, as guardians over chaos, forever. We must also prove to the Germans by the firmness of our actions, by the justness of our decisions, by the speed of their executions that democracy is indeed a workeable [sic ] solution. That is also our duty. I say be tough, yes. But show them also why you are tough. Prove to them that you are here in Germany because you are better, not that you are better because you are here. Be fair in your decision, be ruthless in your execution. Lose no opportunity to prove by word and deed the virility of our ideals. These instructions I have given to every member of my team.19

Not long after the end of the war, he visited his paternal grandfather, David, who had moved to Sweden in the late 1930s. His grandfather’s advice was clear: “Since we Jews… resented it when they treated us racially and said all Jews [were] as bad, we have no right to treat the Germans as if they’re all evil…. I should be careful…. He said go after the ones that had committed crimes, but don’t feel hatred towards all of the Germans.”20 Kissinger agreed

that it was important, having been myself persecuted, that I would show a distinction between the former victims and their persecutors. So that I would not turn all the Germans into a persecuted people…. And not [act] on the basis of personal revenge. I carried that to the point that when I was head of intelligence in [the Bergstrasse district]… I changed my name, so that it didn’t look like Jews taking revenge. They undoubtedly saw through that but I was very young…. I… had no patience then and [have] no patience now with SS Nazi leaders, but I had maybe a greater tolerance for opportunists.21

It was, in any case, “very depressing to arrest people and have weeping wives no matter what they [had done].”22

On a trip to his native Fürth, Kissinger was shocked to find that of the town’s old Jewish population, only thirty-seven people remained. They were outnumbered by more than two hundred DPs. Among the survivors was Harold Reissner, whom Kissinger, along with his former school friend Frank Harris, sought to help (in Reissner’s words) “to get back in touch with my aunt, to [get] whatever I needed to look after my health and wellbeing.”23 Yet for all the pathos of such encounters, Kissinger was still capable of taking the Germans as he found them. Attending a soccer match for the first time since Nazi regulations had excluded him from the Spielvereinigung stadium, Kissinger was bleakly amused by one home fan’s behavior: “Fürth lost and the referee got beaten up, which was standard practice. The German police couldn’t rescue him, so the American military police came and rescued the referee, and one guy sitting down next to me got up and yelled: ‘So that’s the democracy you guys are bringing us!’”24 For all Kissinger knew, just a few months before, this same man might have been among the Wehrmacht and Volkssturm formations that had fought in Fürth until the bitter end.25

Kissinger returned to Fürth in February 1946. This time he opted for high culture, buying tickets for Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera . “How times [have] changed,” he wrote to his parents. “I was conducted to the honor loge, you know right at the left of the stage. I am usually not smug or self-satisfied but in Fuerth yes.” Nor did he neglect to visit his grandfather’s grave, which he made sure was “the best kept in the cemetery.”26


For Henry Kissinger, World War II ended on the banks of the River Elbe “in the supreme, miserable, uplifting and depressing days when East and West approached across the body of a prostrate nation, with masses of humanity clamoring to cross over to fancied safety and finally we met and with one blow the drama was over, the river was quiet & so was Germany.” On May 2, 1945, units of the 333rd Infantry made contact with members of the 89th Soviet Army Corps at Bälow.27 “My contacts with the Russians were many and varied,” Kissinger wrote home. “I met them first when I was strafed by a Russian plane who mistook my vehicle for a German. I saw them again a few days later when a cloud of dust on the other side of the Elbe showed us that the Russians had arrived. After that I saw many Russians: at official receptions, at parades (and I don’t think I’ll ever see anything more imposing than the parade of a Cossack division) and at many an official party. Discipline in the Red Army seems good, although the average soldier is somewhat more coarse than a Western European. Some of the Cossacks particularly were a rather terrifying crew.” The highlight of the victory festivities was provided by his mentor Fritz (now Lieutenant) Kraemer, who “outperformed the Russian champions in Cossack dance.”28

By contrast, on May 8—the day designated as VE Day — Kraemer was ordered by General Bolling to use a sound truck to deliver “a brief talk… to the townspeople [in our sector] on the significance of the German surrender and the consequences which any further resistance might entail for the German people.” As the divisional historian recorded, “Most listened quietly, almost rigidly. Some women sobbed.”29 Like the forced visits to concentration camps, such lectures were the first tentative moves in what became an ambitious attempt to denazify German society. But who exactly was to undertake this daunting task? The answer was the agency to which Kissinger now belonged: the Counter Intelligence Corps.

An army counterespionage agency, originally called the Corps of Intelligence Police, the CIC dated back to the First World War but had all but vanished by 1939. Prior to Pearl Harbor, it had focused on domestic counterespionage.30 Indeed, in June 1940 the total staff of CIC had numbered just fifteen. After Pearl Harbor, however, it expanded rapidly under the leadership of Major W. S. Holbrook. In addition to the core Domestic Intelligence Section, it soon built up a network of agents in the nine U.S. corps areas, as well as in Iceland and the Caribbean. Since there were in fact not many German spies in any of these locations, the CIC initially had to focus on “Counter Subversive” efforts at home, which meant vetting around two million civilian workers, looking for suspect elements.31 (One notable coup was the surveillance of Eleanor Roosevelt and her alleged lover and future biographer Joseph P. Lash.)32 At this point, the CIC was evolving into a kind of military FBI — a somewhat superfluous entity given the extent of J. Edgar Hoover’s ambitions for the FBI itself. But this changed with the occupation of Germany.33 To begin with, as we have seen, the Americans had expected to be confronted with a partisan resistance movement of fanatical “Werwolves.” When that failed

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to materialize, the CIC was tasked with registering all ex-Wehrmacht personnel and rounding up leading Nazis.34 Here, surely, was the ultimate criminal racket: National Socialism. For the “G-Men in Khaki,” Nazi hunting promised to trump the gangster busting that had made heroes of their civilian counterparts.35

The five thousand or so men who, like Kissinger, became CIC agents were drawn from all walks of American life. Not all had prior experience of detective work; not all had foreign languages. They were, however, among the smartest men the War Department had drafted. In the London office alone there were eight Ph.D.s.36 Not only did a future secretary of state serve as a CIC agent in Germany, so did the future author of The Catcher in the Rye,  J. D. Salinger, whose experiences closely paralleled Kissinger’s.37 Unlike the elite Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIC was composed mostly of noncommissioned officers. In a hierarchical military, this might have been a handicap, but for the fact that CIC agents did not wear any badges of rank. They wore either civilian clothes or Class “A” officer’s uniforms with a brass “U.S.” insignia on each lapel, and they carried a gold badge inscribed “War Department Military Intelligence.”38 As CIC agent Ib Melchior recollected,

Because our duties were such that we might easily find ourselves in a situation requiring the immediate and unquestioned assistance of available troops, we were empowered to request such assistance — if need be, order  it — from any officer up to and including a full colonel. Only general officers were entitled to know our true rank. To all others our standard reply to the inevitable question, “What is your rank?” was simply a firm, “My rank is confidential, but at this moment I am not outranked.”39

There were times when CIC agents in Germany did indeed engage in thrilling cloak-and-dagger operations, a notable example being the operation to arrest Artur Axmann and other former Hitler Youth leaders.40 But a large part of the job involved pen pushing. As one of the agents involved in the Axmann case recalled,

Automatic arrests [people arrested because of their position in the Nazi Party, the SS, or other organizations] were being ferreted out in large numbers daily, interrogated and shipped on to detention quarters according to their importance. Germans were denouncing each other to CIC and MG [Military Government], producing long-winded documents listing the crime or political beliefs their victims were supposed to have committed or believed in.41

The great challenge of denazification was where to draw the line. In theory, there was a clear distinction between convinced Nazis and “opportunists,” between leaders and followers, between perpetrators and the passive. In practice, such distinctions blurred. After four early stabs at the problem, a directive of July 7, 1945, alighted on the notion of “guilt-by-office holding,” creating 136 mandatory removal categories. Eisenhower’s order on “Removal of Nazis and Militarists,” dated August 15, 1945, extended the CIC’s remit to include “Nazis and militarists” in business and the professions, not just in public service. Such people were not only to lose their jobs; their assets could also be confiscated.42 Supplementary to this was Clay’s Law No. 8 of September 26, which decreed that former Nazis in the 136 mandatory removal categories could be reemployed only in menial jobs. Comparably ambitious were the plans envisaged in JCS 1067 to establish “a coordinated system of control over German education and an affirmative program of reorientation… designed completely to eliminate Nazi and militaristic doctrines.”43 It is against this background that we should understand Kissinger’s activity as a CIC agent in Bensheim, the biggest town in the pretty wine-growing district of Hesse known as Bergstrasse.

Kissinger’s subsequent fame awakened local memories of the young man who had turned up in the summer of 1945 calling himself “Mr. Henry.” Elizabeth Heid, who worked as his secretary, remembered his saying to her, “We have not come here for revenge.” On the other hand, she recalled, he was “a master of keeping his distance.”44 One author alludes to “stories of his affairs with German women and his lavish dinner parties.”45 According to local lore — surely fanciful—“Mr. Henry” had a relationship with a Bensheim woman twenty years older than him, the daughter of a banker of Jewish origin, whose husband had perished in a concentration camp and whose son had been killed flying in the RAF.46 Even without a mistress, Kissinger certainly lived more comfortably than most of the inhabitants. He changed his residence several times, moving from a modest building (Gärtnerweg 20) to the more imposing Weiherstrasse 10, then to nearby Zwingenberg, to a villa belonging to the pharmaceutical manufacturer Arthur Sauer, and finally to another villa (Ernst-Ludwig-Promenade 24) at the foot of the Melibokus mountain. In the last of these residences, he enjoyed the services of a cook, chambermaid, cleaning lady, housekeeper, and guard, as well as guard dogs.47 “I live rather comfortably at present,” he told his parents. “Another comrade and myself & [illegible] live in a 6-room house. We also took over the butler so that now we get our shoes shined… clothes pressed, baths drawn & whatever else a butler does.”48 He played the part of “Mr. Henry” to the extent of giving instructions to the domestic staff in English and even attending an American-German service of reconciliation in the main Protestant church. How far he was identified as a German-born Jew is not clear.49 Nor is it clear how much we can rely on such local recollections. (To give just one example, the car Kissinger rented from a local man was in fact an Opel Kapitän, not the white Mercedes of folk memory.)50 Perhaps it was inevitable, given the investigative work he was doing, that Kissinger took a dislike to the Bensheimers: “a false, crawling, double-timing, gossiping people.”51

The situation in Bensheim in the immediate aftermath of World War II was chaotic to an extent that the present-day visitor to this picturesque place can scarcely imagine. The town had been bombed twice, in February and March 1945, leaving the town hall and the principal church in ruins. Around 140 families had lost their homes in the bombing, and another 135 now had to make way for the occupying Americans. There were around 2,000 displaced persons in makeshift camps. The shortage of housing was chronic and grew worse with the arrival of thousands of refugees from the Sudetenland, now reclaimed by Czechoslovakia. (Not surprisingly, when granted leave, Kissinger often spent it outside shattered Germany, in London,52 Salzburg,53 Copenhagen,54 and Paris.)55

For CIC agent Kissinger, the task of identifying malefactors was a daunting one. The headquarters of the regional Gestapo had been moved to Bensheim after bomb damage to the Hessian capital, Darmstadt. Its officers — under the leadership of SS Sturmbahnführer  Richard Fritz Girke and his deputy, Heinz Hellenbroich — had not been idle in the dying days of the war. On March 24, three days before the arrival of the U.S. Army, fourteen of the seventeen prisoners in the Gestapo’s cells had been marched to a field and shot by an eight-man Sonderkommando  acting on Girke’s instructions.56 That same night, at the orders of Hellenbroich, the Gestapo also murdered two American prisoners of war whose plane had been shot down nearby.57 Kissinger’s first task in Bensheim was to draw up a comprehensive list of all known Gestapo employees in the Bergstrasse region, including secretarial staff, and begin rounding them up. By the end of July, twelve men had been apprehended and a further nine of the secretarial staff placed under house arrest “pending further interrogation.”58 Girke, Hellenbroich, and two other Gestapo men were subsequently caught and put on trial before an American military court in March 1947. They were sentenced to death and hanged in October 1948.59

The scope of Kissinger’s work for the CIC sometimes extended beyond the Bergstrasse district. One wanted man — the former Darmstadt Gestapo officer Gerhard Benkwitz, who was suspected of organizing a “sabotage group”—had to be arrested in the British zone near Düsseldorf, where he was lying low.60 But the principal concern of the unit Kissinger headed — Counter Intelligence team 970/59—was “static intelligence in an area of 180,000 [people].” Determined though he was not to seek revenge, “Mr. Henry” was nevertheless exceptionally thorough in his approach to denazification. “It requires a lot of tact,” as he explained to his parents, “since many old C.I.C. agents are working under me. It also requires a feeling of responsibility, an understanding of psychology and a sense of proportion.”61 His team of sixteen men undertook a comprehensive survey “of every stratum of civilian life, such as industry, professions, trade and commerce and the civil service… [using] the information thus obtained… as a nucleus in determining de-nazification criteria.”62 When the commander of the Seventh Army issued the orders for Operation Lifebuoy — which aimed to purge the civil service of Nazis — Kissinger already “had the complete plans for a de-Nazification program in Kreis Bergstrasse in full swing.” Over and above the remit of Operation Lifebuoy, Kissinger also “conducted surveys to de-Nazi further all strata of German social groups, namely, industrialists, professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.), clergy, commerce and trade.” In the words of a superior officer,

He has made full use of the civilian police and the Landrat [senior German civil servant] in the accomplishment of this mission. He sees the police chief daily, the Landrat at least once a week, and he speaks to all of the burgermeisters at their monthly meetings. By doing this and making full use of his informatisystem [sic ] which covers all strat[a] of civilians he has maintained complete control of Kreis Bergstrasse.63

Even before the arrival in Bergstrasse of the refugees from the Sudetenland, Kissinger set up “concentration centers” for “preliminary screening” of the newcomers, designed to identify “politically tainted elements [that] might imperil the state of order existing in the area.”64

In effect, this was police work, involving a mixture of detection, interrogation, and detention. It was work Kissinger excelled at. In recommending him for promotion to the rank of staff sergeant in August 1945, his commanding officer described him as “the most valuable man in the Bensheim office,” adding, “This young man… commands the respect of the other men to the extent that they enjoy working under his guidance.”65 That same month, he was commended by General Bolling “for work done in Denazification of Kreis Bergstrasse,” and by Colonel Charles Sixel, deputy chief of staff, Seventh Army, who also commented upon his “outstanding performance of duties,” as well as the exceptional thoroughness of his work in screening the Bergstrasse population for evidence of participation in the Nazi regime.”66 Two months later he was placed in charge of the entire Bergstrasse Subsection of Region No. 2 (a substantial part of the total area occupied by the Seventh Army).67 In April 1946 he was nominated by the regional chief of Region No. 2 of the U.S. zone for the position of “chief investigator for the CIC in the European Theatre”—a remarkable accolade.68 Even when his responsibilities were extended to include administration and the handling of supplies, Kissinger “continued to turn in superior caliber work.” In the words of one enthusiastic superior officer, he had, despite his relative youth, “a knack of keeping one eye on the present and the other on plans for future operations.”69 This positive verdict was later echoed by Fritz Kraemer, who praised “not only… his impartiality, understanding of intangibles, self-discipline and idealism, but also… his methods of work and… the practical results he obtained.”70

Yet such zeal was quickly out of fashion. Virtually all the senior administrative personnel of the previous regime had been Nazis in one way or another. To purge them all was a recipe for chaos. As early as the winter of 1945–46, the disruption caused by the removal of so many officials convinced Clay of the need to change tack. As he put it in March 1946, “With 10,000 people I couldn’t do the job of de-Nazification. It’s got to be done by the Germans.”71 What this meant was an inundation of questionnaires, designed to get the Germans to rank themselves on a precisely calibrated scale of malfeasance: major offenders, offenders, lesser offenders, followers, fellow travelers, and (as the Germans joked) the “Persil white.” Predictably, not everyone gave a completely truthful answer to the question “Have you ever been a member of the NSDAP?”—one of 131 posed on the standard form. By mid-1946 it had become apparent to Clay and his colleagues that the kind of denazification attempted in Operation Lifebuoy — which had led to the dismissal of a third of all the officials in the American zone72—was simply incompatible with a smooth transition to German self-government. Clay later called denazification his “biggest mistake,” a “hopelessly ambiguous procedure” that had created a “pathetic ‘community of fate’ between small and big Nazis.”73

It was time to rein in the G-men. In May 1946 Kissinger recommended that Joachim George Boeckh — a specialist in Baroque-era German literature — be dismissed from the faculty of Heidelberg University because of his strongly pro-Nazi conduct in the 1930s and 1940s. His recommendation was not heeded; Boeckh remained at Heidelberg until 1949, when he moved to the Soviet zone, spending the remainder of his career in East Berlin.74 He was one of many thousands of committed Nazis who went unpunished as the initial drive for denazification gave way to a more pragmatic policy.


Denazification began as righteous retribution; it ended in murky local politics. In November 1945 allegations surfaced in the London Daily Mail  that Nazi Party meetings were continuing to be held in Bensheim. A U.S. Army private even claimed — on the basis of testimony from the Bürgermeister  and Landrat  of nearby Birkenau — that elements of the Military Government were subverting the CIC’s efforts because of “an affair between… one of the members of the Military Government Detachment in Bensheim” and “the interpreter chosen… as intermediary between the Detachment and the German people,” who was “none other than the Ringfuehrerin of the B.D.M. (Female Hitler Youth), a Fraeulein Wilms… an exceptionally personable blonde, very attractive.”75 Kissinger duly investigated these allegations but concluded that it was a “grudge case” linked to the dismissal of the Landrat  for foot-dragging over denazification. The woman in question had indeed been employed as an interpreter but had been dismissed after her Nazi past was exposed by the CIC. As for the alleged affair, there was no evidence of any social contacts whatever between her and U.S. personnel.76

As we have seen, the occupying Americans had anticipated organized Nazi resistance to their presence, if not an outright insurgency. Any signs of nostalgia for the Hitler regime were therefore of the utmost interest to the CIC. The case against Fräulein Wilms had not stood up, but that was no reason to drop one’s guard. In September 1945 Kissinger had demanded that the newly installed mayor of Bensheim provide him with a comprehensive report on local popular sentiment, including attitudes toward the Nazis, the Military Government, the Allies, Allied propaganda, the former Wehrmacht, the restoration of political parties, separatist tendencies, and the future of Germany in general.77 The resulting report was highly negative, warning about increasing hostility toward the occupying forces, especially among “disgruntled” young men, and led to ten arrests.78 Subsequent CIC reports on public opinion, such as this one from October 1945, provide vivid insights into the fraught postwar months.

New disturbances occurred with the Hitler-Youth in Viernheim. Tactical troops complained of groups of young men on street corners displaying an arrogant and provocative attitude. A swastika was painted on an American vehicle. One young man was overhead bragging about his knowledge of hidden weapons. Agents from this office arrested 15 former Hitler-Youth leaders in Viernheim. They will be detained pending detailed interrogation.79

As time passed, however, evidence of residual Hitlerism petered out, to be replaced by reports of public “jumpiness” about the denazification policy itself.80 One consequence of Operation Lifebuoy was to sow discord among authentic anti-Nazi elements, to whom the Americans had turned for reliable local leadership, fellow travelers, ardent Nazis, and — in some ways the most problematic group — former Nazis who now sought to ingratiate themselves with the Americans by denouncing their former Volksgenossen  (literally “folk comrades”). Some Germans (including a number of priests) condemned denunciations as “un-Christian.” Others complained about “the arbitrary dividing line separating mandatory from discretionary removals and the inelasticity inherent in such measures.”81 The CIC aim “to make de-Nazification not only an American-directed policy, but [to] reduce much of it to the level of an internal German problem” was only partly achieved.82 When the Americans adopted more lax criteria, there were fresh complaints.83

With the approach of winter, the public mood darkened. “The population is becoming ever more pessimistic regarding Germany’s future,” reported Kissinger’s CIC team. “The approach of a coalless winter, the realization of Germany’s complete isolation, the absence of any prospects for relief have created an atmosphere of rampant pessimism.”84 There would be no warm welcome for the refugees from the East, since they would only worsen the food, fuel, and housing shortages. As for the efforts of the occupying forces to “Americanize” the Germans with jazz and movies, these, too, seemed to backfire.

Many well-meaning Germans question the wisdom of stressing American music for German listeners. Without any explanation of its background, the music frequently sounds degenerate and unmelodious to German ears and is allegedly hardly a good representative of American culture…. American films are not too well received. Since the majority of the pictures shown so far have been typical entertainment pictures, picturing a life of glitter, opulence, sweetness and light, they are not very well received by a threadbare, cold and hungry population.85

But the most bitter — and wounding — complaint was that the CIC was simply the “Gestapo of the Americans.” To a population all too familiar with the pattern of denunciation, interrogation, and conviction, the idea that the U.S. forces were attempting some kind of benign “reeducation” was almost entirely foreign. “We Americans have come here to make a decent man out of you,” Kissinger told a former leader of the Hitler Youth. When the German answered that his parents had already taken care of that, Kissinger replied stonily, “OK — you may leave.”86

In one respect, CIC was indeed the successor to the Gestapo: in its reliance on informers. This proved to be the Achilles’ heel of denazification. On his arrival in Bensheim, Kissinger had lost little time in recruiting several of these, among them Erwin Kiesewetter, a forty-nine-year-old former police instructor, who claimed to have been dismissed from his post in 1944 for being a Social Democrat. On July 10, apparently as a result of CIC pressure, Kiesewetter was appointed director of police for Bensheim, replacing a former Wehrmacht NCO named Richard Graf. The man who at least nominally appointed Kiesewetter to this post was Willy Klapproth, whom the Americans had installed as mayor after their first nominee, a Social Democrat named Gottfried Kräge, had stepped down for health reasons. Klapproth was also a Social Democrat; like Kiesewetter, he had been a police officer in the Weimar years. The two men soon clashed, however. In early August, Kiesewetter sought to use his power as police chief to intervene in one of the many disputes about housing that were raging in Bensheim.87 Three weeks later Klapproth sought to impose his authority on Kiesewetter, requesting twice-weekly briefings on all arrests,88 then abruptly imposing a salary reduction on him.89 After a heated telephone conversation on September 1, Kiesewetter resigned.90

This was distinctly unwelcome news for CIC agent “Mr. Henry,” who prized Kiesewetter for his “record of anti-Nazi activity” and “value as an informant.”91 The result was a bitter bureaucratic battle, the details of which Klapproth was careful to record with Germanic precision, though not necessarily truthfulness. On the night of Kiesewetter’s resignation, at eleven-thirty p.m., Kissinger summoned a local councilor named Muschard to his office, defended Kiesewetter, and threatened to break off relations with the Bensheim local government, saying, “If we did not stop the business with Kiesewetter, we would find out just how strong CIC could be.” Two days later Kissinger went to Klapproth’s office and, without coming through the door, shouted in “a more than harsh tone” that he should come to the CIC office the next morning at eleven. When Klapproth presented himself, Kissinger brusquely told him that he would no longer deal directly with either him or Muschard; that they should name new representatives to deal with him; that he required a desk from them; and that the son of a former Nazi official named Nolde could no longer serve as an auxiliary policeman. As requested, Klapproth sent another councilor, the Communist Hans Lehmann-Lauprecht, to see Kissinger. This time Kissinger was ready with no fewer than seven demands, among them:

a) that Lehmann-Lauprecht must appear at the CIC every Tuesday and Friday at eleven a.m.;

b) that he must understand that the CIC and the Military Government were “two quite distinct institutions, which were wholly independent of one another”;

c) that Klapproth should come up with suggestions for propaganda leaflets regarding the forced labor being imposed on over a hundred convicted Nazis (Nazi-Arbeitseinsatz ) to ensure that the names of those concerned be published;

d) that the “political shenanigans” should cease; and

e) that Nazi posters with the slogans “This We Owe to the Führer” and “Give Me Ten Years’ Time and You Will No Longer Recognize Germany” should be prominently displayed in Bensheim.

Nor was “Mr. Henry” finished. That same day Klapproth was summoned to Kissinger’s office and told in no uncertain terms not “to play the military government and the CIC off against one another” because “viewed in the long run the CIC was stronger than the military government.”

Even allowing for the fact that this was Klapproth’s version of events, Kissinger’s conduct was strikingly confrontational. Even if he was merely being thorough rather than vengeful, “Mr. Henry” was clearly not yet as ready as his superiors to hand local power back to the likes of Klapproth. But the younger man was underestimating his opponent (a man who went on to be Frankfurt’s chief of police, until his career was cut short when he perjured himself in a corruption case). With the advantage of thirty years’ more pen-pushing experience, Klapproth the German bureaucrat got the better of Kissinger the would-be G-man. Writing indignantly to the head of the Military Government in Bergstrasse,92 he begged him to intercede with “Herr Henry” so that relations between the mayor and the CIC could be more “harmonious,” pointedly emphasizing his own democratic credentials (“You know that I have waited 12 years for the Americans and for liberation”).93 Kiesewetter was not reinstated; instead, he took a job in the private sector, while continuing to work as a CIC informant.94 When Kissinger requested that Kiesewetter be allowed to retain a room in the police station, Klapproth flatly refused.95 The mayor was duly vindicated when he found witnesses willing to swear that Kiesewetter had in fact been an early Nazi (an alter Kämpfer,  literally “old fighter”).96 It emerged that he had been a member of the SA, as well as a notorious fraudster.97 On January 16, 1946, Kissinger’s man was arrested. The following month he was sentenced to six months in prison and a fine of 10,000 Reichsmarks for “theft of patents and giving false information to the American authorities.”98

The Kiesewetter case illustrates the extreme difficulty of CIC’s task in postwar Germany. The Americans were heavily reliant on Germans for intelligence, but which Germans could they trust? Often, like Kiesewetter, those most eager to collaborate with the occupiers were precisely the people who had something to hide. On the other hand, a reliable source of intelligence about the Nazi past might well be the target of a false denunciation by those fearful of being incriminated. Another doubtful informant employed by Kissinger during his time in Bensheim was Alfred Lungspeer. Born in New York, Lungspeer had moved to Germany after his parents died. During the Third Reich he had established a reputation for himself as a graphologist — publishing several books on handwriting analysis under the name “Noeck Sylvus”—and worked for a number of industrial concerns in that capacity. Lungspeer was not a Nazi Party member; he was, however, a self-seeking opportunist, who lost no time in offering his services as a handwriting analyst and an agent for undercover missions.99 It is in itself intriguing that Kissinger at this time regarded graphology as a legitimate science, though in this he was far from unusual in his generation.100 There is also, however, clear evidence that Lungspeer sought to exploit his position as a CIC informant to intimidate former Nazi Party members in yet another housing dispute.101 Once again Klapproth was able to bemoan the unreliability of “Mr. Henry”’s protégés.102 In the first bureaucratic battle of his career, Henry Kissinger was roundly defeated.

Klapproth’s days as Bürgermeister  were numbered, however, for democracy was returning to Germany, even if denazification was being quietly dropped. As early as October 1945, the U.S. Military Government had created a Council of Minister Presidents (the Länderrat ) in Stuttgart, to which Clay delegated an increasing number of administrative responsibilities. By the end of 1945, all the new or reconstituted states (Länder ) throughout the U.S. zone had German governments and “pre-parliaments.” And in the first half of the following year, local governments were formed and elections held. In Bensheim, as in much of southwestern Germany, victory went to the new Christian Democratic Union (CDU), an indirect descendant of the old Catholic Center Party. Joseph Treffert succeeded Klapproth on April 1, 1946.103 It was not long, however, before the new mayor was complaining about the “persistent tension between the Military Government and the CIC” and the tendency for “the one authority to order what the other has forbidden.”104

Perhaps because he was weary of such friction, perhaps simply because he was now eligible for his discharge from the army, as early as November 1945 Kissinger applied for a civilian job, seeking employment in “political research, survey type of investigation, [or] civil administration.”105 He made a point of emphasizing the range of his educational achievements: “I can speak, read, and write German as well as French fluently. My education consists of two years at the College of the City of New York where I specialized in Business Administration. I also studied [in] the Army Foreign Area and Language program, specializing in European History, sociology, and economics.”106

Interestingly, among the first jobs he was offered was to become one of the “investigators and interrogators in connection with War Crimes activities for the European and Mediterranean theaters of operation.” Kissinger was certainly interested in the Nuremberg trials; at some point in 1946 he attended the cross-examination of Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Reich Main Security Office and the highest-ranking SS officer to stand trial. Another option was a job as a “political Intelligence and News Control Officer” with the Military Government.107 But either of these positions would have meant remaining in the army, albeit with the rank of second lieutenant.108 Kissinger had clearly had enough of bo

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th interrogations and uniforms, not to mention the “moribund & bureaucratic” aspects of military life. Instead, he accepted his first-ever teaching post, as instructor in the Occupational Orientation Department of the U.S. Forces European Theater Intelligence School in Oberammergau, Bavaria.109

The tensions Kissinger left behind him in Bensheim were inherent in the dual American objectives of denazification and democratization. His successor, a CIC agent named Samuels, lost no time in impressing on Bürgermeister  Treffert that he was “not weaker than [Mr.] Henry.” The mayor should not make the mistake of thinking that “another policy would be pursued because Mr. Henry was no longer in charge.” Like Kissinger, Samuels — whose name suggests that he, too, was Jewish — was more interested in rooting out Nazism than in returning Germany to democracy. Both men evidently suspected that the CDU included more than a few unreconstructed elements from the previous regime. As Samuels put it, the initials CDU  seemed to many Americans to stand for “Centrale Deutsche Untergrundbewegung”—an allusion to the Nazi underground that the CIC had expected to encounter in Germany.110 Such suspicions — which were, in any case, far from groundless — persisted long after the handover of power to German politicians. For most of his career, despite repeated protestations of admiration for the Federal Republic that emerged from the ruins of the Reich, Kissinger harbored doubts about the strength of the Germans’ new commitment to democracy.

Yet the fact remains that Kissinger chose to stay in Germany when he could just as easily have sought employment in the United States, and when his family were pressing him to come home. Why did he stay? Kissinger’s answer was passionate.

You’ll never understand it & I would never explain it except in blood & misery & hope. Sometimes when I look down our table and see the empty spaces of our good and capable men, the men that should be here to nail down what we fought for, I think of Osterberg [?] & the night Hitler’s death was announced. That night Bob Taylor & I agreed that no matter what happened, no matter who weakened, we would stay to do in our little way what we could to make all previous sacrifices meaningful. We would stay just long enough to do that.

And so Taylor is to-day in [illegible] although he could have gone last October & I am here. And so, I’ll stay a little while longer. I won’t stay a year, I’ll come home in 1946, but I want to do a few things first.

In short, Kissinger had sworn to play his part in the political reeducation of Germany. His only hesitation in accepting the Oberammergau post was “because actually I want to do  something directly not teach.”111


By early 1946, however, a new enemy was looming larger in American minds than crypto-Nazis, an enemy that encouraged the transition from a policy of aggressive denazification to one of forgetfulness, if not forgiveness, of past sins. Few among the leaders of the Western Allies had been as swift as Alan Brooke to foresee that no sooner had Germany been defeated than the Soviet Union would be transformed from friend into foe. Roosevelt and a number of his advisers — not least Harry Dexter White, the coauthor of the Bretton Woods financial system and, it later emerged, a reliable source of intelligence to the Soviet Union — wholly failed to anticipate how ruthlessly Stalin would adopt attack, in the form of the political subversion of European democracy, as the best form of defense.

The most celebrated call for a more realistic policy was, of course, the career diplomat George F. Kennan’s top secret five-thousand-word Long Telegram — cable number 511—sent to Washington from Moscow on February 22, 1946. Kennan’s telegram was strong meat; at one point he likened international Communism to a “malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue.”112 Yet this was only one of a number of striking metaphors of the time. Just two weeks later, speaking at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill famously warned that an “iron curtain” had descended on the European continent. Behind that curtain was a “Soviet sphere,” encompassing Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Sofia. On March 10, five days after Churchill’s lecture, George Orwell wrote in the Observer  that “[a]fter the Moscow conference last December, Russia began to make a ‘cold war’ on Britain and the British Empire.”

It had been the last vain hope of the Nazis that the Western Allies would recognize the Soviet threat in time to make common cause with them against Stalin. The ground having been prepared by Goebbels’s propaganda, ordinary Germans were therefore even quicker to anticipate such a conflict. As early as Christmas 1945, rumors in Bergstrasse included “the alleged arming of German soldiers for a war against Russia” and “a war this winter between Russia and the Western Powers.”113 But the Cold War was to take very different forms from World War II. As we have seen, the Americans had not scrupled to appoint members of the German Communist Party (KPD) to positions of responsibility in their zone of occupation. Any “anti-Nazi” was considered eligible. Only slowly did it become clear that the KPD might be acting as a Soviet fifth column. “The best organized party in Kreis Bergstrasse are [the] Communists,” according to a CIC report of October 1945, which added darkly, “Their organization is closely modeled on that of the Nazis.”114 The Communists themselves changed their tactics in early 1946—not least because of their failure to win local elections — thereafter adopting a policy of extraparliamentary opposition.115 As Kissinger later recalled, “From December 1945 to June 1946 our mission [in Bergstrasse] gradually changed, concentrating… on foreign penetration efforts.”116 Even before then, the CIC was trying (vainly) to block the appointment of the Communist Wilhelm Hammann as Landrat  for the district of Gross-Gerau, on the ground that “Subject misused his office to further one political party.”117 This was the beginning of a sustained American campaign against Hammann that culminated in his arrest. (Despite the evidence that Hammann had saved the lives of more than a hundred Jewish children while a prisoner in Buchenwald, he was accused by the U.S. authorities of crimes against humanity. After an international outcry, the charges were dropped.)

At first sight, Oberammergau seemed a highly unlikely Cold War battleground. Nestling on the banks of the River Ammer, in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, the little town was (and remains) best known for its Passion Play, a homespun dramatization of the New Testament story. Every ten years since 1634 the villagers of Oberammergau had staged the play, having pledged to do so in a bid to secure divine protection from an outbreak of plague.118 But by the Victorian era, it had become a tourist attraction. The 1860 revision by the priest Joseph Alois Daisenberger had purged the text of medieval vulgarities and baroque mannerisms, ensuring that it could be enjoyed by prudish Protestants.119 Visitors were delighted in equal measure by the quaintly rustic ensemble and the pleasing Alpine backdrop of the Kofel, the bare-topped mountain that towers above the town. Above all, they admired the literal quality of the production.120 Along with the Ettal monastery up the Kienberg Hill, which had revived as a Lourdes-style shrine following its dissolution in 1900, and the ancient Wieskirche, the Oberammergau Passion Play offered travelers both literal and metaphorical uplift.121 By the 1920s, it was one of Thomas Cook’s top European destinations, attracting tens of thousands of British and American tourists.

But inextricably linked to the Passion Play was anti-Semitism. Traditionally, such plays were associated with violence against Jews, which was one reason the Bavarian authorities had banned them in 1770, a ban from which Oberammergau obtained an exemption only with difficulty.122 In Daisenberger’s revised text, however, the Jews had become the play’s main villains.123 Toward the end, they proclaimed their collective guilt for Christ’s death, crying, “His blood upon us and upon our children!”124

Seventy years later, after seeing the 1930 production, an American rabbi named Philip Bernstein wondered about “its probable effects on the attitude” of Christians toward Jews, who were represented as “completely responsible” for the death of Jesus.125 Staged in 1934, on its three hundredth anniversary, the play was endorsed with a visit from Hitler, which was enthusiastically, not to say “hysterically,” celebrated by the villagers.126 Of the 714 members of the cast in the 1934 production, 152 had joined the Nazi Party before May 1937 (the date used by the Allies to define “pure Nazis”), including Alois Lang, who played Jesus, Anni Rutz, the Virgin Mary, and eight of the twelve apostles.127

True, important elements of the Oberammergau population remained loyal to the Catholic Bavarian People’s Party and to the Roman Catholic Church.128 The local clergy strove to warn their flock against “false prophets” and successfully resisted any overt nazification of the Passion Play text.129 Compared with some, the people of Oberammergau were protective of Jews and “half-Jews” in their midst, and produced at least one anti-Nazi resistance group.130 In the end, however, Mayor Raimund Lang embraced the Nazis’ anti-Semitism with few qualms, proudly describing the Passion Play as “the most anti-Semitic play that we have.”131 Anton Preisinger, the man who would go on to play Christ in the 1950 and 1960 productions, took part in a Kristallnacht  attack on Max Peter Meyer, a Jewish-born composer who had converted to Christianity and moved to Oberammergau in the hope of avoiding persecution.132

Oberammergau was doubly complicit in the Third Reich’s crimes. For it was here, in a complex partly built into the nearby mountains, that the Augsburg-based Messerschmitt moved its design branch (“Upper Bavarian Research Institute”) responsible for the new jet-propelled planes, the Me-262 and P1101-VI, as well as the Ezian rocket.133 The Prussian physicist Wernher von Braun — the designer of the V-2 rocket and the prototype “American” intercontinental missile — was relocated to Oberammergau in early April 1945, along with four hundred other scientists. Braun and his colleagues had their own reasons for wanting to distance themselves from the Dora concentration camp that had supplied the slave labor for their rocket production line at Mittelwerk. As Luftwaffe personnel, however, they found themselves under orders from SS Obergruppenführer  Hans Kammler, the engineer who had built the death camp at Auschwitz, to take the “Vengeance Express” train four hundred miles south to Oberammergau. This may have been part of the semiserious scheme for the Nazi leadership to retreat into an “Alpine redoubt”; or perhaps Kammler hoped that the rocket scientists could be a bargaining chip in negotiations with the victorious Allies. In any case, Kammler simply disappeared, while Braun persuaded the SS to spread the rocket scientists out (ostensibly to reduce the risk of their being hit by the U.S. P-47 Thunderbolts that regularly strafed the area, but more likely to reduce the risk that the SS would kill them all rather than let them fall into Allied hands). In the confusion of the German collapse, many were able to escape to Tyrol.134

Units of the American Seventh Army reached Oberammergau on April 29, 1945. Von Braun, his brother Magnus, and a few key collaborators, notably Walter Dornberger, who had been the military commander of the rocket program, lost no time in handing themselves over.135 They and their colleagues were duly interrogated, and 118 of the most technically skilled were then absorbed by the U.S. military as part of Operation Overcast (renamed Paperclip in 1946), along with V-2 components and the cache of documents that had been buried in a mine in the Harz Mountains. Though von Braun’s past membership in both the Nazi Party and the SS quickly became public knowledge, it did not prevent his becoming the key figure in the subsequent development of U.S. intermediate-range nuclear missiles and, later, the NASA space program.136

As in Bensheim, so in Oberammergau: the immediate postwar period was marked by a chaos that denazification tended to exacerbate. The Americans arrested the town’s leading Nazis, beginning with Mayor Lang and Georg Lang, the director of the 1930 and 1934 plays.137 When Rabbi Philip Bernstein returned to Bavaria after the war as an adviser to the Military Government, he told a UN commission, “If the United States Army were to withdraw tomorrow, there would be pogroms the following day.” A 1946 survey showed that 59 percent of Bavarians fell into the categories of “racist,” “anti-Semite,” or “intense anti-Semite.”138 As elsewhere, however, deteriorating economic and social conditions militated against a comprehensive purge of local elites. Oberammergau saw a wave of rapes and crimes against property, unruly behavior by DPs and near-feral children, and chronic food shortages, malnutrition, and disease. The Americans were somewhat scandalized to find that the supposedly pious Oberammergauers were energetic black marketeers, readily exchanging their famous wooden carvings for gin and cigarettes.139 Denazification ended with the imposition of fines in near-worthless Reichsmarks and the swift rehabilitation of the Langs and others.140 Whereas an attempted revival of the Passion Play in 1946 had been abandoned because key cast members were still in captivity,141 by 1947 American officials were giving the village a $350,000 grant to support a new production.142 The following year Raimund Lang was elected mayor with the strong support of ex-Nazis and expelled Sudeten Germans. By 1949 it was business as usual, with Georg Lang declaring, “We have a clear conscience.” When the Passion Committee’s cast list was released, somebody was heard to ask, “Have the Nazis won?”143 Although the revived play was strongly supported by the Western powers, with more than thirty thousand seats reserved for GIs and the opening performance attended by both the U.S. and U.K. high commissioners, old attitudes were soon on display.144 It was said that Anni Rutz was demoted from the Virgin Mary to Mary Magdalene after she was spotted dancing with an American soldier.145

The idea of establishing a military academy in this somewhat surreal setting was none other than Fritz Kraemer’s. The European Theater Intelligence School (ETIS 7707), later the European Command Intelligence School, was intended “to give training to intelligence personnel who had not been adequately trained to meet the problems of occupation.”146 That meant, in the first instance, teaching them the German language, German history, and German culture. It was no easy task. It was hard to impose classroom discipline on men who had so recently been waging total war. Soldiers smoked and put their feet on the desks; their enthusiastic fraternization with the locals led to an epidemic of venereal disease. Kraemer turned to the renowned German feminist and politician Marie-Elisabeth Lüders — the first German woman to receive a doctorate — to introduce some Prussian discipline to the school.147 She also helped to train Kraemer’s inexperienced team of instructors. This now included Kraemer’s favorite, Henry Kissinger.

From Kissinger’s point of view, the job was highly attractive. The salary of $3,640 a year (plus a 25 percent “overseas differential” of $910 and earned overtime above forty hours per week) was more than double the median U.S. income, which was just $1,811 in 1945.148 He was required to teach two courses: “German History & Mental[ity]” and “Intelligence Investigation.” The latter was mainly based on his experiences as a CIC agent in Bergstrasse, though with emphasis on (in Kraemer’s words) “the often neglected psychological aspects of Intelligence work.”149 The former, as is clear from the surviving, detailed notes for a lecture on “The German Mentality,” was altogether more ambitious. The talk began with “Importance of realization of psychological difference between Germans and Americans” and proceeded through four German characteristics (“Selfishness,” “Lack of inner assurance,” “Submissiveness,” and “Lack of sense of proportions”). It then covered “Prussianism (10 minutes),” “Nationalism (10 minutes),” and “Militarism (8 minutes),” concluding with two recommendations: “Re-education by [the] creation of free institutions” and “Reform of [the] school system.” Especially striking is the young lecturer’s treatment of the Prussian state’s “ascendancy… over the individual,” its “Philosophical foundations (Luther, Kant, Fichte, Hegel),” and — here the debt to Kraemer is clear — its self-appraisal “in terms of external success rather than of internal merits.”150 There was little here to which a more experienced historian of the period would have objected; indeed, there may even have been a debt to A.J.P. Taylor’s popular Course of German History . So successful was Kissinger as an instructor that he was soon asked to add a course on “Eastern Europe… presenting background and current developments of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey.”151

This last topic was a revealing choice. According to Jane Brister, an adjutant at the school, it reflected a top-level decision taken “to drop [denazification] and go into anti-Sovietization.” Kissinger’s role was therefore twofold: “training both counter-intelligence and intelligence officers in denazification procedures and starting to get them indoctrinated on what the Soviet threat was.”152 This new responsibility appears to have been one that Kissinger relished. While others may have questioned the Kennan-Churchill-Orwell view that a Cold War was under way with the Soviets, he most certainly did not. In a remarkable report for the school’s commanding officer, Kissinger strongly criticized internal security at Oberammergau. “Very little respect is shown to U.S. principles or directives,” he warned.

This is expressed in a series of snide remarks or anti-occupation statements [by German employees]… [which] are indicative of an attitude that makes more difficult the enforcement of orders or the control of the civilian personnel…. The only manner by which long-range penetration can be avoided is to continually watch key employees…. Surveillance further includes knowing as much as possible about the towns in the vicinity, specifically Oberammergau. It will be of prime importance, for example, to know who the Communists are, and which of them are particularly friendly with or maybe even related to any employees on this post…. [E]ven personnel [who are] basically indifferent may occasionally give information to outside powers.153

Kissinger’s recommendations to combat Communist subversion were draconian. There should be “continuous… surveillance of civilian personnel,” including the use of “informants” and the “checking” of the mail and telephone conversations. “Transient personnel” in the area should also “continuously be watched,” especially “members of the Communist party.” “As a general rule,” he wrote, “Communists should not be employed on this post and persons known to be friendly to Communists should be closely observed.” The aim should be to “intimidat[e] the weaklings, the cowards and the indifferent” and thereby to “restrict security leakage to a small group of fanatics that is more easily watched.”154

As at Bensheim, Kissinger was not chained to his desk in Oberammergau. He was sent to lecture in Berlin, Bad Nauheim, and Baden-Baden (in the French zone),155 as well as in Wiesbaden. These trips allowed him and his fellow instructors to “acquaint themselves with problems faced by CIC offices in the field.” On their way back from Baden-Baden, they found evidence of “a major Communist attack on American authority,” including a Communist “mass meeting” in Bensheim, at which members of the Military Government were “labeled as idiots” and various CIC informants were “named and their non-Communistic party affiliations stressed.”156 Likewise, on his way back from Wiesbaden in October 1946, Kissinger stopped off in Darmstadt to find out more about “current Russian penetration methods and American attempts to counteract these tendencies.” His report makes it clear why denazification so quickly gave way to the search for “Reds under the bed.”

While up to June 1946 the principal objective of CIC was the security control of civilian population, the most latent danger at present seems [to be] the attempt by Russian dominated groups, particularly the Communists, to negate our policies, as well as outright espionage. Two principal methods are used. An attempt is made to gain control of key positions and administer them in such a fashion as to discredit U.S. policies and to enforce laws in such a manner as to show the lack of ability of U.S. policy makers. A case in point is the use made of… the tribunals for liberation from Nazism. In most areas visited, the Communists, through a variety of reasons, have gained control of these tribunals…. Other methods consist of infiltrating Communists in key positions particularly the German police to serve as cover for espionage activities. In Reg[ion] III an espionage ring was discovered, which, utilizing German police channels, supplied information to the Russians.157

As Kissinger noted, the problems of the CIC had changed “from technical problems capable of being carried out by a forceful personality, where raids, arrests and physical interrogation of suspects were the main weapons, to the more subtle objective of observing subversive groups, of analyzing their modes of operation, of understanding how certain seemingly meaningless acts take on meaning if projected against the requirements of a foreign power.” The school at Oberammergau needed to devote more attention to “forces shaping politics of foreign powers in Germany,” to “trends in their intelligence activities,” and to “the background, history and objectives of subversive groups.”158


Oberammergau introduced Kissinger to more than just the specter of Communist subversion. It was also his introduction to the kind of academic milieu where he would spend so much of the next twenty years of his life. Kraemer had an eye for talent, and the faculty of ETIS included three other brilliant young men who would become Kissinger’s lifelong friends and colleagues: Helmut “Hal” Sonnenfeldt, another German-Jewish refugee, later one of the State Department’s leading experts on the Soviet Union; George Springer, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia and a gifted mathematician; and Henry Rosovsky, born in Danzig to Russian-Jewish parents, who would later specialize in the Japanese economy.159 Despite the challenges of their early years, each would go on to distinguished careers in academic and public life.

In 1946, however, they were still young men, only recently released from the constraints of military life. Social life in Oberammergau revolved around the Pension “Friedenshöhe” in the König-Ludwig-Strasse, which had been a popular haunt of Thomas Mann’s family in the 1920s and was still run by the Schmid family after the war. Kraemer lived there with his wife and son, while Kissinger rented a room in the Schmid family home in Passionswiese 1. That he and his friends knew how to enjoy themselves is confirmed by an incident in October 1946 when Kissinger, along with George Springer; his wife, Marjorie; and a German civilian instructor named Leonie Harbert, were arrested and charged with speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol. Two things about their altercation with the military police are noteworthy. First, Kissinger reacted intemperately to the behavior of the police. “Please cease using such tactics,” he told the man who had arrested them, “they can get you into more trouble than you realize.” The desk sergeant interpreted this as a threat and took the opportunity to lock Kissinger up in a tiny basement cell for an hour,160 though the charge of drunk driving was subsequently dropped.161 Second, one of those arrested along with Kissinger — Leonie Harbert — was in fact Kissinger’s girlfriend. That same October, on a trip to Paris, Kissinger bought a pet dog, a two-month-old yellow and white cocker spaniel.162 When he returned to the United States, it was Harbert who arranged for the dog to be shipped there by air.163 Claims have previously been made that Kissinger had a German girlfriend during his time at Oberammergau — even that he got in a fistfight over her.164 The fistfight is fiction; the relationship was real.165

Clearly Kissinger’s relationship with Leonie Harbert was not all that serious. J. D. Salinger, by contrast, married his German sweetheart and brought her back home, with unhappy results. But Kissinger remained in touch with Harbert for many years after his return to the United States — indeed, for the rest of her life. And it was also serious in the sense that a romance with a German gentile was hardly likely to be welcomed by Kissinger’s parents, who hoped to see their son marry a Jewish girl, preferably from their own Orthodox community. Kissinger tenaciously resisted. “I don’t know how I’ll feel when I return,” he told them in February 1947. “I certainly am not in a marrying or engaging mood. Anything but.”166 When his mother warned him against making a “hasty decision,” he grew impatient: “There is absolutely no danger of that. Don’t forget I am not 19 anymore…. Whatever my decisions might be they won’t be hasty. There is no chance of my committing myself for quite some time.”167

The marriage issue, which is crucial to any family committed to Orthodox Judaism, revealed an important change that military service had brought about. Kissinger had lost his religious faith. “In the army,” as he later recalled, “there was not much opportunity to practice any particular orthodox view…. [Y]ou cannot be part of a society that has suffered what the Jewish people have suffered for millennia without a strong sense of identification with it and sense of obligation to it [the Jewish faith]. But that doesn’t include necessarily the practice of any particular aspect of it.”168 When his parents later learned of this, they were evidently unhappy enough to prompt Kissinger to write a startlingly frank letter in his own defense.

To me there is not only right or wrong but many shades in between…. The real tragedies in life are not in choices between right and wrong. Only the most callous of persons choose what they know  to be wrong. Real tragedy comes [illegible] in a dilemma of evaluating what is right…. Real dilemmas are difficulties of the soul, provoking agonies, which you in your world of black and white can’t even begin to comprehend.

Nor did Kissinger stop there. “I am not like other children,” he told his parents, “but this is neither my fault nor yours. It is the fault of the world I was born in.” It was parental disapproval of his conduct over a prolonged period that had “forced me into the attitude I have today, of aloofness, of slight irony, an attitude designed to prevent rejection before it occurs.”169

This extraordinary apologia pro vita sua  tells us much about how the experiences of emigration and army life had changed Kissinger. Like so many of the millions of young men who fought in World War II, he would return home to find the United States little altered. But he knew that he himself was quite different. “Very soon now 3 years of hope & work will lie behind me,” he wrote in early April 1947. “Very soon I shall return to a future that may be uncertain but which I face with supreme confidence…. Now I know exactly what I want & I shall go after it.” His plan was to go to college “because whatever I shall do I will need a college degree for.” But which one?

I would prefer not to study in N.Y., since I hate N.Y. but I want to be close enough to come home on week-ends. I have sent several letters to leading Eastern universities including Columbia & shall make my decision after I hear from them.

Another thing. One thing the past 12 years should have taught us is that one can’t plan the future with minutest details. One must to a great extent live in the present. I have no master-plan for my future nor am I ever likely to have one. I shall finish college, I shall write, I may lecture later on… I have extreme confidence….

Also, don’t worry so much about re-adjustment. After all, not everybody came out of this war a psycho-neurotic.170

By now, Kissinger knew very well that every letter he sent from Germany was disquieting his parent

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s further. It was all so unnerving, from the regular requests for “CIGARETTES,” to the vagueness about the timing of his return, to the revelation that he was planning to use up his leave allowance with a two-week trip to Paris, London, Nice, Rome, Florence, Venice, and Trieste — in the company of a friend’s wife. (“Don’t be shocked it is with her husband’s knowledge & purely platonic.”)171 He had no interest in his old friends. (“I was not aware of any difference on any plane, ideological or otherwise, with John Sachs…. I don’t believe that any of these so-called friends will still appeal to me when I return.”)172 He was cavalier about money. (“What is money to-day? And what is life if not an ability to enjoy what is beautiful and fine while one can?… One can’t go through life always drudging.”) And he refused point-blank to consider any college that was not “smart” or “well known” (which precluded a return to City College).173 Each letter was more inflammatory than the one before.

At last, in June 1947, he was ready to return. Like many a young man returning from war, he knew that the homecoming would not be easy.

I have only one hope [he wrote to his parents] & that is that I may not disappoint your high expectations. The last years have left their mark on me. In certain ways I have become very set, maybe egotistical. A lot of mutual adjustments lie ahead. Please don’t forget that what you call a “normal family life” has been a concept very remote from me for several years. We have learned to live from one day to the next. I have known high hopes & sad disappointments. But all that does not mean that I’ll be bubbling over with either. It is much more likely that you’ll consider me overly retiring. I have lived my own life for so long that I may not be able to share it spontaneously. Certain ties bound in convention mean little to me. I have come to judge men on their merits. I have lived in a cooperative group so long, that I don’t know how the competitive civilian life will strike me. I have known great things & I have done great things. How will a petty day-to-day existence appear? All these problems are there. I can promise you no more than the best intentions. I can ask no more than patience.

And so my last letter from Europe ends. Appropriately it is a dismal day outside. Low hang the clouds on the mountain. 2 years ago when the Bergstrasse was blooming, when our men were still young, & the war unforgotten we each day discovered bits of the past & forged links to the future. We thought we had moved worlds and given our youth to something greater than ourselves. To-day the war is truly over & a return from the war in 1947 anti-climactic.174

The returning warrior had learned much. He had yet to learn that unflinching candor is seldom the way to preempt a conflict, least of all with one’s parents.

Book II

CHAPTER 7 The Idealist

The thinkers in their youth are almost always very lonely creatures…. The university most worthy of rational admiration is that one in which your lonely thinker can feel himself least lonely, most positively furthered and most richly fed.


Only when you have worked alone — when you have felt around you a black gulf of solitude more isolating than that which surrounds the dying man, and in hope and despair have trusted to your own unshaken will — then only will you have achieved. Thus only can you gain the secret isolated joy of the thinker, who knows that, a hundred years after he is dead and forgotten, men who never heard of him will be moving to the measure of his thought.


Harvard was a new world to me then, its mysteries hidden behind studied informality. I did not know what to make of the experiences I had had or what relevance Harvard’s values would have to my life. It never occurred to me that I would never really leave Harvard again.



Henry Kissinger was one of more than two million American servicemen who took advantage of the GI Bill to go to college. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, which paid the tuition of homecoming veterans who wished to study, was the federal government’s single most important contribution to social mobility in the postwar era. Without it, Kissinger would have had little option but to get a job. Without it, Harvard would have remained an unattainable dream.

Kissinger’s application was nothing if not self-confident. “I… wish to enroll at your university for the fall-term under the ‘GI Bill of Rights,’” he wrote on April 2, 1947. “I would appreciate any information you could give me as to whether any credit is allowed for experience while with the Armed Forces, and the earliest possible time of my enrollment…. I would like to major in English and Political Science.” That was in fact an impossibility at Harvard, where only a single “concentration” was permitted and where “Government” was studied, not political science. Moreover, April was a very late stage in the academic year to send in such an application; the other colleges to which Kissinger wrote (Columbia, Cornell, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton) rejected him out of hand. His chances, he acknowledged, were “none too bright. All I can do is hope.”4 Nervously, he urged his parents to send Harvard “my complete records (grades, subjects, report cards) of both George Washington H.S. & Lafayette College, but not from City College since (1) Harvard gives no credit for night school and (2) attendance at City College undermines my chances rather than helps them…. Speed is of the greatest essence .”5 His fears were groundless. So impressive was his application that Kissinger was not only accepted by Harvard; he was also awarded one of the two Harvard National Scholarships given to New Yorkers that year.6 He returned to the United States from Germany that July, paid his first visit to Cambridge later that same month,7 and began his studies in September, in effect as a sophomore, as Harvard (after all) gave him credit for his prewar studies at City College.8

Kissinger’s early academic career benefited from the enthusiastic support of his army mentor, Fritz Kraemer. Kraemer, too, had returned to the United States, but to Washington, where he served first as political and economic adviser to the assistant secretary of the army and then as senior research assistant to the chief historian of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.9 “I do not hesitate to state that I consider Kissinger’s qualifications exceptional,” Kraemer wrote in one of his characteristically trenchant letters of reference. He had that “capacity for patient and diligent study and research without which even the most intelligent are doomed to remain brilliant amateurs.” He was “the rare type of undergraduate who studies to gain a deeper understanding of phenomena rather than to obtain a degree.” He would not develop “into that frequent type of intellectual who turns to shoulder[-]shrugging cynicism, nihilistic relativism or political radicalism.” He was “surprisingly selfless and free of that ambitiousness and glaring smartness found in many of the so-called bright boys.” Perhaps Kissinger’s only weakness, Kraemer concluded, was “his somewhat unyouthful, though friendly, seriousness which is coupled with the absence of an active sense of humor.”10 What Kraemer omitted to mention was that this earnest young man, so industrious and apparently so humorless, was not coming to Harvard alone. With him came Smoky.

Purchased on a whim in Paris, Smoky the cocker spaniel had not been left behind in Oberammergau (unlike Kissinger’s girlfriend, whose melancholy duty it had been to arrange Smoky’s flight to New York). “I am aware of the difficulties,” he told his parents, “but my decision to bring him home is unchangeable. If you loved dogs you would know that one just doesn’t leave one’s dog behind.”11 When he realized that the dog was going to arrive before him, Kissinger bombarded his parents with six and a half pages of detailed instructions on canine care. “Smoky means very much to me,” he explained. “You may say it is only a dog. But on the other hand he has been a good pal to me over here & would be a wonderful link between a life that was & one that will be. So please take good care of him…. To know Smoky is to love him…. Don’t ever beat him .”12 Happily, his mother took to the dog. A year after his return, Kissinger replied to a letter from home in the style of “Your loving grandson, Smoky.” “Of course, ordinarily I would answer myself,” the dog supposedly wrote. “Yet I feel confident that you who know me, will realize that… I am at present occupied in studying the atomic structure of fossil (bone to the ignorant).”13

“As charming as dogs may ever hope to be,” in Kraemer’s ironical phrase, Smoky posed, and still poses, a problem.14 The young Kissinger is sometimes represented as a dour conformist.15 But a man who not only writes letters on his dog’s behalf but also brings the dog to college hardly matches that description, not least because pets were expressly prohibited in the university’s residential houses. Though his roommates grew to tolerate Smoky’s tendency to jump and drool on visitors’ laps, the “biddies” (maids) reported his presence, forcing Kissinger to “borrow a car every morning, deposit Smoky in a Cambridge kennel and smuggle him back to the dorm later, when the maids had gone.”16

The truth was that Smoky was a comfort in an unfamiliar and intimidating place. “I was completely unsure of myself,” Kissinger later recalled. “I had gotten out of the Army and I felt like an immigrant again. When I went into the Army I was a refugee, and when I got out I was an immigrant.”17 In the end, Smoky’s presence was tolerated, but not because (as his owner later joked) the Harvard authorities “thought they had a shell-shock case on their hands.”18 He was tolerated because Kissinger was one member of a unique generation whose arrival would change Harvard forever. Many members of the Class of 1950 came to college as veterans — as men who had experienced the hardships and horrors of war. Most of them would never have had a chance of attending America’s most prestigious university had it not been for the war. After years in uniform, it was not easy for them to adjust to being “Harvard men,” with all that that phrase implied. Harvard had to adjust to them. So well did it adjust to Kissinger that he would spend the next twenty-one years of his life there.


Harvard today can claim to be the world’s greatest university. It was not always so. When the Oxford historian of political thought Isaiah Berlin visited Harvard in 1940, he was unimpressed. The students, he complained, were “silly & sophisticated at the same time, & I am glad I don’t have to teach them. They are sceptical about opinions & naïve about facts which they swallow uncritically, which is the wrong way around. After Oxford, Harvard is a desert.”19 His colleague Hugh Trevor-Roper was equally disdainful nine years later, by which time Henry Kissinger was in his junior year. “Their standard of education is really very saddening!” he wrote to his friend the art historian Bernard Berenson (himself a Harvard alumnus). “Harvard depressed me a great deal.”20

From the exalted vantage points of All Souls and Christ Church, two of Oxford’s grandest colleges, Harvard may indeed have seemed an intellectual wasteland. When those institutions were founded in, respectively, 1438 and 1546, Harvard had not existed. Established by the fledgling British colony of Massachusetts in 1636, its early years were modest, not to say precarious. Its location — among cattle yards on the muddy banks of the Charles River — was not at first salubrious. Its initial buildings were primitive (none built before 1720 survives). It relied heavily on the colonial government for its funding and was regularly buffeted by the colonists’ religious enthusiasms.21

Yet Harvard survived, flourished, and ultimately surpassed the ancient English universities — indeed was already surpassing them in the 1940s, as Berlin and Trevor-Roper might have seen if they had looked more closely. How? First, it was successfully steered away from becoming a mere sectarian seminary by successive presidents, who upheld the objective of educating gentlemen, not clergymen. In the words of the resident fellows in 1721, “[T]he great End for which the College was founded, was a Learned, and pious Education of Youth, their Instruction in Languages, Arts, and Sciences, and having their minds and manners form’d aright.” John Leverett (president between 1708 and 1724) boasted that Harvard produced not only ministers but also scholars, judges, physicians, soldiers, merchants, and simple farmers “whom academic culture serves but to soften and polish rustic manners.” He and his successors (notably Edward Holyoke) withstood countless attacks on “godless Harvard” from Congregationalists and others, establishing a tradition of academic freedom that was to prove vital. Second, from 1717 Harvard’s governance diverged from that of the Oxbridge colleges in that the resident tutors were excluded from the governing corporation, the fellows of which became more like external trustees — often wealthy Boston “Brahmins” whose bequests gradually grew into a substantial endowment, ending the need for state support in 1823. With the nineteenth-century transformation of the board of overseers into a body of elected graduates, rather than representatives of “church and state,” Harvard’s independence from government was established.22 Third, Harvard backed the winning side in the War of Independence. Samuel and John Adams were among the eight Harvard signatories of the Declaration of Independence; only 16 percent of graduates were Loyalists. Fourth, in imitation of the Scottish universities, Harvard was not slow to establish professional schools: the Medical School (1782), Law School (1817), and Theological School (1819) put it far ahead of Oxford and Cambridge, where the entrenched power of the “dons,” simultaneously fellows and tutors, acted as a brake on most innovation. Fifth, and for the same reason, Harvard was much more open than its English counterparts to the benign influence of the German universities in their nineteenth-century heyday. As president, the chemist Charles William Eliot imported the German ideal of Lernfreiheit— academic freedom — so that students were steadily freed from requirements and allowed to choose between “elective” courses. The first German-style Ph.D. was awarded in 1873.

As a consequence of these and other reforms, nineteenth-century Harvard was in reality far from an intellectual backwater. Ralph Waldo Emerson gave his famous address “The American Scholar” to the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in 1837. He and the other members of the Saturday Club — Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Longfellow, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., James Russell Lowell, and Charles Eliot Norton — were among the greatest American thinkers of the era. Perhaps even more impressive were their successors, the legal scholar and later Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the philosopher William James, and the polymath Charles Sanders Peirce, whose short-lived Metaphysical Club was the birthplace of American pragmatism.

A term borrowed from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason,  pragmatism has been portrayed by Louis Menand as an intellectual reaction to the bloody polarization of the American Civil War. For Holmes, who had fought in the war, pragmatism meant recognizing that “some of us don’t know that we know anything.” For Peirce, it implied a collective, cumulative view of knowledge: “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by the truth.” For James, “Truth happens  to an idea. It becomes  true, is  made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process.” Or as he put it elsewhere, “Beliefs… are really rules for action…. The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief…. If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily… it is true.” The pragmatic generation, in Menand’s words, “wished to avoid the violence they saw hidden in abstractions.”23

The influence of pragmatism extended far beyond Harvard. It encouraged James to see the universe (and the United States) as “pluralistic.” In the booming but strife-torn Chicago of the 1890s, it inspired John Dewey to turn against laissez-faire capitalism and Social Darwinism. At Oxford, it made the Rhodes scholars Horace Kallen and Alain Locke — one Jewish, the other African American — consider the possibility of “cultural pluralism” in a multiracial America. Among James’s pupils was W.E.B. Du Bois, the first black man to receive a Harvard doctorate (for his dissertation on “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade”). Harvard on the eve of the First World War was itself increasingly pluralistic. The journalists Walter Lippmann and John Reed cut their political teeth as members of Harvard’s Socialist Club. As Reed recalled,

[The club’s] members wrote articles in the college papers challenging undergraduate ideals, and muckraked the University for not paying its servants living wages…. Out of the agitation sprang the Harvard Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage… [and] an Anarchist group. The faculty was petitioned for a course in socialism…. All over the place radicals sprang up, in music, painting, poetry, the theatre. The more serious college papers took a socialistic, or at least a progressive tinge.24

Small wonder the young English socialist Harold Laski, a standard-bearer for the new pluralism, preferred Harvard to his politically somnolent alma mater Oxford.

Admittedly, Lippmann and Reed were hardly typical Harvard students. As a college for would-be gentlemen, Harvard had an undergraduate culture not so different from that of Oxford in the same era. The “idle Fops” Benjamin Franklin had complained about, with their drunken pranks and secret clubs — beginning in the 1790s with the creation of the Porcellian for “The Bloods of Harvard” and the frivolous Hasty Pudding — had been succeeded by “the clubmen and athletes”: muscular New Englanders disproportionately drawn from private preparatory schools like the august academies Phillips (Andover) and Phillips Exeter and from the newer Browne & Nichols, Groton, Milton, and St. Paul’s.25 Their passions were football, a mutilated form of rugby pioneered at Harvard in which forward passes and tackling off the ball were permitted, and more orthodox Oxbridge-style rowing and sculling. Their rooms were in plush halls like Beck, Felton, and Claverly, which clustered on Mount Auburn Street’s “Gold Coast,” a short walk — but a far cry — from the Spartan quarters of Harvard Yard.26 And their social life revolved around a pyramid of clubs. At the base was the Institute of 1770, which selected a hundred men from each new class, the top eighty of whom became members of the DKE (“Dickey” or “Deeks”), who in turn hoped for election to “waiting clubs,” S.K. and Iroquois, from whose ranks a lucky few were chosen by the “final clubs,” the Porcellian, A.D., Fly, Spee, Delphic, Owl, Fox, and D.U. (in descending order of prestige).27 These, Harvard’s equivalent of fraternities, admitted no more than 12 percent of students, with the crème de la crème belonging to four or more clubs. Even the satirical magazine the Lampoon  evolved into a kind of club. Snobbery was rife, with membership of the social elite signaled by the distinctive Harvard accent, in which the letter a  was pronounced English fashion, “as in father.”28 For those at the apex of the pyramid, Father was generally a member of the Country Club in Brookline.

Eliot’s successor as president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, is sometimes portrayed as an upholder of this hierarchical social order. It is certainly true that he sought to make Harvard more like Oxford and less like Heidelberg. It is also true, as we shall see, that he held at least some of the racial prejudices of his era. Yet in many respects Lowell was a formidable modernizer, whose reforms ended the oligarchical reign of the Gold Coast. He is best remembered for creating the first seven residential houses — Dunster, Lowell, Eliot, Winthrop, Kirkland, Leverett, and Adams — so that the three upper classes could enjoy a version of Oxbridge collegiate life, complete with resident tutors, dining halls, and common rooms. But equally important was Lowell’s insistence that all freshmen must reside in the dormitories of the Yard. These innovations were consciously designed to increase Harvard’s “intellectual and social cohesion.”29 Lowell’s presidency also saw five additional foundations: of the Business School (1908), the School of Architecture (1914), the Graduate School of Education (1920), the School of City Planning (1929), and the Society of Fellows (1933). Lowell it was who gave the Harvard campus its understated look, resisting the contemporary architectural temptations of “collegiate Gothic” and “imperial Elizabethan.” And it was he who introduced concentrations and distributions, designed to impose some intellectual discipline on the free-for-all of Eliot’s elective system by requiring “every student to make a choice of electives that will secure a systematic education, based on the principle of knowing a little of everything and something well.”30 This was pragmatism as an educational strategy.

In seeking to increase Harvard’s social cohesion, however, Lowell was concerned not only to eliminate the class divisions exemplified by the Gold Coast. He was equally uneasy about the dramatic increase in the numbers of Jewish students at Harvard. Although Hebrew had been studied at Harvard in its earliest years, Jews had played a minimal role there before the late nineteenth century. Indeed, prior to 1886, no more than a dozen Jews had graduated from the college. By 1906, the surge of Jewish immigration from Central Europe, combined with the disproportionate literacy and numeracy of the immigrants, had changed that. There were soon “enough Russian Jewish lads from the Boston public schools” to found a Menorah Society for “the study and advancement of Hebraic culture and ideals.”31 Between 1900 and 1922 the proportion of Jewish students at Harvard surged from 7 percent to 22 percent, more than double the share at Yale.32 All this had perfectly accorded with President Eliot’s ambition to make Harvard cosmopolitan and “undenominational”; it was precisely why he had pushed through the abolition of compulsory chapel attendance in 1886, forty years ahead of Yale.33 Eliot’s view had been that “a great university exert[ed] a unifying social influence” precisely by opening its doors to all young men with appropriate academic aptitude.34 But Lowell saw little sign of Harvard’s “unifying” Jewish and gentile students. Only a tiny percentage of the Jews were elected to the social clubs. Instead they founded their own fraternities. Jews were more likely to be “commuters” from the Boston area, poorer students who had to “eat their bag lunches in the basement of Philips Brooks House or on the steps of Widener.”35 They were less likely to be involved in athletics and other extracurricular activities, with the sole exceptions of debating and music. On the other hand, they were clearly overrepresented among the students in the first two rank lists for academic attainment, and they won a rising share of the merit scholarships Eliot had created. Convinced that all these trends were increasing “race antagonism,” Lowell proposed “limit[ing] any group of men who do not mingle indistinguishably with the general stream.”36

As vice president of the Immigration Restriction League, Lowell did not confine his prejudices to Jews: “orientals,” “colored men,” and indeed French-Canadians struck him as dangerously alien. From 1922, Lowell specified that the proportion of scholarships going to Jews should not exceed their share of the freshman class and made it clear that, by limiting transfers from other colleges, he intended to reduce the share of Jews in the student body from 22 to 15 percent.37 There ensued a fierce battle between Lowell and the faculty over the issue of admissions criteria (“principles and methods of sifting candidates”). Even before the report of the committee set up to review these principles and methods, a new application form was introduced with questions like “What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully.)”38 True, Lowell’s idea of quotas was defeated, and the simultaneous relaxation of admissions academic criteria — which was supposed to end Harvard’s regional bias toward New England and New York — only increased the share of Jews admitted, to a peak of 27 percent in 1925. From 1926, however, Harvard followed a lead already taken by Columbia, NYU, Yale, and Princeton, capping the total freshman class at one thousand and basing admissions decisions partly on nonacademic criteria such as “character.” The data are not quite reliable, but the result appears to have been a drop in the share of Jewish freshmen back to 16 percent in 1928.39

The position of Jews at Harvard in the 1940s was so controversial that at least two senior theses were devoted to the subject. Bruce Stedman’s anthropological study of Jewish upperclassmen in the classes of 1942 and 1943 was methodologically flawed, not least because he identified Jews partly on the basis of “the presence… of Jewish physical characteristics.”40 But his thesis is still useful in two ways. First, it confirms that there was anti-Semitism at Harvard.41 In October 1941 he recorded the following exchange with another student:

I told A-9 that D-9 had told me that Jews outnumbered non-Jews on a certain Student Council Committee (for which members are picked purely on a basis of academic achievement) two to one.

A-9 said, “That’s too many Jews.”

I said, “Jews surely are bright, though. I’ve never known a stupid Jew, I don’t think.”

A-9 replied, “They aren’t so bright as they are clever. A lot of them seem able to fill a prescribed form, or perform a habitual function, but when it comes to creative work they fall down.”42

Second, Stedman showed how the Jews in his house responded to such prejudices “by cultivating non-Jewish friends or by disavowing knowledge of the Hebrew religion etc. Another effort toward the same end may be seen in the adoption of non-Jewish nick-names.”43

By comparison, Marvin Kraus’s thesis on the Jews in the classes of 1951, 1953, and 1954 was a good deal more rigorous, but his conclusion was essentially the same. Harvard Jews were scrambling to assimilate themselves. They were less religious than their parents; more than half attended a religious service only once a year; 29 percent did not observe Rosh Hashanah; 49 percent did not fast on Yom Kippur; hardly any (5 percent) observed the Jewish dietary laws or refrained from work on the Sabbath; and a remarkable proportion (79 percent) dated non-Jews. Yet they remained to a significant degree segregated, with nearly half having only Jewish roommates, half participating in Hillel, and a third identifying their “social crowd” as predominantly Jewish.44

When Theodore White, the son of an impecunious immigrant to Boston from Pinsk, went to Harvard in 1934, he classified himself as one of the “meatballs,” at the bottom of the social heap. At the top were the “white men, with names like Morgan, Rockefeller and Roosevelt and Kennedy, who had automobiles… went to Boston deb parties, football games [and] the June crew race against Yale”; then came the “grey men… public-high-school boys, sturdy sons of America’s middle class,” who “went out for football and baseball, manned the Crimson and the Lampoon [and] ran for class committees.” The “meatballs,” by contrast, had come to Harvard “not to enjoy the games, the girls, the burlesque shows of the Old Howard, the companionship, the elms, the turning leaves of fall, the grassy banks of the Charles. We had come to get the Harvard badge, which says ‘Veritas’ but really means a job… in some bureaucracy, in some institution, in some school, laboratory, university or law firm…. We were on the make.” Though there were Irish and Italians among the meatballs, the most driven were the Jews like White.45

With Lowell’s departure from the presidency in 1933 and the appointment of James Bryant Conant, the Jewish question began to lose its

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salience. A chemist by training, Conant was said to have turned Harvard into “a meritocracy in which students and professors vied for honors with little mercy or kindness.”46 Though not notably more philo-Semitic than Lowell, Conant’s priority was academic ability and achievement. It was he who introduced the “up or out” rule that faculty members who did not secure tenure had their employment terminated. This and other meritocratic policies had the effect of favoring Jewish scholars. A 1939 report entitled “Some Problems of Personnel in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences” acknowledged the role of “anti-Semitic feeling” in hindering the promotion of Jewish academics,47 but such prejudices were fast losing their legitimacy, partly because of the growing revulsion against the conduct of the National Socialist regime in Germany, and partly because of the ensuing exodus of undeniably brilliant Jewish academics from Central Europe.

A third force was at work. In the ferment of the 1930s and 1940s, ideology was becoming a more salient source of conflict than racial prejudice. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., grew up in a Harvard household, the grandson of an East Prussian Jew who had settled in Ohio and converted to Protestantism, and the son of a distinguished historian of the United States. The Schlesingers were New Deal liberals, whose circle of friends included the future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter and the leftist novelist John Dos Passos.48 As an undergraduate, the younger Schlesinger joined the Communist-controlled American Student Union and was acquainted with the card-carrying historian Richard Schlatter and the fellow traveler Francis Matthiessen. But after the war, returning to Harvard as an associate professor, Schlesinger broke with the Communists. His memoir vividly recalls the rift in liberal Harvard between the Communists (CPUSA members) and fellow travelers, on the one side, and, on the other, the anti-Communist left, which Schlesinger thought of as “the vital center.”49 Over time such political differences gradually took precedence over ethnic differences, insofar as they did not coincide with them.


The Class of 1950 was the biggest in Harvard’s history up until that point, with 1,588 graduates. Henry Kissinger was not the only member of the class who was destined for public service. James Schlesinger would go on to become CIA director, defense secretary, and energy secretary. Herbert J. Spiro later served on the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department and as U.S. ambassador to Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. Another diplomat was William Harrop, who became ambassador to Israel. John T. Bennett was deputy director of the USAID mission in Saigon — from whence he was evacuated in 1975—and also served in Seoul and Guatemala. The 1950 graduates also included two Republican congressmen, Sedgwick William Green and Amory Houghton, the eminent New York lawyer and Democratic Party activist George Dwight, and George Cabot Lodge, son of the Massachusetts senator, ambassador, and vice-presidential candidate Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who himself ran for the Senate in 1962. The class also produced journalists — Jonathan Spivak of The Wall Street Journal  and William Graves of National Geographic —as well as the author Lawrence Osgood and the artist Edward Gorey. There were some bankers and businessmen, as might be expected. But the majority were destined for the professions, or, like Kissinger, to become professors.50

Most young men who go to university make their firmest friendships there. That was not Henry Kissinger’s experience. Journalists who sought out his Harvard contemporaries were struck by this absence of friendship, bordering in at least one case on hostility (“He had no charm”).51 Yet there were good reasons for it. We may be tempted to imagine Harvard in the late 1940s in romantic terms, as a point of transition between the intense Harvard of George Weller’s Not to Eat, Not for Love  (1933) and the schmaltzy Harvard of Erich Segal’s Love Story  (1970). Nothing could be more misleading. Harvard in the fall of 1947 was an unwelcoming shambles. To begin with, there was a chronic shortage of housing. As the troops returned, a university that before the war had been accustomed to a total student body of around 8,000 struggled to cope with a figure closer to 12,500. The pressure on the facilities of the undergraduate college was especially severe. Having been admitted at the last minute, Kissinger was probably bound to fare badly in the allocation of housing.52 Along with around 180 other unlucky freshmen, he spent his first few weeks at Harvard as a resident of the Indoor Athletic Building (now the Malkin Athletic Center), the basketball hall of which had been turned into a makeshift barracks.53

Nor did the indignity end there. When a room was finally found for him, it was in the unloved Claverly Hall—“once the vault of Gold Coast opulence,” as the Crimson  put it, now “the dungeon of scholastic indolence.” Built in 1893, Claverly was a monument to Gilded Age taste, its rooms much larger than those in the Yard or the Houses, but its ornate mantelpieces and marble washbasins showed their age. More important, the lack of dining facilities and hence of any real “fraternization” between the various floors (known as “entries”) had made Claverly deeply unpopular by the 1940s — so much so that it was referred to as “a Mount Auburn St. Siberia.” There was, in short, a stigma attached to it.54 The nature of that stigma may be guessed from the fact that Kissinger’s two roommates in Room 39 were both Jews: Edward Hendel and Arthur Gillman — as was Kissinger’s friend from Oberammergau Henry Rosovsky, who later became one of the tutors at Claverly. The era of residential segregation of Jews was ending, but slowly.55

Even if Kissinger had wanted to be sociable, then, Harvard did not make it easy for him. Like so many Jewish students at that time, he had no desire to emphasize his Jewish identity by attending the Hillel Club, much less the Temple Beth-El synagogue. As a freshman, he ate his meals at the Harvard Union (now the Barker Humanities Center), a club that had been set up for the clubless and was notorious for its lack of ambience.56 But Kissinger clearly did not want to be sociable. He had come to Harvard to study, and study he did, with an intensity that intimidated his roommates. As Hendel recalled, “He worked harder, studied more. He’d read until 1 or 2 a.m. He had tremendous drive and discipline. He spent a lot of time thinking. He was absorbing everything.” Another remembered the young Kissinger as “very serious…. He sat in that overstuffed chair… studying from morning till night and biting his nails to the quick, till there was blood.”57 He did not chase the Radcliffe girls. He did not bother about his clothes. He largely ignored (and certainly did not play) college sports. Even when he was admitted to the Adams House — next door to Claverly, but several steps up in social terms58—he did not become more outgoing. Having been formed by merging three Gold Coast halls, Adams House was renowned for its swimming pool in “B” entry, its squash courts, its Saturday night dances, and its lively political life.59 On December 1, 1949, for example, Kissinger could have attended a Common Room debate between former Adams man Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and the radical historian H. Stuart Hughes.60 But if the young Kissinger played a part in the life of the House, no trace of it has survived. He seemed to be “something of a recluse”—“the invisible man.”61

What the younger students did not appreciate was that Kissinger had not just one but two lives outside the Harvard community. The first was his life as a veteran. College friendship is one thing; for those who fought in World War II, the brotherhood of arms was altogether more important. As an undergraduate, Kissinger continued to serve as a reserve CIC officer, which consumed a considerable amount of his vacation time.62 He remained in regular contact with the friends he had made in the army, not least his mentor Kraemer, whom he visited in Washington.63 It was still to Kraemer that Kissinger confided his innermost thoughts, like the one he proffered in a letter of November 1949: “Perhaps man’s striving for value, the certainty of greater truths can never be approached with the pedantic method of philosophy, but needs the poet who sees the totality of life and not just its manifestations.”64 (Kraemer’s characteristic response was “Omit the first word in the above statement.”) A year after beginning his studies at Harvard, and shortly before returning for his second year, Kissinger wrote a poignant letter from a Maryland army camp to a friend he had made in Germany:

I think often and happily about those so extraordinary and uplifting days of 1945–46, when everything seemed possible and unstable.

Since my return my life has changed a great deal. For eight months of the year I am once again a student, which is interesting but sometimes somewhat constraining. During the summer, as can be seen from my address here, I find myself once again engaged in a field of activity that is much closer to my earlier one [in Germany] than student life is.65

His Harvard roommates may have seen a humorless bookworm. His former comrades in arms knew a very different Kissinger, as is clear from a downright zany letter sent to Kissinger at around the same time by his fellow CIC officer Victor Guala, who clearly intended to mock the bureaucratic language of CIC communications in the style of the Marx Brothers:

1. Request information as to the future whereabouts of HENRY KISSINGER, aka Mr. Henry, aka Herr CIC Ahghent, aka Herr Henry, aka Der Bensheimer Kerl der fuer Herrn L. arbeitet. It is desired to know specifically whether this individual will be in the vicinity of NYC during the coming week-end, or any coming week-end, or, if this goes thru channels, was he here at all during 1948?

2. Check of our files indicates no correspondence of note in the past between these two agencies; your attention is directed to AR (Acquired Reflex) #0001.01, Para. 1, Line 3, Word 76493a, which states, in effect, that it is normally to be expected that these two agencies will maintain inadequate liason (pronounced: lyuhsun) (spelled: liaison), thereby adding materially to the snafu of the service. In view of the above, if you belive [sic ] in the above, the Commandeering Gent has expressed his intention of presenting the below and without on the telephone, whereas, the party of the second part, hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the first part, and the party of the first part, hereinafter to be referred to as Subject, aka THE Party, aka the first-part party, aka the 4th party, as distinguished from the 3rd, Dem and Rep parties and all other parties hereinafter and here to fore mentioned or ignored is entirely coincidental and unintentional.66

It is not known if Kissinger accepted this particular invitation to New York, but he certainly visited his home city on a regular basis while at Harvard. Like all New Yorkers who attend the university on the banks of the Charles, he doubtless found Cambridge a little dull at weekends. In any case, Kissinger’s other life — his private life — was in New York, not Massachusetts. The reason he showed no interest in the “Radcliffe girls” was simple: at some point in late 1948—after a night at the theater to see the whimsical musical Finian’s Rainbow —he had become engaged to Anne Fleischer.

The Fleischers came from precisely the same world of German-Jewish Orthodoxy as the Kissingers. Like them, they had made a new but not wholly different life in Washington Heights. Anne had lived a little, to be sure. She had spent a year in Colorado Springs, where she worked at a hotel and audited some courses. She had studied bookkeeping with her brother-in-law Gerald Reich and worked for a time at an interior decorating firm.67 But her marriage to Henry Kissinger in February 1949 represented an unambiguous victory for his parents. While in Germany, their elder son had shocked them by having an affair with a gentile and a German one at that. He had, as we have seen, vigorously resisted their pressure on him to get engaged to Anne. His return to the United States brought him back into the fold. The marriage service was even performed in the Kissingers’ apartment by Rabbi Leo Breslauer, the ultra-Orthodox rabbi who had survived the 1938 pogrom in Fürth and had joined other survivors from his congregation in New York.

Why had Kissinger changed his mind? It was certainly not because he had refound his lost religious faith. Even on the wedding day there was renewed friction on that score when he objected to Breslauer’s insistence that Anne take the ritual bath, the mikvah,  before the ceremony.68 One plausible answer is that Kissinger was trying to mollify his parents, not least because his younger brother was doing the very opposite (and would ultimately defy them by eloping with a Christian girl). Another explanation is that a year of undergraduate life at Harvard had made married life seem suddenly more attractive. As his brother, Walter,* recalled, “He had difficulty adapting to the frivolity of college life. Both of us had a hell of a time adjusting to living in a dorm with a bunch of kids just out of prep school. Marrying Ann [she dropped the “e” after her marriage] allowed him to be serious.”69 In particular, Ann could extricate Kissinger from Adams House and allow him to live as an adult without his having to give up his studies. Traditional though their wedding was, their marriage was modern in at least one key respect: Ann was a breadwinner. It was she who went apartment-hunting for them;70 she who found their first home at 49 Florence Street, Arlington, and their second one at 495 Lowell Avenue, in Newton, around eight miles to the west of the Harvard campus; she who worked as a bookkeeper for a Malden furniture store. Her savings ($700) and earnings ($1,100 a year) were a crucial supplement to his wartime savings and the support he received under the GI Bill.71 Moreover, like the wives of so many 1950s academics, Ann provided Kissinger with free secretarial support, typing out the senior thesis that he composed in longhand, as well as doing all the housework and putting food on the table. What remains harder to ascertain is how far the marriage brought Kissinger happiness. If it did, it was not for long.

Marriage may have meant a measure of financial support for a mature student. But it also had obvious implications about his future gainful employment. The question was as yet unanswered: What exactly had Kissinger come to Harvard to learn? And where would that learning lead him? It was far from obvious at first that the answer would be to an academic career in Harvard’s government department.


As President Eliot had intended, the Harvard undergraduate program gave students choice — the chance to experiment. Henry Kissinger took advantage of that chance. In his first term, he had taken introductory courses in French, government, history, and mathematics, obtaining an A in each, as well as chemistry as a fifth course for no credit.72 For a time he toyed with the idea of pursuing chemistry further. His professor, George Kistiakowsky, was an impressive figure who had worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos during the war. But when Kissinger asked his advice, Kistiakowsky replied, “If you have to ask, you shouldn’t.”* 73 Kissinger also attended lectures by the great physicist Percy W. Bridgman, whose work on high pressure won him the 1946 Nobel Prize. That same year Kissinger tried his hand at philosophy, studying with the diminutive and depressive Henry M. Sheffer, best known for introducing to formal logic the vertical line known as the “Sheffer stroke.” To Kissinger’s dismay (and to the delight of at least one rival), he got a B in Sheffer’s course, the only letter grade below A- he ever received.74 (It may have been in answer to this that he inserted an abstruse and barely relevant philosophical appendix at the end of his senior thesis.) His overall performance was excellent but not the very best. Although his grades were good enough to secure him a senior faculty member as his adviser, his election to the academic elite — the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa — did not come until his senior year.

Two puzzles present themselves about Kissinger’s undergraduate career. First, why did he become a government concentrator rather than majoring in history? In view of his lifelong interest in historical subjects, he might have been expected to follow in the footsteps of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., whose own father was one of a group of distinguished historians then teaching at Harvard. Paul Buck had won the Pulitzer Prize for his Road to Reunion, 1865–1900,  and was one of the country’s leading historians of the American South. Crane Brinton, a specialist in the French Revolution and a major influence on Samuel Huntington, was the widely read author of The Anatomy of Revolution . Edwin O. Reischauer was the leading U.S. historian of Japan and had formed a strong teaching partnership with John King Fairbank, Harvard’s first specialist in Chinese history.75 A man who later wrote a senior thesis entitled “The Meaning of History” and whose doctoral thesis focused on the period of the Congress of Vienna should surely have been first in line for Brinton’s popular breakfast course on revolutionary France. A man who would go on to transform relations between the United States and China ought at least to have considered taking Fairbank’s and Reischauer’s survey course on East Asia (affectionately known to students as “rice paddies”). Instead, probably on Kraemer’s advice, he chose to major in political science, or (in Harvard parlance) to “concentrate in Government.”76

The second question is why, once Kissinger made that choice, he became a pupil of William Yandell Elliott, when Carl Friedrich would have been the more obvious adviser. A student of Max Weber’s brother Alfred, Friedrich had come to Harvard from Heidelberg in 1926 and established himself as a leading authority on modern Germany and in particular on democratic constitutions. In 1949 he had just returned from advising the Office of Military Government in Germany. His reputation as a “good German” was at its zenith. Friedrich’s most influential book of the 1940s had been The New Belief in the Common Man  (1942), which he reissued in an enlarged edition in 1950 as The New Image of the Common Man .77 Trenchantly antitotalitarian, Friedrich’s book takes swings at José Ortega y Gasset’s “revolt of the masses” and Vilfredo Pareto’s theory of elites. It seeks to find a middle way between pluralism and “state idolatry” by elevating the quintessentially American ideal of the “common man” as the fount of democratic wisdom. Generally, Friedrich argues, the common man is right, but

[t]here is… one extremely important field of governmental activity in which most of what we have said concerning the judgment of the common man does not necessarily hold. That is the field of foreign affairs. The decisions in this field are of a nature that removes them from the average man’s grasp. Nor do they bear any striking relationship to his folkways, traditions, and beliefs…. Since the common man… shuns foreign policy, such policy in democratic national government oscillates, as American democracy has oscillated, between isolationism and internationalism.78

This can hardly have been an uncongenial argument to the young Kissinger, even if Friedrich’s concluding call for “Pan-Humanism” was not altogether convincing.79 Moreover, Friedrich was no dry academic who expected his pupils to spend their entire lives in libraries and lecture halls. Among his students in the 1950s was Zbigniew Brzezinski — also born in Europe, also an immigrant of the 1938 vintage — who would again follow Kissinger by becoming national security adviser in 1977.

But Friedrich and Kissinger were never kindred spirits. One theory is that, after Kraemer, Kissinger had no need of another German Meister . Another is that Friedrich was less impressed by Kissinger’s intellect than was his colleague.80 According to Friedrich himself, Kissinger told him bluntly, “I am interested in the practical politics of international relations, and you are interested in philosophy and scholarship.”81 A more likely explanation is the humdrum one. Had he been a graduate student, Friedrich and Elliott might well have vied for his allegiance. As a mere undergraduate, however, Kissinger was assigned to Elliott by the government department for purely bureaucratic reasons.

The son of a Tennessee lawyer who died when he was just three, William Yandell Elliott III was raised by his mother in Nashville, where she became the librarian of the Vanderbilt Law School. He himself had a successful undergraduate career at Vanderbilt, where he became part of the informal group of young southern poets known as the Fugitives,* who saw themselves as “rescuing… the ideals of friendship, personal loyalty and sectional pride… from the creeping anonymity of the twentieth century.”82 Elliott served as a first lieutenant with the 114th Field Artillery in 1917–18 and then spent several months studying at the Sorbonne before returning to Vanderbilt, gaining his M.A. in 1920, and beginning his academic career as an instructor in English literature. That same year a Rhodes scholarship took him to Oxford. During his time at Balliol College, Elliott mingled in literary circles with Robert Graves and W. B. Yeats. He almost certainly came under the influence of the “Round Table Group” founded by the British politician and colonial administrator Alfred Milner, to which a number of Balliol fellows belonged.83 But the principal influence on Elliott was the Scottish philosopher A. D. (“Sandy”) Lindsay, an authority on Plato and Henri Bergson and a man of the moderate left. After a brief period as a junior professor at Berkeley, Elliott was appointed lecturer and tutor at Harvard’s department of government. He ascended the academic ladder steadily and by 1942 had a named chair, the highest academic position at Harvard short of a university professorship.

The book that made Elliott’s reputation was The Pragmatic Revolt in Politics: Syndicalism, Fascism, and the Constitutional State  (1928). Dedicated to Lindsay, it makes for strange reading today. Verbose, bombastic, and repetitive, the book makes connections from the American philosophical school of pragmatism to contemporary movements in European politics that can only be described as tendentious. Elliott’s starting point is “the attack now taking formidable shape in practice as well as theory, over a great part of Europe, against the constitutional and democratic state.” In all its forms — ranging from syndicalism to fascism — this attack is presented by Elliott as “part of a deeply rooted anti-intellectualism” associated with pragmatism.84

Where Elliott was right was that a great many intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic were reluctant to face the scale of the threat posed to interwar democracy — not to mention the threat to the system of collective security centered on the League of Nations — by illiberal ideologies. More questionable was his claim that there were any meaningful links from William James to Mussolini. On close inspection, The Pragmatic Revolt  was a hodgepodge of reviews — of Georges Sorel, Harold Laski, G.D.H. Cole, John Dewey, and Léon Duguit — held together by the flimsiest of threads. (By 1928 it was already clear that Mussolini believed much more earnestly in the power of the state than its corporative constituents.) Not surprisingly, no one today remembers Elliott’s theory of the “co-organic state,” which was supposed to rescue “the legal sovereignty of the democratically organized Nation-State” from the supposed subversions of the pragmatists. But Elliott’s timing was good, as Americans began slowly to grasp the seriousness of what was going on in Italy and as the heirs of James slithered from pragmatism to a pluralism that seemed to challenge the legitimacy of the democratic state itself. As a reassertion of the pre-Jamesian verities, a defense of Woodrow Wilson’s postwar vision, and an intimation of what the United States would end up fighting for under Franklin Roosevelt, The Pragmatic Revolt  served its purpose. Elliott made no secret of his sympathy with “the rationalistic efforts of democratic liberalism to create a political vehicle such as parliamentary government, which strives to provide for social evolution under law and to extend that machinery gradually from constitutional nationalism to a World League.” Like Friedrich, he came back to Kant and the “belief that government under law is the expression of a shared moral purpose toward an ideal of the good life.”85

Elliott has been presented as a conservative, fighting a vain rearguard action against the “paradigm shift” that would establish pluralism as the dominant theory of the state in American political science.86 He was certainly no match for the proponents of pluralism like the Cornell-based Englishman George Catlin, author of The Science and Method of Politics,  who did so much to move American political science away from both political theory and history.87 But Elliott’s historical significance lies elsewhere. First, as we shall see, he (along with Friedrich) championed a somewhat vulgarized but nevertheless potent idealism. At a time when Harvard philosophy was still under the sway of A. N. Whitehead,* who had died just a few months after Kissinger’s arrival in Cambridge, Elliott urged his students to go back to Kant. In a way, as his pupil Louis Hartz put it, he was the last of the Oxford idealists, “the conscience of political study at Harvard, forcing it always back to the ethical assumptions which it involves.”88 From Lindsay he had picked up traces of T. H. Green and F. H. Bradley, and he brought some residue of their thought back with him to Harvard.89 The “pragmatic revolt” was not wholly an imaginary construct; Elliott was leading a revolt against pragmatism at Harvard.

Second, Elliott more than fulfilled his obligations to the Rhodes Trust by becoming a very early proponent of the Atlantic alliance. After The Pragmatic Revolt,  his next two major works, The New British Empire  (1932) and The Need for Constitutional Reform  (1935), amounted to a manifesto for Anglo-American convergence, the former urging the transformation of the empire into “a workable league of nations within the world League, on a purely consultative and cooperative basis, divesting itself of a mercantilist philosophy of exploitation,” the latter proposing to Anglicize the U.S. political system by establishing a permanent civil service, giving the president more prime ministerial powers, and creating new “regional commonwealths” modeled on the Canadian provinces. In short, Elliott believed that the British Empire and the United States should become more like one another, an argument bearing the indelible stamp of his time at Balliol.90 Unlike some of Milner’s Round Table heirs, however, Elliott was (like Sandy Lindsay) an active opponent of the policy of appeasement, “several times thwart[ing] [the Cliveden Set’s] machinations when they were trying to turn the policy of The Christian-Science Monitor  [in America] in this direction and in other maneuvers.”91 Before America’s involvement in World War II even began, Elliott was already cooperating with the Mazzini Society, a group of Italian émigré antifascists including Gaetano Salvemini and Count Carlo Sforza.92 He was in many respects an authentically Churchillian figure.93

Third and perhaps most important for Henry Kissinger, Elliott set out to show that a professor could also be a political actor. Conservative as he certainly came to be compared with the average Harvard professor, he nevertheless had no qualms about joining Roosevelt’s Committee on Administrative Management and played minor parts in the design of the Reorganization Act of 1939 and the creation of the Executive Office of the President. In 1937 he was appointed to the Business Advisory Council created by Secretary of Commerce Daniel C. Roper to give industry a louder voice in Washington, serving under its chairman, the banker (later diplomat and politician) W. Averell Harriman, for five years. It was at this time that Elliott became preoccupied with the issue of strategic commodities. As one of the coauthors of International Control in the Non-Ferrous Metals  (1938), he argued for an Anglo-American condominium to control the world’s supply of nonferrous metals and other war matériel.

Elliott had real political courage. A vocal opponent of American neutrality, who urged repeal of the Neutrality Act

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following the German invasion of Poland, as well as financial support for Finland and military preparation to resist German, Italian, and Japanese aggression, he made himself deeply unpopular with the noninterventionist elements at Harvard. When, in late 1940, Roosevelt sent Churchill fifty aging American destroyers in return for the use of British naval bases, protesters at Harvard demonstrated with placards reading, “Send Fifty Over-Aged Professors to Britain.”94 Looking back on the 1930s in July 1942, Elliott lamented “the reluctance [of Britain and the United States] to apply sanctions at a time when there could have been small danger in applying sanctions in the incipient stages of fascism and Japanese militarism from 1931 to 1938. Only blindness can explain that — the blindness of public apathy and the pressures of certain interests for profits which proved to be more powerful than any concern for public interest during these crucial pre-war years.”95

Events vindicated the “over-aged professor,” who was duly rewarded in 1940 with a place on the National Defense Advisory Commission and a job as deputy chief of the Commodity, Stockpile and Shipping Imports Branch of the Office of Production Management. Pressing his advantage, he proposed to Secretary of State Cordell Hull that loans to the British Commonwealth be granted on the condition that the recipients’ raw materials be pooled, to “set up for the first time in history a really sensible international control of the world’s major raw materials, with a view to their proper development from the point of view of long-run conservation and planned production.”96 Elliott was prescient once again when, in September 1941, he warned that “this country must also be concerned, and almost equally, with the Battle of the Pacific” and that the weakly defended British naval base at Singapore was the “Achilles’ heel” of the U.S. defense program.97 After Pearl Harbor and the fall of Singapore proved him right once again, Elliott looked forward with relish to the creation of a future “world system” under the leadership of an America that was finally “committed to a destiny of world leadership.”98 He continued to be productive as a scholar in the war years, coauthoring The British Commonwealth at War  (1943) with the Balliol historian H. Duncan Hall, and Anglo-American Postwar Economic Problems  (1945) with the Princeton economist Frank D. Graham. But his main energies were now expended in Washington, not in Cambridge, and for the rest of his Harvard career he shuttled back and forth between the two, sometimes on a weekly basis.

Like most professors, Elliott was readily caricatured by students. “Tall, robust, with bushy eyebrows, outsized features, and booming voice,” he and his southern background and Anglophile tendencies made him an easy target for mockery. To some he was “Wild Bill,” to others “the Senator for Tennessee.” Stories circulated, surely fictitious, about cockfights in the basement of his home in Concord. No book that he wrote has endured; nor did he attain the high executive office some thought he craved. It is not surprising to find traces of racial prejudice in his correspondence. “He is a Jew,” he wrote of one job applicant in 1952, “but he is in every respect a healthy and fine type, with no feeling of being a Jew.”99 “There are some parts of the desegregation business that I cannot stomach,” he confessed in 1956.100 Yet Elliott deserves better than the condescension of posterity. At a time when most American professors preferred to lecture than to converse with students, Elliott imported to Harvard the Oxford tutorial method. Despite his frequent excursions to Washington and the heavy lecturing load imposed by the introductory course Government 1, which he taught for thirty years, he still found time to meet with individual students. Those who caught his eye were asked, Oxford fashion, to wade through a long list of books, write an essay, read it aloud, and then verbally spar with him. It was this readiness to pay attention to undergraduates that drew to Elliott students of the caliber of John F. Kennedy, Dean Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy, not to mention Pierre Trudeau. Elliott’s academic protégés included Louis Hartz, author of The Liberal Tradition in America  (1955), the influential systems theorist David Easton, and Samuel Huntington, who made his name with The Soldier and the State  (1957).101

When Kissinger first met Elliott, as the then supplicant recalled many years later, he was

shuffling papers with a weary air, sitting at a desk which at any moment threatened to topple under the weight of the documents covering it. I had penetrated into his study because his secretary was out of the office. My purpose was to ask what I now recognize as a sacrilegious question: whether, in view of my Army experience, it was necessary for me to take Government 1. The question seemed to magnify Bill’s melancholy.102

Elliott wearily advised Kissinger to take another course: Government 1a, also taught by him. Kissinger was more impressed by the form than the content of the lectures. “Obviously, Bill Elliott cared. Political theory to him was not an abstract subject to be studied historically or to be used as a demonstration of dialectic brilliance. It was an adventure where good and evil were in a constant struggle to give meaning to existence, and where epics seemed to be prescriptions for action.” For this reason, Kissinger was by no means sorry to be assigned Elliott as his tutor. But

[w]hen I reported this fact to [Elliott] he intimated that his duties were growing excessive. He said I should return after reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason . This was not a simple assignment for someone with little training in philosophy. As a result, it took me until the term was half over to finish my paper. Bill made me read it to him, and somewhere in the middle of it his seeming indifference disappeared. He suggested that I work on political theory, not as an historian but as a creative philosopher. This idea had never occurred to me.103

This is a story that has been told more than once. In other versions, the near-impossible assignment is a comparison of The Critique of Pure Reason  and The Critique of Practical Reason . So impressed was Elliott by the paper (which has not survived) that he pronounced Kissinger to be “a combination of Kant and Spinoza.”104

Like Kraemer before him, Elliott had spotted talent. His response was to plunge Kissinger into the classics not just of Western philosophy but also of literature: the reading assignments ranged from Homer to Dostoevsky, by way of Hegel and much else. By the time Kissinger entered his senior year, Elliott was asking him to comment on his own manuscripts. Writing a letter of recommendation to Phi Beta Kappa in October 1949, Elliott described his pupil as “more like a mature colleague than a student…. I would say that I have not had any students in the past five years, even among Summa cum Laude group, who have had the depth and philosophical insight shown by Mr. Kissinger.”105 Elliott had his reservations, to be sure, but his criticisms were more revealing of his own prejudices than his pupil’s defects. Kissinger’s mind, he wrote, “lacks grace and is Teutonic in its systematic thoroughness. He has a certain emotional bent, perhaps from a refugee origin, that occasionally comes out…. He needs to develop his range in the arts and in some aspects of the humanities, particularly on the aesthetic side.”106 It is worth adding that this reference was written before Kissinger delivered the senior thesis that was to be the crowning achievement of his undergraduate career and an enduring proof of William Yandell Elliott’s influence on him.


“The Meaning of History” has gone down in history — as the longest-ever thesis written by a Harvard senior and the origin of the current limit on length (35,000 words, or around 140 pages, still known to some as “the Kissinger rule”).107 The thesis was 388 pages long — and this was after chapters on Hegel and Schweitzer had been cut. According to one account, Friedrich refused to read past page 150.108 But its size was not the most remarkable thing about it. In a dazzling distillation of three years’ worth of reading, Kissinger gives us not just Spengler, Toynbee, and Kant but also Collingwood, Dante, Darwin, Descartes, Dostoevsky, Goethe, Hegel, Hobbes, Holmes, Homer, Hume, Locke, Milton, Plato, Sartre, Schweitzer, Spinoza, Tolstoy, Vico, Virgil, and Whitehead — as well as Bradley, Huntington, Joseph, Poincaré, Reichenbach, Royce, Russell, Sheffer, Stebbing, and Veblen in the appendix on the logic of meaning. It is unmistakably a young man’s book: an exercise in academic exhibitionism, marred by jejune slips like misspelling Sartre as “Satre” and treating data  and phenomena  as singular and polis  as plural (reminders that Kissinger had been denied a classical education in Germany).109 Much of the dissertation is taken up with detailed exposition of the three key authors’ arguments, but — partly because Kissinger omitted phrases like “As Spengler says” in order to save space — it is sometimes hard to tell where the authors’ views end and Kissinger’s commentary begins. As a result, more than one reader has wrongly attributed Spengler’s cultural pessimism to Kissinger himself.110 Yet the thesis, for all its flaws, deserved its Summa grade. It also provides valuable insights into Elliott’s influence on Kissinger, which extended far beyond the old-fashioned substitution of “ever” for “always,” an idiosyncrasy picked up from Elliott’s orotund prose.

Oswald Spengler, Arnold J. Toynbee, and Immanuel Kant were strange bedfellows, to say the least. Whereas Kant, then as now, was revered as one of the towering figures of Western philosophy, Spengler was a maverick polemicist whose obscure prophecies in Der Untergang des Abendlandes —published in two volumes between 1918 and 1923—had been tainted by association with the German right (he was the bête noire of the founder of the Harvard sociology department, Pitirim Sorokin), while Toynbee’s twelve-volume history of the rise and fall of civilizations was only half finished at the time of Kissinger’s writing. The selection of Toynbee — another Balliol man — probably owed something to Elliott. But it may also have reflected the remarkable popular success of the first six volumes of A Study of History,  which had been published in an abridged single volume in the United States in 1947 and sold over 300,000 copies there, doubtless helped by a Time  magazine cover story in March of that year. “Our Civilization Is Not Inevitably Doomed” was the Time  headline — always a welcome message for Americans, as was Toynbee’s affirmation of the vital importance of Christianity to the West. Since Toynbee was being hailed by the press as the anti-Spengler, Kissinger’s choice of authors was in fact highly topical. And given that an enthusiasm for Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” was virtually all that his senior academic advisers had in common, it made good strategic sense for an ambitious young scholar to show how superior Kant was as a thinker to both Spengler and Toynbee.

Surprisingly, Kissinger elected not to discuss the obvious question, namely how the three authors thought differently about causation in history.111 Instead, he chose to focus on a deeper and more difficult question: their treatment of the fundamental tension in the human condition between any theory of historical determinism and our sense as individuals of free will. As is clear from his introduction, this was a question in which he had an intensely personal interest.

In the life of every person there comes a point when he realizes that out of all the seemingly limitless possibilities of his youth he has in fact become one actuality. No longer is life a broad plain with forests and mountains beckoning all-around, but it becomes apparent that one’s journey across the meadows has indeed followed a regular path…. We have come up against the problem of Necessity and Freedom, of the irrevocability of our actions, of the directedness of our life…. The desire to reconcile our experience of freedom with a determined environment is the lament of poetry and the dilemma of philosophy…. What is the meaning of a causality that accomplishes itself under the mode of freedom?112

As Kissinger showed, each of his chosen authorities offered a different answer to this question. Spengler was the strictest determinist of the three. For him, history “represent[ed] the growth and decline of organic cultures, their essence a mystery, their moving force longing and their manifestation power.”113 There is no need here to dwell on Kissinger’s somewhat protracted exegesis. All that matters is that Spengler’s insistence on a universal cycle from biology to culture to civilization and back to biology left Kissinger unconvinced: “The opposition between waking-consciousness and becoming, between Time and Space, History and Causality[,] expresses, but does not resolve, the dilemma of the experience of freedom in a determined environment.”114

Toynbee also fell short — indeed, a good deal shorter. True, he appeared to offer a role for purposiveness in history, as against Spengler’s fatalism. Civilizations can choose to respond to an environmental challenge, can choose to continue clawing their way up the metaphorical cliff face of history. Yet if the ultimate meaning of history is a working out of God’s will, then as Kissinger wrote, “[w]e have not really transcended Spengler” at all. “History is not a book designed to illustrate the New Testament,” he declared, dismissing Toynbee’s magnum opus as mere “superimposition of an empirical method on a theological foundation.”115

As he had been taught by Elliott to do, Kissinger showed how Kant had established a realm for freedom by drawing a distinction between the phenomenal world, which is both perceived by reason and deterministic, and the noumenal world of things-in-themselves, perceptible only by inward experience. “The experience of freedom in a determined environment is [thus] seen to be potentially meaningful after all…. Purposiveness is not revealed by phenomenal reality but constitutes the resolve of a soul. Freedom does have a place in a determined universe.”116 Kissinger also praised Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative.* Aside from its significance in the realm of ethics, the categorical imperative provided “the frame-work for Kant’s philosophy of history,” for “[i]f the transcendental experience of freedom represents the condition for the apprehension of the greater [noumenal] truth at the core of all phenomenal appearances, then its maxims must [also] constitute norms in the political field. Peace is therefore the noblest goal of human endeavor, the affirmation of the ultimacy of man’s moral personality.”117

In other words, the pursuit of peace is the noblest of all acts of free will. But here Kissinger believed he had caught Kant out. In the essay on “Perpetual Peace,” Kissinger argued, “the duty to work for peace appears first as an emanation of the categorical imperative, only to stand revealed as the objective principle governing historical events.”118 To Kissinger, this represented just another attempt, like Toynbee’s, “to expand the philosophy of history into a guarantee for the attainability of the moral law.”119 “In order to establish the validity of his categorical imperative as foundation of eternal peace, Kant was forced to demonstrate the possibility of its application. But his proof of feasibility became a dictum of necessity and seems to negate the moral basis of the categorical imperative.”120

In that sense, “Kant too [had] considered and failed to solve completely the dilemma inherent in all philosophy of history… the connection between the necessary and the possible.”121 Though Kant scholars may quibble that Kissinger was conflating the two kingdoms of Nature and of Ends, which Kant insisted were separate, there is no denying that in “Perpetual Peace” (as well as in his “Idea for Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View”) Kant did introduce a teleological version of history, acknowledging the existence of a “higher cause which determines the course of nature and directs it to the objective final end of the human race,” namely perpetual peace.122

So where does Kissinger himself stand in the end? The answer is with freedom over necessity, with choice understood as an inward experience. “Freedom,” he writes in a key passage, “is not a definitional quality, but an inner experience of life as a process of deciding meaningful alternatives.

This… does not mean unlimited choice. Everybody is a product of an age, a nation, and environment. But, beyond that, he constitutes what is essentially unapproachable by analysis… the creative essence of history, the moral personality. However we may explain actions in retrospect, their accomplishment occurred with the inner conviction of choice….  Man can find the sanction for his actions only within himself.123

And again: “Freedom is… an inner state which seeks its own stimulus…. Freedom depends less on the existence, than on the recognition of alternatives, not on a set of conditions, but [on] an inward experience.”124

In sum, “The realm of freedom and necessity can not be reconciled except by inward experience.”125 This emphasis on inwardness makes it clear that Kissinger’s penultimate page, with its allusions to the events of the 1930s and 1940s, is in fact optimistic:

The generation of Buchenwalde [sic ] and the Siberian labor-camps can not talk with the same optimism as its fathers. The bliss of Dante has been lost in our civilization. But this describes merely a fact of decline and not its necessity…. To be sure[,] these may be tired times. But… the experience of freedom enables us to rise beyond the suffering of the past and the frustrations of history. In this spirituality resides humanity’s essence, the unique which each man imparts to the necessity of his life, the self-transcendence which gives peace.126

It has been argued that there is no “hidden connection between [Kissinger’s] philosophical perspective on history and his role in formulating and executing foreign policy” after 1968.127 According to this account,

Auschwitz made it impossible for Kissinger to believe in the universal moral principles and eternal values that formed the basis for Kant’s faith in human progress…. For Kissinger, God died at Auschwitz…. The glaring contrast between Kissinger’s Realpolitik and Kantian Idealism suggests that the lengthy undergraduate thesis was an intellectual exercise that reflected no long-term aspect of his personality and value system.128

This is at least debatable. Certainly the Kissinger who wrote “The Meaning of History” was not a “lapsed Kantian.” Nor had he come down on the side of Spinoza’s bleak skepticism, with its essentially Hobbesian view of power.129 Spinoza was scarcely mentioned in “The Meaning of History.” And wholly absent from the senior thesis was Machiavelli, whose influence on Kissinger has so often been wrongly alleged.

The correct reading of “The Meaning of History” is as an authentically idealist tract. Under Elliott’s influence, Kissinger had done his homework — had read “Perpetual Peace”—but detected a flaw in Kant’s reasoning. Peace might indeed be the ultimate goal of history. From the point of view of the individual, however — inwardly confronting his options and thus genuinely experiencing freedom — any such deterministic schema was simply irrelevant: “Whatever one’s conception about the necessity of events, at the moment of their performance their inevitability could offer no guide to action. ”130

That fundamental insight had important consequences for the world of 1950. First, as Kissinger made clear in his conclusion, his reflections on the meaning of history had left him deeply skeptical about the claims of economics — increasingly seen as the concentration of choice for an ambitious Harvard man:

As… the cold materialistic intellect replaces the sentimentality of the romantic, life emerges as but a technical problem. The frantic search for social solutions, for economic panaceas, testifies to the emptiness of a soul to which necessity is an objective state… and which ever believes that just a little more knowledge, just one more formula will solve the increasing bafflement of a materialistic surrounding.131

Second (though Kissinger thought it prudent to consign this reference to contemporary politics to a footnote), the limits of materialism implied that it was dangerous to allow “an argument about democracy [to] become a discussion of the efficiency of economic systems, which is on the plane of objective necessity and therefore debatable.” By contrast, “[t]he inward intuition of freedom… would reject totalitarianism even if it were economically more efficient.” Third and most important, “arguments that international conferences with Russia can magically resolve all differences seem fallacious…. Permanent understanding on the basis of inward reconciliation seems to require more than conferences, since the differences are more than just misunderstandings .”132

With those words, we come at last to the historical event that implicitly informed every word about individual freedom Kissinger wrote in his senior thesis, the event that was to be the setting for his rise to academic preeminence and then to political power, the event that, in 1950, made Kant’s perpetual peace seem — even to a committed idealist — as remote as Toynbee’s moment of Christian salvation: the Cold War.

CHAPTER 8 Psychological Warfare

Our aim in the “cold war” is not conquering of territory or subjugation by force. Our aim is more subtle, more pervasive, more complete. We are trying to get the world, by peaceful means, to believe the truth. That truth is that Americans want a world at peace, a world in which all people shall have opportunity for maximum individual development. The means we shall employ to spread this truth are often called “psychological.” Don’t be afraid of that term just because it’s a five-dollar, five-syllable word. “Psychological warfare” is the struggle for the minds and wills of men.


It is true that ours is an attempt to exhibit Western values, but less by what we say  than by what we do .



As a species, we seem to have an innate love of ritual. The modern age has been hard on traditional rites of passage, however, so that many people today experience only the most perfunctory rituals in the course of their lives, marrying each other in drab state registries and parting from the dead in antiseptic crematoria. Graduation from university therefore acquires a special importance. Quite apart from publicly confirming that someone has fulfilled the academic requirements to be given a degree — a qualification for more cerebral and better paid employment than is generally available — a graduation ceremony is a rare chance to participate in a festival of anachronism. Few universities can match Harvard in this regard.

It is one of Harvard University’s many idiosyncrasies that the final, culminating event of a student’s academic career — graduation — is referred to as “Commencement.” But that name is the least of the daylong ritual’s oddities. In some of the undergraduate houses, the day begins with a bagpiper summoning the seniors to breakfast with faculty members. Representing the forces of law and order (the latter of which was far from assured in earlier times), the sheriffs of Middlesex and Suffolk Counties enter Harvard Yard on horseback. Candidates for degrees and alumni then assemble to watch the president’s procession, participants in which wear the most elaborate academic dress — complete with gowns, hoods, mortarboards, and other antique headgear — to which they are entitled. At the head of the procession are the local sheriffs, clad in morning coats and armed with swords and scabbards, followed by the university marshal, the president of Harvard, former presidents, the fellows of Harvard College, the board of overseers, the governor of Massachusetts, and the candidates for honorary degrees. In their wake march the deans, professors, and other faculty members in order of rank.

The morning “Exercises” take place in the middle of Harvard Yard, in an open space now known as the Tercentenary Theater. (Graduands can only pray for clement weather.) With the president installed in the ancient and notoriously uncomfortable Holyoke Chair, the university marshal summons the Middlesex sheriff to call the meeting to order, after which three students deliver addresses, one of them a “dissertation” in Latin. Degrees are then conferred en masse, school by school. The recipients of bachelor’s degrees are welcomed to “the fellowship of educated men and women,” after which the honorary degrees are awarded. All then sing the Harvard Hymn, the only other part of the ritual that is in Latin. The ceremony having been concluded, the president’s procession departs, the Harvard band strikes up, and the Memorial Church bell peals. Lunch is then served in the various schools and houses; it is at this stage that individuals are summoned by name and handed their diplomas. The crowning event of the day, however, is the afternoon gathering of the Harvard Alumni Association. It is here that the president and the Commencement Day speaker give their addresses.

Even in the rain, Commencement is a joyous occasion. These days, however, it can also seem frivolous. It was different in Henry Kissinger’s day. In the academic year before he arrived at Harvard, the Commencement address had been given by the U.S. secretary of state, General George C. Marshall. It was in this speech — delivered in Marshall’s signature deadpan monotone on June 5, 1947—that the United States committed itself to the massive program of economic aid to Europe that history remembers as the Marshall Plan. Kissinger and his Harvard contemporaries therefore expected anything but frivolity when the announcement was made that their Commencement speaker would be Marshall’s successor, Dean Acheson.

Despite his very strong academic record — and mammoth senior thesis — Henry Kissinger played no starring role in the Commencement rites of June 1950, the 299th in the university’s long history. He was not a member of the five-man Permanent Class Committee; nor did he deliver one of the student addresses. He was just one of the three thousand graduating foot soldiers in the great university march-past. Though one of the lucky few entitled to attend the annual literary exercises of the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa — at which Robert Lowell read a new poem — he almost certainly absented himself from the other pre-Commencement events: the Lowell House “Senior Spread and dance,” the moonlight cruise in Boston Harbor, the Reserve Office Training Corps commissioning ceremony — not to mention the Harvard-Yale baseball game and the Harvard Band and Glee Club concert. These were the kinds of juvenile occasions that the studious and married war veteran generally eschewed. Commencement itself was another matter, however. For all the antique pomp and youthful high spirits, Acheson’s speech would give the occasion real gravitas.

Thursday, June 22, 1950, was one of those sun-drenched early summer days that make Commencement especially uplifting. There were also clouds over Harvard Yard, however — and no ordinary clouds. It was not without significance that one of the honorary doctorates that day was conferred on John von Neumann.* Fiercely hostile to both fascism and Communism (not to mention Keynesianism), he had played a key role in the design of the first atomic bomb and would go on to be one of the inventors of the hydrogen bomb, the intercontinental ballistic missile, as well as the digital computer. Although Acheson was to give the main Commencement address, he was preceded by General Carlos Romulo, the Filipino president of the UN General Assembly and chairman of the UN Security Council. Although he was the foreign minister of the Philippines for a total of nearly twenty years, Romulo’s name is largely forgotten today. But his words were to prove a great deal more prescient than Acheson’s. “To see Asia through Asian eyes — that is the prime requisite for Western policy towards Asia,” Romulo declared. “You cannot prepare a policy mold for Europe and… assume that it will do for Asia as well.”

The tendency to brand any nationalist movements whatev

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er in Asia as Communistic rests on another of those assumptions which need to be re-examined…. There are unquestionably nationalist movements in Asia which are Communist-led or which are abetted by Communists. But the fact does not necessarily invalidate the intrinsic quality of the genuine nationalist movements in the region…. These movements, though originally sprung from a people’s natural aspirations to freedom, are subsequently taken away by the politically sly and ruthless Communists from the hands of the timid and confused liberals lacking prompt and effective support from their friends in the West.3

These were words Acheson — and his successors at the State Department — would have done well to ponder.

The Connecticut-born, Yale-educated son of an English-born clergyman and a Canadian heiress, Acheson was suspect in Massachusetts. (The Boston Herald  noted dubiously that he “look[ed] like a British aristocrat.”) He was, however, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a lifelong Democrat. He was guaranteed a sympathetic hearing at Harvard not least because of the sustained war on his reputation then being waged by the fiercely anti-Communist and deeply unscrupulous Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, who just four months before had publicly alleged that the State Department was “infested with Communists.” In fact, Acheson was in the process of radically hardening his own line toward the Soviet Union. Having favored some kind of accommodation with Stalin in the immediate postwar period, by 1950 he had become one of the administration’s most decided hawks — so much so that his visit to Cambridge prompted hostile demonstrations by a so-called peace group, the Massachusetts Action Committee for Peace, led by the Rev. Robert H. Muir, an Episcopalian clergyman from Roxbury. (Later that day Muir was arrested for addressing Boston University students on the Charles River Esplanade without the necessary permit.)4 One of the demonstrators’ placards read “Acheson, Peace Not Bombs.” Another urged him to “End War Talks.”

Acheson’s more hawkish stance was a response more to Stalin’s conduct than to McCarthy’s pressure. Indeed, his Commencement address consisted largely of a recitation of hostile Soviet moves since 1945. According to Acheson, the Soviet Union had “renewed intimidating pressures” on Iran and Turkey, imposed “governments of its own choosing” on Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland, assisted “Communist-dominated guerillas in Greece,” “Sovietize[d] the Eastern zone of Germany,” “consummated [its] control of Hungary,” and attempted “to block the political and economic recovery of France and Italy by strikes and other disruptive activities.” It was this behavior that had persuaded the Truman administration to send aid to Greece and Turkey and then to Western Europe in 1947. The subsequent Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia had persuaded the United States to go still further by signing the treaty of mutual defense that established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Acheson proudly likened to the Magna Carta or the American Declaration of Independence. His peroration was unequivocal: “Until the Soviet leaders do genuinely accept a ‘live and let live’ philosophy, then no approach from the free world, however imaginative, and no Trojan dove from the Communist movement, will help to resolve our mutual problems.” Yet — perhaps because the mixed metaphor was so clumsy — it was not the “Trojan dove” phrase that attracted the most press attention.5 For Acheson also added, perhaps as a sop to the pacifist demonstrators outside, “War is not inevitable.”6

Less than three days later, as dawn broke on Sunday, June 25, 1950, North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel. The Korean War had begun.


As the Cold War recedes from memory into history, the most important thing to remember about it is that it was  a war. It was not a Hot Peace. The second most important thing to remember about it was that it was never the war that its many prophets foresaw from the moment the phrase Cold War  was first borrowed from Orwell by the journalist Herbert Bayard Swope and popularized by Walter Lippmann. Through the distorting rearview mirror of hindsight, we see either a classical tale of two rival empires or a Manichean struggle between two incompatible ideologies — or rather, we see both. On closer inspection, what happened was rather peculiar. Most of those who predicted a U.S.-Soviet conflict in the later 1940s assumed that it would at some point manifest itself as a full-scale “Third World War”—nuclear and/or conventional — with Europe as the principal battleground. That, indeed, is the war that the generals on both sides prepared for right down to the 1980s. But that was precisely the war that did not happen. Instead, the Cold War was fought as a series of localized conflicts almost everywhere except  Europe, with Asia as the main war zone. American and Soviet forces never directly fought one another, but at least one of the sides in every war fought between 1950 and 1990 was — or was believed to be — a superpower proxy.

The Cold War, John Gaddis has argued, was the most unexpected of inevitabilities.7 To begin with, the rapid breakdown of the wartime coalition between the United States and the Soviet Union was not as unavoidable as it now seems.8 Stalin seemed flexible in preparing for the postwar period. Socialism, he remarked, could be achieved in other ways, under other “political systems — for example by a democracy, a parliamentary republic and even by a constitutional monarchy.”9 In June 1944 he told the Lublin Poles that their country would “need alliances with the Western states, with Great Britain, France, and friendly relations with America.”10 Truman, too, had good reasons to continue the wartime coalition. “I like Stalin,” he wrote his wife after his first meeting with the great tyrant. “He is straightforward. Knows what he wants and will compromise when he can’t get it.”11

Why, then, did the division of the spoils between Germany’s conquerors not remain amicable? The “percentage agreement” Churchill and Stalin had sketched in Moscow in October 1944 seemed not unreasonable, carving up the Balkans more or less equally. Roosevelt’s tacit sacrifice of the Poles at Yalta was ignoble, but it too might have formed the basis for peaceful coexistence. There was nothing in what Stalin said to Milovan Djilas—“Whoever occupies a territory also imposes his own social system”—that made superpower conflict inevitable, provided the respective spheres of influence were recognized and respected. The problem was the nagging suspicion, first articulated on the American side by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, that Stalin would not rest content with any agreed percentage of Europe or any other region. As early as October 27, 1945, Truman was telling himself (in a note), “Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language another war is in the making.”12 This sentiment was given strategic substance four months later, when George Kennan sent the State Department his Long Telegram, perhaps the most famous communication in the history of American foreign policy.13

The son of a Scottish Presbyterian from Wisconsin, Kennan had seen Stalinism at close quarters during a spell at the U.S. embassy in Moscow at the height of the purges. He had become so disillusioned with the failure of both Roosevelt and his successor Harry Truman to discern Stalin’s true intentions that in August 1945 he had offered his resignation, citing “a deep sense of frustration over our squandering of the political assets won at such cost by our recent war effort [and] over our failure to follow up our victories politically.”14 Toward the end of his second posting to Russia, however, he was asked by the State Department to comment on recent Soviet actions. His reply was to lay the foundation for an entire generation of American strategists, not least Henry Kissinger. Read today, with due allowance for the telegraphic style, the Long Telegram is a surprisingly subtle document. “USSR still lives in antagonistic ‘capitalist encirclement,’” Kennan argued, “with which in the long run there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence…. At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional… sense of insecurity.” (As Kennan arrestingly put it in a dispatch in March 1946, “Nothing short of complete disarmament, delivery of our air and naval forces to Russia and resigning of powers of government to American Communists” would allay Stalin’s “baleful misgivings.”)15 For both ideological and historical reasons, Soviet policy could therefore be summed up as follows:

Everything must be done to advance relative strength of USSR as factor in international society. Conversely, no opportunity must be missed to reduce strength and influence… of capitalist powers…. We have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with US there can be no permanent modus vivendi [;] that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.16

Kennan was quite clear that the Soviets intended to extend their influence not just in Europe but all over the world. In the Long Telegram, he named as potential targets northern Iran, Turkey, the Middle East, and even Argentina. Economic blandishments would achieve nothing, because “in international economic matters, Soviet policy will really be dominated by pursuit of autarchy.” There was only one thing to which Moscow would respond: force. “Impervious to logic of reason [but] highly sensitive to logic of force… it can easily withdraw — and usually does when strong resistance is encountered.”

Any successful intervention in strategic debate succeeds because it crystallizes what others are already thinking. Kennan’s argument dovetailed perfectly with Churchill’s clarion warning at Fulton, Missouri, of an “iron curtain” descending across Europe. Two other American experts, Clark Clifford and George Elsey, were even more alarmist in arguing, just a few months later, that “the Soviet Union… was bent on world domination.”17 In Truman’s mind, what lent credibility to such analyses was not Stalin’s drive to install pro-Soviet governments in Eastern Europe so much as his demand in August 1946 that Turkey grant him territory and even naval bases in the Dardanelles. When Truman sent the Sixth Fleet into the eastern Mediterranean, Stalin backed down — precisely as Kennan had foreseen.18 The president was now convinced. When Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace spoke up against “getting tough,” he was forced to resign. In Kennan’s phrase, there would be no more “fatuous gestures of appeasement.”19

Yet Kennan was no warmonger. In his address to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on January 7, 1947, he argued that it would be possible for the United States and its allies to “contain” Soviet power—“if it were done courteously and in a non-provocative way”—for long enough to allow internal changes to come about in Russia.20 Later that year Kennan elaborated on what he meant by “containment” in a Foreign Affairs  article entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” published under the sensational byline “X.” “Soviet power,” he argued, “… bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and… the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.” Any “mystical, messianic movement” would “adjust[] itself in one way or another,” either by breaking up or “mellowing,” if it was effectively “frustrated.” U.S. policy should therefore be “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies… by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.”21 As a diplomat, Kennan conceived of containment as a primarily diplomatic rather than military strategy; its firmness would be conveyed in telegrams, rather than in armored divisions or missiles. In the context of 1947, however, it was not difficult to read at least one of his definitions of the new strategy—“to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world”—as a mandate for the worldwide use of force even in response to mere “signs” of Soviet encroachment.22

At first, as it turned out, containment would be economic. When the financially overstretched British government announced the cancellation of aid to Greece and Turkey, the “Truman doctrine” was devised to persuade Congress that the United States should step into the breach. All that was really wanted was money, but — encouraged by Marshall, Acheson, and Assistant Secretary of State Will Clayton — Truman couched the request as part of a worldwide struggle between two “alternative ways of life,” in which the United States should “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” (Kennan in fact disapproved of the messianic rhetoric of Truman’s speech, but even to an astute commentator like Lippmann, it was functionally indistinguishable from containment as Kennan had defined it.)23 The next phase of containment was also economic: the Marshall Plan. Again, all the United States needed to send Europe was money — a sum equivalent to 1.1 percent of GDP each year from 1946 to 1952. But this time there was a twist of Kennan’s devising: the Soviets and their Eastern European puppets were invited to participate in the “European Recovery Program” on the carefully calculated assumption that Stalin would refuse — which he duly did. A further twist was Marshall’s insistence on not just the economic recovery but also the political reorganization of the western zones of Germany. Stalin — who, on reflection, preferred the idea of a united but demilitarized Germany — was outmaneuvered again. When he sought to turn the tables by blockading access to West Berlin by road or rail, he suffered a third reverse in the form of the airlift of supplies, a triumph of American logistics.

It is not difficult to imagine different outcomes from the threefold partition — of Europe, Germany, and Berlin — that was more or less complete by May 1949, when the Federal Republic of Germany was established. Kennan himself hankered after a united, neutral Germany (“Program A”) and the Soviets repeatedly proposed such a solution.24 Indeed, this was probably the “Trojan dove” Acheson referred to in his Commencement address. There was nothing preordained about Communist rule in Eastern Europe: that had to be imposed by brutal methods and in some cases (East Berlin 1953, Budapest 1956, Prague 1968, Gdansk 1981) reimposed. Nor was it inevitable that the Communists of Western Europe would all fail in their bids for power: in France and Italy, where they could count on up to a fifth of the popular vote, the Americans had to act to ensure their exclusion, though their methods were far more subtle than the Soviets’. Perhaps the surprising thing is that so few European countries ended up in the “gray areas” occupied by Finland (capitalist, democratic, but neutral if not actually pro-Soviet) or Yugoslavia (Communist, undemocratic, but outside the Soviet bloc).

What made the process of polarization so far-reaching was the fact that, in the course of 1948, containment began to evolve — to Kennan’s growing dismay — into a military rather than just a diplomatic or economic strategy. The brazenness of the Soviet coup in Prague was one reason this happened. Another was the initiative of the Western Europeans themselves: the precursor to NATO was the Brussels Treaty, a fifty-year defensive military alliance between Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. But the principal reason was the American realization that the unexpectedly swift crumbling of the European colonial empires was presenting the Soviets with even richer pickings than Eastern Europe. Stalin’s injunction to the Politburo in March 1948 to “energetically support the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed peoples of the dependent and colonial countries against the imperialism of America, England, and France” was inspired. In the Middle East, to be sure, it was difficult to disrupt the transition from British and French rule to American hegemony, though the Soviets did their best to align themselves with Arab nationalism. In Asia, however, the Communist advance seemed unstoppable.

It is not easy to overstate how dramatically the strategic balance seemed to swing back in Stalin’s favor between the summer of 1949 and the summer of 1950. Shanghai fell to Mao Zedong’s Communist forces in May 1949; on October 1, Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China (PRC); on December 10, Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island of Formosa (later Taiwan). Mao had already signaled that he intended to align China with the Soviet Union; in December 1949 he set off for Moscow to pledge his allegiance to Stalin, returning — after much gratuitous humiliation — with a treaty of mutual defense. For Truman, unexpectedly reelected in 1948 and triumphant in Berlin in 1949, the first half of 1950 was a disaster. No sooner had China been “lost” than the conviction of Alger Hiss for perjury and the exposure of Klaus Fuchs as a Soviet spy set the scene for McCarthy to launch his anti-Communist witch hunt. Embarrassed by his friendship with Hiss and genuinely alarmed by the Soviet threat, Acheson scrambled to turn containment into a military strategy, proclaiming a “defensive perimeter” plan to defend Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines. (Taiwan and South Korea were conspicuously absent from the list.) The too-subtle Kennan was replaced as chief of Policy Planning by Paul H. Nitze, the former vice chairman of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. For Nitze, as we shall see, the principal justification for the massive military buildup proposed in NSC-68—the National Security Council document entitled “United States Objectives and Programs for National Security”—was not the loss of China but the still more devastating news that the Soviets had acquired, through espionage and their own efforts, the ability to make an atomic bomb and perhaps also a version of the vastly more destructive thermonuclear bomb the Americans were working on. However, NSC-68 was a call to conventional as well as nuclear arms.

NSC-68—a document that would be declassified many years later, when Kissinger himself was secretary of state — proposed “A Rapid Build-Up of Political, Economic, and Military Strength in the Free World.”25 Its premise was that the Soviets had a “design… for the complete subversion or forcible destruction of the machinery of government and structure of society in the countries of the non-Soviet world and their replacement by an apparatus and structure subservient to and controlled from the Kremlin.” As the main obstacle to that design, the United States was “the principal enemy whose integrity and vitality must be subverted or destroyed by one means or another.”26 Moreover, the Soviets were increasing their military expenditures in relative and even, in some respects, in absolute terms above the level of the United States and its allies. In the face of the “widening… gap between its [the Soviet Union’s] preparedness for war and the unpreparedness of the free world for war,” the United States must therefore increase significantly the percentage of its gross national product being spent on defense, which Nitze estimated at between 6 and 7 percent. NSC-68 spelled the end not just of Kennan’s vision of diplomatic containment but of Truman’s “Fair Deal” of domestic programs financed by defense cuts. It was hardly surprising that there was resistance to it within the administration — from the new defense secretary, Louis Johnson, as well as from Kennan himself and the other State Department experts on the USSR. But all this was before the Soviet-backed invasion of South Korea.

The Harvard Commencement of 1950 was thus a beginning — not only of three thousand postgraduation careers but also of a new and dangerous era. For Henry Kissinger and his contemporaries, their lives would henceforth be lived, for very nearly forty years, under the shadow of a Third World War. We know now that the Cold War did not escalate to the point of outright war between the United States and the Soviet Union. To the Class of 1950, however, the probability of a “Long Peace” lasting until the late 1980s and ending with the kind of Soviet collapse Kennan had predicted in the Long Telegram seemed very low indeed. To the generation that had fought the Germans and the Japanese, the Korean War looked very much like the prelude to the next global conflagration. The return to the fray of Douglas MacArthur, outflanking the North Korean army at Inchon and driving them back across the 38th parallel, was a moment of sublime nostalgia, followed within months by abject panic as the Chinese launched their offensive across the Yalu River and almost routed MacArthur’s forces. True, by May 1951 Truman had sacked MacArthur for insubordination, and his replacement, General Matthew B. Ridgway, had halted Mao’s advance, while the Soviets had put out the first peace feelers in New York. Still, the atmosphere between the superpowers remained poisonous throughout the early 1950s, exemplified in October 1952 by the ignominious expulsion of Kennan from Russia after the briefest of tenures as U.S. ambassador. True, it was an uncharacteristic gaffe for Kennan to tell reporters in Berlin that “his isolation in the Soviet capital today is worse than he experienced as an interned U.S. diplomat in Germany after… the Nazis declared war on the United States.” But he was certainly not alone in regarding this new phase of the Cold War as the all-too-familiar process whereby a regional war begets a world war.


Today many academics find it difficult to understand, much less to condone, the commitment of America’s preeminent university to the national security strategy of the United States during the Cold War. A tone of indignation pervades many accounts of the relationships between academia and the various federal agencies responsible for countering the Soviet threat, as if there were something fundamentally wrong about professors contributing to the defense of their country.27 To repeat: the Cold War was  a war. The Soviet Union never invaded the United States, of course, but it pointed nuclear missiles at it, deployed spies against it, and hurled abuse at it. The Kremlin also showed itself adept at exporting its profoundly illiberal ideology and system of government to other countries, including some, like Cuba, geographically close to the United States. To imply that Harvard should somehow have declined to assist the Department of Defense or the CIA is to underestimate both the magnitude of the threat posed by Soviet Communism and the value of the assistance that the university could offer.

To the newly minted bachelor of arts Henry Kissinger, as to the honorary doctor of science John von Neumann, it was a matter of course that they, as scholars forced to leave Europe by the menace of totalitarianism, should offer their services to the government that, of all governments in the world, made the most explicit commitment to uphold individual liberty. Nor was it necessary to be a refugee to take that view. President Conant used his own Commencement address to denounce “the rapid spread of a philosophy which denies the premises which all scholars once took for granted. I am referring, of course, to the attitude of all who subscribe to the Soviet interpretation of the philosophy known as ‘dialectical materialism’… an authoritarian doctrine interpreted by the central committee of the Communist Party.”28 As a member of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission as well as the Joint Research and Development Board, Conant was second only to J. Robert Oppenheimer as an adviser to the government on military as well as civilian applications of the nuclear technology developed during the war. Unlike Oppenheimer, however, Conant was above suspicion on the question of Communism: as early as September 1948, he had called for a ban on hiring teachers who were Communists.29

It was Yale rather than Harvard that did the most Cold War dirty work, in the sense of working for or with the CIA. With their Whiffenpoof Song and YWAT (“Yale Way of Thinking”), the men from New Haven played a markedly larger role in the wartime Office of Strategic Services and in the early years of the CIA.30 It was said of the Yale historian Sherman Kent that he knew “how to throw [a] knife better than the Sicilians.”* Other Yale historians who were active in the CIA were Walter Notestein and Norman Holmes Pearson.31 Princeton, too, was an important “P-Source” (CIA code for academic intelligence), hosting the “Princeton Consultants,” a panel of senior academic advisers that convened four times a year under the chairmanship of Allen Dulles (Class of 1914) in the university’s Nassau Club.32 But it would be a mistake to understate Harvard’s role in early Cold War intelligence. William L. Langer, the Coolidge Professor of History, was the director of Research and Analysis at OSS, which went on to become, still under his leadership, the CIA’s Office of National Estimates. Though he was educated at Yale, it was at Harvard that McGeorge Bundy* became a tenured professor and, in 1953, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Bundy was proud of the fact that the postwar area studies programs at Harvard were “manned, directed, or stimulated by graduates of the OSS — a remarkable institution, half cops and robbers, half faculty meeting.” It was entirely desirable, he told an audience at Johns Hopkins, that there should be “a big measure of interpenetration between universities with area programs and the information-gathering agencies of the United States.”33

It is not difficult retrospectively to depict this interpenetration in a sinister light, with Harvard reduced to a mere “extension of government” and the young, ambitious, yet insecure Kissinger eagerly aligning himself with the national security state for his own self-advancement.34 But this misreads the evidence. Kissinger was a student of government. The two professors with whom he had most to do were keenly interested in the formulation of U.S. strategy toward the Soviet Union. It was hardly surprising that he followed their lead. Carl Friedrich had in fact foreseen as early as November 1941 that

the [postwar] world would be divided between the Anglo-American and the Soviet Russian sphere of influence — unless England, too, had gone communist (which is conceivable, though not too likely)…. A considerable number of peoples, in the Americas and Western Europe, probably will be clustered around the United States, while a good part of Asia and Eastern Europe will be grouped around Moscow…. The polarity of outlook between Moscow and Washington will be reflected in internal tensions everywhere, giving rise to civil war situations in marginal territories.35

In his New Image of the Common Man,  Friedrich had noted the “entirely unprecedented” nature of the Cold War.

History knows balanced systems of several states. History knows universal empires…. [H]istory does not know the polarity of two giant continental powers with peculiar opportunities for defense and autonomy. But what is more unusual yet is that each of these two powers rests upon a creed. Each resembles a church and shares with churches the wish to convert everyone to their creed: They are missionary, and cannot help being missionary.36

One of the tasks he gave Kissinger as a graduate student was to help him edit a handbook on East Germany intended for use by the U.S. military.

It was William Yandell Elliott, nevertheless, who remained much the bigger influence on Kissinger. Elliott itched to do his bit for American security. As early as 1946, he was proposing to counter the Soviet “power system” by increasing the powers of the United Nations.37 He was among those who argued for putting nuclear weapons under international control to avoid an “armament race.”38 The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights struck him as offering a basis for Kant’s “perpetual peace,” were it not for the Soviet Union’s refusal to vote for it.39 By the late 1940s, Elliott was acting as an “occasional consultant” to Frank Wisner, the CIA’s deputy director for plans, who had been a highly effective OSS agent in Istanbul and the Balkans.40 However, despite his lobbying of William Jackson, the agency’s deputy director, he could ascend no higher.41 In 1951 Elliott had to accept “inactive status” at the CIA, with all future consulting work to be done “gratis.” Yet no rebuff was strong enough to keep him away from the nation’s capital. He became an adviser to the House Special Committee on Postwar Economic Policy and Planning, chaired by Mississippi Democrat William M. Colmer

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. He also served as staff director for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the House Select Committee on Foreign Aid, headed by Christian A. Herter of Massachusetts (later briefly secretary of state), writing most of the Herter Committee’s report on postwar conditions in Europe, a crucial source of support for the Marshall Plan. It was on this committee that Elliott first encountered a freshman representative from California named Richard Nixon, a shy and untrusting Quaker who had a knack for stirring up an audience and who came to national attention with his implacable pursuit of Alger Hiss.42 The Herter Committee also brought Nixon into contact for the first time with Frank Lindsay, then with the CIA, a friendship that was to bear important fruit nearly two decades later.43

Elliott was indefatigable. He wrote an article about U.S. aid to developing countries;44 he served as assistant director of the Office of Defense Mobilization during the Korean War; he chaired the foreign policy study group of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and the Committee on American Education and Communism, which advanced a program to teach the youth of the country the “cold, basic, hard facts about international Communism”; he also served (along with Bundy, Kennan, and Arthur Schlesinger) on another Woodrow Wilson study group charged with investigating “how the structure and practices of our government might be improved to permit the full and effective discharge of American responsibilities and obligations.” Significantly, the answer the group provided was to increase presidential power relative to both Congress and the bureaucracy of the various executive departments.45 Elliott was prepared to go even further than his colleagues in this direction, praising the British practice of placing “strict limits [on] parliamentary inquiries into matters affecting foreign policy.”46 He also argued for “giv[ing] the President the constitutional power to call one election during his term on an issue of his own choosing — an election in which both he and Congressmen would stand”—in other words, giving the president the prime ministerial power to “go to the country” at will.47

At times, Elliott’s enthusiasm for all things British verged on self-parody, as in his radio lecture on “The British Commonwealth Spirit.”48 He lobbied vainly for more than a decade to establish an American version of the “Round Table” he had encountered as a Rhodes scholar at Balliol.49 He lamented the American decision not to back the United Kingdom during the Suez Crisis, arguing that Nasser had been the aggressor in nationalizing the canal.50 Even in the late 1950s, Elliott was still hostile to Arab, Asian, and African nationalism, assuring Nixon that colonial peoples were not yet ready for “the responsibilities of modern statehood.”51 Yet Elliott’s arguments for increasing presidential power in the field of foreign policy were to prove more influential than is generally recognized. Toward the end of Truman’s presidency, as his successor pondered how to improve the process of strategic decision making, Elliott identified the urgent need “to coordinate the work of the various White House Executive Office Agencies… the Bureau of the Budget, the National Security Council, the National Security Resources Board, the Council of Economic Advisors, and now the Office of the Director for Mutual Security, as well as the Office of Defense Mobilization.” Elliott’s initial recommendation was to “lift… the Director of the Bureau of Budget to a super level, as a sort of Chief of Staff or Chief Presidential Secretary.”52 But he later revised this proposal, suggesting instead that Eisenhower use the National Security Council as a “staff agency” rather than a “secretariat.”

It is impossible for the President to devolve on any other official in the Government sufficient authority to force a settlement where there is a strong divergence of views among his principal Cabinet officials. He cannot set up an Assistant President who will have the power of decision. [But] he can and, in my judgment, should set up an Executive Director or a Staff Director of the National Security Council who will be more than a Secretary. If a man of the right caliber is found who possesses sufficient diplomatic skill and capacity to use a staff, agreement between agencies can be facilitated and a fair assessment of the real alternatives of policy can be presented to the President…. [The] Executive Director of the Council [should]… see that policy directives made by the President on the basis of the advice of the Council do not remain mere exhortations…. [T]he President’s backing of an Executive Director, or Staff Director, of the Council is essential but it is equally essential that the Staff Director be able to operate always in the name of the President.53

Sixteen years later, as we shall see, Elliott’s pupil Henry Kissinger would find himself playing exactly this role. It is not without significance that Elliott’s memo also considered the possibility that the vice president would play a more important role in decision making, perhaps as a member of the NSC. This can hardly have failed to interest Richard Nixon, whom Eisenhower had chosen as his youthful running mate in the 1952 election.54

Elliott was a fount of ideas. In 1955 he chaired yet another Woodrow Wilson Study Group, the report of which (The Political Economy of American Foreign Policy ) proposed that America and Canada be associated in some way with the European Economic Community.55 Six years later both countries became members of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The quintessential Atlanticist, Elliott was a founding member of the Foreign Policy Research Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. But he was also quick to realize that the third world was to be “the area of decisive combat in the political struggle which is now the main battleground with the Soviets.”56 Like so many American armchair strategists in the late 1950s, he urged that the United States engage in “the kind of training of security forces, and perhaps even military forces, capable of a ‘back up’ of the newly emerging regimes in some of these countries.”57 Yet his strong preference was for what came to be known as “psychological warfare.” As early as 1950, in a report to the Senate drawn up for the Office of Production Management, he was urging “peacetime psychological warfare” as an alternative to military intervention.58

What exactly was psychological warfare? As Elliott’s own multifarious activities make clear, it was more than one thing. As a founding trustee of the American Committee for Liberation in 1951, Elliott was involved with the launch of Radio Liberty (originally Radio Liberation), a U.S. broadcaster targeting the Soviet Union. He was also a firm believer in “cultural exchange” programs that would bring foreign students to the United States from countries that were “beginning to serve us with resources.”59 As he put it in a 1960 lecture at the National War College, “We must help find and train people to run a country before they can develop a country, before they can do anything really.” But psychological warfare also involved winning hearts and minds at home. In April 1953, Elliott wrote a memorandum to Charles Douglas Jackson, shortly before Jackson’s appointment as adviser to the president, on the “Organization of Psychological Defense Measures at Home.” Elliott’s argument was that there could be no reliance on “the survival of ideas in a free market and in open competition.”60 The State Department needed to be more active in setting up “consultative groups” where intellectuals could be “educated and often converted to the Department’s point of view.”61

The origins of “psy-war,” or “PW,” can be traced back to the wartime OSS, which had a separate division dedicated to what were initially known as “Morale Operations.”62 The idea was revived in 1947 when the very first NSC directive, NSC-1/1, authorized covert action in the Italian elections to counter the Communists and bolster the Christian Democrats.* Initially, under NSC-4-A, it was the CIA that was given the mandate to conduct “covert psychological operations designed to counteract Soviet and Soviet-inspired activities.”63 But almost immediately a new Office of Special Projects (later the Office of Policy Coordination, or OPC) was set up under Frank Wisner. Though housed within the CIA, it was also supposed to receive input from the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. The OPC specialized in setting up front organizations: the National Committee for a Free Europe, which ran Radio Free Europe, the Free Trade Union Committee, Americans for Intellectual Freedom, and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, to name just four. Wisner likened OPC to a “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ,64 but almost from the outset the music it played was discordant. This was partly because psy-war was too fashionable to be monopolized by one agency; everyone wanted to play the Wurlitzer. But it was also because the kinds of people who were ready to support organizations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom were themselves inordinately fond of quarreling. Liberal and even socialist anti-Communists had little in common with converts from Communism or McCarthyites, beyond a detestation of the Soviet Union. In 1951 a new Psychological Strategy Board (PSB) was set up to try to restore harmony.65 However, the discord continued. While some elements within the PSB, notably its executive secretary, Palmer Putnam, wanted to bring about the “collapse of the World Communist Movement” and the breakup of the Soviet bloc (“liberation”), more cautious voices in Policy Planning (and the CIA) recommended “coexistence.” “Look, you just forget about policy,” an exasperated Nitze told the director of the PSB, Gordon Gray. “We’ll make the policy and then you put it on your damn radios.”66 Yet the State Department’s and CIA’s own efforts — which included “clandestine support of ‘friendly’ foreign elements, ‘black’ psychological warfare, and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states” (Kennan’s words) — were not notably successful.67


That Henry Kissinger was fascinated by all of this — from the major issues of grand strategy down to the operational challenges of psychological warfare — is scarcely surprising. This was the new “great game,” and the best and the brightest from the Ivy League colleges thirsted to play it. It was one thing to talk to one’s fellow students about the Soviet threat in the Middle East, or the riskiness of Truman’s decision to recognize the State of Israel.68 The question was how to become a participant, as opposed to a mere spectator. It cannot be said that Kissinger chose the obvious route to power, which would have been either a Ph.D. in one of the social sciences or a law degree.

Kissinger’s initial thought was to follow in Elliott’s footsteps by applying to Oxford to do “graduate work in Political Science.”69 Elliott himself was discouraging. Kissinger, he wrote, did not have “quite the obvious personal qualities for [a] Knox [Fellowship].” The fact that he was married also counted against him.70 But this was not the reason the Oxford plan was abandoned. As Kissinger explained to the senior tutor at Balliol College, “Unfortunately the international situation prevents my leaving the United States. I hold a reserve commission in the United States Army and expect to remain on extended active duty.”71 This was the reality for a substantial proportion of the Class of 1950: no sooner had they graduated than they faced a return to army life. It might be thought that Kissinger would have dreaded this fate, but this would be to understate the satisfaction he derived from his military activities and to overstate his commitment to an academic career. The reserved, aloof bibliophile that Harvard saw had an ebullient alter ego known only to his fellow veterans. Fritz Kraemer knew this Henry Kissinger better than anybody. “Should you ever,” wrote Kraemer in September 1950, “in a sudden outburst of provocative exuberance throw stones at my window after midnight to read me your latest poem or tell me about the beautiful eyes of your mistress — I know you are married and frown on mistresses, but just suppose — I would come to the door unhesitatingly, pour you a drink and another one for myself, and enjoy myself profoundly.”72 The two men remained firm friends, Kraemer recommending Kissinger for an intelligence job—“he might well be used alternately  for more or less ‘theoretical’ desk work in headquarters and for practical missions in the field”73—Kissinger reciprocating by trying to get Kraemer’s son, Sven, a scholarship to attend a private school.74 In March 1950—in other words, before the outbreak of the Korean War — Kissinger had volunteered for a “90-day tour of active duty training”75 at the CIC School located at Camp (later Fort) Holabird just outside Baltimore, where courses included “the detection of treason, sedition and subversive activities, as well as the prevention and detection of sabotage and espionage.”76 He continued to impress his superior officers within CIC. “Kissinger has a most unusual sense of living, objective ethical values,” wrote one of them in July 1950, in an unusually thoughtful assessment. “His personality is of a rare type insomuch as his own standards do not make him intolerant or without understanding for lives, individual, or collective, led according to standards far different from his own.”

Kissinger has given his allegiance to this country after making successfully very conscious effort to understand its true nature and its true objectives. He has done this without falling into the obvious trap of condoning wholesale all of our policies or all of our methods. For his insight is allied to an intellectual courage which has often prompted him to make a clinical criticism of our errors…. [But] I have yet to hear him make a sterile criticism, or suggest a solution to a problem which would in any way run counter to either the letter or the finer spirit of our highest national ethics.77

Kissinger’s route into Cold War intelligence, including psychological warfare, thus ran through the army, not Harvard. Early in 1951 he became a consultant to the army’s Operations Research Office (ORO), a hybrid institution that was formally part of the Johns Hopkins University but was based at Fort McNair in Washington.78 The army defined operations research as “[t]he analytical study of military problems undertaken to provide responsible commanders and staff agencies with a scientific basis for decision on action to improve military operations.”79 Most of the work done by ORO was in fact on weapons, and more than half its personnel were trained in sciences. But C. Darwin Stolzenbach — a former air force program analyst who had joined ORO as a senior operations research analyst after stints at the Bureau of the Budget and the Commerce Department — was looking for a different kind of expertise. Project Legate — one of seventeen ORO projects then under way at Fort McNair — was “directed toward conclusions concerning the conduct of military government in occupied areas.” In particular, the army wanted someone to conduct field research on the “psychological impact” of American military occupation on the Korean people.80 Despite Kissinger’s complete ignorance of East Asia, and despite the fact that there were surely numerous veterans of the Pacific War better qualified to go to Korea (his own brother, for one), he got the job.81 Such is army life.

There was a Japanese prelude to Kissinger’s Korean mission. Because of the itinerary of the military plane, he had to travel via Tokyo, where he held meetings with a variety of academics, journalists, and Diet members. The Japanese detour was interesting in itself: one of his interlocutors in Tokyo told him “with emphasis: We want US to separate China from Soviet [Union].” But if he hoped that such contacts in Japan might be helpful in Korea, he was underestimating the anti-Japanese sentiment in a country that had been a Japanese colony from 1910 until the Japanese defeat in 1945. The most that could be achieved was to compare the Japanese and South Korean experiences of American occupation. Arriving in Korea in the late summer of 1951, Kissinger set to work with his customary thoroughness, interviewing American and Korean personnel on everything from the rationing of food for refugees from the combat zone to the lack of capable interpreters and the extent of corruption among Korean officials.82 The final forty-nine-page report recommended a variety of specific changes to the way the occupation was being managed, notably with respect to the treatment of displaced civilians.83 But it concluded in more general terms by emphasizing “the inseparability of military command and civil affairs responsibilities, and the importance of… a single focus of responsibility within the Army for all civil affairs functions,” the need for “officers qualified in civil affairs functions, including officers skilled in the language of the area,” and the need “to alert commanders and other military personnel to the importance of civil affairs in attaining military and political objectives.”

The significance of this report is twofold. First, it is clear that the army’s interest was not in Korea per se but in the problems of occupation generally, suggesting that at least someone in the Pentagon expected the United States to be conducting more such military interventions in the foreseeable future, most likely in Indochina, where the French were manifestly struggling to reimpose their prewar authority. Second, Kissinger revealed himself to be a highly effective army pen pusher when it came to negotiating the final draft with Stolzenbach:

I know you feel reluctant to make recommendations that our data cannot support. With this I am in complete accord. Nevertheless it is methodologically impossible to make a recommendation completely  supported by data; in that case you would have a description. In other words recommendations always involve an element of interpretation — you are always somewhat out on a limb. Now I believe that the recommendations we are making really are a minimum. If we water it down any further it will be unassailable but also meaningless. As our study develops we may amend some conclusions. There is nothing wrong with this. If one waits until one can say everything before saying anything, one will wind up saying nothing…. If we write a report that every last colonel in the Pentagon understands we must accept the fact that every last colonel will feel he could have written it equally well.

Kissinger’s impatience was revealing of more than just his combative personality: “If we start major substantive revisions,” he told Stolzenbach, “we will still be arguing while the army is fighting in Indo-China.”84

One thing led to another. Emboldened by the success of his Korean report, Kissinger wrote to Colonel William Kintner,* the author of The Front Is Everywhere  (1950), offering to draft a “memorandum outlining a possible program for Japan” as part of a “major psychological effort in the Far East.”85 Meanwhile, at the instigation of Averell Harriman, Kissinger’s old mentor Kraemer had been drafted into the Psychological Strategy Board to work on Germany as part of what later became Panel “F” of the National Psychological Strategy Plan.86 It was not long before Kissinger followed him in the role of consultant. Here was an opportunity for more travel, this time to a country he knew better than any other. The resulting memorandum, based on “several weeks in Germany,” explored the “pervasive distrust of the U.S.” in the newly established Federal Republic.

Psychological warfare, as Kissinger understood it, meant seeing through the veil of stated grievances to discern the essence of a people’s state of mind. Ostensibly, West Germans were disgruntled about the prospect of their country’s becoming permanently divided, about the treatment of war criminals, and about the implications of their country’s rearmament. Yet, Kissinger argued, “it would be a mistake to overemphasize the specific complaints except as symptoms of a more fundamental resentment” and an even bigger mistake to make concessions on specific issues.

They would be taken as one more indication that the U.S. never understands what really moves the German people; that it is talking about legal instruments while the Germans describe a historical experience.

This gives a tragic and almost inextricable quality to American-German relations. The Germans have experienced three upheavals in the past thirty years: the collapse of the Empire, of the Weimar Republic, of Nazi Germany. The older generation is of a cynicism that knows only one impetus: to be, by all means, on the winning side next time. The younger generation is confused and groping. American invocations of a Communist peril seem to them all too reminiscent of the propaganda of Goebbels and all too shallow in terms of their own experience with the Soviet Union…. The sudden shift of American policy in 1950 [on the question of German rearmament] is considered by most Germans not as magnanimity but as utter cynicism. Above all, the Germans are weary and almost neurotic and any exhortation is apt to be resented because of its very existence. The fear of a new war, new bombings, and new occupations is pervasive.

Kissinger cited surveys that showed, counterintuitively, that Germans in the western zones of Germany regarded the Americans as worse — more brutal, more arrogant — than the Russians. “This exaltation of Soviet strength,” he noted, “is the reverse of a disdain for the U.S. There has grown up a stereotype of the American as arrogant, brutal, inconsiderate, without sensibilities and animated by a shallow cynicism.” What was to be done about this? His answer exemplified his approach to “psy-war.” There was “practically no danger” of Germany “go[ing] Communist,” he argued. The real threat was that “a nationalist reaction fed on a dogmatic anti-Americanism may bring to power a government which will lean on the USSR to achieve its independence from the West whatever its ideological differences. This reverse Titoism is by no means impossible.” The United States had “attempted to create a framework of legal relationships,” but it had “neglected the psychological climate which would make these relationships effective.” At the same time, it had made German rearmament seem entirely a matter of American convenience. The Soviet Union, by contrast, had “pursued its minimum objective, the neutralization of Germany, by emphasizing the German interests involved”: “By advocating German unity, by playing on German fears of rearmament, by emphasizing the devastation of Korea, they are creating the conditions of a neutralism which seems achievable only by opposition to the U.S.”

Kissinger’s conclusion was clear. The United States would not be able to “remedy its position [in Germany] until it emphasizes the psychological component of its political strategy.” But this could not be done through “official sources nor [through] official personnel.” The key was to work “on an unofficial basis on all levels.” That meant

sending a few, highly selected individuals to Germany, to give them a “cover” which will permit them to travel widely and to establish contacts. A university, large foundation, newspaper and similar organization would seem most suitable…. Above all, it is important to engage Germans and Americans on cooperative projects so that by working together a community of interests might be created. This could take the form of study groups, cultural congresses, exchange professorships and intern programs, wherever possible under non-governmental auspices.87

In short, psychological warfare was — as Eisenhower later acknowledged — a rather sinister way of describing a process of cultural exchange that, at least on the face of it, was not sinister in the least.

Returning to Germany revived Kissinger’s ambivalence about the land of his birth. In the five years since he had left Oberammergau, the country’s economic recovery had been astounding. “Whatever you may think of Germany, their recovery has been fantastic,” he told his parents. Yet the Germans themselves remained strangely unchanged, as if the horrors of the Nazi years had not happened. “The Bavarians drink as in the days of old, while the Hessians are as disgusting as ever.” As for the German industrialists he met in Düsseldorf on a visit to the Krupp munitions plant, he mused, “Who would have thought” that they would ever hold a dinner in honor of Henry Kissinger?88

Even more gratifying was the offer of a permanent position at the ORO in succession to Stolzenbach, who was being sent to run the organization’s Tokyo office. It was tempting to accept. Far from missing academia, Kissinger had thoroughly enjoyed his return to military intelligence work. It had been exhilarating to be back near “the combat zone” in Korea. It had also been a relief to be back in a work environment where tough talk and risqué humor were both appreciated. (Kissinger could not even file an expenses claim without flirting with Stolzenbach’s secretary: “I know how empty your life is without ticket stubs and how empty mine is without money.”)89 There was something appealingly manly about military life. “I always experience… [a] feeling of exhilaration… when among men who do things rather than talk about them,” he confessed to a friend. Returning to Harvard, by contrast, meant returning to “the home of the conditional phrase and the contingent statement…. The Harvard atmosphere still seems a little unreal, particularly the serious discussion of such profound subjects as what certain grounds exist for action. I feel that more can be learned on the issue north of the Uijeongbu* than in a seminar at Cambridge.”90

Such comparisons recur in his correspondence in the early 1950s. “I wish some of our academic communities would learn something of the loyalty that animates most parts of the Army with which I have had anything to do,” he wrote in October 1952.91 “Whatever feelings they [the staff at Fort Holabird] may have,” he complained two years later, “they are more human than many associates here [at Harvard].”92

Why, then, did Kissinger turn down Stolzenbach’s job offer,93 choosing the “unreality” of the academy over the nitty-gritty of the intelligence community? Why, by the end of 1952, had he “cut [his] Washington activities to a minimum,” giving up even the role of consultant at ORO?94


A married man does not have complete freedom. Yet it is hard to believe that his wife was the decisive factor in Henry Kissinger’s decision to stay on at Harvard. Ann appears to have expected him to apply to law school.95 That would have been the safe option preferred by Washington Heights. Instead, Kissinger turned to the professor who had been his most generous patron with the idea of becoming a doctor of philosophy under his direction. There is no reason to doubt that Kissinger was being sincere when he expressed his gratitude to Elliott for his role in his undergraduate years:

I came to Harvard in a somewhat discouraged frame of mind for it seemed to me that a quest for technical solutions had replaced the perhaps somewhat naive or youthful moral fervor of the period immediately following the war years. I felt that all the hope of the world was being dissipated in the superficiality of economic promises and that an undercurrent of nihilism might throw the youth into the arms of a dictatorship, acceptable only because it filled a spiritual void.

I consider it my good fortune that at this point I came, for the second time in my life, under the influence of a person who taught by example, not by dogma; who represented values instead of demonstrating them. Much of such inward growth as I experienced during the past three years has been due to your guidance which was all the more powerful because it never relied on the fact of academic position but persuaded by indicating the tendencies of possible development, the attainment of which, as in all truly worthwhile endeavors[,] remained a personal task.96

Yet it is impossible to believe that Kissinger opted to be Elliott’s dissertation advisee and academic protégé because he sincerely coveted his intellectual guidance. The strictly academic relationship between Elliott and Kissinger was bizarrely dysfunctional, to judge by a transcript of a seminar at which the graduate student was supposed to present a paper on “The Relationship Between Metaphysics, Epistemology and Empirical Knowledge,” with his adviser in the chair. Despite repeated attempts, Kissinger manages to read no more than a few opening sentences of the paper. Again and again Elliott interrupts him, often in ways that seem frivolous or beside the po

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KISSINGER: This paper will deal with the relationship between metaphysics, epistemology and empirical knowledge. It is not to be taken as an attempt to validate a metaphysical conception of truth — nor is it an attack on empiricism. It is concerned solely with the…

ELLIOTT: Now, Henry… let me ask you this question and put it to the members of the Seminar. Do all of you have a fairly good idea of the difference between logical positivism and positivism as the nineteenth century type of Comte, for instance? Both are alike in assuming that no metaphysics is necessary for knowledge, but there are some differences, and do you deal with this later in your paper, Henry?

KISSINGER: I’ll deal with it to the extent that it’s implied in the differences between Bridgman and Reichenbach.

Elliott then presses Kissinger to answer his question, which he does. But before he has finished his answer, Elliott interrupts again:

KISSINGER: For example, if you had the feeling of awe with regard to divinity, this in logical positivistic terms is meaningless…

ELLIOTT: No, that isn’t quite right. Excuse me… the logical positivist is really trying to do something quite necessary within this framework. He’s trying to answer Hume, as much as Kant was, but he’s trying to do it to save Science — I think — to save Science and naturalism. Isn’t he?

KISSINGER: As I’ll point out later on, he really approximates an idealist’s construction, because what it depends on is whether you can imagine some kind of…

ELLIOTT: Well, now, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I do believe this kind of framework is necessary as a common denominator to the Seminar.

At one point Elliott starts to give a very rough account of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, forcing Kissinger politely to correct him. But more often it is Elliott who is interrupting to put Kissinger right. On nearly every occasion, Kissinger responds with a curt “Exactly” before plowing on. As far as can be made out from the transcript, only a few fragments of the paper were actually presented. The general impression the reader is left with is that Elliott was a somewhat overbearing windbag whom Kissinger had no alternative but to humor.97

Why, then, did Kissinger put up with this kind of fruitless interaction? The answer is that both he and Elliott had other fish to fry. What Kissinger had learned from his trip to Germany was, as we have seen, that “psychological warfare” was best waged through unofficial cultural exchanges. Where better to conduct such exchanges than on the campus of Harvard University? This was the simple but highly effective idea behind the Harvard International Seminar, set up by Elliott in 1951 as an offshoot of the Harvard Summer School. The stated aim was to “improve the understanding and the attitude of cultural leaders from a good many parts of the world where we badly need friends” by inviting thirty or forty of what would now be called “young leaders” to spend a part of the summer recess on the Harvard campus. There can be little doubt that the impetus for the International Seminar came from Kissinger; Elliott merely provided the professorial imprimatur. It was Kissinger who spelled out the key objectives of the venture in an “Informal Memorandum for Professor Elliott”: “to swing the spiritual balance in favor of the U.S.” by dispelling the European prejudice, fed by Soviet propaganda, that Americans were “bloated, materialistic, and culturally barbarian,” and by “creat[ing] nuclei of understanding of the true values of a democracy and of spiritual resistance to Communism.” It was Kissinger who initially targeted Europe (with the exception of Britain, Scandinavia, and Switzerland on the ground that they all possessed “a firm democratic tradition”). And it was Kissinger who managed the rigorous selection process, including the sifting of hundreds of applications by a screening committee in Cambridge, as well as dozens of interviews in Europe, which he himself conducted.98 The Canadian-born historian John J. Conway* was in no doubt that the enterprise was Kissinger’s plan for “getting at the cult of neutralism that is now popular in Europe.”99 Elliott certainly liked the idea, enthusing that it would be “far more effective than any amount of propaganda.”100 But he made no secret of the fact that Kissinger was “the guiding genius of the Seminar.”101 “My own part in it,” he conceded, “was merely to get the conception lined up, to raise some of the initial funds, and devote some time to participation in meetings and seeing that the students were entertained.”102

As anyone who has organized an international conference will attest, the work of bringing successful young people from around the world to a single place even for a few days is far from easy. But Kissinger was aiming at something more: a two-month program that was both academic and social in character and would be held on an annual basis. Moreover, his intention from the outset was to increase the scope of the seminar. In its second year, 1952, half the forty participants were from Asia. On arriving in Cambridge, they were divided into three groups, one dealing with politics, another with economics and sociology, and the third with the humanities. Each group was presided over by an American professor and also included an American participant-observer. The groups met three times a week, on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, for an hour and a half in the morning, with participants taking turns presenting papers. In the afternoon there were guest lecturers, with Kissinger invariably in the chair.

Part of the challenge was, of course, to find suitable lecturers at a time of year when most faculty members were out of town. Among the first guest speakers Kissinger was able to attract was Leonid Strakhovsky, a specialist in Russian history from the University of Toronto. But he was careful not to make the content of the seminar too narrowly academic. In 1954, for example, the lineup included not only Bundy, Friedrich, and Schlesinger but also the cartoonist Al Capp, creator of Li’l Abner.  Others who spoke more than once at the seminar included Eleanor Roosevelt,* the trade union leader Walther Reuther, the author Thornton Wilder, and the journalist James Reston. On Wednesday evenings there was a public forum at which two of the participants would present papers on questions relating to their own countries; this was followed by a “punch party,” which generally lasted until after eleven o’clock.103 As Kissinger himself put it in 1953, he paid “great attention… to conducting the academic program in the form of a dialogue… [as] substantial people, aware of their quality… wish to contribute and not only to receive.”104 On top of all that, the participants were also taken on excursions: to a car factory assembly plant, to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, or to a public housing development to meet with “the ordinary Americans that are so often cut off from our foreign visitors”—including members of the local black community.105

The experience of the International Seminar cannot have been an especially comfortable one. No matter what eminence the participants might already have achieved in their home countries, they were expected to swelter in Harvard’s undergraduate dormitories and to eat their meals in the hangarlike Harvard Union.106 But often they would be invited to dine with the Kissingers in their home, where “the talk would go on for many hours, politics being the principal subject.” In the words of Stephen Graubard, who was recruited to help Kissinger run the seminar, “From the day they arrived, Seminar participants… knew that they owed their summer in Cambridge to Kissinger.”107 One of the 1954 participants, the Indian literary scholar P. S. Sundaram, went on All-India Radio to pay tribute to “Mr. Kissinger, the Executive Director, an unusual combination of efficiency and great personal charm.”108 As his participation suggests, the International Seminar swiftly became less European and more authentically international. A German participant, Marianne Feuersenger, remembered Kissinger’s engagement with the students regardless of sex or race: “He was not interested in gender, only in what you had to say. I remember he did two things with gusto — he ate, and he discussed things.”109 Another German participant admired the showmanship of Kissinger’s lecturing.110

Since 1967, when The New York Times  ran a story with the headline “Harvard Programs Received C.I.A. Help,” historians have lined up to express their shock that the International Seminar — among other Harvard-based institutions — was “subsidized” by the Central Intelligence Agency.111 There is certainly no doubt that Elliott encouraged Kissinger to approach his contacts in the CIA for financial support for the seminar. Indeed, he went further than that: he sought to get Kissinger onto the CIA’s books. As early as November 1950, Elliott recommended his pupil to H. Gates Lloyd, Jr., the Princeton-educated banker who had just been appointed the CIA’s deputy director for administration.112 The following year Elliott wrote to Frank Wisner, requesting that Kissinger be given “an inactive consultant status similar to my own, but one that could be changed at need.”113 By that time Kissinger had already met Lloyd and had even furnished him with a “number of phase lines for our project”—the seminar — including the most pressing expense, which was the budget for the participant selection process. The total sum requested was $28,500.114 In a later letter, Kissinger was at pains to stress his belief in “the need for United States efforts in the psychological realm.”115 Funding subsequently followed from sources — notably the Ford Foundation and the Farfield Foundation — that are often represented as mere conduits for CIA money.

There are two problems with this story. The first is that the Ford Foundation’s own internal discussions of the International Seminar stressed that “a major asset of this program is the fact that it is sponsored and conducted entirely independent of government. Indeed, the high quality of the participants is probably largely due to this factor, since the position of many of them is such that they could not have accepted even partial sponsorship by the U.S. Government.”116 Kissinger agreed that mere “cover” was not enough. As he explained to Allen Dulles himself in October 1952, “Many of our key people, including a number invaluable for intelligence projects, have told me flatly that they would have refused to come under governmental auspices.”117

Second, if this was disingenuous, why did it prove so difficult to raise funds for the seminar from the likes of Ford? To begin with, the Ford Foundation in fact declined to back the International Seminar, so that its first year was financed (laboriously) with a series of small donations. By end of summer 1952, it is true, Elliott had secured $66,000 from Ford, but this was half the amount he had requested for a two-year period.118 Elliott complained that he was reduced to “dunning friends” to cover costs.119 By late 1953, with the budget fixed at $64,780,120 Kissinger and Elliott were having to battle to keep the money coming in. Elliott approached the Carnegie Endowment;121 other targets included the Sloane, Whitney, Mellon, and Paley Foundations. By the end of 1953, Elliott had “become quite weary of begging friar,” as he complained to Bundy, and was contemplating “throw[ing] in the sponge.”122 Kissinger, too, was discouraged, complaining bitterly to Kraemer:

[I]t is almost certain now that there will not be a Seminar. There is a complete lack of understanding about the value of intangibles and I have obtained no support in raising money. Elliott has wasted three months chasing after phantoms with a degree of abstractedness which is akin to irresponsibility and in doing so has prevented me from making any efforts until very recently. All the so-called “big” people do not comprehend what we are after and console themselves with the fact that we can simply start this up again whenever it suits their fancy.123

Rebuffed on all sides, Kissinger returned to Ford,124 this time with backing from McGeorge Bundy, recently elevated to the deanship of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences (“which has not apparently lowered his self esteem”).125 In October 1954 Ford came through with $80,000 over two years,126 but when the Rockefeller Foundation declined to match this, there was no alternative but to make economies. By 1954 the International Seminar’s annual budget had stabilized at $55,000.127 The following year additional funding to the tune of $45,000 was pledged by the Asia Society.128 Seeking financial assistance from the Ford Foundation made Kissinger feel, he lamented, “like a Kafka character who has sat in front of the door for so long that he has forgotten what is on the other side and remembers only that he wants to get it.”129 In September 1956 Ford cut off funding altogether, to encourage the seminar to “continue to broaden its support,” reducing Kissinger to scattergun tactics. That November he wrote letters to nearly thirty different foundations, corporations, and wealthy individuals; they all turned him down. This is scarcely the story of a well-oiled appendage of the national security state. CIA money certainly went to foundations such as Ford. But the International Seminar had to compete for Ford funding, just as scientists today compete for research money that originates with the federal government.

Kissinger made life difficult for himself by overreaching. Not content with running the seminar, he also embarked on a wildly ambitious plan to publish a quarterly journal, Confluence . This was essentially a different means to the same end: “to give European and American intellectuals an opportunity to discuss contemporary problems on as high a level as we can reach,” as Elliott put it. As with the seminar, he and Kissinger went out of their way to represent a broad spectrum of (anti-Communist) opinion. “It seems to me,” Elliott explained to Milton Katz of the Ford Foundation, “the best possible propaganda is not to propagandise… Therefore, we are purposely inviting characteristic statements by people who do not share our own views.” Austerely academic in appearance, Confluence  was intended, again in Elliott’s words, to help “painfully and even slowly, in spite of every wish for speed, [to] build up the moral consensus without which common policies are really impossible.”130 But he and Kissinger met with more or less the same response. The Rockefeller Foundation was unforthcoming.131 Shepard Stone at the Ford Foundation was more sympathetic132 and arranged funding through Intercultural Publications, Inc., a Ford Foundation operation. But as with the seminar, the Ford people were reluctant to be the initiative’s sole financiers.133

The men running the Ford Foundation were not amateurs. One of the key decision makers, Frank Lindsay, had been an OSS hero in wartime Yugoslavia.134 He had also been (briefly) a strong proponent of “rolling back” the Soviets from Eastern Europe while at the CIA.135 He and his colleagues were doing more than run a slush fund. When they looked at the early volumes of Confluence,  they were somewhat underwhelmed, recommending that Elliott and Kissinger bring in an “editorial consultant” to “up their standard a bit.”136 Only the publisher James Laughlin (a friend of Ezra Pound and founder of New Directions ) was convinced by Kissinger, who struck him “as a thoroughly sincere person (terribly earnest Germanic type) who is trying his hardest to do an idealistic job.”137 In 1954, when Ford decided to stop funding publications, Kissinger’s “first reaction was to let CONFLUENCE die, since I am a little tired of playing the Grand Inquisitor.” Only with difficulty was he persuaded to keep it going.138 The magazine limped on until the summer of 1958, then quietly died.

All of this sheds revealing light on what has come to be called the “cultural Cold War.” Compared with other initiatives, notably the CIA’s funding of the National Student Association, the amount of government money that went to the Harvard International Seminar was trivial. Compared with journals like Encounter  and Partisan Review,  Kissinger’s Confluence  was a sideshow, suspected of being a “boondoggle” by the CIA itself. Not only did it lack backers, it lacked readers, too. The first two issues were sent free to around two thousand people on mailing lists that Kissinger himself had painstakingly assembled. He never got close to his aim of increasing circulation by a factor of ten and charging readers a subscription.139 Psychological warfare was waged on a very broad front in the 1950s, with CIA funds going not only to academic organizations and magazines but also to trade unions, women’s groups, Catholic organizations, exhibitions of modern art, and even animated films.140 In this context, Kissinger’s activities at Harvard were among the most staid operations of the cultural Cold War. In modern terminology, it was soft power at its softest.

As for the oft-repeated charge that Kissinger was actuated by self-interest, inviting participants to the seminar and contributors to Confluence  who would be useful to him in later life, this seems unfair. Of the six hundred foreign students who participated in the International Seminar between 1951 and its final year in 1968, some did indeed go on to become leaders of their countries: the Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who attended the seminar in 1953, the French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (1954), the Turkish prime minister Mustafa Bülent Ecevit (1958), the Belgian prime minister Leo Tindemans (1962), and the Malaysian prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad (1968).141 But most seminar participants went on to lead lives of obscurity. To claim that Kissinger succeeded in creating “a self-contained group of Cold War elites who forged a collective identity as intellectual practitioners and protectors of civilization in a threatening world” is to believe that the International Seminar achieved all the aims it advertised to potential donors.142 To argue that Kissinger was “incorrigibly attracted to powerful, charismatic, and wealthy people” is to glamorize the distinctly drab activities of organizing a conference and editing a journal.143 The most that can be said is that running the International Seminar and Confluence  in the early years of their existence gave Kissinger access to people who might not, in the normal course of events, have paid much attention to a mere graduate student. But when he traveled to Europe in early 1953, it was to see not power brokers but intellectuals: the likes of Raymond Aron, Albert Camus, André Malraux, and Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris; Max Beloff, Isaiah Berlin, Alan Bullock, and William Deakin in Oxford.144 Then again, taking on these onerous responsibilities did not make Kissinger’s life as a graduate student any easier. A more plausible conclusion is that Kissinger sincerely saw the two parallel ventures as the most effective contributions he could make to a psychological war against Soviet Communism to which he was sincerely committed.

It is dangerous indeed to judge the early 1950s from the vantage point of the late 1960s, much less from where we stand today. Senator Joseph McCarthy was not some lone renegade. In July 1946 more than a third of Americans polled said that domestic Communists should be either killed or imprisoned.145 J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, told the House Un-American Activities Committee that Communists needed to be “identified and exposed, because the public will take the first step of quarantining them so they can do no harm.”146 That process of identification and exposure was in full swing by 1950; indeed, it was almost out of control. And among the favorite targets of the “Red hunters” was Harvard University.

Beginning in March 1950, the Chicago Tribune  ran a series of articles by the journalists Eugene Griffith and William Fulton, the gist of which was that Harvard was a hotbed of Communism. “Happy Hunting for Red Front at Harvard U. Leftist Profs Push Ideas There” was the Tribune  headline on April 7, 1951, above a story that called Harvard “a happy hunting ground for Communists, doctrinaire pinks, and radicals of all hues” and implied that the university was allowing “the fomenting of subversive alien theories” as well as leaking atomic secrets. The article was as tendentious as it was scurrilous. (It was hardly a clinching fact that Alger Hiss “went thru Harvard Law School.”) The Harvard Crimson  replied with a spoof headline of its own: “Chicago Trib Writer Returns for 4th Annual Red Hunt.”147 But the report the Tribune  cited by the National Council for American Education was not to be dismissed so lightly. “Red-ucators at Harvard University” was a list of Harvard faculty members’ questionable political associations, a list that could easily be compared with the “Guide to Subversive Organizations and Publications” produced in March 1951 by the Un-American Activities Committee. The organizations in question ranged from the “Committee of One Thousand,” which had raised funds for the Hollywood figures who had refused to answer questions before McCarthy’s committee, to the American Friends of Spanish Democracy, a relic of the 1930s. The Tribune  alleged that no fewer than sixty-eight Harvard faculty members were members of such “Red façade groups,” but it singled out for special attention Carl Friedrich, the architect Walter Gropius (then teaching at the Graduate School of Design), and three historians: Crane Brinton, Samuel Eliot Morison, and the younger Arthur Schlesinger. According to the “Red-ucators” report, Schlesinger had at least ten suspect affiliations.148

Schlesinger was of course anything but a Communist; he was a liberal with progressive leanings, who supported the civil rights movement for much the same reasons that he had supported the Spanish Republic before the war. Yet in the febrile atmosphere of the Korean War, the McCarthyites were doing their best to represent not only liberalism but even “internationalism” as un-American. The Tribune ’s assault on Harvard coincided with an attempt to get a bill through the Massachusetts legislature that would have banned the Communist Party in the state. When Albert Sprague Coolidge, the eminent chemist, opposed this measure in the name of “civil liberties,” he was added to the Tribune ’s roster of suspect professors.149 Fulton even accused President Conant of being “a globalist and red hot interventionist” for supporting universal military training. Another target of Tribune  ire was John King Fairbank, Harvard’s China specialist; somehow the McCarthyites were able to combine isolationism with caring about “who lost China.” It is in this context that we need to see Kissinger’s response to an incident in July 1953, when identical envelopes appeared in the mail addressed to all the participants in the International Seminar. When Kissinger opened one, he was dismayed to find that it contained “ban the bomb” flyers attacking U.S. foreign policy. His immediate reaction was to contact the FBI.150 Later writers have condemned this as illegal and unethical. But it was certainly not imprudent in the midst of the “Red scare.” (That same year, Kennan judged it wise to seek J. Edgar Hoover’s permission before subscribing to Pravda .)151

An important indicator of Kissinger’s political outlook at this time comes in a letter to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who had sent him a draft article about McCarthyism. “I have found,” wrote Kissinger,

practically no European with the possible exception of Raymond Aron who knew that there had been in fact a problem of Communist penetration in the United States, particularly in the Army Information Services and in certain other key spots. Similarly, the real meaning of the Alger Hiss case as indeed of the Rosenberg case was completely lost…. A grievous error is to suppose that just because McCarthy and [his ally Senator Pat] McCarran are attacking a problem in a reprehensible manner… no problem exists at all.152

On the other hand, Kissinger recognized all too well what McCarthy represented — as only someone who had personally experienced totalitarian rule could. Inviting Camus to write a piece on “the ethics of loyalty,” Kissinger sought to define the problem that McCarthyism presented:

The issue… is how to rescue the individual from the claims of the group, and the conflict between the morality of the group and the moral precepts of the individual. I think that our European contributors have a great deal to tell us about their own experience with a problem which is not fully understood in the United States. It seems to me that Europe has had its own profound experience of the conflict of loyalties brought on either by foreign occupations or by totalitarian dictatorships or both…. Should, in such a situation, the individual concerned about his values go immediately into open opposition; or can the opposition become most effective by operating within the apparatus? It is clear that very often the knave and the hero are distinguished less by their action than by their motivation, and this may contribute to the erosion of all moral restraints during totalitarian periods.153

In March 1954 Kissinger wrote to Schlesinger again on the subject of McCarthyism:

There can be no doubt that at the moment we are living at a critical juncture. We are witnessing, it seems to me, something that far transcends McCarthy, the emergence of totalitarian democracy. It is the essence of a democratic system that the loser can accept his defeat with relative grace. It is the essence of a totalitarian system that the victor assumes the right to proscribe his opponents…. When the risks of electoral defeat are so fearful, campaigns will be fought with a bitterness which must erode the democratic process. When the issue becomes juridical instead of political, political contests will take on the characteristics of a civil war… even if physical conflict is temporarily delayed. That most people, and particularly the conservative element, believe this cannot happen here is a sign of internal strength but at the same time an asset to the totalitarian movement. It took some of the best elements in Germany six years after Hitler came to power to realize that a criminal was running their country which they had been so proud of considering a moral state[,] so much that they were unable to comprehend what had in fact happened….

The real problem it seems to me right now is… to convince the conservative element that true conservatism at the moment requires at least opposition to McCarthy.154

As we shall see, Kissinger sought to have a broad range of political views represented in the pages of Confluence . One of the few articles he rejected outright was a defense of McCarthy by the archconservative William F. Buckley, Jr.155 (It was a rejection Buckley forgave.)


Though Confluence  was a failure, it was by no means a bad magazine. Kissinger assembled an impressive advisory board to help him drum up support: in addition to Bundy and Schlesinger, it comprised Arthur Sutherland of the Law School, the lawyer Huntington Cairns, the Freudian political psychologist Harold Lasswell, and the president of Brooklyn College, Harry D. Gideonse.156 As an editor, Kissinger was relentless in soliciting articles from some of the Western world’s leading writers. Not every big fish took the bait: Camus never contributed, nor did Graham Greene, and E. M. Forster firmly declined. But it was no small feat for a graduate student to get original copy out of the likes of Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron, and Reinhold Niebuhr — to say nothing of Seymour Martin Lipset, Hans Morgenthau, Paul Nitze, and Walt Rostow. Kissinger not only succeeded in persuading some of the most talented public intellectuals of the time to write for him; he also succeeded in getting interesting pieces out of them. He was an energetic editor, often requiring contributors to rewrite their copy — even Arthur Schlesinger was asked to rework an article on American conservatism that was found wanting.157 True, the criticism of one English reader was not wholly without substance: “The articles are often highly generalized, merely opinionative, wordy and even cobwebby.” The same reader also had a point about “the anti-Communist clichés which creep into some of your articles.”158 There were structural problems, too. Certain names, august though they were, appeared a little too frequently; East Asia was scarcely represented at all. Because of the perennial difficult

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y of getting articles delivered on time, themes that were intended to be discussed in a single issue ended up spilling over into the next one or even two. Yet despite all these defects, to read Confluence  is still to be transported back to a heroic age of public discourse.

“Are there any really common values that underlie the civilization of the West?” was the question posed by Elliott at the start of volume 1, number 1, to which Niebuhr certainly gave the most profound answer.159 “Is the democratic method adequate for the solution of present-day problems?” was the question Kissinger assigned to contributors to the second issue.160 Such examination-style questions soon gave way to less confining topics like “The Diffusion of Ideologies.” On this subject, Aron expressed Gallic skepticism about the American ambition “to cure the revolutionary virus by the active improvement of living conditions.”161 Rostow disagreed; people just had to be helped to see how much better off they would be by adopting the American model.162 Arendt warned against trying to counter Communism by “try[ing] to inspire public-political life once more with ‘religious passion.’”163 Schlesinger expressed his (rewritten) qualms about “The New Conservatism in America.”164

Kissinger probably did not intend Confluence  to be dominated by political subjects. He commissioned articles on a succession of relatively unpolitical themes: “The Social Role of Art and Philosophy,” “The Media of Mass Communication,” “The Role of Science,” “The Problems of Religion,” “Education Today,” and “The City in Society.” But his own preoccupations, combined with the underlying goal of the whole exercise, made it inevitable that political topics came to the fore: “The Problem of Minorities” (about which Lillian Smith, author of the seminal civil rights text Strange Fruit,  contributed an essay), “The Problems of the Nuclear Period” (which featured the young Labour Party hawk Denis Healey), not to mention “The Problems of Liberalism,” “The International Situation,” and in the final issues of 1958, “The Prospects for Socialist Parties and Labor Movements.” It was the essays Kissinger commissioned on “The Ethics of Loyalty,” however, that had the greatest impact — though in a way he cannot have intended.

A central problem of the Cold War was that, from the very outset, anti-Communism was a very broad church, encompassing ex-Communists, Social Democrats, classical liberals, progressives, Christian Democrats, conservatives, reactionaries, and downright fascists. A magazine aiming at a balanced representation of this spectrum could not easily ignore the latter categories, any more than a policy of containing the Soviet Union could dispense with them. As a German-born Jew and refugee from Nazism, Kissinger perhaps felt in a stronger position than most to offer page space to intellectuals on the German right. He did not reckon with the response of his readers to the appearance in Confluence  of the names Ernst Jünger and Ernst von Salomon.

A decorated hero of the First World War, Jünger had shot to fame in Germany with the publication of his novel In Stahlgewittern  (Storm of Steel ) in 1920. Unyielding in his rejection of Nazism, and dismissed from the army because of his associations with the aristocratic conspirators who tried to kill Hitler in 1944, Jünger was nevertheless viewed with considerable suspicion in the postwar period because of his earlier celebration of the transfiguring effects of war on the individual and his trenchant antimodernism. His article “The Retreat into the Forest” predicted that the “elites  are about to begin the struggle for a new freedom which will require great sacrifice… compared to [which]… the storming of the Bastille — an event which still provides nourishment for the current notion of freedom — appears like a Sunday stroll into the suburbs.” Jünger identified himself with the “wanderers in the forest (Waldgänger )” who were “prepared to oppose the automatism” of the modern world. He concluded with the hope that “among the faceless millions one perfect human may arise.”165 This was strong stuff to publish in an American journal less than ten years after the end of World War II.

By comparison, Salomon’s defense of the German resistance to Hitler seems tame.166 But the identity of the author was outrageous in its own right. A convicted murderer, Salomon had been sentenced to five years in prison for his part in the assassination of the German foreign minister Walther Rathenau, whose identity as a Jew, an industrialist, and a proponent of “fulfillment” of the Versailles Treaty had made him the bête noire of the extreme right. In 1927 Salomon had been jailed again for an attempted political murder, and though he declined to join the Nazi Party, he was never reconciled with democracy. Indeed, he wrote the script for the pro-colonial propaganda film Carl Peters  (1941), and his postwar book Der Fragebogen  (The Questionnaire ) offered brazenly ironical answers to the official form that was the basis for denazification. The appearance of Salomon’s article prompted indignant letters from, among others, Shepard Stone of the Ford Foundation — a letter Kissinger cannot have relished reading, much less publishing — and the historian Adam Ulam.167

In a letter to Kraemer, the beleaguered editor feigned insouciance. “I forgot to mention to you,” he wrote, “that, as in most other things, I have now joined you as a cardinal villain in liberal demonology. It appears that my publishing of Salomon and Jünger is a symptom of my totalitarian and even Nazi sympathies and has caused some of the guardians of our democratic values here to protest to some of the foundations supporting us.”168 But this was serious. Ulam was a specialist in the history of socialism and Communism, who would go on to become one of his generation’s leading authorities on the Soviet Union; he was also, like Kissinger, an immigrant of Jewish origin. Moreover, he had just been given tenure by Kissinger’s own department. Renowned for what his colleague Samuel Beer would later call his “dark integrity,” he was the worst kind of enemy for a young graduate student to make. Up until this point, Kissinger had deliberately played the invisible editor, offering no commentary, no Confluence  “line.” As he put it, at a time when sincerity in public debate was “measured in decibels” and “real dialogue” was at a discount, he had “attempted to represent as many different significant points of view as possible” and had “therefore… refrained both from writing editorials or expressing my own opinion in the form of an article.” The Salomon crisis forced him to take a public stand. The result, in the form of a reply to Ulam, was heartfelt — and revealing.

Kissinger did not seek to defend Salomon. He had been a murderer; he was now a publicist whose writings “exhibited a tendency I personally deplore, a cynical nihilism…. None of this qualifies him as one of the more elevated representatives of our ethical norms.” Yet Salomon also exemplified an important phenomenon: the response of a generation of Germans “whose values collapsed in the first World War.” While some had chosen “the road of opportunism,” others, like Salomon, had concluded from their disillusionment that “all belief is meaningless, all faith hypocrisy.” Kissinger himself might not care for such “nihilists… even when they are on the side of the angels,” but they undeniably offered an insight into the problem of loyalty: “That has been their life and indeed its dilemma, [so much so] that they have lost the capacity to think in terms of duty which presupposes a moral standard and can see relationships only in personal terms of loyalty.” In short, a discussion of “The Ethics of Loyalty” without someone like Salomon would have been incomplete.

Having made the case for publishing Salomon as a way of “illuminat[ing] an aspect of [the] total problem” of loyalty, Kissinger now turned to Ulam. He began with a surprising concession. “You may feel,” he wrote, “… that I have gone too far. I will even grant you that I may err occasionally on the side of too great tolerance.” Ulam had objected particularly to the fact that Salomon had never expressed contrition. But

I would reply that there are some things it is impossible to be contrite about. The sentimental self-justifications of so many of our intellectuals, moving from Communism, to Freudianism, to religion, always precisely attuned to popular currents, is not necessarily morally superior. To me Salomon is a damned soul driven by the furies. As a political and moral phenomenon I dislike him, but I do not delude myself that what he represents is a personal accident and not a symptom of certain tendencies of our age. I will oppose what he stands for, but not in the strident fashion of so many of our apostles of hate, who are so consumed by their passions that they resemble their enemies more and more.169

That had also been George Kennan’s most prescient warning in his Long Telegram: “The greatest danger that can befall us in coping with… Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.” Kissinger’s ambition as director of the Harvard International Seminar and editor of Confluence  had been precisely to avoid that—“to exhibit Western values, but less by what we say  than by what we do .” Ulam’s attack had flushed him out of his studied position of editorial neutrality. Kissinger had found his own voice. What would he say with it next? And what would he do?

Those who represent Henry Kissinger as ruthlessly bent on ascending the greasy pole of the “Cold War university” cannot easily explain why, in that case, he chose to make his first major scholarly contribution not on “psychological warfare”—nor on any of the highly topical subjects featured in the pages of Confluence —but on the obscure, not to say downright dusty, subject of early nineteenth-century European diplomacy.

CHAPTER 9 Doctor Kissinger

I think an analysis of the thought of most great statesmen will show a more substantial consistency than psychologists would admit.


I asked my colleagues, “Do we want a political scientist who knows something about Metternich?” And they said, “Hell, no.”



“Peace, Legitimacy, and the Equilibrium (A Study of the Statesmanship of Castlereagh and Metternich),” Henry Kissinger’s 1954 doctoral dissertation, not only sufficed to earn him the title of philosophiae doctor;  it also won the Senator Charles Sumner Prize, awarded each year by the Harvard department of government for the best dissertation “from the legal, political, historical, economic, social, or ethnic approach, dealing with any means or measures tending toward the prevention of war and the establishment of universal peace.”3 Published three years later — almost unaltered — as A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812–1822 , the book has long been read as a kind of overture to Kissinger’s own career as a statesman. Francis Fukuyama has called it one of “the classic statement[s] of political realism,” suggesting that in the book Kissinger “lays out the general principles of the balance-of-power diplomacy that would characterize his own policies as national security adviser and secretary.” It was here, according to Fukuyama, that the future secretary of state first “argued his case that international peace was best guaranteed not through law or international organizations but through a distribution of power that moderated the ambitions of the strong.”4 Robert Kaplan has seen it as “evidence of how the Holocaust, along with the larger record of modern European history, made Kissinger a ‘realist,’” in the sense of an anti-appeaser, resolved to think “impersonally and inhumanly” about power, and to defend “vital interest[s]… violently… if necessary.”5 Successive biographers have likewise detected in the text all kinds of anticipations of its author’s future conduct.6 According to one account, “Kissinger showed how conservative statesmen, who sought to preserve world order, learned to deal with a revolutionary nation through artfully tending to balances of power. In doing so, he laid the foundation for his philosophy of realpolitik and the conservative outlook that endured throughout his career.”7 “For Kissinger,” writes another, “diplomatic history was useful as an instrument for contemporary policymaking.”8

Yet the reality was quite different. Kissinger’s decision to write what was essentially a work of history — albeit one based solely on published rather than archival sources — was hardly calculated to advance his career in either the academy or public service. At a time when most graduate students in the government department were intently focused on contemporary questions,* it was close to an act of self-immolation to spend a full four years studying the diplomatic history of Europe in the decade after Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. The choice of subject was entirely Kissinger’s own. It bore no relation whatever to the interests of William Yandell Elliott, his strongest backer at Harvard, though the published version was dedicated to Elliott. The choice was made without any consultation (of the sort that would be expected today) with the leading authorities in the field, such as the Oxford historian A.J.P. Taylor, whose masterpiece The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848–1918 , was published in 1954. (Admittedly, Taylor’s book came out some months after Kissinger’s dissertation was completed, but it had been public knowledge that he was working on such a book since 1942.) Harvard’s expert on European diplomatic history, William Langer, was apparently never consulted. The evidence strongly suggests that Kissinger’s friend Stephen Graubard was right when he said, “His purpose in writing was principally to instruct himself.”9 So arcane did the subject matter seem that, even after his next book made him a minor celebrity, he still could not find an American university press that was willing to publish A World Restored . The book was snapped up by the ambitious London publisher George Weidenfeld, another refugee from Nazism, who was quick to spot Kissinger’s talent (and to Anglicize his spelling).10

Judged in its own terms, the dissertation is a remarkable piece of work, especially considering how much else Kissinger had on his plate between the summer of 1950 and the beginning of 1954, when the manuscript was more or less complete. True, it covers a shorter time frame than Kissinger had originally intended, which had been the entire “period of peace lasting almost one hundred years” from the Congress of Vienna to the beginning of World War I.11 By the end of 1953, Kissinger had not even begun the section he had planned to write on Bismarck.12 Yet there is no disputing the depth of his knowledge of both published documents and secondary historical works. The most pedantic academic reviewers could find no more than two omissions from the bibliography.13 Even more impressive is Kissinger’s brilliance as a prose stylist. Each of the key characters in the narrative is introduced with a memorable flourish. Prince Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister, “was a Rococo figure, complex, finely carved, all surface, like an intricately cut prism. His face was delicate but without depth, his conversation brilliant but without ultimate seriousness.”14 “Misunderstood at home,” the British foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh “conducted himself with… methodical reserve, cumbersomely persuasive, motivated by an instinct always surer than his capacity for expression.”15 The life of the Russian tsar Alexander I was one “whose fulfilments were found only in anticipation.”16 The French diplomat Talleyrand “failed of ultimate stature because his actions were always too precisely attuned to the dominant mood, because nothing ever engaged him so completely that he would bring it the sacrifice of personal advancement. This may have been due to a sincere attempt to remain in a position to moderate events; outsiders may be forgiven if they considered it opportunism.”17

Like A.J.P. Taylor, Kissinger could not help being infected by the epigrammatic style favored by many nineteenth-century diplomats. “It is the essence of mediocrity that it prefers the tangible advantage to the intangible gain in position.”18 “A series of paradoxes may be intriguing for the philosopher but they are a nightmare for the statesman, for the latter must not only contemplate but resolve them.”19 “Infinity achieved by finite stages loses its terrors and its temptations.”20 “Luck, in politics as in other activities, is but the residue of design.”21 “To the uninspired all problems are equally difficult — and equally easy.”22 These and other obiter dicta are part of the enduring appeal of A World Restored,  though they surely were a little out of place in a doctoral dissertation.

The most striking formulations relate to the art of diplomacy and are worth listing because of the light they shed on Kissinger’s early — and at this point entirely theoretical — view of the subject. “[P]erfect flexibility in diplomacy is the illusion of amateurs,” wrote the then amateur. “To plan policy on the assumption of the equal possibility of all contingencies is to confuse statesmanship with mathematics. Since it is impossible to be prepared for all eventualities, the assumption of the opponent’s perfect flexibility leads to paralysis of action.”23 This notion of self-paralysis was one Kissinger returned to more than once. “[C]alculations of absolute power,” he wrote, “lead to a paralysis of action… strength depends on the relative  position of states.”24 He was already keenly aware of the danger of having too much time to calculate, and the paradoxical advantages of being in a crisis: “[T]o divine the direction on a calm sea may prove more difficult than to chart a course through tempestuous waters, where the violence of the elements imparts inspiration through the need for survival.”25 And he paid tribute to the importance of remaining dispassionate — a lesson learned from Metternich above all: “[E]nthusiasm can be dangerous when negotiating… for it deprives the negotiator of the pretence of freedom of choice which is his most effective bargaining weapon.”26

A central theme of the book is the role of force in diplomacy. It was not only Metternich’s genius that restored Europe to some kind of equilibrium: it was also Napoleon’s lack of genius off the battlefield. “A man who has been used to command,” writes Kissinger, “finds it almost impossible to learn to negotiate, because negotiation is an admission of finite power.”27 This difficulty of switching between the two modes of policy — from war to peace — prompts the reflection:

[W]ar has its own legitimacy and it is victory, not peace. To talk of conditions of peace during total wars appears almost as blasphemy, as petty calculation. When power reigns supreme, any conditions seem restrictive and a threat to the exhilaration of common action…. Moderation in an hour of triumph is appreciated only by posterity, rarely by contemporaries to whom it tends to appear as a needless surrender.28

Having served as a soldier, Kissinger always retained a skepticism about the warrior’s ability to achieve political goals. “[I]t is the characteristic of a policy which bases itself on purely military considerations,” he notes, “to be immoderate in triumph and panicky in adversity.”29 He dutifully acknowledges that “in any negotiation it is understood that force is the ultimate recourse,” but adds,

[I]t is the art of diplomacy to keep this threat potential, to keep its extent indeterminate and to commit it only as a last resort. For once power has been made actual, negotiations in the proper sense cease. A threat to use force which proves unavailing does not return the negotiation to the point before the threat was made. It destroys the bargaining position altogether, for it is a confession not of finite power but of impotence.30

Moreover, a weak state unable to make that threat can still achieve its objective of “preserv[ing] the status quo without exhausting its resources” by “the creation of a moral consensus.”31 Psychological factors, in other words, are ultimately more important than stark military capabilities — a key preoccupation of Kissinger’s at this time, as we have seen.

It is therefore wrong to think of A World Restored  as some kind of anticipatory guide to statecraft by a future practitioner. The real significance of the book is as a contrarian tract for the times. Kissinger’s first target is political science itself. “A scholarship of social determinism,” he writes, “has reduced the statesman to a lever on a machine called ‘history,’ to the agent of a fate which he may dimly discern but which he accomplishes regardless of his will.” As he had made clear in his exchanges with Darwin Stolzenbach over their 1952 report on Korea, Kissinger was deeply hostile to the claims of all the social sciences insofar as they elevated materialism — or to be more precise, empirical data — over thought. “To say that policy does not create its own substance,” he writes in A World Restored,  “is not the same as saying that the substance is self-implementing.” In the case of the early nineteenth century — but also as a general rule—“[t]he choice between… policies did not reside in the ‘facts,’ but in their interpretation. It involved what was essentially a moral act:  an estimate which depended for its validity on a conception of goals as much as on an understanding of the available material, which was based on knowledge but not identical with it.”32

A key illustration of Kissinger’s antimaterialist philosophy is his treatment of national identity and, in particular, the role of history in shaping a people’s understanding of their own self-interest:

The memory of states is the test of truth of their policy. The more elementary the experience, the more profound its impact on a nation’s interpretation of the present in the light of the past. It is even possible for a nation to undergo an experience so shattering that it becomes the prisoner of its past…. Who is to quarrel with a people’s interpretation of its past? It is its only means of facing the future, and what “really” happened is often less important than what is thought to have happened.33

To “the outsider” (or to the American political scientist) “states may appear… as factors in a security arrangement.” But in fact all states “consider themselves as expressions of historical forces. It is not the equilibrium as an end that concerns them… but as a means towards realizing their historical aspirations in relative safety.”34

Among the most important themes in Kissinger’s doctoral dissertation is the nature of conservatism. At this time, it is important to emphasize, Kissinger explicitly thought of himself as a conservative. It was in that role that he debated issues in contemporary American politics with the overtly liberal Arthur Schlesinger. At a time when the majority of Jewish immigrants tended to gravitate toward the Democratic Party — not least because significant elements of the Republican Party remained more or less openly anti-Semitic — Kissinger’s conservatism requires some explanation. A World Restored  provides it. At its core is the challenge posed by revolution — not only the heir of the French Revolution, Napoleon, but also the revolutionary figure of Tsar Alexander I. Kissinger is never wholly explicit about what he has against revolution, but the strong implication is that it is associated with disorder or “chaos.” In a crucial passage, Kissinger draws a clear distinction between two definitions of freedom: “freedom as the absence of restraint or freedom as the voluntary acceptance of authority. The former position considers freedom to reside outside of the sphere of authority; the latter conceives freedom as a quality  of authority.”35 The reader is left in no doubt that it is the second definition that the author prefers. Kissinger then adds a second distinction, between motivations. In a revolutionary period — that is, one in which freedom is understood as the absence of restraint — the key motivation is “a concept of loyalty,  where the act of submitting the will acquires a symbolic and even ritualistic significance, because alternatives seem ever present.” The conservative motivation, by contrast, is “a concept of duty … where alternative courses of action are not rejected but inconceivable.”

“Right or wrong my country”—this is the language of loyalty. “So act that your actions could become by your will universal laws of nature”—this is the language of duty. Duty expresses the aspect of universality, loyalty that of contingency.

The echo here of Kissinger’s Kant-inspired senior thesis is unmistakable.

There is, however, a paradox. The modern conservative’s “fundamental position” is “a denial of the validity of the questions regarding the nature of authority.” Yet as soon as he answers such questions, he can be represented as implicitly conceding their validity. “It is the dilemma of conservatism,” writes Kissinger, “that it must fight revolution anonymously, by what it is, not by what it says.”36 In a separate essay, he defined that dilemma as threefold: “[T]hat it is the task of the conservative not to defeat but to forestall revolutions, that a society which cannot prevent a revolution, the disintegration of whose values has been demonstrated by the fact of revolution, will not be able to defeat it by conservative means, [and] that order once shattered can be restored only by the experience of chaos.”37 Whether, like Burke, one resists the revolution in the name of historical forces or, like Metternich, in the name of reason, conservatism must be primarily a matter of deeds not words, because too many of the words at issue have been coined by the revolutionaries. Significantly, Kissinger seems to lean in the direction of Burke, noting Metternich’s “rigidity” and repeatedly reverting to a Burkean conception of nations and peoples as historically constituted. As we shall see, this version of conservatism was far from indigenous to the United States. Kissinger’s relationship to the more common forms of American conservatism would never be an easy one.

A third contrarian theme of A World Restored  is its distinctly old-fashioned view of history as an essentially tragic discipline. “Not for nothing,” Kissinger writes, “is history associated with the figure of Nemesis, which defeats man by fulfilling his wishes in a different form or by answering his prayers too completely.” Had he completed his projected trilogy on the century from 1815 to 1914, it is very clear what the overarching narrative would have been: that the very success of the statesmen at the Congress of Vienna in establishing a sustainable European balance of power made the catastrophe of 1914 inevitable. The heart of the matter — and of the July 1914 crisis — was Austria. “[A]s in Greek tragedy,” Kissinger writes, “the success of Clemens von Metternich made inevitable the ultimate collapse of the state he had fought so long to preserve.”38

An ancient Empire, barely recovering from two disastrous wars, cannot be reformed while it is about to struggle for survival. The statesman cannot choose his policies as if all courses were equally open. As a multi-national state, Austria could not fight a national war; as a financially exhausted state, it could not fight a long war. The “spirit of the age” was against the continuation of a polyglot Empire, but it is too much to ask its statesman to elevate national suicide into a principle of policy.39

The fairer yardstick for judging Metternich’s policy, Kissinger concludes, should not be its ultimate failure, but rather “the length of time it staved off inevitable disaster.”40 Generalizing from the specific case of Metternich, he notes that statesmen generally have a “tragic quality,” because they are condemned to struggle with “factors which are not amenable to will and which cannot be changed in one lifetime.”41 The key problem, as Kissinger argues (and as he would never forget), is that foreign policy needs to be conducted “with a premonition of catastrophe.”42 This comes most naturally to a power that has suffered disaster in the recent p

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ast, because the memory is still fresh. “[T]he impetus of domestic policy is a direct social experience; but that of foreign policy is not actual, but potential experience — the threat of war — which statesmanship attempts to avoid being made explicit.” As a general rule, however, “[i]t is in the nature of successful policies that posterity forgets how easily things might have been otherwise.”43 This was a chronic problem for a power with relatively few memories of disaster.

The counterfactual — what might be and might have been — is always alive in the mind of Kissinger’s statesman. The peace he achieves is always by definition a disaster that has been averted. “The statesman is therefore like one of the heroes in classical drama who has had a vision of the future but who cannot transmit it directly to his fellow-men and who cannot validate its ‘truth.’ Nations learn only by experience; they ‘know’ only when it is too late to act. But statesmen must act as if  their intuition were already experience, as if their aspiration were truth.” Worse, there will often be times when the statesman cannot reveal his intentions because “to show one’s purpose is to court disaster.” For example, in periods when a foe has to be conciliated because a state lacks the power to resist, it may be necessary to feign collaboration. But — and here Kissinger reverted to a theme he had first addressed in Confluence —“[i]n such periods the knave and the hero, the traitor and the statesman are distinguished, not by their acts, but by their motives.”44 In other words, it may well be necessary for the statesman to stoop in order to conquer. By the same token, in revolutionary periods much diplomatic activity may have the character of a charade. A conference with a revolutionary power has only a psychological value: “[I]t attempts to establish a motive for action and is directed primarily to those not yet committed…. [T]he chief difficulty of a revolutionary period [is] to convince the uncommitted that the revolutionary is, in fact, a revolutionary, that his objectives are unlimited.”45

The fourth and perhaps most important argument of A World Restored  is that the world of the Cold War was not in fact unprecedented and that, by analogy, useful insights could be gleaned from the study of nineteenth-century Europe. Preempting his contemporaries’ most obvious objections to this historical approach, Kissinger was quick to acknowledge that “Napoleon is not exactly equivalent to Hitler or Castlereagh to Churchill.” The analogies he drew did not imply “a precise correspondence” but a “similarity of the problems” being confronted.

[H]istory teaches by analogy, not identity. This means that the lessons of history are never automatic, that they can be apprehended only by a standard which admits the significance of a range of experience, that the answers we obtain will never be better than the questions we pose…. No significant conclusions are possible in the study of foreign affairs — the study of states acting as units — without an awareness of the historical context.

Thus history was doubly important: as a source of analogies for the statesman, but also as the defining factor in national identity. True, “positivist scholars” might insist that “at any given moment a state is but a collection of individuals.” But in reality a people defines its identity “through the consciousness of a common history…. History is the memory of states.”

In A World Restored,  then, Kissinger set out simultaneously an idealist methodology, a conservative ideology, a philosophy of history, and a tragic sensibility. The challenge to the modern reader is to appreciate the full richness of his argument by analogy because so much of it is left implicit.

The explicit parts are straightforward. The success of the Congress system in creating a “legitimate order” after 1815 stands in stark contrast to the failure of the Paris peace treaties to do the same after 1919. Revolutionary leaders — Hitler and Stalin — rise to pose their existential challenges to the legitimate order, just as Napoleon and then, unexpectedly, the Russian tsar himself posed challenges to the old order of the pre-1789 era. The United Kingdom in the nineteenth century resembles the United States in its offshore location and insular mentality.46 As we shall see, Kissinger’s historically informed instinct was that the United States should as far as possible play the same role as Britain after 1815—that of the offshore balancing power. Yet in practice the United States was playing a part much more like that of Metternich’s Austria, an active participant in the continental struggle, with the much more difficult challenge of maintaining an alliance against the revolutionary power. This is a vital point to grasp because it clarifies the ambivalence toward Metternich that characterizes Kissinger’s account — an ambivalence that has frequently been overlooked.

Did Kissinger identify with Metternich? He clearly admired him. “[A] man who came to dominate every coalition in which he participated, who was considered by two foreign monarchs as more trustworthy than their own ministers, who for three years was in effect Prime Minister of Europe, such a man could not be of mean consequence.”47 But a passage like this should not be misconstrued:

The kind of game Metternich decided to play was… not one of the bold manœuvre, which risked everything on a quick checkmate. Rather it was deliberate and cunning, a game where the advantage lay in a gradual transformation of the position, in which the opponent’s moves were utilized first to paralyse and then to destroy him, while the player marshalled his resources. It was a game whose daring resided in the loneliness in which it had to be played, in the face of non-comprehension and abuse by both friend and foe; whose courage lay in its imperturbability when one wrong move might mean disaster and loss of confidence might spell isolation; whose greatness derived from the skill of its moves and not from the inspiration of its conception.48

While Kissinger would come to be associated with such tactics by journalists attracted to the idea of the diplomat as master ducker and weaver, the crucial point here comes at the end. For the lack of inspiration underlying Metternich’s strategic conception is, for Kissinger, a fatal defect. “The successes [Metternich] liked to ascribe to the moral superiority of his maxims,” writes Kissinger in another critical passage, “were more often due to the extraordinary skill of his diplomacy. His genius was instrumental, not creative; he excelled at manipulation, not construction.”49 Metternich was

doctrinaire… [and yet] devious, because the very certainty of his convictions made him extremely flexible in his choice of means; matter-of-fact and aloof; coldly pursuing the art of statecraft. His characteristic quality was tact, the sensibility to nuance…. A mediocre strategist but a great tactician, he was a master of the set battle in periods when the framework was given or the objectives imposed from the outside.50

His strength lay “not in creativity but in the ability… to achieve seemingly at random the best adaptation to circumstance.”51 What is significant in A World Restored  is in fact Kissinger’s emphasis on “the limits of Metternich’s abilities”: “For statesmen must be judged not only by their actions but also by their conception of alternatives. Those statesmen who have achieved final greatness did not do so through resignation, however well founded.”52 His concluding verdict is in fact quite damning:

Metternich’s smug self-satisfaction with an essentially technical virtuosity… prevented him from achieving the tragic stature he might have…. Lacking in Metternich is the attribute which has enabled the spirit to transcend an impasse at so many crises of history: the ability to contemplate an abyss, not with the detachment of a scientist, but as a challenge to overcome — or to perish in the process.53

The true hero of A World Restored  is not Metternich but Castlereagh, who did indeed perish in the quest for equipoise. Aloof, awkward, and unloved, the aristocratic Tory foreign secretary nevertheless understood that “the repose of Europe was paramount” and that “doctrines of government had to be subordinated to international tranquillity.”54 Unlike Metternich, Castlereagh was an authentically tragic statesman precisely because he could not hope to persuade his insular countrymen that a permanent European alliance could “cement the peace.” His “vision of the unity of Europe achieved by good faith… was a mirage which doomed its advocate to destruction.”55 This was not primarily a matter of personality, however. Some of the most incisive passages in A World Restored  contrast the situations of the two protagonists. As a student of geopolitics, Kissinger made clear the fundamental difference of location between Castlereagh’s British Isles and Metternich’s Central European empire. But he was equally alive to the difference between the two political systems:

Every statesman must attempt to reconcile what is considered just with what is considered possible. What is considered just depends on the domestic structure of his state; what is possible depends on its resources, geographic position and determination, and on the resources, determination and domestic structure of other states. Thus Castlereagh, secure in the knowledge of England’s insular safety, tended to oppose only overt aggression. But Metternich, the statesman of a power situated in the centre of the Continent, sought above all to forestall upheavals. Convinced of the unassailability of its domestic institutions, the insular power developed a doctrine of “non-interference” in the domestic affairs of other states. Oppressed by the vulnerability of its domestic structure in an age of nationalism, the polyglot Austro-Hungarian empire insisted on a generalized right of interference to defeat social unrest wherever it occurred.56


Kissinger well understood that A World Restored  would strike many readers as out of date. He begins his introduction to the book, “It is not surprising that an age faced with the threat of thermonuclear extinction should look nostalgically to periods when diplomacy carried with it less drastic penalties, when wars were limited and catastrophe almost inconceivable.” True, the period from 1815 to 1914 was not perfect, but it was “sane” and “balanced”: “It may not have fulfilled all the hopes of an idealistic generation, but it gave this generation something perhaps more precious: a period of stability which permitted their hopes to be realized without a major war or a permanent revolution.”57 How had this come about? For Kissinger, the answer lay in a paradox: “Those ages which in retrospect seem most peaceful were least in search of peace. Those whose quest for it seems unending appear least able to achieve tranquillity.” For Kissinger, the practical significance of the era of Castlereagh and Metternich lies here: they pursued achievable stability  rather than perpetual peace. Perhaps the most memorable lines in the entire book are these: “Whenever peace — conceived as the avoidance of war — has been the primary objective of a power or a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of the most ruthless member of the international community. Whenever the international order has acknowledged that certain principles could not be compromised even for the sake of peace, stability based on an equilibrium of forces was at least conceivable.” The allusion is to the failure of appeasement in the 1930s; the inference is that the 1950s must be different. But how exactly?

The argument of A World Restored  most directly relevant to the early Cold War is about how a revolutionary period can be ended and stability reestablished. The key to stability is that it comes from “a generally accepted legitimacy… [which] implies the acceptance of the framework of the international order by all major powers, at least to the extent that no state is so dissatisfied that… it expresses its dissatisfaction in a revolutionary foreign policy.”58 The century of stability after 1815 was proof in itself that a legitimate order had been established.59 This could not be said of the time of Kissinger’s writing. In 1954 the Soviet Union still seemed to be a revolutionary state, though not for the same reasons that Germany had been after 1919. As Kissinger notes, “the motivation of the revolutionary power may well be defensive [and] it may well be sincere in its protestations of feeling threatened.” But

the distinguishing feature of a revolutionary power is not that it feels threatened — such feeling is inherent in the nature of international relations based on sovereign states — but that nothing can reassure it. Only absolute security — the neutralization of the opponent — is considered a sufficient guarantee, and thus the desire of one power for absolute security means absolute insecurity for all the others…. Diplomacy, the art of restraining the exercise of power, cannot function in such an environment…. [And] because in revolutionary situations the contending systems are less concerned with the adjustment of differences than with the subversion of loyalties, diplomacy is replaced either by war or by an armaments race.60

Here, albeit in cryptic form, was a critique of the policies not just of the 1930s but also of the 1950s. In particular, Kissinger was pouring cold water on those who insisted that dialogue with the Soviet Union would yield anything other than (as he put it) “sterile repetitions of basic positions and accusations of bad faith, or allegations of ‘unreasonableness’ and ‘subversion.’” So long as there was a revolutionary power at large, conferences could be nothing more than “elaborate stage plays which attempt to attach as yet uncommitted powers to one of the opposing systems.” In particular, he poured scorn on those who favored “treating the revolutionary power as if its protestations were merely tactical; as if it really accepted the existing legitimacy but overstated its case for bargaining purposes; as if it were motivated by specific grievances to be assuaged by limited concessions.”61 As he put it in a 1956 article that made the parallel with contemporary superpower talks quite explicit, “the negotiators at Vienna did not confuse the atmosphere of the conference table with the elements of stability of the international system.”62

Yet there was nothing here to distinguish Kissinger from the proponents of containment, whether in its original Kennanite form or in its later, more militarized, Nitzean form. It is only by reading carefully Kissinger’s narrative of events from 1812 to 1822 that one can discern what was truly original about his contribution.

The first half of the narrative of A World Restored  is provided by Metternich’s transitions from collaboration with France, when the Austrian position was at its weakest, to alliance, to mediation, to neutrality, to outright antagonism. Metternich’s goal — a reconstructed legitimate order in which liberalism itself was illegitimate — differed fundamentally from Castlereagh’s, which was essentially a scheme for five-power balance in which Britain played the part of “balancer.”63 Unlike the Austrians, the British were fighting “a war for security not for doctrine, against universal conquest not against revolution.”64 The challenge for both parties was to persuade other actors that these goals were in their interests, too — to ensure that “what might have been considered a declaration of… self-interest came to be seen as the expression of simple justice.”65 The only way for Metternich to achieve this was by means of “a tortuous and deliberate diplomacy” to establish “the moral framework of the alliance.” Much more than Castlereagh, Metternich was concerned with “the essentially moral question of how to legitimize the settlement.”66

Kissinger marvels at Metternich’s “dexterous… juggling.”67 But a crucial reason for his success was Napoleon’s failure to recognize his own limits;68 in particular, his failure to contemplate the possibility that the Austrian emperor, whose daughter he had married, would be willing to go to war with his own son-in-law (chapter 5). Complicating Metternich’s policy was the emergence of the tsar as a potential revolutionary, aspiring to be the “arbiter of Europe” following Napoleon’s defeat in Russia. These two factors — Napoleon’s self-destruction and Alexander’s ambition — meant that Metternich and Castlereagh had to work very hard indeed to impose a moderate peace on France. Here Kissinger drew an explicit contrast between Vienna in 1814 and Versailles in 1919, which had important implications for his view of Europe after Potsdam in 1945. The logic of total war implies a punitive peace.69 The choice is between a retrospective and vindictive peace or a prospective and magnanimous peace. The former — as at Versailles—“seeks to crush the enemy so that he is unable to fight again; its opposite will deal with the enemy so that he does not wish to attack again.” A retrospective peace inadvertently creates a new revolutionary situation “because the defeated nation, unless completely dismembered, will not accept its humiliation.” A prospective peace, by contrast, recognizes that “the task of statesmanship is not to punish, but to integrate”: only a settlement accepted by the vanquished power can hope to be the basis for a legitimate international order.70 In such an order, no one — neither the winners nor the losers of the war — can have “absolute security,” which is a chimera:

The foundation of a stable order is the relative security — and therefore the relative insecurity — of its members. Its stability reflects, not the absence of unsatisfied claims, but the absence of a grievance of such magnitude that redress will be sought in overturning the settlement rather than through an adjustment within its framework. An order whose structure is accepted by all major powers is “legitimate.”

A legitimate international order is based on neither a mechanical nor mathematical balance; nor is it based on some shared aspiration to harmony. Rather it requires an almost constant process of adjustment between multiple actors — each actuated by its own historical vision of itself — who agree only on the broad rules of the game.71

This is why Castlereagh, more than Metternich, is the hero of A World Restored .72 It was Castlereagh, Kissinger argues, who achieved the compromises over Poland and Saxony that made the settlement possible. It was Castlereagh who violated his own instructions from London and dissolved the victorious wartime coalition (chapter 9). It was Castlereagh who, after Napoleon’s return from Elba, pressed for moderation when others were demanding the dismemberment of France (chapter 10). Metternich, by contrast, grew ever more dogmatic, aspiring to an illusory restoration of the old order (chapter 11).73 Ultimately, Britain could not commit itself to uphold a counterrevolutionary European order of the sort Metternich aspired to create, and which he encouraged the tsar to believe was his own idea. Political crises in Spain, Naples, and later Piedmont were, in Metternich’s eyes, life-threatening menaces to the new order; to the British they seemed like little local difficulties, intervention in which might unbalance that same order.74 At Troppau — the high point of Metternich’s diplomatic skill — he was able to represent his doomed “battle against nationalism and liberalism” as a European rather than an Austrian enterprise (chapter 14).75 Castlereagh saw only too clearly that Russia would be equally willing to intervene on the side of nationalism if, as in the Balkans, it was directed against the Ottoman Empire (chapter 16). But on August 12, 1822, Castlereagh, exhausted and despairing, cut his own throat with a penknife, his tragedy complete. All that remained after the Congress of Verona was “the legitimizing principle”—at once counterrevolutionary and anti-French — as the basis for the “Holy Alliance” between Austria, Prussia, and Russia.76

To a significant extent, A World Restored  is indeed a retrospective critique of the peace treaties that followed the First World War.77 “Collective security” as embodied by the League of Nations (and, by implication, its successor, the United Nations) is one of many aspects of the interwar order that Kissinger excoriates. But the book is also an oblique critique of post-1945 American policy. It should now be apparent what lesson Kissinger wished to draw from the Congress of Vienna: that the aim of U.S. policy should be the creation of an “international order [in which] no power [was] so dissatisfied that it did not prefer to seek its remedy within the framework of the… settlement rather than in overturning it… [a] political order [that] did not contain a ‘revolutionary’ power, its relations… increasingly spontaneous, based on the growing certainty that a catastrophic upheaval was unlikely.”78 But that could be achieved only with Metternich’s skill and Castlereagh’s wisdom. The mistake had already been made of imposing unconditional surrender on the Third Reich and partitioning Germany. The danger therefore existed of a revanchist Germany emerging once again as the revolutionary power, intent on overturning the international order. Simply because we now know that did not happen does not mean it was a danger Kissinger and his contemporaries could disregard — and it was clearly Kissinger’s intention to devote much of his next historical volume to “the German Question” and Bismarck’s answer to it (foreshadowed in chapter 13). More important, it was inconceivable that the same kind of victory could ever be won over the Soviet Union at a cost acceptable to Americans. The only way of establishing international order must therefore be by transforming the Soviet Union from a revolutionary power — which it certainly was under Stalin — into a status quo power. Here was the seed of the policy that would come to be known as détente. What made that seed flourish in Kissinger’s mind was the mounting evidence, even before Stalin’s death, that the leaders of the Soviet Union were no longer true revolutionaries and were certainly not those “prophets” whom Kissinger considered the statesman’s mortal enemies.79


Kissinger concludes A World Restored  with an essay on the difference between the statesman, on the one hand, and the two kinds of revolutionary, on the other: the Conqueror and the Prophet. As he had done in his senior thesis, he appends a heartfelt personal credo to an academic treatise. “[T]he claims of the prophet,” he writes, “are a counsel of perfection, and perfection implies uniformity. [But] utopias are not achieved except by a process of leveling and dislocation which must erode all patterns of obligation… [while] to rely entirely on the moral purity of an individual is to abandon the possibility of restraint.” Against the prophet, Kissinger sides with the statesman, who “must remain forever suspicious of these efforts, not because he enjoys the pettiness of manipulation, but because he must be prepared for the worst contingency.” Part of the statesman’s tragedy is that he will always be in the minority, for “it is not balance which inspires men but universality, not security but immortality.”80 People yearn for transcendence; that makes them susceptible to prophets. Moreover, people feel a strong attachment to their own national definition of “justice.” Here Kissinger very clearly had Americans in mind and their tendency to judge the world by their own supposedly universal but in reality idiosyncratic yardsticks.

If a society legitimizes itself by a principle which claims both universality and exclusiveness, if its concept of “justice,” in short, does not include the existence of different principles of legitimacy, relations between it and other societies will come to be based on force…. Not for nothing do so many nations exhibit a powerful if subconscious, rebellion against foreign policy…. It is for this reason that statesmen often share the fate of prophets, that they are without honour in their own country. A statesman who too far outruns the experience of his people will fail in achieving a domestic consensus, however wise his policies.81

Yet the statesman’s tragedy has another aspect: his policy must also be sold to his government’s bureaucracy. Here was the first manifestation of another leitmotif that was to run through Kissinger’s career: the tension between the statesman-virtuoso and the pen pushers he relies on to execute policy.

The spirit of policy and that of bureaucracy are diametrically opposed. The essence of policy is its contingency; its success depends on the correctness of an estimate which is in part conjectural. The essence of bureaucracy is its quest for safety; its success is calculability…. The attempt to conduct policy bureaucratically leads to a quest for calculability which tends to become a prisoner of events.82

Kissinger’s ideal, then, is an American Castlereagh: a conservative statesman who must struggle at one and the same time to educate a parochially idealistic public and to galvanize an inert and risk-averse bureaucracy, in pursuit of a legitimate, self-reinforcing international order based on the balance of power between domestically heterogeneous states.83

Today, with the benefit of hindsight, we may choose to read A World Restored  as a prologue to Kissinger’s future career as a statesman.84 Of course, that was not how the book was received by contemporaries, who mostly read it as a pure work of history. The British historian Sir Charles Webster (the leading authority on Castlereagh) was damning. The book struck him as “rather pretentious,” not least because Metternich’s “vain” claims to have “foreseen everything and pulled all the strings” were “accepted by Dr. Kissinger at face value.

So strongly is he under Metternich’s influence that in some cases he is led into biassed accounts and un-convincing explanations. He even imitates Metternich’s obscure style and often uses the same kind of jargon in his analysis, devoting pages to the statement of propositions that could be better described in a few sentences.85

The German historian Ernst Birke was more respectful but (like Webster) could not resist pointing out an omission in Kissinger’s bibliography.86 Only a few Americans appreciated Kissinger’s true purpose. The reviewer for World Affairs  found it “truly stimulating” and its last chapter on statesmanship “of outstanding importance.”87 Writing in The New York Times,  the historian Hans Kohn was also positive.88 The most insightful review was by Quincy Wright of the University of Chicago in the American Historical Review . Correctly identifying the analogies Kissinger wished to draw between the era of Metternich and the early Cold War, Wright recommended the book warmly to “both students and practitioners of international politics.”89

That review was surely welcome to the novice author. But of far more importance for Kissinger’s academic career was the reception of the original dissertation at Harvard. The fact that it won the Sumner Prize makes it clear that at least some senior members of the government department approved of it. Among its readers was McGeorge Bundy, now the powerful dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. His comments have not been preserved, but Kissinger’s response to them suggests that Bundy shared Charles Webster’s view that the author was too much in thrall to Metternich, not to mention his prose style. “It is extremely difficult to do anything with Metternich,” Kissinger countered, “because in him an essentially sterile conception of statesmanship was coupled with a most extraordinary diplomatic skill.” He was not, he insisted, bedazzled. Metternich’s achievement was “no more than a tour de force, and as fragile as a house of cards.

But in order to show its fragility, I have first to demonstrate its successes. The trouble with Metternich’s statesmanship was, as I see it, not its short term sterility but its long term lack of conception. It would be easy enough to show that he failed because he failed to recognize the trend of the times, but this makes it much too simple. He recognized it, but did his best to arrest it.

Bundy had also objected to the assumption — evident in Kissinger’s treatment of both Castlereagh and Metternich — that a statesman has a unitary character.

I… agree with you as an abstract proposition [Kissinger replied] that no statesman is all “one.” Nevertheless, in any given instance, this may not apply. I think an analysis of the thought of most great statesmen will show a more substantial consistency than psychologists would admit…. The di

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fference between a man like Acheson and the statesmen I am considering is not that they were wiser, but that they had a longer tenure of office and fewer domestic pressures, and were therefore able to implement their maxims more consistently.90


How exactly, then, did the study of early nineteenth-century Europe inform Kissinger’s thinking about men like Dean Acheson? We can answer that question with considerable precision thanks to the survival of a number of letters and unpublished memoranda written by Kissinger during the period when he was writing his doctoral dissertation. The first was addressed to his adviser, Bill Elliott, in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the Korean War.

Here was a bizarre state of affairs. North Korea, with Soviet approval, had invaded South Korea. Truman, inspired as much by the memory of the 1930s as by the logic of containment, had secured UN approval to intervene. But the initial U.S. military effort failed to halt the North Korean advance. Kissinger — writing in July 1950, before he had even begun his doctoral researches — began with a swing at bureaucracy. There had been, he noted, a “rather severe intelligence breakdown” on the U.S. side, in particular “the wide gulf between a rather vague prediction of [Soviet] potentialities and the specific forecast of a definite threat,” which had been wholly absent:

Anybody familiar with the operations of a bureaucracy will know that in a situation of obviously limited alternatives, the safe course involves the prediction of as many contingencies as possible, for which however no special information is required and which are consequently largely discounted. Security consciousness tends to become the subterfuge of mediocrity and imagination is submerged in superficiality.

The more important point about the Korean crisis, however, was “the complete moral fiasco of our method of achieving alliances.” Kissinger based this view “not… on the appearance of the present battle-line which I assume will be reversed, but on the fact that the status quo ante will be achieved by the almost exclusive committal of major U.S. forces.” The South Koreans had simply collapsed under the North Korean assault.

This underlines a concept of foreign policy too frequently overlooked: the various recipient[s] of U.S. aid need us more than we need them and the attempt to win “friends” by constant concessions is no substitute for a certain inward firmness and consciousness of basic objectives…. Dollars will not supply the moral hold without which no government can long exist. I hope that we will not mistake the nature of whatever successes we may gain in Korea. Military victory should not be considered the sole goal but the condition for a reevaluation of our previous approach. There is little point in continually giving in to governments which will collapse under their impotence as soon as exposed to the slightest strain. I am very much afraid that the resistance of West Germany and Western Europe will not greatly surpass the Korean effort.91

For a man who had only just received his bachelor’s degree, this was forthright indeed. Economic aid, Kissinger was arguing, had next to no strategic value if the recipients proved incapable of defending themselves.

Five months later, in December 1950—by which time MacArthur had routed the North Koreans at Inchon and Seoul, crossed the 38th parallel, and taken Pyongyang, only to be thrown back by a Chinese army he had disastrously underestimated — Kissinger returned to the subject with an even more far-reaching critique of the policy of containment. “The fundamental failure of our foreign policy,” he began with a young man’s sweeping self-assurance, “results from an inadequate appraisal of Russian intentions and tactics and a state of mind which mistakes clever formulae for accomplished solutions.

All the statements about “settlements,” “conferences” and “negotiations” imply that the present crisis reflects a misunderstanding, or perhaps a grievance of a specific nature, to be resolved by reasonable men in a spirit of compromise. The stark fact of the situation is, however, that Soviet expansionism is directed against our existence, not against our policies. Any concession therefore would become merely a springboard for new sallies.

Kissinger conceded that containment had “contained the germs of a profound idea.” But its application had “exposed such a fundamental timidity and at times superficiality of conception, that it became in effect an instrument of Soviet policy:

Containment to be effective implied the checking of Russian moves by the threat of a major war with the U.S. It did not mean (in terms of the U.S. manpower situation could not mean) that the United States would physically counter every Soviet threat wherever it occurred around the Soviet periphery. By treating Soviet moves as military problems, we have enabled the USSR to select points of involvement for maximum United States discomfort, leading to a fragmentation of our forces and their committal in strategically unproductive areas.  The very tentativeness of our reactions, the exhortations of world opinion as a means of defining United States policy, limiting all measures to the lowest common denominator — all served to convince Soviet leaders that any adventure should be localized at their discretion and that a major war with the United States (the only real deterring threat) would not come about through United States initiative in forcing a showdown on fundamental issues…. Since we committed ourselves to treat Soviet moves as isolated thrusts, not as aspects of a pattern, and to react to them on an ad hoc basis, rather than to force a total resolution, we have in effect allowed the Soviet General Staff in a strategic sense to deploy our resources and in a tactical sense to lure our armies into endless adventures .

Here Kissinger was echoing the critique of containment that Walter Lippmann and others had already made. More original was the “total reappraisal of Russian strategy” he now proposed. War with the Soviet Union, he argued, was “inevitable, not because of United States policies but because of the existence of the United States as a symbol of capitalist democracy.” The Soviets were committed by their Marxist-Leninist ideology not to “work for an illusory peace” but “to get into the war under the best possible circumstances.” The United States must therefore adopt the same approach, seeking to fight the war on its terms, by exploiting its superior mobility “due to command of the seas, technological superiority and exterior lines of communication,” and avoiding any conflict that would allow the Soviets to exploit their “massed manpower” and “sheer ruthlessness.” If the Soviets wanted to lure the United States into a contest between large land armies, the United States should counter in the following way:

A. A line should be clearly defined, any transgression of which would mean a major war, though not necessarily at the point where the Soviet move occurs….

B. In case of war, the United States should attempt (at least until Europe is in a position to carry the brunt of the initial battles) to force Russia into battles where terrain makes the employment of large armies unprofitable and where technological know-how is at a premium (for example, the Middle East). If crippling losses are avoided in the early stages of the conflict (or through fragmentation of United States forces in a period of semi-war designed by Russia to make American dispositions determinate), it should be possible (1) to achieve local superiorities around the Soviet periphery (particularly through interdiction of their communications systems), (2) to reduce Soviet morale by a series of hit-and-run actions, and (3) to disperse their armies so that the eventual major land battles can be fought against a weakened foe.92

This was an astonishing recommendation for December 1950: in effect to draw a red line, the crossing of which by Moscow would trigger a full-scale war between the superpowers, preferably fought in theaters like the Middle East, where the United States would enjoy an advantage. It illustrates that at this stage Kissinger shared the widespread view that the Soviet Union was an uncompromisingly revolutionary power with whom no kind of peaceful equilibrium could be attained. It also illustrates how pessimistic Kissinger was. Like many of his generation, he saw events in Korea as merely a prelude to a world war that would have to be fought directly against the Soviets. Revealingly, he confessed to Elliott that he had “felt like a Cassandra since last August.”93

Kissinger revisited and refined these arguments in a March 1951 letter to Elliott prompted by a comment by Secretary of the Air Force Thomas K. Finletter on the problem of so-called “gray areas”—regions of the world geographically far from the United States and without the presence of U.S. ground forces. Once again Kissinger characterized containment (in its post-NSC-68 variant) as “the physical containment of the Soviet Union by the assembly of superior force at every point around the Soviet periphery.” Once again he argued that limited wars on the periphery did not constitute an effective deterrent; that only “the threat of a major war with the United States” would effectively discourage Soviet aggression. Once again he made the point that “by attempting to achieve situations of strength at each point around the Soviet periphery as a condition for our policy, we in effect allow the Soviet General Staff to deploy our forces and to lure our Armed Forces into endless adventures.” Once again he stressed that the United States was being sucked into localized conflicts on the Soviet periphery in which Moscow had a natural advantage because of its interior lines of communication, adding that any one of these conflicts had the potential to escalate into a world war. Once again he urged the drawing of a “clearly defined” line, “any transgression of which would involve a major war.” And once again he urged the United States to use the Middle East, along with Turkey, as the base for a “compact, highly mobile U.S. strategic reserve, within striking distance of Soviet vital centers.” The new argument that Kissinger now introduced was that, after witnessing the devastation of Korea, few other “gray areas” would care to become testing grounds for superpower military strength. An unintended consequence of Acheson’s version of containment was that it “compound[ed] the psychological strain on the threatened countries and encourage[d] attempts to purchase neutrality in order to divert Soviet moves to other areas.” It would be better instead to encourage American allies, especially in Europe, “to sustain a vastly expanded defensive effort,” which in turn would “reflect a psychological condition, a will-to-fight, to be bolstered by limited U.S. ground support, the certainty of a consistent, self-reliant U.S. foreign policy and other psychological measures.”94

In most of this armchair strategizing, the historical context was implicit. The striking exception is the letter Kissinger wrote to Colonel William Kintner, one of the CIA’s leading theorists of psychological warfare, in November 1951, by which time the Korean War had settled into a stalemate that was more World War I than World War II. Here, far more than he dared in his dissertation, he was able to set out the similarities — but just as important, the differences — between 1951 and 1815. “A balance of power,” he wrote, “depends… on the following factors:

(a) A geographically determinate area, (b) An equilibrium of strength within that area, (c) An outside balancer with a profound conception of national strategy and unencumbered by ideological considerations, (d) A large measure of agreement on basic values within that “concert of powers.”… [B]efore you can have a balance of power there must be power to be balanced. The balancer must not himself be part of the equilibrium, except to tip the scale. Above all, policy must be conceived as a continuing process, with war as merely an instrument for the achievement of determinate objectives. The balance of power is incompatible with the assertion of absolute values.95

But, as Kissinger put it emphatically, “the present situation meets none of these conditions.” Not only was a global balance — as opposed to a purely European one — almost impossibly difficult, but the United States was not in a position to play the traditionally British balancing role:

Maybe Europe will recover its morale and provide an independent force. Possibly the emergent East will provide another center of power. If so, the United States should play in relation to Eurasia the traditional role of an island power towards a land-mass — to prevent the consolidation of that continent under a single rule. [But] at the moment the United States is not a balancer but a direct contestant on a world-wide scale; and, moreover, not by choice.

This was a crucial difference in Kissinger’s eyes. The United States was already too much entangled with its military alliances in Europe and Asia to have the option of behaving like nineteenth-century Britain. Moreover, it existed in too polarized a world for such a “British” strategy to be viable.

It would be strain enough on U.S. wisdom to be suddenly projected into Britain’s traditional role. But a more awful responsibility awaits us. The injection of an ideological element into policy makes self-limitation an almost unattainable Ideal. Policy begins to be conceived as the means of an absolute attitude, not as the definition of continuing relation. In the inevitable atmosphere of distrust each side tends to play for absolute security, which means absolute insecurity (i.e., neutralization) of its opponent. This would be true even if only one side were to introduce the ideological element.

Kissinger ended his letter to Kintner with a surprising reflection on what lay ahead for the United States.

I know there is a tendency to point to the religious toleration following the wars of the Reformation as a possible substitute for ideological conflict. But surely the significant point is that this balance was achieved only after a Thirty-Years’ War…. I do not think this period will follow the pattern of the 17th century. I think we will find ourselves in the role of Rome after the Carthaginian wars, and this is why I used the adjective “awful” to describe our future.96

In other words, Kissinger confidently expected the American Rome to triumph over the Soviet Carthage. It was what came next that worried him, when “within a generation [we may] find ourselves in a world in which we must supply our challenges from within ourselves. This is a real issue for long-range thinking, and its solution requires a profound doctrine.”97 Here was an unusual thing to worry about in 1951: the onset of imperial decadence in the aftermath of an American victory over the Soviets.

Unlike George Kennan, whose published writings he certainly read, Kissinger was no expert on the Soviet Union. His argument in a December 1951 memorandum entitled “Soviet Strategy — Possible U.S. Countermeasures” was highly conventional. The Russians, for historical and ideological reasons, were inclined to see war as inevitable and therefore to seek to expand the Soviet security belt for reasons they conceived of as defensive. For the time being, they could be deterred by the threat of all-out war, but that would change. As they built up their strategic air force and atomic capability, they would aim for a showdown in Western Europe. In this, the Korean crisis had been like an early feint in a strategy designed to get the United States to disperse its land forces around the globe. Hence the need for Washington urgently to switch from a “physical containment” (as practiced by Acheson) to “a total military strategy” based on “psychological” considerations, including the creation of Kissinger’s Middle Eastern mobile strategic reserve.98


Nearly two years passed before Kissinger wrote anything more in this vein. By the time he returned to the field of contemporary strategy, much had changed. Harry Truman had left the White House, to be replaced by Dwight Eisenhower, the only general to serve as president in the twentieth century. Unlike most other twentieth-century presidents, “Ike” had not craved the highest office. He might legitimately have retired altogether in 1952, after serving as NATO supreme commander, his reputation secure as one of the key architects of the Allied victory in World War II. But the hostility toward NATO — indeed the downright isolationism — of the front-runner for the Republican nomination, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, had persuaded him to run. While projecting a genial grandfatherly image, playing golf, watching Westerns, and dabbling in painting, Eisenhower was as steely a strategist as ever. He refused any further escalation of the Korean War, but intimated to the Soviets and the Chinese that he might use nuclear weapons to end the stalemate. The result was a negotiated settlement that cut Korea in two. He was equally decisive at home. When Joseph McCarthy had the temerity to make the U.S. Army the next target of his anti-Communist witch hunt, Eisenhower had his vice president condemn McCarthy’s “reckless talk and questionable methods.”

The Soviet Union, too, was different. In the early hours of March 1, 1953, Stalin suffered a stroke. Four days later he was dead. Almost immediately the triumvirate who succeeded him — Lavrentiy Beria, Georgy Malenkov, and Vyacheslav Molotov — moved to reduce international tensions. “At the present time,” Malenkov told the Supreme Soviet just nine days after Stalin’s death had been announced, “there is no disputed or unresolved question that cannot be settled peacefully by mutual agreement of the interested countries. This applies to our relations with all states, including the United States of America.”99 The tone of Soviet propaganda had also changed, with the advent of the so-called peace offensive. Here was a new threat: not actual war but the psychological variety, taking the form of proposals for German reunification — like the one Stalin himself had made in March 1952—that were as attractive to ordinary Germans as they were disingenuous to American policy makers. The Americans who had pressed for German rearmament had underestimated the need to establish the right “psychological climate” for it. They had underestimated the danger of what Kissinger called “reverse Titoism — nationalist governments who to prove their independence of the U.S. will lean increasingly on the U.S.S.R.” For this reason, he regarded “a conciliatory attitude on the part of the Soviet Union” as “more dangerous than a continuation of the cold war.”

The good news was that, with Stalin gone, the Cold War was losing some of its ideological intensity and reverting to the more familiar patterns of geopolitics. As a result, in an important shift, Kissinger saw the analogy he had repudiated in 1951 as having a potential applicability:

In relation to the Eurasian continent, the U.S. is in the position of Great Britain to the Continent in the 19th century. It is an island power with inferior resources, at present only in manpower but in time even in industrial capacity.* Therefore, the U.S. cannot permit the consolidation of the Eurasian continent under the domination or control of one power whatever its form of government…. [Rather], in order to conserve its own resources, U.S. strategy should attempt to create a balance of force on the Eurasian continent. This means that the Soviet sphere can under no circumstances be permitted to expand — in fact, it should be reduced, for the consolidation of a Chinese-Soviet-East European satellite bloc must in time present mortal dangers to the security of the U.S.

This was an important shift of emphasis: now the United States could hope to act as a British-style balancing power. But how exactly was this to be done? A forcible reduction of the core of the Soviet bloc was clearly out of the question precisely because it implied war. However, “a split between the U.S.S.R. and its satellites including China” was a distinct “possibility.” Here was the seed of another strategic concept that would come to fruition fully two decades later.

On the basis of this analysis, Kissinger had a specific proposal to make. The death of Stalin, he argued, had presented a “great opportunity” for U.S. diplomacy “boldly [to] capture the peace offensive” by calling a four-power meeting to discuss European problems, in particular the divided Germany. At this meeting, the United States should propose “the conclusion of a treaty of peace and all-German elections”—in other words German reunification. Such a scenario was, Kissinger argued, “less to be feared by us than by the U.S.S.R.,” though clearly there would have to be guarantees of Germany’s borders along the lines of the 1925 Treaty of Locarno. True, the move would postpone, if not wholly derail, the plan under discussion for a European Defense Community (EDC), but Kissinger correctly reasoned that the EDC had “little prospect of ratification in any case.” By contrast, there would be real benefits in Asia if the American move were successful: “The effect on China of such a Four-Power meeting sacrificing a Soviet satellite might be profound, particularly if a subsequent Asian conference should prove unproductive…. This distrust may be reinforced by putting on the agenda a mutual guarantee of each other’s borders by the Four Powers, but excluding China.” Kissinger admitted it was unlikely that the Soviets would agree to such a meeting. But “should the conference fail, as is likely, EDC and the cold war could be resumed in a much healthier political climate.”100

Kissinger’s memorandum on “The Soviet Peace Offensive” was widely circulated and almost as widely admired. Bundy was enthused, telling Kissinger, “You made so much sense in such a short space,” and forwarding it to his friend Robert Bowie at Policy Planning.101 But one former colleague, George Pettee of ORO, was not wholly convinced. He made a telling criticism: “[I]n the process of making excellent use of the past and its knowledge, there are places where you tend to attribute characteristics to the future which were true of the past but may not be true of the future. The suggestion that a Locarno type pact might be important is the kind of thing I mean.”102

Kissinger defended himself, insisting that he did not mean to repeat the mistakes of the 1920s; the idea for a treaty was only there because of the “profound psychological effect” it would have. As he put it, “All my proposals are, in any case, designed to recapture the initiative. It stands to reason that if the Soviet governmental bureaucracy is anything like ours — there is no reason to suppose that bureaucracy differs radically in spirit — the more ideas we can throw into the hopper the less time they will have for original thought and the less flexibility they will tend to have.”103 Pettee had nevertheless articulated a thought that others undoubtedly shared: Kissinger was too fond of his historical parallels, too reluctant to acknowledge that in certain respects the present was not like the past.

By the summer of 1953 Kissinger was beginning to feel the frustration that sooner or later all amateur strategists feel: he was brimming over with ideas, but no one was listening. Bowie may have seen his paper on German unity; he may indeed have read it. Certainly, it had been made timely by events in East Berlin, where a wave of strikes beginning on June 16, 1953, had been forcibly suppressed by Soviet forces. No one, however, summoned Kissinger to Washington. He was driven back to private correspondence with kindred spirits like Schlesinger, a man of the left but, more important, a historian. Kissinger was unimpressed by what is often seen as the greatest success of U.S. psychological warfare in the early Cold War. As in 1948, the Christian Democrats had won the Italian election of 1953—with significant help from the CIA. But Kissinger saw the result as just “one other proof of the futility of conducting foreign policy by gimmick.” “Foreign policy, unfortunately, is different from pleading a case at the bar where, after the jury’s verdict is in, the lies you have told can’t come back to hound you.”104 On the other hand, the Democratic contender for the presidency, Adlai Stevenson, seemed no better than Eisenhower:

While I agree with Stevenson that we must not bomb Moscow if Italy goes Communist, I think it equally senseless to announce beforehand that we would not bomb Moscow under any circumstances. Nor do I think it wise to fight any more Koreas.

I also wish the candidates would finally quit talking about a “peace to be won” as if on a certain date “peace will break out” and tensions will magically disappear. I know of no period in which this was true in all history except under the Roman Empire. I can conceive no settlement with Russia which will permit us to say that there will be no longer any tensions, and this would be true even if the Kremlin were ruled by arch-angels. For in a world of two superpowers under conditions of sovereignty, tensions are inevitable.105

This was not so very different from an argument that had been made by Carl Friedrich ten years before. But did Kissinger really need to bring in the Roman Empire to make his point?


It was not unknown at the Harvard of 1954 for a successful doctoral student to be given an assistant professorship not long after completing his dissertation. Despite some lobbying by Elliott, no such offer was made to Henry Kissinger. Nor was he successful in his application to the Harvard Society of Fellows, an elite institution similar to Oxford’s All Souls College.106 A variety of explanations have been given for this reverse: some faculty members saw him as too worldly; some felt he had put more energy into the International Seminar and Confluence  than into his duties as a teaching fellow for Sam Beer’s Social Science 2 course.107 We know he had declined to help Bundy with his course, Government 180, in the spring semester of 1953.108 Probably not too much credence should be given to the latter, obviously spiteful reminiscences of former colleagues who had become political enemies in the 1970s, though it is possible that some near-contemporaries — Adam Ulam especially — had already taken against Kissinger.109 But there is another and more plausible explanation. According to Charles Kindleberger, the brilliant financial historian at MIT, Elliott had “asked if we could give Kissinger a job because there were no openings at Harvard. So I asked my colleagues, ‘Do we want a political scientist who knows something about Metternich?’ And they said, ‘Hell, no.’”110 Like many another new Ph.D., Kissinger was forced to eke out his existence on a postdoctoral grant: in his case $4,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation “to enable Mr. Henry A. Kissinger to study the decline in the observance of the political maxims of the 19th century during the period from 1870 to 1914.”111 The award was funded under the Rockefeller Foundation’s new program in legal and political philosophy. It sufficed for Harvard to appoint Kissinger as a research fellow in political science.112

There can be no doubt that Kissinger was disappointed. On June 8, 1954, he took the extraordinary step of addressing a heartfelt letter to McGeorge Bundy on “one of the chief problems facing higher education and Harvard in particular: the state of mind of the graduate student and junior faculty member.” Though couched in general terms, the letter was unmistakably a personal lament. Kissinger began, arrestingly and revealingly, by defining the graduate student’s state of mind as

a strange mixture of insecurity and self-righteousness, of gentility and the most devious kind of manipulation, of strained application and indolent drifting. It is without humor and without joy. Despite its appearance of pedantry, it is always on the verge of hysteria. Despite its claims of universality, it is characterized by almost total isolation. While occasionally substantial works are produced[,] they testify to the strength of an individual to transcend his environment, not to an impetus derived from it. Nothing makes for creativity, for spontaneity, for inspiration. All the pressures make for conformity, a high level of mediocrity and safety.

Such was the lack of “joy” in academic life, he went on, that “I, too, have seriously thought about giving up the academic career and going to Law School.” This was not for financial reasons but because “the academic profession will remain unattractive whatever its salary scale until a beginning is made to reform some of its present attitudes.”

In no other profession is one so dependent on the approbation of one’s colleagues and yet in no profession must one so much create the substance out of oneself. In no other field is the disparity between the creative act and its reception so marked. The academic profession requires a special degree of dedication, therefore. More than any other activity it m

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ust be done for its own sake. To an unusual extent it depends on an atmosphere which does not inhibit inspiration. Its crucial problem is to maintain its standards against the forces that tend to dissolve them. But just because there exist no “objective” standards or because true creativity constantly transcends existing norms the danger of atrophy or mediocrity always lurks beneath the surface. It is not that quality will be consciously suppressed; it is rather that the sense for quality  may be lost.

Kissinger bitterly condemned Harvard’s “increasingly narrow and even sterile” atmosphere and its debilitating “spirit of atomism”: “No one cares about anyone else’s work and even less about his human development.” A rare exception to this rule was his old mentor Elliott, “the person most responsible for my development, [who] did not do so primarily because of his learning but above all because of his humanity, by giving me the feeling that someone I could respect was concerned with my growth.” But he conspicuously did not exempt Elliott from his next complaint, that graduate life revolved around the “eagles” (senior faculty) in the government department. Since Harvard graduate students all aspired to become tenured Harvard professors, they were bound to become slavish conformists. Kissinger concluded his tirade with three concrete recommendations: the creation at Harvard of something like Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, to encourage high-level interdisciplinary work; the transfer of decisions about appointments from departments to the dean (i.e., to Bundy); and earlier awards of tenure.113

To say the least, this was a remarkable letter for a brand-new Ph.D. to write to the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, in many respects the second most powerful Harvard official after the president. Even allowing for his relatively close acquaintance with Bundy, not least thanks to Confluence,  it was risky — even reckless — for Kissinger to unburden himself in this way. He cannot seriously have expected his proposals to be acted upon, given their obviously self-interested character. Nevertheless, with his dissertation finally complete, he could not resist giving vent to his frustrations. No copy of Bundy’s reply can be found in the Harvard archives; perhaps he conveyed his views verbally. Relations between the two men remained cordial, with Bundy continuing to accept Kissinger’s invitations to address the summer school participants, and Kissinger continuing to be invited to lunch with distinguished visitors (for example, Harold Stassen, the former governor of Minnesota and quadrennial contender for the Republican presidential nomination). Yet if Kissinger hoped that his letter would improve his prospects of a professorship, he was disappointed. In the fall of 1954, Bundy appears to have offered Kissinger some kind of position — probably that of an “instructor,” the lowest rung on the academic ladder — but Kissinger’s lukewarm reaction makes it clear that it fell short of his expectations.114 Even when armed with an offer of a professorship from the University of Chicago, Kissinger could not secure a matching offer from his alma mater. By the end of 1954 it seemed as if his Harvard career were drawing to an anticlimactic close.


Nearly twenty years later, Kissinger had occasion to reflect again on the pathologies of academic life. It was March 1972, and he was sitting in the Oval Office with President Richard Nixon. “What the Christ is the matter with them?” asked Nixon, meaning American academics, so many of whom were critical of his foreign policy. The exchange that followed revealed how little the intervening years — and worldly success — had changed Kissinger’s view:

KISSINGER: But academic life is a depressing period, so they all…

NIXON: Why is it depressing? Don’t they have visible accomplishments?

KISSINGER: Well, first of all, because you’re spending your life with a group of teenagers, Mr. President. And it is, after all, instead of helping the teenagers grow up they become almost as irresponsible as the people for whom, with whom they meet with day in and day out. Secondly it’s an insecure making profession. Not for the top people…

NIXON: Yeah.

KISSINGER:… who got a national reputation, uh, like Arthur Schlesinger [Jr.] or myself. But for the — even the average Harvard professor has a terrible time because he goes through ten years of maddening insecurity before he ever gets tenured. And if he doesn’t make it in a good place, there is — it isn’t like in a law school, where in your second year you know whether you’re good or not.

NIXON: Yeah.

KISSINGER: And you can’t fake it.

NIXON: Yeah.

KISSINGER: And you can — you can pretty well predict where you’re gonna be in terms of the availability of law firms.

NIXON: Yeah.

KISSINGER: In academic life you are entirely dependent on the personal recommendation of some egomaniac. Nobody knows how good you are. Hell, I at Harvard — in ’54 at Harvard, I was always an oddball, I was always in that sense an outsider. I had one hell of a time…. My first book… was about 19th Century diplomacy and the average person wasn’t that interested in it…. It was a very thoughtful book. It was about how peace was made in 1815, and…

NIXON: Right, oh yeah.

KISSINGER: That was, that was a thoughtful book. But it is a very insecure making profession. Then they are very influenced by Socialist Theory. And…

NIXON: Now why? That’s the point I make. Why? They always have been, but…

KISSINGER: They believe in manipulation, Mr. President. And therefore, it grates on them. In this society, intellectuals are not as a class highly respected; that gets them.115

Disgust with academic politics is surprisingly common among academics. The philosopher George Santayana, who studied at Harvard and taught philosophy there between 1890 and 1912, said he “never had a real friend who was a professor” and asked himself, “Is it jealousy, as among women, and a secret unwillingness to be wholly pleased? Or is it the consciousness that a professor or a woman has to be partly a sham; whence a mixture of contempt and pity for such a poor victim of necessity?”116 Nor is this sentiment unique to Harvard professors. It was not in fact Henry Kissinger who coined the saying that “the reason academic politics are so bitter is that so little is at stake”; it was Wallace Stanley Sayre, a professor of public administration at Columbia and author of Governing New York City  (where the stakes were manifestly higher). But Kissinger was certainly fond of repeating Sayre’s “Law” that “in any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake” and citing Harvard politics as the classic illustration.

Yet the stakes cannot have seemed so low to Kissinger one summer day in 1954, as he walked despondently across Harvard Yard, contemplating the stalling of his once brilliant academic career. As he greeted his friend Arthur Schlesinger, enviably ensconced as a tenured professor in the history department, already a Pulitzer Prize winner, Kissinger had no inkling that the conversation he was about to have would change the course of his life. The “political scientist who knew something about Metternich” was about to go nuclear.

CHAPTER 10 Strangelove?

Mr. Kissinger believes that (1) we must be [as] prepared to meet an all-out attack as limited aggression; (2) an all-out attack must be met with an all-out counter-attack; (3) a limited aggression must be repelled by limited warfare. In each case we should use the most appropriate weapon for the task. The most appropriate weapon is usually a nuclear weapon.


Of course Kissinger is right in conceiving the problems of policy planning and strategy in terms of national power, in rough analogy to the national struggles of the 19th century; yet I have the impression that there are deep things abroad in the world, which in time are going to turn the flank of all struggles so conceived. This will not happen today, nor easily as long as Soviet power continues great and unaltered; but nevertheless I think in time the transnational communities in our culture will begin to play a prominent part in the political structure of the world, and even affect the exercise of power by states.



In the summer of 1954 Henry Kissinger had a Ph.D. in early nineteenth-century history but not much else. Harvard had declined to give him the junior professorship he thought was his due. He had an offer of a position at the University of Chicago but had no desire to go there; the University of Pennsylvania offered “more money but little prestige.”3 He was eking out an existence on a small grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, wasting his time trying to publish chapters from his doctoral dissertation as more or less obscure scholarly articles in academic journals. Yet just three years later, Kissinger would be one of the foremost American experts on nuclear strategy, a best-selling author, a star guest on television talk shows, the subject of debate in Washington, and the object of denunciation in Moscow. By 1964 he was being mentioned as the inspiration for the sinister characters of Professor Groeteschele, the cold-blooded political scientist played by Walter Matthau in Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe,  and (less plausibly) Dr. Strangelove, the downright mad nuclear strategist played by Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick’s eponymous comedy.* How was all this possible? The answer begins ten years before Dr. Strangelove,  with a chance meeting in Harvard Yard.

Though politically far from aligned, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Henry Kissinger were friends. Kissinger would always attend the Commencement cocktail party thrown each year by the Schlesingers and their neighbors the Galbraiths, where cocktails* were the only drink on offer and cigarettes were freely available in bowls. In return, as Marian Schlesinger recalled, she and her husband would dine chez Kissinger, where “the prefect Herr Professor” and his wife offered “heavy food [and] heavy thought…. Everything was white. The dishes, even the food.”4 After Fritz Kraemer, Schlesinger was the man to whom Kissinger was most ready to share his uppermost (if not his innermost) thoughts. Schlesinger was happy to introduce his clever friend to the liberal grandees in his circle, among them Eleanor Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, and the Kennedy brothers.5 It was after a brief, impromptu exchange in Harvard Yard that Kissinger (as he put it) “got drawn by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., into a three-cornered discussion between him, the Alsop brothers [Joseph and Stewart]* and Paul Nitze,” the author of NSC-68.6 The starting point was the letter from former air force secretary Thomas Finletter that Schlesinger happened to have in his pocket, which, on the spur of the moment, he suggested Kissinger read.7 Disagreeing with Finletter’s defense of the administration’s reliance on the threat of massive retaliation, Kissinger dashed off an essay entitled “The Impasse of American Policy and Preventive War.” It was this essay that launched his career in the emerging field of strategic studies.*

The essay’s starting point was that, after a year and a half in office, the foreign policy of the Eisenhower administration was failing:

The collapse of South-East Asia [a reference to the French defeat in Indochina, which had culminated at Dien Bien Phu just four months before], the hesitations of our Western Allies, the rumblings in Japan, the changing weapons balance, all point to a crisis nonetheless serious for being denied in official pronouncements from Washington. Within the past fifteen months, the USSR has managed to capture the peace offensive so that all over the world the U.S. increasingly appears as the obstacle to peace; it has made great strides in the development of its nuclear weapons and thus confronted Western Europe at least with imminent neutralization; it holds the diplomatic initiative in every corner of the globe with the U.S. vacillating between bombast and pliability but in any case reduced to relative ineffectiveness.

As for the European Defense Community, it had become “a mortgage on American prestige,” while mooted the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) would merely “add weakness to weakness.” Kissinger identified three reasons for this litany of failure. First, the United States, “righteously fixated on the Soviet threat,” had underestimated the appetite of the rest of the world for peace and its “reluctance… to believe in unbridgeable schism.” In terms of psychological warfare, the United States had been wrong-footed by the Soviet “peace offensive” that had followed the death of Stalin. Second, American policy makers were attaching a naïve importance to their alliances with other states. This was a chance to recycle a favorite line: “If in practice [an alliance] leads to a conception of unity as an end in itself, it becomes self-defeating. For if an alliance is equated with the consensus of its members, its policy is shaped by its weakest components.” The United States was a hegemon; it had to lead  its allies.

These were arguments Kissinger had made before; they surely struck Schlesinger as familiar. But the third one was new: it was an argument about actual war, not the psychological variety: “Confronted with possible neutralization, [we may see] war… as the preferable alternative and preventive war the means to force a showdown before the cards become hopelessly stacked against us. But war is too serious a matter to be undertaken in a fit of frustration.” The problem was that the administration’s self-styled “New Look” defense policy could not decide “whether it is a strategy for fighting the cold war or a means of winning a shooting war.” If the former, it was misconceived. And if the latter? Kissinger was not explicit, but his readers got the point.8 As he put it in a letter to one of them, “I am, in effect, saying a local war is possible.”9 This was doubly provocative. The Eisenhower position was that Korea starkly exposed the perils of a local war. It was cheaper as well as more effective to deter Soviet aggression with the threat of general — meaning nuclear — war. Kissinger seemed to be implying that the United States could have the best of both strategies: a local war that was also nuclear.

The liberal optimist Schlesinger was much more ready to believe in a new and more “flexible” disposition in Moscow than Kissinger.10 Nevertheless he was more than usually excited by Kissinger’s draft, calling it “the most interesting and useful discussion of the current foreign policy impasse I have read anywhere”11 and offering to circulate it to such luminaries as Adlai Stevenson, whom Eisenhower had defeated for the presidency two years before, as well as Thomas Finletter, whose letter to Schlesinger had prompted the paper.* Kissinger’s old friend at ORO, George Pettee, offered a conservative cynic’s view.

The trouble with the piece is that it has no sugar coating for anybody. Everybody wants either Acheson or Dulles to be cracked up as hot stuff [i.e., for partisan reasons]. Each was a technician [who] would have looked good any time last century and you rightly treat both as missing the point [about nuclear weapons]. Your paper is a good test, in a way, because it has no attraction whatever for either of the party variants on the pharisaical position of rationalist-legalist-idealist diplomacy. If anybody likes your paper, therefore, that fact will be worth knowing about that person.12

But it was Finletter’s response that had the biggest impact, in that it explicitly challenged the military element in Kissinger’s analysis, defending the idea that the threat of “general war” was the best way of deterring further Soviet expansion. “I confess,” Kissinger replied, with an uncharacteristic allusion to the role of economics, “it simply does not make sense to me to think of the unlimited potentialities militarily of a country [the USSR] that has a steel production of less than five million tons.”13 Regardless of the true extent of Soviet power, however, Kissinger still questioned Finletter’s reasoning: “The willingness to engage in a general war by itself is not enough to deter aggression for unless the Soviet bloc knows the extent of U.S. determination it may engage in a probing action which may then result in an avoidable general war, avoidable because the probing action might not have been undertaken had our intentions been fully understood.” The real problem, Kissinger argued, was one of credibility:

Assuming that essential areas are defined and that the U.S. has left no doubt about its willingness to defend them, what then? One of two consequences seems almost inevitable: either the Soviet bloc believes us which would involve the corollary that all areas not defined as essential by the U.S. could be absorbed against at most local resistance. Or else the Soviet bloc would consider our announcement a bluff — a not unlikely eventuality after two years of “massive retaliation”—and then we will be right back at Dienbienphu.14

Kissinger was no expert on military matters; he was a student of diplomatic history. Nor was he by any means the first to advance such arguments. Yet his critique of the Eisenhower administration’s doctrine of deterrence was welcomed by influential military men. At the Army War College, according to General Richard G. Stilwell, it had “captured the fancy of all faculty members who have had the opportunity to peruse it.”15 Air force general James McCormack, then deputy commander of the Air Research and Development Command, also approved.16 Encouraged by this response, Kissinger began to wonder if he had hit on an important insight: that waging a limited war with  nuclear weapons was a viable alternative to the threat of an all-out war. Dismissive of all the many schemes for disarmament then in vogue,* he told Schlesinger that it was wrong

to think that local wars and the tactical employment of nuclear weapons will necessarily lead to all-out atomic war, because the Russians will not be able to make fine distinctions. This seems to me to confuse a logical inference with strategical reality. All the pressures will be on the Russians to make precisely this distinction. I think they could be trusted to know the difference between the destruction of Moscow and an atomic bomb exploding over a battlefield.

Warming to his new theme, Kissinger argued that “the destructiveness of present [i.e., strategic] nuclear weapons” was so great that they would only ever be used “due to bureaucratic inertia.

The major use of S.A.C. [Strategic Air Command] as I see it is to permit us to fight local wars on our terms; or let us put it another way — the destructiveness of nuclear weapons is such that the only thing they deter is their use by the other side. Thus, the side which has an alternative weapon system can keep the ultimate weapons as a deterrent against the other, to keep it from starting a general war. Thus, if we have a weapon system which permits the tactical employment of nuclear weapons and enables us to fight local wars, and if we integrate this into a diplomacy which makes clear that we are interested only in local transformation and not in unconditional surrender, S.A.C. may deter the Russians from a major war.17

Here was the essence of the distinctly counterintuitive argument that would make Kissinger’s name.

The emergence of Henry Kissinger as a public intellectual in the nascent field of strategic studies can be dated from April 1955, which saw the appearance in Foreign Affairs  of his article “Military Policy and the Defense of the ‘Grey Areas.’”18 Published since 1922 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Affairs  was (as it still is) sufficiently journalistic to be readable and sufficiently academic to be respectable. Kissinger did not take long to master the house style. What had begun as a hasty memorandum for Schlesinger19 had by now evolved into a bold and stylish critique of American strategic thinking — though it was still no more than a first installment of the magnum opus that was to follow two years later.

“It is surprising,” Kissinger began coolly, “how little affected American strategic thinking has been by the fact that within just a few years the U.S.S.R. will have the capacity to deliver a powerful attack with nuclear weapons on the United States.” Leaving aside the notion of some kind of preventive first strike (“a program so contrary to the sense of the country and the constitutional limits within which American foreign policy must be conducted”),20 the Eisenhower administration had nothing more plausible to offer than John Foster Dulles’s grim threat of “massive retaliation,” which meant “major reliance… on the development of our Strategic Air Force and on increasing the power of our nuclear arsenal.” This was the theory behind the so-called “New Look.” In practice, however, the administration wished to avoid being drawn into attritional wars in what Finletter (in his book Power and Policy ) had called the world’s “gray areas,” meaning non-NATO territories on the Eurasian periphery.21

Kissinger’s response was in five parts. First, the rapid growth of the Soviet Union’s nuclear capability was increasing by leaps and bounds the potential costs to the United States of a general war. Second, a limited war of the sort that had been fought in Korea, while hardly pleasant, might be “a better model for our future strategy than an all-out atomic conflict,” which the United States was less and less likely to risk — save in the case of a direct attack on U.S. territory — as Soviet nuclear capability grew.22 Third, the Soviets had no interest in a general war either; they could achieve “their ultimate goal, the neutralization of the United States, at much less risk by gradually eroding the peripheral areas, which will imperceptibly shift the balance of power against us without ever presenting us with a clear-cut challenge.”23

If we refused to fight in Indo-China when the Soviet nuclear capability was relatively small because of the danger that a limited war might become general, we shall hardly be readier to risk nuclear bombing for the sake of Burma or Iran or even Jugoslavia.24

Fourth, relying exclusively on the threat of massive retaliation was bound to undermine the system of American alliances, as “either our Allies will feel that any military effort on their part is unnecessary, or they may be led to the conviction that peace is preferable to war almost at any price.”25 Finally, there was the paradoxical risk that the deterrent would not deter.

[I]f the other side becomes convinced that… our threats of instant retaliation are bluff… [it] may then decide, as its nuclear arsenal grows, to absorb the “grey areas” and confront us with the choice between relinquishing them or risking the destruction of American cities. And because the Sino-Soviet leaders may well be mistaken in their assessment of our reaction when faced with such an alternative, our present military policy may bring about the total war which it seeks to prevent.26

As Kissinger saw it, then, the Eisenhower administration was running a small risk of Armageddon but a big risk of isolation. Here he took the opportunity to offer the readers of Foreign Affairs  a new version of his favorite historical analogy:

[I]n relation to Eurasia the United States is an island Power with inferior resources at present only in manpower, but later on even in industrial capacity. Thus we are confronted by the traditional problem of an “island” Power — of Carthage with respect to Italy, of Britain with respect to the Continent — that its survival depends on preventing the opposite land-mass from falling under the control of a single Power, above all one avowedly hostile. If Eurasia were to fall under the control of a single Power or group of Powers, and if this hostile Power were given sufficient time to exploit its resources, we should confront an overpowering threat. At best we would be forced into a military effort not consistent with what is now considered the “American way of life.” If the United States ever became confined to “Fortress America,” or even if Soviet expansion in the “grey areas” went far enough to sap our allies’ will to resist, Americans would be confronted by three-quarters of the human race and not much less of its resources[,] and their continued existence would be precarious.27

What, then, was the alternative? The answer was twofold. First, the United States should be ready to fight and win decisively the next Korean-style limited war. Korea itself had been winnable, after all: “Had we committed even four more divisions, indeed even if we had put a time limit on the truce negotiations, we might have achieved a substantial military victory [in Korea].”28 Moreover, Korea had been “an advantageous location for the Chinese,” which was not true of Southeast Asia. “In Indo-China,” Kissinger reasoned, “an all-out American effort may still save at least Laos and Cambodia.”29 The crucial thing was to have “indigenous governments of sufficient stability so that the Soviets can take over only by open aggression, and indigenous military forces capable of fighting a delaying action.” If these conditions could be met, the United States need only maintain a “strategic reserve (say in the Philippines, Malaya or Pakistan) capable of redressing the balance and… a weapons system capable of translating our technological advantage into local superiority.” One clear benefit of being able to fight such local wars was that it would put the Sino-Soviet bloc under pressure. Even at this early stage of the Cold War, there were American strategists hoping that traditional antagonism between the Chinese and the Russians would cause their alliance to break down of its own accord; in a prescient aside Kissinger argued that such a rift would “not come by itself.

Too much is to be gained by unity, too many prizes are still to be won, the memory of Tito is still too fresh in the Kremlin, for us to be able to count on Soviet mistakes. A split between the U.S.S.R. and its satellites, and even more a split with China, can come about only through outside pressure, through the creation of contingencies which may force a divergence of views into the open.30

Here was another lesson of the Korean War: “Had we defeated the Chinese army in Korea in 1951 we would have confronted the U.S.S.R. with the dilemma whether to risk everything for the sake of increasing the power of China; and had we followed our victory with a conciliatory political proposal to Peking we could have caused it to reflect whether American goodwill might not represent a better protection than blindly following the Soviet line.” Moreover, “the Indo-Chinese problem would hardly have assumed its present dimensions had China suffered a decisive reversal in her first military encounter with the United States.”31 A final lesson of Korea was not to be too hidebound by allies: “In local wars we do not need them and should not insist on their assistance if they have no direct interest at stake.”32

This was bold and original in itself; apart from anything else, it illustrates just how early in his career Kissinger began to reflect on how the Sino-Soviet alliance might be broken, as well as on what to do about a post-French Indochina. But it was Kissinger’s second point that was calculated to cause a stir. It was one thing to advocate some third middle option between nuclear apocalypse and surrender. By itself, recommending “an improvement in our capacity for local war” was not especially controversial; Sir Basil Liddell Hart, among others, had been making such arguments since 1946 on the basis that “an unlimited war waged with atomic power… would be mutually suicidal.”33 Robert E. Osgood was already hard at work on a book with the title Limited War .34 But Kissinger was arguing that the capacity in question should include “tactical nuclear weapons.” This was altogether stronger stuff. True, the idea that smaller atomic bombs could be used against purely military targets — that is, not major conurbations — had been publicly aired elsewhere.35 Bernard Brodie had already published two (somewhat vague) articles on the subject.36 As we shall see, it had also been debated within the Eisenhower administration, but thus far it had been rejected by the president. It was therefore somewhat startling to find the case for tactical nuclear weapons being made by a Harvard-trained student of diplomatic history in the pages of Foreign Aff

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Almost as remarkable was the piece Kissinger published a month later in that bastion of American liberal thought, The New Republic . “The Limitations of Diplomacy” looked ahead with ambivalence toward the four-power summit that was to be held in Geneva in July 1955.* For a scholar who had dedicated so many years to the study of diplomatic history, Kissinger was brusquely dismissive of what was likely to be achieved. The “picture of an international conference reducing or even eliminating tensions behind closed doors” might be “alluring.” But diplomacy in the world of 1955 was doubly circumscribed by the “inherent element of rigidity… in a two-power world” (even if the British and French leaders would also be present), and by the fact that a revolutionary power was on the other side of the conference table, challenging the very framework of the international system. “We should have no illusions that [negotiations with the Sino-Soviet bloc] will bring about a drastic amelioration of the situation directly,” Kissinger concluded. The most that could be achieved was to “clarify conditions in their impact on our allies and the uncommitted in Asia,” in that rejecting proposals for conferences might “delay our immediate aims to bring about mutual assistance arrangements” and refusing to negotiate altogether would ultimately “disintegrate our system of alliances.”37 This argument — that peace talks with the Soviets were little better than kabuki theater — was the obverse of Kissinger’s assertion in Foreign Affairs  that limited nuclear war had to be an option open to U.S. policy makers.

Kissinger’s debut as a public intellectual was a success. He confessed to his younger colleague Samuel Huntington to being “a little frightened of the reaction.”

It [the piece in Foreign Affairs ] has become required reading matter at the Air War College, at the Army War College, and the National War College; General [John H.] Michaelis has distributed it to the Major Press Association, and General [James M.] Gavin, the Deputy Chief of Staff, has made it required reading at the Pentagon…. I am too well aware of its genesis not to be a little concerned about how reputations are made in this country.38

Even more remarkably, some of his Harvard colleagues, Huntington among them, liked it, too.39 More important, Bundy was impressed. The centerpiece of his popular lecture course “Government 180: The U.S. in World Affairs” was a condemnation of the policy of appeasement in the Munich crisis; prudent use of force, Bundy argued, would have been far more effective.40 Kissinger’s argument was therefore congenial to him. It also gave him an opportunity to help Kissinger out of career limbo. Before coming to Harvard, Bundy had worked briefly at the Council on Foreign Relations. When Kissinger — his confidence boosted by seeing his name in the pages of Foreign Affairs —expressed interest in a job at the council, Bundy gave him strong backing. Though the editor of Foreign Affairs,  Hamilton Fish Armstrong,* decided against hiring Kissinger as his deputy, he was able to offer him the post of staff director of a study group working on the implications of nuclear weapons for U.S. foreign policy.41


When Henry Kissinger moved from Cambridge to New York, it was to grapple with a conundrum. Why had the United States secured so little benefit from its temporary nuclear monopoly under Truman? Between the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the first Soviet atomic test in August 1949, there had been only one nuclear power. Until August 1953, the United States monopolized the hydrogen bomb and until 1955 was the only power with bombs in the megaton range. Even as the Soviets caught up in terms of technology, they still lagged behind in terms of quantity. In April 1947 as shrewd an observer as George Kennan could argue that “ten good hits with atomic bombs” would be enough to wipe out Soviet industry. “I think we and our friends have a preponderance of strength in the world right now,” he concluded.42 That preponderance turned out to count for little. Throughout this period the Soviets achieved a series of indisputable geopolitical victories, bringing nearly all of Eastern Europe under their control (with the notable exception of Yugoslavia), backing the Communist takeover of China, and fighting a protracted war by proxy against U.S. forces in Korea. Far from feeling confident, Washington grew increasingly fearful. As early as NSC-68, Nitze and others were imagining a Soviet stockpile of fission bombs so large that by 1955 Moscow might “be tempted to strike swiftly and with stealth.”43

The arms race was not an inevitability. A plan for international control of atomic energy had been hatched by Robert Oppenheimer and David E. Lilienthal, but Bernard Baruch’s version of it had been rejected by the Soviets.44 By July 1949, Truman had given up on the idea. “We’ll never obtain international control,” he said. “Since we can’t obtain international control we must be strongest in atomic weapons.”45 This view was essentially endorsed by the gloomy report of the panel chaired by Oppenheimer, which recommended withdrawing from the UN Disarmament Committee on the ground that its efforts were “futile.”46 With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that the Cold War evolved into a “self-regulating system… which nobody designed or even thought could last for very long, which was based not upon the dictates of morality and justice but rather upon an arbitrary and strikingly artificial division of the world into spheres of influence, and which incorporated within it some of the most bitter and persistent antagonisms short of war in modern history” but which nevertheless “survived twice as long as the far more carefully designed World War I settlement.”47 After the fact, we can speculate why that was: the inherent simplicity of a bipolar system; the essential separation of the superpowers from each other; the domestic constraints on both of them; the coexistence of “paranoia and prudence” that was at the heart of mutual deterrence; the modicum of transparency made possible by reconnaissance (not to mention rampant espionage); the rejection by each side of the goal of unconditional surrender by the other; and the evolution of a variety of conflict-minimizing “rules of the game.” Because the world avoided nuclear Armageddon, historians are tempted to conclude that the “balance of terror” worked as a system of mutual deterrence.48

At the time, however, almost no one expected such a benign outcome, and most informed observers saw the superpower rivalry as highly unstable. Already during World War II, Eisenhower anticipated with dread a postwar world where “communism and anarchy [would]… spread rapidly, while crime and disorder, loss of personal liberties, and abject poverty [would] curse the areas that witness any amount of fighting.”49 As president, he was very clear what the consequences of all-out war would be. “[L]et me tell you that if war comes, it will be horrible,” he told the South Korean president Syngman Rhee in 1954. “Atomic war will destroy civilization…. There will be millions of people dead…. [T]he results are too horrible to contemplate. I can’t even imagine them.” A top-secret assessment a year and a half later persuaded him that in the wake of a full-blown war, “something on the order of 65 percent of the [U.S.] population would require some kind of medical care, and in most instances, no opportunity whatsoever to get it…. It would literally be a business of digging ourselves out of the ashes, starting again.”50

Partly under Nitze’s influence, Truman had ended up pursuing an “all of the above strategy,” not only building up the nuclear stockpile but also investing heavily in conventional forces and even waging a war in Korea. Eisenhower regarded this approach as fundamentally unsustainable, not least because of the fiscal overstretch — a quadrupling of the defense budget — it necessarily implied. “Spiritual force, multiplied by economic force, multiplied by military force, is roughly equal to security,” he wrote in his diary.51 If the cost of the arms race eroded the American way of life and the country’s economic health, it would be self-defeating. What was more, the Soviets understood this and were deliberately seeking “by their military threat… to force upon America and the free world an unbearable security burden leading to economic disaster.”52 In any case, Eisenhower had seen total war at first hand. He was deeply skeptical about the idea that a limited war — conventional or nuclear — could be fought against the Soviets; any such conflict was bound to escalate.53 This helps explain his consistent emphasis on a strategy of massive retaliation: not only did he want to deter the enemy, by persuading “all  adversaries that any  such conflict might  escalate to a level at which none  could hope to prevail”; he also wanted to deter his own advisers.54 Superficially, as articulated in the adversarial style of John Foster Dulles, the New Look was indeed a crude combination of the threat of massive retaliation and “brinkmanship.” In reality, Eisenhower’s strategy was subtle and nuanced. The seven pillars of Eisenhower’s strategy — thrashed out at the meetings of a revamped National Security Council,* nearly all of which he chaired — were the imperative of preventing a nuclear holocaust; the feasibility of deterrence; the necessity of a secure “second strike” capability; the abandonment of forcible “rollback” of the Soviet empire as a U.S. goal; the recognition of the long-term character of the Cold War; the strengthening of U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia; and the pursuit of realistic forms of arms control.55 Moreover, the means to those ends extended far beyond the Strategic Air Command, embracing diplomacy, psychological warfare, and covert operations.

All this represented a refinement of containment. At the same time, Eisenhower did his best to counter the post-Stalin Soviet “peace offensive.” His “Chance for Peace” speech of April 16, 1953, sincerely lamented the expense of the arms race. (“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.”)56 The British wanted to get in on the act; hence Churchill’s plea for a four-power meeting.57 But what exactly was peace to be based on? In his speech, Eisenhower blamed the Soviets squarely for “eight years of fear and force” and proposed “the initiation of political discussions leading to the holding of free elections in a united Korea” as well as “an end to the direct and indirect attacks upon the security of Indochina and Malaya.” There was little chance of the Soviets agreeing to any of that. True, the new leadership in Moscow was willing to make concessions, relinquishing its territorial claims on Turkey, for example. But the pivotal question of the postwar era — the German Question — remained as far as ever from resolution. Neither the Americans nor the Russians could view German reunification with unalloyed enthusiasm; on the contrary, Washington was intently focused on integrating a rearmed West Germany into both NATO and a new European Defense Community.

In truth, the mood in Washington was far from dovish.58 Secretary of State Dulles sounded much less emollient than the president in his speech to the Society of Newspaper Editors two days after Eisenhower’s “Chance for Peace.” When the president formed three task forces to consider his strategic options, the mildest scenario was essentially to maintain the status quo: the others were to complete a defense perimeter encircling the Sino-Soviet bloc or (most radical of all) to roll it back, reducing its territorial extent. The final report of “Project Solarium,” which became NSC-162/2, enshrined the “capability to inflict massive retaliatory damage by offensive strategic striking power” as the keystone of Eisenhower’s strategy, though other U.S. and allied forces would remain available to counter Soviet aggression in vital areas. The key question, as we have seen, was whether these other forces would include nuclear bombs.59 What no one outside the highest levels of government could know was that Eisenhower had not wholly ruled out that they would. Indeed, one of his administration’s earliest acts was secretly to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Western Europe. At a meeting of the NSC on October 7, 1953, the final text of NSC-162/2 was agreed. It included the line: “In the event of hostilities, the United States will consider nuclear weapons to be as available for use as other munitions.”60 Six days later the president himself confirmed what this meant. In response to a question from Admiral Arthur Radford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), Eisenhower said that “we should use the bomb in Korea if the aggression is renewed” by the Chinese.61 (The JCS took that to include targets in China, too.) That December, Eisenhower himself sought to persuade Anthony Eden that

the American public no longer distinguished between atomic and other nuclear weapons… nor is there any logical distinction…. Why should they confine themselves to high explosives requiring thousands of aircraft in attacking China’s bases when they can do it more cheaply and easily with atoms? The development of smaller atomic weapons and the use of atomic artillery makes [sic ] the distinction impossible to sustain.62

Similar arguments were made by Vice President Nixon the following year: he was even prepared to use atomic weapons to shore up the French position in Indochina.63 “The United States cannot afford to preclude itself from using nuclear weapons even in a local situation,” Eisenhower stated in early 1955, “if such use will bring the aggression to a swift and positive cessation, and if, on a balance of political and military consideration, such use will best advance U.S. security interests.”64 Eisenhower continued to insist that any limited war would likely escalate into a full-scale nuclear conflict. (“[W]hen you resort to force as the arbiter of human difficulty, you don’t know where you are going…. [I]f you get deeper and deeper, there is just no limit except what is imposed by the limitations of force itself.”)65 Yet he repeatedly told the U.S. military that “planning should go ahead on the basis of the use of tactical atomic weapons against military targets in any small war in which the United States might be involved.”66

The puzzle about the Eisenhower administration — and it is a puzzle with which historians still grapple — is that its public statements were so often at odds with such private deliberations. In the same month that Eisenhower was selling atomic strikes on the Chinese to Eden, he was telling the UN General Assembly — and the world*—that the United States and other nuclear-armed governments should “begin now and continue to make joint contributions from their stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable materials to an International Atomic Energy Agency” under the UN’s aegis.67 “Atoms for Peace”—as Eisenhower’s speech came to be known68—was not quite the oxymoron it seemed. The United States followed through on the president’s pledge to make fissile material available for the construction of nuclear reactors abroad. But the speech coincided with the adoption of a three-year defense program that not only increased the SAC’s budget but also invested in a variety of defense systems, including Arctic radar early warning networks, designed to detect and intercept a Soviet nuclear attack, and the Lockheed U-2 spy plane, capable of flying at altitudes of seventy thousand feet.69 A month later Dulles gave a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations that appalled even Nitze in its stark formulation of the doctrine of massive retaliation.70 When the Soviets retorted to “Atoms for Peace” with a call for “the unconditional banning of atomic and hydrogen weapons,” the administration was caught off guard.71 No sooner had Dulles been persuaded of the advantages to the United States of a ban on nuclear tests — an idea that also appealed to Eisenhower — than he changed his mind.72

The real problem was that by 1955 strategy was the product of a process that was not just bureaucratically complex but also intellectually congested. Once nuclear weapons had been the province of the physicists who devised them. They still played a significant role: witness the influence of the Technological Capabilities Panel, chaired by James Killian, the president of MIT, later Eisenhower’s first special assistant for science.73 But the scientists were increasingly divided. A victim of McCarthy’s witch hunt, Oppenheimer was being stripped of his high-level government clearance as a result of allegations that he was “an agent of the Soviet Union.”74 At the other extreme, the physicist Edward Teller dismissed all talk of arms reductions or test bans as wrongheaded and weak-kneed. Meanwhile, the soldiers, sailors, and airmen had acquired views of their own; not surprisingly, the army and navy resented the substantial shift in resources to the air force, and particularly the Strategic Air Command, implicit in massive retaliation. For professional politicians like Harold Stassen the terrain was increasingly treacherous: his role as Eisenhower’s special assistant for disarmament (“Secretary for Peace”) posed too obvious a challenge to Dulles.75 Disarmament was hard to oppose in public, but there was no expert consensus as to how the arms race might be stopped. By the spring of 1955, as the president uneasily prepared for the Geneva summit, a deadlock had developed. At the United Nations, the Soviets were making ever more reasonable-sounding proposals for disarmament. Was there any U.S. response that was, at one and the same time, scientifically possible, militarily feasible, and politically viable? This was an opportunity for a fourth group of professional experts to insert themselves into the policy-making process. The birth of strategic studies as a distinct academic field would surely have been delayed had the scientists, soldiers, and statesmen of the Eisenhower administration been able to agree.


The battles over nuclear strategy that went on in Washington were not easily followed from Harvard. The speeches one could read, of course; but the deliberations of the NSC were almost entirely unknown to the public, professors included. The era of leaks and “freedom of information” was still a decade away. The best Kissinger could do was to invite key players in the drama to address his and Elliott’s International Seminar. The vice president declined to be the opening speaker in July 1955, the first of many nonmeetings between Nixon and Kissinger,76 but Stassen came. Kissinger thought his speech “a great success, the air-conditioning at the Hotel Continental excepted.”77 Bundy found Stassen “a most puzzling and interesting man.”78 The Harvard men could hardly have been more out of the loop.

It was Bundy who gave Kissinger his break. Not only did the job at the Council on Foreign Relations extricate him from Harvard, it also plunged him into a world he had hitherto been confined to reading about in the newspapers. Originally established in 1918 as a businessmen’s club, the CFR had been reconstituted by former members of Woodrow Wilson’s postwar planning “Inquiry” in 1921 and was essentially an American answer to the Royal Institute of International Affairs housed in London at (and often known as) Chatham House.79 The council’s War and Peace Studies made an important contribution to American thinking about the new international order. Its members were all male, often Ivy League, and — when they were not directly involved in making U.S. foreign policy in Washington or abroad*—felt themselves very much at home in their elegant clubhouse on Park Avenue and 68th Street.80 The CFR was influential — though not as all-powerful, and certainly not as sinister, as has sometimes been claimed.81

The members of the nuclear weapons study group who met there on May 5, 1955, were nearly all “insiders” with considerable firsthand experience of either government or the military. In the chair was Gordon Dean, the former head of the Atomic Energy Commission. Having served as director of Policy Planning, Paul Nitze was now based at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), which he had cofounded in Washington, awaiting the return of a Democrat to the White House. Frank Pace had served Truman as secretary of the army, while Frank C. Nash had been assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the same administration. In addition, there were three distinguished military men. General James M. Gavin had led the 82nd Airborne Division in Operation Market Garden. As army chief of research and development, he was a pioneer of the idea of transporting armor and artillery as well as troops by air, a concept that (as we shall see) he successfully sold to Kissinger.* During the war, General Richard C. Lindsay had been chief of the Combined Joint Staff Division of the Army Air Forces Headquarters; he would later serve as commander of NATO air forces in southern Europe. Colonel William Kintner had already published a book on psychological warfare; in 1953 he had published Atomic Weapons in Land Combat . Finally, the academics included Caryl P. Haskins, the biologist and founder of Haskins Laboratories, and Shields Warren, an authority on the physiological effects of radiation. Though not a scientist, Carroll L. Wilson had been the first general manager of the Atomic Energy Commission. On the international relations side were the Sterling Professor of International Relations at Yale, Arnold Wolfers, and Don K. Price, later the founding dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School.*

What exactly would Kissinger’s role be? As George S. Franklin, the executive director of the CFR, explained to Oppenheimer, whom he asked to brief the new hire, it was “to spend 15 months thinking through some of the problems raised in the group” and then to “write a book which I hope will be an interesting and important contribution.” He and his colleagues knew full well that they were inviting an amateur. “Mr. Kissinger has not had as much experience in this field as certain people we might have gotten,” conceded Franklin, “but after meeting him I believe you will feel that his ability and objectivity more than make up for this.”82 Kissinger himself was not slow to acknowledge his lack of expertise. “Although I am usually distrustful of people who, after taking a job, announce their humility before it,” he confessed to Oppenheimer, “I find myself somewhat overawed by the enormity of the subject.”83 With just a hint of irony, Bundy offered a consoling reflection. “The subject is one which steadily reminds any student that he is a mortal, and its heights compel respect. So this is a field in which very important things can be done without the presumption that everything has been attended to. There is a good case to be made for believing in all assignments with such built-in inducements to humility.”84 It is doubtful, however, that humility was Henry Kissinger’s predominant emotion after his first encounter with the CFR study group. Rarely can a gathering of luminaries have amounted to so much less than the sum of its parts.

It was already the group’s sixth meeting; it therefore took chutzpah to offer, as Kissinger did, an opening summary of the “the trend of the meetings” so far, based on his reading of minutes and conversations with participants. He offered three observations and a question. First, the U.S. armed services were becoming increasingly dependent upon nuclear weapons. Second, the use of tactical atomic weapons in a limited war was coming to be seen as impossible because of the difficulty of drawing a clean line between tactical and strategic uses and the likelihood that a losing belligerent would not go down without unleashing all his destructive capabilities. Third, there was “a very real danger that Soviet fear of the American nuclear potential [might] lead the Kremlin to try to strike the first blow.” Finally, Kissinger asked how the U.S. government should “order the political scheme before commencing any necessary limited military operation so as to make it evident that this country’s goals are limited.”85 What followed was as near to a free-for-all as the Council on Foreign Relations can ever have witnessed.

Nitze was dismissive of most of Kissinger’s observations. He “did not agree that the consensus of the group is that the armed services are becoming unable to fight a conventional war.” He was also skeptical (as were others) about the idea that rules of limited war could be agreed to in advance with an opponent as untrustworthy as the USSR. Arnold Wolfers then sketched a scenario in which a limited war in Europe nevertheless rapidly escalated to the point when strategic weapons ended up being used. Hanson Baldwin of The New York Times  agreed that limited war would be exceedingly difficult to keep limited in Europe because of the continent’s high population density.

The military men took different views. General Lindsay argued that the war of the future would likely be prolonged and would involve the use of “all sorts of devices for either offensive or defensive purposes.” General Gavin went further:

In his opinion, the United States could whip the Soviet Union without using any atomic devices, by virtue of its superior fire power. Therefore, he concluded that as long as the US is willing to expend its conventional forces, it might be in its own interests not to introduce the atom as a weapon…. [Gavin] suggested an analogy to the role of police within a community. The patrolman may have a tommy gun back at the station house as his ultimate weapon, but he uses his night stick to subdue the criminal without punching holes in the general populace. By the same token, the United States has got to demonstrate that it has the power and the discretion to win local scraps without destroying European civilization.

The same argument applied in the less populous Middle East, Gavin argued. But General Lindsay “disagreed that the job could be done conventionally.” Moreover, he argued, there would be a better chance of limiting an atomic war in the Middle East than in Europe. Gavin conceded that the army had “a comprehensive atomic arsenal which it would like to be free to use so long as such an action did not trigger a nuclear war” and that “local forces would be considerably stiffened through the use of small yield atomic weapons… against military targets.” However, he did not feel that the United States should publicize its intentions of defending allied areas with atomic weapons.

At least two of the “lay” members of the study group saw such tactical nuclear weapons as indispensable, at least for the defense of the Middle East against Soviet aggression. One (Charles Noyes) “noted that if the United States decides that it cannot use tactical A-bombs against open aggression moving into Iran through a sparsely settled area, against Caucasians, and in the interests and perhaps at the request of the natives — thus eliminating many of the political objections to using atomic devices — it would never be able to use them.” The conclusion of the discussion was sobering. Nitze observed that “in the final analysis the political leaders must ask the military what would happen if the United States is forced to attack the Soviet Union, and if the answer is that the U.S. as we know it would be destroyed, then the politicians must be prepared to accept the humiliation of retreat.” This surely was a counsel of defeat. If, at the beginning of this discussion, Kissinger had been open to Nitze’s view of the matter (“that once a war becomes nuclear it is much harder to set any effective limits”), by the end he was listening closely to the military men. There had to be some alternative to massive retaliation — especially if in practice it was an empty threat behind which lurked the prospect of massive humiliation.

Kissinger’s presence at such discussions, as he drily put it in a letter to Arthur Schlesinger, was “a process that can only be called research by osmosis. It seems to be the belief of the Council that the proximity to great men, or at least to great names, by itself produces superior efforts.”86 As if to put this proposition to a further test, Kissinger was about to come into still closer proximity to a man widely regarded as bearing one of the greatest names in all America: Rockefeller.


It would be difficult to imagine two men with more different backgrounds than Henry Kissinger and Nelson Rockefeller. Kissinger, a teenage refugee whose first job in America was in a Chelsea sweatshop, had slogged his way to Park Avenue by way of a U.S. Army boot camp and a GI Bill scholarship. Aside from brains, guts, and loving parents, he had been born with nothing. By comparison,

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Nelson Rockefeller had inherited the earth. The grandson of the oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller (and on his mother’s side, of Senator Nelson Aldrich, one of the architects of the Federal Reserve System), he grew up amid power and privilege. After Phillips Exeter Academy and Dartmouth, he was immediately handed a job in the family business empire, working for the Chase National Bank; Rockefeller Center, Inc.; and Creole Petroleum, the Venezuelan subsidiary of Standard Oil. In fact, Rockefeller’s vocation was politics, followed by philanthropy; business came a distant third. But that did not matter. As a Rockefeller, he was welcome in Washington, too. Roosevelt made him coordinator of inter-American affairs and then assistant secretary of state for American republic affairs (the beginning of a lifelong interest in Latin America). Truman named him chairman of the International Development Advisory Board. And then Eisenhower gave him the job of chairing his Advisory Committee on Government Organization. When that committee proposed the creation of a new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Rockefeller briefly became its undersecretary. In 1954, however, Eisenhower persuaded Rockefeller to come to the White House to be a special presidential assistant, entrusted with building “increased understanding and co-operation among all peoples,” as well as his representative on the Operations Coordinating Board (which had replaced the Psychological Strategy Board in 1953).87 Whereas his predecessor, C. D. Jackson, had been Eisenhower’s adviser on psychological warfare, Rockefeller’s mandate was broader. In effect, he was supposed to be the answer to the problem posed by the Soviet “peace offensive.” As such, he immediately found himself at loggerheads with some of the biggest beasts in the administration, in particular Secretary of State Dulles, who viewed the interloping plutocrat with understandable suspicion.

Privileged as he was, Rockefeller knew his limitations. His mother had encouraged him to seek out his intellectual “superiors” for counsel; this suited a man who maintained that the best way to read a book was to meet its author. In order to make the maximum impact in his new role, Rockefeller summoned an unusual mixture of thinkers to the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School at Quantico, Virginia: economists and sociologists as well as defense specialists and intelligence operatives. After five days of deliberation, the group came up with, among other things, the idea of “Open Skies,” the proposal for reciprocal aerial surveillance of military installations, which — despite Dulles’s disapproval and his own reservations — Eisenhower put forward at the Geneva summit, the effect heightened by a well-timed thunderstorm.88 (A characteristic feature of Rockefeller’s approach was the connection from Quantico to the private sector. Among those present was ex-CIA agent Frank Lindsay, who would later become chief executive of Itek, the Rockefeller-backed company that would manufacture the cameras for U.S. spy satellites.)89

“Open Skies” was expected to be a trump card. World opinion would welcome American transparency and would condemn the Soviets when they turned the idea down, as they were certain to do. The feeling that the Soviets had nevertheless won the psychological battle at Geneva, significantly improving their image in the eyes of Western voters, prompted a new initiative: a study panel on “Psychological Aspects of a Future U.S. Strategy.”90 It was this second group — sometimes misleadingly called Quantico II — that Henry Kissinger was invited to join. His Harvard mentor Bill Elliott later claimed the credit for having “put the idea in his mind and given Nelson the tip to use Henry Kissinger.”91 But his name was in fact first suggested by William Kintner, who had gotten to know Kissinger four years earlier.92 From inside the Pentagon, Fritz Kraemer may also have recommended him.93

Though the intended recipient of its report was clearly the president and other officials, the panel itself was funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which Nelson Rockefeller and his three siblings had established in 1940. Like the CFR study group, then, this was an unofficial entity, but once again it brought Kissinger into direct contact with some eminent policy insiders, this time in Washington itself.94 Its chairman was retired air force general Frederick Anderson, a veteran of the wartime bombing of Germany; the other members included C. D. Jackson, Rockefeller’s “psy-war” predecessor, who in 1955 had returned to TimeLife, and Colonel George A. Lincoln, who had prepared Roosevelt and Marshall for the Yalta Conference and was now head of West Point’s Department of Social Sciences. Through his work with the Operations Research Office, Kissinger already knew Ellis A. Johnson, Paul Linebarger, and George Pettee; he had certainly encountered the economists Max F. Millikan and Walt Rostow at MIT and the Sovietologist Philip E. Mosely at CFR; but this was probably his first encounter with the Austrian-born strategic thinker Stefan Possony.* When the panel first met in Washington in late August 1955, they were addressed by the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff and the deputy director of the CIA.95 Though not strictly speaking government work, Kissinger’s role on Rockefeller’s panel was another step closer to the corridors of power.

Kissinger’s first impression of Rockefeller was unfavorable. He “entered the room slapping the backs of the assembled academics, grinning and calling each by the closest approximation of his first name that he could remember” (or “fellah” if no name came to mind).96 Moreover, the work he was being asked to do was in many ways less challenging than the work for the council on nuclear weapons. As we have seen, Kissinger had already been a student of psychological warfare for the better part of a decade. As he told Rostow after the first meeting of the Rockefeller panel, he had been “insisting for the past several years that the most important component of our foreign policy is the psychological one.”97 Inevitably, the subject of nuclear weapons was central to the panel’s deliberations. It doubtless contributed to Kissinger’s evolving view of the subject that one of the military presentations they heard explicitly acknowledged that “nuclear weapons will be used in situations other than all-out war…. Agreement was expressed that it might make the world happier if tactical A-weapons were used in a small war that didn’t expand into a large war.”98 But the two papers Kissinger was assigned to write dealt with other, more familiar matters: “The Problem of German Unity” and “Psychological and Pressure Aspects of Negotiations with the USSR.”

The German Question was the central problem of the Cold War, with Berlin as its fulcrum. The division of Germany was a substitute for a peace treaty at the end of World War II — a de facto partition that reflected and then perpetuated the military realities at the moment of the Third Reich’s collapse. In practice, the arrangement suited both the United States and the Soviet Union quite well, but it was unpopular with most Germans, especially with Social Democratic voters in the Federal Republic. Soviet propaganda had targeted the integration of West Germany into NATO as evidence that the American imperialists and the crypto-Nazi warmongers were in cahoots; Moscow could risk proposing German reunification and neutralization in the knowledge that its puppets in East Berlin would do as they were told. What made matters worse, from an American perspective, was the fundamentally indefensible nature of West Berlin, a western enclave entirely surrounded by East German territory and Soviet troops.99 Yet politically West Berlin was a threat to the legitimacy of the Soviet puppet regime, an advertisement for freedom more potent than any CIA-funded exhibit. By itself, the division of Germany might have proved stable; the division of Berlin clearly was not. It had been the 1953 workers’ revolt in East Berlin that had given Nikita Khrushchev — the rising power broker on the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee — his opportunity to overthrow Beria, who had earlier argued for a reunited but neutral Germany. The next Berlin crisis might have international as well as domestic political ramifications.

In Kissinger’s analysis, the United States had to regain the initiative before too many West Germans saw “a direct deal with the USSR” as an attractive alternative to “a [U.S.-USSR] detente bought at the expense of Germany’s primary goal: reunification”—a phantom that would haunt him for many years to come, as we shall see. Washington should therefore propose reunification on the basis of “all-German elections and… some kind of security arrangement based on bilateral force reduction.” If (as they were bound to) the Soviets rejected this, then the United States should counter with a proposal for “economic unity, beginning with an Economic Parliament for all of Germany” to be located in a neutralized Berlin. If that too were rejected, the third option should be to propose free movement between West and East Germany. The point of these proposals was not, of course, that Moscow was likely to accept any of them; it was that Soviet rejection would bolster the standing of the United States in Germany and thereby strengthen the domestic position of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.100 This was diplomacy as psychological warfare, in marked contrast to George Kennan’s 1957 proposal for reunification on the basis of demilitarization (see next chapter), which he fondly imagined might be acceptable in Moscow.

Kissinger’s second paper was much broader in scope and began with a characteristically bold comparison between the world of 1955 and the world, so dear to his heart, of 1815. “Confronted by a power which for over a generation has claimed for its nation both exclusiveness and universality of social justice; which has based its domestic control apparatus on the myth of a permanently hostile outside world; and which is building a nuclear capacity to inflict catastrophic blows on [us],” the United States simply could not rely on traditional diplomacy. The issue was “no longer the adjustment of local disputes between protagonists agreed on a basic framework, but the basic framework itself.” For Kissinger, the “predominant aspect” of what he called the “new diplomacy” was its “psychological dimension.” It was just conceivable that the Soviet “peace offensive” was sincere; but it was more likely that Moscow was “simply playing for time” until its nuclear capacity was “more nearly commensurable with that of the U.S. and until the constellation of forces in the non-Communist world” improved. In that case, “a too rapid surrender to Soviet blandishments” would be disastrous. The problem was that the Soviet tactic of “talking about peace, in general,” while focusing on the specific issue of West German rearmament, had effectively gained the moral high ground by representing the United States as the aggressive superpower. The solution was for the president to propose that “the Soviet leaders associate themselves with him in a declaration that the Big Four oppose the settlement of disputes by force” and come to “a conference to discuss concrete measures to lift the Iron Curtain, perhaps beginning with a proposal for free travel within Germany.” The key was to learn from the example of Yugoslav leader Josip Tito, who had “replied to every Soviet blandishment with a demand for deeds and not words, until Khrushchev appeared in Belgrade.” But Kissinger could not resist ending with a reflection on the implications of his recommended diplomatic strategy for the nuclear arms race:

It may be argued that a continued high level of defense expenditure coupled with a refusal to negotiate unless the USSR makes concessions may lure the Soviets into an anticipatory strike. But it is more than doubtful that the USSR will launch a “preventive war” unless it considers its chances better than even, a situation which our force levels should always be adequate to prevent….

The real significance of thermonuclear weapons may well be that they place a premium on a strategy which shifts the risk of their use to the other side…. If we stake everything on an all-or-nothing military policy one of two consequences becomes inevitable: either our allies will feel that peace is preferable to war almost at any price; or they reduce their military expenditures on the assumption that events cannot be affected by their action.101

Kissinger’s contributions were just two of twenty papers that Rockefeller presented to Eisenhower in November 1955 under the heading “Psychological Aspects of United States Strategy,” the bottom line of which was that defense expenditure must go up. For Kissinger, it had been — or so he told Rockefeller—“one of the most satisfying, if exhausting, experiences that I have had over the last few years.”102 It had been moderately lucrative, too: his fee as a consultant was $1,530 (around $60,000 in 2013 dollars).103 Yet it cannot be said that the panel’s “hectic” efforts had much impact. The position of special assistant lacked an institutional power base. Rockefeller had already run into resistance from the State Department and Treasury. Following the creation of a new Planning Coordination Group under Rockefeller’s chairmanship, Allen Dulles joined his brother in what amounted to a campaign of passive resistance. It worked. Eisenhower, recovering from a stroke, made it clear that he would not adopt the Quantico II recommendations. In December, Kissinger was “saddened” to hear that Rockefeller had resigned.104 Privately, he was frustrated that his efforts had come to nothing. “Stassen gave a talk the other day in which he listed as Republican accomplishments the Indo-China truce, the Korean armistice and the fact that for the first time since 1912 the world has known a year without war,” he grumbled to Arthur Schlesinger.

It seems to me that this kind of talk can seem plausible only in an environment where all standards of rational discussion have disintegrated. I think that what is required is a speech which, area by area, explains how we have failed and how our policy could be improved. Also, quite frankly, I have an aversion to such phrases as that “we are working toward peace” because it gives the impression that on some magical day, peace will suddenly break out.105

Conservative he may have been, but at this juncture in his career Kissinger was in revolt against Republican foreign policy: “the insincerity of the security program, the incommensurability between the campaign promises in foreign affairs and reality.” Eisenhower had been put on a pedestal by “the advertising agencies,” he complained to Schlesinger, but an effective critique could expose the president as “sanctimonious and pretentious.”106

Yet Kissinger was still trying to work out a coherent alternative to Eisenhower’s policy. His draft memorandum “Soviet Strategy — Possible U.S. Countermeasures” began with a restatement of Kennan’s old containment thesis and reiterated arguments Kissinger had been making for some time. Containment under Truman had drawn the United States into “peripheral actions” in Asia and elsewhere that allowed the Soviet leaders to exploit their advantages. The Eisenhower alternative — an excessive reliance on the threat of all-out war — only increased the danger of “the world sliding into war.” “A line should be clearly defined,” Kissinger argued, “any transgression of which would involve a major war, though not necessarily at the point of aggression.” He once again sketched his plan for a “highly mobile U.S. strategic reserve, within striking distance of Soviet vital centers, in areas where the terrain maximizes U.S. technological superiority”—in particular the Middle East. Perhaps, he mused, the British and (bizarrely) the South Africans could contribute troops to this force, which could be based in Jordan or Cyrenea (Libya). To free up resources for this initiative, Japan could be rearmed.107

This was still work in progress.


Psychological warfare against a foreign foe is not easily waged during an election year. Repeatedly in 1956 Kissinger was dismayed by the things politicians would say in their quest for votes. “I thought [John Foster] Dulles’ performance in Life * quite appalling,” he complained to Schlesinger,

but I also feel that [Adlai] Stevenson [the Democratic challenger] and [Hubert] Humphrey [who sought the vice presidential nomination] hardly distinguished themselves. It is one thing to say that Quemoy and Matsu [islands controlled by Taiwan, which had been shelled by the People’s Republic of China in 1954] are not worth a nuclear war; it is quite another to assert that we can never threaten war at all. The slogan “there is no alternative to peace” [used by Eisenhower at the time of Geneva] amounts to giving the Soviets a blank check, at least for this election year.108

Kissinger’s response was two articles in Foreign Affairs  in the space of six months: “Force and Diplomacy in the Nuclear Age” and “Reflections on American Diplomacy.” The first opened with a blunt attack on the rhetoric of the campaign: phrases like “massive retaliation” and “there is no alternative to peace” were dangerous, the former because it posed “risks for us out of proportion to the objectives to be achieved,” the latter because it removed “a powerful brake on Soviet probing actions and any incentive for the Soviet Union to make concessions.”109 Now, however, Kissinger went on to outline his rapidly crystallizing view on the viability of limited nuclear war. For the first time, he was explicit: “[N]uclear weapons, particularly of the low-yield type, seem to offer the best opportunity to compensate for our inferiority in manpower and to use our superiority in technology to best advantage.”110 The Soviets were furiously trying to delegitimize this claim by insisting that limited nuclear war was an impossibility and pressing for comprehensive disarmament (“Ban the Bomb”). But this was merely a ploy to prevent the United States from seizing the opportunity presented by tactical nuclear weapons. Whereas the Soviets were configured for a prolonged war of attrition with high concentrations of troops, “on a nuclear battlefield, dispersion [would be] the key to survival and mobility the prerequisite of success”—to say nothing of “leadership of a high order, personal initiative and mechanical aptitude, all qualities in which our military organization probably excels that of the U.S.S.R.”111

The key to preventing a limited nuclear war from escalating was for “our diplomacy to convey to the Soviet bloc that we are capable of courses other than all-out war or inaction, and that we intend to use this capability,” though not in pursuit of unconditional surrender.112 That message had to be conveyed not just to the Soviets but also to American allies, as well as to the nonaligned countries. The former had to be reassured that war did not mean “inevitabl[e]… national catastrophe”; the latter had to be “show[n] the flag… to impress [them] with our capacity for action.” Kissinger concluded with a restatement of his case for:

a weapons system that can deal with the tensions most likely to arise in the uncommitted areas — tensions which do not lend themselves to the massive employment of thermonuclear weapons: civil war, peripheral attacks or a war among the uncommitted. To be sure, this is an ungrateful and indeed an unpopular course. But we will not be able to avoid unpopularity. In the short run, all we can hope for is respect.113

At a time when Eisenhower was restating the case for massive retaliation as “the key to survival,” Kissinger offered an alternative.114

“Reflections on American Diplomacy” was even more self-confident in its tone. U.S. foreign policy, Kissinger stated bluntly, had reached “an impasse because of our penchant for happy endings.” Not only were Americans too eager to fall for Soviet peace propaganda. They had a “penchant for ad hoc solutions,” based on a naïve belief that foreign policy could be conducted as a science, when it was in fact “the art of weighing probabilities… [of] grasping the nuances of possibilities.”115 Moreover, despite Eisenhower’s remodeling of the NSC, U.S. policy making was bedeviled by bureaucracy: multiple committees, subordinate officials overwhelming their superiors with piles of trivia, feuding departments negotiating policy, decisions so hard to reach that they become impossible to reappraise. Worse still, Americans were too optimistic; they lacked “tragic experience.”

[T]o many of our most responsible men, particularly in the business community, the warnings of impending peril or of imminent disaster sound like the Cassandra cries of abstracted “egg-heads.”… [Defense Secretary Charles Wilson and Treasury Secretary George Humphrey] simply cannot believe that in the nuclear age the penalty for miscalculation may be national catastrophe. They may know in their heads, but they cannot accept in their hearts, that the society they helped to build could disappear as did Rome or Carthage or Byzantium, which probably seemed as eternal to their citizens…. The irrevocable error is not yet part of the American experience.116

For all these reasons, Kissinger argued, Americans were psychologically ill suited to making foreign policy in what he regarded as a revolutionary period. They failed to understand that “in a revolutionary order the protagonists at the conference table address not so much one another as the world at large.”117 Paradoxically, “we, the empiricists, appear to the world as rigid, unimaginative and even somewhat cynical, while the dogmatic Bolsheviks exhibit flexibility, daring and subtlety.”118 The net result was “a crisis in our system of alliances and… substantial Soviet gains among the uncommitted peoples of the world.” The Cold War had become a “contest for the allegiance of humanity” and the United States was losing it.

In this article (which, it should be noted, did an injustice to Eisenhower’s exceedingly well-run NSC),119 Kissinger’s remedies were diplomatic rather than military. Allies had to be persuaded that “their best chance of avoiding thermonuclear war resides in our ability to make local aggression too costly,” which meant securing an effective contribution from the allies themselves. As for the “uncommitted areas,” America should seek not popularity but respect. “In its relations with the uncommitted,” Kissinger concluded somewhat pompously, “the United States must develop not only a greater compassion but also a greater majesty.” “We have wanted to be liked for our own sakes and we have wished to succeed because of the persuasiveness of our principles rather than through our strength.”120

Kissinger had come a long way since his undergraduate enthusiasm for Kant. Detectable in his 1956 writing was a first trace of Machiavelli’s influence. In chapter 17 of The Prince,  Machiavelli asks “whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved?” He answers that “one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.” If ever a book was written to inspire fear rather than love of the United States, it was Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy .


Kissinger sweated over the book through the fall of 1956, neglecting his duties elsewhere (which included the editing of Confluence  and fund-raising for the International Seminar and a new project for Rockefeller) because, as he explained to Bundy, “when I write I neglect all other things.”121 “It has proved… difficult,” he went on, “because, while the subject is very important, so little is known about it that almost anything one writes approaches pure conjecture; and there is additional psychological pressure because everyone at the Council, in their kindness, expects a masterpiece, while I have no idea what a masterpiece on the subject would look like.”122 There had been no such pressure when he was writing A World Restored . By mid-November he was complaining to Graubard of being “sick” of the book, and this was with five chapters still unwritten.123 By the end of the year it was “a close race between my sanity and the end of it.”124 His wife saw little of him. She put trays of food through his study door and retreated.125

One reason Kissinger found Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy  so hard to write was that the ideas in it were not all his own. It was not just that he had been asked to synthesize the disparate and indeed contradictory views of a study group. He had also made every effort to consult other experts in the field, ranging from Oppenheimer to his old mentor Fritz Kraemer. “Its contents will hardly be a surprise to you,” he told Kraemer—“in fact, in many passages we will have a hard time remembering who thought which points first.”126 As Kissinger explained to Edward Teller, his relationship with the study group had been deliberately semi-detached: “The point is that there never was an attempt to reach a consensus. It was always understood that I would be solely responsible for the book and that the group would be largely advisory. The whole second half of the book was never discussed in the study group and none of the manuscript was ever submitted to it.”127

Moreover, substantial parts of the book had been published before, in Foreign Affairs  and elsewhere; there were even passages rehashed from A World Restored . One of the most remarkable things about Nuclear Weapons  is that, despite all this, the book is coherent. Knowing that its length—482 pages — might put off all but the specialist reader, Kissinger was at pains to summarize its argument. Unusually, he did so fully two months before its publication. On April 15, 1957, he gave a speech before the Economic Club of Detroit on “How the Revolution in Weapons Will Affect Our Strategy and Foreign Policy.”128 This was essentially a synopsis. Simultaneously, he published yet another essay in Foreign Affairs:  “Strategy and Organization.”129 As John Eisenhower put it in a handwritten note to his father, the article was “a brief of the brief of the brief of the book.”130

Any summary is of course selective. It is therefore revealing that in “Strategy and Organization” Kissinger chose to focus much less on the limited nuclear war that was at the heart of his argument and much more on the policy making that would precede it and the diplomacy that would go on during it. His first point was that the United States lacked a “strategic doctrine” for the nuclear age. Instead it had, at best, “the attainable consensus among sovereign departments.” The interdepartmental and interservice haggling “only defers the doctrinal dilemma until some crisis or the budgetary process forces a reconsideration under the pressure of events.”131 Because of “the predominance of fiscal considerations in our defense planning… doctrine is tailored and if necessary invented to fit budgetary requests…. The quest for numbers is a symptom of the abdication of doctrine.”132 As a consequence, there had been a failure to grasp the full implications of thermonuclear war, namely that there could be no winner in an all-out conflict “because even the weaker side may be able to inflict a degree of destruction which no society can support.”133 Kissinger’s doctrine of limited nuclear war could be stated simply:

Against the ominous background of thermonuclear devastation, the goal of war can no longer be military victory as we have known it. Rather it should be the attainment of certain specific political conditions which are fully understood by the opponent. The purpose of limited war is to inflict losses or to pose risks for the enemy out of proportion to the objectives under dispute. The more moderate the objective, the less violent the war is likely to be.134

This had several practical implications. First, the United States needed to have “an understanding of the psychology by which the opponent calculates his risks and the ability to present him at every point with an opportunity for a settlement that appears more favorable than would result if the war were continued.”135 There would need to be “pauses for calculation” between bouts of fighting and negotiation between two sides even as the war was going on. Second, the enemy’s retaliatory (second-strike) nuclear forces had to be ruled out as targets; otherwise any war would be bound to escalate. Third, U.S. military forces would need to be reorganized. While the army, navy, and air force would continue as administrative and training units, they would be subordinated to two overarching organizations: the Strategic Force and the Tactical Force. Fourth, the defense budget cycle would be extended from one to two years.136


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by its absence from this précis was any serious discussion of what a limited nuclear war might actually be like. Kissinger’s one explicit remark on the subject—“battles will approach the stylized contests of the feudal period which were as much a test of will as a trial in strength”—even seemed to imply that future war would be less  destructive than the conventional conflicts of the prenuclear period.137 There was a reason for this uncharacteristic imprecision, as we shall see. For rhetorical purposes, the crucial point was to emphasize the horrific implications of all-out nuclear war. As Kissinger argued in another “trailer” for his book — a short article in The Reporter *—the defects of “prevailing strategic doctrines” made a catastrophic all-out war much more likely than people appreciated:

As things now stand, the major powers could conceivably be drawn into a war entirely against their wishes. The conflict over the Suez Canal was hardly foreseen by the western powers and perhaps not even by the Soviet Union. And the Hungarian revolution came as a rude shock to the Kremlin. Both upheavals resulted in military action that prevailing strategic doctrines might easily have spread to an all-out war. Similar Soviet moves in East Germany or Poland would be fraught with even more danger.

For Kissinger, however, Armageddon was not the nightmare. Rather, it was what the fear of Armageddon might do. “The absence of any generally understood limits to war,” he warned, “undermines the psychological framework of resistance to Communist moves. Where war is considered tantamount to national suicide, surrender may appear the lesser of two evils.”138

Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy  was published on June 26, 1957. Despite McGeorge Bundy’s objection to its “tone and… attitude of critical superiority,” most readers were impressed by the book’s authoritative critique of Eisenhower’s national security strategy.139 In particular, there was an appealing toughness to the argument. The “challenge of the nuclear age,” Kissinger argued, was that “the enormity of modern weapons makes the thought of war repugnant, but the refusal to run any risks would amount to giving the Soviet rulers a blank check.”140 The thermonuclear deterrent, he ventured to argue, was analogous to the French Maginot Line in the 1930s. Just seventeen years after that line’s abject failure to keep out the Wehrmacht, this was a comparison that still had the power to shock. But, as Kissinger argued, the American defense establishment was stuck in the era of World War II in more ways than one. There was still an assumption that, as at Pearl Harbor, the next war would begin with a surprise attack, to which the U.S. Air Force would react with devastating aerial bombardment of enemy cities. The only difference would be that this time all the bombs would be nuclear. Meanwhile, the navy would sail and the army would march, each with nuclear weapons of its own. Yet these assumptions were wholly anachronistic in the nuclear age and left the United States exposed to a quite different Soviet strategy (as in Korea) of attacking peripheral countries, keeping the stakes low enough that massive retaliation was never the appropriate response. What was needed was “a strategy of intermediate objectives.”141

Other authors had already tried to describe what a nuclear war would be like, but Kissinger’s account in chapters 3 and 4 of Nuclear Weapons  was pioneering, appearing as it did two years before Nevil Shute’s best-selling novel On the Beach  and three years before the publication of Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War . Beginning by estimating the destructive effects of a ten-megaton bomb dropped on New York, Kissinger extrapolates that an all-out Soviet attack on the fifty largest U.S. cities would kill between 15 and 20 million people and injure between 20 and 25 million; a further 5 to 10 million would die from the effects of radioactive fallout, while perhaps another 7 to 10 million would become sick. Those who survived would face “social disintegration.”142 Even then the United States would still be able to inflict comparable devastation on the Soviet Union: “Henceforth the only outcome of an all-out war will be that both  contenders must lose.”143 Unlike many later writers, however, Kissinger’s aim was not to argue for nuclear disarmament. Indeed, he was quite explicit that “the horrors of nuclear war [were] not likely to be avoided by a reduction of nuclear armaments” or, for that matter, by systems of weapons inspection.144 If “all-out war [had] therefore ceased to be a meaningful instrument of policy,” Kissinger asked, was it nevertheless “possible to imagine applications of power less catastrophic than all-out thermonuclear war?”145 His answer, as we have seen, was yes: a limited nuclear war was indeed possible.

The fact that a limited nuclear war did not happen during the Cold War is not compelling evidence that Kissinger’s thesis was wrong. On the contrary, the book was clearly right in the sense that, subsequent to its publication, both superpowers set about acquiring a substantial tactical nuclear capability and were still enhancing that capability in the early 1980s. That it was never used is irrelevant; what matters is that such weapons were considered usable by both sides. The flaws in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy  are subtler and reflect the reality that — despite Kissinger’s sole authorship — the book remained, at root, the work of a committee.

Much of Kissinger’s critique of the Eisenhower administration’s strategy is by now familiar. We have already encountered the argument that reliance on the threat of massive retaliation must tend to undermine the U.S. system of regional alliances, especially in Europe; also familiar is Kissinger’s analysis of Soviet and Chinese strategic thinking, which adumbrates his earlier ideas about the way revolutionary powers behave, his analysis of the Soviet “peace offensive,” and his recommendation to merge the armed services and create new and strictly separate strategic and tactical forces. The novel chapters concern the nature of a limited nuclear war itself. It is here that Kissinger was most reliant on the military men of the CFR study group — and it is here, as a result, that his argument is at its weakest.

The first weak link in the “argument in favor of the possibility of limited war” is Kissinger’s claim that “both sides have a common and overwhelming interest in preventing it from spreading” above “the threshold which would unleash an all-out war.”146 Indeed, he suggests, their Marxist ideology made the Soviet and Chinese leaders highly unlikely to “risk everything to prevent changes adverse to them, so long as their national survival is not directly affected.”147 However, Kissinger adds a number of qualifications to this argument. There would need to be “sanctuary areas immune to attack, because any threat to the opponent’s strategic striking force [would] invite a thermonuclear holocaust.” For example, strategic air force bases and towns above a certain size must be off limits.148 There would also need to be identifiably different “delivery mechanisms that cannot be mistaken for strategic forces.”149 Kissinger even proposes rules on the sizes of weapons that could be deployed, suggesting at one point a 500-kiloton maximum. If such rules make limited war sound more like a game than a violent struggle, so too does Kissinger’s notion of diplomatic pauses:

Every campaign should be conceived in a series of self-contained phases, each of which implies a political objective and with a sufficient interval between them to permit the application of political and psychological pressures…. [I]t will be necessary to give up the notion that diplomatic contact ceases during military operations. Rather, direct contact will be more than ever necessary to ensure that both sides possess the correct information about the consequences of expanding a war and to be able to present formulas for a political settlement.150

The modern reader cannot help but wonder how effective such limiting devices would have been in practice, had such a limited nuclear war broken out. The experience of the world wars did not give much support to the notion that diplomatic channels of communication would remain open after hostilities had begun. Indeed, at the time of the publication of Nuclear Weapons,  Thomas Schelling had already begun work on an economic theory of bargaining that would raise serious questions about how easily escalation could be avoided in any two-player game based partly on threats.151

The second and related problem has to do with the precise character of limited nuclear war itself. Kissinger argues that such a war would be waged by “units of high mobility and considerable firepower which can be quickly moved to trouble spots and which can bring their power to bear with discrimination.”152 In chapter 6, he draws an analogy to traditional naval warfare, “in which self-contained units with great firepower gradually gain the upper hand by destroying their enemy counterparts without physically occupying territory or establishing a front-line.” Forces in this future war would be moved around the battlefield in “troop-carrying helicopters”; indeed, “even the individual soldier in some units [would be] given a rudimentary ability to transport himself through the air by means of the ‘flying platform.’” Targets would not be cities, airfield, or industrial capacity but simply the enemy’s mobile units.153 Some of this has the quality of historical fiction; some of it is pure science fiction.

A third difficulty is the argument that the United States would have innate advantages in such a conflict, because of its “superior industrial potential, the broader range of our technology and the adaptability of our social institutions… [as well as] leadership of a high order, personal initiative and mechanical aptitude, qualities more prevalent in our society than in the regimented system of the U.S.S.R.”154 It is not at all clear why, if that were true, the Soviet Union would have any incentive to accept the rules of engagement of a limited war. Indeed, as Kissinger acknowledges in chapter 11, the Russians had already devoted a considerable amount of propaganda to the argument that a limited nuclear war was an impossibility.

In short, the core of Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy— its vision of tactical nuclear weapons being deployed in battle by helicopter-borne army units — fails to convince. Why, then, was the book so successful, both critically and commercially? Part of the answer is the effectiveness of its critique of Eisenhower and Dulles. Another part is its underlying pessimism: as we shall see, the book was perfectly timed to coincide with a wave of public anxiety about the Soviets’ catching up in the arms race. But there is a third explanation. The philosophical underpinning of Nuclear Weapons  is that an apparently abhorrent thing like a limited nuclear war may be the lesser evil if the alternatives are impotence or annihilation. In his final chapter, Kissinger spells out a general theory of lesser evils that may be seen as a kind of credo for his career as a whole:

[U]nless we maintain at least an equilibrium of power… we will have no chance to undertake any positive measures. And maintaining this equilibrium may require some very difficult choices. We are certain to be confronted with situations of extraordinary ambiguity, such as civil wars or domestic coups…. There can be no doubt that we should seek to forestall such occurrences. But once they have occurred, we must find the will to act and to run risks in a situation which permits only a choice among evils. While we should never give up our principles, we must also realize that we cannot maintain our principles unless we survive…. It would be comforting if we could confine our actions to situations in which our moral, legal and military positions are completely in harmony and where legitimacy is most in accord with the requirements of survival. But, as the strongest power in the world, we will probably never again be afforded the simple moral choices on which we could insist in our more secure past…. To deal with problems of such ambiguity presupposes above all a moral act: a willingness to run risks on partial knowledge and for a less than perfect application of one’s principles. The insistence on absolutes… is a prescription for inaction.155

This was Kissinger in his more familiar Kantian vein: it was an inherently moral act to make a choice between lesser and greater evils.


“I could not live with myself, were I to do anything less than the very best that I am capable of for the Council,” Kissinger had written a year before the publication of Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy . “It is not simply a question of finishing a  book, but of finishing a really first-rate book.”156 Few authors know for certain if their work is first-rate; most wait on tenterhooks for the verdicts of others, beginning with those solicited by their publishers. It is not difficult to imagine the relief Henry Kissinger felt to read the following blurb:

Dr. Kissinger’s history-making book is extraordinarily well informed, and in this respect quite unprecedented in the field of nuclear armament. It is scrupulous in its regard for fact, and at once passionate and tough in argument. His thesis is that war, far from having become “unthinkable,” is indeed thinkable, and needs the most clear-headed, sober, original thought if it is either to be prevented, limited, directed to serve the interests of our country, or planned to avert unimaginable catastrophy [sic ]. I hope that all who feel themselves responsibly involved with the future of our country will read it.157

The fact that those words were written by Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, was reassurance that Kissinger’s lack of scientific expertise had not proved fatal to his enterprise. Privately, Oppenheimer was enthusiastic, too: the book was “a masterful and potentially very important beginning… far and away the best thing I have seen in public, and enormously better than anything that existed in the official papers during the years when I had to look at them.” As for his caveat, quoted in the epigraph to this chapter, it could easily be dismissed as utopian: in 1957 there was little sign of transnational communities displacing nation-states in the realm of power politics. There were other prepublication endorsements — from Caryl Haskins and Clare Boothe Luce*—but it was Oppenheimer’s that mattered.158

The first reviews were, as Kissinger put it, “fairly good.”159 Chalmers Roberts of The Washington Post  called it “the most important book of 1957… a probing, intelligent and challenging discussion… [that] should be read by every top civilian and military leader in the Nation.”160 Writing in the Chicago Tribune,  Robert E. Osgood praised the author’s “acute penetration, fertile imagination, and impressive analytical skill.”161 The New York Herald Tribune ’s reviewer found the book “deeply thoughtful [and] hard-headedly candid,”162 while The Christian Science Monitor  called Kissinger a “master logician,” adding the rider that the book was “difficult reading to the degree that intensely rational thought in a relatively new area is bound to be difficult.”163 Edward Teller agreed that it was “not only fairly long, [but] also somewhat difficult to read,” but his review in The New York Times —often the arbiter of a book’s success in the United States — was otherwise positive.164 Another important endorsement (“great brilliance, wide knowledge, and good judgment”) came from Hans Morgenthau, whose Politics Among Nations  (1948) had already established him as the doyen of American foreign policy realism.165 From London, The Economist  found the book “prolix and at times rather obtuse, but nevertheless most ingenious and thought-provoking.”166 The first note of skepticism came in an article in the Herald Tribune,  where Ralph E. Lapp, the director of the Nuclear Science Service, expressed his doubts about the possibility of a limited nuclear war.167

The real resistance began in The New Republic . James E. King, Jr., began by challenging Kissinger’s seemingly amoral approach to the question of nuclear war. The book’s “point of departure,” he suggested, was “realistic.” Nowhere in it would “the reader discover any disposition to rest conclusions on moral premises.”168 Yet two key points in the argument were not realistic at all: the first that a limited nuclear war would not quickly escalate into a total war, and the second that a limited nuclear war would be waged like a sea battle in the age of sail. Even more scathing was Paul Nitze’s review in The Reporter,  which found the book’s argument “oversimplified and overdrawn”—especially when it came to criticizing decisions under Truman in which Nitze had been directly involved. There were “several hundred passages in which either the facts or the logic seem doubtful, or at least unclear.” Kissinger had understated the damage caused by nuclear bombs by asserting that the blast and heat effects of weapons increase only by the cube root of their stepped-up explosive power, whereas in fact it was by the square  of the cube root:

A megaton weapon has a blast effect ten thousand times that of a one-ton TNT weapon, not one hundred times, which is what it would be if Kissinger’s cube-root rule were in fact valid. This may possibly explain why Kissinger thinks that five-hundred-kiloton weapons are appropriate for inclusion in an arsenal for a limited nuclear strategy designed to spare from annihilation the inhabitants of the geographic area in which the campaign is to be fought. Errors in fact of an order of magnitude of one hundred to one can have significant implications for doctrine.*

Would Kissinger’s “open cities” (cities declared to be free of nuclear weapons) be spared all military action or just nuclear action? If the former, Nitze reasoned, there would be an incentive to build up conventional forces in those cities ahead of any conflict; if the latter, “then the war may become largely a conventional war for control of the areas excluded from nuclear attack.” In general, in Nitze’s view, Kissinger was understating the likelihood that most, if not all, future wars would in fact be conventional. “In the nuclear age,” he concluded,

everyone must be for the limitation of war, if war itself cannot be eliminated. But if the limitations are really to stand up under the immense pressures of even a “little” war, it would seem something more is required than a Rube Goldberg chart of arbitrary limitations, weightless weapons, flying platforms with no fuel requirements, and tactics based on no targets for attack and no logistic or communication vulnerabilities to defend.169

It was an extraordinary broadside from a man who had served on the study group Kissinger was in some sense representing, and it left the author reeling. (According to Nitze, Kissinger later joked that he “got to page 147 of [a] rebuttal and decided that if the rebuttal took that many pages, there must be something wrong with my position.”)170

As is often the case with books by academics that attract much attention and sell many copies, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy  was savaged by the reviewers in more scholarly journals. It was perhaps inevitable that men who had spent much more time than Kissinger thinking about the problem of nuclear war should resent his ambition. Nitze, for one, had been beaten to the punch; in truth, his own argument about how a limited nuclear war might be fought — published in Foreign Affairs  in January 1956—had contained at least as many holes as he found in Kissinger’s book.171 But matters were perhaps made worse by the fact that the book was published by the Council on Foreign Relations, the most venerable of American institutions dedicated to the study of international affairs and therefore the perfect target for new think tanks eager to make their mark. The RAND Corporation (short for “Research and Development”) had been established by the Douglas Aircraft Company in 1946 but became an independent entity two years later. Other new entrants were the Center for Research on World Political Institutions (CRWPI), founded at Princeton in 1950, and the Center for International Studies founded a year later, also at Princeton. Of even more recent origin was the Foreign Policy Research Institute founded at the University of Pennsylvania in 1955. Writers affiliated with these institutions went even further than King and Nitze in seeking to demolish Kissinger’s reasoning. Richard W. Van Wagenen, the director of the Princeton CRWPI, dismissed the distinction between limited and all-out nuclear war as “ingenious but dubious” (a verdict echoed in Hans Morgenthau’s otherwise friendly review).172 Bernard Brodie of RAND made it clear that he felt insufficiently acknowledged as the pioneer of the debate on limited war.173 Stefan Possony, who was shortly to join Stanford’s Hoover Institution, sniped at Kissinger’s “academic ‘Blimpism,’” arguing that the book simply did not grasp “the intricacies of modern strategy” and overlooked the reality that the United States was already devoting about 60 percent of its defense budget “precisely for the cause Dr. Kissinger is pleading,” namely nonstrategic capabilities usable in a limited war.174

Much the most hostile review, however, came from Brodie’s RAND colleague William W. Kaufmann. Kissinger, he argued, had skimmed over the crucial questions of how much damage tactical nuclear weapons actually did, how much it would actually cost to adopt a strategy of limited nuclear war, and how alarmed America’s allies would be by its doing so. For Kaufmann, Nuclear Weapons  underestimated all three of these things:

Kissinger describes the 500-kiloton bomb as the largest that can be used without danger of significant fallout, and therefore the maximum size that should be permitted in a limited war. Leaving aside the problem of how this ceiling would be imposed and enforced, one wonders where he obtained the notion that such a bomb, even if used in rather small numbers, would not create significant amounts of radioactivity. One also wonders how he can talk about using such weapons in a discriminating fashion when a free air-burst 500-kiloton bomb will cause serious blast damage to objects such as reinforced concrete buildings over an area of about fifteen square miles, and produce very severe thermal effects over an even larger area.

At the same time, Kissinger’s more or less benign vision of limited nuclear war was based on a wholly unrealistic view of current and future military technology:

[A] reasonable familiarity with military technology would suggest that the vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft is unlikely to become an operationally useful weapon before the mid-1960’s, that we are nowhere near a substitute for the internal combustion engine, that nuclear trucks do not look like very promising vehicles for the next decade or so, and that the Army has not yet come close to freeing itself from logistic bases and lines of communicant… [T]o read Kissinger’s chapters on limited warfare is to believe that the military equivalent of the stringless yo-yo is at hand.175


Why, when the verdict of experts like William Kaufmann proved to be so negative, was Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy  still such a success, with an initial print run of seventy thousand hardback copies and selection by Book-of-the-Month Club? Part of the answer is that relatively few people read journals like World Politics . But a better answer is that Kissinger’s book furnished critics of the doctrine of massive retaliation inside and outside the Eisenhower administration with what seemed like useful ammunition. Even more important, within a few months of the book’s appearance, events outside — and above — the United States lent an unlooked-for credibility to Kissinger’s argument that American strategy was in crisis.

It was inevitable that the official line would be dismissive. Defense Secretary Charles E. Wilson put it bluntly: “There isn’t going to be any little war with the Russians.” This was also the view of Admiral Arthur W. Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.176 Colonel Ephraim M. Hampton, deputy for evaluation at the Air War College, called the distinction between limited and total war an “escapist device — a case of candy coating the bitter truth.”177 But the Washington establishment did not speak with one voice. As the member of the CFR study group to whom Kissinger had paid the most heed, General James M. Gavin was hardly likely to disown what he called “a splendid book… one of the most, if not the most significant books of our time.”178 Gavin’s boss, Secretary of the Army Wilber M. Brucker, also came out in support of the idea of limited war.179 As The Washington Post  reported, Kissinger’s book had caused “a lot of soul-searching at the Pentagon, at State and at the Capitol.”180 The newspaper might have added the White House to that list. Vice President Nixon found the book “most stimulating and constructive.”181 Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the former senator for Massachusetts whom Eisenhower had made his representative to the United Nations, recommended Nuclear Weapons  to the president as “clear-headed, profound and constructive.”182 A detailed summary was duly prepared by General Andrew Goodpaster, Eisenhower’s trusted staff secretary.183 In turn, Eisenhower was sufficiently impressed by the summary to recommend the book to Dulles.

I do not mean that you will agree with everything the man says. I think there are flaws in his arguments and, at the very least, if we were to organize and maintain military forces along the lines he suggests, we would have what George Humphrey [who had just stepped down as Treasury secretary] always calls “both the old and the new.” This would undoubtedly be a more expensive operation than we are carrying on at this time.

However, the author directs his arguments to some general or popular conceptions and misconceptions, and… I think you will find interesting and worth reading at least this much of the book.184

On August 11, The New York Times  ran a front-page report that “officials at the highest government levels” were reading Kissinger.185 There was no denying it.

The summer of 1957 was a time of change in Eisenhower’s administration. Not only was Humphrey out; Wilson left the Pentagon shortly after the publication of Kissinger’s book, to be replaced by Neil McElroy from Procter & Gamble, while Radford was replaced as chairman of the Joint Chiefs by General Nathan F. Twining. Detecting more than just a reshuffle, the Manchester Guardian ’s influential correspondent in Washington, Alistair Cooke, compared Kissinger’s impact with that of Kennan at the genesis of the strategy of containment.186 Time  carried a similar report.187

These changes came after a series of foreign policy crises that had made the time ripe for a critique such as Kissinger’s. On October 29, 1956, without consulting the United States, Britain, France, and Israel had launched an invasion of Egypt designed not merely to reverse President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal but also to overthrow Nasser himself. Within less than a week, on November 4, the Red Army had invaded Hungary in order to crush the reformist regime of Imre Nagy. Eisenhower had been working hard to woo Arab leaders, fearing that they might be drawn into the Soviet orbit. Like many on the left in Britain, he felt unable simultaneously to condemn the invasion of Hungary and to endorse the invasion of Egypt. It was not difficult for a well-informed outsider to heap scorn on the administration, and Kissinger did. “What I object to most with recent events,” he thundered in a letter to Stephen Graubard,

is not so much the folly of our policy, which in my view approaches the treasonable, but above all the pedantry and the lack of style of our behavior. The petty bureaucrats in Washington were more outraged with Britain and France than with the Soviets because the British upset their plans more completely. And they were even a little bit irritated with the Hungarians because they forced them into making decisions it would have been simpler never to have had to face. If Christ had had a Policy Planning Staff he surely would never have mounted the Cross.

This was the cue for one of Kissinger’s increasingly frequent attacks on the administration’

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s legalistic approach to foreign policy.

The pedantic denial of the tragic element of life which is our outstanding characteristic may well spell our doom. The clever lawyers who run our government seem to have an answer to everything except inward commitment. But the West would still be an insignificant appendage to a barbaric Eurasia had it always been animated by an absence of a sense of mission and a quest for minimum risk which is our most outstanding characteristic. In our situation, the insistence on pure morality is in itself the most immoral of postures. And the Hungarians have shown us the insignificance of our moral stature. The Europeans are not blameless because they have been preaching pacifism for so long that they have paralyzed both us and themselves, but I think that their reaction is healthier than ours.188

In early February, long after Britain and France had submitted to UN resolutions and withdrawn their forces from Egypt, Kissinger still railed against the “pedantry and self-righteousness” of the U.S. response to the crisis. “We may have proved that aggression does not pay,” he told Bundy, “but we have done so to people least likely to disturb the peace and at a price to their national pride, which will not become fully apparent for some time…. I would feel happier about professions of high moral principles if they did not so frequently coincide with a policy of minimum risk.”189

It is doubtful that many Americans shared Kissinger’s indignation about events in distant Hungary and Egypt. In early 1957, most still felt a certain nonchalance about the nuclear threat, a mood nicely captured by the Five Stars’ doo-wop song “Atom Bomb Baby.”* There was, however, broad congressional support for Eisenhower’s vaguely worded resolution of January 1957, which pledged the United States to defend “the Middle East” against “overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by International Communism.”190 Support was unquestionably growing for the proposition that the threat of massive retaliation was insufficient to prevent a creeping Soviet expansion. But it was the night of October 4, 1957, that ensured Kissinger’s celebrity. The successful launch of Sputnik 1,  the first artificial satellite, into an elliptical orbit around the earth crystallized the growing American anxiety that the Soviets were catching up not only in military terms but technologically and economically, too. Twice the size of a basketball, Sputnik  (short for “elementary satellite”) could complete its orbit in ninety-six minutes and was both visible in the night sky and audible, beeping short-wave radio signals down to Earth. In itself, it was harmless, but the fact that the Soviets had been able to launch it indicated that they might also be capable of producing long-range missiles that could reach targets in the United States.* The result was a wave of media-fueled public panic.191 “Russian science [had] whipped American science,” declared The Boston Globe . With the U.S. satellite program lagging far behind, the CIA desperately tried to devise stunts that could quickly match the Soviet feat. (One suggestion was to use a hydrogen bomb to halt a typhoon.)192 Significantly, Eisenhower’s considered response to the crisis — he had initially dismissed it as a “gimmick”—emphasized American advantages in weaponry that would have made little sense without the possibility of a limited nuclear war.193

Sputnik  launched Kissinger into a new orbit. Suddenly he was visible and audible everywhere: a “Man to Watch,” in the words of the New York Herald Tribune .194 Ten days after the launch of the Soviet satellite, the Herald Tribune  ran a special “emergency” editorial under the headline “Kissinger Speaks,” based on an interview that was probably the first of Kissinger’s career. He did not pull his punches. “The Soviets have outstripped us,” he was quoted as saying. “We’re really in trouble now. We’ve been pushed back gradually, position by position…. The basic trend is against us.” In particular, Sputnik  had revealed “how the Russians conduct their military programs. They can cut down their lead-time in a way which we are unable to do.”

The Soviets are on a technological curve. Each invention implies that there are other inventions waiting to be revealed. It’s hard to stop their progress…. The worrisome thing about the satellite is what it shows us about the state of their rocket engines, and the state of our own intelligence…. Their economy is only half as big as ours and their pool of trained manpower is smaller, although increasing. This indicates superior organization and superior doctrine.

By contrast, “the Department of Defense is not organized to fight a war. It is organized for internal management.” Nor did Kissinger stop there. “If things continue as they are,” he declared, “our expulsion from Eurasia is a mathematical certainty…. Eight years ago it would have seemed fantastic that the Soviets would become a major power in the Middle East. We like to smile now at Baldwin and Chamberlain in 1938, but they thought of themselves as tough realists.”195 Kissinger evidently had second thoughts about some of this when he saw it in print. But his rather pedantic follow-up (“the fitting of a rather extended conversation into limited space has conveyed a tone of dogmatism which does not correspond to my views in the full”) could not efface the alarmism of the original piece. Prior to Sputnik  he had been invited to just a single book event; after October 4 the invitations streamed in, from the Research Institute of America,196 from the Association of the United States Army,197 and — ensuring a huge nationwide audience — from CBS’s Sunday talk show Face the Nation,  which had begun its extraordinary sixty-year run in 1954.

Kissinger’s television debut on November 10, 1957, pitted him against three journalists: John Madigan of the Chicago American,  Richard C. Hottelet of CBS News, and Chalmers Roberts of The Washington Post . As so often on Face the Nation,  the pace was frenetic and the subject changed regularly and abruptly. For a television novice, Kissinger coped well. He delivered his critique of Eisenhower’s policy: “We believed for too long that we were relatively invulnerable…. We have been more concerned with peace, while our opponent has been more concerned with victory, which has created a psychological inequality.” He set out the thesis of his book: “I think it is possible to fight a limited war with nuclear weapons.” And he gave a concrete example: that United States should be ready to fight a limited war to check Soviet aggression in the Middle East. “I believe,” he declared, “that it will take a somewhat firmer attitude and a willingness, a somewhat greater willingness, to run risks.” Again he illustrated the point: the United States should have “made the Russians pay the maximum price for crushing Hungary,” airlifting supplies to the anti-Soviet forces “even if the Russians had shot down the planes.” Asked if he was a Democrat or a Republican, he replied tersely (and prudently), “I am an Independent.”198

Perhaps the ultimate accolade for any American Cold War intellectual was to be denounced by the other side. As the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service noted, Kissinger was not mentioned by name, but it was no accident that there was a “spate of routine propaganda attacking the U.S. thesis of ‘small’ nuclear wars… in broadcasts both for foreign and domestic consumption, shortly after the publication” of Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy .199 The key question, however, was how far U.S. policy would actually be changed by Kissinger’s arguments. Superficially, it was. In January 1958 Eisenhower set aside earlier arguments against deploying 280mm nuclear cannons and 762mm “Honest John” rockets in South Korea. A year later the air force added a squadron of nuclear-tipped Matador cruise missiles capable of hitting targets not only in North Korea but also in the Soviet Union and China.200 As we have seen, however, this was not a new departure; Eisenhower had always quietly retained the option of using tactical nuclear weapons, even as he insisted publicly that any conflict would be bound to escalate into all-out war. In this and other respects, we see the limits of the public intellectual’s role. Through the Council on Foreign Relations and Nelson Rockefeller, Kissinger had come closer than he had ever been to the commanding heights of the U.S. government. Yet he remained on the outside, with only the most limited access to classified documents. It was on the basis of newspaper reports read in distant Cambridge that he slammed the Washington bureaucracy. Even as he basked in the arc lights of the CBS studio, he could not know that, just a few days before his Face the Nation  debut, a far more comprehensive — but top secret — critique of the administration’s strategy had been presented to the president. The title of the report was “Deterrence and Survival in the Nuclear Age,” though it came to be known as the Gaither Report after the committee’s chairman, H. Rowan Gaither. And its analysis was far more alarming — and its recommendations far more daunting — than anything in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy .

Henry Kissinger deserved the fame that Nuclear Weapons  brought him. Even if the future the book envisaged — of tactical weapons being used in the field of battle in a limited nuclear war — never happened, that does not detract from the effectiveness of the book’s critique of the Eisenhower administration’s strategy. It was not so much that the launch of Sputnik  vindicated Kissinger, though the timing could scarcely have been better. It was more that, in the intellectual arms race to formulate a coherent critique of American strategy, Kissinger had achieved the first strike.

CHAPTER 11 Boswash

Your own extraordinary gifts of intellect and character are such that you will be a famous and influential man…. I have often thought that Harvard gives her sons — her undergraduates — the opportunity to be shaped by what they love. This, as a Harvard man, you have had. For her faculty, she reserves the opportunity — dangerous, perhaps fatal — to be shaped by what they hate.

— JOHN CONWAY, 19561

[I]n some respects the intellectual has never been more in demand; that he makes such a relatively small contribution is not because he is rejected but because his function is misunderstood. He is sought after enthusiastically but for the wrong reasons and in pursuit of the wrong purposes…. [A]ll too often what the policymaker wants from the intellectual is not ideas but endorsement.



Henry Kissinger’s time at the Council on Foreign Relations was drawing to a close. Now what? Harvard had spurned him and, though former colleagues like John Conway and Sam Huntington commiserated,3 a new and “very advantageous” offer from the University of Chicago was not to be sniffed at.4 Established in 1890—with Rockefeller money — it had an international reputation in political science as well as in economics. But despite “Mac” Bundy’s advice to accept the offer, Kissinger remained deeply reluctant to go there. “Aside from the aesthetic objection to Chicago,” he told Bundy, the “incommensurability between what [academic life] could be and what it is” seemed “particularly poignant” at that particular university.5 By “the aesthetic objection to Chicago,” Kissinger may have been alluding to the deterioration of the Hyde Park neighborhood, which already in the mid-1950s was acquiring a reputation for crime. But his real objection to the job was different. The academic standing of Chicago was high, no doubt. But professors there played a far smaller role in American public life — and particularly in government — than their counterparts at Harvard. For Henry Kissinger, as for many other academics of his generation, the road to Washington, D.C., led through Cambridge — to be precise, through Harvard Yard. It was not until 1965 that Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener coined the name Boswash  to describe the nascent megalopolis stretching from New England to Virginia. But Kissinger was already a citizen of Boswash in 1956. He would spend much of the rest of his life shuttling back and forth — by plane, by train, and when necessary by car — along the narrow corridor that connected Boston to New York to Washington, linking brains to money to power.

Even as he was writing Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,  scribbling away in his New York apartment, Kissinger was clinging to the East Coast by his fingernails. Salvation of a sort came from Nelson Rockefeller. So impressed had he been by Kissinger’s work that in May 1956 he invited him to the Quantico reunion6 and then offered him a full-time job at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, to play a leading role in his new Special Studies Project, a bold attempt to identify and address the strategic challenges facing the United States in the second half of the twentieth century.7 This was more than Kissinger wanted; he remained committed to the academic path, suspecting — rightly — that to succumb entirely to the Rockefeller embrace would be to lose all intellectual and political freedom. But Rockefeller was ingenious. When Kissinger pleaded other commitments — not only the still unfinished book for the Council on Foreign Relations, but also his offer from Chicago — he was astounded to find that Rockefeller had already taken care of all that. “Really incredible pressure was put on me,” he complained to Stephen Graubard.

[E]ither he or his brothers, without my knowledge, went to the Council and to the University of Chicago, asking them to release me for a three months period. The Chancellor of the University of Chicago then wrote me a letter urging me to work with Rockefeller. I could hardly insist on a commitment to the University of Chicago when the University itself released me from it for a period of three months.8

The result was a compromise. Kissinger accepted the post of director of Special Studies at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund until March 1957, after which — if all else failed — he would go to Chicago.9

Kissinger’s rationalization of this fudged decision was revealing. “I quite honestly do not feel that I owe anything in particular to academic life,” he told Graubard. “The disparity between my reputation outside academic life and inside academic life is so great as to be ludicrous…. I don’t see any particular challenge ahead except to have every generous motivation interpreted in the lowest possible manner.” Nevertheless,

I will go to Chicago in April and give academic life one more chance…. I ask only one of two things of it. Either that it gives me a challenge directly, or that it permits me to create my own challenges. I do not consider fighting my way up an academic ladder at an undignified salary, surrounded by individuals whom I find unattractive, a particular challenge, but this may be different at Chicago, and I shall, for this reason, go out there in April.

By contrast, it was impossible not to be attracted to working for Rockefeller, “who, whatever his limitations, is putting a great deal of his resources and much of his prestige into an effort from which he personally has nothing to gain.” Kissinger and Graubard had “often spoken of the absence of an aristocracy in this country.”

I feel that one owes to a person of Rockefeller’s motivation at least not to discourage him too much…. The Rockefeller project is an extremely interesting one, not only substantively, but from a sociological point of view. The power of these people is unbelievable, and their method of operation extremely fascinating. On the other hand, they seem to me to come fairly close to performing the function of a good aristocracy — a lot more so than some of the French people that Sombart* was describing so eloquently.10

Kissinger’s hedging strategy worked. In the nick of time, before he had to drag himself “out there” to Chicago, Bundy threw him a lifeline from Harvard, inviting him to return to “help launch” the university’s new Center for International Affairs (CFIA).11 Bundy found Kissinger “just a little uncertain as to whether he wanted to come back to a department which had not been unanimously friendly to him a year ago,” but he “tried to cheer him up on that point.” The government department voted unanimously to make Kissinger a lecturer for “three or four years” (the same kind of post, auspiciously, that Bundy had been given on his return to Harvard); at the same time, he was appointed associate director of the new center.12 It may be that Bundy hinted to Kissinger that he would not have to wait long for promotion to a tenured professorship. However, Kissinger was taking no chances. Not content with a job from Rockefeller and a post at Harvard, he proceeded to add to his portfolio a $4,000-a-year relationship with the newly established Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) at the University of Pennsylvania.13 He also did a deal to work two days a month as a consultant to the Carnegie Corporation after he had finished his work for Rockefeller.14 As if that were not enough, it was reported in at least one newspaper that he was working as a consultant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, too.15 The only commitment Kissinger gave up, in 1959, was his reserve officer commission, pleading “pressure of other obligations and the conviction that I can be of greater service in a higher rank in case an emergency necessitates this step.”16

Young academics who, after years of toiling in obscurity, suddenly find themselves in demand very often overcommit themselves. Such was the case here. So packed was Kissinger’s schedule that he had to decline to take undergraduate tutees in the fall 1957 semester.17 Graubard recalled “the increasingly disorganized character of his life” at this time; “he seemed always to be running, always late, and constantly harassed.”18 His frequent absences from Harvard were likely the initial cause of the friction between him and the CFIA director Robert Bowie. Worse, his failure to do any work whatever for the FPRI led to an exchange with Stefan Possony so acrimonious that Fritz Kraemer had to intervene. Kraemer took Kissinger’s side in the argument, but in a handwritten note in German, he privately warned his former protégé, “Something is not right with you. As your friend and as someone who understands your situation probably even at the subconscious level, I have to tell you that you are forgetting things that as a human being you ought not forget.” Not only was Kissinger alienating colleagues like Possony; according to Kraemer, he was also neglecting his own parents. “You are beginning to behave in a way that is no longer human [menschlich ] and people who admire you are starting to regard you as cool, perhaps even cold…. You are in danger of allowing your heart and soul to burn out in your incessant work. You see too many ‘important’ and not enough ‘real’ people.”19 It was not the last time that Kraemer would sermonize in this way, nor the last time that he would cast Kissinger as Doctor Faustus, the brilliant academic who had sold his soul to the devil for the sake of worldly power. Yet Kraemer could hardly complain. Was it not thanks partly to Kissinger’s support that he had just been appointed to the faculty of the National War College? Was he, too, not receiving Rockefeller largesse as a contributor to the Special Studies series that Kissinger was now directing?20


The Rockefeller Brothers Fund Special Studies Project, of which Henry Kissinger was the director, grew out of the belief, as Kissinger phrased it, that “many of our difficulties, both domestic and foreign, are due not so much to an absence of good ideas but to our inability to find concepts and attitudes to deal with a situation changing more rapidly and in directions different from what our national experiences led us to expect.”21 The challenges facing the United States in 1957—the year when much of the writing was done — were certainly novel. In the nuclear arms race, the Soviet Union appeared to be catching up with the United States, perhaps even overtaking it. As Europe’s colonial empires in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East crumbled, few of the “new nations” seemed keen to align themselves with the capitalist West. At home, too, there was ferment. The governor of Arkansas called out the National Guard to prevent black students from enrolling in Little Rock’s Central High School, prompting Eisenhower to send federal troops to give the “Little Rock Nine” safe passage to the school. Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show,  but only from the waist up. Jailhouse Rock  hit cinemas. West Side Story  opened on Broadway. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road  went on sale. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl  was banned.

It must be admitted that the Special Studies Project had little to say about civil rights and less to say about rock ’n’ roll.22 Rockefeller and Kissinger convened six panels and a coordinating “Overall Panel.” Their assigned topics and ranking make it clear that foreign policy was their primary concern:

I: U.S. International Objectives and Strategy

II: U.S. International Security Objectives and Strategy

III: Foreign Economic Policy for the Twentieth Century

IV: U.S. Economic and Social Policy

V: U.S. Utilization of Human Resources

VI: U.S. Democratic Process — Its Challenge and Opportunity

A seventh panel, proposed by economist Robert Heilbroner, was supposed to address the moral dimensions of the national purpose, but that was stillborn. The organizational challenge was itself daunting. All told, Kissinger had to manage the contributions (and the egos) of 108 panelists and 102 consultants and authors.23 (The only venue large enough for the initial meeting in May 1955 was the Radio City rehearsal hall.)24 The twenty-six members of the Overall Panel included Robert B. Anderson, who was appointed Treasury secretary during its deliberations; Christian Herter, the governor of Massachusetts, who would succeed Dulles at the State Department; James R. Killian, the president of MIT, who became Eisenhower’s scientific adviser; Henry Luce, editor-in-chief of Time Inc.; and Dean Rusk, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation.25 To give these grandees raw material to chew on, Kissinger first turned to his old mentors: not only Kraemer for draft papers on Germany but also Elliott, who was invited to write on “Integration of Presidential Control of Foreign Policy in the Federal Government”26 and the “United States Democratic Process.”27 At first, Kissinger did much of the writing himself, but in the course of 1957 his role became editorial and ultimately managerial.28

The six reports were published as they became ready. Perhaps it was inevitable, given Kissinger’s simultaneous work on Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,  that the second report — now titled “International Security: The Military Aspect”—was finished first. The fact that Edward Teller was a member of Panel II also helped. Teller did not suffer people of average intelligence gladly, much less fools; he and Kissinger hit it off, finding themselves “in almost complete agreement” on the issue of limited nuclear war.29 (On one occasion Teller threw his watch at the New Deal veteran Adolf Berle.)30 They were reinforced by Itek director Theodore Walkowicz, whose deeply pessimistic paper on “Survival in an Age of Technological Contest” also impressed Kissinger.31 Panel members who dared to differ stood little chance. Yet external forces also served to propel the military report into pole position. First, as we have seen, there was the public panic over Sputnik . Then came the news of a “Secret Report” that, according to The Washington Post,  portrayed the United States as being “in the gravest danger in its history.”

It finds America’s long-term prospect one of cataclysmic peril in the face of rocketing Soviet-military might and of a powerful, growing Soviet economy and technology which will bring… assaults on freedom all around the globe…. [T]he report strips away the complacency and lays bare the highly unpleasant truth.32

The Gaither Report was indeed alarming — more so, in fact, than Kissinger’s Nuclear Weapons  book. It argued that the United States could soon become vulnerable to a Soviet surprise nuclear attack if it did not accelerate the production of intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, improve the protection of its own retaliatory “second strike force” by dispersing it more widely and “hardening” launch sites, and build more shelters to protect the American people from radioactive fallout in the wake of an attack.33 Even the fiscal implications of this analysis were alarming, since the cost of implementing Gaither’s recommendations would have been between $19 and $44 billion on top of the existing defense budget of $33 billion.34 Eisenhower regarded such an increase in spending as not only inflationary but also likely to turn the United States into a “garrison state,” but he could not ignore the report entirely; nor could he deny its existence, though he flatly refused to make it public. The stage could scarcely have been better set for the Rockefeller Special Studies report. Under intense pressure from Rockefeller, who scented a public relations coup, Kissinger scrambled to get the report finished, working every waking hour of December 1957, oblivious to the holiday season.35

The report chimed perfectly with the public mood. Mankind faced “two somber threats… the Communist threat to achieve world domination… and the new weapons technology capable of obliterating civilization.” The United States was falling behind not only in terms of military spending but also in “major fields of technology. In certain areas assigned high priority by the Kremlin, the Soviet Union has surpassed us qualitatively as well as quantitatively.”36 The defense budget would have to be increased (though by just $3 billion, far less than the hike proposed by Gaither). The Defense Department would need to be wholly reorganized to increase the power of the secretary and reduce interservice rivalry.37 The panel proposed the creation of a large “instantly ready retaliatory force,” equipped with nuclear weapons. “Willingness to engage in nuclear war, when necessary,” the report argued, was “part of the price of our freedom.” Kissinger even went so far as to claim that “very powerful nuclear weapons” could be used “in such a manner that they have negligible effects on civilian populations.”38

Released on January 6, 1958, the “Rockefeller Report” more than fulfilled its creator’s hopes. Books written by committees seldom become bestsellers. This one did. When Rockefeller appeared on NBC’s Today  show, the host mentioned that viewers wanting to read the report could simply send in their names to NBC. “You’ll have to give away a Ford V-8 with every copy,” one of the producers joked. He could not have been more wrong. After more than a quarter of a million applications had been received, the publisher had to terminate the offer.39 In total, the six reports sold over six hundred thousand copies in less than three years.40 This success was partly due to Kissinger’s effectiveness as a writer and editor. Arthur Schlesinger had complained of “blandness” in some of the early drafts he saw,41 but he admired the “trenchancy” of the published version.42 As with Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,  however, timing was crucial. “Unlike the Gaither Report, which… has not been made public,” opined The Philadelphia Inquirer,  “the Rockefeller report has been released. But both groups, composed of eminently qualified men… conclude broadly that the U.S. is in grave danger of falling behind Russia… [and] this is a matter for grave concern on the part of all Americans.”43 Just four days after the publication of the Panel II report, Rockefeller was called before the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee. On February 3, Prescott Bush, the Republican senator for Connecticut, endorsed the report’s recommendations for a unified military command.44

The other reports, by comparison, were less sensational in their impact. The report of Panel IV, which appeared in April 1958, added little beyond noting the “Key Importance of Growth [preferably at 5 percent a ye

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ar] to Achieve National Goals” (though its deliberations were notable for the objection raised by Anna Rosenberg, one of the few women to serve as a panelist, to the negative economic implications of the higher defense spending recommended by Panel II).45 Two months later Panel III, chaired by Milton Katz, the former director of the Marshall Plan, recommended a combination of free trade and private (rather than public) international capital flows.46 The report of Panel V on “Education and the Future of America” also appeared in June 1958. But it was not until December of the following year that Panel I’s report on U.S. foreign policy finally saw the light of day, while the sixth report—“The Power of the Democratic Idea”—appeared only in September 1960.47 Although Rockefeller called it “the most exciting and intellectually stimulating experience I have ever had,” not everyone agreed.48 Instinctively wary of anything bearing the Rockefeller name, William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review  dismissed the reports as an amalgam of “existing Liberal blueprints.”49 Perhaps, but there was no gainsaying their influence. Clearly in response to the report of Panel II, Eisenhower announced a reevaluation of Defense Department organization, though the Joint Chiefs of Staff did their best to emasculate the enterprise. Rockefeller’s pet phrase “national purpose” was soon ubiquitous, inspiring books by Oscar Handlin and Hans Morgenthau as well as a series of articles in Time .50 It has been suggested that the primary goal of the reports was to “ke[ep] Nelson in the news as a serious student of government.”51 Certainly, by publishing them over a two-and-a-half-year period and then rounding the process off with the single-volume digest Prospect for America,  Rockefeller ensured that he remained a figure on the national stage throughout. Yet there was an irony to come, as we shall see, for the Special Studies would have their biggest impact on the administration of a Democratic president.52

For Kissinger, the experience of managing the Special Studies Project was transformative. For the first time — unless one counts his running of the International Seminar at Harvard — he had been entrusted with significant administrative responsibility; for the first time he had to manage people, as opposed to books and articles. Like many academics, accustomed to working in isolation — intellectually self-confident but socially unpolished — he found it hard to begin with. Universities do not have strongly hierarchical structures; deans are not bosses. Now in Rockefeller, Kissinger had a boss, and one who was accustomed to having his orders followed. Rockefeller’s biographers offer contrasting accounts of the relationship between the two men. One writes of “a romance of foreign-policy soul mates”;53 another suggests a more ambivalent and occasionally explosive affinity.54 According to this latter version, Kissinger was “downright fawning in Rockefeller’s presence” but “mocking… belittling… [and] deprecating” behind his back. This does not ring true. Theirs was a turbulent friendship. On one occasion, Kissinger “walked out” on Rockefeller after it emerged at a dinner that copies of Kissinger’s drafts had been sent to various aides for comments and amendments, ignoring the injunction “Nobody  edits my copy.” “The next time you buy a painting,” Kissinger angrily asked the great art collector, “will you have an expert for hands and an expert for feet?” When Kissinger returned to the office the next day to clear his desk, he found Rockefeller waiting. “You’re a strong man and I’m a strong man,” he said. “Now, we have two choices. We can try to destroy each other, or we can try to work together.”55 Rockefeller admired Kissinger’s intellect enough to put up with his occasional tantrums. “I think Henry Kissinger is one of the real comers in this country,” he told the former Democratic senator William Benton in August 1957.56

Although he had declined to work full time for Rockefeller, Kissinger was being paid for his labors. In 1958, for example, he received $3,000 for his services. But this did little more than replace the income he forfeited from Harvard by taking time off to work for Rockefeller.57 It was not money that was his motivation; if anything, he felt somewhat underpaid considering the “incredibly hectic” work involved, which did not even leave him with time to get his hair cut. There was something gratifying about being on increasingly intimate terms with the most dynamic of the grandsons of America’s most celebrated tycoon. “If nothing else,” he wrote to Graubard in November 1956, “it is a fascinating sociological study.”58 Three weeks later he went further. “My respect for the Rockefeller family continues to mount…. They seem to me to perform the most useful function of an upper class — to encourage excellence — and they do not have the approach of a bureaucrat who pretends to judge the substance of every work.”59

The job had exotic perks. As a Christmas gift, Rockefeller gave Kissinger a lithograph by the post-Impressionist French artist Jean-Édouard Vuillard; Kissinger reciprocated with Truman Capote’s new book The Muses Are Heard,  a humorous account of a cultural mission by an American opera company to the Soviet Union.60 By 1957 Rockefeller was offering Kissinger the use of one of the houses at Pocantico Hills, the three-thousand-acre Rockefeller estate in Westchester County.61 A year later Rockefeller’s palatial Manhattan apartment, with its dazzling art collection, was at his disposal. No doubt the association with the voracious collector also helped smooth Kissinger’s election to the Century Association, the all-male club favored by artists and writers.62 All this was surely gratifying to a man whose parents still lived modestly in a cluttered apartment in Washington Heights. But it was also exhausting. “The benevolent maniac, NAR, had to keep me occupied with his article which turned into more work than one of my own,” Kissinger complained to his mother in March 1958. “I spent three days in New York staying at Nelson’s apartment. He and his wife were very sweet. But right now I wish he would just leave me alone for a while.”63

Henry Kissinger is surely not the first man in history to have coped with a demanding boss by being even more demanding to his own subordinates. It was in the offices of the Rockefeller Special Studies Project that a new facet of his personality emerged, a facet that would become familiar to all who later worked under him in government. He learned to rant and rage. The woman who saw — and heard — the most of this in the 1950s was Nancy Hanks, the executive secretary of Special Studies as well as a member of the project’s planning committee. Born in Miami Beach and educated at Duke University, Hanks had first worked for Rockefeller when he was chairman of Eisenhower’s Advisory Committee on Government Organization and had gone on to become his personal assistant when he briefly ran the Department of Health. Her letters to her parents are full of complaints about “fight[ing] HAK.”64 “HAK has for my money let me and everyone else down,” she wrote after one especially bitter row. “He’s just close to being a psychological case…. Really has been like a child and dropped all responsibility as far as directing the Project is concerned. Puts all the blame on NAR [Rockefeller] and Oscar [Ruebhausen]*—for silly things such as not keeping in touch with him, etc…. Oscar and NAR just plumb fed up of him.”65 In 1961, with the publication of the final volume, Nancy Hanks looked back on “many ‘happy experiences,’ which at the time would probably better have been classified as ‘knock-down-drag-out fights.’”66 Ruebhausen would later recall how Kissinger “suffered a great deal by taking things personally, simple things, like whether or not a car met him at the airport and whether it was a Cadillac or not. He would weep on one’s shoulders at some slight… it was candor and Machiavellian scheming at the same time.”67

Yet office politics at the Special Studies Project was more complex than it appeared. Intelligent and attractive, Nancy Hanks personified the challenges facing any woman who wished to have a professional career in the 1950s. She had become Rockefeller’s lover at a time when he was living apart from his wife and five children; Hanks had reason to hope that he would seek a divorce.68 As it gradually became apparent that her hopes were to be disappointed,* Kissinger proved that there was sensitivity behind his bluster. “Henry isn’t half as obnoxious as he used to be,” Hanks confided in her parents in 1960. “He is about the only person Nelson is talking to or listening to. As long as I can keep encouraging Henry along the right track we are all right…. It has only been through his efforts that we have a ‘team’ to play with. Things had gotten really terrible. Our friend [Rockefeller] had just stopped listening to everyone.”69 The correspondence between Kissinger and Hanks reveals that they grew closer as Rockefeller drifted away from her. Apologetically, he asked her to reassure the Special Studies staff that “my unpleasant manners are a reflection of my character and not on their ability.”70 He was sorry, too, that he had been like a “hair shirt” to Francis Jamieson, Rockefeller’s head of PR.71 By 1960 Kissinger was signing his telegrams to Hanks “LOVE Henry.”72 She reciprocated, even when “angry” with him.73 In March 1960 he sent her flowers — a “magnificent rose.”74 By this time the relationship was downright flirtatious: “I was really so tickled and have completely ruined your reputation by telling everyone about MY rose. The whole world is going to be under the impression that you are kind and thoughtful! It will take years to undo the ‘damage’ you have done. And oh what damage you have done to me!… I wanted to preserve YOUR FLOWER for all time.”75

But this was surely no more than flirtation, tinged with sympathy for what Hanks was going through. The tone of their letters remained more screwball comedy than romance. “I knew you could forge one of the Rockefellers’ signatures,” he wrote when she sent him a copy of the final Special Studies volume, signed by Nelson and Laurance, “but to forge both is a real feat.”76 In June 1960 he teased her about “reports” he had heard that “you were most charming.” “You must be getting soft… we can’t have that in Special Studies or I’ll  come back.”77

For by now Kissinger had returned to Harvard, apparently happily married and now, at the age of thirty-five, a father. At first he and Ann had been content to live with their pet dog (Smoky’s replacement was another cocker spaniel named Herby) in a modest semidetached house in Frost Street, next door to the historian Klaus Epstein* and his wife, Elizabeth. As his position at the university became more secure, however, he felt able to move up in the world. As pictured in the Boston Traveler,  the Kissinger residence at 104 Fletcher Road, Belmont, was the quintessential Harvard professor’s home, its walls book-lined, its dining room large enough to entertain colleagues, students, and visiting academics. According to the article, Ann was happy to “take care of all [his] personal correspondence,” to maintain “scrapbooks on [her] husband’s job,” and to prepare chicken and rice for their dinner parties.78 Their first child, Elizabeth, was born in March 1959; a son, David, arrived two years later. Though neither Kissinger nor his wife was any longer a practicing Jew, David was circumcised at a bris, a family occasion that prompted Kissinger to look back “with pride over many difficult years” and to reflect that he “owe[d] almost everything to the spirit of our family, which has kept us together in good days as in bad.”79 Yet even as he wrote those lines, the family spirit was flickering and dying at 104 Fletcher Road. Ann had come back to Cambridge intending to put down roots. For Kissinger, however, Harvard was a staging post on the way to greater things in the other parts of Boswash. Working for Rockefeller had given him a glimpse of more glamorous worlds: the wealth of Manhattan, the might of Washington, D.C. As he strove to gain admission to those worlds, Ann would be left behind.

The fame Kissinger had won with Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy  had made him more self-assured. “Five feet nine inches tall, stocky and wearing horn-rimmed glasses,” according to one early newspaper profile, “Dr. Kissinger describes himself as a ‘fair’ tennis player and a ‘pretty good’ chess player.”80 In his brother’s eyes, he now “dominated” Ann in an unhealthy way. Walter Kissinger had taken a different American path, in two respects. He was winning a reputation for himself as a businessman who could turn ailing companies around. First at General Tire in Akron, Ohio, then at Sperry Rand, the company that made UNIVAC — the second commercial computer produced in the United States — Walter was honing his skills as a corporate executive. He, too, was growing more confident. In 1958 he stunned his parents by eloping with Eugenie Van Drooge, a twenty-six-year-old Radcliffe graduate he had met when she was an intern at the semiconductor company he was running. She was an Episcopalian. It was soon clear that the couple had no intention of bringing up their children in the Jewish tradition.81


“Honesty forces me to report,” wrote Henry Kissinger to Nelson Rockefeller in January 1960, “that [the junior faculty] are not much more interesting than the senior faculty.”82 There are at least two different versions of Kissinger’s return to Harvard. The first emphasizes his tendency to be “anti-Harvard,” simultaneously estranged from the residual WASP ascendancy and disdainful of the faculty’s less worldly intellects.83 The other portrays him as the archetypal “Cold War public intellectual,” taking full advantage of the opportunities on offer at the preeminent “Cold War university.”84 Certainly, the place was changing fast. During the presidency of Nathan Pusey, and with Wilbur Bender in charge of admissions, Harvard became more academically rigorous in its admissions policy (though not as rigorous as scientists like George Kistiakowsky would have liked); more international and more eclectic in its curriculum; and more reliant on federal grants for its research, especially in chemistry, engineering, and medicine.85 Between 1953 and 1963 the amount of federal funds going to Harvard to support research rose fivefold from $8 million to $30 million a year.86 Before the war, the majority of all instructors had had Harvard degrees, but that proportion was rapidly shrinking to just a third as professors were recruited or promoted “because an ad hoc  committee [chaired by the president himself] had judged them preeminent in their field.”87 Though himself a scholar of English literature and ancient history, Pusey presided over a utilitarian era. “Centers” with this or that regional or disciplinary focus proliferated, notably the Russian Research Center, founded in 1948 under the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn, and the East Asian Research Center, established seven years later under John K. Fairbank. In the early 1950s Kissinger and his patron, Bill Elliott, had been forced to beg and scrape to finance their International Seminar and its associated magazine, Confluence . With the creation of the Center for International Affairs, such indignities could be consigned to the past. The International Seminar lived on as a “labor of love,” in Elliott’s phrase, but Confluence  was quietly left to die, as much for lack of time as for lack of funding.88 In 1959 it was decided to switch over to annual publication, but no further issues ever appeared.89

The decision to establish a center for international studies dated back to 1954, when a committee had been convened as part of a Ford Foundation initiative to review the behavioral sciences at the university. Although there were thirteen courses then offered on aspects of international politics, the field tended to be dismissed as merely “a branch of current events” or “commentaries on yesterday’s Times .”90 Bundy’s first choice for a director was Robert R. Bowie, who was then director of Policy Planning at the State Department and assistant secretary of state. Bowie was a lawyer by training; prior to his appointment at State in December 1955, he had been a specialist in antitrust law at the Law School. However, having previously served as assistant to General Lucius Clay in the U.S. zone of occupation in postwar Germany and as general counsel to the U.S. high commissioner for Germany, John J. McCloy, Bowie also had accumulated considerable expertise on Western Europe. Though he was tempted to decline the Harvard offer and remain in government, Bundy was persuasive. Not only did he lure Bowie back to Harvard with the offer of the CFIA directorship and a half-time chair in the government department, he also persuaded him that Kissinger would be a helpful associate director.

Although the relationship between Bowie and Kissinger rapidly soured,91 the two men at first spoke with one voice. Judging by its language, the program of the new center, published in 1958, was at least partly coauthored:

Today no region is isolated, none can be ignored; actions and events in remote places may have immediate world-wide impact…. At the same time, vast forces are reshaping the world with headlong speed. Under the impact of wars, nationalism, technology and communism, the old order has been shattered; nations once dominant are forced to adapt to shrunken influence. New nations have emerged and are struggling to survive…. And over all broods the atom, with its promise and its threat.92

There would be five areas of research: European relations, economic and political development, the role of force and arms control, international organization, and the Far East. The center would not teach undergraduates or graduates — Bowie and Kissinger would perform those duties elsewhere as government department professors.93 Rather, it would “combine basic research in foreign affairs with advanced study by experienced individuals… free from the pressures of day-to-day concerns.”94

Always alive to the potential for institutional turf wars, Kissinger worried that the center might end up being little more than “an adjunct of existing departments,” particularly of “a Political Science [i.e., Government] Department accustomed to treating International Relations as a subdivision of Government,” if not actually “deny[ing] the validity of International Relations as a subject.” The center, he warned Bowie, would have to be “ruthless in [its] insistence on independence of conception and execution.” It was not “simply a problem of developing a program”; it was also “necessary to bring about an attitude and an intellectual discipline. Such a goal is anathema to many trends at Harvard. It is, however, the only real road to achievement.”95 He and Bowie agreed at the outset that “there was little point in doing once more what every other research organization and center of international affairs is attempting also… [because] the supply of talent is too thin [and] the subjects to be discussed [are]… so limited.” Their only real disagreement was about Bowie’s proposal for midcareer “Fellows… drawn from government, academic life, business, the professions and the press,” who would spend between six months and two years at the center. Kissinger preferred the exclusively academic structure of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies.96

The swift degeneration of the Bowie-Kissinger relationship into a somewhat absurd microcosm of the Cold War they both studied has obscured the early success of their partnership. Initially located at 6 Divinity Avenue, the former home of the Harvard Semitic Museum, the CFIA was quick to flourish. It helped that the next two senior hires were of high quality: the development economist Edward Mason, who moved over from being dean of the Graduate School of Public Administration, and the game theorist Thomas Schelling, who had been at Yale since leaving the Truman administration in 1953. Kissinger’s relationship with Schelling would also end in acrimony and estrangement, but for many years they exchanged ideas on European affairs and nuclear strategy on the basis of mutual intellectual respect. With ample financial support from the Ford Foundation ($100,000), the Rockefeller Foundation ($120,000), the Rockefeller Brothers Fund ($105,000), the Dillon family, Standard Oil, and IBM — as well as the university itself — Bowie and Kissinger did not have to devote much time to fund-raising. Contrary to Kissinger’s expectations, the Fellows program was a success, not least because the regular seminars helped to reduce the barriers between disciplines and build an esprit de corps.97 The cafeteria, with its long tables chosen by Bowie to encourage “intellectual cross-pollination” over lunch, was seldom empty.98 Above all, the center succeeded in attracting first-class scholars, notably Zbigniew Brzezinski, Morton Halperin, Samuel Huntington, and Joseph Nye. Nor did it take long for the center to establish itself as a significant participant in the debate on U.S. foreign policy. As early as 1960, it produced two weighty reports — one on Ideology and Foreign Affairs  for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the other on The North Atlantic Nations  for Secretary of State Herter.99

So what went wrong? It does not seem plausible that subtle differences of opinion played a part. True, Kissinger was never persuaded by Bowie’s argument for a multilateral nuclear force (MLF), which would have established a seaborne (mostly submarine) nuclear force under NATO control, with multinational crews.100 But this was a matter for academic debate, not a personal feud. Nor can the Bowie-Kissinger rift be blamed on politics; both were relatively conservative figures at a university where to be on the right was to be (as Bill Elliott once observed) “one against many.”101 One hypothesis is that Bowie was precisely the kind of “legalistic oriented government servant” that Kissinger would repeatedly deride in his writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s; another is that he was “the foxy Yankee, the quintessential WASP” (in fact he came from an old Chesapeake family) and as such fundamentally hostile to his junior (and Jewish) colleague.102 In reality, the problem was a structural one. After several years in a senior government post, Bowie expected the CFIA to be run as a hierarchical institution; he saw Kissinger as his assistant  director.103 Kissinger took a different view. He was the one who had written the bestseller; he was the one whose counsel Nelson Rockefeller valued; he was the one being interviewed on television. He was a busy man. His office in Cambridge was one of two: the other was at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in New York.104 The Special Studies Project continued to eat up time until the publication of the final volume in 1961. On top of his New York commitments, Kissinger now had a succession of speaking engagements all over the country. All this had somehow to be scheduled around his twice- or thrice-weekly Harvard lectures. His new Harvard assistant noted that she had no “complaints — except the unavoidable one of not seeing him enough.”105 That soon became one of Bowie’s many grievances. He accused Kissinger of “writ[ing] in order to get into the newspapers,” of being “published largely because of [his] reputation,” and of doing work that was “below acceptable standards.106 The breakdown in relations began with blazing rows. “I got into an insane rassle with the malicious maniac, Bowie, which took all my energies for a while,” Kissinger told his mother in March 1958, explaining why he had failed to visit her on her birthday. It ended with frosty silence. Schelling recalled how the two men — whose offices were adjoining — would “sometimes check with their secretaries before coming out to make sure the other was not there,” though this was poetic exaggeration.107

Bundy, however, honored his side of the deal. In July 1959 he used a Ford Foundation grant to endow two half-chairs in the government department, one of which he earmarked for Kissinger, the other for the French scholar Stanley Hoffmann.108 As both posts had the rank of associate professor with tenure, there needed to be departmental votes (by existing tenured faculty) as well as ad hoc committees. But despite the reservations of some — notably the Soviet specialist Adam Ulam, who regarded Kissinger’s Nuclear Weapons  book as unscholarly — both appointments were confirmed.109 Kissinger now had the ultimate job security. As a tenured Harvard professor, he was effectively unsackable. Indeed, he had a job for life if he so chose.

What exactly did the job entail? As a teacher, Kissinger had a preference for graduate seminars, where more mature students would hear papers from visiting experts, followed by a Kissinger-led discussion. Along with Hoffmann and the Francophile Quaker Larry Wylie, Kissinger ran one on Western Europe. He also ran the Defense Policy Seminar, which was part of the Defense Studies Program, endeavoring to reduce the preponderance of ex-military students from Harvard Business School and to increase the quality of the outside speakers (among them a Republican congressman from Grand Rapids named Gerald Ford and the hawkish young senator from Washington, Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson).110 An unusually high-level seminar, attended only by faculty, was the Harvard-MIT Joint Arms Control Seminar, founded in 1960 in the wake of two influential studies on the subject funded by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A joint venture between the CFIA and the MIT Center for International Studies, the Arms Control Seminar met regularly every two or three weeks to discuss pre-circulated papers by one or more participants.111 These were evening affairs, usually held in one of the dingy upstairs rooms at the Harvard Faculty Club on Quincy Street. The old world surroundings, not to mention the tweed jackets and pipes favored by some participants, belied the innovative character of the discussions. Kissinger and Schelling were regular attendees, along with experts on science and technology like the biochemist Paul Doty, Richard Leghorn of Itek, and Carl Overhage of MIT’s Lincoln Lab.112 The young Morton Halperin acted as rapporteur (as well as teaching assistant for Kissinger’s Defense Policy Seminar). The level of the discussion was high, the participants all experts in the burgeoning field. Typical was the December 1960 meeting at which those who had attended the sixth Pugwash conference* in Moscow gave their impressions of the event.113

But Kissinger also taught undergraduates. His “Principles of International Politics” (Government 180) was popular, regularly attracting more than a hundred students despite its daunting four-page reading list. Covering (as the syllabus put it) “the principal concepts and issues of international politics with emphasis on the basic problems of power including the nature, strategies and controls of ‘power politics,’” the first iteration of the course had ten “required” texts, including Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War,  Machiavelli’s The Prince,  Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France,  Churchill’s Gathering Storm,  Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations —and Kissinger’s own Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy . (Later, Thucydides and Machiavelli were replaced by more recent — and mostly British — historians like Alan Bullock and Michael Howard, though by 1963 they in turn had been supplanted by U.S.-based international relations theorists like John Herz and Kenneth Waltz.) The “suggested” readings were a mixture of books on past and contemporary international relations, with a pronounced bias toward nineteenth- and twentieth-century European history. The 1963 edition of the students’ Confidential Guide to Courses captured Kissinger’s lecturing style: “[He] is quite a sight as he struts back and forth across the lecture platform alternately praising Metternich, castigating Kennedy, and tossing laurel wreaths to Kissinger for Kissinger’s solutions to the evils that beset our mismanaged foreign policy.”114 The Harvard Crimson  affectionately summed up Kissinger and his colleague Hoffmann in a parody dialogue:

Q: While we’re on the subject of individuals, let me ask you about Henry Kissinger?

A: Studying the complexities.

Q: Of what?

A: Of the situation.

Q: I see. And Professor Hoffmann?

A: Making the difficult distinctions.115

Like his own undergraduate mentor, Bill Elliott, Kiss

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inger was too often “out of town” to be available on demand for every student in his class. He had seen how Elliott managed his schedule and took more than one leaf out of his book. But that is not to say he was unpopular with students. On the contrary, those who enrolled for Government 180 generally enjoyed Kissinger’s readiness to answer their questions on current affairs and relished the mordant wit of his replies. For the majority, as is still often the case at Harvard, there was a small thrill in attending the lectures of a professor sufficiently well known to appear on Face the Nation . It was left to a few earnest types to express their doubts about Boswash Man. Charles Maier was a senior in the college when he published “The Professors’ Role as Government Adviser” in the Crimson,  an article conspicuously illustrated with a photograph of Kissinger. “The growth of the new class of professor-advisers entails dangers as well as promise,” he warned. The principal danger was that this “new professorial class” might become so “arrogant in pomposity and so enchanted with its newfound recognition” as to be “complacent and intellectually blunted.” The strong implication was that the professor-adviser risked “chang[ing] his traditional role of critic to that of spokesman for the regime.”116 It was June 1960. Three years later the Crimson  carried an article in which Kissinger and Schelling were represented as unaccountable “civilian militarists,” incapable of seeing “how reason can be used to prevent conflict.” All they did in their CFIA offices was to “accumulate data and feed them into a computer and then determine that such and such date would be the most propitious time for dropping the bomb on the Soviet Union.”117 Before the decade was out, such doubts about the relationship between Harvard faculty members and the “national security state” would be transformed into violent acts of protest.


While the “professor-adviser” struck some students as being too close to government, in one respect he was altogether too far away from it. The Cold War was not the game theorists’ epic duel waged in public. Much that was public was false, like the propaganda that conjured up imaginary missile gaps, and much that was true was covert, like the secret war between intelligence agencies. Even the best-informed outsider could have only an inkling of the Cold War’s lies and mysteries. Only when Henry Kissinger entered the inner circle of government — only when he was privy to “top secret” documents — did he appreciate that his commentary on foreign policy in the 1950s had in many ways been naïve; that he had significantly underestimated the guile of Eisenhower’s administration.

This was especially true of the global Cold War: the conflict between the superpowers for predominance in the third world, which might equally well be called the Third World’s War.118 If the threat of mutually assured destruction ultimately sufficed to produce a “long peace” for the United States, the Soviet Union, and a divided Europe, the same was not true for much of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. There the war between the superpowers, often waged through proxies, had a shockingly high cost in human life. We now know much more about that war than anyone outside official circles knew at the time. True, it was no secret that, as the European empires fell apart or dismantled themselves in the great postwar scramble to “decolonize,” the Soviet Union had an advantage. “Almost any one of the new-born states of the world,” grumbled Eisenhower, “would far rather embrace Communism or any other form of dictatorship than to acknowledge the political domination of another government.” The “new countries” reminded him of a row of dominoes waiting to topple one after another.* At times this process seemed to be happening even more rapidly than the “sweep of the dictators” in the 1930s.119 “The Korean invasion, the Huk activities in the Philippines, the determined effort to overrun all Viet Nam, the attempted subversion of Laos, Cambodia and Burma, the well-nigh successful attempt to take over Iran, the exploitation of the trouble spot of Trieste, and the penetration attempted in Guatemala” were all examples “of Soviet pressure designed to accelerate Communist conquest of every country where the Soviet government could make its influence felt.”120 Eisenhower and Dulles might have come into office talking about “liberation,” as if the Soviet empire could somehow be rolled back; they very quickly realized that (as Kennan noted with the sharp schadenfreude of a man ousted from the classified world) they were “saddled” with containment.121 Although Cuba and, arguably, North Vietnam were the only countries lost to Communism on Eisenhower’s watch, that was not for want of trying on the part of Moscow. In January 1961 Khrushchev explicitly pledged Soviet support for “national wars of liberation.” The idea was to ride the wave of decolonization by representing Moscow as the ally of all revolutionaries and branding the United States as the new imperialist. It is all too easy to forget just how successful this strategy was. Short of fighting multiple Korean-style wars, it was only through a huge campaign of “grey” and “black” propaganda and covert operations that the United States was able to slow the spread of Soviet influence.122 Ideas about psychological warfare that had developed during World War II were now deployed in any country thought to be vulnerable.

The geographical range of the global Cold War was vast. South Vietnam was flooded with USIA*-produced anti-Communist literature; North Vietnam was penetrated by CIA-trained saboteurs and provocateurs;123 Indonesia, Laos, and Thailand were swamped with propaganda. There was also a huge American effort to lock Pakistan into a “northern tier” of pro-Western states (along with Turkey, Iran, and Iraq) and to combat neutralism in India.124 James Eichelberger, who was installed in Egypt as Nasser’s public relations adviser, was in fact a CIA agent.125 This was a multimedia campaign that involved not only economic and military aid but also trade fairs, exchange programs, cultural tours, libraries, mobile cinemas, and radio broadcasts.126 In this regard, psychological warfare was of a piece with contemporary trends in commercial advertising: the assumption was that “hidden persuaders” could be as effective in foreign policy as in sales. But the results of all this were undoubtedly mixed. The American struggle to exert influence abroad without replicating European colonialism was readily mocked in books like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American  (1955) and William Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American  (1957). “Despite our massive economic aid and military assistance… our anti-colonial record, our recognized good intentions, our free and diverse society,” complained a report by the President’s Committee on Information Activities Abroad, “we seem to be becoming more identified with the negative aspects of the past and the status quo, particularly among younger people.”127 It was by definition difficult to make independent states comply with American wishes. Radio Cairo pocketed American cash and proceeded to denounce America’s principal European ally. To make matters worse, when third world leaders — such as Thava Raja, a Malayan citizen and secretary of the Johore Postal Workers’ Union — visited the United States on exchange programs, they often found themselves the victims of racial discrimination.128

When persuasion failed, the alternative was of course subversion. To Allen Dulles and his contemporaries, who had learned their craft during World War II and had then watched with dismay as the Soviets ruthlessly changed regimes in Eastern Europe, there was no obvious reason why the United States should play by different rules. Thus, under Dulles, the CIA “organized the overthrow of two foreign governments… attempted unsuccessfully to overthrow two others… and at least considered — if it did not participate in — assassination plots against several foreign leaders.”129 The overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq had in fact been a British initiative following his nationalization of the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, but the CIA soon got involved, greatly increasing the resources available to fund the coup.130 In Guatemala the initiative came from an American business interest, the United Fruit Company, which had been nationalized by Jacobo Árbenz after his election in 1951. It was the CIA that organized the military coup that overthrew Árbenz, painstakingly fabricating and spreading the story that he was a Kremlin stooge.131 This kind of operation was confirmed as legitimate by NSC-5412, approved by Eisenhower on March 15, 1954, which entrusted responsibility for planning covert operations to Allen Dulles but ensured that the White House, the State Department, and the Defense Department had the right of approval through the so-called “Special Group.”132 When Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in January 1959, it was only natural that the CIA should begin work on an operation to get rid of him, too. As deputy director for plans, the ebullient Richard Bissell was quite ready to contemplate assassinations, not only against Castro but also against Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic and Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese prime minister. Though the assassins who killed Trujillo and Lumumba in 1961 were not themselves CIA agents, the weapons they used were supplied by the agency.133 Little thought was given to the potential “blowback” there might be when — as was surely inevitable in a society with a free press — these and other covert operations were exposed to public gaze. The fact that the KGB was fighting just as dirty a Cold War would not suffice as a justification, especially when so many of the regimes targeted by the United States were nationalist as much as they were Communist.


The Henry Kissinger of the late 1950s knew little of the Third World’s War. He surely underestimated the extent of his own ignorance of what the Eisenhower administration was in fact doing, by foul means as well as fair, to combat the spread of Communism. Yet he was not oblivious to this increasingly important facet of the Cold War. In a remarkable half-hour interview with ABC’s Mike Wallace in July 1958, Kissinger was drawn by his interlocutor away from the previous year’s debates on the relative merits of massive retaliation and limited war. The exchange reveals much about how success had changed Kissinger. He was far more assured than in his first TV appearance, occasionally allowing himself a sly smile as Wallace’s questions became more searching, but generally delivering his more hair-raising lines in the deadpan style that Walter Matthau would perfect in the role of Professor Groeteschele in Fail Safe .134

WALLACE: In order to better understand your proposal for limited war, perhaps it would be well for you to define what you understand to be our current United States military policy. What is our military policy?

KISSINGER: Our current military policy is based on the doctrine of massive retaliation, that we threaten an all-out attack on the Soviet Union in case the Soviet Union engages in aggression anywhere. This means that we base our policy on a threat that will involve the destruction of all mankind. This is too risky and I think too expensive.

WALLACE: You obviously think it’s wrong — dangerous to our security. I wonder if you would expand on that. Just because of what you call the risk and just because of the expense, it is not worthwhile?

KISSINGER: No. What it will mean is that in every crisis an American President will have to make the choice whether a given objective is worth the destruction of American cities. The American President will have to decide whether Beirut or whatever the issue may be is worth thirty million American lives. In practice I am afraid the American President will have to decide that it is not worth it and it will therefore encourage the piecemeal taking over of the world by Soviet aggression.

WALLACE: Because you believe the Soviets understand our unwillingness or inability — certainly our unwillingness — to wage an all-out war?

KISSINGER: The Soviets will understand our increasing unwillingness to engage in this kind of war and therefore their task will be to present us with a challenge which does not ever seem worth taking the final jump, but the accumulation of which is going to lead to the destruction of the free world…. I do not advise that we initiate war. The question of war will arise only if the Soviet Union attacks. Then if the Soviet Union attacks and in fact we are very much more afraid of total war than they are — they will gradually blackmail the free world into surrender. Everything that I say is based on the assumption that we are as willing to run risks as the Soviet Union. If this is not the case, we are lost, and I think we ought to face that fact….

WALLACE: Then you think American strategy should be re-evaluated to restore war as a usable instrument of policy?

KISSINGER: American strategy has to face the fact that it may be confronted with war and that if Soviet aggression confronts us with war and we are unwilling to resist, it will mean the end of our freedom. It boils down then to a value choice. In these terms, yes, I think war must be made a usable instrument of policy.135

The conversation broke new ground, however, when Wallace pressed Kissinger to provide examples of how his preferred alternative of limited war might actually work. Without missing a beat, Kissinger offered a topical scenario, the “case of a Soviet attack, say, on Iraq.” Speaking just twenty-four hours before a coup d’état by Pan-Arab army officers would overthrow the Hashemite monarchy in Baghdad, Kissinger argued that Iraq was just the kind of place the United States lacked the conventional military forces to defend. “If we had more divisions and if we had air transport, then… we could airlift a few divisions into the area and, together with local forces, attempt a defense.”136 When Wallace accused him of offering only “war policies” and no “positive peace policies,” Kissinger rounded on him, rejecting the dichotomy as a false one.

KISSINGER: Defense policies are essential to maintain the peace. They are not, however, going to solve the political problems of the world. They are only going to give us a shield behind which we can engage in constructive measures. What is essential right now is that we identify ourselves with the tremendous revolution that is sweeping across the world, that we have some image for the construction of the free world which is based on other motives than simply defending the world against communism. We must make clear what we are for rather than what we are against. If we were clearer about the kind of world we want to bring about, if we could project this concern to other people, then we wouldn’t always seem so intransigently militant, then we would be identified with positive measures rather than simply with military alliances.137

Again, Wallace pressed for specifics, raising another country in the news: the French colony of Algeria, now in the fourth year of an insurgency that would ultimately achieve independence after another four years of bloodshed. Kissinger’s response was again revealing:

KISSINGER: In general, we should oppose colonial regimes. On the other hand, we should come up with ideas… an independent Algeria cannot survive as a purely independent state. The great paradox of this period is that, on the one hand, you have a drive towards more and more sovereign states and, on the other hand, there is no such thing as a purely independent state any more. The thing that has always attracted me, therefore, is that we could advocate a North African federation which could be tied together economically and for other development projects and that Algeria would find its place as part of that rather than as a purely independent state.138

Would Nasser’s newly created United Arab Republic, which had combined Egypt and Syria earlier that year, be invited to join? Kissinger thought not, adding that U.S. policy toward Nasser had been “not friendly enough to make him a friend and not hostile enough to put him down…. I would say, however, that Ibn Saud does not represent the force with which we should be identified in the Middle East”139—an allusion to the Saudi monarch, whose preference for Sharia law over secular Pan-Arabism had led him to order an abortive attempt on Nasser’s life.

In much of this, the influence of Rockefeller on Kissinger was obvious — both the uncompromising hostility to colonial regimes and the enthusiasm for federal solutions. But there is no question that Kissinger was also expressing his own distinctly idealistic views. Asked by Wallace if he thought the United States could exist “in a completely socialist revolutionary world,” Kissinger gave a heartfelt reply:

KISSINGER: Well, you know, you could argue that the identification of socialist and revolutionary is not a very good identification. You could well argue that a capitalist society or, what is more interesting to me, a free society is a more revolutionary phenomenon than nineteenth-century socialism, and this illustrates precisely one of our problems. I think we should go on the spiritual offensive in the world. We should identify ourselves with the revolution. We should say that freedom, if it is liberated, can achieve many of these things…. Even when we have engaged in constructive steps… we have always justified them on the basis of a Communist threat, very rarely on the basis of things we wanted to do because of our intrinsic dynamism. I believe, for instance, that we reacted very wrongly to the riots in Latin America [an allusion to the protests sparked by Vice President Nixon’s visits to Peru and Venezuela the previous May]. Rather than saying, “These are Communist-inspired and we must keep Latin America from going Communist,” we should have said, “This recalls us to our duty. These are things we want to do because of the values we stand for, not because we want to beat the Communists.”140

This was scarcely the language of realism. Indeed, Kissinger went out of his way to lambaste Secretary Dulles for “being so infatuated with the mechanics of foreign policy and with the negotiation aspect of foreign policy that he has not succeeded in projecting the deeper things we stand for and often has created great distrust abroad.”141

There was only one moment in the interview when Kissinger faltered, and that was at the end, when the discussion turned to domestic politics. Wallace quoted a statement Kissinger had made to another ABC reporter that “[w]e have an administration of old men, happy with the life they have led.” Smiling, Kissinger stood his ground.

KISSINGER: I made this statement. I think that the groups I was referring to are very well-meaning, very sincere, very patriotic people. The difficulty they have is that they think that the world in which they grew up is the normal world. Their tendency is, when a crisis arises, to try to smooth it over and then to wait… to expect that the normal forces would reassert themselves. Therefore, they conduct policy a little bit like, oh maybe, small-town bankers who think one can always draw interest on a good situation.

But when Wallace asked him to identify himself with a politician in the next generation, Kissinger became evasive, saying only that he did not discern “any great moral dynamism” on either side of the party political divide. Wallace tried again:

WALLACE: Who, if any, are the men in public life whom you admire and look to for leadership in the United States, Dr. Kissinger?

KISSINGER: Well, I must say, first of all, that I am here as a non-partisan, that I am an independent. I don’t stand for either party in this. It depends. I have respected Mr. Stevenson in many of his utterances, respected Mr. Acheson in many of his utterances, although I have disagreed with him very much on other things. Er… It is very difficult for a party out of power to prove what it can do.

WALLACE: But there is no Republican who comes readily to your mind, in whom you have the confidence that that man has the understanding that we need to lead us at this time.

KISSINGER: I hate to engage in personalities. I think that Mr. Nixon in his public utterances recently has shown an awareness of the situation. But I’d rather not deal in personalities if you ask me.

This was a strange response indeed from a man who was already so closely associated with Nelson Rockefeller in the public mind. The political education of Henry Kissinger was only just beginning — and had a very long way to go.

Book III

CHAPTER 12 The Intellectual and the Policy Maker

When you go to Spain and you buy a Picasso and you bring it back and hang it in the Governor’s Mansion, you don’t hire a housepainter to touch it up.

— HENRY KISSINGER to Nelson Rockefeller1

For some time I have thought that the best role for me in this matter was not to operate through Henry Kissinger. I find that intermediary a doubtful channel.

— WILLIAM ELLIOTT to Richard Nixon2


By 1958 Henry Kissinger was more than just a “professor-adviser”; he was an intellectual-celebrity. Rival candidates for the presidency dropped his name in their speeches.* When the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce named him as one of the “Ten Outstanding Young Men” of 1958, he found himself ranked alongside the pop singer Pat Boone.3 Much as he relished his sudden fame, Kissinger was only too well aware of the difficulties of oscillating between one end of Boswash and the other. In a long and distinctly introspective essay entitled “The Policymaker and the Intellectual,” published in The Reporter  in 1959, Kissinger sought to identify these difficulties — and to suggest a solution to them.

In theory, to be sure, the intellectual who was willing to step outside the cloister could counter the undesirable tendency of “an increasingly specialized, bureaucratized society” to produce leaders constrained by committees, dedicated to the “avoidance of risk rather than boldness of conception.” Precisely for that reason, however, organizations were scrambling to employ intellectuals like himself. But there were two problems. First, the intellectuals “soon find themselves so burdened that their pace of life hardly differs from that of the executives whom they advise. They cannot supply perspective because they are as harassed as the policymakers.” The result: the loss of that very creativity that was supposed to be the intellectual’s trump card. Second, “individuals who challenge the presuppositions of the bureaucracy, governmental or private, rarely can keep their positions as advisers”—in contrast to those willing “to elaborate on familiar themes rather than risk new departures.” The intellectual whose consulting contract got renewed was the one who offered “not ideas but endorsement.”4

Not that the alternative of reverting to scholarly aloofness was preferable. Kissinger could already see all around him at Harvard where that led.

The search for universality, which has produced so much of the greatest intellectual effort, may lead to something close to dogmatism in national affairs. The result can be a tendency to recoil before the act of choosing among alternatives which is inseparable from policymaking, and to ignore the tragic aspect of policymaking which lies precisely in its unavoidable component of conjecture…. The technicians who act as if the cold war were its own purpose are confronted by others who sometimes talk as if the cold war could be ended by redefining the term.5

The only solution lay, he concluded, in a combination of engagement and independence. The intellectual must not shy away from the policy making process, with all its snakes and ladders. But he must retain his “freedom to deal with the policymaker from a position of independence, and to reserve the right to assess the policymaker’s demands in terms of his own standards.”6

It is illuminating, in light of this article, to follow the trajectory of Kissinger’s role as an adviser to Nelson Rockefeller, the man who so often in the years from 1958 until 1968 seemed tantalizingly close to a successful run for the presidency of the United States.


The stakes were already high in July 1958, when Rockefeller asked Kissinger to “get together on two or three short key speeches.”7 At this point Rockefeller was seeking the Republican nomination for the governorship of New York, which he duly secured that August.8 But it was obvious to all concerned that this might well serve as a launch pad for a presidential bid. Why else give speeches on a new and more positive style of foreign policy, when foreign policy was hardly within the competence of a state governor?9

Rockefeller’s political entourage was almost as fissiparous as his private life. Some, like old hands Frank Jamieson and George Hinman, urged Rockefeller to bide his time and consolidate his position in Albany. Others, like his loyal gatekeeper Bill Ronan and his flamboyant speechwriter Emmet J. Hughes, egged him on. Kissinger lost no time in asserting his dominance in the foreign policy speechwriting process, protesting against Rockefeller’s preference for a protracted and collective process of revision (“it shouldn’t go through 25 different hands”)10 and urging him to “lift the [foreign policy] discussion above that of pure tactics.”11 The results were, however, mixed. At least one Kissinger-drafted speech was an unmitigated flop, its contents far too academic for an audience that had been to “at least two cocktail parties” beforehand.12 Arthur Schlesinger was probably being sarcastic when he asked if Rockefeller was going to name Kissinger as his secretary of state if he won the governorship.* (The job was one for which he was entirely unqualified.)13

Rockefeller’s biggest challenge was that he was up against an incumbent vice president with a solid base of support in the Republican Party apparat . Richard Nixon was not loved by the party’s conservative wing, but Rockefeller was positively loathed by them. Moreover, in the period running up to the 1960 presidential election, Nixon was being allowed to play an increasingly prominent role in U.S. foreign policy, even confronting Khrushchev face-to-face in the famous televised “kitchen debate” at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in July 1959. At the same time, relations between the superpowers showed signs of improving, which tended to undercut the alarmism showcased in the Rockefeller Special Studies.

Two issues came to dominate the foreign policy debate in the twilight years of the Eisenhower presidency. The first was the campaign for a ban on nuclear testing, which had been gathering momentum as public awareness grew of the dangers posed by fallout. With the backing of prominent scientists as well as politicians (notably Averell Harriman, who had lost the New York governorship to Rockefeller after serving one term), the “test ban” was a difficult thing to oppose once the Soviets formally proposed it in the immediate aftermath of the Sputnik  launch and even more so after they announced a unilateral test ban in March 1958. The second, equally contentious issue was Germany: variously its demilitarization, denuclearization, neutralization, and reunification. “Disengagement” in Central Europe also had prominent supporters, not least the architect of containment, George Kennan, in his 1957 BBC Reith Lectures.14 This, too, was hard to oppose after the Soviets began to argue for it, backing their words with actions in January 1958 by reducing the Red Army by 300,000.15 Who, so soon after the horrors of World War II, could seriously blame Khrushchev for opposing German rearmament?

Kissinger’s positions on both these issues were uncompromising. “At a time when there is fatuous talk of ‘summit conferences,’ ‘disengagement’ and ‘neutrality’ [and] when Mr. Kennan delivers lectures whose reasonable tone only obscures their explosive and potentially disastrous quality,” there could be no softening. A test ban was a bad idea. Any kind of concession on Germany was even worse. In “Missiles and the Western Alliance” (1958), he urged readers of Foreign Affairs  to dismiss such notions, revisiting his earlier argument for limited nuclear war with a scheme for a NATO “missile system which can be moved by motor, a major part of which is constantly shifting position,” with the

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aim “not primarily to destroy the Soviet homeland but to pose risks out of proportion to any gains Soviet forces might make in Europe.”16 The Rapacki Plan for the denuclearization of Central Europe — put forward by the Polish foreign minister Adam Rapacki in 1957—would effectively have removed U.S. nuclear forces from Europe, while leaving their Soviet counterparts just six hundred miles from Western European targets. A much better scheme, Kissinger argued, would be to induce a system of inspection rather than disarmament.17 The headline in the Herald Tribune  cut through the author’s sometimes-dense prose: “Kissinger Urges Europe to Accept Missile Bases.”18 Privately, Kissinger was scathing about Kennan’s “hysterical” and “self-righteous” proposals.19 The challenge, as he put it to Arthur Schlesinger, was to devise alternatives to Eisenhower’s approach that were both different and credible.20 The trouble was that both issues — the test ban and Germany — were inherently complicated and certainly not the stuff of a successful political campaign.

To the public, a ban on nuclear testing was an attractive idea. The Atomic Energy Commission, now chaired by John McCone, was against it. The scientists were divided: while Isidor Rabi favored a test ban, Edward Teller and Lewis Strauss vehemently opposed it.21 On August 22, 1958, Eisenhower, bowing to “world opinion,” announced a one-year suspension of U.S. nuclear testing, beginning on October 31, as the prelude to negotiations with the Soviets.22 Absurdly, both superpowers had by that time gone on a veritable testing binge in anticipation of a ban: there were eighty-one nuclear detonations around the world in the first ten months of 1958.23 Matters were further complicated by scientific evidence on the difficulty of distinguishing underground nuclear tests from natural seismic activity.24 Kissinger tried his best to strike a balance. “I have always believed it essential that there be a dispassionate, careful study of the problems of disarmament,” he told The Harvard Crimson  in October 1958, after an article had portrayed him as opposed to arms control. The United States should “always be ready to negotiate on this subject.”25 The problem was the extreme difficulty of securing binding commitments from the other side in the absence of some supranational authority with extensive powers of inspection and enforcement. “If our only alternatives were war or world government,” Kissinger warned, “we were likely to have war before we have world government.”26 His article on the test ban issue, published the same month in Foreign Affairs,  argued that a test ban would make sense only as part of “a general disarmament agreement which includes conventional weapons.” On its own, a test ban would simply erode U.S. technological capability, while the Soviets would seek to cheat. In any case, was it really likely that an agreement would be honored by “the men who arrested the leaders of the [1956] Hungarian revolution while negotiating an armistice with them and who executed them despite a promise of safe conduct”? Kissinger therefore offered a proposal of his own. The United States should invite the Soviet Union to join a UN committee. This would set a maximum dosage of permissible fallout from testing well below the recent level. The UN committee would then “assign a quota to the United States and its allies and another to the Soviet bloc on a 50–50 basis.” For two years both sides would agree to register with the UN all tests that involved fallout and both sides would agree not to exceed their quota. During those two years the quota would be progressively reduced, ultimately to zero. Afterward, the only permissible tests would be surface tests of “clean” weapons, underground tests, and tests in outer space. “Technical experts from both sides would agree on an adequate inspection mechanism,” Kissinger concluded, “which could be relatively simple.”27

This elegant scheme won the warm approval of Edward Teller, to whom the idea of a test ban was anathema — perhaps because he was confident that the compulsively secretive Soviets would reject the last part about inspection.28 Yet in its complexity Kissinger’s proposal offered markedly fewer political benefits than the earlier “Open Skies” suggestion. In the event, the Eisenhower administration shifted its position, proposing a limited agreement that banned all tests in the atmosphere and those above a certain threshold underground. When the Soviets balked at the number of inspection stations that would have been necessary to police the agreement, the United States yielded. By now Eisenhower’s view was that any agreement was “better than no agreement at all.”29

This was precisely the kind of agreement for agreement’s sake that Kissinger most despised. In an interview ahead of a speech in Omaha, Nebraska, he lashed out against the administration: “Most Americans are like spectators at a play that does not concern them…. We’re losing the Cold War and people all over the world are turning to Communism.” Korea, he argued, had been when the rot set in. As an observer in Korea in 1951, he had found it “absolutely heartbreaking” to see the U.S.-led forces fail to win a decisive victory. “It started with Korea. We simply lost our nerve. Since then we’ve been timid and unimaginative.”30 Writing to Rockefeller in February 1959, he expressed his conviction that “we are heading for a desperate situation not dissimilar to that of Britain after Dunkirk.”31 Rockefeller, in turn, thanked Kissinger for improving his “understanding of the breadth and interrelation of so many of the forces which not only affect the future of our lives, but which create a current of deep concern to the people of our country.”32


Kissinger’s reputation was growing overseas as well as in the United States. In June 1959 he traveled to Britain as a delegate to the “Atlantic Congress” that marked NATO’s tenth anniversary, where he was able to meet David Ormsby-Gore, then minister of state at the Foreign Office, as well as three leading lights of the Labour Opposition: its leader, Hugh Gaitskell, the deputy leader Aneurin Bevan, and his ally Richard Crossman.33 But it was in Germany, the country of his birth, that Kissinger had the biggest impact. In late 1958 Kissinger flew to Germany at the invitation of the government of the Federal Republic on a lecture tour that included Munich, Bonn, and Hamburg, as well as his birthplace Fürth.34 In Munich he addressed the Gesellschaft für Auslandskunde (Society for Statecraft), the West German equivalent of the Council on Foreign Relations, which had been founded in 1948,35 and it was also there that he first met the then deputy editor of Die Zeit,  Marion Countess Dönhoff.* They got on well “(I think) despite my views on Kennan”—and despite, Kissinger might have added, the vast difference in their social origins.36

His timing was good. A crisis over Berlin was brewing. The Cold War, Eisenhower was warned, was entering “a period in which risk of world war will rise to a very high point, perhaps higher than any so far.”37 That November, Khrushchev demanded that Western troops leave Berlin and that the control of access to the city be handed over to the East German authorities. Neither Eisenhower nor his ambassador in Bonn, David Bruce, liked the status of West Berlin as a Western “island… surrounded by hostile territory.” If there had been a way of neutralizing Berlin as a Free City without appearing to surrender to Soviet pressure, they might well have done it, just as they might well have agreed to German reunification if the Soviets had not so blatantly intended to subvert the western part’s fledgling democracy. Because Berlin clearly could not be defended by conventional forces, there was therefore no alternative but to threaten, once again, all-out war. (As the poker-playing president put it, “In order to avoid beginning with the white chips and working up to the blue, we should place them on notice that our whole stack is in play.”)38 It was the special vulnerability of West Berlin, as well as the uniquely sensitive nature of the German Question, that made it the ultimate Cold War flashpoint.39 The West German government was well pleased to have Kissinger — born in Germany but now a professor at Harvard — explain why any kind of Western military “disengagement” would increase rather than reduce the risks of war.40 His arguments were publicly endorsed by the bellicose Bavarian defense minister, Franz Josef Strauss.41

Yet there was a fundamental weakness with the U.S. position, as became clear when Kissinger gave a lengthy interview to Rudolf Augstein and Konrad Ahlers of Der Spiegel,  which had already established itself as the hardest-hitting political weekly in Central Europe. Kissinger argued that if the Soviets blockaded West Berlin, then the United States should send a convoy through East German territory to West Berlin. If the Soviets attacked the convoy, then NATO would defend it. And if the Soviets drove NATO forces out of East German territory and took West Berlin? In that case, Kissinger replied, “I should be in favor of giving the Soviets an ultimatum and, if necessary, of conducting a total war.” Spiegel:  “Total war for Berlin and Germany?” Kissinger: “Yes, if there is no other way to defend the freedom of [West] Berlin.” What was more, if other Western European allies were reluctant to fight such a war, then the United States and the Federal Republic would fight it alone.42 That answer gave the Spiegel  editors their headline. Predictably, the East German media jumped on it as an example of reckless American warmongering.43 Of course, Kissinger was doing no more than spelling out the implications of U.S. policy. It nevertheless illustrated the difficulty with his own thesis in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy . For even he found it impossible to argue that a limited  nuclear war could be waged over West Berlin.

Kissinger returned to the United States filled with foreboding. Speaking at an event in Harvard, he and his junior colleague Zbigniew Brzezinski, a talented Polish émigré who was then an assistant professor in the government department, debated Berlin. For Brzezinski, building his reputation as an expert on Soviet politics, Moscow was bluffing. “The Russians have no intent of war,” he argued. Their demands were “a facade to hide their real motive of trying to stop the exit of refugees from East Germany.” Kissinger was more pessimistic. He expected “continued trouble from the Soviets,” adding that Eisenhower’s handling of the issue had left him “displeased and unhappy.”44 Preparations were getting under way for yet another four-power conference. Such meetings had previously happened in London and Moscow (1945 and 1947), New York (1946), Paris (1946, 1948, and 1949), Berlin (1954), Vienna and Geneva (1955—the year of “Open Skies”). On each occasion it had proved impossible to reach an agreement on Germany. But Kissinger worried that this time — as over the test ban — Eisenhower would yield to the popular pressure for a bad deal rather than no deal.45 Written during the conference, his next Foreign Affairs  article, “The Search for Stability,” was a detailed evisceration of the latest Soviet proposal for German unification on the basis of neutralization.46

“The Search for Stability” is noteworthy not only as a contribution to the debate on Berlin. It also illustrates how far Kissinger at this time still saw himself as a critic of foreign policy realism. “An excess of ‘realism’ about accepting the division of Germany,” he argued, “will enable the Soviet Union to shift the responsibility for thwarting unification on us.” On this issue, without question, Kissinger saw himself as an idealist, willing to take a mighty gamble on the German Question by advocating reunification:

The West… must advocate German unification despite the experiences of two world wars and despite the understandable fear of a revival of German truculence. The West may have to acquiesce in the division of Germany but it cannot condone it. Any other course will in the end bring on what we should fear most: a militant, dissatisfied power in the center of the Continent. To strive for German unification is not a bargaining device but the condition for European stability.47

German reunification was a matter of principle: the principle of self-determination, as enunciated forty years previously by Woodrow Wilson, the arch-idealist among presidents. “Are we to deny in Europe what we have defended in Asia and Africa?” asked Kissinger. “During Suez we insisted that we would uphold our principles even against our allies. Are we to leave the impression now that we will uphold them only against our allies?” As the quid pro quo for reunification, Kissinger was prepared to contemplate the possibility of withdrawing NATO and Warsaw Pact* forces from some kind of “neutral belt.” He even suggested five different schemes to that end,* which read like variations on a theme by Kennan. Yet on close inspection Kissinger’s proposals were carefully crafted to be certain of rejection by the Russians. A neutral belt, Kissinger wrote, was “conceivable only… if it is made part of a satisfactory plan for German unification on the basis of free elections [and] if a careful study shows that substantial United States and British forces can be stationed in the Low Countries and France.”48

As Kissinger put it, the Soviets were “likely to reject any proposal compatible with our values and interests. In that case it is essential that we be prepared to admit failure and make neither agreement nor negotiation an end in itself.”49 This assertion of the need to base American policy on “strong convictions,” regardless of the consequences of diplomatic failure, was the antithesis of realism.

How are we to understand the idealism of Kissinger’s answer to the German Question? One answer is that his visits to West Germany (he went there again in 1960) had moved him more deeply than he acknowledged in print. The West German leaders — not only Adenauer but also the mayor of Berlin, Willy Brandt — had impressed him as men of “stature.” Adenauer’s guiding principle had been to “tie Germany so closely to the West during his lifetime that even the most mediocre successor will not be able to break it away.” Both Adenauer and Brandt were determined to resist any concession to the Soviets. To some in Washington, they seemed to aspire to wielding “a veto over the summit.” Yet Kissinger could “not for the world see why the Germans cannot have a veto over the fate of a German city.”50 Predictably, he was dismissive of what was agreed by the four powers: a five-year “interim agreement” on Berlin, which included a commitment by the Western powers not to engage in “subversive” activities in the city. In Kissinger’s view, this was “a travesty” that implicitly conceded to the Soviets a right to interfere in the politics of West Berlin.51

There was, however, another reason for taking such an absolutist position on Germany. Quite simply, if Kissinger’s candidate for the presidency were to stand any chance of wresting the Republican nomination from Richard Nixon’s hands, he would have to outflank him on national security.


Rockefeller believed that Nixon was beatable. He also believed that Henry Kissinger could help him do it. As Eisenhower put it, “Rocky” was “a gadfly,” a man whose inherited wealth had accustomed him “to hiring brains instead of using his own.”52 Henry Kissinger certainly knew more than Rockefeller about nuclear weapons. He may have known more than anyone in the United States about Germany. The problem was that he knew more about Germany than about the United States. Even in the late 1980s, the average American had visited only half of the fifty of the states of the union. Of those states, thirty-nine had been visited by fewer than half of Americans.53 In 1959 Kissinger had probably visited fewer than ten.

A man who had spent most of his adult life in either New York or Massachusetts was bound to have an exaggerated idea of Nelson Rockefeller’s popular appeal relative to his principal Republican rival. Rockefeller had won the New York governorship handsomely in 1958, in a recession year when most Republican candidates had fared badly, tarring Nixon (as the vice president later noted) “with the brush of partisan defeat.”54 By comparison, Nixon was already an established hate figure in the eyes of New York liberals. To the owner of the New York Post,  Dorothy Schiff, “Nixonism [had] replaced McCarthyism as the greatest threat to the prestige of our nation today.”55 The momentum appeared to be with Rocky. But the next two years were to teach Kissinger that popularity in New York was very far from a guarantee of victory in a nationwide contest. Perhaps sensing the risks of putting all his chips on Rockefeller — at least until he formally declared his intention to run against Nixon — Kissinger declined the invitation to become his full-time adviser. It was, he told Rockefeller in May 1959, “one of the most difficult decisions of my life,” but he had to prioritize “establish[ing] myself at Harvard…. The greatest tasks seem to me still ahead, and… I will be ready to drop everything here at an appropriate moment”—presumably if and when Rockefeller won the GOP nomination.56

Rockefeller was not a man who took no for an answer, however. At first, he had to rest content with draft speeches from the professor-adviser.57 In July 1959, for example, Kissinger offered him some “fairly sharp” paragraphs about the Soviet threat “to counteract the current euphoria.”58 A month later Rockefeller tried again, inviting Kissinger to “handle the farming out and coordination of the foreign policy papers as well as those in the defense area.” What he needed was “current facts in order to be useful and effective in influencing national policy, whether it be in the form of private conversation… or, as an outside possibility, assertion of positions as a national candidate if he should ever become one.”59 This time Kissinger agreed to “help out.”60 In effect, the Special Studies Project — renamed “the National Studies Program”—was to be revived as the policy wing of the Rockefeller campaign. As he insisted on retaining his Harvard position, Kissinger would share the running of the program with the lawyer Roswell “Rod” Perkins; Stacy May would handle economic policy.61

The summer of 1959 looked promising for the strategy of outflanking Nixon on national security. Nixon’s trip to the Soviet Union in July 1959—the occasion of the famous “kitchen debate” with Khrushchev — had aroused suspicion in some Republican quarters that the administration was “hobnobbing” with the Soviets when it should be taking a hard line. These suspicions were only heightened by Khrushchev’s visit to the United States in September. Kissinger was exceedingly dubious about this visit. “[It] will not change matters,” he told Rockefeller in September 1959.

I cannot conceive what form a success would take…. The exchange of visits is very likely to weaken Allied ties over the long pull…. I am not impressed by the ovations for the President. The same was true after Munich…. Moreover, I am convinced that by this time next year we will be in the middle of a major crisis on Berlin…. At some point… Mr. Khrushchev will announce that since negotiations have failed he will have no choice but to sign a peace treaty with East Germany…. Those who now are so much trying to capitalize on immediate trends will cut no better figures than the leaders of France and Britain in 1940.62

The draft statement he suggested Rockefeller make after his own meeting with Khrushchev was not quite so inflammatory, to be sure.63 Kissinger recommended that he condescend to rather than confront the Soviet leader, de haut en bas . The first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party might outrank the governor of New York. But “for an arriviste and a Bolshevik like Khrushchev to meet with a Rockefeller has a significance similar to that which made Napoleon so eager to be accepted by the established sovereigns. Besides… you may be President some day.”64 Kissinger preferred to do the confrontation himself, in print. His New York Times  article on the “dangers and hopes” surrounding the Khrushchev visit was intended to pour cold water on it. The Cold War was not “the result of a misunderstanding between our leaders and those of the Soviet Union.” It was a result of Soviet policies: the suppression of freedom in Eastern Europe, the refusal to compromise on arms control, “pressure on all peripheral areas,” and the “unprovoked threat to Berlin.” Without in any way compromising on these issues, Khrushchev had been rewarded with “meetings with the President from which our allies are excluded.” This was “the culmination of a trend which has seen the Western alliance dangerously close to being split.”65

Khrushchev and his wife spent several days traveling across America, making stops in New York (where he presented the UN General Assembly with a bold plan for general disarmament), California, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. As with the kitchen debate, the visit was not without its comic moments. Khrushchev became infuriated after being denied a visit to Disneyland, ostensibly for security reasons. But from a Soviet point of view, the trip as a whole was a clear success, culminating with a two-day meeting with Eisenhower at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. In return for agreeing not to set a time limit for negotiations on Berlin, Eisenhower agreed to attend yet another four-power summit the following year and to visit Russia after that.66 At a forum in Cambridge, Kissinger was scornful. “If Khrushchev were to compare his position today with that of a year ago, he must conclude that the best way to deal with the West is to frighten [us],” he was quoted as saying, referring to Berlin. “We have been playing charades with ourselves.”67

The problem was that he now began to sound like a killjoy at a time when others were enthusing about “the spirit of Camp David.” “I do not oppose summit meetings as such,” he testily informed the editor of the Crimson .68 “I am not opposed to compromise.” Rockefeller himself had to issue a denial that he had opposed the invitation to Khrushchev.69 He got into similar difficulties in November when he appeared to argue that the United States should unilaterally resume underground testing.70 It did not help that, by pressing for higher defense expenditure, Rockefeller was antagonizing Eisenhower, who had not failed to notice his “big government” tendency to tax and spend in New York. The strategy was not working, and Rockefeller knew it. In December 1959 he decided, if not to withdraw, then at least not to contest the first primaries. Distraught, Kissinger admitted to a “feeling almost of despair when I learned of your withdrawal—

despair not for you but for the country and the cause of freedom in the world. Four years is a long time in our age and many opportunities which exist now will have disappeared. Much suffering which could have been avoided must now be experienced. We are heading, I am convinced, for dark, perhaps desperate times, and to make matters worse, all seems calm now — the calmness, I fear[,] of the eye of the hurricane.71

He had perhaps been wise not to commit himself wholly to Rocky.


The election of 1960 was destined to be a close one. But for the term limit introduced nine years before by the 22nd Amendment (ironically, a Republican-backed measure), Eisenhower might have been persuaded to run again and would likely have won. That made his endorsement valuable, but he had such grave doubts about both Rockefeller and Nixon that he repeatedly declined to give it. The Democratic front-runner, the photogenic young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, was inclined to prefer Nixon as a rival. But he, too, had a race on his hands for his party’s nomination. His Texan rival Lyndon Johnson wa