Realism No Excuse for Kissinger's Remark

By Robert Zaretsky

Well before the firestorm created by WikiLeaks' release last month of tens of thousands of State Department cables, the American public has periodically burst into flames of outrage over the release of tapes from the Richard Nixon Library. The records of conversations held in the Oval Office have revealed little that we didn't already know about our former president's anti-Semitism: he believed the only good Jews were those who worked for him.

The blaze now consuming Washington was sparked by the publication of conversations between Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger concerning the government's position on the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union. On March 1, 1973, Kissinger told Nixon: "Let's face it: The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. It may be a humanitarian concern."

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Kissinger has since apologized for the comment, but also insists that it was taken out of the context. Many critics have replied that, regardless of the context, the phrase remains outrageous and inexcusable. Most notably, for the columnist Christopher Hitchens, to permit this "gross new revelation to fade would be to devalue our most essential standard of what constitutes the unpardonable."

Yet Kissinger's supporters - including a number of prominent American Jews - have argued that while the remark was certainly outrageous, it can and ought to be excused. In their view, Kissinger was playing a double game: flattering Nixon's vile prejudices in order to achieve admirable diplomatic goals. For some of the apologists, there is in fact a tragic dimension to these events: a man who lost part of his family in the Holocaust ignored the anti-Semitic ravings of the president for the sake of global stability.

The apologists thus adopt the same political realism that, in their view, Kissinger himself practiced on behalf of our national and global interests. In 1969, Kissinger defined this position: "We will judge other countries, including communist countries, on the basis of their actions, not on the basis of their domestic ideologies." For Kissinger's supporters, this bitter, but necessary realism was as relevant to his dealings with Nixon as with Brezhnev.

What would the 20th century's most lucid political realist, Raymond Aron, have made of this controversy? When writing on international politics, Aron insisted that he always tried to imagine the view from within. "What would you do," he asked, "if you were a Cabinet minister?"

Though Aron was at times critical of policies conceived by Kissinger and carried out by the Nixon administration, the two men expressed admiration for one another's writings. In fact, Kissinger is often cast as a disciple of Aron's brand of political realism. Yet there is good reason to doubt, had he been Nixon's foreign affairs minister, he would have done - and said - what Kissinger did.

For Aron, political realism had little in common with the realpolitik practiced by Kissinger. Realpolitik is the narrow calculus of policy based on various options and likely outcomes. As Tony Judt noted, this sort of realpolitick led Neville Chamberlain to come to terms with Hitler in 1938. Seemingly unsentimental and sober, Chamberlain's faux realism was in reality a criminal indulgence in magical thinking.

A nation's global interests and material needs, Aron argued, do not alone shape reality. Its ideas, ideals and moral values also inform its reality and must be taken into account. Thus his support for Algerian independence in the late 1950s - a stance that made Aron as reviled on the French Right as on the Left. While Aron had no illusions about the grim future that waited for Algeria under the control of the FLN, he also grasped the overwhelming power the value of freedom held for Algerians.

"Values" also fueled the protest movement during the 1970s of Soviet Jews seeking to immigrate to Israel. In his effort to contextualize his remarks, Kissinger has portrayed the refuseniks as an obstacle in the way of the grand diplomatic maneuvers. Were it not for his "quiet" negotiations with the Soviets, he claims, the lot of Soviet Jewry would have remained desperate. Yet, historians argue that it was the moral idealism of the refuseniks that ultimately forced the Soviet Union to accept the Jackson-Vanik Amendment - loathed by Kissinger - which required the Soviets to link Jewish emigration to trade agreements with the U.S.

This brings us back to Kissinger's taped remarks. When, in 1967, Charles de Gaulle referred to the Jews as un peuple elite, sûr de lui et dominateur, Aron's reaction was immediate and severe. Though among the first to rally to France Libre, Aron had always been critical of Gaullism, as well as certain traits of the general himself. Yet Aron never believed the general was anti-Semitic. In the wake of de Gaulle's press conference, however, Aron declared that de Gaulle, by confusing Israel with the Jewish people, provided intellectual cover for true anti-Semites. Not only was de Gaulle's comment morally wrong: it was also politically foolish.

In the end, the tapes reveal that Kissinger not only fails the test of moral integrity embodied by Aron - which perhaps comes as no surprise - but also falls short of his teacher's political intelligence.

Robert Zaretsky is professor of history at the Honors College, University of Houston. he is the author of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (Cornell UP 2010) and, with Alice Conklin and Sarah Fishman, France and its Empire Since 1870 (Oxford UP 2010).

 

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