Henry Kissinger and I in Geneva

The death of Henry Kissinger has elicited varying reactions, from Super Henry with his Middle East shuttle diplomacy and opening to China to Evil Henry with his Machiavellian policies in Chile, East Timor, Vietnam and elsewhere. For me, it brought back memories of his presence in Geneva in 1999 when I had an opportunity to question him directly about his career.

Why did Kissinger come to Geneva? He was a friend of Professor Curt Gasteyger of the Graduate Institute. I knew that because I had written a critical assessment of Kissinger’s Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy as a student in Gasteyger’s seminar. In my paper, I had overviewed all the negative reviews of the 1957 best seller that launched Kissinger’s career. Gasteyger had rejected my paper with an explanation of the importance of Kissinger and their relationship.

Gasteyger had invited Kissinger to come to Geneva to celebrate an anniversary of his program in international security. I bet with Gasteyger Henry wouldn’t come. Geneva, in my opinion, was too small for him. The bet was CHF 100. If Kissinger came, I would have the first question. If he didn’t, Gasteyger would pay me CHF 100.

Kissinger came. I spent weeks preparing my question. What to say to a man I felt responsible for prolonging the Vietnam War among other unethical policies? How to be polite in front of a packed distinguished Geneva audience?

I spent weeks preparing one question. How to be diplomatic in front of that audience while asking what I really wanted to know? “Dr. Kissinger,” I began, trying to sound as respectful as I could, “in your long and distinguished career, is there anything you regret, is there anything that you would have done differently?”

I was sure he heard my New York accent (He was raised in Inwood Park in the Bronx. I was raised near Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, not far away.) He saw my age. For a moment I was back in the 60s, my hair longer, my voice more strident, screaming that Kissinger and Nixon were war criminals. Did he hear me then? Did he hear me now?

He gave me a look of condescension. He made it known that the question was misplaced, irrelevant. He had no qualms about any of his actions. “Young man,” he pontificated, “if you mean Vietnam, it was the highlight of my career.”

People applauded. I was stunned. 57,000 Americans dead. Millions of Vietnamese. Many who died could have lived had he stopped the war earlier. That we learned before 1999.

At the end of the evening people left the auditorium in awe of him and his verbal dexterity. Years later, friends have told me they remember my question.

Super Henry or Evil Henry? That evening all his diplomatic finesse was on display. And that day, the Geneva audience, except for very few, were duly impressed.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.