WASHINGTON (JTA) — It should have been ancient, if unsavory, news: A cavalier reference to gassing Jews, an aside in a conversation nearly 40 years old.
But the aside was pronounced by Henry Kissinger, a German-born Jew who fled Nazi horrors as a child and who has been honored by multiple Jewish organizations as one of Israel’s saviors during its darkest days, when he was secretary of state to President Nixon.
“If they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern,” Kissinger is heard saying on the latest batch of Nixon-era Oval Office tapes released by the Nixon Library.
Following its publication Saturday — buried deep in a New York Times story that focused more on Nixon’s well-known bigotrieys — a shock shuddered through the Jewish community and led to calls to shun Kissinger, and then to calls to forgive him.
Kissinger in an e-mail to JTA would brook no request for an apology and did not even directly address his gas chambers remark. Instead he appeared to insist on context: His frustration at the time with the insistence of the Jewish community and U.S. senators such as Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) and Henry “Scoop”Jackson (D-Wash.) on attaching human rights riders to dealings with the Soviets.
“The quotations ascribed to me in the transcript of the conversation with President Nixon must be viewed in the context of the time,” Kissinger wrote to JTA.
He and Nixon pursued the issue of Soviet Jewish emigration as a humanitarian matter separate from foreign policy issues in order to avoid questions of sovereignty and because normal diplomatic channels were closed, Kissinger wrote.
“By this method and the persistent private representation at the highest level we managed to raise emigration from 700 per year to close to 40,000 in 1972,” Kissinger wrote. “We disagreed with the Jackson Amendment, which made Jewish emigration a foreign policy issue. We feared that the Amendment would reduce emigration, which is exactly what happened. Jewish emigration never reached the level of 40,000 again until the Soviet Union collapsed. The conversation between Nixon and me must be seen in the context of that dispute and of our distinction between a foreign policy and a humanitarian approach.”
In fact, emigration from the Soviet Union was about 32,000 in 1972, when what became known as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment — named for Jackson and Rep. Charlie Vanik (D-Ohio) — was introduced, and rose to 35,000 in 1973 and then dropped to 20,000 in 1974. Those were all years that the amendment was being debated in Congress, and a sign, veterans of Soviet Jewry activism say, that the mere threat of the amendment helped spur emigration.
It is true that the amendment’s passage in 1974 at first inhibited emigration, but it spiked again in 1979 to 51,000 as the Soviets sought to bargain for its repeal. In the dying years of the Soviet Union, from 1989 to 1991, the Gorbachev government released upward of 450,000 Jews.
More broadly, Jackson-Vanik formed the basis for the late-20th century politics of making human rights a sine qua non of statecraft. That resulted not only in the mass emigration of Soviet Jews 15 years after its passage, but also in contemporary efforts to end internal massacres in countries such as Sudan.
Kissinger, however, was dedicated to realpolitik — the art of securing the grand deal, even at the expense of the moral and ethical considerations of the moment — and his disdain for human rights activists knew few bounds.
Gal Beckerman, a historian of the Soviet Jewry movement, told Tablet on Tuesday that this even led Kissinger to suppress a letter that might have helped salvage a deal with the Soviets to release Jews under the Jackson-Vanik stipulations.
Similar considerations led Kissinger to press Nixon during the 1973 Yom Kippur War to delay delivering arms to Israel by a few weeks. Their conversations at the time show Kissinger arguing that Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s president, needed an unadulterated victory to make peace concessions. Nixon argued — correctly, as it turned out — that Sadat was already able to claim a victory, and that it was more important to stanch an ally’s casualties in a war that would claim 3,000 Israeli lives.
In a 2009 review of the period in The Jewish Press, top Nixon aides Alexander Haig, the chief of staff; Leonard Garment, the White House counsel; and Vernon Walters, the deputy CIA chief, all recall the same dynamic: The time for hanging Israel out to dry had ended.
“Both Kissinger and Nixon wanted to do [the airlift],” the Press quoted Walters as saying. “But Nixon gave it the greater sense of urgency. He said, ‘You get the stuff to Israel. Now. Now.’ “
The image of Kissinger as a cold-blooded sociopath has long been a staple of his most virulent critics, and the newly revealed quote was like manna to their theories.
“In the past, Kissinger has defended his role as enabler to Nixon’s psychopathic bigotry, saying that he acted as a restraining influence on his boss by playing along and making soothing remarks,” said Christopher Hitchens, who has said Kissinger should be tried as a war criminal for his role in ordering the bombing of Cambodia and for enabling Latin American autocrats. “This can now go straight into the lavatory pan, along with his other hysterical lies.
“Obsessed as he was with the Jews, Nixon never came close to saying that he’d be indifferent to a replay of Auschwitz. For this, Kissinger deserves sole recognition.”
Menachem Rosensaft, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, reached a similar conclusion after reading accounts of the newly released Nixon tapes.
“Now that Kissinger’s true nature has been exposed, the Jewish community and Jewish institutions must draw the appropriate consequences,” he wrote in an Op-Ed in The New York Jewish Week.
“We now come to the realization that as far as he was concerned, human rights in general were an irrelevancy,” Rosensaft said in an interview with JTA. “He needs to know that when he is in the company of Jews, we will know precisely who he is and we hold him in contempt.”
Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that approach goes too far.
The ADL issued a statement saying that Kissinger’s comments show a “disturbing and even callous insensitivity toward the fate of Soviet Jews” and are a reminder that “even great individuals are flawed.” But, it noted, “Dr. Kissinger’s contributions to the safety and security of the U.S. and Israel have solidly established his legacy as a champion of democracy and as a committed advocate for preserving the well-being of the Jewish state of Israel.”
Foxman elaborated in an interview with JTA.
“He worked in an atmosphere that was intimidatingly anti-Semitic toward Jews,” the ADL leader said of Kissinger. “We need to understand the intimidation under which it occurred.”
Beckerman wrote in a review of a book that examined Kissinger’s psychology that his upbringing — the horrific transition, at age 10, from a world of safety to one of chaos — helps explain an ideology that places order above all as the salvation of humanity. Kissinger, Beckerman wrote in the Forward in 2007, “was guided by the sense that the world needs a strong America — led by versatile statesmen — that will stand as a bulwark against the disorder and disequilibrium that he experienced as a child.”
How did Kissinger’s Jewish identity play out in the White House? It was a complex matter and not always consistent.
In September 1972, when Kissinger was still the national security adviser, he and his arch-rival, Secretary of State William Rogers, had a bitter exchange at a Cabinet meeting over whether the government should lower flags to half mast for the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the Munich Olympics. Nixon took Kissinger’s advice and lowered the flags.
Nixon regarded Kissinger as his truest aide, although he also noted, in another tape released recently, the “latent insecurity” of Kissinger and his other Jewish advisers.
On the eve of Nixon’s Aug. 8, 1974 resignation, the result of scandals besieging his administration, Kissinger could not help himself and burst into sobs, according to Robert Dallek’s account, “Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power.”
Nixon, too, joined him in weeping. In what has become an icon of how the isolation of power brings strong men to their knees, both men kneeled in the White House living room and prayed.
(For a transcript of the tapes, visit JTA.org or click here.)