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What To Say About Kissinger

You either die a villain or live long enough to be called a statesman
What To Say About Kissinger

Welcome to a special edition of Heat Death, the newsletter that comes not to praise Caesar but to (finally) bury him.

Henry Kissinger's death is the opposite of untimely. At 100, the gnomish German-born diplomat had outlived – by 13 years – his own obituarist at the New York Times, who died in 2010. He had long outlasted his political collaborators like Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. 

He remained on Earth long after the heads of the autocratic and openly murderous regimes he helped fund and arm, a rogues gallery that included Indonesia's Suharto, apartheid-era South Africa's John Vorster, Chile's General Augusto Pinochet, Iran's Shah Reza Pahlavi, South Korea's Park Chung-He and the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos. He outlived all of these men, united with them by their shared willingness to brutalize tens or hundreds of thousands (or in Suharto's case, nearly a million) of their own or neighboring peoples in the name of stamping out Communism.

Which, by the way, Kissinger also outlived! At least in the sense of its Soviet Russian standard bearer, which — to give the man his due — he began the process of easing U.S. tensions with, once the Soviet Union was isolated, besieged and failing. (He outlived both premiers Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev and post-Soviet kleptocrat President Boris Yeltsin as well.)

And then there is the Middle East. Kissinger outlived both Menachem Begin, prime minister and the intellectual godfather of today's ruling Israeli right, and Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian dictator who made a Kissinger-brokered peace deal with Begin — and who was killed by Egyptian radicals for doing so. 

He outlived a lot of people, did Henry Kissinger. Whole swaths of people from Cambodia to Angola, from Chile to Iran. He outlived dissidents and peasants and intellectuals, resistance fighters and civilians, protestors and activists, staggering numbers of children. They died: Kissinger persisted.

The benefit of outliving all your contemporaries is that your enemies die along with your friends, and Kissinger's surprising longevity gave him a final act to be, as New York Magazine’s Choire Sicha had it, a delightful "devil at the dinner party," a dose of peppery Old World charm to shock and delight his late-life liberal hawk friends. While his old political patron Richard Nixon died in ignominy and obscurity in a California exile, Kissinger was getting high-flown dinner invites till the very end. 

But Nixon's sin, perhaps, was not living long enough — and it was certainly caring too much about whether anyone thought he was a crook. Hatred of Kissinger simply seemed to strengthen the former secretary of state; he simply metabolized attacks as proof that the accuser was unwilling to make the hard choices befitting a 'statesman' and to demonstrate a failure to follow the iron law of realpolitik.

That word is Kissinger's legacy, but it also represents a highly contentious philosophical claim that he made it his life's work to render uncontroversial. Ostensibly, realpolitik describes the need to engage with the world as it is, not as we wish it was. A fair argument, perhaps — except that for Kissinger and his disciples, the word served as a handy cover to embrace a very particular kind of “world as it is.” Theirs was a world of apartheid, coups, genocide and mass repression, a world where the naked exercise of power existed as its own reason and reward. It was a world of dull incuriosity and overweening arrogance, a world that so often seemed built on the unthinking worship of the strong. At nearly every turn, they brought that world against the “wish it was" of the social democratic or socialist left, from Chile to Cambodia, Indonesia to South Africa.

This is a mark of his profound success: by the time he died, Kissinger was living in a Washington, D.C. — and a broader U.S.-dominated world — that he had helped construct; a structural fait accompli. Even as the regimes and dictators he backed have fallen, that structure remains: a world spread open before and bound by largely Western corporate interests, and by the rising power of firms from once-socialist states like Russia and China. The result is kind of diffuse empire, more subtle than any in modern history. With its growth has come a mainstream belief that, like it or hate it, this is just how things are.

Thus the sheer fact of Kissinger’s efforts served as its own argument. One might reasonably point out that the interventions he backed caused not only unaccountable human death and misery — a body count that would impress genocidaires and conquerors throughout history — but wove fundamental cracks into the American empire he sought to build. One might point to his litany of turning with the wind, serving as paid consultant to this regime, justifier to that President, all things to all powerful people. (“Don’t say that he’s hypocritical!” as Tom Lehrer sang of another German export to America. “Say rather that he’s a-political.”) One might marshal facts, figures, the hideous and spiraling costs of damage. People have done all this and more; it didn’t matter. 

Plenty of mighty politicians and bureaucrats have spoken kindly of Kissinger, as well they might: he largely spoke kindly of them. But notably, few ever sought to actually defend him on the merits while he was alive. What was there to defend? What actual debate was there to be had? The Beltway ballrooms and New York society dinners were and are largely united around Kissinger’s consensus: that power is its own unanswerable argument. Kissinger's coterie wrote no reasoned apologia because they saw nothing to apologize for. 

When it came to the trajectory of men who seek to change a fallen world, Christopher Nolan had it backwards, at least for Nixon administration veterans: You die a villain, or you live long enough to see yourself become a statesman.

Here, by way of example, is a collected list of coverage of Kissinger's death — a composite portrait of the verdict left by the world he made. We did not read all of these articles, and so we aren’t litigating their specific contents. But news headlines are constructed to offer the pithiest summary of the facts (or argument for how to interpret them.) That makes them handy for conducting a quick heat check where that Kissinger consensus stands. Who upholds his statesmanship without question? Who equivocates? Who rejects it utterly?

Thus: our spread. We calculated these according to a rough framework: the higher the score, the higher the rejection of Kissinger’s legacy. There are outliers, from the National Review's dolorous stanning of a dead "Cold War visionary" to Rolling Stones' crowing about the death of a beloved "war criminal." 

But the fact that so many of these numbers are in the 40% - 60% range is the Kissinger consensus in action: the fact that so many publications have to prevaricate. Where doubt creeps into the mainstream publications, it is cloaked in the word “controversy” or “polarizing” — the hallmark of a particular kind of media equivocation. One side must have a large amount of facts and figures on hand to be worthy of consideration. The other need only point to the fact that it is sitting there to prove that, well, it’s sitting there.

Which, ultimately, is the final point of realpolitik: the fact that power exists is often the only justification that matters.

At the end, most headlines ducked the question entirely by condensing around the few things everyone can agree on: he was certainly secretary of state, he is indisputably dead and — props to the Harvard Crimson by God he went to Harvard.

National Review: Henry Kissinger, Cold War Foreign-Policy Visionary, Dies at 100

Foreign Policy: The Foreign-Policy Legacy of America's Elder Statesman

The Wall Street Journal: Henry Kissinger, Who Helped Forge U.S. Foreign Policy During Vietnam and Cold Wars, Dies at 100

Nasdaq: Henry Kissinger, American diplomat and Nobel winner, dies at 100 - 30%

Politico: Henry Kissinger, America's most famous diplomat, dies at 100

CNBC: Henry Kissinger, the towering American diplomat, dies at age 100

The Times of Israel: Henry Kissinger, prominent Cold War diplomat, dies aged 100

FOX 5 Atlanta: Henry Kissinger, political scientist and former secretary of state, dies at 100

Newsweek: Henry Kissinger, Who Died at 100, on China, Israel, and Nuclear War

The Boston Globe: Henry A. Kissinger, who dominated US foreign policy, dies at 100

The Harvard Crimson: Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger [Class of '50] Dead at 100

Fox News: Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger dead at 100

NBC News: Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State dies at age 100

ABC News: Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state and presidential adviser, dead at 100

Business Insider: Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, dead at 100 50%

The Independent: Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, dead at 100 50%

The Hill: American diplomat Henry Kissinger dies at 100

The Financial Times: American diplomat Henry Kissinger dies aged 100

The Guardian: Henry Kissinger, secretary of state to Richard Nixon, dies at 100 55%

The Detroit News: Henry Kissinger, secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Ford, dies at 100

PBS: Henry Kissinger, secretary of state under Nixon and Ford, dies at 100

CBC: Henry Kissinger, Nobel Prize winner and controversial former U.S. diplomat, dead at 100

The Washington Post: Half a century later, Kissinger's legacy is still up for debate

Henry Kissinger, a dominating and polarizing force in US foreign policy, dies at 100

KXAN: Death of Henry Kissinger met with polarized reaction around the world - 65%

The Atlantic: The People Who Didn't Matter to Henry Kissinger

New York: The Devil at the Dinner Party: Henry Kissinger’s long final act — after Harvard and D.C. and Cambodia — was spent at New York’s more rarefied tables 70%

The Daily Beast: Henry Kissinger, Architect of U.S. Foreign Policy and Owner of Its Disasters, Dies at 100

Al Jazeera: Henry Kissinger: Nobel-prize winning 'warmonger' has died at age 100

The Intercept: Henry Kissinger, Diplomat Responsible for Millions of Deaths, Dies at 100

Mother Jones: Dead at 100, Henry Kissinger Leaves Behind a Bloody Legacy - 100%

The Conversation: Henry Kissinger’s bombing campaign likely killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians − and set a path for the ravages of the Khmer Rouge 100%

Rolling Stone: Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved by America’s Ruling Class, Finally Dies

Jacobin: The Good Die Young

Asher popping in here solo, to note an interesting little pop-cultural tidbit. In a 1976 issue of Marvel's Supervillain Team-Up, the Fantastic Four carry the battle to their arch-foe, the prototypical supervillain Dr. Doom. Doom is the epitome of autocratic comic-book supervillainy: a blustering tyrant, as fond of pomp and circumstance as he is mad science and forbidden magic. A man who – whatever his pretentions to honor or scruples – is ultimately obsessed with his own power, and what he can do with it.

Anyway, the Fantastic Four show up to knock him out. But who's that shadowy figure standing beside the maniac, in a tan suit disturbingly out of place among the operatic costumes? Whose shadowy hand grips a briefcase like a shield and weapon?


Supervillain team up indeed.

This has been Heat Death. We'll be back soon with more interviews, essays and musings on past, future, and all the crises in between. If you enjoy our work, don't forget to subscribe.