46. Interview With Secretary of State Kissinger 1

MR. RESTON: You have been sounding rather pessimistic in the last few weeks. Are you worried about the state of the West?

SECRETARY KISSINGER: I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. I think that there are huge problems before us, and I’m trying to define them. I believe that the problems are soluble, but they require a major effort and, in some areas, new approaches, but I’m not pessimistic about the ability to solve them. We have—

Q Could I interrupt there to say that in reading what you have written in the past, I have a sense of pessimism in your writings, even of tragedy. Do you regard your thought as being essentially tragic, when you look at the last two generations?

A I think of myself as a historian more than as a statesman. As a historian, you have to be conscious of the fact that every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed.

History is a tale of efforts that failed, of aspirations that weren’t realized, of wishes that were fulfilled and then turned out to be different [Page 235]from what one expected. So, as a historian, one has to live with a sense of the inevitability of tragedy. As a statesman, one has to act on the assumption that problems must be solved.

Each generation lives in time, and even though ultimately perhaps societies have all suffered a decline, that is of no help to any one generation, and the decline is usually traceable to a loss of creativity and inspiration and therefore avoidable.

It is probably true that insofar as I think historically I must look at the tragedies that have occurred. Insofar as I act, my motive force, of which I am conscious, it is to try to avoid them.

The Issue of Feasibility

Q Don’t we have to bring this problem down to practical points, the difference between the ideals of a republic and what can be done? Is there a conflict now in America between the ideals of foreign policy that you see for the order of the world and what can actually be done in terms of public understanding and in actual votes in the Congress of the United States?

A I think almost every nation right now has the problem of reconciling its domestic view of itself with the international problem because every nation has to live on so many levels.

Certainly in every non-Communist nation—and probably even in Communist nations—public opinion in one way or another is becoming more and more important. But what public opinion is conscious of are the day-to-day problems of life. The remoter issues, geographically and in time, do not impinge on the average citizen.

In foreign policy, the most difficult issues are those whose necessity you cannot prove when the decisions are made. You act on the basis of an assessment that in the nature of things is a guess, so that public opinion knows, usually, only when it is too late to act, when some catastrophe has become overwhelming.

The necessity of the measures one takes to avoid the catastrophe can almost never be proved. For that reason you require a great deal, or at least a certain amount of confidence in leadership and that becomes difficult in all societies.

But, speaking of the United States, if one looks at the crisis through which America has gone over the last decade—the assassinations, the Vietnam war, Watergate—it is very difficult to establish the relationship of confidence.

Then the United States also has particular problems in terms of its historical experience. We never had to face the problem of security until the end of the Second World War, so we could afford to be very idealistic and insist on the pure implementation of our maxims.

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To the average countries that were less favored, the problems of foreign policy have usually appeared in a much more complicated form; that is, their morality could not be expressed in absolute terms. Their morality had to give the sense of inward security necessary to act step by step in less than perfect modes.

Rebellion in U.S. Sensed

We are now in a similar position and therefore there is an almost instinctive rebellion in America against the pragmatic aspect of foreign policy that is security-oriented, that achieves finite objectives, that seeks to settle for the best attainable, rather than for the best. In this sense, we are having domestic problems.

On the other hand, there is a strain in America which is curiously, extremely relevant to this world. We are challenged by the huge problems, peace and war, energy, food, and we have a real belief in interdependence—it is not just a slogan.

The solution of these problems really comes quite naturally to Americans, first, because they believe that every problem is soluble; secondly, because they are at ease with redoing the world, and the old frontier mentality really does find an expression, and even the old idealism finds a way to express itself.

In what other country could a leader say, “We are going to solve energy; we’re going to solve food; we’re going to solve the problem of nuclear war,” and be taken seriously? So I think it is true that there are strains in our domestic debate; I think it is also true that there are many positive aspects in our domestic debate that can help us reach these larger goals.

[Omitted here is discussion of Western Europe.]

Q When you came to Washington in the first place after your study of history, it was said that you had a concept of how to achieve the order of the world, and yet in the last years, since you have been here, the tendency has been to say that you have not defined your concept, but that actually what you have been doing is negotiating pragmatic problems and not really dealing with the concept or making clear the concept. What is that concept? First of all, is the criticism correct, and second, what is the concept that you see?

A Well, I think you will find few officials who will tell you that any criticism you can make of them is correct, but I don’t think the criticism is quite correct. I do not have the choice, in any position, between imposing a theoretical order or negotiating, because if you don’t solve immediate problems, you can never solve long-term problems.

If you act creatively you should be able to use crises to move the world towards the structural solutions that are necessary. In fact, very [Page 237]often the crises themselves are a symptom of the need for a structural rearrangement.

I faced a number of problems partly of perception and partly of structure. I feel it is essential that when the United States acts in foreign policy, that it understands first what the American national interest is in relation to the problem. And, to define that, America has to know what the world interest is, not only in relation to the specific problem, but in relation to the historical evolution from which any solution of a problem starts.

No Response From Europe

So I have tried—historians will have to judge with what success—to understand the forces that are at work in this period. My associates will confirm that when we tackle a problem, we spend the greatest part of our time at the beginning trying to relate it to where America and the world ought to go before we ever discuss tactics.

I think somebody would have to go through my speeches and press conferences to see to what extent I have articulated general propositions. I don’t think I should be the judge of this here.

Q When you made your speech at the Waldorf,2 I regarded it at that time as something equivalent almost to the offer of the Marshall Plan. Yet we got no real response from Europe. Even when you went to London and talked about interdependence,3 there was no response. Now, something was wrong there. Could you define it?

A There are always at least two aspects to any problem. One is your definition of the problem. Second, how you solve it. Are you doing it correctly?

I believe that the issues that I’ve attempted to define are serious issues. Take my Waldorf speech, the so-called Year of Europe speech. It came at a period when we had opened to China and opened to the Soviet Union and when we had ended the Vietnam war.

Until we had accomplished at least some of those objectives, I did not see how a creative period of relationship with Europe would be possible, because the disagreement with our Vietnam policy in Europe was too deep. The fear of nuclear confrontation was too great, as was the fear that the United States was somehow to blame for this state of hostility in the world.

So, in early 1973, I thought the time was opportune to move towards a serious dialogue with Europe, and I thought it was all the more essential because I did not want success to become identified in [Page 238]the public consciousness only with relations with adversaries, and I felt that the old Atlantic relationship would over a period of time become so much taken for granted and so much the province of an older generation that the next generation would consider it as something not relevant to itself.

Debate Over Consultation

I think that this perception was essentially correct. Why did it lead to this intense dialogue? One reason is that, at that particular moment, Europe was enormously absorbed with itself. Every European country, it soon became apparent, had a leadership crisis of its own and was trying to sort out its own domestic problems. Beyond that, Europe was very much occupied in forming its own identity, and it had so much difficulty in doing so that any greater conception seemed a threat to whatever autonomy they had so painfully wrested from their deliberations.

So we became involved in an abstruse theoretical debate over the nature of consultation, something that could never be written down because you can’t wave a paper at somebody and tell him he’s obliged to consult if he doesn’t want to consult.

Then the Middle East war occurred, and that had a tendency to emphasize national frustrations, so that the larger dialogue that I had sought took a long time to get started, but finally the end result was pretty close to what we had asked—though not completely in the spirit I had hoped to evoke. We got the documents we wanted, but we didn’t get the spirit of creativity that, for example, the Marshall offer evoked.

Now, similarly, with the Pilgrim speech in London. It was not received very warmly because, again, it was looked at very much from the national point of view. Nevertheless, events have moved us inevitably in that direction. The emergency sharing program which seemed revolutionary in February, has now been accepted by all the countries. Even France, I hope, will find some way of relating itself to it.

And we are now engaged in discussions which will go far beyond what we could talk about last year. In the late nineteen forties the mere fact that the United States was willing to commit itself was a tremendous event. Now, this is probably not enough, and our aspirations have to be expressed in action rather than in debate.

Q On that point, when you offer, as a basis for discussion with the Europeans and the rest of the world, a sharing of oil in a crisis, do you believe that the spirit of this country will accept it? When you come down to a question of producing oil for other countries who are in worse shape than we are, is it politically possible in this country to do it?

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U.S. Disillusionment

A There is undoubtedly a profound disillusionment in America with foreign involvement in general. We have carried the burden for a generation. In fact, if you go back to the beginning of World War II, it doesn’t seem to end. Most programs have been sold to Americans with the argument that they would mean an end of exertion. Now we have to convince Americans that there will never be an end to exertion. That’s a very difficult problem.

And if you look at some of our recent debates you would have to say we could fail. I don’t think that those in key positions at this particular moment have any real choice. At a minimum, we have to tell the American people what we think is needed. If they do not agree, at least they will know 10 years from now, if there is a catastrophe, what happened. And then there is a chance of restoring a sense of direction. But if 10 years from now there is a catastrophe and people say, “Why didn’t somebody tell us about this and why didn’t they ask us to do what they should have foreseen?”, then I think our whole system may be in difficulty.

Q That’s a critical point because I don’t think the country—if one may presume to think about what the country thinks—has the vaguest idea of what it is called upon to do. We are complaining about how the oil-producing nations are using their resources, and yet we have larger reserves of food in North America than the nations of the Middle East have oil resources, and yet here we are now arguing our national interests. We are against high prices for oil, but we are still a very gluttonous wasteful country. Can that be made clear?

A I think it is fair to say that we ourselves—I say “we,” those who have positions of responsibility at this moment—we ourselves are learning the magnitude of the challenges as we go along. In 1969, when I came to Washington, I remember a study on the energy problem which proceeded from the assumption that there would always be an energy surplus. It wasn’t conceivable that there would be a shortage of energy.

Until 1972, we thought we had inexhaustible food surpluses, and the fact that we have to shape our policy deliberately to relate ourselves to the rest of the world did not really arise until 1973, when we did call for a world food conference.

But you are right. We have to tell the American people what they are called upon to do. That is our biggest problem. It’s our biggest challenge right now. And will they support it? I hope that they will. I am, in fact, confident that they will.

For the Country

Q Can you define what those questions are that should be put to the country? What does the government want the responsible citizen to [Page 240]do? He hasn’t had much lead from you and your colleagues and the Government as to what you wish him to do.

A I am not sure that I agree with whether he has received leadership from my colleagues and me. I think it is also fair to say that the nature of our debate for many years now has been so bitter that it’s hard to put forward a conception that doesn’t immediately get ripped apart by an attack on motives.

But leaving that aside, I think in foreign policy we need a national understanding of what is needed, what is meant by peace, and an understanding that we are living in a world in which peace cannot be imposed on others, which means that sometimes the outcomes must be less than perfect. I have been concerned about the détente debate because so often the issue is put in terms of—did the Soviets benefit from a particular deal? Of course, they must benefit, or they won’t feel a stake in maintaining the resulting structure.

So, we have to know what we mean by peace. We have to know what we mean by cooperation, and we have above all to understand these big issues which we have been discussing, like energy and food, in which our actions will crucially determine what happens in the rest of the world.

And, of course, what happens in the rest of the world will play back to us, so we cannot afford an isolated approach. If we try a solo effort in energy and, as a result, Italy collapses or Britain has a crisis, that is going to bring about so many political transformations that, within a very brief period of time, we would be affected in ways that even the average citizen would feel very acutely.

On food, the same is true in reverse. We there have an opportunity to demonstrate that when we talk interdependence, we are not just talking an American desire to exploit the resources of other nations. What we are saying is for our own benefit, of course. But it is also for the benefit of everybody else. Now, that requires many changes in our thinking. Of course, senior officials are always so busy with the day-to-day problems that they always seem to think one can wait for a day or a week to articulate the bigger issues.

It is also true that our people have been so preoccupied with domestic problems that it is not so easy to get attention for the longer term.

Vision of the World

Q If we do not see this problem of interdependence, what’s the vision that you have of the world? What will happen to Western Civilization?

A If we do not get a recognition of our interdependence, the Western civilization that we now have is almost certain to disintegrate [Page 241]because it will first lead to a series of rivalries in which each region will try to maximize its own special advantages. That inevitably will lead to tests of strength of one sort or another. These will magnify domestic crises in many countries, and they will then move more and more to authoritarian models.

I would expect then that we will certainly have crises which no leadership is able to deal with, and probably military confrontations. But even if you don’t have military confrontations, you will certainly, in my view, have systemic crises similar to those of the twenties and thirties, but under conditions when world consciousness has become global.

Q Well, now, that is your nightmare.

A That’s right.

Q What are your hopes? We are halfway between the end of the last world war, a little more, and the end of the century. As an historian, and not as a Secretary of State, looking back, if one can, from the end of the century to this era, how can the nations find some way of living together or going beyond the nation-state to something else?

A Looking toward the end of the century, I would hope that Western Europe, Japan and the United States would have found a way of not just overcoming the current economic crisis, but turning it into something positive by understanding the responsibilities they share for each other’s progress and for developing cooperative policies that are explicitly directed towards world interests.

This requires a degree of financial solidarity, a degree of equalizing burdens and a degree of ability to set common goals that cannot be done on a purely national basis. This, incidentally, requires a united Europe because with a plethora of nation-states in Europe we’ll never be able to do this.

Must Halt Arms Race

In relation to the Soviet Union and Communist China, we should have achieved a position, not of having overcome all our difficulties, but having reached a point where the solution of these difficulties by war becomes less and less conceivable and, over time, should have become inconceivable. This means that there must be a visible and dramatic downturn in the arms race. Otherwise, that race itself is going to generate so many fears that it can be maintained only by a degree of public exhortation that is inconsistent over a historic period with a policy of relaxation, and maybe even with peace.

The underdeveloped nations—the now underdeveloped nations—should by then have lost their sense of inferiority and should feel not that they have to extort, but that they should participate. Thus, what I said earlier about the relationship between Western Europe, the United [Page 242]States and Japan should have begun to be institutionalized to embrace at least some of the key countries, and the Soviet Union and China must be related to that.

Take the food problem. I do not believe that over an indefinite future, we can solve the problem of world food reserves if the Soviet Union and Communist China do not accept obligations of their own, or if they simply rely on the rest of the world’s production to solve their problems on an annual basis.

Q What should they be doing?

A Well, I think—and I will speak about that at the World Food Conference—we have to develop over the next five to ten years some conceptions of the reserves that should exist and the contribution that the major countries should make. Countries that will not participate should not then ask necessarily equal rights to participate in purchases of reserve stocks. But this is something that requires further study.

Q Do you foresee in the next decade the possibility of political disarray in Europe and of enormous human tragedy in other parts of the world?

A I think we are delicately poised right now. I genuinely think that the next decade could either be a period that in retrospect will look like one of the great periods of human creativity, or it could be the beginning of extraordinary disarray.

Hope in Adversity

Q Is it possible—and it is obviously a Scottish Calvinist point of view that the greatest hope of progress is adversity—that we are now really up against economic, financial and social problems of such magnitude that we are suddenly being forced, even by inflation, into a view of life that could be more hopeful?

A While this period has more strain than, say, a decade ago, it has also infinitely more opportunities, because we really have no choice except to address our problems. Who would have thought of an international food policy or a world food conference 10 years ago, or could have been taken seriously if he had? Today, it is only a question of time until we develop it, and the real question is, will we develop it soon enough? I think we can.

Q Is there a danger that if we do not deal with the world problems that here at home we would become so frustrated that we would retreat, not into the old-time isolationism, but into a kind of chauvinism that would make the whole question of world order really quite impossible?

A It is a big problem. There is such a tendency in America, but at least part of our chauvinism is disappointed idealism, so it’s always a question of whether one can evoke the idealism.

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[Omitted here is discussion of the organization and management of the Department of State.]

Soviet Union vs. China

Q When I was in Europe just a few weeks ago, the question was raised there about your concept of China and of the Soviet Union. The question was raised whether in your mind you have not actually chosen one over the other, and in the process were playing one up against the other. Could you clarify that?

A When one analyzes foreign policy, there is always the temptation to look at the day-to-day tactics and not at the underlying reality. Any attempt to play off the Soviet Union and Communist China against each other would have a high risk that, at least for tactical reasons, they would combine against us. The rivalry and tensions between the Soviet Union and Communist China were not created by the United States. In fact, we didn’t believe in their reality for much too long a time. They cannot be exploited by the United States. They can only be noted by the United States.

The correct policy for the United States is to take account of what exists and to conduct a policy of meticulous honesty with both of them, so that neither believes we are trying to use one against the other. In the course of events, it may happen that one may feel that it is gaining benefit against the other as a result of dealing with us, but that cannot be our aim or purpose.

We have meticulously avoided forms of cooperation with the Soviet Union that could be construed as directed against China. We have never signed agreements whose chief purpose could be seen as directed against China, and conversely we have never participated with China in declarations that could be seen as aimed at the Soviet Union. We have developed our bilateral relationships with both, and left them to sort out their relationships with each other. In fact, we have rarely talked to either of them about the other.

The Kissinger Legacy

Q When you leave this office, what is it you want to have achieved at the end of your service?

A It used to be that the overwhelming concern of any President or Secretary of State had to be to make a contribution to peace in the traditional sense. That is to say, to reduce tensions among nations or regions. That remains, of course, an essential preoccupation. History has, I think, placed me in a key position at a time when we are moving from the relics of the postwar period toward a new international structure.

The Administration did not invent that structure. It did have, however, an opportunity to contribute to it—an opportunity that did not [Page 244]exist 10 years earlier and that may not exist 10 years later. Now, the difference between that structure and the previous period is that there are more factors to consider and that it has to be built not on the sense of the pre-eminence of two power centers, but on the sense of participation of those who are part of the global environment.

This has required a change in the American perception of the nature of foreign policy. What is described as excessive pragmatism is really a rather conscious attempt to try to educate myself, my generation, and my associates, insofar as I can contribute to living with the world as it is now emerging. Pragmatism unrelated to a purpose becomes totally self-destructive.

In addition, I would like to leave at least the beginning of a perception of a structure that goes beyond these centers of power, and moves towards a global conception. There is no question in my mind that, by the end of the century, this will be the dominant reality of our time. I believe we have to move towards it now.

Q Can you define it?

A Before I go to that, let me say one other thing that I have been very much concerned with. However long I stay, it will be but a temporary episode. To succeed in these objectives, I will have to leave behind a public understanding and, above all, an intellectual understanding in the State Department that can carry on not only the detailed policies, but an overall understanding of where America fits into the global scheme of things. I intend to give increasing attention to this problem.

[Omitted here is discussion of the position of Secretary of State, the role of Congress in decision-making, and intelligence organizations.]

A View of America

Q I’m more interested in the rising generation than I am in the contemporary problem, and for that reason I wanted to ask you this: A colleague of mine went to see Willy Brandt and asked, “What does the young generation in Germany now think of America?” And Brandt replied, “The magic is gone.” And when he was asked what he meant by that, it was that we have used power, he thought, in a way that did not comport to our ideals, particularly in Vietnam, but there was something beyond that, a kind of sense that we were engaged in a kind of disintegration. He mentioned the drug culture in America as being profoundly worrisome and that somehow we had lost our ideals in the way in which we approach the world.

A I was told last year that the public opinion polls in Germany in the second half of the year dramatically changed from showing a declining image of the United States to increasingly favoring the United States. The explanation I was given was the end of the Vietnam war and the decisive handling of the Middle East crisis.

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The Germans, the younger Germans, again saw the United States as a nation that could solve problems—and that is one of the elements of the American appeal.

America has gone through many changes, dramatic changes, in the last decade. We even began to develop a new isolationism. The old isolationism was based on the proposition that we were too good for this world; the new isolationism was based on the proposition that we’re not good enough for it.

When one looks at the process of growing up, it is largely a process of learning one’s limits, that one is not immortal, that one cannot achieve everything; and then to draw from that realization the strength to set great goals nevertheless. Now, I think that as a country we’ve gone through this. We were immature in the sense that we thought the definition of goals was almost the equivalent of their realization.

Then we went to the opposite extreme, and I think from this point of view the Kennedy period is likely to be seen as the end of an era, rather than as the beginning of one: the last great flowering of the naive version of American idealism. And I don’t say this as a criticism.

I think now that the drug culture, the student rebellion, are in that sense behind us. Of course, we still have the drug culture, but as problems that threaten the spirit of America, I think they either are behind us or could be behind us if we can now do what any adult has to do in his life. When you get to the recognition of your limits, then the question becomes whether you transcend them or wallow in them. That is a choice that is up to us.

Q From the period from Roosevelt through the Kennedy period, the central theme of this country was that we could do anything in the world, and then we ran into some disappointments and seemed to go into a phase of self-doubt in which we began to wonder whether we could do anything effectively. Now, do we have the self-confidence and the essential trust in one another and in our institutions to support the kind of foreign policy you want?

A I have to say this is the big question I ask myself. In some strange way, I think the American people have come through these recent crises in rather good shape. I would not have thought you could have assassinations, the Vietnam war, Watergate, and all that went with it, and still have basic confidence in government.

Among the intellectual and political leadership groups, I’m not so sure. But even there, as I said earlier, during the Watergate period, there was support for foreign policy. There is still a remarkable sense of national cohesion, so I am basically optimistic. But above all, I don’t think we have any choice except to try, and in this respect, the American idealistic tradition gives the United States a resource that exists in no other country in the world.

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In this country, even with all the isolationism, when you talk about a sense of responsibility, you touch the core of people; you can mention very few other countries of the world where it could be even a plausible argument.

Cohesion of the West

Q At one point the West was bound together by certain religious ideals, certain moral ideals. What is it that binds the free world together today, if anything?

A Well, what binds us together on an unsatisfactory level is industrial civilization which imposes common realities and necessities on all of us. We are also tied together by an approach to politics in which ultimately the fulfillment of human needs plays a central role. Now, the definition of what those needs are can be disputed, but that it does play a crucial role is clear. Indeed, much of the political turmoil in the industrialized world is caused by the uncertainty as to precisely what those deeper needs are.

We are tied together, too, by a perception of politics in which various groups and the individual play a crucial role. And the combination of industrial necessity plus the fact that a complicated society cannot be run by direction and must have a certain amount of consensus will in time begin to permeate even totalitarian regimes.

Q Do you see the possibility of a closer regional understanding, and even structural development of regionalism, within the Hemisphere in the foreseeable future?

A Since I’ve become Secretary of State, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time on Western Hemisphere relationships. If it is true that the relations between industrialized and developing nations are essential features of our period, then in the Western Hemisphere where we are dealing with countries of similar traditions, and indeed, similar history—this is where a beginning must be made. If we cannot solve it creatively here, it is hard to know how we can be creative about it elsewhere.

How formal that structure can be, I don’t know. I have found two things: One is that the mere act of dialogue in the Western Hemisphere has had an emotional response; and, secondly, I have been struck in my meetings—I’ve now attended three foreign ministers’ meetings in the Western Hemisphere—by the fact that if one read the records without the mood of the meetings, one would find in them a litany of criticism of the United States. But if one actually was at the meetings, one had the sense that this was a family quarrel; that in some intangible way, one was talking as a member of the family.

So I think that in the Western Hemisphere we have the possibilities of a creative phase, provided the United States can shed its traditional [Page 247]predominance and recognize that the decisions that emerge must be genuinely felt by our friends in the Western Hemisphere to be theirs.

Need for Sacrifice

Q Is it reasonable for the American people to go on assuming, in a hungry world where raw materials are increasingly scarce, that our standard of living each year can go on going up, or do we have to face new responsibilities and even some sacrifices in this country in order to bring about some kind of world order?

A Now, here I’m talking off the top of my head. I would think, if we look ahead to the year 2000 and beyond, we have to be prepared to face a world quite different from what we have now. We see it already in energy. I believe that the day of the 400-horsepower engine is over, whether it’s this year or five years from now. You’re going to see different types of automobiles, and that affects our style of life.

We will have to develop a global food policy. We cannot deal with issues like this week’s grain sale to the Soviet Union4 on a crash basis every few months. To do so will affect our whole perception of the relationship of agriculture to our society and our foreign policy.

Weakness of Communism

Q When you talk about cooperation between the Communists and the capitalist world, where do you see this leading? To the domination of one over the other, or to a combination of the two, or what?

A I think that any attempt at domination in a nuclear age is going to involve risks that are catastrophic and would not be tolerated. If we remain strong enough to prevent the imposition of Communist hegemony, then I believe that transformations of the Communist societies are inevitable. I believe that the imposition of state control of the kind that communism demands is totally incompatible with the requirements of human organization at this moment.

The pressure of this realization on Communist systems is going to bring about a transformation apart from any conscious policy the United States pursues, so long as there is not a constant foreign danger that can be invoked to impose regimentation.

What inherent reason is there that keeps the Communist societies in Eastern Europe from achieving the standard of living of those of Western Europe? The resources are about the same, the industrial orga[Page 248]nization is there. I think the reason is inherent in the type of society that has been created, and that I believe must inevitably change.

Looking Back

Q Looking back over these almost six years, is there anything in the conduct of our foreign policy that you regret, that you would like to change?

A I’m quite convinced that I’ll be much more reflective a year or two after I leave here than I can be today. What I regret is that so much of the time had to be spent on the Vietnam war. If we could have got that behind us more rapidly, we could have brought the more positive side of our foreign policy to fruition at a time when attitudes were less rigidly formed.

The real tragedy was Watergate, because I believe that at the beginning of President Nixon’s second term, we had before us—due to changing conditions—a period of potential creativity. We contributed some of that potential, but some of it was inherent in the objective situation.

Instead, we had to spend almost all of our energy in preserving what existed, rather than building on the foundations that had been laid. Even the Year of Europe could have gone differently in a different environment. But you never know what opportunities may have been lost.

Those are my big regrets. There are many tactical things I would in retrospect perhaps do differently, but I think it’s premature to speculate on those.

Now, what problems I leave to my successor depends, of course, at what time I leave, and I don’t want to have this sound as a valedictory. If I resigned today, he would have the Middle East problem in mid-solution.

I think we are now at a point where the framework of the structure exists, if we can put it together. We have the raw material, we have the elements, we’ve identified them, I hope, correctly. We are at the beginning of building a consciousness of the global community that must come after us.

Q Can you see a settlement of the Middle East thing in, say, before we get to the Bicentennial, or the end of this Administration?

A Before we get to the Bicentennial I think we can make considerable progress, at least to a point where one can see the settlement emerging. But it could also go very badly. That is yet a delicate point.

Role of Intellectuals

Q You once said to me that you were relying very heavily—even when you were in the middle of your service in Washington this time—[Page 249]on concepts and intellectual support you had got from your colleagues in Cambridge way back in ’59, and that you felt a lack of this as time went on. Is that still true?

A I think it is true. As I look back, for example, at the area of strategic arms limitation, most of the creative thought with which I am familiar dates back to the late fifties and was then introduced into the Government first in the Kennedy Administration and then, I hope, in ours.

Two things are lacking now: One, the same sense of relationship towards the Government that intellectuals had then; now they volunteer less and participate less. Secondly, there is a lack of relevant intellectual work.

Intellectuals are now divided into essentially three groups: those that reject the Government totally; those that work on pure, abstract intellectual models which are impossible to make relevant; and a third group that’s too close to power and that sees its service to the Government as residing primarily in day-to-day tactics. No outsider can be very helpful on the day-to-day business because he doesn’t know enough of the current situation to really make a contribution.

The best service intellectuals can render is, first, to ask important questions and that’s a difficult problem, and, second, to provide a middle-term perspective. But for that they need to have some compassion for the problems of the policy-maker, just as he needs an understanding of their needs. I feel the lack, and I hope that now that our domestic climate is somewhat better we can restore mutual confidence.

Q Was it not a great mistake to wipe out the Office of the Science Adviser who was bringing in objective thought? I felt that lack of it, for example, on the whole question of oil and other raw materials.

A I think it’s a pity. I hope that some focal point is created which will look upon the intellectual community as its constituency, and that they will be listened to.

Q Just one last point: I take it that you are saying that you don’t want this to be interpreted as a swan song?

A Yes.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Policy Planning Council (S/PC), Policy Planning Staff (S/P), Director’s Files (Winston Lord) 1969–77, Lot 77D112, Box 348, OCT 1974. No classification marking. New York Times columnist James “Scotty” Reston conducted the interview with Kissinger. Reston’s article and a partial transcript of the interview were published as “Kissinger Sees the World On Verge of Historic Era,” New York Times, October 13, 1974, pp. 1, 34. Kissinger offered similar remarks during an off-the-record conversation with members of the New York Times editorial staff on September 30. (National Archives, RG 59, Policy Planning Council (S/PC), Policy Planning Staff (S/P), Director’s Files (Winston Lord) 1969–77, Lot 77D112, Box 369, WL Sensitive Non-China)
  2. Document 8.
  3. Kissinger’s Pilgrims speech in London, Document 24.
  4. On October 4, Ford placed a hold on wheat and corn contracts that American exporting firms had negotiated with the Soviet Union in order to prevent speculation. See William M. Blair, “2 New Shipments of American Grain to Soviet Halted,” New York Times, October 5, 1974, p. 1.