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

Whereas Kissinger knew how to seduce, Morgenthau was always forthright and outspoken, which was not the way to get ahead in Washington. Once he declared his opposition to American intervention in Vietnam and aired his unorthodox views about Communism, he became persona non grata in policymaking circles. And as the war in Vietnam ground on, he was brought close to despair over his powerlessness. “For those who have made it their business in life to speak truth to power, there is nothing left but to continue so to speak,” he wrote with bitterness in 1970, but “certainly with less confidence that it will in the short run make much of a difference in the affairs of man.” At his lowest, he came close to doubting the importance of reason itself. “The great issues of our day are not susceptible to rational solutions within the existing system of power relations.”

It would hardly have been surprising if Morgenthau, like so many others, had resented Kissinger, not only for his success but also for the fact that his success had been achieved through the kind of dissembling and calculated ambiguity that did not come naturally to Morgenthau. Yet that wasn’t Morgenthau’s reaction. Kissinger, he said approvingly, was a “first-rate scholar” who was able to acquire and hold “great power with the same brilliance.” To be sure, Morgenthau acknowledged that Kissinger did “very little that was not oriented toward . . . his personal power,” but personal advancement wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in his mind, and he admired Kissinger’s ability to operate successfully in the toxic, backstabbing environment that was the nation’s capital. Kissinger was no ordinary intellectual, helpless in the corridors of power. He knew how to adapt to the exigencies of politics. “Inevitably,” Morgenthau wrote, “if your ambition is not limited to scholarship but extends to the political sphere, you have to trim your sails to the prevailing winds.” Kissinger, he said, had trimmed his sails, but with “sagacity and decency,” and he reproached envious academics who saw nothing but opportunism and careerism. Much of the criticism of Kissinger, he insisted, was “unabashedly self-serving.”

Morgenthau never forgot a comment President Kennedy had once made to him after he had written something critical about the administration. “You should sit where I do,” Kennedy said to him. “He had a point,” Morgenthau conceded, and he went on to write thoughtful essays on the ways in which intellectuals and politicians both overlapped and differed, and about the hopeless complexities of “the collaboration problem.”

Intellectuals were important to policymaking, providing concepts and perspective, but they operated on the basis of different values from politicians. Scholars engaged with ideas; their aim was to be as intelligent as they could, and to present their arguments cogently. Statesmen had different goals. “The intellectual seeks truth,” Morgenthau said, “the politician power.” But Morgenthau was quick to add that this difference did not make the intellectual superior to the politician because power was an inescapable reality while the abstruse pursuit of truth carried burdens of its own. The politician was obliged to deal with facts, not theories, and facts had a tendency to “make mincemeat of the wrong ideas.” Intellectuals could be very smart without necessarily being especially wise, or even wise at all. The politician required “practical wisdom,” whereas the scholar or intellectual “may be intelligent without being wise in the ways of the world.”

Unlike the intellectual, the statesman or politician could not afford to operate from a position of absolutes. The real world was contradictory, unpredictable, tragic. Morgenthau was fond of a comment of Goethe’s “that the one who acts is always unjust and that nobody has justice but the one who observes.” Morgenthau came to amend this bleak thought, especially after his experience with the Vietnam War, insisting that there must be at least “an element of justice” in “the one who acts,” though he continued to believe that a straightforward or naïve commitment to justice in the world of facts was foolhardy at best. Ethical adjustments were always demanded by the real world. Two qualities, he said, were essential to the statesman: a sense of limits and “a commitment to a grand design,” which gave his policies an overall purpose. Intellectuals did not necessarily possess either of these qualities, and the ability to combine intellectuality and power was rare indeed. Morgenthau cited two examples from American history: the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln. Henry Kissinger, apparently, was a third. Morgenthau wasn’t saying that Kissinger achieved the level of a Jefferson or Lincoln, but he did believe that Kissinger was a great statesman, one of the very greatest the United States had ever known. When their mutual friend John Stoessinger wrote a book-length apologia of Kissinger’s policies, Morgenthau called it “by far the best book written about Henry Kissinger.”


CONFRONTED WITH the intimidating realities of power, Morgenthau said, the intellectual could choose among four possible courses. He could retreat into an ivory tower to preserve his “purity” (as well as his self-righteousness). He could, as an alternative, adopt a position of “prophetic confrontation” in opposition to government policy. The first of these attained virtue of a cloistered sort, but only by denying power altogether. The second performed a traditional task of the intellectual, which was to speak truth to power, but it risked the danger of impracticality (“you should sit where I do”), along with its own form of sanctimoniousness. Once the Vietnam War heated up, Morgenthau was thrust into the second position, though it wasn’t what he wanted or expected for himself.