Kissinger: The Inside-Outsider

By Jeremi Suri

The immigrant's memories shaped the diplomat's career.

Until I emigrated to America,” Henry Kissinger recounts, “my
family and I endured progressive ostracism and discrimination. My father lost the teaching job for which he had worked all his life; the friends of my parents’ youth shunned them. I was forced to attend a segregated school.” “Even when I learned later that America, too, had massive problems,” the former United States secretary of state continues, “I could never forget what an inspiration it had been to the victims of persecution, to my family, and to me during cruel and degrading years. I always remembered the thrill when I first walked the streets of New York City. Seeing a group of boys, I began to cross to the other side to avoid being beaten up. And then I remembered where I was.” For Kissinger and many other twentieth-century immigrants, America was a land of salvation, defined by “its idealism, its humanity, and its embodiment of mankind’s hopes.”1
These are the kinds of immigrant experiences, Kissinger contends, of which “the intellectual class” today is too dismissive.2 He is, no doubt, correct. For all the insightful work on identity produced in the last decade, very little has been written about how foreign-born citizens of the United States embraced their “Americanness.” Quite the contrary, most scholars have focused on how a narrow framework of nationhood—defined by gender and race hierarchies—was imposed upon new arrivals. Immigrant groups primarily receive attention for their resistance to this cultural and political hegemony and their deconstruction of a common American identity. Contrary to Kissinger’s experiences, we are told that many twentieth-century arrivals to the United States never felt fully American.3
This scholarly analysis leaves little room for the warmhearted feelings expressed by Kissinger and others. In truth, many twentieth-century immigrants to the United States viewed their new place of residence as a promised land—“our best, perhaps our last, hope” in a world of turmoil.4 Although Americans often mistreated immigrants, the political ideals and social environment in America offered persecuted minorities from Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa a chance to survive and even to prosper. Although the United States was filled with racism, sexism, and other injustices, it also provided opportunities unavailable elsewhere. For a persecuted young German facing the likely prospect of extermination with his family, America was a bright ray of sunshine amidst dark storm clouds—it was, he believed, a “possibility for renewal.” These qualities conferred a “great dignity, even beauty, on the American way of life,” even for someone unfamiliar with the nation’s language or public culture.5
At his emotional swearing-in as secretary of state on September 22, 1973, Kissinger emphasized the uniqueness—perhaps even the exceptionalism—of American society: “There is no country in the world where it is conceivable that a man of my origin could be standing here next to the president of the United States.”6 Kissinger’s parents, who brought the family to New York in 1938 from Nazi Germany, watched his ascension to the nation’s highest foreign policy office “as in a dream: They had been driven out of their native country; thirteen members of our family had become victims of man’s prejudices. They could hardly believe that thirty-five years later their son should have reached our nation’s highest appointive executive office.”7
The American dream of freedom, opportunity, justice, and order was very real for Kissinger. He has, in many ways, lived this dream. “My life,” he admitted, “has depended on so many accidents that I couldn’t control.”8 Kissinger was not a self-made man, but a man shaped by circumstances—circumstances he internalized and manipulated out of necessity as much as out of choice. In the years after 1941, he relied on new openings in American society to immigrants of his background, new government support for the education and employment of immigrants, and new patronage from powerful political figures who recognized, often despite their own cultural insularity, that immigrants could make important contributions to policy. Geopolitics after Pearl Harbor gave a new cohort of citizens access to power and privilege, despite their continued social exclusion. Thus did Kissinger become one of the many “inside-outsiders” of the Cold War.9
This new policy of embracing immigrants was best exemplified by William Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA), when he called upon other branches of government to cultivate the immigrants they traditionally excluded from public service as “specially qualified personnel.” Recent arrivals from Central Europe possessed unparalleled abilities to interpret and infiltrate those societies that were the key battlegrounds in the global struggle against fascism and communism, i.e., critical language skills and cultural familiarity.10 This position was affirmed by former national security adviser to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations McGeorge Bundy. A man filled with the arrogance and condescension of a proud Boston Brahmin, he praised the “high measure of interpenetration between universities with area programs and the information-gathering agencies of the government”—both of which he encouraged, during his tenure as dean of Harvard’s arts and sciences faculty from 1953 to 1961, to employ “specially qualified” immigrants for the assessment of foreign societies.11
Kissinger was one of the “specially qualified” immigrants that Bundy had in mind. He boasted linguistic skills, cultural knowledge, and political experience in Central Europe—qualities that were invaluable to American policy. “[The] president has asked me to talk with you at your early convenience about the possibility of joining up down here,” Bundy wrote to Kissinger a week after Kennedy’s inauguration. “The only complication in the situation, from his point of view, is that more than one part of the government may want to get you. He does not want to seem to interfere with any particular department’s needs, but he does want you to know that if you should be interested, he himself would like to explore the notion of your joining the small group which Walt Rostow and I will be putting together for his direct use.” Bundy later added: “We count on having your help, particularly in the general area of weapons and policy and in the special field of thinking about all aspects of the problem of Germany.”12
Kissinger’s origins excluded him from the polished, prep-school, Kennedy crowd, but his background made him a “specially qualified” figure whom they hoped to use to their advantage. Thus the foreign policy establishment adopted a condescending attitude toward Kissinger while nonetheless empowering him at the same time. Kissinger recognized this dynamic and exploited it for his own personal advancement. His career highlights the complex interplay between outsiders and insiders, and prejudice and privilege, in the making of foreign policy.


Kissinger was born in Fürth, Germany, on May 27, 1923. He spent the first fifteen years of his life in this small town just outside of Nuremberg. Kissinger’s father, Louis, was a respected teacher in the area; his mother, Paula, was the daughter of a prosperous merchant family. Despite these professional achievements, however, the family lived a life separate from that of the mainstream German community in their town of about 70,000. Along with the 2,500 other Jews there, the Kissingers resided in a Jewish ghetto. Their social lives centered around the Jewish community and the most Orthodox of the synagogues in the area. They also endured escalating intolerance and violence from neighbors and local Nazis alike. When the family fled Germany in August 1938—less than three months before the anti-Jewish riots of Kristallnacht—their lives were in mortal danger. Indeed, in the years to come Kissinger’s maternal grandparents and a number of other close relatives would die at the hands of the Nazis. Coming to America, he was all too aware, had saved him, his brother, and his parents.13
Kissinger’s first years in the United States were not exceptional. He resided in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan from 1938 to 1942, attended the local high school, and worked a menial job in a brush factory to help support his family. His social life revolved around the Orthodox Jewish community and the larger German-Jewish population that dominated the neighborhood. After completing high school, he attended night school at City College for one year, studying to become an accountant.

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