Article abstract: Both in theory (in his writings as an academic) and in practice (serving as national security adviser and secretary of state), Kissinger advocated a new conception of American foreign policy more closely akin to traditional European balance-of-power politics than to the reformist model to which Americans had become accustomed.
Heinz (later Henry) Alfred Kissinger was born in the small town of Fürth, located in the south German province of Franconia near Nuremberg, on May 27, 1923. His father, Louis, was a professor at a local high school, while his mother, Paula, was a housewife. The setting was a typical middle-class German one, except for one factor: The Kissingers were a Jewish family in a Germany that was on the brink of Nazism. Heinz and his younger brother Walter were often beaten by anti-Semitic Hitler youths on their way to and from school; finally, they were expelled and forced to attend an all-Jewish institution. Their father was eventually forced to resign his position, and after years of social ostracism, the Kissinger family was fortunate to be able to immigrate to the United States in 1938. Such early experiences were formative; they led Kissinger to distrust the opinion of the moment and to a lifelong concern for the conditions conducive to the preservation of social stability and an abhorrence of revolution and all social upheaval.
The Kissinger family settled, as did many refugees from Nazism, in the Washington Heights section of New York City, where Louis found employment as a bookkeeper and Paula worked as a cook in the homes of wealthy families. Perhaps because he was already fifteen in 1938, the youth never entirely lost his German accent and usually impressed Americans as being rather European in manner and appearance. He was graduated from George Washington High School in 1941 with a straight-A average and began to prepare himself for a career as an accountant, taking evening courses at City College. The United States’ entry into World War II changed all that, expanding his horizons and presenting unforeseen opportunities.
In 1943, Kissinger was drafted into the United States Army and became a naturalized American citizen. His language abilities and high scores on aptitude tests soon catapulted this bespectacled and rather unprepossessing (he was only five feet, eight inches tall and intellectual rather than athletic in appearance) young man into important positions. He became German interpreter for his commanding general and worked his way up to the position of staff sergeant in army intelligence. After the war, Kissinger was given the task of reorganizing municipal government in the town of Krefeld and became a district administrator with the Occupation government.
In September, 1946, he entered Harvard College under a New York State scholarship and embarked on what was quickly to become a very distinguished academic career. Majoring in government, he came under the tutelage of William Yandell Elliott. He wrote an extremely ambitious 377-page senior honors thesis entitled “The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant” and was graduated with highest honors. The study of international relations at the graduate level was a new and burgeoning field in the early 1950’s, and Kissinger rode this new academic wave. While still a graduate student, he served as executive director of the Harvard International Seminar and as editor of the journal Confluence: An International Forum. Kissinger received his Ph.D. in 1954, on the basis of a doctoral dissertation which earned for him the Sumner Prize and which was later published as A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822 (1957). It was history written from a presentist perspective and with a purpose: Kissinger looked at the conservative statesmen of an earlier age in order to develop a blueprint for how best to reintegrate revolutionary powers into the international system.
Kissinger stayed on at Harvard as an instructor and received a big break when he was appointed study director of an important Council on Foreign Relations research program which sought to explore means short of all-out nuclear war of coping with Soviet challenges as an alternative to the “massive retaliation” doctrine of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. The end result was Kissinger’s first major published work, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957), which argued persuasively that strategy must shape weaponry rather than the reverse but which also provoked considerable controversy in that Kissinger seemed to believe that it might prove possible to fight a limited or tactical nuclear war. The book was widely read, met an obvious need, and gave Kissinger an international reputation as one of the country’s leading “defense intellectuals.”
Thereafter, his academic and public-governmental careers advanced in tandem, and Kissinger became a frequent traveler on the Boston-New York-Washington corridor. Kissinger became a lecturer in government at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs in 1957. He was named associate professor of government in 1959 and professor in 1962. For ten years, from 1959 to 1969, he also served as director of Harvard’s Defense Studies program. Meanwhile, he served as a consultant on defense and foreign policy matters, first in the Eisenhower Administration and then in those of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. In the latter administration, he also served as President Johnson’s secret emissary in efforts to bring the North Vietnamese to the peace table. He somehow also managed to find the time to write prolifically on the subject of international relations, producing scores of articles and, in the 1960’s, several penetrating books: The Necessity for Choice: Prospects of American Foreign Policy (1961), The Troubled Partnership: A Reappraisal of the Atlantic Alliance (1965), and American Foreign Policy: Three Essays (1969).
Kissinger’s work for the Council on Foreign Relations early brought him to the attention of Nelson Rockefeller, and by the time Rockefeller made his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, Kissinger had been serving him as a foreign policy adviser and speech writer for some years. In 1968, Kissinger helped draft Rockefeller’s platform and...
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