In John Adams’ 1987 opera “Nixon in China,” which has its premiere with the Metropolitan Opera next week, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state, has an important part. His most famous scene comes in the second act, when Madame Mao, Chairman Mao’s wife, stages a propagandist ballet for the visiting American dignitaries.
Kissinger is supposed to be in the audience, but Pat Nixon, the first lady, thinks she sees him in the ballet, playing a landlord savagely whipping a throng of Chinese peasants. She pauses, looks around the audience for Kissinger, but can’t find him. Her suspicions confirmed, she turns to her husband, points to the landlord, then whispers: “Doesn’t that look like, you-know-who?”
Much like Kissinger’s recently unearthed comments about Soviet Jews — in which he told Nixon cabinet aides “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern” — “Nixon in China” gives comfort to Kissinger’s most vociferous critics. Like his “no American concern” comment, the opera portrays him as cruel, cunning and entirely devoid of human feeling.
But in recent years historians have made significant revisions to that image. Many now argue that Kissinger had far less of a significant role in shaping U.S. foreign policy than he led many to believe. “Nixon was really the one who shaped his own foreign policy,” said David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers who writes frequently about the Nixon years. “I think most historians would now agree” with that.
And at least one, Jeremi Suri, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contends that Kissinger’s exile from Nazi Germany was central in shaping whatever decisions he made. You cannot understand Kissinger, Suri argues, without understanding his Jewish past. “It was with him every day,” said Suri, referring to Kissinger’s escape from Germany to New York in 1938, when he was 15. “How could it not be?”
For his book “Henry Kissinger and the American Century” (Harvard University Press, 2007), Suri interviewed Kissinger in addition to conducting traditional archival research. His book, which provided a somewhat sympathetic portrait of Kissinger, was widely praised; it has, perhaps, more than any other published work about the diplomat, broken the most new ground in tying Kissinger’s refugee experience to his mature foreign policy.
In a recent interview, Suri highlighted three critical lessons Kissinger learned from his life in Nazi Germany. That first, not all states are equal and only a few can determine world events. Second, every so often political figures emerge who “transcend their times” and have an outsize influence on political events. Kissinger thought Mao had that ability, says Suri, and he thought Hitler did too, even if “he used it for diabolical purposes.”
Third, Kissinger learned that you had to approach foreign states with both carrots and sticks. Only negotiating, or only threatening force, would not work. Kissinger learned this, Suri argues, from the run-up up to the Second World War, in which most European powers tried to contain Hitler either by appeasing him or threatening war. “Kissinger tried to bring these two together,” Suri said, offering negotiations but also issuing threats.
He added that Kissinger’s comments about Soviet Jewry could be read as stemming from his childhood experience, too. “He overcompensated for being an outsider,” Suri said, which gave way to his well-known “sycophantic quality.” This often led Kissinger to flatter his colleagues by mimicking their own prejudices, particularly Nixon, which has echoes in his Soviet Jewry comment. (Kissinger recently elaborated on those comments, saying that while his choice of analogy was poor, he was trying to convey the broader point that humanitarian issues should not drive foreign policy decisions.)
But his sycophantic habit goes far back. In the 1950s, when Kissinger was in his 20s and teaching at Harvard, but still without tenure, some of his students had a nickname for him. In response to his incessant praise of senior faculty, they called him Henry “Ass-Kissinger,” writes Robert Dallek in “Nixon and Kissinger” (HarperCollins, 2007).
Some recent historians are now attacking the notion that Kissinger had any coherent foreign policy at all. Though Kissinger portrayed himself as a master of “realpolitik” — which purports to value coolly rational, realistic decisions above any idealist grand strategy — they say that Kissinger’s policies were, in retrospect, strangely incoherent.
“My understanding is that most academics don’t really take him seriously as a thinker, and never have,” said Greenberg. He argued that Kissinger was most successful, however, in giving the impression that he was a serious thinker. “Shrewd” and “intelligent” may be appropriate adjectives, Greenberg suggested, but certainly not “brilliant.”
Greenberg added that Kissinger’s grave, accent-inflected baritone, his Harvard degrees (both undergraduate and a Ph.D.), and later teaching career there, made the liberal media elite particularly attracted to him. Especially in contrast to Nixon’s strident anti-elitism, anti-Semitism and crude verbal missives, the “more liberal, more intellectual, sometimes Jewish” journalist establishment naturally migrated to Kissinger.
While Suri does not necessarily see Kissinger’s policies as incoherent, he understands how some critics might. A case in point is Israel, where both Kissinger’s critics and supporters can cite his actions in defending their positions, Suri said.
Kissinger increased U.S. military aid to Israel in the build-up to the Yom Kippur War in 1973. But he also played a pivotal role in ending the war as the chief negotiator of the armistice. “We basically paid them off,” Suri said, regarding how Kissinger got the Egyptians to agree to a cease-fire. Still, he added, some more hawkish Israel supporters see this as “selling out.”
Moreover, others now argue that Nixon shaped his own foreign policy to an extent that past historians ignore. The new emphasis on Nixon’s role is implicit in the subtitle of Dallek’s book on Kissinger and Nixon, which is “Partners in Power.” Dallek gives Kissinger plenty of credit, but also highlights the degree to which competition between the two propelled Nixon to outdo Kissinger on foreign policy achievements.
That was especially true for China, the subject of the Met’s upcoming opera.
“I’m convinced that it was Nixon’s ideas to open up to China,” said Margaret MacMillan, a scholar at Oxford and author of “Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World” (Random House, 2007).
Her book was one of the first English-language studies to deal exclusively with Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, which renewed relations between the two countries after nearly a quarter century without them. The trip was a political coup for Nixon, who had been taking a drumming for the worsening war in Vietnam. But it had significant long-term ramifications for America, too. It would weaken the Soviet Union’s influence over Communist China. And for the Chinese, it meant they no longer had to be dependent on Soviet aid.
MacMillan argues that Kissinger was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the trip, but it was Nixon’s decision to make it happen in the first place. “My feeling is that Nixon deserves much of the credit,” she said.
But if the trip buoyed Nixon’s approval ratings, Kissinger got much of the credit. This trend repeated itself throughout Nixon’s tenure. While in office, Nixon was perceived as the slow-witted boor, and Kissinger his brilliant aide-de-camp. Tellingly, it was Kissinger who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for beginning America’s withdrawal from Vietnam. And it was Kissinger, too, who bore the wrath of human rights advocates for America’s secret bombing of Cambodia.
Like all historians interviewed, music critics caution against judging the opera by its politics. “It’s looking at the mythological resonance of characters who would be familiar to the American audience,” said the music writer Thomas May, editor of “The John Adams Reader.” “I don’t think [the opera’s creators] were ever after getting to the reality of the politics.”
(In any event, political criticism has dogged the composer, John Adams, his librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars in many of their collaborations, most notoriously in “The Death of Klinghoffer,” from 1991. That opera was based on the hijacking of a ship by Palestinian terrorists in 1985, and their murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish-American on board. Some argued it was anti-Semitic, while others said it tried to justify terrorism.)
May added that even if the crude depiction of Kissinger in “Nixon in China” stands in marked contrast to the considerably more humane portraits Nixon and Mao, it’s meant partly as a joke. The Kissinger character is as much a riff on a stock opera type — the “basso buffo,” a buffoonish character common to many traditional operas — as it is as riff on the political image of Kissinger himself.
But not all critics are as charitable. Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, wrote in his original 1988 review, that “to treat the president even-handedly and then to transform the secretary of state into a venal, jibbering, opportunistic buffoon is to lower the level of discourse considerably.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Page said that while we shouldn’t judge the opera by its politics — “I think it was always seen as a work of art and not a serious work of politics” — his political views of the work were nonetheless the same. Even though he’s a liberal, he said, he still finds its portrayal of Kissinger particularly misguided.
“It seemed to me that here was an utter buffoon” — Kissinger — “and then you have one of the worst mass murderers in the 20th century” — Mao — “treated not uncritically but sympathetically nonetheless. That strikes me as a little simplistic.” n
“Nixon in China” premieres with The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center on Wed., Feb. 2, at 8 p.m. In repertory through Feb. 19. (212) 362-6000. The Opera house is located on Lincoln Center campus, at 63rd St. and Columbus Ave. Tickets start at $25.