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Henry Kissinger’s Tragic Sensibility

December 1, 2023


Dr. Henry Kissinger has died. He was one hundred years old.

This essay is no attempt to catalog the vast, brilliant, and, at times, stormy life and career of Henry Kissinger. I will leave that to paeans and indictments that are now flooding your favorite newspapers and magazines. 

But Henry Kissinger is dead. And a certain sensibility dies, if only a little, with him.

To be sure, there are those who love Kissinger. General David Petraeus asserted that when it came to foreign relations, Kissinger was “one of America’s greatest thinkers and writers.” And then there are those who utterly despise him. Taken from his incendiary book The Trial of Henry Kissinger, the late Christopher Hitchens called for Kissinger to be tried for war crimes and spat, 

His own lonely impunity is rank; it smells to heaven. If it is allowed to persist then we shall shamefully vindicate the ancient philosopher Anacharsis, who maintained that laws were like cobwebs; strong enough to detain only the weak, and too weak to hold the strong. 

From the controversial bombing of Cambodia in the Vietnam War to the historic door-opening to Communist China during the Cold War, Henry Kissinger could light people up. Is he a genius or a scoundrel? A visionary or a Machiavellian? After reading Kissinger for years, I am still unsure. 

One thing I have discovered about Henry Kissinger is that his perspectives regarding foreign relations and policy—past and future—were defined by a tragic sensibility. “The tragic sensibility,” as journalist Robert Kaplan would define, “says there is nothing more beautiful in this world than the individual’s struggle against long odds, even as death awaits him.” No matter where Kissinger ended, he always began in the same place—a sense of the tragic. 

The tragic sensibility requires an end of illusion.

Though born in 1923, the annus horribilis, in Germany’s Weimar Republic, the young Kissinger grew up in an idyllic town of Fürth where his father was a respected school teacher, and Henry played soccer, took piano lessons, and fell in love with the great Germanic works of Goethe and Heine. It was such a sublime existence that his father, Henry once recalled, “couldn’t imagine evil.” But the tumult of post-war Germany, with its recalcitrant international antagonisms, hyperinflation, and radicalized leftist and rightist movements, wouldn’t leave Fürth or the Kissingers alone. As Jews, their fate was sealed. In time, harassment by the Hitler Youth, segregation by the Nuremberg laws, and, ultimately, the abandonment by dear friends led the Kissingers to flee to the United States. In 1938, Henry’s father, Louis, was befuddled even upon departure, “This is where we belong. We haven’t done anything to anyone.” The young Henry, however, had no illusions. Introducing his chapter on Hitler in his masterwork Diplomacy, Kissinger does not equivocate. “Hitler’s advent to power,” he wrote, “marked one of the greatest calamities in the history of world.” The chapter’s title? “The End of Illusion: Hitler and the Destruction of Versailles.” 

The tragic sensibility requires an end of illusion. Henry Kissinger’s work as Army officer, academic,  National Security Advisor, Secretary of State, and advising elder statesman required him to see the world as it is in its gritty details, its broken promises, its vanquished hopes. If Robert Kennedy’s famous (borrowed) dictum was “Some men see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?,’” Henry Kissinger would be shaking his head insisting that he must see things as they are lest terrible things happen.

Foreign relations, to Kissinger, was an outsized game of chess with existential implications. Countries with different cultures, languages, religions, histories, and hopes were equipped with innumerable resources and countless threats and they were governed by complex, mercurial, inscrutable human beings. To be caught up in earthly dreams without your feet firmly planted on the ground risked Woodrow Wilson’s miscalculations about the Versailles Treaty or Franklin Roosevelt’s misapprehensions about Stalin at the Yalta meeting. “Human beings,” as Thomas Sowell once observed, “are not blocks of wood to be moved about.” They are wild cards steeped in agendas and rife with contingency. Kissinger had little doubt regarding the dignity of life (though, in considering his policies, some might disagree), but he had even less doubt about the perennial brokenness of man. 

Dominating Kissinger’s tragic sensibility was the notion of efficacy. Can you achieve what you hope in the campaign you are undertaking? If not, regardless of the nobility of the cause, Kissinger warned, you are embarking on a fool’s errand. One friend of mine echoed a Kissingerian sentiment in asking, “If we can’t establish justice and order in some of our tougher city streets in Minneapolis, Minnesota, how much better will we do in Kabul, Afghanistan?” As harsh as that may sound, there is a grave logic to it. In a moment of candor during the Iraq War, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld opined, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” In his tragic sensibility, Henry Kissinger brooded about and planned around the “unknown unknowns.” They are the things that kept him up at night. 

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As a Catholic, there is something in Kissinger’s tragic sensibility that resonates with me. Our faith is riddled with tragedy from the enslaved Jews in Egypt to the Roman occupied Jerusalem, from the sad beginnings of the Beatitudes to the Passion of the Christ. Having an honest sense that life is hard and things often don’t go well braces us for inevitable suffering. The only problem is if this worldview becomes the final conclusion. Our Catholic faith will not allow it. “We are,” as St. John Paul II cheered, “an Easter people! And Alleluia is our song.” In spite of sin, there is redemption. In the face of vice, there is virtue. In the presence of despair, there is hope. In the shadows of the cross, there is the empty tomb.

To be sure, we are called to live life with our eyes wide open. But our sensibility should be molded by hope as much as tragedy. While we shouldn’t be starry-eyed fools, neither should we be cynical operators. 

Did Henry Kissinger’s tragic sensibility ever lighten? Was his last breath marked with a sublime, albeit small, sense of hope?

Only God knows.

Henry Kissinger, requiescat in pace.