Historian takes on a weighty task: Understanding Kissinger

Untitled Document by Brian Mattmiller, UW Communications

When Jeremi Suri received an email in February 2004 with the imposing subject
line, “A Message from Dr. Henry Kissinger,” his first thought was: “Which
colleague is pulling my leg?”

It turned out to be the real deal – a message from the statesman’s assistant,
indicating Kissinger would like to meet promptly in New York with the historian.

“Like the meek intellectual, I said I’ll be there when Dr. Kissinger
wants me to be there,” says Suri, a UW-Madison history professor and expert
on post-World War II global politics.

That exchange opened an opportunity of a lifetime for Suri. Since then, he
has met on nearly a dozen occasions with the former secretary of state and
immersed himself in Kissinger’s historical archives in the both the United
States and Europe. The end result will be a thorough biography – tentatively
titled “Henry Kissinger and the American Century” – examining one
of the most influential and polarizing figures of the modern era.

Suri says he knew that first meeting would be rather awkward. Kissinger was
angry about his portrayal in Suri’s 2003 book “Power and Protest,” which
explored the rise of d�tente in the early 1970s. Suri’s
critique of the policy, largely the brainchild of Kissinger, was unflattering,
arguing the policy was meant to prop up the status quo and that U.S. and Soviet
leaders “colluded to contain their own citizens.”

But Suri found in Kissinger not just a man who wanted to argue a point, but
someone much more deeply concerned with his legacy. Few people in American
politics, in fact, have inspired such mixed perceptions about their impact
on the world.

Kissinger served as national security advisor and secretary of state during
the most tumultuous period in modern history (1969-1977) and his work produced
a blueprint for a world order that largely still exists. He opened nascent
relations with China. Nearly every foreign policy figure after him – Brent
Scowcroft, George Shultz, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell – have direct lineage
to Kissinger’s tenure.

And remarkably, at age 82, he’s still in the game. His consulting firm, Kissinger
and Associates, has clients all over the world, most notably in China and the
Middle East. He still commands the ability to win friends and broker deals
with corporate and political bigwigs across the globe, says Suri.

On the other hand, his policies in Vietnam, South America and other hotspots
have been seen as human rights debacles, with one author in particular arguing
they are tantamount to war crimes. Suri says Kissinger’s highly secretive,
back-door dealing created deep distrust, and Kissinger has, by his own admission,
lied as a tactic to “reach greater ends.”

“He’s suspicious and concerned about his historical reputation,” says
Suri. “I’m also convinced that he’s a very troubled man – that he has
his nightmares, his ghosts.”

Suri says those troubles apparently do not stem from guilt or regret, but
a sense that he had a “moral obligation” to make the world a better
place and sees scant evidence of that goal. One of the key elements of his
book will be in addressing Kissinger’s relentless motivation, exploring why
he’s still driven to be a player at age 82.

“A lot of it has to do with the immigrant experience,” says Suri. “He
comes from a society – Weimar, Germany in the 1930s – that was one of the most
advanced democratic societies of its time, that collapses under a group of
Nazi extremists. He sees the weakness of democracy, and he sees how quickly
a person can fall from a position of respectability to a position of almost
being killed.

“There is no possibility of retirement or relaxation for him, because
he’s never achieved enough, he’s never secure.”

Kissinger’s politics, for the most part, are sharply defined by that immigrant
experience. His family escaped the Nazis through the good fortune of leaving
his native town of Fuerth, Germany in 1938, but many of his relatives were

“Fundamental to Kissinger’s perception of the world is that democracies
are weak and they wait too long to act,” Suri says. “September 11
would be one example. Pearl Harbor, Munich in 1938, the Korean War.”

Based on this perception, Suri argues that Kissinger’s policies placed security
above human rights, and security comes from meaningful relationships among
states – even those states with a track record of treachery.

“His argument is that the lesser of two evils is better than empty human
rights rhetoric,” Suri says. “That is the standard position of people
from his generation. They came out of World War II, when the isolationists
were talking about human rights and those who went to war were not. And they
were the ones who defeated the Nazis.”

Suri says that Kissinger is “a wonderfully interesting person to talk
to,” but can also be manipulative and is always “spinning” his
image. “It’s not like I really interview him – he takes control of the
conversation,” Suri says. “I have to be more in tune with what he
wants to say.”

Suri was surprised that once he gets access to Kissinger, he devotes a lot
of time and becomes remarkably engaged. Kissinger has shown a lot of interest
in the book, but seems to both respect and fear Suri’s scholarly approach.
Not even Kissinger is entirely sure what Suri will unearth in the archives.

“I see my book as the first stab at trying to understand him,” Suri

“One thing I’m sure of from talking to him,” Suri adds. “He
still thinks he has the best ideas on foreign policy, and he still thinks he’s
needed. He doesn’t have the kind of modesty that comes with older age.”