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

The other two courses accepted power, even cooperated with it, but in very different ways. The third path for the intellectual was to surrender his independence and in an act of cowardice become a propagandist for authority—or, to employ Kissinger’s framework, to yield to bureaucratic demands by just following orders and becoming a cog in the machine. Morgenthau was all too aware of the cowardice of intellectuals, not only from his days in Weimar Germany but also from his lonely opposition to Vietnam. Some supporters of the war, he wrote, “have attacked their dissenting colleagues with unaccustomed violence and with arguments as tortuous and inconsistent as to be inexplicable on purely intellectual grounds.” These scholars had ceased to be intellectuals and turned themselves into ideologues, tools of mere force, and at their worst they applied their intelligence to providing rationales for the state’s brute coercions.

Morgenthau’s fourth course, perhaps the most difficult, was to “enter the political process as an expert,” hoping to influence policy with the intellectual’s conceptual apparatus, but accepting the restrictions with which officials were obliged to operate. The result could never be entirely satisfying because compromises with one’s theories were always necessary, sometimes painful. Policies “are bound to fall short of the logical consistency and theoretical purity that are the earmarks of the intellectual detached from action.” The best that the intellectual in government could do to maintain his integrity was to try to put truth to the service of power, understanding that even if the achievement of perfect justice was never possible, he could still provide practical advice about the uses of power for legitimate ends. For instance, politicians could be helped to avoid yielding to the constant temptation to substitute power for reason instead of joining the two, or advised on how much power was required for the situation at hand, avoiding the excesses that came all too easily to the wielders of military might. It was the job of the intellectual in the White House to remind the president “of the brittleness of power, of its arrogance and blindness, of its limits and pitfalls.” For the intellectual to lose sight of truth was to capitulate to power instead of serving it.

But with all the inevitable compromises and adjustments to reality, how was it possible to know if one had made so many concessions as to become a mere tool of power? It was, Morgenthau said, “only a small step” to the intellectual bankruptcy of capitulation. His answer seems to have been that there is no definitive answer to this eternal question, no moral formula one could rely on. In a world without absolutes, each individual had to be judged according to the circumstances of his particular situation, and for this reason, the historian had more to teach about statesmanship than the quantifying social scientist.

In the specific case of Henry Kissinger, Morgenthau’s judgment was generous. “What manner of man” was he? Morgenthau asked. Kissinger had the “ability to move, as it were, on two disparate levels of discourse.” So with regard to Vietnam, for example, Kissinger implemented a policy that most of his friends opposed, but acted “decently” toward them, much more so than many other supporters of the war. Kissinger “never stooped to personal attacks and tried to avoid public polemics altogether.” More broadly, he was able to retain his integrity as an intellectual in government because for all of the criticisms that might legitimately be directed against his particular policies (often leveled by Morgenthau himself), in the larger scheme of things he always acted out of “deeply rooted convictions” as well as a coherent body of doctrine. There was substance behind all of the showmanship and celebrity. Morgenthau’s Kissinger was no mere opportunist. “What Kissinger does is informed by that body of doctrine, and the energy with which he does it is nourished by the depth of his convictions.” Morgenthau would have had no difficulty believing Kissinger when he wrote: “If the moral basis of my service were lost, public life would have no meaning for me.”


WHAT DID Morgenthau mean by Kissinger’s “body of doctrine”? For that matter, what did Kissinger mean by “the moral basis” of his public service? It was a quirk of Morgenthau’s analytic style always to break down a subject into components—three aspects, four features, five elements—and in the case of Kissinger’s doctrine, he saw four parts. First, and most important, was the goal of minimizing the risk of nuclear war; no objective was more important than this one. The second was creating and maintaining a balance of power that would serve the first goal, and also reduce the possibility of conventional war. The third component, related to the second, was acknowledging that, like the United States, other nations had their own vital interests, which a rational foreign policy was bound to respect. Finally, Kissinger’s fourth goal was to seek to intertwine the vital interests of the various nations into a peaceful status quo so that “the institutionalization of common interests must gradually take the sting out of surviving hostile confrontations.” The eternal pessimist, Morgenthau had his doubts about the fourth component, but as the father of realism in America, he could only admire and applaud the first three. The two German Jewish realists spoke the same language, and Morgenthau’s appreciation of Kissinger’s public career was on an entirely different level from that of most of Kissinger’s detractors, or even most of his admirers. It was as if Morgenthau and Kissinger were talking to each other alone, speaking the language of realism while relegating everyone else to the sidelines as naïve kibitzers.