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 historian Robert Dallek, among others, has reproved Kissinger for his collaboration with Nixon, referring to “a Faustian bargain which should cast a long shadow over his historical reputation.” But for Kissinger, who rejected the ivory tower for the sake of a public career, the only choice involved was whether it was better to be inside the tent or outside. “If I resign,” he said jestingly, but not entirely in jest, “Nixon will have a heart attack and Agnew will be president.” (Kissinger wasn’t the only one who raised the troubling specter of a President Spiro Agnew. Nixon also worried about the presidential succession if he should fall ill or have an accident, and in July 1971, he discussed with Haldeman and Ehrlichman how they might go about getting rid of the vice president.) Kissinger’s point was that someone was going to be in the White House, someone was going to be making the life-and-death decisions. The power of the American government was not about to disappear if he retreated to a university or to some high-paying consultancy. Against his critics, Kissinger might have paraphrased Trotsky: you may not be interested in power, but power is interested in you. This is why, as the latest members of the foreign-policy establishment weigh working for Donald Trump, Kissinger’s past service, more than ever, offers numerous lessons for the present.

Barry Gewen is an editor at the New York Times Book Review.

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

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