Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Early in his service as President Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger paid a visit to his homeland. The West German government suggested to the press that Kissinger intended to visit some relatives. "What the hell are they putting out?" Kissinger vented to his aides. "My relatives are soap."

Blunt, and true. Kissinger had left Germany in August 1938 as a 15-year-old refugee, three months before Kristallnacht. His granduncle, three aunts and other relatives were murdered in the Holocaust.

So it is appalling to hear Kissinger, an epic life later, telling Nixon on a scratchy recording from March 1, 1973: "Let's face it: The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. It may be a humanitarian concern."

Some commentators have attempted to provide a psychological explanation for this incident, having to do with the struggles of a Jew in an anti-Semitic White House. But this effort is not necessary. Kissinger's words were not the expression of a quirk but of an argument. In 1969, he had publicly declared: "We will judge other countries, including communist countries, on the basis of their actions, not on the basis of their domestic ideologies." This is a commonplace assertion of a school of foreign policy called "realism" -- that only the external behavior of regimes really matters, that their internal conduct does not concern American interests. It is a view currently popular, even ascendant, among foreign-policy thinkers. Kissinger was merely being unsentimental in its application.

In response to the recent release of the recording, Kissinger said his words "must be viewed in the context of the time." That context was a debate over the Jackson-Vanik Amendment of 1974. The Soviet government -- which both practiced anti-Semitism and resented the brain drain of Jewish departures -- had imposed heavy fines on emigres. Sen. Henry Jackson and Rep. Charles Vanik, supported by American Jewish groups, responded with legislation that linked normal trade relations with the Soviet Union (and other "non-market" economies) to the freedom to emigrate.

Kissinger believed that detente with the Soviet Union was of overriding importance and that human rights issues should only be raised quietly, on an unrelated diplomatic track. "The Jewish community in this country, on that issue," he told Nixon, "is behaving unconscionably. It's behaving traitorously."


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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