‘Of course, these people are murderous thugs, but this should not affect our good relations.’
— Henry Kissinger
Saturday 27th May 2023 marks the centenary of Henry A. Kissinger.
The advanced years of this notorious diplomat, political theorist and profit-hungry geopolitical consultant puts the lie to two oft-quoted Confucian axioms:
- ‘The good live long’ 仁者壽 (The Analects 論語·雍也); and,
- ‘Those possessed of outstanding virtue will surely enjoy longevity’ 大德必得其壽 (The Mean 中庸).
Kissinger’s genetic makeup, well-cushioned lifestyle and unwavering self-belief have daresay all contributed to his earthly persistence, although those familiar with the Chinese world may have their suspicions. His recognised acumen in The Art of Thick Skin and Black Heart 厚黑學 hoù hēi xué may have contributed to a certain sempiternal resilience, just as the one hundred trips that he has made to the People’s Republic over the span of half a century as policy wrangler and opportunistic businessman may have allowed him access to the 981 Longevity Project at PLA Hospital #301 in Beijing. That project aims to extend the lives of Communist Party Leaders to 150 years. Even with the combined scientific wiles of East and West, however, we are confident that Henry A. won’t be able to score another half century.
‘… the pudgy man standing in black tie at the Vogue party is not, surely, the man who 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? Oh, but he is. It’s exactly the same man. And that may be among the most nauseating reflections of all. 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.’
— Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, 2001
During the northern summer of 2022, I was invited to join a new China think tank — one that would go on to advertise itself as a ‘do-tank’. A generous donation had led to a flurry of appointments. To my mind, however, the venture seemed ill-conceived and intellectually incoherent. My express concerns went unaddressed and, when the prospective ‘team’ of ‘do-tankers’ was advised that the launch of the new initiative would be marked by a conversation between the founder of the enterprise and Henry Kissinger on 1 October 2022, I knew that it was not for me.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
27 May 2023
- Henry Alfred Kissinger died on 29 November 2023. See Ben Rhodes, Henry Kissinger, the Hypocrite, The New York Times, 30 November 2023; and, for a historian’s succinct view of Kissinger’s less-than-profound understanding of China, see Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Diplomatic Immunity?, Time Magazine, 13 June 2011.
Related Material in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium:
- Appendix V 朝 — Nixon in China, 21-28 February 2022 (this appendix consists of eight sections: 蒞 — Nixon’s Press Corps; 迓 — ‘Welcome to China, Mr. President!’; 撼 — A Week That Changed The World; 鞭 — The President & The Chairman in Retrospect; 迥 — Dissing Dissent; 見 — A storied Handshake, an excised Interpreter & a muted Anthem; and, 有目共睹 — Fools with Initiative)
- Ted Koppel on Covering—and Befriending—Henry Kissinger, The New Yorker, 3 June 2023
When the Chairman Met Nancy
I saw the following short news report of Kissinger’s December 1975 visit to Beijing during a stint at a people’s commune in Minhang, Shanghai. We watched it on the small TV set up by a creek where the village regularly gathered for entertainment and political rallies:
After shaking hands with the 1.93-metre Nancy, Kissinger’s second wife, Mao turned to Kissinger with a leer before giving them the thumbs up.
A loud guffaw went up in our little band of viewers after one lad shouted: ‘Our Great Leader is wondering how they fuck!’
Kissinger Cosplay as Candide
In September 2011, Henry Kissinger, who enthused over the ‘Sing Red, Strike Hard’ campaign of Chongqing Party Secretary and Politburo member Bo Xilai declared:
‘I’ll be back in fifteen years. By then I’ll be over a hundred old and you’ll be able to show me what you’ve made of Chongqing.’
Four months later, Bo Xilai’s time was up.
‘Kissinger projects a strong impression of a man at home in the world and on top of his brief. But there are a number of occasions when it suits him to pose as a sort of Candide: naive, and ill-prepared for and easily unhorsed by events. No doubt this pose costs him something in point of self-esteem. It is a pose, furthermore, which he often adopts at precisely the time when the record shows him to be knowledgeable, and when knowledge or foreknowledge would also confront him with charges of responsibility or complicity.’
— from Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger
My brother Scot and I saw Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a 1964 film by Stanley Kubrick, during its initial Sydney release. Although it had a lot to do with the anti-war and anti-nuke culture of the 1960s, there was no direct link to Kissinger that is, at least until 1972, when Henry’s role in Washington-Beijing diplomacy under Nixon and Mao was revealed. That was followed by the escalation of (barely covert) war in Laos and Cambodia, the 1973 coup in Chile, the massacre in East Timor, events in Iran, and so on and so forth, all of which bore the unmistakable imprimatur of Kissinger.
Henceforth, to my mind at least, Dr. Strangelove/Henry Kissinger was a palimpsest personality.
Dr. Strangelove’s ‘astonishingly good idea’
As a commentary in The Guardian observed:
…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.
Henry and China — decouple that!
from Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001)
… [T]here is a perfect congruence between Kissinger’s foreign policy counsel and his own business connections. One might call it a harmony of interests, rather than a conflict.
Six years after he left office, Kissinger set up a private consulting firm named Kissinger Associates, which exists to smooth and facilitate contact between multinational corporations and foreign governments. The client list is secret, and contracts with “the Associates” contain a clause prohibiting any mention of the arrangement, but corporate clients include or have included American Express, Shearson Lehmann, Arco, Daewoo of South Korea, H.J. Heinz, ITT Lockheed, Anheuser-Busch, the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, Coca-Cola, Fiat, Revlon, Union Carbide, and the Midland Bank.
Kissinger’s initial fellow “associates” were General Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger, both of whom had worked closely with him in the foreign policy and national security branches of government.
Numerous instances of a harmony between this firm and Kissinger’s policy pronouncements can be cited. The best-known is probably that of the People’s Republic of China. Kissinger assisted several American conglomerates, notably H.J. Heinz, to gain access to the Chinese market. As it was glowingly phrased by Anthony J.F. O’Reilly, CEO of Heinz:
Kissinger and his associates make a real contribution, and we think they are particularly helpful in countries with more centrally planned economies, where the principal players and the dynamics among the principal players are of critical importance. This is particularly true in China, where he is a popular figure and is viewed with particular respect. On China, basically, we were well on our way to establishing the baby food presence there before Henry got involved. But once we decided to move he had practical points to offer, such as on the relationship between Taiwan and Beijing. He was helpful in seeing that we did not take steps that would not have been helpful in Beijing. His relevance obviously varies from market to market, but he’s probably at his best in helping with contacts in that shadowy world where that counts.
The Chinese term for this zone of shadowy transactions is guan-xi. In less judgmental American speech it would probably translate as “access,” or influence-peddling. Selling baby food in China may seem innocuous enough, but when the Chinese regime turned its guns and tanks on its own children in Tienanmen Square in 1989, it had no more staunch defender than Henry Kissinger. Arguing very strongly against sanctions, he wrote that “China remains too important for America’s national security to risk the relationship on the emotions of the moment.” Taking the Deng Xiaoping view of the democratic turbulence, and even the view of those we now suppose to have pressed Deng from the Right, he added, “No government in the world would have tolerated having the main square of its capital occupied for eight weeks by tens of thousands of demonstrators.” Of course, some governments would have found a way to meet with the leaders of those demonstrators. … It is perhaps just as well that Kissinger’s services were not retained by the Stalinist regimes of Romania, Czechoslovakia and East Germany, which succumbed to just such public insolence later in the same year.
Nor was Kissinger’s influence-peddling confined to Heinz’s nutritious products. He assisted Atlantic Richfield/Arco to market oil deposits in China. He helped ITT (a corporation which had once helped him to overthrow the elected government of Chile) to hold a path-breaking board meeting in Beijing, and he performed similar services for David Rockefeller and the Chase Manhattan Bank, which held an international advisory committee meeting in the Chinese capital and met with Deng himself.
Six months before the massacre in Tienanmen Square, Kissinger set up a limited investment partnership named China Ventures, of which he personally was chairman, CEO and chief partner. Its brochure helpfully explained that China Ventures involved itself only with projects that “enjoy the unquestioned support of the People’s Republic of China.” The move proved premature: the climate for investment on the Chinese mainland soured after the repression that followed the Tienanmen Square massacres, and the limited sanctions approved by Congress. This no doubt contributed to Kissinger’s irritation at the criticism of Deng. But while China Ventures lasted, it drew large commitments from American Express, Coca-Cola, Heinz and a large mining and extraction conglomerate named Freeport McMoRan… .
Many of Kissinger’s most extreme acts have been undertaken, at least ostensibly, in the name of anti-Communism. So it is amusing to find him exerting himself on behalf of a regime that can guarantee safe investment by virtue of a ban on trade unions, a slave-labor prison system, and a one-party ideology.
‘It would be a drag for Henry Kissinger to live to a hundred and Christopher to keel over next year.’
— Carol Blue, Christopher Hitchens’s wife, in 2006
A Self-styled Metternich
— from the 1972 interview with Oriana Fallaci
Fallaci: I suppose that at the root of everything there’s your success. I mean, like a chess player, you’ve made two or three good moves. China, first of all. People like chess players who checkmate the king.
Kissinger: Yes, China has been a very important element in the mechanics of my success. And yet that’s not the main point. The main point. .. Well, yes, I’ll tell you. What do I care? The main point arises from the fact that I’ve always acted alone. Americans like that immensely. Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into the town, the village, with his horse and nothing else. Maybe even without a pistol, since he doesn’t shoot. He acts, that’s all, by being in the right place at the right time. In short, a Western.
Fallaci: I see. You see yourself as a kind of Henry Fonda, unarmed and ready to fight with his fists for honest ideals. Alone, courageous …
Kissinger: Not necessarily courageous. In fact, this cowboy doesn’t have to be courageous. All he needs is to be alone, to show others that he rides into the town and does everything by himself. This amazing, romantic character suits me precisely because to be alone has always been part of my style or, if you like, my technique. Together with independence. Oh, that’s very important in me and for me. And finally, conviction. I’ve always been convinced that I had to do whatever I’ve done. And people feel it, and believe in it. And I care about the fact that they believe in me when you sway or convince somebody, you shouldn’t confuse them. Nor can you even simply calculate. Some people think that I carefully plan what are to be the consequences, for the public, of any of my initiatives or efforts. They think this preoccupation is always on my mind. Instead the consequences of what I do, I mean the public’s judgment, 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. I’m referring to what’s genuine in me. 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.
— Fallaci, Oriana, Interview with History, Liverlight Press, pp.40-41
‘The single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press.’
— Henry A. Kissinger