New Orleans At 100, Henry Kissinger finally passed away. There have now been obits aplenty, bouquets, and brickbats. What should be made of the man and the mess he left behind? The New York Times gave him four or five pages of copy trying to come to grips with his contradictions, going from one hand to the other, with compliments and critique. I don’t have much to add, but I do have a little kindling to throw on the fire.
I remember Kissinger before he became a statesman and war criminal. I sat through a small seminar class where he was a guest lecturer during my brief collegiate career at Williams College in western Massachusetts. It was likely either late 1967 or early 1968, before I dropped out to organize against the Vietnam War. If it had been when I was back for a quick cup of coffee in 1969, it wouldn’t have been a seminar, it would have been a demonstration in all likelihood similar to what we put on when ex-Williams alum, General Maxwell Taylor was speaking in the chapel.
As an 18- or-19-year-old at the time, I was at the point of trying to still listen to the debate in the after-hours dorm sessions about the war. I knew I was against it for so many reasons, but didn’t have all the tools and fact bank to win many of the arguments. My opinion had been set hard-working offshore in the Gulf of Mexico as a contractor doing 14-on and 7-off on oil rigs out of Venice, Louisiana. Bunking and working with oil field roustabouts who traveled from Florida to Texas, Oklahoma to Georgia to work for the money offshore of Louisiana, it was surprising to hear these guys, and they were all guys at that time, many of whom were veterans, take such clear positions. Many would ask me what I thought, and I would answer that I opposed the war, expecting to take heavy flak for my stance. Instead, one after another would agree with me for various reasons, saying they wouldn’t go and in some cases, wouldn’t let their sons or brothers enlist. This was the South, and these were good ol’ boys and Cajuns at a time when the opinion polls were claiming that the war had 80% support in this region of the country.
Kissinger was a Harvard professor of some renown then, but already a staunch Cold warrior. Williams, being Little Ivy on the other side of the state, would often have people coming in to speak or as guests for classes. I don’t recall why I was in the room, but there were less than twenty of us. He had his position, and he argued it forcibly about how he saw the world, and even at that early date, I’m not sure that more information and experience, changed his perspective much in the future. He took some hard questions about how the anti-communist, domino falling arguments held water in a Vietnamese civil war. He was having none of it. He was a talker, not a listener.
In those days, the questions and answers could still be subdued. Respect could be given before positions soon hardened permanently. After I dropped out in ’68 to organize against the war, I joined the “vast army” assembling to oppose the war. I can remember walking along the streetcar route on St. Charles Avenue in a reverie, trying to figure out my life and future, as I tried to process the news that President Johnson was not running for another term as the heat turned up on that adventure. Kissinger dropped out of university life as well, not that long afterward, to also never return to the academy, but he did so to foolishly prolong and fight that war and many others for so many years that the blood could never be washed off his hands.