Henry Kissinger turns 100 on Saturday, but his legacy has never been in worse shape. Though many commentators now speak of a “tortured and deadly legacy”, for decades Kissinger was lauded by all quarters of the political and media establishment.
A teenage Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany, Kissinger charted an unlikely path to some of the most powerful positions on Earth. Even more strangely, as national security adviser and secretary of state under Nixon and Ford, he became something of a pop icon.
Back then, one fawning profile of the young statesman cast him as “the sex symbol of the Nixon administration”. In 1969, according to the profile, Kissinger attended a party full of Washington socialites with an envelope marked “Top Secret” tucked under his arm. The other party guests could hardly contain their curiosity, so Kissinger deflected their questions with a quip: the envelope contained his copy of the latest Playboy magazine. (Hugh Hefner apparently found this hilarious and thereafter ensured that the national security adviser got a free subscription.)
What the envelope really contained was a draft copy of Nixon’s “silent majority” speech, a now-infamous address that aimed to draw a sharp line between the moral decadence of antiwar liberals and Nixon’s unflinching realpolitik.
The actual top-secret work he was doing in the 1970s aged just as poorly. Within a few short years he masterminded illegal bombings in Laos and Cambodia and enabled genocide in East Timor and East Pakistan. Meanwhile, Kissinger was known among Beltway socialites as “the playboy of the western wing”. He liked to be photographed, and photographers obliged. He was a fixture on gossip pages, particularly when his dalliances with famous women spilled into public view – like when he and the actor Jill St John inadvertently set off the alarm at her Hollywood mansion late one night as they stole away to her pool. (“I was teaching her chess,” Kissinger explained later.)
While Kissinger gallivanted with Washington’s jet set, he and Nixon – a pair so firmly joined at the hip that Isaiah Berlin christened them “Nixonger” – were busy contriving a political brand rooted in their supposed disdain for the liberal elite, whose effete morality, they claimed, could lead only to paralysis.
Kissinger certainly disdained the antiwar movement, disparaging demonstrators as “upper-middle-class college kids” and warning: “The very people who shout ‘Power to the People’ are not going to be the people who take over this country if it turns into a test of strength.” He also scorned women: “To me women are no more than a pastime, a hobby. Nobody devotes too much time to a hobby.” But it’s indisputable that Kissinger held a fondness for the gilded liberalism of high society, the exclusive parties and steak dinners and flashbulbs.
High society loved him back. Gloria Steinem, an occasional dining companion, called Kissinger “the only interesting man in the Nixon administration”. The gossip columnist Joyce Haber described him as “worldly, humorous, sophisticated, and a cavalier with women.” The Hef considered him a friend, and once claimed in print that a poll of his models revealed Kissinger to be the man most widely desired for dates at the Playboy mansion.
This infatuation didn’t end with the 1970s. When Kissinger turned 90 in 2013, his red-carpet birthday celebration was attended by a bipartisan crowd that included Michael Bloomberg, Roger Ailes, Barbara Walters, even “veteran for peace” John Kerry, along with some 300 other A-listers.
An article in Women’s Wear Daily reported that Bill Clinton and John McCain delivered the birthday toasts in a ballroom done up in chinoiserie, to please the night’s guest of honor. (McCain, who spent more than five years as a POW, described his “wonderful affection” for Kissinger, “because of the Vietnam war, which was something that was enormously impactful to both of our lives”.) The birthday boy himself then took the stage, where he reminded guests about the “rhythm of history” and seized the occasion to preach the gospel of his favorite cause: bipartisanship.
Kissinger’s capacity for bipartisanship was renowned. (Republicans Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld were in attendance early in the evening, and later in the night Democrat Hillary Clinton strode in through a freight entrance with open arms, asking: “Ready for round two?”) During the party, McCain gushed that Kissinger “has been a consultant and adviser to every president, Republican and Democrat, since Nixon”. McCain probably spoke for everyone in the ballroom when he added: “I know of no individual who is more respected in the world than Henry Kissinger.”
In fact, much of the world reviles Kissinger. The former secretary of state even avoids visiting several countries out of fear that he might be apprehended and charged with war crimes. In 2002, for example, a Chilean court demanded he answer questions about his role in that country’s 1973 coup d’état. In 2001, a French judge sent police officers to Kissinger’s Paris hotel room to serve him a formal request for questioning about the same coup, during which several French citizens were disappeared.
Around the same time, he cancelled a trip to Brazil after rumors began circling that he would be detained and compelled to answer questions about his role in Operation Condor, the 1970s scheme that united South American dictatorships in disappearing one another’s exiled opponents. An Argentinian judge had already named Kissinger as one potential “defendant or suspect” in a future criminal indictment.
But in the United States, Kissinger is untouchable. There, one of the 20th century’s most prolific butchers is beloved by the rich and powerful, regardless of their partisan affiliation. Kissinger’s bipartisan appeal is straightforward: he was a top strategist of America’s empire of capital at a critical moment in that empire’s development.
Small wonder that the political establishment has regarded Kissinger as an asset and not an aberration. He embodied what the two ruling parties share: the resolve to ensure favorable conditions for American investors in as much of the world as possible. A stranger to shame and inhibition, Kissinger was able to guide the American empire through a treacherous period in world history, when the United States’ rise to global domination sometimes seemed on the brink of collapse.
The Kissinger doctrine persists today: if sovereign countries refuse to be worked into broader US schemes, the American national security state will move swiftly to undercut their sovereignty. This is business as usual for the US, no matter which party sits in the White House – and Kissinger, while he lives, remains among the chief stewards of this status quo.
The historian Gerald Horne once recounted a story about the time Kissinger nearly drowned while canoeing beneath one of the world’s largest waterfalls. Tossed in those churning waters, the statesman was finally forced to confront the terror of losing control, of facing a crisis in which even his own incredible influence could not insulate him from personal disaster. But the panic was only temporary – his guide righted the boat, and Kissinger again escaped unscathed.
Perhaps time will soon accomplish what the Victoria Falls failed to do so many decades ago.
Bhaskar Sunkara is the president of the Nation, the founding editor of Jacobin, and the author of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in An Era of Extreme Inequalities
Jonah Walters is a freelance writer and postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics