What Kissinger Really Thought

Interviews with Norman Podhoretz and Elliott Abrams recreate the foreign-policy debates of the cold war, and illuminate Kissinger’s attitudes toward Israel and the Jewish people.

U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, and other Israeli cabinet ministers roar with laughter after she had been kissed by Kissinger at a party May 29th, 1974. Bettmann/Getty.

U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, and other Israeli cabinet ministers roar with laughter after she had been kissed by Kissinger at a party May 29th, 1974. Bettmann/Getty.

Observation
Dec. 6 2023
About the authors

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the chairman of the Tikvah Fund.

Norman Podhoretz served as editor-in-chief of Commentary from 1960 until his retirement in 1995. He is the author of twelve books, including My Love Affair with America (2000) and Why Jews are Liberals (2009). In 2004 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Jonathan Silver is the editor of Mosaic and the senior director of Tikvah Ideas, where he is also the Warren R. Stern Senior Fellow of Jewish Civilization.

When he died on November 29, 2023, Henry Kissinger had been one of the dominant voices in American foreign policy and global politics for half a century. A Jewish immigrant to the United States, Kissinger served in the U.S. Army and on the faculty of Harvard, and then went on to a consequential career in public service. He was the national security advisor and then the secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations, during which time he also won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was the author of over a dozen books.

Soon after Kissinger died, Mosaic’s editor, Jonathan Silver, discussed his life and legacy with two incisive commentators on American foreign policy, each of whom knew Kissinger for many decades. His conversation with Norman Podhoretz is directly below, and his conversation with Elliott Abrams follows.

 

Norman Podhoretz

 

Jonathan Silver:

I want to go back to the 1970s and see if we get a sense of your disagreement with Kissinger.

Norman Podhoretz:

Well, the essence of my disagreement with Henry was on the issue of détente. I did not accept the view of détente as a mechanism to keep the peace. I thought it was appeasement in disguise, and I passionately disapproved of that.

Jonathan Silver:

Why do you think he pursued that strategy?

Norman Podhoretz:

He believed in it. He believed that it was the only way to maintain peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union and to avoid nuclear war.

Jonathan Silver:

I wonder if you think that in those years he weighed the prospects of nuclear war more heavily than you did?

Norman Podhoretz:

I don’t think so. He did believe, according to his first published book, that their tactical nuclear weapons—which means simply, I think, nuclear weapons with less nuclear material in them—could be used legally, morally in a war. And many people agreed with that. I did not. However, I can give him this much credit as against my own interpretation of what was going on: looking back from this date, we have to agree that nuclear weapons did in fact ironically preserve the peace because of what we used to call MAD, mutually assured destruction.

Because of that, no one dared launch a preemptive first strike. And I think that without nuclear weapons, World War III would already have come and maybe gone. That’s an irony, but it’s not an irony that I perceived at the time.

Jonathan Silver:

Neoconservatism essentially began as an orientation toward domestic policy, but when it comes to its articulation of foreign policy, is it right to understand the version of neoconservatism that you championed at Commentary in those years as a response to Kissinger and détente?

Norman Podhoretz:

Yes. The Public Interest, which had been founded before I entered the lists, confined itself to domestic policy. It would not have had anything to say about foreign policy. And Commentary in effect took up that hole and filled it very aggressively. I still think that my understanding of the situation at the time was at the very least as plausible as the détentist interpretation. And we had to wait a long time, in fact we’re still waiting in a certain sense, to find out who was right.

Now, the very first time I met Henry Kissinger was at a small meeting of magazine editors at the State Department. I had shaken his hand in meetings, but this was our first real encounter. And with chutzpah that was characteristic of me in those days, I raised my hand and I said something to the effect of, “Are you a wolf disguised as a lamb or a lamb disguised as a wolf?” And he responded by glaring angrily at me, but never answered the question. Henry later denied my having asked that question, but I’ve been told by the note-taker who was present at that meeting that I did indeed ask it. And I was very proud of it.

Jonathan Silver:

What was it about détente that you objected to so strongly?

Norman Podhoretz:

I suppose it was my sense of what the Soviet Union was and what it was capable of doing. I took the theory of totalitarianism, which was relatively young at the time, very seriously. I thought that it was a profound truth about our current situation. And I thought that meant that the Soviet Union under Stalin was morally comparable or equivalent to Germany under Hitler. And I still think so. But obviously not only Kissinger, but the whole school of thought to which he belonged—they called them realists, practitioners of realpolitik—took the same view as Kissinger and almost everybody in the foreign-policy establishment did. My view and the view of those who agreed with me, not very many in those days, was that we were resisting the temptations that had led Britain and France in 1938 and 1939 in effect to allow Nazi Germany to invade Poland.

But they thought that the Soviet Union was what you might call a normal great power, that it was not expansionist, as we thought, that it was not intent on conquering more territory or intimidating other nations into giving it a free pass. We thought that it had to be taken very, very seriously.

It’s hard for me to project myself back into those days when the passions were raging and people were, though not explicitly, calling each other names in their own minds. “Well, you’re an appeaser.” “And you’re a war monger.”

Jonathan Silver:

Well, to disentangle the appeasers from the war mongers, let me ask you if you and Kissinger disagreed on the ends of American policy vis-à-vis the Soviets or agreed on them, and disagreed instead on the means to achieve them.

Norman Podhoretz:

Well, it’s hard to distinguish between the two. Henry Kissinger certainly recognized that the Soviet Union posed an unusually dangerous threat that had to be met. And the only feasible policy that could meet the challenge of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union was mutually assured destruction, which meant that neither country would dare to preempt by launching a strike first because the other country would retaliate and they would both disintegrate along with much of the rest of the world.

Jonathan Silver:

But of course, along comes Commentary and your writing and arguments, and then President Reagan, who takes a fundamentally different view, that the aim of American policy is not to manage our conflict with the Soviet Union, but to defeat the Soviet Union.

Norman Podhoretz:

Yes. “We win, they lose.” That’s how Reagan put it. And I agreed wholeheartedly with that view, and so did the group of young writers who followed the flag that I raised. They weren’t all young. But I stress the fact that we were all walking in the dark. The truth of the matter is that, as Henry himself said more than once, “People in foreign affairs are basically guessing about things that they can’t see because it’s too dark.” And so the question became: which guess was more plausible, which guess was more likely to lead to the end? Now, we did not agree on the end.

I agreed with Reagan: they have to lose. We have to eliminate that threat. The believers in détente, led pretty well by Kissinger, believed that peaceful coexistence was the most we could hope for. And of course, this theory resulted in certain practical measures that I, for one, disapproved of, mainly arms control. Arms control was the religion of the foreign-policy establishment. And there were meetings and other meetings and every once in a while someone would declare a breakthrough because the Soviets had agreed to the elimination of a comma. I believed, and still do in retrospect, that the Soviet Union was serious in the aims it said it had, more or less.

Well, it was and it wasn’t. Sometimes it said what it was up to and sometimes it didn’t. Hitler did the same thing. It was not just the Soviet Union. But we’re talking about the characteristic behavior of authoritarianism, which incidentally was seen I think by everybody as a wholly new phenomenon. Nobody had experience dealing with it. So arms control, which took up a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of energy, seemed to me to be a foolish enterprise. I believed, as did the group that we had formed, that the Soviet Union was not interested in peaceful coexistence, and in fact, it was like Reagan said: it had wanted to win and force us to lose.

Jonathan Silver:

So your opposition to arms control therefore flowed from your assessment of the character of the regime? You would reason that because the Soviet Union is not a trustworthy regime, agreements that it makes cannot be trusted and therefore spending time in the conduct of our foreign policy on those agreements amounted to the pursuit of a delusion?

Norman Podhoretz:

Well, you put it very well, except that it was worse than wasted time. First of all, we thought that any agreement the United States reached with the Soviet Union would be violated by the Soviet Union without a moment’s hesitation if they saw an opportunity to seize an advantage. We would not cheat on the agreement. Therefore, we were, to begin with, at a certain disadvantage in arms control. And as arms control developed, I think our point of view proved to be more accurate than theirs.

Jonathan Silver:

But now surely Kissinger would have seen that too. It’s not as if Kissinger trusted them.

Norman Podhoretz:

Oh no. Henry Kissinger was as far from trusting them as anyone. It’s a funny kind of argument. He was certainly an anti-Communist, no question about it, but anti-Communism expressed itself in degrees of passion. There was soft anti-Communist and hard anti-Communist. I think it’s fair to say we had very low opinions of our opponents. We’re talking now about a period during which I did not know Kissinger personally, after that question I asked him about the wolf and lamb.

I think Kissinger was always flexible enough to see the merits of an opposing position and accommodate himself to it. I think that’s what made him a great diplomat. I would’ve been a lousy diplomat if I had ever had the chance.

Jonathan Silver:

Let’s switch gears and focus on Jewish matters. Do you think that the plight of Soviet Jewry factored more into your assessment of the moral character of the Soviet Union than it did in Kissinger’s view?

Norman Podhoretz:

Well, it didn’t factor at all at the beginning of Kissinger’s public career. The Soviet Jewish movement was born in the 1960s, but it didn’t really become an issue of public debate until at least 1972, if not later. I don’t remember it being an issue between us and them. But if you put a gun to my head and forced me to answer the question, I would have said that I and my friends—most of them, not all—cared more about the fate of Soviet Jewry than the Realpolitikers. The realists also argued, by the way, that the goal of freeing Soviet Jewry or ameliorating their condition could better be served by diplomacy and legal gobbledygook. In both groups there were various shades of certainty, doubt, nerves, traditionalism—that is to say, following the path that started with Metternich, about whom the young Kissinger as a student had written brilliantly.

I can only say that most of us were convinced that this was a wholly new situation and that the old methods of diplomacy were dangerous when you rely on them to bring about their desired results. Now, there were one or two people older than I was—I was in my early forties, I think—like Richard Pipes, who was a professor at Harvard. His relations with Henry Kissinger, who had also been a professor at Harvard, were not, I would say, overly cordial. And Pipes, who was an émigré from Poland and Jewish and fearless, went so far as to write an article for Commentary, which I encouraged him to do. And its title was “Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War.”

That title alone made nonsense of everything that the other side [of the American debate about the cold war] believed. And Pipes, like Kissinger, was a very good writer. Incidentally, I think that Henry Kissinger is in some of his work a great writer, not just a good one. And Pipes came close. And it was interesting to me that two émigrés for whom English was a foreign language could have mastered the language as well as they did.

Jonathan Silver:

That leads to another thing that I wanted to ask you about. The story of Jewish immigration to America is a story that Pipes and Kissinger, and for that matter, you yourself, in some ways share. I just want to ask you to reflect about the Norman Podhoretz that we read of in Making It, and Henry Kissinger, who in his own way also “made it”—two Jewish kids who found their way into America and came to love America.

Norman Podhoretz:

He did love America. In fact, when we began being on cordial terms, we used to talk a lot about our relation to America and how it had developed. And it was by coincidence, really, that we came out on the same end. I was born in Brooklyn, which is not exactly anywhere but the United States. But I later wrote that I had discovered Americans—not America, but Americans—in the Army because as a kid, a poor kid, I had never gone much beyond Jersey City, and I really knew nothing about America except from reading novels by Sinclair Lewis and others who made fun of the country.

And I met these guys from all over the place. And they were just wonderful. I mean, irreverent, cunning, tough, and not to be trifled with. And Henry had very much the same experience in the Army when he was—it’s hard to believe—an enlisted man. And of course, by the time he got through, he was more or less running intelligence because he knew German and was good at interrogation. Nothing like that . . . well, something like that happened to me. I’ll tell the story and you can trim it down, but the Pentagon, at some point in the 50s, decided that the American soldiers were too obscene and that this made a bad impression on the Europeans. And they put together a pamphlet arguing that using obscenities in conversation just showed that you were stupid and ignorant. And they even had a passage of a speech by George Washington himself, probably written by Hamilton, saying something like that.

Well, the reaction of the guys in the barracks was a good laugh, but there was nothing anybody could do because we were ordered to have a class an hour long, once a week, to be in effect indoctrinated in the proper use of the English language. So everybody reluctantly showed up, and there were about 300 guys in each group. And the orders from the Pentagon were that an officer had to be the instructor; enlisted men would not be enough. And many of the officers in those days were ROTC kids, who, let me put it this way, knew as much about international affairs as all of my buddies in the Army did.

I’m going to tell you this story that you’re going to have to cut probably: this poor lieutenant was giving us the first lesson following the guidebook that the Pentagon had compiled, and was desperately trying to think of a good example of what it meant. It was wintertime, and he said, “Well, let’s say you want to say it’s cold outside and you say, ‘It’s cold as a witch’s tit.’ Now how cold is a witch’s tit?” Well, one of my friends yelled out, “F—ing cold!”

I couldn’t resist telling that story, but it’s a good illustration of what I’m talking about. And they were great, those guys. They were from all over the country, and I especially got along well with Southerners, rednecks as they were called. I asked one of them, “How come we were such good friends?” And he said, “’Cause you talk so good.” That’s a typical Southern attitude. They liked language. They believed in it. And Henry had a similar experience.

Jonathan Silver:

So the military service for both of you was a way to weave yourselves into the fabric of the country?

Norman Podhoretz:

Yes. Without any effort. To be woven, I would say, rather than weave. The Army did the work, and we were the pupils. But there was one major difference. This was just at the end of the call up for the Korean War, and after basic training I was sent to Germany, which was occupied by our troops still, and not to Korea. Most of the guys didn’t know what they were doing there. They would’ve understood if they had been there a year earlier that there was a war going on, but there was no war going on. A lot of the stuff that one was required to do seemed pointless. So the Pentagon was throwing up another required program, and that was to explain to the boys what they were doing in the Army.

I wound up being appointed an instructor in spite of the fact that that was illegal. But the company commander said, “Well, if you don’t tell anyone, I won’t tell anyone.” So I wound up my last few months in the Army lecturing on the cold war and why we were good and why the Soviet Union had to be resisted and fought and how important it was to undertake this task. And these lectures went over very well, partly because most of the kids in the Army had not been to college. They had not had much experience with ideas and it excited them. Meanwhile, Kissinger was climbing up from private to sergeant and interrogating captured prisoners. That experience for him was similar to the experience for me. As I’ve often put it, I fell in love with America and Americans during those two years of service in the Army. And that feeling and passion has never left me and has even grown stronger as I’ve gone into my nineties, God help me.

Jonathan Silver:

Could you say something about Kissinger as a Jew, the Holocaust experience of his family, what he brought as a Jew with him into America?

Norman Podhoretz:

Kissinger as a Jew was and remained a mystery to me. If you knew him, you would understand what I meant. He grew up in a strictly Orthodox family. And in Germany, he was given an intensive Jewish education, which included the Talmud. He even won a prize for an essay he wrote on Tractate Bava Kama or something like that.

Now, by the time I met him, there was not a trace, that’s the word I used to use, of that upbringing about him. He had none of the stigmata of Jewishness operating on him; it was impossible to tell that he was Jewish because there was nothing he said or did that gave it away. He did not deny being Jewish, ever, but he never made any effort. Some people like him have tried to play it down. He never played it up or played it down; he didn’t play it at all. And the result was, he told me once in a meeting, that most people in the world in which he was now living, in the foreign-policy establishment, did not think of him as a Jew. Therefore, they spoke freely in his presence. And he found that a very valuable tool to persuade them to see things, especially as Jews were affected by them.

He did talk a bit, not a lot, about his family and the Holocaust. I think it was thirteen members of his family—but all cousins, distant cousins, and so on—who had been murdered. Nobody close to him as far as I ever could tell had been arrested, but he had been harassed in school. He loves soccer. He adored soccer or what they call football.

His father was what we would call a high-school teacher, and that was a somewhat higher-status position in Germany than here.

I knew he was Jewish from the beginning, and I was always curious about it. I mean, how on earth did he come out of that upbringing, which by the way, continued in the United States when his family came here? They lived in Washington Heights, Manhattan, and the section in Washington Heights that was solidly inhabited by German Jewish émigrés, all of whom were strictly Orthodox. And so I took it for granted that he was raised a Sabbath observer and that he went to the synagogue every Saturday [as a child], and that he was strictly kosher. In other words, that he was Orthodox, which his family undoubtedly was.

But by the time I got to know him well, I don’t remember how old he was then, but all traces of this upbringing were gone. And I never quite figured it out. Once, with some chutzpah left in me in middle age, I said to him, “Henry, if I took you to the shul or to a synagogue, would you know what to do?” And he said, “Well, I could read the letters; I wouldn’t understand them, but I could read them. In other words, nothing.” That’s the answer. And I tried several times to get him to tell me about his Jewish upbringing or what he felt about it. I couldn’t get anything out of him. Unlike some of the Israelis he got to know when he was negotiating the Middle East settlement, he was actually liked by most of the German Jews in Europe. And Golda Meir was very fond of him.

Jonathan Silver:

Let’s go to the question of Israel. Obviously in the Jewish community, Kissinger is most controversially thought of in relation to the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Norman Podhoretz:

Yes.

Jonathan Silver:

And I think that there are different pieces of evidence that could be adduced on either side: to see him as somebody who saw Israel as an American asset in the cold war, and therefore for American reasons a friend of Israel, or as someone who mismanaged the war and caused Israel to suffer unnecessary casualties and losses. How do you see Kissinger in relation to Israel?

Norman Podhoretz:

That debate has never been settled, and I can tell you how I feel about it now as opposed to how I felt about it then. He is reputed to have introduced himself to Golda Meir, who was then the prime minister, and he said, “I come to you in three guises, three personalities. One, I’m an American. Two, I’m secretary of state. And three, I’m a Jew.” And Golda Meir said something like, “If you don’t do the right thing, you’ll go down in Jewish history as a traitor.” Or something to that effect. And he got along very well with the top brass of the Israeli foreign office.

But to try to answer your question, I think that as secretary of state he certainly had American interests in the forefront of his mind, but he was determined to harmonize American interests with Israeli interests as far as he could. And I believe firmly that Richard Nixon saved Israel from being destroyed—not Henry Kissinger, not James Schlesinger, who was the secretary of defense.

There was a point [during the Yom Kippur War] at which resupply was needed desperately, and it had supposed to have gone out, let’s say on Monday. And Nixon, who was all mixed up with Watergate, and was apparently drinking a lot, had not been paying much attention. And Nixon, let us say it was Wednesday, looked around and said, “Oh, hey, what happened to that shipment we were going to send the Israelis?” And Henry said, “Well, Jim Schlesinger has been putting all kinds of obstacles in the way.” And one could believe that because the Pentagon was not wildly enthusiastic about Israel. And Schlesinger, upon being asked the same question, blamed Kissinger.

Jonathan Silver:

Right.

Norman Podhoretz:

The argument raged, and each side had its partisans, and I was on the side of Schlesinger; I thought it was Kissinger who was causing the delay. In any case, Nixon lost his temper apparently, and said, “Get those planes in the air by tomorrow.” And the planes went and the Israelis were saved, no question about it; they would’ve lost the war otherwise. And my own view is that if it’s true that Nixon was an anti-Semite privately—and very likely it is true—I would say what Lincoln said about his generals when he heard that Grant was a drunk: find out what he drinks and send it to all my other generals. If Richard Nixon was an anti-Semite, send all the other anti-Semites whatever it is he eats.

Jonathan Silver:

You’ve already alluded to Kissinger as a writer, and I want to bring you back to an essay that you wrote in June 1982 in Commentary called “Kissinger Reconsidered.” Can you say something about Kissinger’s intellectual life? Who was he as a thinker, as a writer, as somebody who in a way created his own history of himself but also had insights into the history of nations?

Norman Podhoretz:

First of all, he was brilliant. There’s no question about it. He could hardly say anything without a touch of brilliance about it. He was very learned in international affairs and not much interested in anything else, which I think was an important quality. I remember Hannah Arendt, who did not like him (and he did not like her), saying, “You have to mind your own business.” And that’s what Kissinger does. And there was something to that. In any case, it was the brilliance. He was an intellectual, but that was not his ruling passion. We all have a ruling passion: some people want to be rich; some people want to be famous; some people want to be powerful. Henry wanted to be a major-league statesman.

Jonathan Silver:

Which means that power was his dominant passion?

Norman Podhoretz:

No, I don’t think it was power; it was much more cleverness, intelligence, reading people, knowing how to say no, knowing how to say yes. But if he hadn’t been a diplomat and had remained a professor at Harvard teaching history, he would’ve been a brilliant history teacher. He had a very, very sharp and deep mind, no question about that. And most people who knew him knew that, even his enemies.

Jonathan Silver:

And what was it that made him so penetrating as a thinker? Was it an ability to be perceptive when it comes to human relations and read people? Was it his ability to think historically?

Norman Podhoretz:

All that, especially the ability to think historically. I think Metternich and Bismarck remained in his mind ever since he was a kid, guiding his life. But what interested me most and what I stressed in that essay was how extraordinarily good a writer he was. And I was even willing to use the word great. And it angered me. . . . By the way, this is while I was still on the other side; we were not friends yet. I was still something of a literary critic, and I could see how amazingly good his writing was. I quoted a passage of his reflections as he stood in the throne room of Saudi Arabia waiting to be received and thinking about how strange it was for him, a refugee from Nazi Germany, to be received by the king of Saudi Arabia. The way I put it sounds banal, but he describes that scene so vividly.

Incidentally, it was one of a few times he talks about himself in his work. He talks about everybody else, and he was a very shrewd delineator of character, both of individuals and of nations. He believes rightly that all nations have a character and that character has to be taken into account, and that there were things you could not expect of certain nations and things you could expect—depending on their history, or geography. And he knew that about practically every country on the globe.

Jonathan Silver:

In that way, he is revealed to be something manifestly more than simply a realist, because in the academic school that goes by that name, the dominant feature of states is their relative power, and the threats they pose to one another. The inner character of the regime is thought to be less significant.

Norman Podhoretz:

The realists who conformed to that description were not very good realists, in fact, were not realistic at all. They were dealing with something in their imagination. But Henry knew. . . . It’s hard to describe. Henry could go to some country he’d never been to, get off the plane, change his clothes, take a look around, maybe take a walk, and come up with a brilliant analysis of what this country was. And he never seemed to value that skill particularly. Perhaps it was so natural to him that he didn’t think of it as a talent. I said before that everybody has a ruling passion. And in that essay that you referred to about him, I made a point of saying what a wonderful writer he was and how so few people seemed to recognize it or credit him with it, and that was true.

When I asked him how he liked the piece, his response was very favorable, but he seemed a little grumpy about it. And I asked him, what’s the problem? And there was a passage in there which said something like, if only the policies he followed were as good as the paragraphs he wrote defending them, we would be better off. And he didn’t like that at all. So I said to him, if somebody said that I was a great writer, I wouldn’t care if they called me Hitler next because that’s what I want to be, but it gave him no particular pleasure to be such a terrific writer. And I think some of those books, particularly volume two of the memoirs, are up in the class of De Gaulle and Churchill, from a literary point of view. So that’s something he has not been given much credit for. And people were so busy arguing with his policies that they hardly noticed how brilliantly and beautifully and lucidly he could defend those policies.

Jonathan Silver:

In December 2021, you were the subject of the Wall Street Journal’s weekend interview, and at the end of that interview, you mentioned that Henry Kissinger used to call you his worst enemy, and that now you had become close friends. Tell us about the nature of your friendship, how you became friends after such intense policy and intellectual combat in those earlier decades. What was the basis of your friendship?

Norman Podhoretz:

Well, it’s very simple really. I’ll tell you the conclusion: to his surprise and my surprise, we liked each other. It was as simple as that: I liked him and he liked me. And I want to emphasize what that meant in general. I had heard all the stuff about him: he was a terrible boss and threw things at the people working for him; he was a total opportunist; he didn’t care about anything but himself; he was a liar; he would manipulate you. In the nearly 50 years that I’ve known him and known him well, I have seen not even one smidgen of any of those qualities in him. And it’s one of the things I find hard to understand. When a politician says, “Well, I’ll see you next Thursday,” he may or may not show up. But Henry will show up on the dot. If he promised to do something, he would do it, and so on.

I’ve met a lot of important, powerful, interesting people in my life. I’ve been fortunate that way. But I would say that he was either a great man or something very close to it. Greatness is a difficult quality to define. And not since John Quincy Adams has there been a secretary of state as brilliant as he was. Even when he was wrong, he was brilliant. And that may have been a problem, since he could rationalize anything that he wanted to do.

Jonathan Silver:

And that connects to the lucidity of his expression.

Norman Podhoretz:

Yes. Well, with that ridiculous accent. I call it ridiculous. His brother has no accent whatsoever, and they came here at the same time, at about the same age. I pondered that accent, and I think it was an act of defiance that he was going to make it here, even with his accent, and he did. But it’s hard for me, especially since he only just died yesterday, and I sometimes thought he probably was immortal. He had 100 things wrong with him. He must have had twenty stents in his body; he had had cancer in the eye. His limbs were not so hot as he grew older. I can testify to what happens to your limbs as you grow older.

He was generous. Not, I think, in the ordinary sense. I had never had any financial dealings with him, but I would’ve felt perfectly comfortable lending him money or borrowing money from him. I would’ve trusted him with anything important to me. And that is not the picture of him that I kept reading. And some of the worst were just unspeakable. Christopher Hitchens, much admired by some people, wrote a book about Henry as a war criminal.

Jonathan Silver:

Yes.

Norman Podhoretz:

Well, I think Hitchens was an intellectual criminal.

Jonathan Silver:

When you would meet over the years, can you give us a sense about the things you used to talk about?

Norman Podhoretz:

I’m someone who is not comfortable being a friend of someone who has very different views on important things. I don’t admire the ability to have such friendships. And I don’t know how much of that ability Henry had, but certainly more than I, and he was comfortable in his own skin. I’m one of the very few people who knew him who would say that, but those who disagree would be wrong. Just think about this: he had been out of office for nearly 50 years, had no official position, no authority to do this or to do that, yet, even to the last day of his life, any important person on the face of the earth who would come to New York—a king, a prime minister, a foreign minister, anything—had to go see Kissinger and talk to him. Now, I don’t think anybody else ever achieved that without office. Most people who are treated that way are in high offices in government, and have power—not power that they had yesterday, but power today.

I understand it because I felt it myself, because you asked me what he’s like as a man. I never had any problem with him. In spite of the fact that I never fully agreed with his views, that didn’t seem to stand in the way. And we argued endlessly. Henry doesn’t like to be wrong. And he didn’t like it if you thought he was wrong. Détente was the big issue between us from the beginning. And whenever I met him with my wife, and his wife, the four of us often dined together at Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn. But whenever the two of us had breakfast together or something like that, I couldn’t get away without being subjected to a half-hour harangue about how right he was about détente. And I wouldn’t give in and he wouldn’t stop. And it went on for years.

Jonathan Silver:

This question of legacy is very interesting. On the one hand, Kissinger is perhaps the most important American statesman in the second half of the 20th century. On the other hand, perhaps the most important geopolitical event of the second half of the 20th century, the fall of the Soviet Union, was not his doing, but in fact came about because of people who opposed his understanding of the situation. And I always found that hard to reconcile.

Norman Podhoretz:

I don’t, and I’m not sure why I don’t. I think he had more to do with the fall of the Soviet Union than you imply in your description. He never lost his touch in the analysis of the Soviet Union. China is another question. I do not challenge the view that his opening to China was a measure of achievement, except that I was against it at the time.

There were very few things he did that I was not against, but for some reason they didn’t make me angry. I don’t know why. I sort of felt like I was watching the performance of a master of a craft or something like that. I really did admire him and I also liked him. That’s a very good combination.

Jonathan Silver:

By any chance, did you ever read anything together or talk about books together? Was that part of your friendship?

Norman Podhoretz:

No. I’ve said he was probably a great man, but he wasn’t perfect. And one of his limitations is the fact that, as I put it before, he minded his business and that meant he read everything and thought about everything that was relevant to his purposes, even when his purposes were not official, [but not anything else]. And everybody, as far as I could see, respected whatever he said about anything like that, even if they disagreed.

His enemies were another matter. I was reading some of the obituaries this morning. “The war criminal has finally died.” And I almost lost my temper. I feel very privileged to have been his friend for nearly 50 years and to have been in his company very often; it enriched my life. I learned a lot from him, especially when I disagreed with him. My admiration for him never flagged. And I joked that maybe he’ll never die. He was deathly ill a month or so before he died, but there was a conference in China or Russia or somewhere, so he jumped on a plane, went, came back, stopped off in Germany on the way home. I couldn’t do that, and I’m seven years younger than he was. There are other people like that; they think if they stop doing what they’re doing, they’re going to die. And sometimes they’re right.

That energy, and the ability to put it to good use, was almost superhuman. My wife and I used to joke about whether Henry was immortal. He was worried about turning ninety-eight because both his parents, I believe, died at ninety-eight and he was very nervous about it. And once he became ninety-eight, I think he relaxed. He thought, “Okay,” he’s made it.

You don’t meet such extraordinary people much. There aren’t that many of them.

Jonathan Silver:

Can you say anything more about the history of your discussions over the years about Israel?

Norman Podhoretz:

Okay. Let’s take the episode that caused him the most enmity, from the Yom Kippur War, which was not allowing Ariel Sharon, who had circled the Egyptian Third Army, to capture or destroy it. In other words, Sharon was prevented from winning the war. But it was a war that looked like it might have been lost were it not for Nixon and Kissinger.

But Kissinger had a weird combination of qualities. When people asked me, “What makes a good editor?,” I used to say, “There are very few good editors, because it requires a combination of qualities that don’t usually go into the same person: great arrogance, knowing better than the author about what he knows, and great humility in the sense of lending your talents to someone else’s work.” Well, Henry had that kind of combination in relation to Israel. He was able to act as a secretary of state of the United States, carrying out policies that he was not enthusiastic about, and in fact, trying to trim things so that Israel would come out better than if left alone.

I think being a Jew in that situation, no matter what he felt about Jewishness, was impossible. I can imagine that if I would recuse myself if I had been in that position. But he performed admirably, to the satisfaction of his boss, Nixon, and to the satisfaction of the people he was dealing with. And I knew a lot of them. I never heard a bad word about him from an Israeli official. Never. Think about that too. He was able to pull off impossible tricks.

I’m not sure I’ve answered your question—either this one or any of the others you’ve asked me.

I should say something about Nancy, his wife, who’s very ill herself. I don’t know what to say about her except that she’s wonderful too. And I felt very lucky knowing her.

I would also like readers to know that, although I think he was probably a great man, he was not a perfect one. I saw very few flaws in him. I don’t know why. Many people saw these flaws and they never manifested themselves to me. But it’s hard for me to talk about him. I’m trying to think of bad things to say about him.

The other public official whom I knew well, better than I knew Henry even, and who had a touch of greatness, was Pat Moynihan. But Pat Moynihan didn’t fulfill all the necessary requirements of greatness. He should have been president. But that’s another story.

 

Elliott Abrams

 

Jonathan Silver:

When did you first meet Henry Kissinger? What was that like? How has your attitude to him changed over the course of his and your career?

Elliott Abrams:

I took Kissinger’s famous course on the principles of international politics while an undergraduate at Harvard, in the 1967–1968 academic year. This was Gov 180, and it had been taught by McGeorge Bundy before he went to work in the Kennedy White House and Kissinger inherited it. It was a large lecture course, so students didn’t have much interaction with him. His method was Germanic in one way: in September he handed out a syllabus telling you the topic of every lecture right through the following May.

Two stories. We all showed up for the spring lecture on International Law, only to find Professor Stanley Hoffman at the lectern. Hoffman said to us that Professor Kissinger was not ill, “But every spring he calls me and asks me to give this lecture. He says, ‘I do not wish to give a lecture about something that doesn’t exist.’”

That spring, he also had a lecture on the Vietnam War in the syllabus. The week before, I well recall him saying sardonically “That’s next week’s topic, so paint up your signs and crank up your indignation.” But there were no signs the following week. Perhaps students who might have done that did not want to take Kissinger’s course at all.

My view of Kissinger has softened somewhat when it comes to his role in the 1973 war. Mike Doran and others (not least Kissinger) have offered a decent defense of his role. And over time I got to know him better, and simply came to like him very much and to be appreciative of his unfailing courtesy.

I have not however changed my view when it comes to two matters that are really one: détente and the role of human rights in foreign policy. Here I continue to believe that the Washington senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson was fundamentally right and Kissinger wrong. Kissinger was largely dismissive of human-rights matters, and the worst example is Chile. I am not referring to the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende, which is wrongly blamed on Kissinger and which in any event saved democracy in Chile. Rather, I am referring to human-rights abuses under Allende’s successor, Augusto Pinochet—to which Kissinger paid no attention but which we in the Reagan administration a decade later fought against. Jackson understood that governments that ignored human rights were always subversive of U.S. interests in the cold war, by definition, whatever their other attributes—because they strengthened the Soviet insistence that violations of human rights were defensible and that their argument that such “internal matters” were not fit for international concern and intervention. What Jackson saw far better than Kissinger was that protection of human rights was a great weapon in the cold war—one that strengthened the international position of the United States.

As to détente, Jackson thought Presidents Nixon and Ford, and Kissinger, gave too much away. This was partly a matter of style; surely Kissinger was right to seek agreements with the Soviet Union and China, but his overtly friendly and seemingly admiring relations with murderous tyrants like Mao taught the wrong lessons to Americans and others. It was also a matter of hard decisions about armaments. I could argue that Reagan proved competition worked better against the Soviets than Kissinger’s diplomacy, but of course that was a decade and more later; the underlying situation had arguably been stabilized by Kissinger. His understanding that there was not a unified “Communist menace” but two Communist countries that had their own interests and divisions—divisions on which the United States could build—was obviously right.

There is also the question, a bit dangerous, of whether Kissinger’s tragic sense of politics was simply right—or simply alien to most Americans. His life had taught him how wrong things could go, and he did elevate order and peace over disruptive efforts when it came to things like Soviet internal abuses. Too much so, many thought—including Jackson. Here we get back to human rights. Jackson like most of us had never dealt with the kind of disorder Kissinger had lived through under Nazism and thought it impossible in America. We were willing to take more risks than Kissinger. He did not lack concern for human rights, but surely felt the struggle for human rights could bring disorder and tragedy. And on balance, looking at world politics during his period in power and influence after 1969, I think he was wrong.

Jonathan Silver:

How much is Kissinger’s life story an American Jewish one?

Elliott Abrams:

Kissinger’s story was typical in that he was a refugee who lived in a refugee community—in his case among Germans Jews on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It is typical also in that he lost many relatives to the Nazis, and in that the displacement was extremely difficult for his family financially and emotionally. His early success was also, I’d say, typical—getting to the Ivy League and making it. But then, after becoming a Harvard professor, his life deviates from the norm because he was so extraordinary.

Jonathan Silver:

Both you and Henry Kissinger are Jews who have played a very prominent and public role in shaping American foreign policy. And more than that: you are both widely known to be Jewish, and you’ve both had to handle important and sensitive policy issues involving relations with the Jewish state. Kissinger famously told Golda Meir that he was, first an American, second the secretary of state, and third, a Jew. To what extent do you think Kissinger succeeded at balancing those commitments, and dealing with the dangers of being accused of special pleading for the Jewish state?

Elliott Abrams:

This is a very hard judgment to make in the abstract. First, he was trying to achieve influence in the 1960s, not today. In the Eisenhower administration there had been no Jews with important roles. That began to change a lot with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, but clearly Jews were more at home in Democratic administrations. That made him a rarer bird among the Republicans.

Second, we must speak of one particular Republican, Richard Nixon, and his complex personality and relations with Kissinger. Kissinger was not the only Jew around the president: recall Arthur Burns, Leonard Garment, and William Safire. The records, memoirs, and recordings do not (to my knowledge) show any anti-Semitic remarks by Nixon to any of them—only to Kissinger. Perhaps Nixon thought they’d quit but Kissinger wouldn’t (and if so, he was right). Perhaps Nixon felt especially threatened by Kissinger intellectually, because Nixon thought of himself as a grand strategist. I wouldn’t claim to understand the relationship: why did Nixon make such remarks only to Kissinger, and why did Kissinger take it rather than quitting or demanding that it stop? Those aren’t questions I could answer, and I don’t know if anyone could.

I worked in the George W. Bush White House, and never felt any “dangers of being accused of special pleading for the Jewish state.”

If Kissinger felt them, that was perhaps the era in which he worked, and more likely the man for whom he worked.

I would have to say he chose not to live a Jewish life—both in his private life nor in his public life. To some degree this may have been, in those years, a sort of prerequisite for achieving the immense power and influence he had. But he did not I think do very much balancing of those commitments for most of his life. The Jewish commitments were the weakest.

Jonathan Silver:

In the opinion of American Jews, Kissinger has stood accused of two sins. The first was delaying the resupply of the IDF during the Yom Kippur War, which you referred to already. The other is that he opposed the move to use U.S. economic pressure on behalf of Soviet Jewry. The left-wing Forward rolled out some fairly ugly quotes on the latter issue, some taken out of context. What do you think about those accusations?

Elliott Abrams:

As to the first, I won’t go over the arguments again. Kissinger had a very clear picture of a major achievement he thought possible: peace between Egypt and Israel—and indeed it was possible. He was thinking years ahead, and in many ways it has been a cornerstone of Israeli security ever since. Where I think the history has been a bit manufactured is in giving too much credit to Kissinger and too little to Nixon for the decision to do the full resupply. Kissinger alone could not order Department of Defense around. It was Nixon who made the decision. I am not alone in thinking that, partly because of the criticism for delaying resupply, Kissinger took more credit than is fair. And very few people, especially back then, wanted to give Nixon credit for anything.

As to Soviet Jewry, this is in my view the worst thing in Kissinger’s long career. He simply did not want to let this movement get in the way of his broader détente goals. I would argue that on the merits he was wrong: that movement did not threaten world peace or U.S.-Soviet relations, or if it did we should all have understood the vicious nature of that regime even better. A regime that jailed people for studying Hebrew was no partner for peace, and Reagan’s goal in the cold war was the right one: victory. Kissinger never, I think, believed it was possible, perhaps because he did not understand the weakness of the Soviet economy.

Those famous quotes from Kissinger about the USSR and its Jews are damning, because they show no sympathy for the plight of Soviet Jews. A German Jewish refugee should have had the deepest sympathy, even if he did not believe he could do what he was being asked to do. Jackson and of course refuseniks like Natan Sharansky emerge from those years as heroes. Kissinger does not.

Jonathan Silver:

More specifically on the issue of Soviet Jewry. This is the issue on which I think you can see the difference between your approach—and that of the Reagan/Commentary school—and Kissinger’s approach most clearly. For Kissinger, Soviet Jews were a subject that could interfere with more significant issues between the Washington and Moscow—things like arms control, nuclear weapons, and the like. And for that reason, as a policy matter, the Soviet Jews ought to be marginalized so that diplomacy can focus on the big questions. For Elliott Abrams (if I may), the whole matter of the Soviet Jews—and human rights more generally—was not a distraction but leverage that could strengthen America’s negotiating hand with the Kremlin. Is that framing right? Why do you think Kissinger was reluctant to see what you, and Senator Jackson, and others saw so clearly?

Elliott Abrams:

This is answered above, but I’d add that the failure to see support for human rights and humanitarian issues as a great asset, even a great weapon, in the cold war was a failure of many realists, of whom Kissinger was one. This was in its way quite unrealistic, in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the United States and of the USSR. He underestimated the value of the association of the United States with the cause of liberty. One can certainly get soft-headed about soft power, but realists dismissed it and undervalued it.

Why did Kissinger not see this as others, such as Jackson, did? Again, he was far from alone; this is what people like Hans Morgenthau thought and taught. And for Kissinger, one has to ask about his experience in Germany. The rise of Nazism could lead one to place protection of human rights at the top of the pyramid, but for him it seems to have placed order there. We can all see the argument, but I would argue that human-rights violations are a kind of disorder—of the human condition and of the state of law.

Jonathan Silver:

Or, another formulation: you have argued that the promotion of human rights around the world not only should be part of American foreign policy, but when done right also bolsters the pursuit of America’s interests. In your career in government, you did a lot to put this idea into practice. Kissinger has argued repeatedly that such concerns only get in the way of conducting wise policy—not out of ruthlessness (as his detractors imagine)—but on what I would call principled grounds. Can you elaborate on this difference, if I’ve described it properly, and what you think Kissinger got right and got wrong?

Elliott Abrams:

No government is an NGO, and none can afford to have a pure human-rights policy. Kissinger was right that very often governments must put aside human-rights concerns because there are others that outweigh them in that time and place—military security, financial security, and so on. Raison d’etat exists for all countries including ours, to protect something immensely valuable to us: our country’s power and independence, its influence, its freedom, its prosperity. Where I disagreed with Kissinger most is that he did not seem to see the association with the cause of liberty as an asset we needed to protect just as we protect our trade or our military strength, and he did not seem to see the expansion of liberty around the globe as a huge benefit to the interests of the United States and great damage to our enemies. He certainly understood that making peace, above all in the Middle East, was a great benefit to us and enhanced our reputation and alliances. But I think he underrated the issue of democracy.

Jonathan Silver:

Rabbi Norman Lamm, one of the great American Jewish religious figures of his day, told American Jews in 1973 “Let us openly disassociate from [Kissinger]. He wants not to be a part of our people—its history and its destiny, its suffering and its joys.” Do you think he was being too harsh? Why?

Elliott Abrams:

Too harsh, but not baseless. It’s wrong to say that Kissinger wanted to dissociate from the Jewish people; his Jewish identity was never hidden in any way. But it is true that he did not live his life as part of the Jewish people or of any Jewish community.

Jonathan Silver:

For many on the left, even the moderate left, Kissinger is remembered as a war criminal, etc. He’s above all held responsible for the bombing of Cambodia, but also other things. (Pakistan/Bangladesh, the coup against Allende in Chile that you’ve already mentioned, etc.) What would you say, briefly, to someone making those accusations?

Elliott Abrams:

Each accusation must be judged separately and factually, and in my view they are wrong. Take the bombing of Cambodia. What he bombed was Vietcong and North Vietnamese sanctuaries that were being used against the United States in a war. When Israel bombs Syria now, it is doing essentially the same thing: refusing to accept such “sanctuaries” for the enemy. Take the case of Chile. Allende was leading the country toward dictatorship, and into an alliance with the Cubans and Soviets. I have no criticism of Kissinger for trying to prevent that—and blaming him for the coup is I believe simply wrong as a matter of history. I do criticize him and others for failing to oppose the human-rights abuses of Pinochet. As we proved in the Reagan administration, it was possible to oppose Pinochet, press to remove him, and to see Chile become the democracy it has been ever since. Kissinger thought that opposing Pinochet would produce instability and disorder, not democracy, and he was wrong.

I think he sometimes underrated or misunderstood the toughness, dedication, and political sophistication of those struggling for freedom and human rights—from Andrei Sakharov and Sharansky to the Christian Democrats in Chile. They were not dreamers, or perhaps it would be better to say they were not only dreamers. They were smart and courageous political actors as well, but Kissinger was dealing with people in power and perhaps tended to overlook the virtues of those “dissidents.”

Jonathan Silver:

Let’s return to the question of Kissinger and Israel. Doran argued in Mosaic that, by seeing Israel as an asset against the Soviets, Kissinger really transformed the U.S.-Israel relationship into what it is now. Do you agree?

Elliott Abrams:

I think that’s basically right. Kissinger the realist was able to understand the shifting balances of power in the Middle East, and saw the utility of Israel to the U.S. against the Soviets. Similarly, he saw the great value of moving Egypt from the Soviet to the American side. This may give him a bit too much credit, in that the value of Israel began to be understood after its amazing victory in the 1967 war. It was then that the Johnson administration decided to sell Phantom jets to Israel and then that the rise in U.S. assistance levels began. So Kissinger had something to build on. In seeing Israel as a possible cold-war asset Kissinger deeply undermined the long-time view in the national-security bureaucracies that Israel was an albatross, a weight on our relations with the Arabs.

Jonathan Silver:

Kissinger’s greatest achievement is generally considered by both the left and the right to be the opening to China. Now that China has become, probably, the greatest threat to U.S. security, how should we consider his China policy?

Elliott Abrams:

His China policy was brilliant for the time, which was the cold war. It had an immense but time-bound impact. That was 50 years ago, and it is not a criticism of Kissinger to say that decades later the world looks different. I really think that no one would be criticizing him over his China policy if he had lived to, say, age seventy-five and died in 1998. People would not be saying “You see, Henry had it wrong.” The China of 2023 is not the China of 1973 or 1998. Today China under Xi Jinping is not a developing country, but a great power seeking to become a dominant world power—and it’s the greatest threat America faces. The one criticism I still have is that Kissinger vastly underplayed, and never really spoke about, the incredible abuses under his hosts back then—Mao and Zhou Enlai. Tens of millions were killed. The smiles and celebrations were too great—though one must add they were as great or even greater among liberals and in the press. No one wanted to say Mao was a monster back then, but it was completely clear.

Jonathan Silver:

Kissinger did not have extensive experience in government before the Nixon administration, and yet he is known as a very sharp-elbowed bureaucratic operator. How did he operate in government? What can be learned from his wielding of power?

Elliott Abrams:

This is one of the great mysteries about Kissinger: how did this professor know how to operate so successfully in government? Many other brilliant professors would find themselves fish out of water and be ineffective.

How did he do it? Sheer brilliance was part of it. His knowledge of history was another. Critical was assembling an astonishingly able and loyal team of people like Winston Lord and Peter Rodman. So was the will to fight—that willpower we still saw in him at age one-hundred, when despite growing physical problems he refused to step back, go silent, move to the margins. When you crossed him, he fought to wound you, so that you’d never try it again. A reputation for ferocity is a good thing to have in a bureaucracy. Saves a lot of fights.

Jonathan Silver:

Do you have a favorite Kissinger anecdote?

Elliott Abrams:

Kissinger asked his NSC staff for a memo on something or other. It was delivered to his secretary, and it appeared soon in his outbox with his scribbled “Is this the best you can do?” on the top. The staff worked hard on another draft and sent it in, but it came out marked “Not good enough. Is this really your best work?” So they went back to work, rewrote the draft laboriously, spent hours more on it, and the next day handed it to him face to face. He asked, “Is this the best you can do?” An exhausted and now defiant staff replied “Yes. It is the best we can do.” Kissinger took it and said, “Good. Then I’ll read this one.”

More about: Henry Kissinger, Politics & Current Affairs, Yom Kippur War