Henry Kissinger Advocates Limited War as 'a Tool of Foreign Policy' in 1958
The Mike Wallace Interview with Henry Kissinger, July 13, 1958
Dr. Henry Kissinger, Associate Director of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, talks to Wallace about the United States' foreign and military policies, limited nuclear war, the Soviet Union, Algeria, the Middle East, and Republicans, including Richard Nixon.
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WALLACE: This is Professor Henry Kissinger, a military and political analyst with a revolutionary concept of nuclear war and a constructive concept for peace. He's a man whose ideas have prompted the highest officials of our government to re-evaluate our defense policies. We'll get his criticisms of our current strategies in war and peace in just a moment.
WALLACE: Good evening, I'm Mike Wallace. Tonight we'll tackle the immediate issue that will decide the fate of our freedom, certainly, and possibly even of our survival. We'll discuss the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the chances of war. Our guest, Professor Henry Kissinger, Associate Director of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, and the man whose recent proposals substantially influenced President Eisenhower's plan for military reorganization.
Dr. Kissinger, last year your attack on our foreign and military policies was apparently found so disturbing that the New York Times carried this front-page story: they said, "For the first time since President Eisenhower took office, officials at the highest government levels are displaying interest in the theory of the 'little', or 'limited', war. The theory of massive retaliation is being re-examined." That was a year ago. What has come of the re-examination?
KISSINGER: I think the theory has been re-examined; the practice has not been.
WALLACE: The theory has been found wanting, then?
KISSINGER: The theory has been found wanting, but I don't think we have made the effort, or spent the money, or made the sacrifices necessary for... to get a capability for limited war.
WALLACE: Well now, in order to better understand your proposal for limited war, perhaps it would be well for you to define what you understand to be our current United States' military policy. What is our military policy?
KISSINGER: Well, our current military policy is based on the doctrine of massive retaliation: that we threaten an all-out attack on the Soviet Union in case the Soviet Union engages in aggression anywhere. This means that, against almost any form of attack, we base our policy on the threat that will involve the destruction of all mankind; and this is too risky, and I think too expensive.
WALLACE: You obviously think it's wrong, dangerous to our security. I wonder if you would expand on that. Just because of, what you say, the risk and just because of the expense, it is not worthwhile?
KISSINGER: No, it is... what it will mean is that in every crisis, an American president will have to make the choice whether a given objective is worth the destruction of American cities. The American president will have to decide whether Beirut, or whatever the issue may be, is worth about 30,000,000 American lives. In practice, I'm afraid the American president will have to decide that it is not worth it, and it will therefore encourage the piecemeal taking-over of the world by Soviet aggression.
WALLACE: Because you believe the Soviets understand our unwillingness or inability, certainly our unwillingness, to wage an all-out war?
KISSINGER: The Soviets will understand our increasing unwillingness to engage in this kind of war, and therefore their task will be to present us with the challenge which doesn't ever seem worth taking the final jump, but which the accumulation of which is going to lead to the destruction of the free world.
WALLACE: In place of that policy, what do you believe our military and political policies should be?
KISSINGER: Well, the first thing I'd like to say is that military policy can't be a substitute for other measures. It can only be the screen behind which other measures are possible. Now with this qualification, I think that we must have a military capability that permits us to react to Soviet threats at the same level of intensity at which they present it, so that we don't always have to choose between the destruction of the United States and the defense of the countries that may be threatened; but rather that we can defend the areas which are threatened at the place where the threat occurs.
WALLACE: How is that actually translated into... if I may, into more simple language? Is this... are you simply talking now about a policy which includes limited war?
KISSINGER: ...It's a policy that... yes, that we are ready to engage in limited war, that we have troop transports, air transport that gets... enables us to get into position quickly, and that we have the forces to engage in limited war, which we do not now have.
WALLACE: Can you give me an example of how this might actually work out?
KISSINGER: Well, at the moment we have thirteen divisions. It is clear that with thirteen divisions we are incapable of resisting Soviet attacks when the Soviet Union has 175 divisions. If we had more divisions, and if we had air transport, then in case of a Soviet attack, say on Iraq, we could air-lift a few divisions into the area and, together with local forces, attempt a defense.
WALLACE: Uh-hum. President Eisenhower... You advise limited war, or you suggest the use of limited war, limited nuclear war, indeed. President Eisenhower said about two years ago, he said, "War in our time has become an anachronism. Whatever the case in the past, war in the future," he said, "can serve no useful purpose.
A war which became general, as any limited action might," he said, "could only result in the virtual destruction of mankind." Now that's the rub, it would seem: that any limited nuclear war might boil over into a total war; and so the question we must put to ourselves is, dare we take the chance?
KISSINGER: Well, let me answer this question in two parts. You say I advise a policy of limited nuclear war. I do not advise that we initiate war. The question of war will arise only if the Soviet Union attacks; then, if the Soviet Union attacks, and in fact, we are very much more afraid of total war than they are, they will gradually blackmail the free-world into surrender. Everything that I say is based on the assumption that we are as willing to run risks as the Soviet Union. If this is not the case, we are lost; and I think we ought to face that fact.
WALLACE: Uh-hum. Let's look at some of the measures... let's look at some of the measures which you propose for keeping a limited war limited. You say, for instance, that in the midst of a limited war, each side could be required to list its strategic air bases, which would then he immune from attack. All cities within 500 miles of the battle zone would be immune from nuclear attack if they were declared open and certified so to be.
It could be proposed that no weapon larger than 500 kilotons will be employed unless the enemy uses it first, and so forth. Now, two nations, which up until now have been unable to agree on armament control during peacetime, according to Dr. Kissinger, are expected to engage in fairly complex Marquis of Queensberry rules in the midst of a nuclear war. It... it doesn't sound sensible, sir.
KISSINGER: I know it doesn't sound sensible, and nor does the destructiveness of modern weapons sound very sensible. What is required here is a completely new order of thinking. I hold no particular brief with the specific limitations, which I recommended. What I am saying is this: both sides, if they know one thing, they know that an all-out war will mean the destruction of civilization, of their own as well as of the other.
They also know they will therefore have an interest in keeping any war that does break out to the smallest possible proportions. If they're looking for an excuse to expand it, they will expand it; I am assuming they're looking for an excuse to limit it. What we have to do is to bend our ingenuity into finding... toward finding means to limit any war that might break out, either through accident or through design.
Whether these particular limitations are absolutely the right ones, I wouldn't maintain; but the great difficulty has been the traditional military thinkers, trained with conventional strategy, have simply dismissed all new forms of thought, and have not addressed themselves to what seems to me to be a very real and serious problem.
WALLACE: Then you think American strategy should be re-evaluated to restore war as a usable instrument of policy.
KISSINGER: American strategy has to face the fact that it may be confronted with war, and that if Soviet aggression confronts us with war, and we are unwilling to resist, it will mean the end of our freedom. We will... this is it boils down, then, to a value choice. In these terms, yes, I think war must be made a usable instrument of policy.
WALLACE: Let me throw another argument at you, if I may, Dr. Kissinger. I'd like to quote from a study that has been released just a few hours ago called Foreign Policy in the Free Society, written by Walter Millis and Father John Courtney Murray. In it, analyst Walter Millis writes as follows: he says, "The concept of limited war presents a simple fallacy in logic.
We can resort to limited war," he says, "only when the objective is not vital to either side; in which case, we would be unlikely to resort to war in any event. This happened in Indo-China, Suez, and Hungary." He's obviously talking about the United States when he says 'we.' What about that?
KISSINGER: I... I'm a great admirer of Mr. Millis’s; I cannot agree with him there. Every one of these instances were instances where the Western position was eroded. If it is really true that we can never engage in limited war, while the Soviet Union can engage in limited war, I can only repeat that our expulsion, the collapse of the free world, is inevitable. Moreover, to say that limited war is a logical fallacy doesn't mean very much if you look at the period from 1945 to 1958, which has had the Berlin blockade, the Korean war, Indo-China, Suez, Hungary, constant threats of nuclear attacks on other countries. The fact cannot be explained away on simply logical grounds.
WALLACE: Tell me this, sir. Suppose the communists were to march into West Berlin next week, would you, personally, and do you think the majority of the American people would want to take a chance on protecting West Berlin with a limited nuclear war?
KISSINGER: I am not saying that every Soviet attack must be answered with nuclear war. In an attack on West Berlin, I would certainly react in some manner, and in some manner that involves the use of force. Er... If we do not, no one will ever believe in our protection again, or in our word again. Whether the American people would support this or not would depend to some extent on their leadership. If you had taken a public-opinion poll on, say, June 20th, 1950, whether the American people would support the defense of Korea, you might have gotten an entirely different answer than the one you had a week later when the President decided that it was essential to our interests to defend it.
WALLACE: Then I take it what you envision is, if the Government were to follow your point of view, they should announce publicly that from now on the possibility of limited nuclear war should be seriously considered by all Americans and by all of our potential enemies.
KISSINGER: I would announce that our primary purpose is to avoid war; but if we are forced into war through Soviet aggression, we would attempt to keep it to the smallest proportions necessary, that we would not use more force than was absolutely necessary to defend the safety of the free world, but that we would use the amount of force that was necessary to defend the free world.
WALLACE: As long as we're in the realm of speculation here, let's speculate a little further. What do you think the reaction of the Soviet government would be to an announcement of that kind?
KISSINGER: Well, they would be very likely to deny that a war can be limited because atomic blackmail is one of their most effective means of expansion. If they can create the impression that any resistance to Soviet aggression inevitably leads to the destruction of the country concerned, then many countries will prefer surrender to defending themselves. If they were faced with the real situation, however, all past experience indicates that this is not a regime that gambles everything on one throw of the dice.
WALLACE: In the field of foreign policy and military affairs, Dr. Kissinger, you're acknowledged to be one of the most penetrating minds in the country. Last year, as I've mentioned, you published a military analysis, which rocked Washington. Yet, you devoted it almost exclusively to framing a war policy rather than a peace policy. Could this be indicative of what is happening to our thinking here in America? Isn't this indeed what many of our allies criticize us for?
KISSINGER: Well, I... I would reject this description of my book. I did not frame a war policy; I framed a policy which I think is the only one that is going to preserve the peace. I am afraid that weakness is certainly going to lead us into a position where finally we will be forced to engage in very extreme measures to defend ourselves. I would therefore reject the description of my recommendations as a war policy. Our problems abroad are more complicated than this because on the one hand we are accused of an over-emphasis on military factors; on the other hand, the fact of the matter is that we are not strong enough to defend most of our allies. And one of... I would at least suggest that one of the difficulties is that our allies are both worried about our general political posture, and at the same time feel that we are not capable of protecting them if a showdown comes.
WALLACE: Uh-hum. What policies...? Let's move from war policies to positive peace policies. What policies do you believe generally that we should adopt to help keep the peace, and at the same time contain communism?
KISSINGER: Well, I hate again to differ with you but I cannot accept the distinction between war and peace policies. Defense policies are essential to maintain the peace. Er... They are not, however, going to solve the political problems of the world. They are only going to give us a shield behind which we can engage in constructive measures. What is essential right now is that we identify ourselves with the tremendous revolution, which is sweeping across the world, that we have some image for the construction of the free world which is based on other motives than simply defending the world against communism. We must make clear what we are for rather than what we are against. If we were clearer about the kind of world we want to bring about, if we could project this concern to other people, then we wouldn't always seem so intransigently militant, then we would be identified with positive measures rather than with simply military alliances.
WALLACE: Well, let's talk about some specifics. How do you regard our conduct in regard to the Algerian situation of the past few years?
KISSINGER: I think the Algerian situation is an extremely complicated and difficult one. In general, we should stand for the freedom of people. In general, we should oppose colonial regimes. On the other hand, we should come up with ideas which... Independent Algeria cannot survive as a purely independent state. The great paradox of this period is that on the one hand you have a drive toward more and more sovereign states; on the other hand, there is no such thing as a purely independent state any more. The thing that has always attracted me, therefore, would be that we would advocate a North African federation, which would be tied together economically and for other development projects, and that Algeria would find its place as part of that rather than as a purely independent state.
WALLACE: Do you look to the inclusion of Nasser and his peoples in this North African federation?
KISSINGER: Well, initially I would group... I would recommend grouping Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. There might be another grouping of powers in the Middle East which includes Egypt and some of the states which have had a somewhat different history than the... than Algeria.
WALLACE: Would you say that our posture vis-à-vis Egypt has been a realistic one? Do you not agree that the peoples of Africa would seem to respond to Nasser, and that we seem to support governments in the Middle East which do not always have the support of their actual inhabitants, and that perhaps Nasser has more support than some of the other governments from the people themselves?
KISSINGER: Well, our policy vis-à-vis Nasser has suffered from indecisiveness. We have neither been conciliatory enough when we were conciliatory, nor intransigent enough when we were intransigent. We're not friendly enough to make him a friend, and we were not hostile enough really to bring him down, with the result that we have suffered from the worst of both worlds.
WALLACE: What you're saying is we have no policy.
KISSINGER: That we've been governed by events rather than attempt to shape them. I would think, however, that Ibn Saud does not represent the force with which we should be identified in the Middle East.
WALLACE: Let me come back again to the study called Foreign Policy in the Free Society. In it, philosopher Scott Buchanan says, "Our problem here in the United States is to exist as a capitalist society in, possibly, a completely socialist, revolutionary world." Now it would seem, to a certain extent anyway, that that's the way the world is going. Is it possible that we cannot exist in such a world?
KISSINGER: Well, you know, you could argue that the identification of 'socialist' and 'revolutionary' is not a very good identification. You could well argue that a capitalist society, or, what is more interesting to me, a free society, is a more revolutionary phenomenon than nineteenth-century socialism; and this illustrates precisely one of our problems. I think we should go on the spiritual offensive in the world. We should identify ourselves with the revolution. We should say that freedom, if it is liberated, can achieve many of these things.
WALLACE: Well, what is keeping us from going on the spiritual offensive, as you see it?
KISSINGER: Er... Because we've suddenly been projected into a situation for which very little in our history has prepared us and because, I'm afraid, many of the leadership groups that are engaged in foreign policy have had a set of experience... which make... experiences which make it rather difficult for them to come to grips with a really revolutionary situation.
WALLACE: Well, now, in that regard, earlier this week, you told our reporter that as far as current leaders are concerned, you said, "We have an administration of old men, happy with the life they have led." And you considered this dangerous. Uh... You smile now. What did you mean, and why is it dangerous, and why are you smiling?
KISSINGER: Well, I made this statement. I think that the groups I was referring to are very well meaning, very sincere, very patriotic people. The difficulty they have is that they think that the world in which they grew up is the 'normal' world. Er... Their tendency is, when a crisis arises, to try to smooth it over, and then to wait and then to expect that the 'normal' forces would re-assert themselves. Therefore they conduct policy a little bit like... er... maybe small-town bankers, who think one can always draw interest on a good situation. They conduct very often our policy as if Adenauer would live forever, despite the fact that he's 82 years old. When there's no crisis it's always very difficult to get agreement on a constructive step; conversely, it often requires a crisis to make us engage in any action.
WALLACE: Do you see any political leaders in the United States who, you believe, have a clear grasp of America's current place in history?
KISSINGER: I think one of the very worrisome features of the situation is that I don't find any great moral dynamism on either side.
WALLACE: When you say 'on either side,' you mean either on the democratic or on...
KISSINGER: Er... Either in the Democratic or in the Republican Party.
WALLACE: Well how... how do you account for that, Dr. Kissinger?
KISSINGER: (CLEARS THROAT) I think we've been assuming for too long that all we had to do... First of all, we are a nation of specialists. We tend to think that a problem is either economic or political or military. Many of your questions earlier in the program seem to me to indicate this when you said, "This is a policy of war, and that is a policy of peace."
It is hard for us to understand that we have to be able to do military, political, economic and psychological things all simultaneously. Then, we have been rather satisfied with the situation in our country as it is and with the world in which we have lived. Our response to the world has usually been to an overpowering threat from abroad.
Therefore, even when we have engaged in constructive steps like the Marshall Plan, the Greek-Turkish aid program, which were very great efforts, nevertheless we've always justified them on the basis of a communist threat, very rarely on the basis of things we wanted to do because of our intrinsic dynamism. I believe, for example, that we reacted very wrongly to the riots in Latin America. Rather than saying, "These are communist-inspired, and we must react to... we must keep Latin America from going Communist," we should have said, "This recalls us to our duty; these are things we want to do because of the values we stand for, not because we want to beat the communists."
WALLACE: But the question... the question is, why are we as unaware, why are we as unavailing? Is it because we have been projected into world leadership in too much of a hurry, unprepared for it? Is that one of the reasons?
KISSINGER: It... This is... one of our very basic reasons is that we've been projected too much in a hurry. And it also must be said in fairness that we have done rather well considering all the challenges that have been thrown at us. It is too bad that 'rather well' isn't good enough. Another problem is that the people who emerge in leadership positions in this country usually come from a lifetime of experience, which doesn't prepare them for the conduct of foreign policy; they may come from business or from law, or even from the universities.
WALLACE: We're certainly not in the case of John Foster Dulles. How would you evaluate the overall impact of Mr. Dulles on the world position of the United States?
KISSINGER: I think that Mr. Dulles is a very skillful tactician, that he shows extraordinary ingenuity in escaping from specific crisis situations. Unhappily, the real problem in the world at the moment is to prevent the crises from arising; it is to project an image of American concern and of American purpose. This... he is much less successful in doing. He often gives the impression of being so infatuated with the mechanics of foreign policy and with the negotiation aspect of foreign policy that he has not succeeded in projecting the deeper things we stand for, and often has created great distrust abroad.
WALLACE: Who, if any, are the men in public life whom you admire, you personally admire and look to for leadership for the United States, Dr. Kissinger?
KISSINGER: Well, I must say first of all that I'm here as a non-partisan, that I'm an independent.
KISSINGER: I... I don't stand for either party in this. This depends. I've respected Mr. Stevenson in many of his utterances, respected Mr. Acheson in many of his utterances, although I've disagreed with him very much on other things. Er... It's very difficult for a party out of power to prove what it can do.
WALLACE: But there's no... There is no Republican who comes readily to your mind, in whom you have that... that confidence that that man has an understanding, the understanding that we need to lead us at this time?
KISSINGER: I hate to engage in personalities. I think that Mr. Nixon in his public utterances recently has shown awareness of the situation, but... I’d rather not deal in personalities, if you ask me...
WALLACE: Of course... Yes. Of course, we're going to have to. We're going to have to deal in personalities because personalities are leaders, and personalities are the people who eventually have to enunciate the issues. I'm sorry, sir, but our time has run out, and I'm very grateful to you for coming here from Cambridge to spend this half-hour with us, Dr. Kissinger.
Our survival and freedom, a thorny undertaking at best, has become even more difficult to hold onto in the nuclear age. For this reason, we run the danger of seeking easy answers or of despairing that there are any answers at all. Dr. Kissinger has suggested a tough, challenging answer, part of the answer, in limited war. But as he himself has put it, "History will not excuse the inadequacy of our response because of the enormity of the challenge."
Next week is the last program on our scheduled Survival and Freedom series, and on it we shall come to grips with what's been said on this entire series by such guests as Reinhold Niebuhr, Justice Douglas, Aldous Huxley, Adlai Stevenson, Pat Weaver, Cyrus Eaton, and Henry Kissinger. Our guest next week, you see him behind me, will be Dr. Robert Hutchins, a stormy petrel on the American scene, formerly Dean of the Yale Law School and President of the University of Chicago, now President of the Fund for the Republic. That's Robert Hutchins next week. Till then, Mike Wallace. Good night.
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