Kissinger's Moral Example

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger at the White House, October 1973. Flickr/Central Intelligence Agency

Kissinger examined whether intellectuals should get their hands dirty making policy, or preserve their integrity at the price of influence.

May-June 2017

What got lost in the process was any vision, any sense of overall purpose, as well as any individual responsibility for defining goals and setting direction. “Neither Churchill nor Lincoln nor Roosevelt was the product of a staff.” The modern bureaucracy simply rolled along according to its own predetermined rules, with no more head and no more heart than any other well-oiled machine. Kissinger called the ideal bureaucrat a “commissar,” and by that he didn’t mean only placeholders in the Soviet Union, but bureaucrats in the United States as well. The commissar/bureaucrat was any administrator “whose world is defined by regulations, in whose making he had no part, and whose substance does not concern him, to whom reality is exhausted by the organization in which he finds himself.” The mentality of the commissar could result in the deaths of thousands, “without love and without hatred.” And even if the outcome was not murderous, the placeholder’s “impact on national policy is pernicious.”

Standing against this entrenched bureaucracy was the autonomous intellectual. Some intellectuals insisted on preserving their freedom by remaining outside the governmental apparatus, but these people Kissinger criticized for “perfectionism,” or for engaging in protest that “has too often become an end in itself.” Kissinger preferred the collaborators who chose public service. Intellectuals, Kissinger insisted, should “not refuse to participate in policymaking, for to do so would confirm the administrative stagnation.” Still, those who did choose public service had their own problems to deal with.

Faced with the demands of the bureaucracy, free-thinking intellectuals were constantly in danger of giving up their independence and becoming cogs in the machine. “In his desire to be helpful, the intellectual is too frequently compelled to sacrifice what should be his greatest contribution to society: his creativity.” How could the intellectual retain his status as an independent mind thinking outside the box and still function within the government structure? “It is difficult to generalize,” Kissinger concluded, but he urged the intellectual in government to try to maintain his dual role as both insider and outsider by withdrawing

from time to time to his library or his laboratory to “recharge his batteries.” If he fails to do so, he will turn into an administrator, distinguished from some of his colleagues only by having been recruited from the intellectual community.

Kissinger’s was a plea for “artistry” in the making of policy, and this was a concept he retained even after his years in government. In 1978, he told the scholar Walter Laqueur, “Foreign policy is a form of art and not a precise science,” but something, he added, “that some professors have great difficulty grasping.”


WHEN HE accepted Nixon’s offer to become national security advisor, Kissinger probably had in mind the model he outlined in “The Policymaker and the Intellectual.” We know that he hoped to continue to be an intellectual who advised on policy inside the White House while still living in the world of ideas and dealing in theories and abstractions; he expected to be able to avoid short-term problems. That expectation, he quickly learned, was a dream that could be imagined only by someone who had never had the responsibility of governing. Every problem, it turned out, was short-term. There was no time for thinking. “The convictions that leaders have formed before reaching high office,” an older and wiser Kissinger later observed, “are the intellectual capital they will consume as long as they continue in office.” And more lightly in one of his famous quips: “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” There would be no retreating to the library as long as Kissinger was in Washington, no recharging of batteries. “People,” he wrote, “do not grow in public office.”

Kissinger sent a copy of “The Policymaker and the Intellectual” to his friend Hans Morgenthau “with warm regards.” Morgenthau had his own interest in the collaboration question. The father of realist thinking in America held unorthodox views of Communism, refusing to accept the standard Cold War conviction that Communism was a centrally directed monolith. Morgenthau emphasized differences in culture, history and values, anticipating the Sino-Soviet split, and during the 1960s, he became one of the most outspoken critics of the Vietnam War. But he wasn’t really comfortable with his status as an outsider. Like Kissinger, he was an intellectual who had hoped to burst the bounds of the academic community and leave his imprint on American foreign policy. He may have been acclaimed on college campuses around the country for his classic work Politics Among Nations, but his impact on actual decisions was negligible. He dwelt in the world of theory, which is not where he wanted to be. For all of his intellectual stature, he felt frustrated.

As early as 1953 he was complaining to Walter Lippmann about his “isolation from the center of affairs.” To Robert Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago, he wrote, “There is virtually no possibility for a friendly critic of American foreign policy, such as myself, to make his voice heard by the educated American public.” He stood on the outside of Lyndon Johnson’s tent, though not by choice. The most influential magazine in his field, Foreign Affairs, was closed to him, refusing to publish his iconoclastic realpolitik pieces. Astoundingly, the publication’s longtime editor, Hamilton Fish Armstrong, called Morgenthau an “isolationist,” as well as “a propagandist and publicity seeker.” “The writer who speaks neither for the Establishment nor for any faction opposing it,” Morgenthau observed on the basis of painful experience, “has a hard time in placing what he writes.”