The year was 1973, and Henry Kissinger, a Jewish refugee from German Nazism and President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, made a staggeringly distasteful comment about Soviet Jews: If the Soviets “put Jews into gas chambers,” Kissinger said, it’s “not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Maybe.
No one has ever gone broke overstating Kissinger’s cold-bloodedness. This one, though, revealed in the latest declassified installment of Nixon’s Oval Office tapes, is a doozy. Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson spoke for most of the punditocracy in calling the taped remark “the most despicable thing to come out of the mouth of a major American official… since God only knows when.”
The disclosure was so shocking, the response so scathing, that Kissinger himself, never known to leave a slight unanswered, seems to have been left temporarily speechless. It took him a full three days to reply. And when he did reply, in a 173-word statement, it was uncharacteristically hesitant, convoluted and flaccid. Its one redeeming quality was that it was true.
Kissinger’s statement begins by pleading that the comment “must be viewed in the context of the time,” the classic defense of someone who’s knows he’s lost the argument. He and Nixon had been pressing Moscow to let Jews out since early in Nixon’s administration, he says. However, “In order to avoid questions of sovereignty, we dealt with it as a humanitarian matter separate from the foreign policy issues.” In this way, by “persistent private representation at the highest level we managed to raise emigration from 700 per year to close to 40,000 in 1972.”
The “context of the time” included a nasty political battle between the White House and the organized Jewish community over a piece of legislation known as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. The measure proposed pushing Moscow to ease Jewish emigration by making it a precondition for normal U.S.-Soviet trade relations. It won nearly unanimous approval in Congress in late 1974 despite fierce administration opposition, arguably the strongest display ever seen of American Jewish political muscle.
The administration’s opposition stemmed partly from Kissinger’s fear that the tough stance would damage his signature goal of U.S.-Soviet detente. Kissinger doesn’t mention that in his new statement. Instead, he cites other, more flattering motives. First, the amendment “made Jewish emigration a foreign policy issue” rather than a humanitarian issue as Kissinger favored. Second, “We feared that the Amendment would reduce emigration, which is exactly what happened. Jewish emigration never reached the level of 40,000 again until the Soviet Union collapsed.”
The numbers question is important, but the distinction between “foreign policy” and “humanitarian” issues is critical, because it’s central to Kissinger’s philosophy of international relations. It’s also the key point he was crudely trying to drive home to Nixon in that taped conversation.
Unlike most other secretaries of state, Kissinger entered government service as an established foreign policy theorist with an articulate, well-known philosophy. In signing on with Nixon, Kissinger received a unique opportunity to test his theories in the real world. Enduring his boss’s bullying anti-Semitism was a small price to pay.
Kissinger is known as a leading proponent of realpolitik or diplomatic realism. It teaches that the ultimate goal of diplomacy is not improving the world or helping the weak but the unsentimental acquisition and wielding of power in order to protect the state’s material interests.
In Kissinger’s view, America’s essential interest is to maintain, as ruthlessly as necessary, a stable balance of power among major state actors. Humanitarian goals like freedom and minority rights flow from international stability, not the other way around.
In his statement, Kissinger cites Soviet Jewish emigration numbers to justify his policies. He’s a bit confused there, but only a bit. Between 1970 and 1973, before Jackson-Vanik passed, emigration rose from 1,000 to 35,000, not 700 to 40,000 as Kissinger says. And the flow actually shot up once more, reaching 51,000 in 1979, when a disastrous wheat harvest forced Moscow to seek a boost in their American grain contracts.
Broadly speaking, though, he’s right: Emigration rose dramatically under Kissinger’s detente policy, plummeted after Jackson-Vanik passed, rose briefly during the dovish Carter administration, then dropped under the anticommunist champion Ronald Reagan to a mere 1,400 per year. Emigration numbers finally rose for good during the Reagan-Gorbachev honeymoon in communism’s last years.
In the end, the debate is not between pursuing and ignoring human rights, but between realpolitik and Wilsonian idealism as the best way to get there. Kissinger chose the former.
Does that justify bombing Cambodia or assassinating the president of Chile? Even by Kissinger’s hard-headed standards, the answer should have been no, if only because they didn’t improve anything.
Though he rarely admitted it, Kissinger drew his philosophy from his own life story: Only by pursuing stability can you prevent the sort of chaos that swept Europe in the 1930s and engulfed most of Kissinger’s family. Here’s what he told an Israel Bonds dinner in 1992:
“I have been put in the position, as a Jew, of conducting the foreign policy of a superpower. I have never obscured the fact that 12 members of my family died in the Holocaust, and that therefore the fate of the Jewish people was always a matter of profound concern to me. However, destiny put me in a position where I also had to look at other perspectives.”
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog at www.forward.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).