Henry Kissinger

After weeks of delicate negotiation with his diary secretary, an hour is found in Henry Kissinger’s schedule. Then his 97-year-old mother, who he believes was responsible for everything he achieved in his life, dies. The interview is postponed. And now, a fortnight later, it looks as if it’s going to be put back again.

My appointment has already been changed from 11am to 11.30am, and as I sit in my room, walking distance from Dr Kissinger’s office on Park Avenue, I flick through the television channels and wait for another call. CNN is broadcasting live from Baghdad, and Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi foreign minister, is denouncing Kissinger for saying that the US and British forces should concentrate on trying to kill Saddam. An air-raid siren wails in the background.

‘There can’t be a crisis next week,’ Kissinger joked in 1970. ‘My schedule is already full.’ That was the week Syria invaded Jordan, the Soviets based a nuclear-armed submarine in Cuban waters, the CIA planned to destabilise Chile, and the Viet Cong tabled a new peace plan. These days, when there’s an international crisis, Kissinger doesn’t have to deal with it, just comment on it. The media want to know his reaction to everything, from the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, to the arrest of Pinochet.

My phone doesn’t ring, so I set off to meet him. His office suite is on the 26th floor of a steel-and-glass building. There is no sign on the door, just a young female receptionist behind a Plexiglass window. I hear the old bruiser before I see him: that unmistakable Teutonic rumble, gravel churned in a cement mixer: ‘Tell them I have zero flexibility. I have to be out of the studio by 6.45. Got that?’ One of his assistants is trying to keep up with him as he pads from office to office, crossing the corridor in front of me several times.

He is much shorter than you expect, but just as well cushioned. He walks past me, croaks, ‘Hello,’ and disappears into another room. The crinkly hair is still there, silver now. The face is like a walnut: sallow, lined and liver-spotted. The eyelids are heavy, the lower lip droops. The glasses are thick and so is the accent, which is puzzling. Although Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born in Fürth, Bavaria, in 1923, he has lived in New York, as Henry A Kissinger, since he was 15. (With his family – mother, father and younger brother – he emigrated in 1938, to escape Nazi persecution.)

I’m shown into his office, an L-shaped corner where the shelves are decked with about 40 signed photographs of world leaders: everyone from Sadat and Lady Thatcher, to Pope John Paul II and Gorbachev. Some of the prints are so ancient the colour has drained out of them. There is a painting of an American bald eagle and – very Dr Strangelove – a globe.

It is 23 years since Kissinger left high office, yet he still has an aura of power. When Richard Nixon appointed him National Security Advisor in 1969 and Secretary of State in 1973 (an office he continued to hold, under Gerald Ford, until 1977), the Cold War was at its height. As the politician ostensibly in charge of US defence and foreign policy, Kissinger was pretty much the most powerful man in the world.

Kissinger’s power was unlike anyone else’s in history. It was constructed around his personality, for one thing: his notoriously short fuse; his disarming wit; his Machiavellian skills of diplomacy; his ruthlessly analytical mind. It was also related to the preciousness of his time. When told he had to have an emergency triple by-pass operation in 1982, he negotiated with his doctors to see if he could find time for it and concluded he was booked solidly for the next three months. (They overruled, and rushed him in that week.)

Though he’s an old man now – 75 – Kissinger is still regarded as a statesman whose opinions on international relations should be listened to by princes, prime ministers and presidents. When Tony Blair goes on official visits to the States, he includes breakfast with Kissinger in his itinerary. The chairmen of multinational companies, such as American Express and Revlon, listen to him, too. Indeed, they pay Kissinger Associates Inc, the consultancy firm he set up in 1982, millions of dollars each year to brief them on world affairs. And Kissinger still acts the part. He still has an impossibly full diary; he still flies in private jets with an entourage of assistants and bodyguards; and he and Nancy – the tall sophisticate he married in 1974 – are still pictured in the society pages, partying with Hollywood stars, oil tycoons and European royals.

Outside on Park Avenue I can hear an eerie echo of the Baghdad siren: the whooping sound of an NYPD patrol car. I try to gather my thoughts, but now I hear a pneumatic drill rattling against the pavement as well, and the keywords associated with Kissinger jangle in my head like an abstract poem: shuttle diplomacy, Vietnam, détente, SALT treaty, covert operations, Mao, wiretaps, B52s, Brezhnev, geopolitics, war crimes, paranoia, Cambodia, balance of power, power the great aphrodisiac. Power. Five more minutes pass before Dr Kissinger bustles in, undoes his blue suit jacket and sits down. ‘Is that damn thing on?’ he says in an android monotone, pointing to a tape recorder which one of his staff has set up next to mine on the glass coffee table. ‘I tell you. I have no technical skills whatsoever.’ He almost allows himself a smile at this.

Kissinger thinks that history is a constantly evolving subject, on which there can be no definitive take. ‘In the late Seventies and Eighties, for example, the Vietnam protest generation was still very active. A few months ago I was giving a talk at Yale University and, in the students’ minds, I’m not sure if they knew whether the Vietnam War came before or after the Spanish American War. That’s exaggerated, but the Vietnam War was not their concern.’

Kissinger’s own formative experiences do not really feature in the three vast volumes of his memoirs. He doesn’t like talking about himself. He minimises, for instance, the significance of his traumatic childhood and his Jewish heritage – he’s not a practising Jew – and describes his upbringing as typical middle-class German. Even though he was banned as a child from playing soccer with non-Jewish boys (a game he loved then and is still fanatical about), he has said that he wasn’t consciously unhappy – and not acutely aware of what was going on in Germany during his childhood.

Yet when he arrived in New York in 1938 – and went to work in a shaving brush factory during the day while continuing his studies at night school – his discovery that he did not have to cross the street to avoid being beaten up by non-Jewish boys made him long to become an American citizen. He did not come to think of himself as a true American, though, until he joined the US Army as a private in 1943. He proved a valiant soldier at the Battle of the Bulge, volunteering for a small detachment that fought a delaying action when the Germans launched their counter-attack after D-day. (Later, as a sergeant in counter-intelligence, he won a Bronze Star.) When, on a visit to Germany, the Bonn government announced that Kissinger might visit some of his relatives, he intoned darkly, ‘My relatives are soap.’ (At least 13 of them were sent to the gas chambers.) Walter Isaacson, one of his biographers, believes that nearly all Kissinger’s personality traits – his philosophical pessimism, his confidence coexisting with his insecurities, his vanity with his vulnerability and his arrogance with his craving for approval – can be traced to the Holocaust.

Yet there are other sides to Kissinger’s character which can’t be squared with this. His deadpan sense of humour for one: ‘The illegal we do immediately,’ he once joked. ‘The unconstitutional takes a bit longer.’ When he had his heart attack, he quipped, ‘Well, at least it proves I do have a heart.’ According to students of Kissinger, he cultivated a self-deprecating sense of humour when he entered politics. It was intended to defuse jealousy and counter his natural gravitas and arrogance. ‘I have never met a man with greater powers of seduction,’ recalled Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Kissinger first took office.

Kissinger’s charm and powers of flattery weren’t deployed on political colleagues only. ‘Power is the great aphrodisiac,’ he said just before a 1972 poll of Playboy Bunnies voted him ‘the man I would most like to go out with on a date’. And in between his divorce from Ann Fleischer (a New York book-keeper with whom he had two children, David and Elizabeth) and his marriage 24 years ago to Nancy Maginnes (a socialite WASP who worked as Nelson Rockefeller’s researcher), rumours about the Hollywood starlets Kissinger escorted (Jill St John, Candice Bergen and Judy Brown among them) were legion.

But one of the abiding public perceptions of Henry Kissinger is that he was paranoid and secretive. In 1975, discussing civil unrest in East Timor, he told his aides: ‘You have a responsibility to recognise that we are living in a revolutionary situation, everything on paper will be used against me.’ He had enemies: liberals hated his hawkish views on Vietnam; right-wingers distrusted his dovish policies of détente with the Russians and rapprochement with the Chinese; former White House colleagues resented his surviving the Watergate scandal. One of them, John Mitchell, Attorney-General from 1969-72, called Kissinger ‘an egocentric maniac’. Kissinger’s reply could not have been drier: ‘At Harvard it took me ten years to achieve an environment of total hostility. Here I’ve done it in 20 months.’

At a press conference in Salzburg in 1974, Kissinger brooded on the possibility of resigning: he was sick of the stories about his involvement in wiretaps, in destabilising the democratically-elected government of Chile and organising the secret bombing of neutral Cambodia. He had been identified, he said, as someone who cared more about stabilising the balance of power than about moral issues. ‘I would rather like to think that when the record is written, it may be remembered that perhaps some lives were saved and perhaps some mothers can rest more at ease. But I leave that to history.’

When Nixon resigned, Kissinger consoled him with the comment that history would judge him more kindly than did his contemporaries. Nixon countered that it depended who wrote the history. ‘I don’t know whether people questioned Nixon’s leadership at the time so much as his character and some of his actions,’ Kissinger tells me. ‘But I think there has been a much more positive assessment of him.’ Kissinger is comfortable with historical perspectives. After graduating from Harvard in 1950, aged 27, he took an MA two years later and his PhD two years after that. From then until he entered government in 1969, he was a professor of politics.

His senior thesis is still talked about at Harvard. Because of its sheer bulk, 383 pages, it prompted the ‘Kissinger rule’ which limited future students to writing to one third that length. (Judging by the size of his memoirs, over-writing has been a recurrent problem.) The subject of his thesis was ‘the meaning of history’, and even his professors found it pretty impenetrable. It took on all the great thinkers and poets from Kant and Spinoza to Homer and Milton, and its themes ran from morality and freedom to revolution and bureaucracy. At one point he declared that Descartes’s cogito ergo sum was not really necessary. The pursuit of peace, he concluded, is a constant balancing act which lacks larger philosophical meaning. Oh, and life is suffering, and birth involves death.

As a scholar, Kissinger considered the meaning of history. As a politician, he was involved in the making of it. Although he wasn’t involved in the Watergate break-in or cover-up, he surely acquiesced in the attitude that led to it. The atmosphere of paranoia which characterised the Nixon years began in 1969, when Kissinger asked J Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, to authorise taps on William Beecher, a journalist on the New York Times. Beecher had written an account of the secret bombing of Viet Cong supply dumps in Cambodia that year. A furious Kissinger wanted to find out who had leaked the story. I ask Kissinger if he has ever felt that people were plotting against him. ‘No. I don’t feel there were plots against me.’ The guttural voice vibrates the sofa. ‘I feel there were points of view which were very hostile to my point of view. But I don’t consider that a plot. More continual harassment.’

In 1973, Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating peace with honour for both sides in Vietnam. His critics claim that the terms he brokered were not substantially different from those on offer in 1969. With the benefit of hindsight, would he have acted differently over Vietnam? ‘You have to separate it into components. I served in an administration which had inherited the war – so when we came in we found 550,000 troops engaged. Our predecessors had just agreed to stop the bombing, which is a very American approach to negotiations: improve the atmosphere for negotiations by removing some of the pressures that ought to make the other side more willing to negotiate. I think, in retrospect, our predecessors undertook more than the country would ever have been prepared to support. And they had not understood how big an effort it would have been to establish a democratic, independent government in Indochina, by military force.’

He thought it was going to be easy? ‘Well, at the time I was not involved in the decision to go in. But I might have supported it. Secondly, if we did go in, we needed to go in with a strategy that would win. But to go in with a strategy of attrition – which is the American style of fighting a war, and which was totally unsuitable for a guerrilla war – was a big mistake. Then came the period where I did share a major responsibility for policy making and the question became: how do we extricate ourselves from Vietnam? I thought that a compromise solution in which we showed that we had heard our domestic critics but that we would not sacrifice people who had worked with us, would permit us to separate the military and political issues. If we could negotiate a ceasefire, the political evolution would take care of itself. But how to achieve this? I did not appreciate that for the North Vietnamese side a compromise was tantamount to a defeat. They couldn’t accept that the war was about anything other than who controlled the power. So the negotiations became much more complex than I thought they would. Secondly – those who were actively involved in the American protest movement didn’t really want a compromise, they wanted to see an American defeat.’

He’s still very much the poker-faced pedagogue. Indeed, an interview with Kissinger can seem a bit like taking dictation from late-period Henry James: dense yet precise passages of thought, bulging with sub-clauses and rhetorical questions, delivered in a ponderous, flat bass which reaches impossible depths – hundreds of leagues below the surface of normal speech. The best you can do is clarify: does he mean that the anti-war protesters wanted to see America humiliated? ‘For good reasons, from their point of view. They thought that the war was really an exercise in American self-aggrandisement and overreaching, and that unless we were taught a terrible lesson we would go on doing it again and again.’

Kissinger says he didn’t really feel anger towards the protesters. ‘At that time, I felt really more disappointed because, in contrast to Nixon, who treated the protesters as enemies, I considered them former colleagues. So I thought, foolishly, for some time, that there was some misunderstanding and we could find some common ground. And I was frustrated by that.’

When I ask if he would still have sanctioned the secret bombing of Cambodia if he had his time again, he sits forward in his seat, clasps his hands together and pauses. ‘You know, some day, someone will write an accurate account of the so-called “secret bombing of Cambodia”.’

So what is the accurate account? ‘There were four Vietnamese divisions on the border in territory from which they had expelled the Cambodian population. They would come into Vietnam, kill Americans and then withdraw into those sanctuaries. Within a week of Nixon coming into office, the North Vietnamese started an offensive – so they couldn’t have been provoked by anything we did. It caused 400 dead a week. After suffering 1,500 casualties, President Nixon decided he was going to bomb the sanctuaries – and that was the so-called “secret bombings”. What we thought we would do is bomb them, receive a protest about it [from the Cambodians], then ask for a UN investigation which would discover these supply dumps. They never protested. Nor was it all that secret. In May, three months after the bombing started, the Cambodian leader Prince Sihanouk said: “I read all these press reports about the bombing of my country by B52s, I don’t know anything about it because I only know about what happens in regions where Cambodians are living. There are no Cambodians living in the areas that are being bombed.” He invited Nixon to visit him in Phnom Penh. These are incontrovertible facts. And we briefed key congressional leaders. Now, would I still do it? Yes, though I probably wouldn’t keep it secret. Although that, primarily, wasn’t my decision.’

Fritz Kraemer, who became something of a mentor to Kissinger in the US Army, once said of him that he has an inner ear for the music of history. And this could explain his gift for seeing the big picture in geopolitical terms: anticipating how a relatively minor conflict in one part of the world might have major consequences in another. I ask Kissinger if he thinks that it is possible to make a connection – as the author William Shawcross does – between the rise to power of Pol Pot in 1975 and the US bombing of Cambodia in 1969 and 1973?

‘Total nonsense. It’s the same as saying the German extermination of the Jews was caused by the British bombing of Germany. It makes about as much sense. There were no Cambodians in the bombed area, the only alternative to Pol Pot doing what he did was to let the North Vietnamese take over the country first. But that was an option we didn’t have because that would have led to the collapse of South Vietnam. And Pol Pot’s genocide was beyond our imagination.’

A writer from The Nation, an American magazine, recently told Kissinger that, after the bombing of Iraq, he thought the term ‘war criminal’ could be applied to the current president. ‘Mr Clinton does not have the strength of character to be a war criminal,’ Kissinger replied. I ask him now how he feels about accusations that he himself is a war criminal because of the bombing of Cambodia?

‘Why is it a war crime to bomb people who are killing your military units? In what way is that a war crime, even theoretically? There are many interpretations of the Vietnam War with which I violently disagree. At this point I am beyond anger. But what I felt 20 years ago…’ He trails off again. ‘But I concur that some agreed definition of what a war crime is is desperately needed. Before the law becomes an instrument of political warfare.’

In the New Year edition of the New Yorker there is a page anticipating the headlines for 1999. One reads: ‘Henry Kissinger is detained in Quebec on request of Cambodian prosecutor.’ I was told by one of his assistants just before the interview began that Dr Kissinger did not want to comment on the Pinochet affair. We do touch on it, however. He thinks that Britain has made a big mistake in detaining the former Chilean dictator. So what does he think the agreed definition of a war crime should be? ‘Certainly what Pol Pot, Hitler and Stalin did in their camps: go after innocent civilians. That would be a war crime. Where you execute prisoners. I think the major categories are definable, where you get into trouble is at the margins.’

So someone like Slobodan Milosevic would come under that definition? ‘Yes. To the extent that he engaged in mass extermination of civilians. But it is very easy to sit in London or New York and proclaim about war crimes when you don’t know the whole context in which they occurred. There are many crimes which should be judged by the people of the country in which they occurred. When you internationalise them you create a new concept.’

Two months ago, a report in the Independent claimed that Kissinger was about to come under attack as the Clinton administration released documents intended to help Spain’s case against General Pinochet. It speculated that, because these documents might implicate Kissinger in the coup which helped Pinochet to power, they may end in an international law suit against him. Kissinger has said in the past that there is no truth in this claim. He hadn’t even heard of Pinochet when the Chilean dictator came to power. But the report is a telling example of how Kissinger still makes news. Only two weeks ago there was a story in the Guardian which claimed there was new evidence to prove that, during the Cold War, Kissinger had traded intelligence secrets with the Chinese. Kissinger seems destined to go on playing the bogeyman for some years to come.

Does anything make him cry? ‘Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination [the Israeli Prime Minister was killed in 1995]. In addition to being a close colleague, he was a dear personal friend of mine. I thought I understood him quite well. I knew his thinking well. I don’t think I’ve ever shown emotion on television – but I did on that occasion.’ Kissinger is not one to give into his emotions normally, then? ‘No, I’m fairly disciplined.’

This may be a trait he inherited from his father, Louis, a teacher who died in 1982 at the age of 95. The son remembers his father as being unhappy, but too disciplined to inflict his emotions on others. ‘The deaths of your parents change your life, from a purely technical point of view. When those who knew you as a baby are gone, you know you are on your own and you are next in line.’ Did their deaths make him contemplate his own mortality? ‘Well, my father’s coincided with my open-heart surgery. These two things together concentrated my mind.’ And when he reflected upon his life, did he conclude he had been a good man? ‘Now look, I tell you, I live in a Freudian age but I don’t go through the Freudian absorption with my inner being. I have tried to do in each situation the best I thought I could do. And I tried to be very analytical. But I do not go around in self-flagellation later saying, for God’s sake, if I could only live my life again I would do this differently. It may be a weakness. And there may be things I should have done differently – but not at the chief junctures of my life.’

Much of Kissinger’s diplomatic success was attributed to his skills as a flatterer. ‘No, no,’ he says now when I ask if this was true. ‘Look, they say I was engaged in flattery and telling everyone what they wanted to hear – but I had extraordinarily close relations with Sadat, Mao, Brezhnev, all the European leaders, many Latin American leaders, can one do that with flattery alone? If it were that simple, everyone would do it. I would like to think it’s because I really tried to understand as deeply as I could how each side perceived its problem. And I usually began the negotiation by telling each side exactly what I was after, so that they could interpret what I was going to do.’

Does the world seem a safer place to him now than when he was in government? ‘From the point of view of nuclear danger, infinitely safer; from the point of view of structure, more chaotic. In those days you had a Cold War; you had basic criteria of what would benefit one side or the other. Today you have a very amorphous situation. What exactly is Nato supposed to do? What do we want in Bosnia, or Asia, or the Middle East, in the long term? Moreover, you have the economic organisation and the political organisation of the world at variance to each other. The economic is global, the political regional. So all these forces are moving simultaneously at a time when the quality of the political leaders is declining – because they are too absorbed with getting re-elected.’

He checks his watch. If we want to take pictures, we’ll have to end here. The portraits taken, Kissinger flatters shamelessly. He congratulates the photographer on the way he works, then turns to me and says: ‘And great questions.’ Bet he says that to all the interviewers.

This appeared in January 1999. In 2001, on a trip to France, Henry Kissinger was invited by the French legal authorities to answer allegations that he had been involved in crimes against humanity. He declined.