Devoted Service Versus Controversial Legacy
Public celebrations this week of the deaths of world strategist Henry Kissinger and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter triggered some opposing feelings about the cross among memory, legacy and even forgiveness.
As the memorial service for Mrs. Carter made clear, hers was a life admirably devoted to service to others, particularly to the world’s poor and to those of us who struggle with mental illness. The words of her children and those who worked with her were clear about a lifelong commitment to love and caring.
Regardless of political affiliation, nationality or life choices, it wasn’t hard just to feel a certain hopefulness in the joy she seemed to get from helping others — whether building houses, trying to bring clean water or medicine to those who need it or in lobbying for attention to mental health. Her personal values matched with her public work.
If anything, we found ourselves wishing that her vision simply would make the world a better place. What could be more admirable?
The memories stoked by Kissinger’s death are far more complex. While his public life reflected a similar commitment to re-making the globe, his ways of going about it were manipulative and shattering to millions.
While making himself the architect regarding much of what passes as today’s world order, he was anything but selfless. For each huge achievement, including the opening of U.S.-China relations, there also was a troubling history of military intervention, support for dictators, orders for carpet bombing in Southeast Asia and the makings of realpolitik superpower solutions that seem to be crumbling before our current eyes.
The Kissinger Legacy
Here was a great man who did as much harm as he did good. What exactly are we celebrating with the breadth of the Kissinger memorials — his achievements or his influence? His rise from humble to super-powerful as in a Time Magazine choice for Person of the Year — either for good or evil.
In memory, is Kissinger a figure who can overcome his policy wrongdoing, for the admirable nature of posing himself as a figure who could decide on international life or death in ways that others before or since have fallen short? Is he a figure worth forgiveness in memory for “an American global hegemony that is now unravelling?” as Simon Tisdall argues in The Guardian.
Though he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1972 with his North Vietnamese counterpart for bringing about an end to the Vietnam War, it was largely Kissinger who had extended the war and brought about a carpet-bombing campaign in Cambodia. He backed the disastrous military coup in Chile and a repressive and murderous government in Argentina. His work toward ending a Middle East war in 1973 brought about the conditions we still see reflected today in the Israel-Hamas conflict.
While forging and defending “detente” — the easing of tensions with the Soviet Union — Kissinger also pursued what he regarded as a zero-sum contest with the Soviets for global influence that we see playing out in Ukraine, notes The Washington Post. His work to thaw relations with China boomed into the kind of U.S.-China tensions that are plaguing us today.
My own memories of Kissinger are back to college days, when our graduating class arose at his appearance to turn its collective back to a major proponent for prolonging the Vietnam War — at a time when I had turned in my college deferral from military draft out of concern about who actually was being sent to the war.
At that time, when global rights and wrongs were so much clearer to a would-be idealist generation, Kissinger was the opposite of a hero. He represented everything we needed to stand against.
How We Remember
Memory is essential for forgiveness, argues Jeffry M. Blustein in “Foregiveness and Remebrance,” who adds that persistent “emotional memories of wrongdoing are especially evaluatively significant.” Forgiveness is a conscious decision to change one’s attitude and to overcome anger and vengefulness.
He argues that forgetting may be easier.
In the end, Kissinger, Cold War strategist, secretary of state, counselor to presidents, alleged war criminal and surely a Dr. Strangelove prototype, may have overseen the 20th century. But, the champion of U.S. power was also a symbol of its dangerous neo-imperialism, as The Guardian concluded.
For sure, Kissinger became a unique character in guiding an American century and the post-World War II international order. But he stood for Americanism even in the face of the calls for human rights and self-determination that continue to plague us.
Indeed, Kissinger’s legacy remains “in doubt,” The Washington Post noted in an editorial. “His diplomacy set the stage for some of the most momentous developments in the late 20th century — the collapse the Soviet Union; the transformation of China into a global power, propelled by the greatest reduction of poverty in human history; the deep entanglement of the United States in the Middle East. Indeed, Kissinger’s heyday was a time when the secretary of state could strike grand bargains that seem elusive to U.S. leaders today.”
Of course, it came at the expense of many deaths through many proxy conflicts and backing of dictators — all in the Kissinger advancement of American power.
At the moment, what strikes is not an assessment of the influence of Rosalynn Carter or Henry Kissinger alone, but of our selective approach to remembrance altogether. After death, we are advised to remember only the good, but we cannot learn unless we also weigh the role of darker legacies as well.