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'Kissinger' is Unreconstructed

Kissinger suggest not only what Henry Kissinger might have missed with his famous attention to big pictures, to realpolitik, but also the consequences of his decisions.


Airtime: Monday, 10pm ET
Cast: Henry Kissinger, Niall Ferguson
Network: National Geographic Channel
Director: Adrian Pennink
Air date: 2011-09-12
America will always have a human rights component to its foreign policy. And a democratic component. America cannot conduct totally abstract power politics. Not even Bismarck conducted pure power politics. He said that the best a statesman can do is to listen to the footsteps of God, get a hold of the hem of his coat. You need values. But if you say to yourself that I’m going to get this accomplished in three years, or in a very finite time period, you’re denying any concept of evolution and of history, and you get in beyond your depth.

-- Henry Kissinger, 2007

I have generally found that the best negotiating approach is to put before the other side a full and honest account of one's ultimate objectives. Tactical bargaining -- moving through a series of minimum concessions -- tests endurance via peripheral issues. But it runs the risk of producing misunderstanding about ultimate purposes.

-- Henry Kissinger, 2009

At the start of Kissinger, Henry Kissinger is backtracking. He's trying to edit what he's just said. More precisely, he's worried about how he sounds. "I'm a little bothered by that last answer," Kissinger tells an off-screen Niall Ferguson, "where you said, 'Are you sorry or wish you had done anything differently?' And I didn’t really have the right answer to that. It looked sort of arrogant. And I'd like to rephrase that same thought in a different way."

The camera is set back to reveal the interview set: a screen behind Kissinger, along with cables, lights, and Ferguson, exposed elements in the construction of his story of himself. A cut to a close-up brings focus to his hand, quietly conducting as he speaks. As you ponder the rephrasing in process, the credits sequence offers images of the glory days, Kissinger on a world stage, meeting with Zhou Enlai in 1972, returning to China this decade (his wife Nancy walking behind him). In each instance, Kissinger is snapped by photographers, a star.

He's also something else, as the film suggests via a Google search, producing 14,800,000 hits, the number noted in a close-up, as are key words, like "military coup," "dirty war," and "human rights abuses." When Kissinger observes, "At this period in my life, I'm not running a popularity contest on Google," the program's choice seems clumsily motivated. "I have to stand on what I did and wrote and be somewhat fatalistic about it," he concludes.

If Ferguson's recent interview with George W. Bush was deferential and utterly unrevealing, this one is set up to be more raucous, more confrontational, less polite. Taking more than a few pages from The Fog Of War, Errol Morris' brilliant deconstruction of Robert McNamara's story, and of the interview film per se, Kissinger frames its subject with intertitles, archival footage, and photos that only occasionally confirm his version of events. Repeatedly, the program -- which premieres on National Geographic Channel on 12 September (could the date be any weightier?) -- invites you to follow and mistrust Kissinger's narrative at once.

Some pictures are straightforward: the former Secretary of State was in Beijing certainly, setting up Richard Nixon's historic "opening to China," and he did meet with Le Duc Tho in Paris. He also grew up in Germany during the Nazis' reign, attended the opening of The Godfather in 1974, and dated beautiful women while he was also the president's single "private emissary." He sees "major themes" in his life, he says, "to create a structurally more peaceful world, to prevent a catastrophic war, and develop America towards a stabler direction." And so, he has thought hard about some possible decisions, decisions he didn't have to make. "One of my moral dilemmas in government always was this: what would I do if the president asked me, 'Is this the day that we do it?' And I must say frankly," says Kissinger, who never seems quite "frank" in a conventional sense, "I had not reached a conclusion in my mind. Because it's one thing to win a war with historic casualties, that's serious enough. To kill tens of millions of people in one day, it's a new world. The world will never be the same."

In order to avoid having to make that sort of decision, Kissinger submits that he took up with Nixon, a man whose policies Kissinger's former classmates and colleagues at Harvard rejected. His relationship with Nixon was knotty, of course. He says as much as he describes his former boss: "I have often thought the personality of Richard Nixon would require a Shakespeare to render, partly because he was so many different Nixons," or again, "Here is a man who is not a natural politician, he was basically shy, he felt fundamentally threatened."

In addition to Kissinger's own careful phrasing now, the program offers glimpses of what the men said then. Recorded by the vast Oval Office taping system, their voices run over split screens of each man with a phone to his ear, images sometimes animated, rather perversely. You're reminded that these men were brutal in their assessments of others and in their posturing for one another. "We'll bomb those bastards right off the earth, I mean it," says Nixon of the North Vietnamese.

Kissinger insists that Nixon was fundamentally right in the way he ran the war (the secret bombings in Cambodia were justified, for instance, and besides, they didn't strike so many civilians). In this history, Nixon was the needy one, and Kissinger the dutiful, if sometimes exasperated, employee: "I would call 10 times a day and see him every time I could." But here the program offers a little complication of its own. If it doesn't state outright that Kissinger's self-image is inflated, it gestures toward the possibility, with the inclusion of glamour shots and images that counter or at least complicate his declarations. Just so: as Kissinger describes the start of the negotiations in 1969, the film shows footage of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam smoking dope through their rifles. "The biggest problem domestically was whether we could unite the country," he intones.

The sequence suggests not only what Kissinger might have missed with his famous attention to big pictures, to realpolitik, but also the consequences of his decisions. When he explains that the opening to China reshaped negotiations in Paris (and also "demonstrated that America had options in the world that were not exhausted by Vietnam"), you see a montage of state officials smiling and toasting. Who's getting what out of whom, you might be wondering, and just how clearly is Kissinger remembering his own responsibility?

As much as he dissects Nixon's psyche, it's striking that Kissinger doesn't address Watergate, except to note the president was "preoccupied" by the scandal at the start of his second term. The resignation meant the end of their working relationship, and the end of the war in Vietnam went badly, not even close to the "peace with honor" Nixon had promised. He doesn't blame himself for this. "I'm not giving you an answer that is adequate to what you're putting to me," he tells Ferguson, returning the question of regrets posed at the start. "And it would certainly be more impressive to an audience if there were some mea culpa expressed." Instead, he takes a long view that's not quite long enough. "I had thought in the months before and I think today," he says, "That we did Vietnam to ourselves, the Vietnamese did not do that to us." And who did Vietnam to the Vietnamese? That question remains unasked and unanswered.


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