Kissinger on Morality

The following is an excerpt from a letter that Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State, wrote to the relatives of a boy who survived the Holocaust.

I feel it necessary to write to you because I think a completely erroneous picture exists in the States of the former inmates of the concentration camps.  Concentration camps were not only mills of death, they were also testing grounds.  Here men persisted and, in a sense, fought for survival with the stake always nothing less than ones life.  With the slightest slip, a fatal error.  Such was the filth, the compulsion, the debasement, that a person had to be possessed of extraordinary powers, of physic and of will, to even want to survive.  The intellectuals, the idealists, the men of high morals, had no chance.  Having once made up ones mind to survive, it was a necessity to follow through with a singleness of purpose, inconceivable to you sheltered people in the States.  Such singleness of purpose broached no stopping in front of accepted sets of values.  It had to disregard ordinary standards of morality.  One could only survive through lies, tricks, by somehow acquiring food to fill ones belly.  The weak, the old, had no chance.  And so liberation came.  The survivors were not within the ordinary pale of human events anymore.  They had learned that that looking back was sorrow, that sorrow was weakness, and weakness synonymous with death.  they knew that having survived the camp, surviving the liberation was no problem. So they applied themselves to the peace with the same singleness of purpose, and sometimes with the same disregard of accepted standards as they had learned in the camp.  Above all, they wanted no pity.  Pity made them uncomfortable, jumpy.  You would make a terrible mistake if you were to expect a broken boy.  Helmut is a man.  He has seen more than most people in a lifetime.

Kissinger’s letter plays on a theme that recurs throughout his career: the tension that exists, at least in his view, between morality and realism.  Survival sometimes required a disregard for for moral standards that was inconceivable for those who had led sheltered lives.  Isaacson notes that “Kissinger contrasted the cold realist, who survives, with the men of high morals who, in brutal situations, have no chance.”   Kissinger describes the world in stark terms, “Life is suffering, birth involves death, transitoriness is the fate of existence. How can it be overcome?  Only through the personal awareness and inward conviction that we each have of our own freedom”, Kissinger concludes.  Having observed that, “the generation of Buchenwald and the Siberian labor camps cannot talk with the same optimism as its fathers,” Kissinger proclaimed his new historical creed,  “The experience of freedom allows us to rise above the suffering of the past and the frustrations of history.”

Kissinger took the lessons he learned from Buchenwald and applied them to the political realm.  Freedom is the power to defend ones own self-interests.

Both [Nixon and Kissenger] were practitioners of real politik, that blend of cold realism and power orientated statecraft that tended to be, to use Kissengers description of Bismark, unencumbered by moral scruples.  They believed, as Kissinger had once written of his 19th century subjects, that foreign policy had to be based, not upon sentiment, but on an assessment of strength.  In a conversation with Golda Meir, Nixon once twisted the golden rule into a power game, telling her, my rule in international affairs is, “Do unto others as they would do unto you” to which Kissenger interjected, “plus 10%”.  Honorable men were often ridiculed by Nixon as prissy and weak.  He preferred those who could be brutal, from Patton, to Conelly, to Colson.  A willingness to talk tough and applaud ruthlessness was the best way to become Nixon’s co-conspirator against a hostile world.

In contrast, Christianity teaches that strength is found in sacrifice, not grasping after life.  Freedom is found in exerting our will to do what is right, not what is in our self interest.  This does not make the dilemmas of ruling a nation any less, but it provides a different framework for decision making; one that is rooted in humility and the fear of God.  Is this idealistic rubbish?

The cold hard reality is that we cannot know what is in our own interest.  It must have seemed like it was in our interest to sign a comprehensive trade deal with China, to make Saudi Arabia our main ally in the Middle East, and shovel billions at our bankrupt financial sector.  What if we had tried to what was right instead?


Kissinger: A Biography, by Walter Isaacson

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