Published November 30, 2023
The greatness, and darkness, of Henry Kissinger
On a summer evening—it must have been 20 years ago—we sat in gathering darkness on the patio at William F. Buckley’s house on Wallach’s Point in Stamford, Connecticut, looking out over Long Island Sound. There were six of us—Bill and Pat Buckley, my wife Susan and I, and Henry and Nancy Kissinger.
I sat next to Kissinger, and we talked about dogs. Bill told Henry, “Lance and Susan have a vizsla.” We’d acquired Fred as a puppy a few years earlier, after a friend of Bill’s recommended the breed to us. I briefly sang Freddie’s praises. Kissinger listened and replied, “I’m a lab man myself. Vee have labs. Dey sleep on de bed!” It seemed to me that he took a boyish pleasure in telling me that. The dogs trusted him. He loved them.
It would be dark soon. There was a pause. Out of nowhere, I asked Kissinger about Richard Nixon: “Do you think that the verdict on him is going to change? I mean, that there might be some new revisionist school in his favor?”
Kissinger chuckled a little sardonically and said, “If there is, I hope they don’t go too far in that direction.” He shook his head, as if to suggest that Nixon had been a hopeless case. As he did so, I remembered the days when Kissinger, then Nixon’s national security adviser, would flatter Nixon shamelessly in the Oval Office—you can listen to the White House tapes for a sample of this—and in the evening, would go over to a restaurant in Georgetown to have dinner with, say, Time’s Hugh Sidey and regale him with inside stuff on Nixon’s instability, with the implication that only Henry Kissinger held the country together.
I asked him about the final days and about the Woodward and Bernstein accounts of Nixon’s behavior in that summer of 1974. Kissinger startled me. He started talking about Nixon’s drinking—how he could not hold his liquor, how he would drink alone at night at the White House and then, past midnight, would get Kissinger on the phone and say things like, “I don’t give a sh*t, Henry. Bomb ’em! Bomb the sons of bitches.”
Kissinger looked at me with an amused, mock-tragic smile and said, “If vee had bombed every country dat Richard Nixon told us to bomb, zee vorld vould be a vasteland!
“I vould say, ‘Yes, Mr. President,’ and go back to sleep.”
I had known Kissinger, slightly, for many years, ever since I had been a sophomore at Harvard and he had worked with my father, Hugh Morrow, for New York’s governor, Nelson Rockefeller. Before I went off to spend a summer bumming around Europe in 1961, Kissinger gave me letters of introduction to highly placed friends of his in London and Paris and Bonn. I was on the road, living rough, and was too embarrassed ever to use them. In the years since then, I had had dinner with Kissinger perhaps a dozen times, either with the Buckleys or with the authors Edmund and Sylvia Morris, who were friends of ours and Kissinger’s, and lived near his country house in Kent, Connecticut. (On a different summer evening, we were having dinner outside at the Morris’s place, and Sylvia, the perfect hostess, noticing that the mosquitoes had become a nuisance, took a can of bug spray and, without warning Kissinger, enveloped his head in a dense, toxic cloud of the stuff. I thought it might be the end of Henry. He waved his arms frantically to clear the air, then politely let the matter pass.)
I noticed something curious about Kissinger, that night at the Buckleys’ house. I’d been impressed, again, by the clarity and precision and even elegance with which he spoke, even though of course English was not his first language. He spoke in perfectly formed sentences and paragraphs, especially when he was developing an idea. But that was not what I noticed now. What interested me—and surprised me—was how, in conversation, he watched his interlocutor’s eyes, searching them in an anxious way, trying to read the nuances of the person’s reaction to what he was saying. I was almost flattered that a man who had been one of the most powerful in the world would be interested, even apprehensive, about my reaction to him. It struck me as a curious neediness.
For a man with his habit of secrecy, Kissinger had—on occasion—a remarkably transparent face. Buckley and Kissinger were close friends, and when Pat Buckley died in 2007, Bill, overcome with grief at the memorial service at the Metropolitan Museum, fell into Kissinger’s arms and buried his head in his shoulder and sobbed uncontrollably. I was a couple of feet away and saw on Kissinger’s face—transparent again—an expression of alarm, confusion, almost panic. (I, too, was astonished; I’d known the self-possessed Bill Buckley for 25 years and had never, before that, seen him break down.)
These are trivial stories to be telling about such a consequential life. That night on the coast of Long Island Sound, boats’ running lights gleaming in the gathering dark, struck me later, when I thought about it, as being like the opening scene of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Buckley and Kissinger reminded me of Conrad’s seasoned nautical men, old friends who had one way or another “followed the sea” and were now gathered in the dusk for an evening of talk aboard a cruising yawl anchored in the Thames—“a waterway leading,” as Conrad wrote, “to the uttermost ends of the earth.”
Henry Kissinger, who has died at the age of 100 at his home in Kent, also led to the uttermost ends of the earth. And sometimes, also, to the heart of darkness. For all the clarity and rationality of his mind, he was a mysterious figure in many ways, one worthy of Conrad’s gift for exploring shadows of character and the ways of evil.
The Kissingers escaped Nazi Germany just in time, fleeing in 1938 and crossing the Atlantic to join other (often distinguished) German Jewish refugees in Washington Heights. His life’s journey went on 85 years after that, soon taking him back across to Europe, where he served in the U.S. army as, among other things, an investigator of Nazis—an interrogator of the evil that killed at least 13 of his close family members in the extermination camps. He rose to become one of the most powerful and consequential figures in diplomatic history, either a great champion of balance-of-power realpolitik, heir to Metternich, or else, as some thought, a war criminal with the blood of uncounted victims on his hands—in Cambodia and Laos, in Chile, in Bangladesh, in Indonesia and elsewhere in the world. His enemies did not hesitate to call him evil. Or, if not that, then callous, Machiavellian, manipulative, indifferent to the death and suffering that his grand machinations brought down upon masses of ordinary people.
Lenin and Stalin and other Great Bad Men were fond of saying that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” It is a favorite motto of history’s brutalists. It is also true. Henry Kissinger’s grand international cookery—détente with Russia, the opening to China, brokering the Middle East, and so on—went far beyond the making of anything as simple as omelets. He left behind millions of words in often-distinguished books that are sweeping and grandly objective, sometimes, yet also self-exonerating.
He had immense distinction, a greatness of mind. I admired the mind, and most of his books, but when I think of him just now, I remember that look of fleeting transparency on his face as he talked—and the anxiety in his eye. There was even, it seemed to me, a touch of fear.
Lance Morrow is the Henry Grunwald Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His work focuses on the moral and ethical dimensions of public events, including developments in regard to freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and political correctness on American campuses, with a view to the future consequences of such suppressions.