Daniel Larison asks a question, a good one: about Kissinger's mythology. He asks the question based on Thomas Meany's (oh, he is so meany to good ol' Henry, couldn't contain myself;)) piece in New Yorker titled The Myth Of Henry Kissinger. Larison posits:
The contrast between the worldviews and careers of Kennan and Kissinger is instructive, and it helps to explain why the Washington foreign policy consensus has gotten so many things wrong over the decades. Meaney mentions that as early as 1965 Kissinger was privately admitting that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable, but publicly he supported it and went on to preside over its continuation and escalation for many years. During the same period, Kennan spoke out against the war, and urged full withdrawal.
My main point is this: hey, guys, aren't you a bit too late to the party? I, personally, heard enough about Washington consensus, but apart from praises heaped on Kissinger by Washington and some in squarely pro-American camp elsewhere, I, as an example, since childhood, which fell on Vietnam War, heard nothing positive about the guy, which could have been explained by USSR support for Vietnam. Later, however, I came to appreciate all hollowness of his reputation as a "geopolitical thinker" or "maitre of global diplomacy" when started delving a bit deeper into the history of the American geopolitical mindset--there was nothing to admire not just on humanitarian grounds, but on academic ones too, about Kissinger. In fact, bar some things which qualify as war crimes, Kissinger's views are down right numbingly boring in their mediocrity and predictability. The history of the US "diplomacy" and geopolitical thinking in the last 30 years is one of a shoddy scholarship, perpetual delusion and demagoguery rooted deeply in the platitudes and cliches which by now became memes and a butt of jokes around the globe. Kissinger was the one who helped to forge this pitiful state of the US "foreign (lack of) policy" and present, with the assistance of many willing helpers, self-evident truths as insights worthy of a true statesmen. Insights they were not and America's obvious decline and geopolitical retreat, denied by some against the body of overwhelming empirical evidence, was in many ways predetermined by Kissinger's views of the world, which were and are, politely speaking, are those of a slick top government bureaucrat, pretending to be a scholar and a real statesman, while not being genuine article at all. We all know what this "scholarship" is. Enough to recall Kissinger's recent meandering pathos-ridden pseudo-historical piece in the Wall Street Journal where he waxes "geopolitical" and confirms the lack of proper intellectual rigor in modern US political class, obvious to everybody but the US political class itself.
Larison, however, while counter positioning (to Kissinger) praising George F. Kennan for his views regarding War in Vietnam, forgets that, be as it might, thinkers and scholars are not always defined by their careers. After all, Kissinger had a brilliant career when defined within the beltway framework where competence, principles and integrity play second, if not the third, fiddle to self-promotion and exposure in the media. Especially so in the modern US where self-aggrandizing is a pastime on the same level as baseball. Kennan might have been right on Vietnam, and later he lamented his famous Long Telegram but still, in his wonderful memoirs offered some prescriptions for the world which he would have never offered should he be alive today. For starters, Kennan, being a diplomat and, surprise-surprise, Russian speaker failed to grasp (later, in 1980s he will fail it again) the impact warfare had and continues to have on Russia.
At bottom of Kremlin's neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area. But this latter type of insecurity was one which afflicted rather Russian rulers than Russian people; for Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries. For this reason they have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between Western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned truth about world without or if foreigners learned truth about world within. And they have learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it.
Mind you, this was written in February 1946, 9 months after the end of war in Europe and 5 months after the end of WW II as a whole. The phrase about "learning the truth" reads especially comical today when Russia is on order of magnitude freer country than any one in Europe and we live with the consequences of a destruction of American political institutions which used to be commonly known as democracy, not to mention chaos, destruction and murder unleashed by NATO and its main sponsor, USA, on the world. This was written after yet another historic Russia's "direct contact" with the West, which, as was the case with yet another "contact" in 1854-56, 1812, and before that in 1618, and prior to this in 1242, among many others, resulted not only with the West "contacting" Russia, for some reason, again, on her territory, but in a genocide of Slavic and other people of Russia on a historic scale, resulting in 27 million people killed and most of the historic Russia literally wiped off the face of the earth. By any metric being a bit "neurotic" not only in Kremlin but on the level of the whole population of the historic Russia was more than reasonable. As history demonstrated so vividly up to this present moment--Russia's "sense of insecurity" was and is not only inevitable but highly warranted. Sadly, Kennan, being a man of, primarily, letters and law and having a rather idealistic, and in many respects "aristocratic", that is highly misguided, view of primarily pre-revolutionary Russia, couldn't grasp then the true scale of the events of the WWII and how it related not only to Russia, but to the Western world in general, and the US in particular.
Later, in his memoirs, while giving a recognition to the WW II, he would still stick to the narrative of a grotesqueness of a Stalin's "regime" and some alleged impact it had on Russians (that is why he is voted the most important Russia's statesman, I guess), implying, indeed, grotesque, Solzhenitsified figures of political repressions, debunked today by competent and honest historians both in Russia and in the West, not to mention by opening of the archives and by Russian people themselves. Yet, as idealistic and in many respects a well-wishing (prekrasnodushnyi) man Kennan was, he left one important realist legacy, which despite his role, even if unwitting, in unleashing a Cold War on false premises, he stated this, and that was a statement by a man of principles:
What did the greatest damage was not our military preparations themselves, some of which (not all) were prudent and justifiable. It was rather the unnecessarily belligerent and threatening tone in which many of them were publicly carried forward. For this, both Democrats and Republicans have a share of the blame. Nobody -- no country, no party, no person -- "won" the cold war. It was a long and costly political rivalry, fueled on both sides by unreal and exaggerated estimates of the intentions and strength of the other party. It greatly overstrained the economic resources of both countries, leaving both, by the end of the 1980's, confronted with heavy financial, social and, in the case of the Russians, political problems that neither had anticipated and for which neither was fully prepared.
Little did Kennan know, that from the vantage point of 2020, his views of Russia and Russians, free to "directly contact" the West any time they want, could be a subject of scorn by overwhelming majority of these very same Russians who, justifiably, view the United States as a military aggressor doing over and over again what Kennan stood against in 1960s--the war. Thus, any references today to Western "democracies", while setting Kennan as a person on a much higher level than Kissinger, hardly make a better case for him being properly qualified to pass a judgement. In the end, as I repeat like a parrot--the problem is systemic and endemic in the American post-WW II exceptionalism exercised even by those who refer to themselves as realists (however meaningless this term is) and who still are trying to find a political and moral rationale where there never was any but greed, lust for power and gross overestimation of own power and significance. American modern elites are simply not good, no matter which opposites they praise in their pursuit of a chimera.