Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman by Greg Grandin

Review by Howie Machtinger


In his important new book, Kissinger’s Shadow, NYU Professor Greg Grandin joins the ranks of countless authors who have tried to come to terms with the life and influence of the seemingly eternal Henry Kissinger. It stands in sharp contrast to Niall Ferguson’s Kissinger: Volume 1, 1923-1968: The Idealist which The New York Times called a “comprehensive defense of Kissinger’s outlooks and actions.”[1] Grandin attempts to move beyond demonization[2]– however deserved – to assess the long-term impact of the now 92-year-old Kissinger on America’s global policy. He does not claim to add anything new to the historical record. He thinks that Seymour Hersh’s 1983 The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House remains the classic “portrait of Kissinger as a preening paranoid, tacking between ruthlessness and sycophancy… Small in his vanities and shabby in his motives, Kissinger, in Hersh’s hands, is nonetheless Shakespearean because the pettiness gets played out in on a world stage with epic consequences.” (5)

Grandin is more concerned to understand how pre-emptive war – clearly illegal under international law – and ceaseless war have been normalized and legitimized in our political culture. To tackle Kissinger’s legacy requires penetrating Kissinger’s crass opportunism (first as counsel to moderate Republican Nelson Rockefeller, then as appointee of Nixon and Reagan – both of whom, initially, he expressed great contempt for – and lately in bed with former ideological foe Dick Cheney) and his shifting positions. This is no small challenge.

Excavating Kissinger’s student writings at Harvard, Grandin finds the key to the Kissinger code in his lifetime obsession with German metaphysician and author of The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler. Kissinger apparently admires Spengler’s attempt to move beyond what he considered crude empirical reality to a world where decisive statesmen, not tied down by bureaucracy or simple-minded notions of causality, “by perseverance and intuition … [can] shape the destiny of his people” and avoid, or at least forestall, decline. From this, according to Grandin, Kissinger “advocated fighting wars far and wide – or at least advocated for a willingness to fight wars far and wide – as a way of preventing the loss of purpose and wisdom that Spengler identified as taking place during civilization’s final stage.” (22).

Grandin highlights Kissinger’s role in the “secret” – to American, but obviously not to its targets — bombing of Cambodia and Laos starting in March 1969 until it began to be exposed in December 1972.   While exact figures are difficult to ascertain, at least 100,000 Cambodian and 30,000 Laotian civilians were eventually killed in the secret Operation Menu and its successor Operation Freedom Deal. As Grandin notes, “the bombing of Cambodia was illegal in its conception, deceitful in its implementation, and genocidal in its effect. It destroyed the fragile neutrality that Cambodia’s leaders had managed to maintain despite the war next door.” (68). Systematically bombing a country with which the US was not at war was not, at that time, a policy to be made public.   Dangerous defoliants such as Agent Orange were also widely deployed in Laos and Cambodia with their persistent legacies to environment and health.

Kissinger was instrumental in initiating, developing, and operationally carrying out – as well as keeping secret – every element of this campaign.

‘Strike here in this area’, Kissinger would tell them, ‘or strike here in that area.’ Once Kissinger was satisfied with the proposed target, [Colonel Ray] Siiton would backchannel the coordinates to Saigon, and from there would pass them on to the appropriate radar stations, where an officer would make the last minute switch. The B-52 would be diverted from its ‘cover’ target in South Vietnam into Cambodia, where it would drop its bomb load on the real target. When the run was complete, the officer in charge of the deception would burn whatever documents-maps computer printouts, radar reports, messages, and so on that might reveal the actual flight. Then he would write up false ‘post-strike’ paperwork, indicating that the South Vietnam sortie was flown as planned. This way, Congress and Pentagon administrators would be provided ‘phony target coordinates and other forged data, so as to account for actual expenditures.   (54-55)

Kissinger also pushed hard for the subsequent invasion of Cambodia in late April, 1970, which cost Kissinger the support of his former Harvard colleagues (including Cold War strategist and game theorist Thomas Schelling), as it reignited the antiwar movement, including on the Kent and Jackson State campuses. The consensus of most historians is that the secret bombing and invasion of Cambodia, rather than setting back the Vietnamese resistance, paved the way for the genocidal Khmer Rouge seizure of power in Cambodia.

Grandin points out that the “in July, 1973, the very first impeachment resolution against Nixon, introduced in the House by Massachusetts representative Robert Drinan, focused not on the Watergate break-in, but on the illegal war in Cambodia.” (137). But the Senate Armed Services Committee agreed with Nixon and Kissinger that the bombing was needed to “save American lives.” In July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee, by a 26-12 vote, decided not to “pursue a fourth charge of not seeking Congressional approval to wage war on Cambodia” as part of Nixon’s impeachment (139). This facilitated burying the Cambodian intervention into the American memory hole, as well as allowing Kissinger to escape any consequences for his role in the scandal-ridden Nixon White House. He stayed on as Gerald Ford’s Secretary of State.

The concerted effort to keep the bombing of a neutral nation secret seems quaint by today’s standards. George W. Bush openly advocated his doctrine of pre-emptive war – a truly dangerous precedent as well as a clear violation of the norms of international law – with little effective opposition. Obama has expanded the use of drone warfare from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and who knows where else (perhaps Mali, Central African Republic?), countries against which the US has not declared war.

Grandin is rightly chagrined at this turn of events and tries mightily to explain them. Part of the explanation is the US’s success, at least for the American public, in claiming tormented victimhood. Kissinger blamed Vietnamese for humiliating the US and forcing US escalation. The attacks of 9/11 certainly added grist to this mill (“Why do they hate us?”). Kissinger’s skill in manipulating the press, providing a patina of intellectual rationalization for his brutal and often failed policies also contributed both to his political endurance and the belligerent tone of American international policy.

Grandin also has an interesting take on the play of secrecy and spectacle in American political life.   Appearing before the House Pike Committee, charged with investigating the covert activities of the FBI, CIA, and NSA, Kissinger responded to the probing questions of Ron Dellums about his clandestine operations, “with just a hint of borscht-belt syntax: ‘Except for that’, he asked, ‘there is nothing wrong with my operation?” The room laughed, and the TV news had its clip.” (140). During the 1980s Iran/Contra hearings, Oliver North, in a different pose, played plucky hero over against the stodgy Congressmen. The made-for-TV 1983 invasion of the small island of Grenada led Reagan to exclaim, “Our days of weakness are over.“(194) And in our time, Bush gave the world ‘shock and awe’ and strutted on a battleship pretending that the Iraq war had been a great success. Colin Powell did his turn remonstrating earnestly in the UN with patently false information. Even as we wonder where our bread will come from, there is a ready supply of circuses — sometimes elaborated in techno-spectacle.

But I must confess that I found Grandin’s Kissinger/Spengler analytic lens confusing. He himself criticizes the circularity of Kissinger’s thought and calls Kissinger only a partial Spenglerian. (21-22,28) While sometimes invoking the values of western civilization[3] – without much clarity as to what exactly these values might be – against the Communists or the terrorists, Kissinger was continually frustrated by America’s inability to project its power globally, not just in Southeast Asia, but also in southern Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. In 1965, Kissinger “privately told Cyrus Vance and Averill Harriman, top Johnson officials that ‘we couldn’t win” in Vietnam (28), even as he publicly supported the war effort. By the time, he attained power in the Nixon Administration he had become the “hawk of hawks,” according to H. R. Haldeman. (94) Kissinger had concluded that as Grandin puts it, “we have to escalate in order to prove that we aren’t impotent, and the more impotent we prove to be, the more we have to escalate.” (69)

Kissinger’s actions seem to represent more the macho flailing of a dying, or at least unmoored, empire than of a decisive Spenglerian hero. He berates “the cowardice of the Eastern Establishment” and accuses his staffer, Anthony Lake of being “not manly enough”. (66). After signing the 1973 peace treaty to end American military involvement in Vietnam, he called for renewed bombing against the Vietnamese enemy, he cared little whether it would have any strategic effect, “it’s the psychological reprisal point we must make.” (91)

“After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Kissinger told reporters,” the United States must carry out some act somewhere in the world, which shows its determination to continue to be a world power. (140) In 1976, he testified to the Senate about Africa policy: “If the United States is seen to emasculate itself in the face of massive, unprecedented Soviet intervention around the world, what will be the perception of leaders around the world?” (123) Appointed by Reagan in 1983 to head The National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, Kissinger’s report asserted, “The triumph of hostile forces in what the Soviets call the ‘strategic rear’ of the United States would be read as a sign of US impotence.” (192)

The Neo-Cons – Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and their acolytes – initially dismissed Kissinger for losing the war in Vietnam and for his policy of détente with Communist nations. Moving away from what many (though not Grandin) considered Kissinger’s policy of realpolitique; they justified their aggressive interventions with pretensions to a neo-Wilsonian ‘making the world safe for [American-style] democracy’ and capitalism. Kissinger once more was able to exercise his talent for political survival and get back in their good graces. In August 2002 he announced his support for the Bush policy of regime change in Iraq and arguing for the necessity of “justified pre-emption” which he acknowledged “runs counter to modern international law.“ “The issue is not whether Iraq was involved in the terrorist attack on the United States,” but to return Iraq to a responsible role in the region.” (216-217) He then began to meet regularly with Cheney (217 and 221), yet somehow managed to distance himself from the Iraq debacle. Hillary Clinton has called Kissinger her “friend” whose “counsel” she values. (223)

For Kissinger, global policy has always been about maintaining image and demonstrating manhood without the gloss of the Neocon fantasy of globalizing American democracy. As Grandin suggests, with a nod to Hannah Arendt, Kissinger has over-identified his quest for personal power with the projection of American power. (229-30) Grandin’s story is a saga of loss of purpose beyond the projection of power; exactly what Spengler warned against: “an outer thrust to hide the inner void.” (18) As feminist thought has clearly explicated, macho posturing can cause much havoc, but is fundamentally a sign of weakness, not strength, whether played out in personal relations or in international affairs. It betrays an insecure person as well as an empire in disarray. Though further analysis is required, Greg Grandin has initiated an important discussion of the trajectory of US global policy.


[1] See and see for Grandin’s review of the Ferguson book.

[2] As Grandin notes, Christopher Hitchens’s 2001 The Trial Of Henry Kissinger makes the case for Kissinger as a war criminal.

[3] Kissinger, while posing as a defender of western values, like Spengler, was also critical of the West’s reliance on “technical reason”, vulnerable to “the cult of the useful.” (20-21)