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

YOU ARE offered a high-level position in the Trump administration with a chance to influence policy. Yet you share the view of almost everyone you know that Trump is an unpredictable leader with no core principles except what stokes his ego and augments his personal power. Should you accept the offer?

Two opposing camps are ready with advice, though what they have to say is not especially helpful. One camp demonizes Trump and believes that nothing good can come from any connection with him. Analogies with Hitler are never far from their lips. Their counsel is simple: steer clear. The other camp takes a different view. Go work for Trump because the position will burnish your résumé. You conduct yourself with aplomb and win praise for your professionalism. If Trump crashes and burns, you might even be applauded as someone who rose above it all.

But you disagree with all of the above premises. You do not equate Trump with Hitler. Nor are you so cynical or opportunistic as to make a major life decision merely in order to pad your résumé. You live in between those extremes. How, then, should you decide?

The question is as old as government itself. Indeed, two of the most serious thinkers in foreign policy, Henry Kissinger and his friend, mentor and frequent policy antagonist Hans Morgenthau, pondered the matter, examining it in depth. Their close analysis can provide valuable guidance, and is worth considering in any case, since the question is a perennial one, whether you are on the left or right, whether the president is a liberal, a conservative or Donald Trump.


IN LATE November 1968, when Richard Nixon asked Kissinger to become his national security advisor, Kissinger lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where a contemptuous attitude toward all things Nixonian was the ticket into polite Harvard society. Kissinger’s friends, among them such Democratic stalwarts as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith, were almost all committed liberals and, “to a man,” Kissinger said, had voted against Nixon. As it happened, Kissinger himself shared their view. Kissinger had been a loyal and dedicated aide to Nelson Rockefeller as well as a prominent fixture at the Council on Foreign Relations. Kissinger had been horrified by the rise of the Goldwater Right in the 1964 campaign and compared the convention at the Cow Palace in his diaries to the Nuremberg rallies. During the 1968 campaign, Kissinger had viewed Nixon with similar discomfort. He called Nixon “unfit to be president” and “a disaster” waiting to happen. Just before the Republican convention Kissinger said, “Richard Nixon is the most dangerous of all the men running to have as president.” (Such opinions didn’t prevent him from providing help to the Republicans during the campaign, but then nobody ever claimed that Henry Kissinger was straightforward.)

The prospect of going to work for Nixon thus raised age-old questions about the uses and abuses of power. How could Kissinger associate with a man who, he said, promised to be a “disaster”? Wasn’t this an unworthy, even objectionable use of his talents? What price was one willing to pay to be close to power? What sacrifices of personal honesty would be involved, not to mention personal dignity? Shortly before his meeting with Nixon in New York to discuss working for him, Kissinger was already pondering all this, even if nobody else was. In a conversation with the journalist Gloria Steinem, he wondered if it was better for someone to try to affect policy by working inside government, however distasteful the circumstances might be, or to preserve one’s independence and integrity at the price of influence by standing outside and criticizing—or in Lyndon Johnson’s memorable image, whether it was better to be inside the tent pissing out or outside the tent pissing in. Steinem urged Kissinger to write an article for New York Magazine to be entitled “The Collaboration Problem.”

In fact, Kissinger had already written just such an article in 1959, entitled “The Policymaker and the Intellectual.” At that time, with public office only a distant prospect, Kissinger didn’t address the question of moral compromise directly; his approach was dryer, more academic, focused on the universal human dilemmas arising from the restraints imposed by institutions. Employing a framework familiar to any student of Max Weber, he examined the tensions between the modern bureaucratic state and the independent, free-thinking intellectual. And much of what he said foreshadowed his later battles with the State Department.

Societies, he wrote, had become increasingly bureaucratized, with governmental departments divided into specialties and jobs stripped down to routinized tasks defined by organizational imperatives. A premium was placed on administrative and technical skills, while planning and policy were relinquished to committees of “experts,” who arrived at their decisions through consensus and compromise. “In this manner, policy is fragmented into a series of ad hoc decisions which make it difficult to achieve a sense of direction.” Kissinger reached for an analogy: “It is as if in commissioning a painting, a patron would ask one artist to draw the face, another the body, another the hands, and still another the feet, simply because each artist is particularly good in one category.”

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.”

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.

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.

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