Kissinger — a myth in his own time

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium

Appendix XLIII (supplement)

天知地知, 你知我知


‘After a dinner of Peking duck, I’ll agree to anything.’

Henry Kissinger

For me, the inaugural decade of Xi Jinping’s rule was bookended by two moments involving Henry A. Kissinger, who is recently deceased:

  • The first was in 2011 when, having being invited by Bo Xilai to celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Chongqing, Kissinger subjected himself to a neo-Maoist Red Song Extravaganza 紅歌大會 of the kind promoted by Bo as part of his campaign to become Party General Secretary (see the YouTube video below).
  • The second involved an invitation I received in mid 2022 to join a new China-related enterprise. The proposed endeavour claimed that it was not merely another ‘think tank’, but also a ‘do tank’. If that was not off-putting enough, the founders of the new venture were unable to explain exactly how this generously funded new operation differed from similar groups devoted to the study and analysis of the People’s Republic that were, to quote a Chinese saying, ‘sprouting like bamboo shoots after a spring rain’ 雨後春筍. The lack of clarity on this point made me hesitate. However, I categorically ruled out participation when I learned that the launch of said ‘do tank’ on 1 October 2022, would feature Henry Kissinger. This brought to mind some lines from The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens:

‘Kissinger is not invited and feted because of his exquisite manners or his mordant wit (his manners are in any case rather gross, and his wit consists of a quiver of borrowed and secondhand darts). No, he is sought after because his presence supplies a frisson: the authentic touch of raw and unapologetic power.’

But Kissinger had also been courted by the founder of the ‘do tank’ for his much-publicised reputation in relation to China.


Following its inception in April 2010, The Australian Centre on China in the World organised short courses on China for members of the Commonwealth civil service in Canberra. From 2011, in my introductory lectures to those courses I often drew on Henry Kissinger’s On China, which was published that year. As I told my audience, the opening chapter of that book offered a check list of orientalist fallacies about China that masquerades as insight, including topics related to ‘Chinese’ views of peace and war, stability and chaos, and so on. Similar gumpf is passed off by a certain breed of China Expert, as well as many of Beijing’s foreign friends and local influencers. At least Newt Gingrich, the Grand Guignol of American politics, eventually fessed up to his own wrong-headedness about China, although he mixed his own mea culpa with a dollop of cultural essentialism. At least Kissinger knew at the time he published On China that a new cold war was brewing.

Nonetheless, from the get go, Kissinger repeatedly contributed to lazy ideas about Chinese inscrutability. In The Forbidden City (Harvard, 2008), I quote his attempt to find some meaning in what had been a rambling and baffling exchange between Mao and Nixon:

Later on, as I comprehended better the many-layered design of Mao’s conversation, I understood that it was like the courtyards in the Forbidden City, each leading to a deeper recess distinguished from the others only by slight changes of proportion, with ultimate meaning residing in a totality that only long reflection could grasp.

The devious nooks and crannies of Kissinger’s own life have long been revealed and, in the following, James Mann, a journalist and author who has written incisively on the US-China relationship, reviews the outsize claims made both by and about Kissinger and his involvement with the People’s Republic. We preface Mann’s analysis with some words of farewell for the former secretary of state.

One of the themes of Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium is recycling and, for over fifty years, no other Westerner was more frequently, and willingly, recycled by China than Henry A. Kissinger. See also:

Kissinger — a myth in his own time, is a Supplement to that Appendix.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
13 December 2023


Further Reading:

A Podcast:

Also in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium:

Henry K Does Bo Xilai a Solid (and vice versa)

(watch from minute 1:48)

Note: In his apocalyptic prime, Henry Kissinger recalled Dr Strangelove, the cinematic creation of Stanley Kubrick. During his long drawn-out later decades, however, the former secretary of state’s wizened and kyphotic appearance more readily brought to mind Davros of Doctor Who fame.


Vale Henry

Rolling Stone headline: “Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved by America’s Ruling Class, Finally Dies.” Huff Post: “The Beltway Butcher: Henry Kissinger Dead at 100.” Mother Jones: “Dead at 100, Henry Kissinger Leaves Behind a Bloody Legacy.”

Al Franken tweeted: “Kissinger called SNL once late on a Friday night looking for tix for his son. The Stones were playing that week. I told him that if it hadn’t been for the Xmas bombing [of Hanoi], he’d have the tickets.”

The Onion: “Iconic Napalm Rights Advocate Dies at 100.”

Jeff Schurke: “The [Hamas-Israel] ceasefire killed him.”

Jeff Sharlet: “100 years for Kissinger. 10,000 worthier lives—very few in history weren’t—snuffed out for every one. May they haunt the rotten cheese vapor that was the final condition of his soul. May every pol who paid him court shiver.”

Tim Shorrock: “Le Duc Tho outsmarted the hell out of Kissinger and refused his part of their joint Nobel Peace Prize knowing what a sick fuck the guy was.” Tim also quoted Dylan: “And I’ll stand over your grave ’til I’m sure that you’re dead.” (“Masters of War.”)

Mo Weeks: “Everybody is celebrating Kissinger dying and no one is thinking about the low wage workers forced to build an entire new level of hell at depths never reached before. You guys are so anti-labor.”

Greg Grandin: “Every year, a significant number of unexploded bombs laying in fields in Laos and Cambodia detonate. In other words, even in death, Kissinger is still killing people.”

James Mackenzie: “Pretty unfair that Kissinger got to spend the last weeks of his life watching what he loved the most (massive bombing campaigns against civilian populations).”

from Greg Mitchell, Best Early Reactions to Death of Henry Kissinger, War Criminal, 30 November 2023


Lucian K. Truscott IV: “I sat next to him at an Upper East Side dinner party once in the late 70’s. I felt like I was drowning in a lake of crude oil with a legion of alligators snapping at me.”

In the Sistine Chapel, Gore Vidal once came upon Henry Kissinger “gazing thoughtfully” at the Hell section of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. “Look,” said Vidal to a friend, “he’s apartment hunting.”


‘Screwing the World’, David Levine, 1984


A Historical Perspective

It was one of the most quotable quotes of the 20th century. When asked about the influence of the French Revolution, the late premier Zhou Enlai is reputed to have said: ‘Too early to say.’

If that was what he really meant, it was a perfectly pompous answer. But somehow, coming as it did from China’s foremost diplomat, it sounded profound. It became an example of the patient and far-sighted nature of Chinese leaders, who thought in centuries, as opposed to the short-termism of Western democratic politicians.

It now appears he was responding to a very different question. He was apparently not commenting on the French Revolution of 1789 [法國大革命], but the much more recent French students’ revolts in 1968 [法國革命]. The misunderstanding appeared to be related to the French Revolution and the Paris Commune of 1871 because those were the historical references the Paris students used to compare themselves with. In this context, Zhou’s answer was sensible but perfectly prosaic.

How do we know this? Richard Nixon’s translator was there in the early 1970s and now decides to put the record straight. At a recent seminar in Washington on Henry Kissinger’s new book, On China, Chas Freeman said it was a misunderstanding ‘too delicious’ to correct.

Such misunderstandings of Chinese leaders are not exceptional. Some misquotes are just too good to be corrected. The late Deng Xiaoping never said ‘To get rich is glorious’, but it so captured the ethos of the new bare-knuckle capitalist China that it stuck.

It’s been said people who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Well, let’s first agree on what history we are talking about.

Not letting the facts ruin a good story, South China Morning Post, 15 June 2011


Source: AP, from Politico


The Six Myths Kissinger Created About Himself — That Everyone Fell For

His actual record on China policy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. When it came to China, Henry Kissinger was more of a romantic than a realist.

James Mann


James Mann is the author of About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship with China from Nixon to Clinton. He is a member of the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.


The outpouring of obituaries for Henry Kissinger by and large have fallen into two categories. First, there are the Great Man elite-columnist obits, some of which recount the writers’ personal relationships with Kissinger. Second, there are the evildoer obits, retelling, usually accurately, Kissinger’s misdeeds, from Cambodia to Chile to the Indian subcontinent.

What struck me, though, is how so many of the obits accepted without question Kissinger’s own memes and narratives — the series of very broad, misleading stories and lies he constructed about himself throughout his career. This was particularly true when it comes to China. Much of the hagiography of Kissinger, even when it acknowledges his deadly policies in places like Vietnam and Cambodia, has tended to credit him with being a visionary statesman and architect of the opening to China.

In the course of writing several books, I’ve examined Kissinger’s record through archives, Freedom of Information Act lawsuits and the memoirs of those who worked with him, and those sources tell stories that vary, sometimes in fundamental ways, with the flattering narratives that Kissinger penned in his memoirs or plied to friendly columnists.

So let’s set the record straight.

The opening to China was not Kissinger’s initiative.

The driving force behind the decision to reestablish diplomatic relations with Beijing wasn’t Kissinger; it was President Richard Nixon. In fact, Kissinger was at first astonished by the idea and even snide about it. Alexander Haig, who was Kissinger’s deputy in 1969, recorded in his own memoir how, a few weeks after Nixon took office, Kissinger emerged from a meeting with Nixon and told him, “Our Leader has taken leave of reality. He thinks this is the moment to establish normal relations with Communist China. He has just ordered me to make this flight of fancy come true.” In Haig’s description, Kissinger then grasped his head in his hands and said in astonishment, “China!”

It became Kissinger’s role to carry out Nixon’s initiative, which he proceeded to do, often skillfully but also often mendaciously. But it wasn’t his idea, and it took a bit of time before he embraced it.

Kissinger lied about the most fundamental, consequential aspect of his secret trip to China.

The lie was about Taiwan. For decades, the principal source of information about what happened on Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing in 1971 was Kissinger’s own account in his memoirs. In it, he wrote that Taiwan “was only mentioned briefly” during his first, groundbreaking meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.

In 2002, the record of that Kissinger encounter with Zhou was declassified and released. It showed that, contrary to “barely mentioned,” the subject of Taiwan had taken up roughly the first third of the meeting. What’s more, Kissinger made crucial concessions during that discussion that have governed and constrained American policy towards China and Taiwan from then until the present day. Before Kissinger’s trip, the official position of the United States was that sovereignty over Taiwan was “an unsettled question.” But Kissinger promised Zhou that the United States would not support two Chinese governments (one in Beijing, one in Taipei); that it would also not agree to a solution of “one China, one Taiwan”; and, finally, that it would not support an independent Taiwan.

Were these concessions ones that had to be made for the opening to China to proceed? That’s not clear, and some people think not. Remember that America’s opening to China was also China’s opening to the United States — that at the time, China, desperately poor and in an increasingly militarized conflict with the Soviet Union, eagerly wanted a new relationship with the United States. So in retrospect, it’s not clear that Kissinger needed to have made such a significant concession so early in the discussions.

The late Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, a highly respected Georgetown University historian, examined the opening to China in a scholarly article and concluded: “Nixon and Kissinger wanted so intensely to realize their goal that they surrendered more than was necessary to achieve, and the price was paid, not in the near term by the Nixon White House, but over the long term by the people of Taiwan and by U.S. diplomacy writ large.” Tucker concluded that “the president and his national security advisor viewed Taiwan as dispensable.”

Kissinger left out the parts of his China diplomacy that failed.

The declassified records show that there were aspects of Kissinger’s China diplomacy that were either unsuccessful or downright embarrassing and thus not disclosed. In 1995, after a five-year battle, the Los Angeles Times (where I worked at the time) won a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain a secret, previously classified study by the U.S. intelligence community of early American negotiations with China. The study showed that Nixon and Kissinger wanted help from China in resolving the Vietnam War, help that they never got. In early 1972, they asked Beijing to bring North Vietnam’s peace negotiator Le Duc Tho to China for talks on Chinese soil in the middle of Nixon’s historic trip. China rebuffed the overture.

In the category of simply embarrassing behavior, the secret U.S. intelligence study quoted Kissinger as exclaiming at one point during the historic Nixon visit in 1972, “After a dinner of Peking duck, I’ll agree to anything.” Yet Kissinger became enamored of China in ways that look seriously wrong today. In one secret 1973 memo to Nixon, he offered this startling proposition: “We are now in the extraordinary situation that, with the exception of the United Kingdom, the PRC might well be closest to us in its global perceptions. No other world leaders have the sweep and imagination of Mao and Chou.”

It was Henry Kissinger who saw himself as an intermediary far more often than American presidents or secretaries of state wanted him to play that role. | Wong Maye-E/AP

Kissinger’s role as an intermediary for presidents and world leaders was largely self-appointed.

Some of the obituaries and other stories about Kissinger’s death have described Kissinger as an intermediary between the United States and other countries, particularly China, after he left government. This notion seems to imply that American officials asked Kissinger to serve as an interlocutor — but that was usually not the case. Instead, Kissinger tended to insert himself as go-between, without being asked and even when unwanted.

Kissinger’s method of operation was this: He would travel on his own to China, often for commercial purposes. When he obtained audiences with Chinese leaders, he would take it upon himself to tell them what U.S. officials in Washington were saying and thinking. Then, back in the United States, he would show up at the White House or State Department and volunteer to tell American officials the thinking in Beijing. He sometimes did the same in Moscow, inserting himself unasked into ongoing Soviet or Russian diplomacy with the United States.

After being cast out of office in 1976 (after Jimmy Carter was elected president), he was repeatedly trying to get back in. At the 1980 Republican National Convention, he was one of the architects of a proposed deal in which former President Gerald Ford would become Ronald Reagan’s vice presidential nominee. Under the deal, Ford was to be co-president — and, in a provision many have forgotten, Kissinger was to return as Secretary of State and be granted complete control over American foreign policy. The Reagan team said no thanks. After Reagan became president, Kissinger secretly advised Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that “the Reagan administration had no coherent program to deal with the Soviet Union because Reagan had never thought about it seriously,” according to Dobrynin’s memoir. After George H.W. Bush won the 1988 election, and before he even took office, Kissinger proposed to the president-elect and his team that he take over Soviet diplomacy as the incoming administration’s principal emissary to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. That was too much for incoming Secretary of State James Baker, who scuttled Kissinger’s idea.

In short, it was Kissinger who saw himself as an intermediary far more often than American presidents or secretaries of state wanted him to play that role.

The Kissinger testimonials inflated his role in diplomacy with China until the end.

Some of the recent coverage of Kissinger’s death has suggested that he played a role in bringing about the recent flurry of high-level contacts between the Biden administration and China. This is said to have been based on Kissinger’s own visit to Beijing last summer.

But once again, the facts say otherwise. Kissinger visited China in mid-July. By that time, the Biden administration had already sent Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to Beijing, and discussion was already under way for Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping to visit the United States in November. Kissinger played no role in this diplomacy. If anything, his role was that, as in the past, the Chinese regime seized on Kissinger as a way of guilt-tripping Americans, sending the message that the United States has strayed from the good old days when American policy was to keep Beijing happy.

On China, Kissinger wasn’t as much of a realist as he claimed.

Of course, the obituaries characterize Henry Kissinger as a foreign policy realist. Philosophically, he was. And indeed, in many parts of the world, as his critics accurately note in the obits, Kissinger operated as a cold-blooded, even brutal realist.

But when it came to China, Kissinger was more of a romantic than a realist. During the opening to China his attachment to the Chinese regime became deeply personalized and emotional. (Later on, it became commercialized as well.) Nixon was far more the detached realist on China than Kissinger; in his later writings, the former president warned that China could rise to become a formidable adversary of the United States. Kissinger until his death resisted the idea that China was a U.S. adversary.

Consider one of Kissinger’s private memos to Nixon about China, this one after a 1973 visit to Beijing in which he met Mao Tse-tung. Mao, he wrote, “radiates authority and deep wisdom. … I was even more impressed by the grandeur of the Chairman this time than last. One can easily imagine the power and intelligence of this man in his prime.”

That is hardly the dispassionate judgment of a realist.

Henry Kissinger was many things, and his impact on U.S. foreign policy was significant and enduring. But when it comes to China in particular, his reputation is largely a result of his own myth-making. His actual record on China is much less flattering, a record that unfortunately rarely emerged in his obituaries.