With his reputation tottering even among those more likely to consider him a peacemaker than a war criminal, Henry Kissinger issued an apology Sunday for odious remarks he made 37 years ago in a conversation with Richard Nixon. “Let’s face it,” the then secretary of state told his president, “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.”
“References to gas chambers have no place in political discourse, and I am sorry I made that remark 37 years ago,” Kissinger wrote this week.
That seems an acceptable mea culpa for these particular remarks, made behind closed doors to a man who seemed to encourage his underlings to match him obscenity for obscenity. Kissinger was not the first nor the last public figure to invoke the Holocaust as the outer boundary of acceptable human behavior.
However, Kissinger refuses to acknowledge something for which his critics really deserve an apology: He was wrong on Soviet Jewry, and wrong on the distinction between American and humanitarian concerns.
The struggle for the religious freedoms of Soviet Jews was not a mere sideline in the Cold War; it defined the stakes. If America couldn’t stand up for the kinds of humanitarian concerns that defined the differences between our two political systems, what was the war about in the first place? The refuseniks gave a face to Soviet oppression. And legislation that linked human rights progress to improved relations set a benchmark in global diplomacy from that time forward.
As Gal Beckerman, the young chronicler of the Soviet Jewry movement, wrote in this week’s Washington Post, “Kissinger discounted the idea that this movement played any role in unraveling the Soviet Union. But it did just that by making human rights a non-negotiable part of any reform. This demand — to allow citizens to freely exit their country —threatened the existence of the communist empire almost as much as the meltdown of its economic model.”
Balancing our national interests and humanitarian concerns is never easy, whether the arena is Afghanistan, China, or the Middle East. What is most disturbing about Kissinger’s remarks, and his politics, is that even he, a Holocaust survivor, could so adamantly tip to one side of the balance.