Henry Alfred Kissinger died Wednesday at the age of 100.
While there will be many assessments of the nature of Kissinger’s foreign policy legacy, there can be no question that he was among the most consequential Americans on the world stage during the second half of the twentieth century. My understanding of Kissinger comes in the context of his long-time relationship with another equally consequential—and controversial—contemporary American titan: Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld introduced me to Kissinger in 2008, and my acquaintance with him was very much through the lens of my long association with Rumsfeld.
While their inter-agency battles in the 1970s are well known, what is less understood is the firm and enduring friendship they established in the half-century that was to follow, which in its own way recalled the later-in-life rapprochement between John Adams in Thomas Jefferson.
Kissinger and Rumsfeld met during the 1968 presidential campaign when Kissinger was advising candidate Richard Nixon on foreign policy while Rumsfeld, then a member of Congress, acted as a Nixon surrogate on the campaign trail. Over the ensuing decade, they would work closely together in the Nixon and then the Ford administrations in the White House as well as in the departments, with Rumsfeld even working directly for then-Secretary of State Kissinger in 1974 as ambassador to NATO during one of the most turbulent times in America history: Watergate.
Throughout, Kissinger and Rumsfeld clashed repeatedly over critical matters of state, and these clashes could become harsh, and even personal. In Washington, such friction in any presidential administration almost inevitably results in score-settling and tell-all memoirs, not to mention decades of back-biting and sniping to the press. But when I met Kissinger at Rumsfeld’s office in 2008 in the early stages of writing Rumsfeld’s autobiography, “Known and Unknown,” their relationship was the height of easy collegiality.
For anyone who has served in government, particularly in the White House, the stories they told of their service together were epic. Kissinger spoke repeatedly about what he called Rumsfeld’s “bureaucratic knife-fighting skills.” He recalled that when Rumsfeld was chief of staff for President Gerald Ford in 1975, he was such a master of the process that even when Kissinger was dual-hatted as both national security advisor and secretary of state, Rumsfeld was able to slow-walk or even kill some of his key priorities. Clearly still frustrated all those decades later, he looked across the table at me, and in that inimitable German accent, said slowly, “It was masterful.”
One of Rumsfeld’s favorite Kissinger stories was about being on an overseas trip in 1976 as secretary of defense when he received a cable about Kissinger’s activities that enraged him, including allegations of damaging press leaks. Rumsfeld marched straight back to his accompanying press pool and gave them a scathing quote about the secretary of state. The reporters wondered how they should attribute it, and Rumsfeld snapped, “Attribute it to the senior-most official on Rumsfeld’s plane.” He wanted Kissinger to know it came straight from him.
Rumsfeld’s wife, Joyce, also had a story to tell. She recalled a time when they and the Kissingers both happened to be in the Dominican Republic in 1979 after they were all back in the private sector. At a party at the home of a mutual friend, Joyce spied Kissinger across the room. She ran over and hugged him and exclaimed in her own distinctive Chicago accent, “Henry, I have to thank you for a new experience. I am actually happy to see you!” The room broke up in laughter.
Serving in government at the highest levels is not for the faint of heart, and the issue that fueled Kissinger and Rumsfeld’s sparring was the most consequential of the time: the prosecution of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. While our global challenges in 2023 are certainly significant, the 1970s were also not a walk in the park.
Nixon’s resignation shook the nation in 1974, and the fall of Saigon created a pervasive global sense that the United States was in retreat while the Soviet Union was on the march. Kissinger, ever the diplomat, favored détente and arms control negotiations to manage the relationship with the USSR. Rumsfeld, as a retired Navy pilot and the secretary of defense, wanted to engage in a significant American military buildup to counter what he understood to be dangerously increasing Soviet capabilities.
While Ford was personally closer to Rumsfeld, he seemed likely to espouse Kissinger’s approach were he elected in 1976. Rumsfeld recalled in “Known and Unknown” “that Kissinger and I had differing views on the arms treaty with the Soviets posed a problem for Ford … [he] made it clear to me that he was unhappy with our position in the Defense Department.”
In the end, however, Ford lost that election to Jimmy Carter, and the prosecution of the Cold War ultimately fell to President Ronald Reagan while Kissinger and Rumsfeld went their separate ways. Over the years, however, their mutual respect became an enduring friendship that also included Ford. When Ford told Rumsfeld that in his memoir, “A Time to Heal,” he would be putting the blame for not getting to a Strategic Arms Limitation Talks deal on Rumsfeld and Brezhnev, Rumsfeld replied, “Well, Mr. President, I can live with that.”
I was honored to sit beside Kissinger earlier this fall at a small dinner party, and we talked about his relationship with Rumsfeld. He told me the knife-fighting story again, but then told me he thought Rumsfeld would have made a great president, despite their disagreements.
Now they can hash it out in heaven. RIP Henry.
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