Henry Kissinger, America and Germany

John Kornblum

AGI Trustee

John Kornblum is a senior counselor at the international law firm Noerr LLP and a former U.S. ambassador to Germany. He is a member of the AGI Board of Trustees.

More than fifty years after he arrived on the world scene as Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger remained an imposing figure on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite the great sweep of his ideas and achievements, Kissinger seemed also never to have forgotten his roots. His contribution to Germany’s successful reentry into the family of nations should not be underestimated.

A major part of Kissinger’s legacy will be his dedication, before and after government service, to stimulate dialogue between the United States and friends or opponents. “Henry” has in fact become a one-word icon for the sort of serious political discourse which seems to be so missing in the Internet age.

Even as he passed his 100th birthday, Henry Kissinger continued to update his portfolio through a consulting business, which was not only lucrative, but also produced regular columns and books which meted out insights into the challenges and dangers of the newly interconnected world.

Such was the case during the discussion piped around the world by Zoom from the 2023 Davos World Economic forum. Kissinger created headlines by predicting an end to the current world order.

Once again, his timing was been perfect. He based his predictions on one of his latest efforts, a book. Co-written with experts, detailing the challenges of artificial intelligence which had appeared a year before most people had heard of ChatGPT.

But then again, not. The consistent rationality which Henry Kissinger sought to impose on American foreign policy also came back to bite him. Such was the case recently when he suggested in a 2022 that in order to stop the Russian invasion, Ukraine should be convinced to negotiate territorial compromises with Putin.

The emotional outcry reminded me of the uproars during the Vietnam war and the detente era in the 1970’s. It was so deafening that Henry Kissinger found it necessary early in 2023 to reconfirm his full support for Ukraine, including its eventual NATO membership, and pull back from his proposals.

Such contradictions between wise analysis and insensitivity to the emotional undercurrents of modern American society have accompanied Kissinger’s career from its early days, and often spilled over to Europe and elsewhere.

His tireless efforts to negotiate an honorable American exit from the Vietnam war earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. But Kissinger’s aggressive use of military means in pursuit of an orderly exit also earned him a level of public opprobrium which continues to this day.

During his time in office, Kissinger often railed against such judgements by decrying the inability of his critics to understand the need for coherence and credibility in America’s foreign engagements. But it was exactly the unchanging nature of such American emotional idealism which seemed to be difficult for Kissinger to understand.

In other words, for all of his wisdom, Henry Kissinger often fought against the grain of modern American society to an extent which continues to inject a negative tone to his legacy.

But such controversies did not damage an enduring public image of a unique American figure, whose intellect and ruthlessness enabled him to prosper and dominate the foreign policy scene nearly five decades after he left office.

There is much more to Henry Kissinger than theories of 19th century diplomacy. Beginning with his service in US Army intelligence during and after World War II, Kissinger supplemented his academic work by engaging with both leaders and new generations on both sides of the Atlantic, an engagement which was repeated into very old age.

An academic star and hard-fighting public intellectual in the mode of other World War II refugees such as Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, or of course Billy Wilder, whose biographies left an indelible legacy for America and the world, he worked hard to understand the human element of his trade.

An Enduring Engagement in Germany

Germans have, over the years, been especially uncertain about where to place Henry Kissinger. Pride in his achievements is tempered by the tragic circumstances under which his family was forced to leave Germany, and what seemed to be his often-ruthless application of American power to conflicts most Europeans would rather avoid.

But Kissinger’s refusal, as a Jewish refugee, to condemn Germany after 1945, and his efforts from the early days of his career and throughout his life, to build a dialogue with German leaders, should undoubtedly be included among his most important achievements.

Kissinger retained a deep insight into the character and behavior of one the world’s most influential countries. His ground work will continue to serve both America and Germany for years to come.

In other words, Kissinger was like many of us, an American with strong European roots, who was at times confused about which heritage he should draw from. Any judgment of his thinking and public persona must take these two equally strong aspects of his make-up into consideration.

An Homage to Germany

Henry Kissinger’s dedication to Germany was brought home to my wife and me along with several dozen other guests who attended a dinner at the official residence of German President Steinmeier on July 27, 2018 to mark Henry Kissinger’s 95th birthday.

The occasion was memorable for reasons which reached far beyond a milestone birthday, even for such an important guest. Kissinger surprised his host and guests by announcing that he intended to speak German in his response to President Steimeier’s toast.

Although his German was excellent, Kissinger usually preferred English even with German audiences, because, as he often said, he knew all the important words in English.

But this time it was different. Henry Kissinger seemed to have chosen German not only out of deference to his host, but because he had an important message to deliver.

That message was about Germany. Maybe the subject had been on his mind for years, but he seemed to have decided that his 95th birthday was the time to say some things which had been missing from his public statements until that moment.

I remember vividly the emotions of the moment and the near total silence in the room as Henry Kissinger appeared to unburden himself of feelings which had been cooped up for decades.

He began by paying homage to the way in which Germany had faced its horrible past and become a respected nation. He said he had never lost his feeling for German culture and society and considered it to be one of the foundations of his success. And in recent years, he had concluded that Germany was one of the keys to the future success of democracy. The rest I cannot reconstruct accurately, but I do remember that Kissinger’s words were sincere and increasingly emotional.

These remarks were interesting for another reason. They underscored Kissinger’s focus on the quality of political leadership to international order, as summarized through the use of interviews in his other recent book simply entitled Leadership.

Most interesting from our current point of view are the summaries of his discussions with Konrad Adenauer. Drawing from these interviews, Kissinger described his assessment of Germany’s future in a memorandum written to President Kennedy in 1962, which is uncannily similar to his comments at the Steinmeier dinner, which took place 56 years later: “A country which has lost two world wars, undergone three revolutions, committed the crimes of the Nazi era and seen its material wealth wiped out twice in a generation is bound to suffer from deep psychological scars. A German friend, a creative writer, said to me that Germany, alone of the major countries in Europe, had suffered no visible psychic shock after the war. But it remains a candidate for a nervous breakdown.”

Kissinger the Idealist

The image I have presented so far does not fit with Henry Kissinger’s public persona as a cynical Machiavellian. That is because, after more than 50 years of observing and working under Henry Kissinger, I came to agree strongly with the assessment of Kissinger’s official biographer Niall Ferguson: Henry Kissinger was more idealist than Realpolitiker.

As Professor Ferguson puts it, Kissinger’s idealism was tempered by the dramatic circumstances he endured. But it was genuine and effective. In his book Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist, Professor Ferguson concludes: “Kissinger was a Kantian Idealist, not a Wilsonian Idealist. To the Wilsonian argument that the United States should ‘confine our actions to situations in which our moral, legal and military positions are completely in harmony,’ Kissinger had a consistent reply: ‘To deal with problems of such ambiguity, [requires] a …willingness to run risks…for a less than perfect application of one’s principles.”

Even today, at his death at age 100, the pragmatism of Kissinger’s Kantian rhetoric often seems to be both morally weak and politically defeatist to American eyes and ears tuned to the search for perfection in American life. But it was his understanding of the ambiguity in relations between nations which made possible his often historic contribution to American and world diplomacy.

At the same time, it appears that the very complexity of his thinking continues to contribute to his reputation of being a skillful and somewhat amoral opportunist. Even when these traits often worked to his disadvantage, they were factors which he seemed to be either unable or unwilling to compromise.

A Search for Coherence

Were I able to characterize Henry Kissinger’s underlying goals, it would not be a search for world order as so many have suggested. Rather, I would agree with Professor Thomas Schwartz of Vanderbilt University, author of a seminal book: Henry Kissinger and American Power, in which he compares Kissinger’s political strategies with his complex origins.

Professor Schwartz suggests that: “Kissinger…experienced considerable success and some tragic failures. But he did give American foreign policy a coherence and strategic purpose it has often lacked in the years since he was in office.”

Agreed. But the fact is, despite his many efforts to communicate his views publicly, much of Kissinger’s strategies and achievements in government had to be carried out by stealth out of the public eye.

If they had been given the choice, most Europeans and Americans would probably not have approved of the “balance and coherence” praised by Professor Schwartz even if they had been let in to Kissinger’s thinking.

And it is questionable whether anyone but Kissinger would have been able to maintain control of press reporting in today’s social network age as he did in the 1970’s.

Fact is, President Nixon more than once tried to suppress Kissinger’s efforts to find common ground with Russians or Chinese, arguing that his incessant diplomacy was politically damaging at home.

It took a person who combined intellectual skills with an understanding of the uses of power and ruthless determination to impose his will upon others, including his boss, to achieve the coherence and strategic purpose described by Professor Schwartz.

The Consistency Gap

America entered the post-World War II era with nearly limitless power, but without experience or guidance in how to manage it. We soon established order, but most often without the benefit of consistency as Henry Kissinger defined it.

Instead, the successes of the first ten years after the war were as much the product of good fortune as of careful political strategy. Kissinger first emerged publicly with his efforts to add consistency with his books on nuclear strategy, for example.

After eight years of Eisenhower’s benign paternalism, America emerged in 1960 as an energetic and somewhat rambunctious big power without much idea as to how it got there, or what to do about it.

As a result, a new generation, characterized by a glamorous young President, soon found themselves faced with a series of crises which almost ended during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, with nuclear war. To be followed by an ill-conceived engagement in a far away Asian country, based it seems on a strategy designed for Europe in the 1930’s.

Kissinger’s sense of realism and coherence can best be understood as an effort to overcome such emotionalism and immaturity in American policy making.

As demonstrated during the closing phases of the Vietnam war, his emphasis on maintaining respect for authority and the credibility of American leadership was not always popular in the United States or Europe, and at times seemed to be opportunistic and cynical. But Kissinger stuck to his guns even during the dark days of Watergate and emerged stronger for the effort.

As a result, despite his long and successful life in the United States, Kissinger’s own “pragmatic idealism, ” topped off by his German syntax and accent, continued to this day to add a certain aura of inscrutability to his achievements which served both to strengthen his influence and charisma and sully his reputation.

The very fact that most Americans did not always understand what he was talking about gave him the aura of a deep thinker, when he was in fact an intelligent and ambitious German-Jewish American who mastered the use of American power to apply concepts implanted during his European upbringing.

Years of Power

As he began his White House role, Kissinger was among other things a seasoned bureaucrat, attuned to working with complex systems, be they government or academia. He couched his often ruthless bureaucratic behavior in American syntax.

On the one hand, he published a detailed Presidential report to Congress entitled “United States Foreign Policy for the 1970’s: A New Strategy for Peace” and repeated the exercise annually.

Probably hardly anyone actually read the tomes and even fewer comprehended them. But no matter. Both Nixon and Kissinger had made clear what they intended to do, and nobody could claim that they had not been told about it.

This book-length analysis defined three traditional elements: Atlantic partnership, American strength and a readiness to negotiate with adversaries such as China and Russia. It also suggested new types of structures which could be used to achieve its goals and laid out the steps the Nixon Administration intended to take to make their visions a reality.

But at the same time, Kissinger revised the loose bureaucratic structures of the Kennedy administration into a centrally controlled mechanism in which final authority rested with the National Security Advisor, e.g. Henry Kissinger, as the voice of the President.

This structure was so tight that when Nixon’s first Secretary of State William P. Rogers, presented it to his senior State Department staff, his most experienced diplomat Charles Bohlen is reported to have said: “Mr. Secretary, there goes the ballgame.”

Bohlen was of course right. I can confirm from personal experience that in the first four years of the Nixon Administration, the State Department was cut out completely from operation of the Kissinger/Nixon grand strategy detailed in the foreign policy report.

Of course, after Henry Kissinger became Secretary of State, it was often the White House which complained about being left out of decision making. Kissinger’s omnipotence had become so obvious that President Gerald Ford felt impelled to remove him from the NSC role which he had kept after his move to Foggy Bottom.

A Stumble over Human Rights

I had a personal and at times frustrating encounter with these contradictions in the 1970’s when, in my view at least, Henry Kissinger was his own worst enemy.

I was a member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff under Secretary Kissinger and later, under the Carter Administration, headed an office that was responsible for dealing with the increasingly confrontational debate over Soviet suppression of Eastern European human rights.
In Policy Planning, my job had been to find ways of working with European allies on human rights in a way which could support American policy both at home and abroad.

But the overall negative image of Secretary Kissinger’s apparent lack of concern for human rights had been inherited from the Vietnam negotiations and was reenforced by not only by his effort to reach understanding with the Soviet Union, but as part of his hostility to leaders such as Salvador Allende in Chile.

One important tool for Europe was the so-called Helsinki Conference, which was an old Soviet idea, similar to the demands for equal treatment now being made regularly by Putin.

The NATO alliance, at the urging of Finland, had made a satisfactory agreement for improvement of the situation in Berlin as proposed by German Chancellor Willy Brandt a condition for further discussion of these ideas. I had been a member of the American delegation to these negotiations and had returned to Washington steeped in the conflicts which continued to threaten the peace in Europe. In my mind, conclusion of the Berlin Agreement in June, 1972 had been an important step towards success of what was now called the Helsinki Process. Human rights were increasingly at the top of the public agenda. When combined with controversies over American support of dictators in Chile, Cyprus and elsewhere, they presented an explosive mixture.

Not being able to change the public impression, we in Policy Planning proposed changing the way human rights policy was made within the U.S. government, to give more priority to human rights issues. A Policy Planning colleague and I came up with a proposal for the establishment of a Human Rights office in the Department of State, working directly under the Secretary.

At the urging of his senior staff, Secretary Kissinger approved the proposal and we became the first foreign ministry in the world to adopt the principle that a nation’s treatment of its citizens was as much a matter of international concern as were its foreign policies.

I was proud of this achievement. Publicly, the American image on human rights improved considerably. Discussion of the Helsinki proposals had surprisingly resulted in strong language both on human rights and national sovereignty which the Soviets had not been expected to approve.

Soviet motives had probably been based more on the urgent need to conclude arms control agreements with the West than on any interest in human rights. But for the West, what became known as the Helsinki Final Act remains to this day the best international definition of modern civil society ever agreed.

Unfortunately, I soon learned firsthand that for Henry Kissinger, human rights issues were more complicated than I had expected.

At the Ottawa meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers on June 19, 1975, perhaps burdened by the many other issues facing him in the Middle East and elsewhere, Secretary Kissinger seemed to abandon our recent initiatives by warning against too strong an emphasis on human rights in the Summit Declaration which was to be issued in Helsinki two months later.

He suggested that the Helsinki Final Act would be little more than a piece of paper, soon to be forgotten, while détente and arms control were real things which must be protected.

Not wanting to abandon our project, I wrote, together with the European Bureau of the State Department, a long policy recommendation aimed at demonstrating for the Secretary how a strong human rights policy could advance U.S. political and security interests.

Since I was proud of this proposal, I was much taken aback by Kissinger’s reaction, hand-written hastily on the original memorandum: “No. there will be no human rights strategy or emphasis on human rights after signature in Helsinki. I want no further action on this issue.”

We puzzled for some time about this reaction. With so much going on with the Soviets, Chinese and in the Middle East, it was not difficult to surmise that the Secretary wanted no interference from idealistic concepts of human rights.

But the counter reaction to his rejection of an active human rights strategy was felt a year later during the Presidential campaign. The Carter campaign made a central issue of Kissinger’s “amoral” foreign policy, and scored debating points on Gerald Ford, who seemed to have been poorly briefed on the issues. Ironically, once Carter took office, I was branded by his new and idealistic human rights team as a supporter of the Kissinger approach.

Twenty years later, Russia’s first post-Soviet Foreign minister, Andrey Kozyrev, suggested that “the Helsinki Act was more important in achieving the end of the Soviet Union than all of NATO’s forces together.”

Kissinger, by the way, became a strong supporter of the Helsinki process. But especially in the United States, he is remembered as an opponent of the strong human rights policy praised by Kozyrev.

Ostpolitik is Born

Ironically, Egon Bahr, the author of Germany’s historic opening to the East, argued that much of the credit for Willy Brandt’s famous Ostpolitikbelonged to the United States, particularly President Kennedy.

Bahr stressed to me in numerous private conversations that Kennedy’s most important effect on Germany’s future was not his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech on June 26, 1963, but an earlier speech presented at American University in Washington on June 12 of the same year.

Kennedy’s legendary speech writer, Theodore Sorensen, has written that he considers the American University address to be the best speech delivered by Kennedy in his three years in office. According to Sorensen, it was written almost totally by Kennedy himself, and reflected a major turn in Kennedy’s view of the world.

The central thesis of the speech was that after the near disaster of the Cuban missile crisis, the time had come to build peace with the Soviet Union through dialogue on issues of common interest. His first example was a nuclear test ban treaty, which actually was realized after Kennedy’s death.

When the politically savvy Willy Brandt became German Foreign Minister in the fall of 1966, he understood that he could not expect full Western support for his ideas as long as the situation in Berlin remained an open sore in Europe. He began talking publicly about the need for progress in Berlin, and at the traditional Quadripartite Dinner held on the fringes of the June, 1968 NATO Ministerial in Washington proposed “soundings” with the Soviets on prospects for progress in the divided city.

success of this strategy was initially based on an agreement which focused on minute details affecting the continuing occupation of Germany’s capital, Berlin.

After the tribulations of Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger entered office in 1969 convinced of the necessity to find a new basis in relations with both the Soviet Union and allies in Europe.

They were two very different characters. But they somehow formed what Kissinger has called a “fortuitous combination,” which was able to steer a re-definition of America’s global diplomacy.

The resulting more pragmatic strategy influenced Western diplomacy over the next two decades and ultimately helped end the Cold War.

Thus, it is no surprise that Nixon struck a note that we still hear today. In his inaugural address, the newly elected President stressed the importance of NATO and the Atlantic community as the foundation of American leadership.

But he also made clear the need for a new type of relationship in which the European Allies did more to support the common defense, which served as a foundation for efforts to build peace in Europe. And as a first step in this direction, he announced that he would visit Europe in the second month of his tenure in office.

I had a front row seat to Henry Kissinger’s approach to Europe during my assignment at the American Embassy in Bonn. I arrived for my position as Staff Aide to the new American Ambassador in August 1969, just before the German national elections. There had been some head-scratching in Washington over the reasons for appointment of my new boss, Kenneth Rush, as Nixon’s Ambassador to Germany. But I soon found out.

Kissinger intended to guide Atlantic relations and especially ties to Germany from the White House. For this task, he recruited another German émigré, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, whom he had met while serving in the U.S. Army. Kenneth Rush was a personal friend of President Nixon from law school days. He served as a direct channel, bypassing the State Department.

This arrangement made possible close German-American coordination as both nations sought to redefine their relations with the Soviet Union and Nixon considered a new approach to China. The key figures on the German side were Brandt himself and his long-time alter ego, Bahr.

Henry Kissinger praised two of his successors, George Shultz and James Baker, for their insights into the methods of successful diplomacy. While subsequent Administrations have not always supported Kissinger’s guidelines, leaders such as Shultz and Baker often adopted his coherent approach to policy making. Those who did not suffered the consequences of their omissions.

To new generations who did not experience either World War II or the Cold War, Kissinger’s visions and methods may today seem to be too esoteric and separated from modern life to be relevant to their needs.

Recent successors have either fallen back on fundamental American crusades or isolationist yearnings, such as President Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” movement or President Donald Trump and his “Make America Great Again” slogans. Even the current Administration in Washington seems to have applied Kissinger’s methods in a manner that he would hardly recognize.

But whatever the point of view, today’s observers should not overlook Kissinger’s recent co-authored book on the challenges of artificial intelligence or his treatise on the importance of the sort of mature leadership which is much missing in today’s America.

Wilsonian principles and idealism have become a symbol of innocence and purity, which have been milked successfully by two such opposites as Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump. By his very being, Henry Kissinger countered such dreams with painful realities.

Image Trumps Substance

As a result, Kissinger’s pragmatic idealism, as exhibited in his first public reaction in 2022 to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, often strike Americans as being too calculating and amoral to fit their view of the world. And even those who do not condemn the Kissinger era have found it difficult to understand what he actually did.

Behind the image lay a complicated personality—a person who chose consciously to be an American, but remained influenced by his European sense of stability.

Despite his German childhood, Kissinger’s approach to life was strongly influenced by American patterns of behavior, both in the U.S. Army during and after World War II and at Harvard, where he matriculated in 1947.

Whatever his conclusions from his academic life, Kissinger’s talents seem equally to have been sharpened by his several years of dealing with American government bureaucracy as a member of the Army intelligence branch.

And as his Harvard career amply demonstrated, by the time he had finished his doctoral studies, Henry Kissinger was a well-prepared American professor and academic bureaucrat who was as adept in finding mentors as he was in strategic analysis.

Despite his harrowing experiences and personal losses to Nazi Germany, Henry Kissinger assiduously maintained his contacts in Germany over several decades before he joined the Nixon Administration and refused to condemn the nation of his birth at a time when it was fashionable to do so.

But there is one major difference between Henry Kissinger and these and other similar hyphenated Americans. They were worshiped because their brilliance could be comprehended by the mainstream American military, cultural or political establishment. Their contributions were clear and understandable, and above all in harmony with America’s view of itself.

Kissinger, on the other hand, was so affected by the traumatic experiences of his youth that maintaining both domestic and international order became a leitmotif of his very being.

He retained the aura of a German professor down to his accent and his use of complex formulations to define his thought. Preaching realism, pragmatism and restraint to a country founded on the belief in limitless opportunity remained a hard sell.

Henry Kissinger’s 1970’s “trifecta” of political and military détente with the Soviet Union and China, extraction of the U.S. from Vietnam, and restoration of stability in the Middle East after the 1973 Yom Kippur War are today nearly forgotten. If they are remembered at all, they are usually described as complex diplomatic and military undertakings more in accordance with European balance of power behavior than the American moralistic tradition.

Even before his entry into the Nixon Administration, Henry Kissinger was mischaracterized as a German professor who somehow believed in the use of nuclear weapons.

Such reference to the ambiguity of diplomatic choices is scattered throughout Kissinger’s speaking and writing. But as his biographer Professor Ferguson suggests, the ambiguity upon which Kissinger based his success is foreign to an American philosophy whose most adamant followers often argue that the American Constitution is akin to the word of God.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.