How does having made history affect one’s view of the past? The wry yet still spry 98-year-old Henry Kissinger talks about Richard Nixon, Clemens von Metternich, the Chinese view of the 19th century, why Russia invaded Ukraine, and the influence of history on his life and career.
To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:
Andrew Roberts: Lots of people, when introducing speakers, say that they need no introduction, where upon they go on to give them long introductions. I don't propose to do that with Dr. Henry Kissinger, as if you're someone who's never heard of him, I doubt you'll be listening to the Secrets of Statecraft podcast in the first place. We're very fortunate to have Dr. Henry Kissinger, who clearly has no thoughts about retiring at the age of 98. Henry, history, as an academic discipline, has always been a very important part of your life, hasn't it? Did you have a charismatic history teacher who sparked your interest in the subject, or was it an inescapable part of your background and upbringing in 1920s and 1930s Germany?
Henry Kissinger: No, I would say there is starting point to it. I was interested in reading Roman history, for some reason. But the real interest developed when I was in the army and I became acquainted with a man called, by the name of Fritz Kraemer, who was a German conservative who had left Germany and found himself in the American army, where he wore a monocle and a strange person by those standards. But he awoke my interest in systematic history and he recommended reading Spengler and other philosophers of history. And since then, I was about 19 at that time, I've been working on it systematically.
Andrew Roberts: Yes. Well, Spengler came up as part of your senior undergraduate thesis, didn't it? It's when you were studying at Harvard, you wrote The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant.
Henry Kissinger: Well, I was fascinated by this concept, which today I take for granted but was new to me then, that every aspect of a society is really part of a historical theme. And that you can learn about society, not just by reading the history consecutively, but by studying its architecture and philosophy. And I think that is true, and it became part of my later reflections on history and politics.
Andrew Roberts: And so you can see a structure, a meaning in the past?
Henry Kissinger: Well, not a literal structure, because events appear unpredictably, and each generation has to react to them by the values and standards and convictions it has developed. But there are comparable themes that appear, they're not identical, they have to be looked at by analogy, that history repeats itself, not in exactly the same sequence, but it repeats itself by comparable events.
Andrew Roberts: Do you think mankind learns from history? Can you think of any examples of that happening?
Henry Kissinger: It depends on the leaders. For Churchill, history was crucial, and a student asked him once, what he could do to learn about statesmanship, and he said, "Study history, study history, study history." And I think many of the great statesmen had a profound conception of history, but they had to shape it for their own period. If you take De Gaulle, who was a contemporary of Churchill, his notion of history was not identical with Churchill. Churchill's was a consecutive evolution, in which the past strengthened you for dealing with the present, but it was not simply a cookbook from which you could learn. For De Gaulle, history was an example in which France could restore itself to its greatness, it wasn't so much individual events from which you could learn, but it was the grandeur of the performance. And since De Gaulle believed for Churchill, the issue was to derive strengths from British history and apply to any new circumstance, which was an isolated Britain under mortal threat. For De Gaulle, history was something from which to reeducate his society, and if he hadn't had that [inaudible 00:06:26], he could not have done that.
Andrew Roberts: Yes, it reminds us really in a sense, that Churchill was the last of the Whigs, when it came to writing history. I'm very interested in your doctoral thesis, which was, Peace, Legitimacy and the Equilibrium: The study of the Statesmanship of Castlereagh and Metternich, both of whom, of course, were very interested in history and the past. It established, it was of course about the diplomacy that established peace in Europe after the Napoleonic wars, but it established this concept of legitimacy as being central to understanding what states can and cannot do at international relations. And the theory, I feel, has held up remarkably well over the past 66 years since you wrote it. But what do you think of that theory in the light of recent events?
Henry Kissinger: Well, the challenge after great upheavals, is in the name of what you're going to reconstruct, society and history. And you can, of course, attempt to do it on the basis of power, and you can do it by inventing a new ideology and have a kind of religious revival. But the concept of legitimate legitimacy is a substitute for power, it enables societies to operate coherently, on the basis of the conviction of what is proper and appropriate in their circumstances. It has operated quite well in the postwar period of world war II, and it operated for nearly a hundred years after the Napoleonic wars. It doesn't automatically give the societies a precise answer, but it gives them an approximation of the limit beyond which they must not go, and of the basic direction which is considered appropriate. Now in the current period, the question is what Putin is doing, and it's all on the legitimacy of the post world war II period, or is it an act of desperation of a society that is declining, and that it's trying to find a new place and thinks that it [inaudible 00:09:24] this new definition, by resistance to what it conceives a total overthrow of the historical pattern in which Russia has lived. That is the question which one wants to answer with respect to Putin. I personally lean to the latter interpretation and not to the former, I do not believe it, and so it would march westward if it succeeded. But I agree with the Western societies that feel they have to stop it at this point, before this notion might develop, of overthrowing the whole system. But in my analysis of what is happening, it is more an act of desperation of a society that sees an evolution that will lead to its historic performance, and that is using force, but it is using the force in a manner that the Western societies identified with what happened in the 20th century, and to which they were especially sensitive, and which they felt they could not allow to be established, whatever psychological origin.
Andrew Roberts: When you were negotiating the end of the Vietnam war with Le Duc Tho, or when you were conducting the shuttle diplomacy that tried to end the conflict in the Middle East, did you feel the weight of history on your shoulders? How much did you worry about what future generations would think about your efforts, how you would be portrayed in history and so on?
Henry Kissinger: With respect to the Vietnam war, I did not think that. With respect the Vietnam war, I thought it was a circumstance in which the United States, on which the safety of the world depended, was impaired, embroiled itself in a situation, maybe unwisely. But at the time that Nixon came into office, we had 500,000 people in an area as far away from America as you could be, not only physically, but culturally. So our view was that when so many other societies depended on us, we could not simply act as if we're in a television program that you could turn off. At [inaudible 00:12:44] and we've seen in Afghanistan and elsewhere, that turning off the [inaudible 00:12:49] crisis is extraordinarily complex. So that was really the basic conviction, that it had to end what we considered honorably, that innocent people whom we had pledged to defend, were not simply abandoned as a tool in a great power struggle or even small power struggle. That was the basic motivation, now there were other situations, for example, the role of nuclear weapons, where I felt very deeply that this was an issue on which the judgment of history might importantly depend, that this was a weapon that couldn't be used in the traditional way. But having said this, how did one apply that? And so some control of nuclear weapons, that would see a big issue in the detente period, we felt we had an obligation with respect to nuclear weapons, to maintain their use if there were no other alternative, but to shrink the alternatives to the smallest responsible number. With respect to that, I did have the feeling that history demanded that of us, and I feel that is more with respect to the high technology of the contemporary period, which has no spokesman for restraint, it has only spokesman for more rapid development, and whose implications will be manifold, even more complex than those with nuclear weapons.
Andrew Roberts: You mentioned Richard Nixon, how acute was his sense of history? Did you discuss history with him? Do you think his knowledge about the past affected his presidency?
Henry Kissinger: Well, the interesting thing about my relation with Nixon was that I had never met him before he appointed me to this position. And I had in fact, been a principal supporter of Nelson Rockefeller, who was his chief opponent within the Republican party. But therefore when I joined him, when he persuaded me to join him, I was astonished at how interested he was in a certain kind of history. I would say from the Napoleonic period to the present, probably more Napoleon III than Napoleon I.
Andrew Roberts: That's pretty unusual, Henry.
Henry Kissinger: He was very interested in Napoleon, but he was interested in the rise and decline of Western societies, as he had observed it backward of his own lifetime by about a hundred years.
Andrew Roberts: And he could see flashes of the French second empire in the west of the day, that's an extraordinary thought.
Henry Kissinger: Well, he felt that there was a point of French decline that was associated with that, and he was very interested why that had happened, and in the reaches of Germany, he did not reflect deeply about the reformation issues like this. But he was better educated than most leaders because he read a lot, that's how he occupied his free time.
Andrew Roberts: And do you feel that a sense of history like that, has waned in the world leaders that you've met since you were Secretary of State and national Security Advisor, and that's half a century ago. And do you think that today's world leaders read and think about history as much as Richard Nixon did and as much as they ought to?
Henry Kissinger: Well, Richard Nixon was not typical of his period, but even the other presidents that I have known, who are more concerned with history than the generation that it brought up on the internet, which tends to make its judgements more on the basis of reactions to immediate events, and on the impact of events on the immediate situation. And most of the people before that I knew, before the rise of the internet, they might not have been great scholars of history, but they had more of a respect for history than one finds today.
Andrew Roberts: Let's talk about China. From your memories of Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping, and the others, what was their sense of history? Did it affect them politically and with President Xi today, how affected is he by the concept of the century of shame in the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example?
Henry Kissinger: Well, in my observation, when I started dealing with the Chinese, I did not know more than elementary things about their history, and I've, of course, become very preoccupied with it now. Partly because I think that Chinese society operates by a historical experience that infuses its consciousness, and so that its leaders can speak about historical events with an assurance that one does not find in the West, among Western leaders, and also with not just an intellectual assurance, but with a sense as if they were still part of that process. And in that process, the humiliation of China for 100 years played a role, but even more, plays a role that China was conceived historically as the central kingdom, that the relationship of China to the rest of the world, was determined hierarchically in their thinking, by degree to which other societies approximated their degree of culture, which they never could fully reach. So when the British envoy, end of the 18th century, appeared, he was treated as a representative of a country that was attempting to gain the favor of the Emperor and messages were delivered to him. And a reply of the letter he brought from the King of England, was not handed to him by the Emperor, but left on the chair on which the Emperor had sat, for him to pick up. And the reply was that if you are asking for regular contacts, that is unthinkable, but if you want to send an ambassador and if he's prepared to wear Chinese clothes and live in a Chinese residence and will never be permitted to leave, he will be treated hospitably [inaudible 00:22:30]. Now, I'm not saying [inaudible 00:22:35].
Andrew Roberts: Yes, that was Lord McCartney, wasn't it, and he refused to do the kotow as well, and it wrecked Anglo Chinese relations for some time, in the 1770s and 1780s.
Henry Kissinger: Exactly. So there was a big cultural divide from that, even at that point, and at this moment I think Xi does not carry into that extreme. There is an underlying, a leading [inaudible 00:23:11] Chinese said to me a few years ago, said, "The difference between Western countries and Chinese countries, is that the Western countries have always been relatively small, and were therefore very countries of the domestic structure of others, and therefore very involved in the domestic structure of each other. While we have always been very large, and our problem is that we may have internal conflicts and that is our danger, but our society operates with the consciousness of a very large society that does not have to worry about the internal struggles." And I think this is a concept that is characteristic of what is going on in current relations.
Andrew Roberts: And it must be very helpful to Chinese politicians to be able to make references to the past, where they know that the majority of the population, or at least a large proportion of the population will know what they're talking about. Which is much more difficult for Western leaders today because of the porosity of historical knowledge amongst the population. Do you think that would be fair?
Henry Kissinger: And the porosity of agreement among the population.
Andrew Roberts: Yes, well, of course you can do that in a society where you control the education in the way that the Chinese can do, but we can't, of course. Something I ask all my guests is what's your favorite counterfactual, what's your favorite what if moment of history, where history might have turned out differently? Henry, do you have a favorite counterfactual?
Henry Kissinger: Actually I do, and it's a relatively obscure event. It is when the British defense minister, I don't know exactly what his title was, went to Berlin in 1912 and proposed that if Germany would cut down its dreadnought production, Britain would consider a kind of neutrality in European wars. He did not define exactly what that neutrality would be, and it never reached the point of discussing what degree of dreadnought, but the German Emperor turned it down as an insult to his domestic prerogatives. But when one reflects that the German navy of whatever size it was, left port only one time in the 1914 world war, first world war, and what might have happened if that dialogue had started, whether the war might not have started, or whether it would've started under different terms, and would've been easier to settle.
Andrew Roberts: Yes, the Haldane Mission it was called, wasn't it, from Richard Haldane, Secretary for Defense, yes, and a clear offer was made and was turned down. And it wasn't as though the German navy was going to be strong enough to destroy the Royal navy in the North Sea.
Henry Kissinger: Oh, it was really for the Emperor's [inaudible 00:27:08] of being as strong as the British navy, which was precisely what Britain would not allow without resistance.
Andrew Roberts: But don't you feel, just to take your counterfactual one stage further, but if Britain therefore did not intervene on the side of France in 1914, you might have got a 1940 situation, a quarter of a century earlier?
Henry Kissinger: Well, we could have had a 1940 situation and Britain faced with that might have intervened anyway, because it would not permit one country to dominate Europe, and probably should have intervened. But the outcome of the war would've been more of a Napoleonic war, where the victors were willing either to build the defeated back into the European society, rather than the Versailles structure, which was untenable.
Andrew Roberts: And you wouldn't have got also, of course, if the great war hadn't broken out, you wouldn't have got the Bolshevik revolution, you wouldn't have got the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust. Your life, of all peoples, your life would've been tremendously different, wouldn't it?
Henry Kissinger: Nazi overthrow, and I'd be in Germany today, teaching in high school.
Andrew Roberts: You certainly would. And finally, you'd be a marvelous teacher, by the way, Henry, what history book or biography are you reading at the moment? What book would you be telling your German high school students to be reading right now?
Henry Kissinger: Well, actually the book I'm reading most intensely right now, is by [inaudible 00:29:01] and it's a book about the rise and fall of civilizations, but based more on their financial level, but it traces the history of Britain, Holland and other societies in America today. More on financial, on the evolution of financial institutions, which has not been my primary interest up til now, but that is the book that occupies me most. But because I'm working on a book right now about the impact of statesmanship, I'm reading books on the nature of statesmanship at the end of the first world war, of what societies thought they were accomplishing or should try to accomplish, because that was one of the great failures of history.
Andrew Roberts: We share a publisher in Stuart Profit, and he's told me about this new book on statesmanship, and it sounds absolutely fascinating. I think you are an inspiration to every author, that you're still publishing books at the age of, I think you'll be 99 by the time this book comes out, won't it, in the summer. And thank you so much, for coming on my podcast. I appreciate it enormously, and it's a great honor and a pleasure.
Henry Kissinger: Thank you for inviting me. You know, I've been a great admirer of your books.
Andrew Roberts: Thank you so much for saying that. I was definitely keeping that in after the edit, Henry. All right, goodbye. Thanks for listening. Please join me in the next episode of Secrets of Statecraft, when I'll be interviewing Ivan Duque, the President of Columbia, the country that is, not the university or the movie studio.