Point of View

by Jussi Hanhimaki

May 01, 2003

More than 25 years after he left office, Henry Kissinger remains a controversial figure. A great American success story to some, a war criminal to others, the former secretary of state has undoubtedly fueled some controversy by jealously guarding access to his personal papers and always responding to his detractors with lengthy counterpoints.

He is, in short, an ideal subject of a full-length historical study.

As a historian of U.S. foreign policy, I could not have chosen a more exciting, frustrating, and potentially rewarding topic than Henry Kissinger and American foreign policy (tentatively titled The Flawed Architect).

The excitement comes from the sudden availability of newly declassified archival materials. Although Kissinger's personal papers remain behind closed doors, scholars can finally access a virtually complete set of Kissinger's conversations with Mao Zedong, Zhou En-lai, Deng Xiao-ping Leonid Brezhnev, Golda Meir, Anwar Sadat, and other foreign leaders. The treasure trove of new materials hardly stops there. Over the past years, spearheaded by the CWIHP at the Woodrow Wilson Center, remarkable documents have been discovered throughout the former Soviet bloc. Then there are the Nixon tapes released by the National Archives. Today, one can 'eavesdrop' into numerous conversations between Kissinger and Nixon that shed light on how this 'odd couple' operated and related to each other.

The frustrations flow from the sheer mass of this new material. It is almost impossible to keep track of all the new revelations, of all the literally hundreds of thousands of pages of text and numerous hours of conversation. For example, it is always difficult to assess whether seemingly scandalous statements about foreign leaders or American politicians—which appear repeatedly—represent the 'truth' or are merely part of a complicated negotiating strategy.

The challenge—and the reward—is to make sense of it all; to provide a balanced assessment of America's most admired and reviled former secretary of state. In short, the purpose of my research is not to indict or exonerate Kissinger for any possible crimes or misdemeanors. It will not purport to present a conclusive case for either the prosecution or the defense. Rather, my goal is to scrutinize the Kissinger record in detail and to break through the heavy polemics that have tended to mar most previous accounts of his career, and certainly color the current debate of Kissinger's place in history.

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