Henry Kissinger, the Shrewd Striving Flunky

Henry Kissinger reaching age 100 provided a hook for journalists with something to say about him. Admirers recounted the career of a supremely influential statesman, adviser to presidents, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Leftists described a monster, even more murderous than we knew. That leaves it up to your correspondent to say that Kissinger was merely a flunky for the Rockefeller Brothers and their faction of capital.

Kissinger’s parents were German Jews who got out in 1938 and made their way to Fort Washington Avenue in the upper Manhattan neighborhood known as “Frankfort on the Hudson.” According to Gerd Stern, who knew the family, Henry’s younger brother was the smart one for whom they were setting aside money for college. Henry attended City College part-time until he got drafted in 1943. Because he was fluent in German he quickly rose to become a sergeant in the Counter Intelligence Corps. After the war he taught for a year at the  European Command Intelligence School. Rich with contacts, he finished college at Harvard and was soon on the tenure track in the Government Department.

Those of us awakened by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki read the headlines as we grew up. Russia built an A-bomb. Then we (the US military-industrial complex) built an H-bomb. The Russians built an H-bomb. The US built intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-powered submarines to deliver the bombs. The Russians built ICBMs and nuclear subs. We built thousands of bombs and missiles. President Eisenhower warned the Russians they’d face “massive retaliation” if they attacked us. For a few years in the ’50s the threat of “Mutually Assured Destruction” was so obvious that the use of nuclear weapons seemed unthinkable. Mao’s taunt that the A-bomb was just a “paper tiger,” too terrible to ever be used, seemed like the truth.

But if war wasn’t an option, how could US imperialists stem the political tide that had, by the mid-1950s, led India’s Nehru and Indonesia’s Sukarno and China’s Chou En-Lai and Ghana’s Nkrumah and Egypt’s Nasser to identify as leaders of a socialist “Third World?” How could Ho Chi Minh be stopped in Vietnam?

Kissinger made his bones in the mid-1950s by drafting a set of rules that would enable combatants to fight a “limited war.” His essential patron was Nelson Rockefeller, then the Governor of New York State and a leading proponent of bomb shelters and “civil defense.” Kissinger’s day job teaching at Harvard, but as director of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s “Special Studies Project” he  preached the gospel of limited war to government agencies and think tanks –the Council on Foreign Relations, the State Department, the Operations Research Office, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the CIA’s RAND Corporation– and to the public on Meet the Press, etc. He realized that his German accent, which implied special expertise when he droned on about Metternich and Bismarck to students, would also impress the public. He never lost it.

Professor Kissinger was director of the “Defense Studies Center” at Harvard when I was an undergraduate (1959-63). There was a peace group called Tocsin (which means a bell sounding an alarm. Where else would the peace group choose a name that most people. when they hear it, think means “poison?”)  Tocsin leaders would invite professors to luncheons at which they would discuss “game theory” and cockamamie ways to avert nuclear war –”unilateral initiatives.” like the US mothballing a few nuclear subs to induce the Russkies to take a corresponding step until there was peace on earth…  I heard they were going to have a session with Kissinger and asked if I could cover it for the Crimson (the school newspaper). Tocsin honcho Todd Gitlin said no, “Because we couldn’t count on you not to be rude.” He had me there.

In the spring of ’63 I occasionally audited a class Kissinger taught called “War.” Then I arranged to interview him. Heading for his office I gave some thought to doing humanity a favor and actually taking him out. My vague plan was to ask if he was worried about personal security. Then maybe he’d show me a pistol and it would go off accidentally… Sitting in his office I notice a set of Bertolt Brecht ‘s plays prominently displayed on his bookcase, indicating that here was a serious, broad-minded intellectual. I would have been more impressed if any of the pages had been cut.

A couple of lifetimes later I was covering the medical marijuana movement and read a biography of Harry Anslinger, the longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, whose career seemed to prefigure Kissinger’s.

His mother was from Baden, Germany, his father from Switzerland. His father couldn’t make a living as a barber  and went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad, then a major US corporation. As a teenager Harry suffered a detached retina in a rumble of some kind —he got hit with a thrown pear— and lost vision in one eye. He went to school part-time and worked for the railroad, which assigned him to do security work.

As a young investigator Anslinger helped win a big case for the company and was promoted to chief inspector. He took two years of business classes at Penn State. He occasionally played the piano at silent-movie theaters. His mother hoped he’d be a concert pianist.

When the U.S. entered World War One Anslinger volunteered for the army but was ruled ineligible because of his eye injury. He became an officer in the Ordnance Reserve Corps and was rapidly promoted. He applied to and was accepted (with letters of recommendation from the Pennsylvania Railroad) by the US State Department. He became an attaché in the American legation (the classic cover for spies) at the Hague. He spoke perfect German and good French and picked up Dutch quickly. He was involved in several undercover missions.

Anslinger claimed that he insinuated his way into Kaiser Wilhelm’s entourage and delivered a message that the US did not want him to abdicate at the end of the war because it might lead to the Social Democrats coming to power. (The Kaiser did step down, however.)  In 1921-22 Anslinger was posted by the consular service to Hamburg. He married the former Martha Denniston, the favorite niece of Andrew Mellon, the Pittsburgh banker who had become Secretary of the Treasury in 1921.

(Henry Kissinger married Nelson Rockefeller’s private secretary, Nancy Maginnes, in 1974.  A striver is a striver is a striver.)

Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at fred@plebesite.com