Henry Kissinger can claim both. The National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State in the Nixon and Ford presidencies, Kissinger is nonetheless one of Harvard’s most notable alums. His contentious legacy continued to haunt him last Wednesday in Sanders Theater, despite the panelists’ and University President Drew Faust’s valiant efforts to ground the conversation in either his newest book, On China, or his admittedly entertaining past at Harvard (Kissinger defied university rules to keep a cocker spaniel in his dorm, and his 388-page thesis is why government theses are capped at 150). Kissinger had barely begun his opening remarks after Faust’s warm introduction when a ponytailed protester stood. “I’d like to make a citizen’s arrest,” the man yelled. “This man is a war criminal. He’s responsible for millions of deaths.”
As he was escorted from the theater, Faust sprung into action without missing a beat. “Let’s welcome Dr. Kissinger back again,” she said into the microphone. As if to counteract the lone protester and the handful outside the theater, rows of the audience gave Kissinger a standing ovation.
But as they stood and applauded, others stayed seated – and of those, some crossed their arms, refusing to clap in a silent protest. The applause died down; the audience seated themselves again; and Kissinger, now 88 years old, calmly continued with his remarks with the fortitude of a man who has clearly weathered such accusations before and most likely saw them coming.
On one hand, Kissinger’s supporters praise him for being one two key negotiators in the Paris Peace Accords that ended the Vietnam War and for the “shuttle diplomacy” that secured a fragile military disengagement in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. On the other, his critics maintain that he turned a blind eye to human rights abuses in the name of U.S. interests, including his complicity in a six-year carpet-bombing campaign in Cambodia and his alleged involvement in Operation Condor.
The audience’s reaction to Kissinger’s presence – part enthusiastic applause, part angry accusations – is a product of more than the statesman’s polemic record.
Part of Kissinger’s legacy is the controversial realpolitik that he brought to the Nixon administration. Whether compromising human rights for the sake of long-term national interest is a despicable prioritization or a realistic inevitability of strong foreign policy is debatable, with Kissinger siding with the latter. Regardless, such power politics have resulted in a number of controversies – including a number of infamous sound bites, more notably the one in which he told Nixon that the Soviet Union’s gassing of Jews was “not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
But on Wednesday, Kissinger implicitly defended realpolitik in decision-making during the Vietnam war. “No one had a bigger interest in ending the war than the people in office,” Kissinger said in response to an angry questioner who also accused Kissinger of being a war criminal (and who ended his question with “How do you sleep at night?”).
Kissinger originally chose to have a part panel, part question-and-answer session because he believed it would be more interesting than a lecture – and it was interesting, as the tug-of-war over his political legacy was waged again.
Image from Wikimedia Commons