Ron Radosh

Henry Kissinger's Vile and Inexcusable Remarks to Nixon

We all know that Henry Kissinger is one of the so-called “realists,” a misleading term that should be discarded, since the concept as they define it has been used most often as the reason to keep failed policies alive by advancing the illusion that they start by accepting the status quo as given.

Under that rubric, Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger opposed the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate freely from their homeland prison. After all, they were trying to gain continued support for “détente,” and anything that stood in the way of accepting the USSR as a given power which the U.S. had to respect, had to be opposed. Thus they opposed the Jackson-Vanik amendment passed by Congress, that asserted American support for the right of Soviet Jews to leave their own country for sanctuary abroad, especially in Israel. The growing movement to save Soviet Jews, chronicled so well by Gal Beckerman in his new book, tells the story of the nascent protest movement that impacted the Soviet Union.

In one of his own books, Natan Sharansky wrote the following:

“…Kissinger saw Jackson’s amendment as an attempt to undermine plans to smoothly carve up the geopolitical pie between the superpowers. It was. Jackson believed that the Soviets had to be confronted, not appeased. Andrei Sakharov was another vociferous opponent of détente. He thought it swept the Soviet’s human rights record under the rug in the name of improved superpower relations…. One message he would consistently convey to these foreigners (the press) was that human rights must never be considered a humanitarian issue alone. For him, it was also a matter of international security. As he succinctly put it: “A country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respect the rights of its neighbors.”

So we already knew for many years that as a man who favored realpolitik over upsetting the apple-cart, Henry Kissinger did not approve of moralistic movements that advocate achieving change by waging vigorous protest against oppressors.

Nevertheless, yesterday’s news story about Kissinger’s remarks, revealed in the latest Nixon tapes release, was a shocker:

The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Mr. Kissinger said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

“I know,” Nixon responded. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.”

Of course, Kissinger had no idea that his chief and the American President was taping all the conversations held in the Oval Office. He would, if asked, ably defend the first sentence. But why did Kissinger, who with his own parents were émigrés from Nazism who had they stayed in Germany would have ended up in the gas chambers, even say anything like this to the Commander-in-Chief?

Did he really believe this, or was he just trying ineptly to assure Nixon that he was not subject to “dual loyalty,” the old bromide of anti-Semites about American Jews, so that the President would know he was fully on board with the policy of détente? Was he just capitulating to Nixon’s virulent personal anti-Semitism, so that his chief would see him as different than those other bad Jews he always railed about? Did he want to show him, that he, Henry Kissinger, was not really among those whom Nixon said shared a character trait with all other Jews, that they had to compensate for an “inferiority complex” since, as Nixon put it, they all have “latent insecurity?”

Whatever excuses he can come up with — if indeed Kissinger even addresses them rather than refuse to take questions at all — his remarks must be fully attacked as not only ill-advised and thoughtless, but as a horrendous and inexcusable and vile capitulation to evil. His stated words to Nixon, coming from one whose own family escaped the coming Holocaust, is particularly worse than insensitive, they are completely disgraceful.

Seth Lipsky has a point that we should judge presidents by their actions, not their words — and when push came to shove, Nixon supported massive arms to Israel at the time of its greatest need. But Lipsky misses the point when he argues that in running the story, The New York Times was simply using the opportunity “to rush out yet another story on how Nixon was a racist and an anti-Semite.” We knew that already; the context of Nixon uttering these words and Kissinger reinforcing him, immediately after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier, is indeed newsworthy, and something we should learn about. And, we did not know the extent of Kissinger’s perfidy in what he said to support the President in his own virulent personal prejudices.

Yes, Christopher Hitchens is correct, when he asks “How Can Anyone Defend Kissinger now?” Ironically, Hitchens writes this just as he loads his critique of Kissinger with his own fairly highly biased and over the top views about Israel. And his column comes the same day as writer Benjamin Kerstein has penned his own tough-minded critique of Hitchens for what he argues quite persuasively is Hitchens’ own myopic and misguided views on Judaism and Israel.  I urge all to read Kerstein for themselves, and see whether or not you agree with his argument that like Nixon, Hitchens too has “poisonous attitudes toward the Jews and Judaism.”

But however you view Hitchens’ own inability to see his own giant blind spot, he is correct when he argues that:

[In] “the past, Kissinger has defended his role as enabler to Nixon’s psychopathic bigotry, saying that he acted as a restraining influence on his boss by playing along and making soothing remarks. This can now go straight into the lavatory pan, along with his other hysterical lies. Obsessed as he was with the Jews, Nixon never came close to saying that he’d be indifferent to a replay of Auschwitz. For this, Kissinger deserves sole recognition.”

And I agree also that Hitchens is correct to write that “Henry Kissinger should have the door shut in his face by every decent person and should be shamed, ostracized, and excluded.”

It is good to report that finally, at least one major Jewish group has immediately condemned Kissinger, thereby showing its willingness to so exclude him from those whose foibles are ignored and who continue to show him great honor. David A. Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, said that “The Nixon Oval Office was clearly a place where bigotry and prejudice were normalized…That a German Jew [Kissinger] who fled the Nazis could speak of a genocidal outcome in such callous tones is truly chilling. Perhaps Kissinger felt that, as a Jew, he had to go the extra mile to prove to the President that there was no question as to where his loyalties lay. That he used such graphic language in doing so speaks volumes about the degree of prejudice inside Nixon’s Administration. It’s hard to find the right words to express the degree of our shock and revulsion at Kissinger’s remarks.”

As Jeffrey Goldberg put it so aptly, Kissinger’s message, which he writes could well be his epitaph, is “Henry Kissinger to Soviet Jewry: Drop Dead.”

Any of us who previously showed some respect for Kissinger should let him know we have one thing we wish we could tell him: Shame, Shame, Shame.

UPDATE: Tuesday, l pm, EST

I have just read Marty Peretz’s intelligent defense of Kissinger at The Spine on, that you can find here. Peretz makes a compelling case that while Kissinger’s words were indeed “shameful,”  one has to take into account what Kissinger actually did. Peretz headed a group, he tells his readers, at which “Dr. K. confided to us how difficult it was to persuade his bigoted boss that a great deal of American arms (and sufficient Lockheed C-130s “Hercules” aircraft to deliver them) were needed and needed instantly. There is no doubt in my mind that Kissinger rescued the third commonwealth with these munitions.”

Peretz therefore concludes that “So, if Kissinger needed to flatter Nixon in order to convince him, that flattery was also a blessing.”  He is also correct when he writes that one should “imagine, by the way, if George McGovern had defeated Nixon in the 1972 election. McGovern’s enmity to Israel was and is well-documented. There would have been no military aid and no Israel.” Indeed, I recall speaking up publicly at a packed PEN Writer’s conference at which McGovern and the late Bruno Kreiski spoke in NewYork City. McGovern said that had he become President, he would have turned first to the virulent anti-Israel Austrian former Premier for advice on what to do about pressuring Israel into concessions. Kreiski at the time was also advocating no pressure against the Soviets and that one had to permanently accept their domination of Eastern Europe.

Yes, Nixon and Kissinger saved us from the fate of McGovern and his far Left anti-Israel cohorts who would have made Obama’s Middle Eastern policy seem good. And Nixon and Kissinger did do better than FDR. I agree thoroughly with Marty on that. Nevertheless, the extent of Kissinger’s kowtowing to Nixon I still find horrendous.

Further Update: 5:45 pm, EST.

At “Contentions,”  Jonathan S. Tobin makes the following very important point:

The assumption that the only choice was between appeasement of the Russians and “blowing up the world” was one that was, at least for a time, shared by these two so-called realists and those Soviet apologists and left-wingers who were otherwise devout Nixon and Kissinger foes. But, as Ronald Reagan, Henry Jackson, and other critics of détente asserted at the time and later proved, there was a choice. America could stand up for its values and speak out for human rights without triggering nuclear war. It was by aggressively supporting dissidents struggling against Communist oppression as well as by sharply opposing Soviet expansionism that the West not only kept the peace but also ultimately brought down the empire that Reagan so rightly characterized as “evil.” A principled and moral foreign policy was not a threat to peace; it was ultimately its guarantor.

While Kissinger has always defended his role in the Nixon White House as being that of the sage voice of wisdom restraining the irascible president, this exchange reveals him in a way that we have never seen before. It is one thing to see human rights as irrelevant to American foreign policy, but quite another to express indifference to the possibility of genocide. For a Jew who suffered Nazi persecution as a boy in Germany and who escaped the fate of 6 million others only by fleeing to freedom in the United States to say that a new set of “gas chambers” would not be “an American concern” was despicable.

I think Tobin’s argument too must be taken into consideration.