The Myth of Henry Kissinger
In 1952, at the age of twenty-eight, Henry Kissinger did what enterprising graduate students do when they want to hedge their academic future: he started a magazine. He picked an imposing name—Confluence—and enlisted illustrious contributors: Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron, Lillian Smith, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr. The publisher James Laughlin, who was a backer of the magazine, described the young Kissinger as “a thoroughly sincere person (terribly earnest Germanic type) who is trying his hardest to do an idealistic job.” Like his other early production, the Harvard International Seminar, a summer program that convened participants from around the world—Kissinger gamely volunteered to spy on attendees for the F.B.I.—the magazine opened channels for him not only with policymakers in Washington but also with an older generation of German Jewish thinkers whose political experience had been formed in the early thirties, when the Weimar Republic was supplanted by the Nazi regime.
In 1947, Kissinger enrolled at Harvard on the G.I. Bill, intending to study political science and English literature. He found a second mentor, William Yandell Elliott, a well-connected history professor from the Wasp élite, who advised a series of U.S. Presidents on international affairs. The young Kissinger was drawn less to the classic exponents of Realpolitik, such as Clausewitz and Bismarck, than to “philosophers of history” like Kant and anatomists of civilizational decay such as Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler. From these thinkers, Kissinger cobbled together his own view of how history operated. It was not a story of liberal progress, or of class consciousness, or of cycles of birth, maturity, and decline; rather, it was “a series of meaningless incidents,” fleetingly given shape by the application of human will. As a young infantryman, Kissinger had learned that victors ransacked history for analogies to gild their triumphs, while the vanquished sought out the historical causes of their misfortune.