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Henry Kissinger speaks into a telephone.

Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger uses the telephone in Deputy National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft’s office to get the latest information on the situation in South Vietnam, April 29, 1975. Source: White House Photographic Office

This panel was inspired by two recent books about Henry Kissinger: the first installment of Niall Ferguson’s officially authorized biography, Kissinger: The Idealist, and Greg Grandin’s Kissinger’s Shadow. Both books were shaped by a long-running scholarly and public debate over whether Kissinger’s statesmanship was effective and wise or immoral and criminal. Ferguson lays the groundwork for the first case; Grandin argues the second. Yet both books also push beyond this tired debate, and we want to keep pushing, showing that “Kissingerology” can be approached in fresh ways. It might seem that little new ground remains in a field already crammed with thousands of books and articles, but compelling research questions remain unanswered.

Daniel Sargent assesses the phase when domestic turmoil conferred upon Kissinger his greatest opportunities for influence. In the throes of Watergate, Richard M. Nixon nominated Kissinger to be secretary of state; thereafter, Kissinger functioned as something akin to an acting president for foreign policy, a role he sustained under Nixon’s unelected successor. The years between 1973 and 1977 brought the apex of Kissinger’s influence, yet historians have brushed over these years in their assessments of his legacies. The severest critiques fixate on Kissinger’s role in Nixon’s Vietnam War; the encomia stress Kissinger’s part in Nixon’s openings to Beijing and Moscow. Shifting the focus reveals a less familiar Kissinger. Frustrated with a stalling East-West détente, Kissinger after 1973 shifted his attention toward new challenges, including the collaborative management of globalization. Kissinger engaged with an agitated Third World after the 1973–1974 oil crisis, and he shifted U.S. policy in southern Africa toward black aspirations for majority rule. What unfolded in this late phase was an impartial and imperfect adaptation to dynamic circumstances, but Kissinger’s post-Nixon shift indicates the extent of Kissinger’s intellectual evolution during his public career and confirms his stature as one of the country’s most effective, if controversial, secretaries of state.

Micki Kaufman, a multiple-prizewinning scholar of digital humanities, has for years been applying innovative methods to the enormous body of documents that Kissinger produced in office. In her dissertation, “Everything on Paper Will Be Used against Me: Quantifying Kissinger,” Kaufman focuses on understanding the patterns that emerge from a computational text and data analysis of the memoranda and telephone transcripts of the National Security Archive’s Kissinger Correspondence. By applying word, topic, and network models and visualizing the resulting data to these diverse sets of documents, Kaufman’s work challenges us to reexamine and re-interpret the archive on its own terms. Beginning with data and patterns to unpack rather than a set of hypotheses to prove or disprove by cherry-picking evidence, the project attempts to provide a new perspective on the many paradoxes that pervade our understanding of Kissinger, his actions, and interactions.

Finally, Barbara Keys looks beyond Kissinger’s tenure in office. Scholars have been attracted to the immense documentary record of the Nixon presidency but have paid almost no attention to Kissinger’s profound influence on international relations in the half century since he left office. Kissinger has informally advised every president and many foreign leaders and has been tasked with both official and sub rosa diplomatic missions. His name has appeared in U.S. and global media tens of thousands of times, as a commentator, op-ed author, or go-to “expert” for a sound bite on almost any international issue. Since 1982 he has run Kissinger Associates, a powerful, highly secretive consulting firm. Using Kissinger’s long-running role as an advocate for the People’s Republic of China as a case study, Keys shows how media sources, nongovernmental archives, and business records can be used to piece together accounts of Kissinger’s fifty years of foreign policy influence and demonstrates why the U.S. media’s practice of identifying Kissinger merely as “a former secretary of state” dramatically misstates his role.

Session Participants

Barbara Keys is Associate Professor of History at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s (Harvard University Press, 2014) and Globalizing Sport: National Rivalry and International Community in the 1930s (Harvard University Press, 2006).

Micki Kaufman is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her dissertation, “‘Everything on Paper Will Be Used Against Me’: Quantifying Kissinger” is a six-time winner of the CUNY Graduate Center’s Provost’s Digital Innovation Grant. She is also a co-author of “General, I Have Fought Just As Many Nuclear Wars As You Have”: Forecasts, Future Scenarios, and the Politics of Armageddon published in the December 2012 issue of the American Historical Review.

Thomas Schwartz is Professor of History and Political Science at Vanderbilt University. Most recently he is the author of Lyndon Johnson and Europe: In the Shadow of Vietnam (Harvard University Press, 2003) and the co-editor of The Strained Alliance: US-European Relations from Nixon to Carter (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Daniel J. Sargent is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s (Oxford University Press, 2015) and a co-editor of The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective (Harvard University Press, 2010).

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