Film Review: Kissinger (2011)

Henry Kissinger is one of the figures who looms large over American politics. He is probably the most significant influence on American foreign policy in the 20th century. This film, released in 2011, is a series of interviews with the former Secretary of State, and it provides a unique insight into his career.

At one point in the film, Kissinger recounts his escape from Nazi Germany and his service in the US Army in WWII. As he drove through the German countryside, signs in villages stated that Jews were not welcome there. Years later, returning as a soldier at the conclusion of the war, he saw a concentration camp, the horrific conclusion to the hate that Kissinger witnessed in his youth.

It is also a window into Nixon’s presidency. That being said, viewers of the film who may have been hoping for a definitive portrait of Nixon’s personality will be disappointed. Kissinger tells the interviewer (British journalist Niall Ferguson) that it will take a Shakesphere to properly write about Nixon. It is telling that Kissinger, who was closer to Richard Nixon than almost anyone outside his immediate family (the two met for long periods on a daily basis) did not consider the 37th president to be a close friend. Nixon and Kissinger were able to dramatically change the Cold War for the better.

The Cold War had been going badly by the time Nixon came into office. Many Americans felt Vietnam was unwinnable, and the USSR was on the advance. Kissinger developed a three point strategy to combat the spread of the USSR. One was to pursue détente with the USSR, another was to open up relations with China, and the third was to negotiate a ceasefire in Vietnam. Kissinger spoke of the skills of Le Duc Tho, his Vietnamese counterpart at the Paris negotiating table, who was very firm in the pursuit of North Vietnamese objectives. He defends Nixon’s decision to increase the bombing of North Vietnam (and North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces in Cambodia) as necessary to forge an agreement. This strategy proved to be, at least in the short run, successful: In 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed, and American involvement in Vietnam came to a close. Although the ceasefire would not last, it won Kissinger the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize. The viewer is left to wonder if long term peace in Vietnam that would save South Vietnam’s independence was possible. The Paris Peace Accord, for all its strong points, was unable to do this.

One of Kissinger’s less flattering moments was his support of the military government in Chile. He seems slightly uncomfortable when the topic is discussed, but admits that he and Nixon were happy to see Socialist president Salvador Allende fall from power. While it must be admitted that neither Kissinger nor Nixon would have been aware of the terrible abuses of human rights that were to follow the 1973 coup, the support of the Pinochet regime and the opposition to Allende is rightfully regarded as one of the darker periods of United States history and in Kissinger’s career.

That being said, activities in Latin America were largely a side show and were of limited relevance. The Cold War played out mostly in Europe and Asia, and it was there where Kissinger’s diplomatic skills made an enormous positive impact. One of the most impressive of his achievements was the opening of the People’s Republic of China. The US had not had any diplomatic contact with Mainland China since the 1950s, and in order to arrange some communication, the State Department used an elaborate system where the PRC government would send handwritten messages through Pakistan to the US, and the US would reply with typed letters to China, also delivered by Pakistan. This seemingly antiquated method started an extraordinary shift in US foreign policy. Kissinger visited China, and initiated diplomatic contact with the PRC. He recalls meeting Mao Tse-Tung, who lived in modest accommodations and who in Kissinger’s estimation was one of a handful of figures who commanded the attention of a room when he walked in. Today, Richard Nixon’s visit to China is considered one of his biggest success and is a large part of his legacy. Kissinger was instrumental in this accomplishment. Having dealt with one communist power, Kissinger used the leverage the US had gained to form an arms reduction treaty with the Soviets. This treaty as well as the opening of China, were the spectacular apex of détente, and it took Kissinger’s extraordinary abilities

The film contained some lighter moments as well, noting his wit and his unusual reputation as a “secret swinger.” Kissinger responds with an amusing story of the origin of that term’s association with him. He did state that his famous quote “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” wasn’t what he wanted on his gravestone.

Kissinger admits that the 1973 Yom Kippur War took the administration completely by surprise. He attributes attention that had been focus on China, the USSR, Watergate, and the Vietnam Peace Talks as having taken overshadowed any potential trouble in the Middle East. This occurred at “the absolute low point of the Nixon presidency.” Kissinger states that it was made clear to the Arab states that while war would be supplied by Soviet arms, Peace would be supplied by American diplomats.

On Watergate, the looming giant issue of the Nixon presidency, Kissinger recalls a meeting with Nixon on the final day of his Presidency. He states that Nixon “had destroyed himself with his own effort with his own actions, and he knew that.” on the last day of his Presidency. He describes their private meeting of reflection and prayer as “one of the most moving moments of my life,” and one that gave him great respect for Nixon. On the far opposite end of the spectrum, he says the “saddest moment of my governmental experience” was the collapse of South Vietnam. The hostile Congress doomed South Vietnam, and in Kissinger’s words “South Vietnam did not have to fall.” He was emotional in describing the evacuation of the Saigon, which was undoubtedly one of the saddest days in our history.

Kissinger’s stated goal was to bring peace and stability to the world, and prevent a nuclear conflict. As he readily admits, he doesn’t know how he will be judged. Certainly, there were some negative aspects of his career. But the full look at his career that this film depicts shows that those were far and few between. Between the opening of China, the Paris Accords, the negotiations to end the Yom Kippur War, and the Soviet arms treaty, Kissinger has earned the moniker, Chief Diplomat of the World.