Two weeks ago the transcript of a 1973 recording from the Nixon White House was released. In it, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger suggested to President Nixon that the plight of captive Soviet Jewry was a matter of indifference for the United States. He punctuated this point by saying that even if the Soviet government were to “put Jews in gas chambers” it wouldn’t make any difference to U.S. policymakers. Kissinger was blasted by a number of writers and publications, including Contentions, where we pointed out that Kissinger’s eagerness to show his chief that he wouldn’t let his own identity as a Jew who fled to America from Germany during the 1930s affect his judgment recalled those highly placed American Jews who failed to speak out during the Holocaust.
Kissinger’s initial reply to his critics was an e-mail sent to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that included no mention of his gas chambers comment, let alone an apology, but instead simply demanded that those who cared about the issue should put his remarks in historical context. But on Friday, in an op-ed published in the Washington Post, Kissinger finally broke down and apologized, albeit while still contending that his words were taken out of context and speaking primarily of his own hurt feelings:
For someone who lost in the Holocaust many members of my immediate family and a large proportion of those with whom I grew up, it is hurtful to see an out-of-context remark being taken so contrary to its intentions and to my convictions, which were profoundly shaped by these events. References to gas chambers have no place in political discourse, and I am sorry I made that remark 37 years ago.
The former secretary of state then goes on to take issue with arguments raised by Michael Gerson in the Post as well by others that attempted to do exactly what Kissinger has pleaded with us to do: put his comments in context. The problem was not so much Kissinger’s vile words but the policy they represented all too well. His program of détente sought to lower tensions with the Soviets. It left no room for American activism on behalf of human rights behind the still impassible Iron Curtain. But in his op-ed Kissinger attempts to put himself forward as an unsung hero of the Soviet Jewry movement. He sees the disagreement between his “quiet diplomacy” and the ideas of Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and others who demanded sanctions on the Soviets until they agreed to our demands for freedom for the Jews as merely one of tactics not goals. Indeed, he seems to labor under the misapprehension that his attempts to make nice with the Soviets during this period were successful. Kissinger prefers to believe that the Jackson-Vanik sanctions on the Soviet Union, or indeed, the refusenik movement or the widespread pressure on Moscow on a variety of human rights issues, had no impact on the fall of the empire that Ronald Reagan, a vocal critic of Kissinger’s policies, rightly termed “evil.” But if, as Kissinger claims, “memories are short,” it is his memory, and not those who have condemned détente, that is faulty.
Far from “an effective global strategy” that produced stability and a lessening of tensions, détente had the opposite effect from what its mastermind intended. Like the treaty that Kissinger negotiated with the North Vietnamese (a dubious achievement that led to more Communist aggression, though it earned him and Le Duc Tho a Nobel Peace Prize that bears an unfortunate comparison to the Oslo Accords that won Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat the same award), his attempts to ameliorate the Soviets only encouraged them to further adventurism in Africa, the Middle East, and ultimately Afghanistan. It was only after Ronald Reagan reversed Kissinger’s disastrous foreign policy that the tide began to turn in favor of freedom and the West.
I don’t doubt that Kissinger cringed when he read his unfortunate comments in print 37 years later and wishes he had stated his views in a less offensive manner. But the proper historical context into which to place this conversation is one in which the architect of a strategically faulty policy is attempting to justify his indifference to the fate of Soviet Jews. We needn’t focus on the mention of “gas chambers” to know that Kissinger was dead wrong then and just as wrong today.