Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Sunday, July 24, 2016

KISSINGER

S. Wallerstein asks my impression of Henry Kissinger.  I knew him when he was a young professor at Harvard very much on the make and on the rise.  He was a wretched human being even then, but he was also, I thought, rather limited intellectually.  One brief story will make the point. 

After I had acquired some local notoriety around Harvard Square because of my advocacy of nuclear arms reduction and elimination, Kissinger asked me to address his graduate seminar in the Government Department [which is what Harvard calls Political Science.]  I wanted to talk about some rather technical game theoretic issues related to the disagreements between those defending the Navy's point of view -- Thomas Schelling [a genuinely brilliant man],  et al. -- and those defending the Air Force's point of view -- Herman Kahn, an intellectual fraud, and Kissinger.  [The underlying issue at stake in the theoretical disputes debated by the think tanks was which branch of the service would get the big Congressional appropriations for its form of nuclear delivery systems -- nuclear submarines, which were a Second Strike weapon or Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, which were a first strike weapon.]

When I showed up in Kissinger's office, I asked him whether the seminar room had a blackboard.  Why did I want to know, he asked.  I explained that I wanted to put some equations on the board.  He got a squirrely panicked look in his eyes and asked whether that was really necessary.  It was obvious that he neither knew anything about nor understood the theoretical foundation of the position he was espousing.

The week before, he had published a pompous letter in the Harvard Crimson [the student newspaper] criticizing me among others for failing to realize that nuclear deterrence was a "very complicated subject."  I looked at him after his nervous question about the blackboard and said quietly, "Well, this is a very complicated subject."  I did not like him even then.

Two more things that may be of historical interest.  First, that seminar played an important role in subsequent American foreign affairs because many of the foreign graduate students who took it went home to become important figures in their governments.  Kissinger cultivated them as students, anticipating this, and used his connection with them when he was in the government to aggrandise his influence.

Second, the big book of the moment in deterrence theory was Herman Kahn's pretentious but hollow book, On Thermonuclear War.  In anticipation of the 1960 election, Kissinger published The Necessity for Choice, much of its intellectual content lifted from Kahn.  Shortly after his inauguration, Kennedy gave a television interview in the Oval Office which showed Kissinger's book prominently displayed on the desk.  Kissinger's bags were all packed, but Kennedy chose McGeorge Bundy, the Harvard Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, as his National Security Advisor, so Kissinger had to unpack until Nixon was elected.

1 comment:

s. wallerstein said...

Thanks. Interesting that Kissinger first tried to sell himself to Kennedy.

It's hard to imagine that someone who did the things Kissinger did when in power would be a good person out of power. I always work with what I call the "bic pen rule". If you lend someone your bic pen (cost less than 50 cents) and then they don't give it back (as often occurs), don't trust them on anything important. That's a metaphor of course, but if someone plays crooked when nothing much is at stake (the blackboard), imagine what they will do when something important is a stake (for example, a democratic socialist is elected in Chile and nationalizes huge U.S. copper mining companies).