Henry Kissinger:  Where it All Went Wrong



A book review essay for Peacehawks, based on The Inevitability of Tragedy:  Henry Kissinger and His World, by Barry Gewen.[1]


by Jamie Arbuckle, November 2020



Idealism, which has been won from human experience, is far more realistic than ideology – not to mention cynicism or resignation.


Sir Brian Urquhart,  A Life







Barry Gewen attempts in this very useful biography of Henry Kissinger to avoid hagiography, but he can’t quite. In a conversation with a ” friend”, which serves as  his introduction, he states his own views as “Realpolitik “, reaching “conclusions based on … power relationships … to distinguish what was true – Realism – from what one wished to be true”.  His friend, on the other hand, “put more emphasis on the place of ethics in foreign policy … without a moral component international affairs would degenerate into a Hobbesian world of all against all, … and only  bullies and gangsters would prevail”.[2]


Gewen attempts to see, or at least to present fairly, both sides of the Kant-Hobbes dichotomy, but he is firmly on the side of the decidedly Hobbesian Henry Kissinger:


… we dismiss or ignore him at our peril. … He is a philosopher of international relations who has much to teach us about how the modern world works – and often doesn’t. His arguments for his brand of Realism – thinking in terms of national interest and a balance of power – offer the possibility of rationality, coherence, and a necessary long-term perspective at a time when all three of these qualities seem to be in short supply. [3]


And that, as this book cannot avoid showing us, was Kissinger leading his country, under a succession of Presidents, stumbling into a series  of diplomatic disasters with which we all have had to live ever since.  The worst of these were: the Domino Theory, especially as it was applied in Latin America and in South-East Asia for almost 25 years; the U.S. intervention in Chile in the 1970s; these culminating in the bombing and invasion of Cambodia in 1969-70 and the eventual humiliation and expulsion of the U.S. from Vietnam.


The Domino Theory


Gewen tells us that the Domino theory was a Cold War by-product, first used by the National Security Council in 1950, stating that the French loss of their possessions in Indochina would have unwanted consequences for neighbouring Thailand and Burma.

Almost immediately following  in 1951, alarms were triggered when the newly and popularly elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbens, allowed Communists to participate in politics, and initiated a land reform programme which affronted the United Fruit Company. The Company  launched a massive anti-Communist campaign in the U.S.  Patrons of the United Fruit Company read like a Republican Party who’s who, and included both the Dulles brothers as legal representatives and shareholders.  A CIA-led and supported (including airstrikes) invasion toppled the Arbens government and installed in his place a military dictator who was described as “the Liberator of Guatemala”.  Bullies and gangsters, did someone say?


In 1954, Eisenhower predicted that, if Indochina fell to the Communists, eventually Japan, the Philippines and Australia “would be threatened”.   And in 1964, “Nixon asserted that the fate of all Asia rested on the outcome in Vietnam.”  In 1970, Bob Hope told his audiences that the future of India depended on Indochina, and he went on to warn of eventual fighting on Staten Island.[4] (He apparently was  not joking).


But in its 20-year life the Domino Theory produced not one shred of evidence to substantiate the underlying popular fears of an aggressive monolith. The French exit from Indochina proved to have few consequences for France, the USSR and China had seriously fallen out, just around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Tito had become the undisputed leader of Yugoslavia andwas conspicuously independent of Stalin. And, as Hans Morgenthau pointed out, ” … the United States encounters today less hostility from Tito, who is a Communist, than from de Gaulle, who is not.”


Bad ideas die slowly, and this one lived on to go seriously wrong when its subsidiary policy of containment was extended beyond Europe “to areas of the world where it had no relevance and was never intended to be deployed”; as Morgenthau said, “The Truman Doctrine[5] transformed a concrete interest of the United States in a geographically defined part of the world into a moral principal of world-wide validity, to be applied regardless of the limits of American interests and of American power.”[6]


But such revisionist thinking did not seriously influence Kissinger,  the always Hobbesian, self-proclaimed “Lone Ranger of international affairs”.




Gewen describes fairly, and accurately, the U.S. reaction to the election of Salvador Allende as the President of Chile in 1970.


Following an unsuccessful bid for his country’s presidency in 1964, Allende became the president in 1970.  As is commonly the case in multi-party systems of government, he did not come to office with a majority, rather with a plurality, and this in a country with a tradition of democratic government and of healthy and active opposition. Nevertheless, despite the limited aims – and powers – which were Allende’s, Kissinger’s reaction to the rise of this leftist-socialist leader ironically repeated a mistake (or more probably a deliberate tactic) of the National Socialists in Germany in the Thirties: they conflated Socialists and Social Democrats with Communists, exaggerated the well-known dangers of the latter, and proceeded to persecute them equally.


Allende was certainly a chameleon, trying to be all things to all men. He was variously called a Marxist, some said a Leninist.  He said, and many in the U.S. government agreed, that he was no Castroite. For Kissinger he was a Communist, and no friend of Castro could be anything but a threat to the security of the U.S. (despite the Crisis of 1962, Cuba had since posed little or no threat to the U.S. nor, for that matter, to anyone else). The most Kissinger would grant was that Allende was a Kerensky[7], a relatively moderate actor who would not survive the tumult of continuing revolution, and whose inevitable fall would lead straight to Bolshevism.  Something must be done, and it must be done promptly. Kissinger would not be persuaded by the fact of a democratic election, and he finally erupted: “I don’t see why we have to stand by and watch a country go Communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”[8]  It is notable that socialist heads of the governments of Germany and of Sweden just at that time triggered no alarms for Kissinger.


The damage to the reputation and perceptions of the U.S in Latin America were profound, and are profoundly with us today.

Vietnam – Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

 The north Vietnamese don’t just want the Americans to leave Vietnam; they want them to leave stinking.

 John Gellner, D.F.C., author, editor and journalist, in an address to the Canadian Forces Staff School, Toronto, May 1967


Kissinger certainly had  his doubts about the efficacy of the American military mission in Vietnam: following his first visit in 1965, Kissinger reported that the government was hopeless, pacification was an illusion; he could see no light at the end of the tunnel. Nevertheless, at the end of that year Kissinger was one of 189  signatories of an open letter to the New York Times urging support for the US aims in Vietnam, and decrying the growing protest movement.  Vietnam, so said Kissinger, was “a crucial test of American maturity”; withdrawal was out of the question.  For him, the Domino Theory was not dead, not at all. As Nixon said in (about) 1970, “The foreign policy of the United Sates will not be viable if we’re run out of Vietnam.  That’s all there is to it.” Over  20,000 Americans died in Vietnam in the Nixon-Kissinger years, nearly half the total killed in the entire campaign which Kissinger had already in 1965 judged unwinnable.


Kissinger was described as the “closet dove” in the Lyndon Johnson White House.  Gewen writes:


One historian has counted up 20,000 occasions when the Johnson administration tried to get negotiations started with the North Vietnamese, but the numbers are deceiving. Compromise was never on Johnson’s mind. What he understood by negotiations was that Hanoi should give up its war aim of conquering South Vietnam while Washington would achieve its war aim of assuring an independent South Vietnam. … heads I win, tails you lose.[9]



It is nearly impossible to follow the courses of Henry Kissinger through the  years  of his involvement in Vietnam.   Ever the changeling, his public and his private views and writings are not easily squared, nor need we waste much time trying to do so.  The “closet dove”, who thought in 1965 that the war was unwinnable, was a close confidant of Lyndon Johnson, perhaps the most bellicose of American presidents of the two decades long America-Vietnam era, and Kissinger was National Security Advisor and Secretary of State to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.  Nevertheless his first impressions seem to have been his best thinking on Vietnam. But before the Americans left Vietnam empty-handed and with South Vietnam breathing its last as an independent country, he would be instrumental in the central infamy of the whole tragic, and unnecessarily costly unraveling of American foreign policy – the Christmas Bombing of Cambodia.




With  the North Vietnamese holding  all the best cards, and America holding none, the former played their strong hand well, and the latter played a weak hand  badly. Negotiations, insincerely undertaken by Johnson, were understandably going nowhere, and something had to be done.


Nixon had moved the Johnson goal posts:  the aim was no longer victory, it became withdrawal  with dignity.  That wasn’t working either; the North Vietnamese still wanted the Americans to leave stinking. Kissinger then changed the game: it was now to  be withdrawal through escalation. The Americans wanted an honourable peace, perhaps not remembering what Churchill  had said of the Munich Accords in 1936:  “They wanted peace with honour. Now they  shall have neither.”  And that was just what the North Vietnamese intended for the Americans.


Hence the decision to bomb North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia; this  commenced in April, 1969.  The Americans were waging a “war for peace”.  Protests erupted all across the United States, and indeed all over the world as the bombing of Cambodia was excoriated by, among others, some of America’s closest friends.


But the bombing didn’t work. North Vietnam had in fact hardened its position. One definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again, always expecting a different outcome, and it may be wondered if Nixon and Kissinger were entirely sane when they decided to increase the bombing.  Henry:  “I had come to the reluctant conclusion that we had to put it to them in Hanoi, painful as it is.”  The bombing started  on 14 December, and lasted until the 30th; in those two weeks more bombs fell on the Vietnamese than all those dropped in two years from 1969 to 1971.


And still it wasn’t working. Kissinger was  seeking in vain for “peace with honour”, and of course neither was on offer,  or likely in those terms at all.  McNamara, one of the original hawks, pronounced the knell for the American position in Vietnam: “short of genocide, it is unlikely that you can break a nation’s will by bombing.”  Put simply: the Vietnamese capacity to absorb punishment always had and always would far exceed the American willingness to dish it out.


Resistance Spreads and Grows


On 4 May 1970 I was with a group of Canadian officers, students at the Canadian Army Staff College in Kingston, Ontario, visiting the U.S. Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  On that afternoon we were to have an exercise based on race riots in Columbus, Ohio, which had occurred in July of 1969, when the state governor had called out the Ohio National Guard to restore order and enforce a curfew. As it happened, I had been in Columbus on a family visit just at that time, so I thought I knew what was coming. Just before lunch that day, we were assembled in the Eisenhower Auditorium for a briefing (by a Military Police officer) to introduce the exercise.


The briefing officer began:


This afternoon we will take up the study of events in Columbus, Ohio in July of last year, when the Ohio National Guard was deployed to assist in maintaining public order. You will have heard that the Ohio Guard has again been called out in the same role due to unrest on the campus of Kent State University.  What you may not yet have heard is that this morning Guardsmen were forced to open fire on protesters who were threatening the lives of the soldiers, and four of the rioters were killed.


Upon hearing this, nearly 100 American officers erupted – most stood on their desks, all cheered and clapped. We Canadians sat stunned, looking at each other through a forest of legs and boots as the cheering continued.


We might have been watching the Reichstag burn.


The nation was now more bitterly divided than at any time since the Civil War over a hundred years before. And things just got worse.


The Domino Theory had been dead for almost 10 years, the South Vietnamese government was unsustainable, air power didn’t work, casualties were mounting, the nation was progressively more divided, Nixon and Kissinger were circling the drain.  Americans would soon leave, stinking, and the stench is with us still.




Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace …

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.

William Shakespeare



How could Kissinger the brilliant academic have gotten so many things so wrong?  Nothing worked for him, nor for the Presidents he advised.   Confusion about and among interests, positions and values severely limited the development of foreign and domestic policies.  The bleak and ruthless pursuit of American interests has left little space for the interests and values of others; indeed could there ever in these terms be a reasonable appreciation of their own goals, or  how to achieve them? Imagined adversaries, and imaginative adversarial relationships demonized relatively harmless parties and persons, but even that was unevenly selective: The socialists Arbenz and Allende were dangerous; Olaf Palme and Gerhard Schroeder were not.


It is hard, reading this book, not to think of it in terms of current events, as shoulder-to-shoulder has too often become face-to-face, the distinctions between dangers real and apprehended have nearly  disappeared, self  fulfilling prophecies have fulfilled themselves.


But we can only hope that we have all learned some hard lessons about the unavoidable interrelationship among positions, interests and values.  We urgently need for America to recover her place in our globalized world.  Perhaps as a first step on that long road back, President-elect Joe Biden has fired a warning shot across the bows of, among others, Saudi Arabia:


It is past time to restore a sense of balance, perspective and fidelity to our values in our relationships in the Middle East…. We will make it clear that America will never again check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons.[10]



Can we believe in this?  Is this to be true of American relationships with a nation which has now in prison women accused and convicted of driving a car? Driving while female? National policies, once installed, are unwieldy, and changes of pace or course are difficult to manage and slow to implement. But perhaps America is moving on from Hobbes a bit closer to Kant, and on beyond Henry Kissinger and his world. This book, meant in praise of Kissinger, has nevertheless shown us how far America has gone – in the wrong directions - and how far she has yet to go.


Will they make it?  Will we?






[1]W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2020

[2]Gewen, page vii

[3]op. cit, page xiii

[4]op. cit., page 338-40

[5]The Truman Doctrine had been proclaimed in 1947 “to assist threatened allies”. This, like the nearly-simultaneous Containment Policy and the Marshall Plan, were intended to apply to Western Europe, which would eventually become NATO in 1949.

[6]op. cit., page 247

[7]Alexander Kerensky was a relatively moderate socialist who was the head of government in Russia immediately following the revolution, but in the post-revolutionary turmoil could not maintain power and was displaced by the much more radical Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

[8]op. cit. page 50

[9]Gewen, page 263.

[10]The New York  Times, 21 November 2020

2 thoughts on “Henry Kissinger:  Where it All Went Wrong

  1. Amazing how idealistic self-declared hard-core realists can be, including US Presidents and other dignitaries, who worship Henry Kissinger without acknowledging his multitude of errors and the lasting disasters they caused around the world. As for Kissinger himself, there is one explanation why he refuses to leave this world, because he knows where he is going next…

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