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Montage | Open Book

Make the Arsenal Usable

September-October 2007

book coverIn Henry Kissinger and the American Century (Harvard University Press, $27.95), Jeremi Suri examines why Henry Kissinger ’50, Ph.D. ’54, did what he did. Some of his motivations originated at Harvard, uneasy home to the Cold Warrior from 1947 to 1968—first as a student, then a professor—from which intellectual citadel he cultivated international leaders. Suri is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. The following passage shows the young Kissinger as a fully fledged nuclear strategist.

Like many others, Kissinger believed that the proliferation of nuclear weapons contributed to heightened dangers in war and increased rigidity in peace. When confronted with serious challenges short of full-scale war, citizens would have a tendency to think in terms of nuclear retaliation or nothing-at-all. With such extreme options, politicians would frequently err on the side of conflict avoidance, as Kissinger had personally witnessed during the 1930s, in a prenuclear era of “total war.” For the German Jewish émigré, saving democracy from the treachery of its adversaries and the weakness of its own constituents required self-conscious efforts to “rescue an element of choice from the pressure of circumstance”: “How to strive for both peace and justice, for an end of war that does not lead to tyranny, for a commitment to justice that does not produce cataclysm —to find this balance is the perpetual task of the statesman in the nuclear age.”

Leaders—including politicians, nuclear strategists, and policy advisors—had to create avenues for forceful action that were neither suicidal nor complaisant. They needed courage and creativity in this endeavor. Kissinger joined other strategists in decades of struggle to find effective uses for the “absolute weapon” as a symbol, a threat, and a source of destruction. Nuclear strategy involved the careful manipulation of horrific power for the needs of civilization. As Kissinger wrote in one of his earliest reflections on the topic: “the U.S. nuclear arsenal is no better than the willingness to use it…if we do not wish to doom ourselves to impotence in the atomic stalemate or near-stalement just around the corner, it may be well to develop alternative programs.”

These lines, written only months after Kissinger’s thirty-first birthday and the completion of his doctorate, became the touchstone for his career as a strategist and a policymaker.…Thomas Schelling, one of Kissinger’s colleagues at Harvard, chillingly observed: “The power to hurt is nothing new in warfare, but for the United States modern technology has drastically enhanced the strategic importance of pure, unconstructive, unacquisitive pain and damage, whether used against us or in our own defense. This in turn enhances the importance of war and threats of war as techniques of influence, not of destruction; of coercion and deterrence, not of conquest and defense; of bargaining and intimidation.” Schelling echoed Kissinger when he concluded: “Military strategy, whether we like it or not, has become the diplomacy of violence.”