Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby reacts today to the latest batch of White House tapes released by the Nixon Library, which include this comment to then-President Nixon spoken by Henry Kissinger:
The emigration of Jews from the 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. Maybe a humanitarian concern.
Nixon responds by saying: "I know. We won't blow up the world because of it."
Jacoby calls Kissinger's comments "repellent," but argues that "the mindset behind them has been all too common":
When Jews in the 1940s really were being put into gas chambers, the Roosevelt administration didn’t think it urgent to stop the Nazi genocide.
As a candidate for president in 2000, George W. Bush was asked about the American failure to intervene in Rwanda. “I think the administration did the right thing in that case,’’ he answered, even though “it was a horrible situation.’’
Seven years later, another presidential candidate was asked whether he would keep US troops in Iraq if withdrawing them might trigger a bloodbath. Barack Obama’s answer, the AP reported, was that America “cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn’t a good enough reason to keep US forces there.’’
Most commentators today are in Jacoby's camp on this one. The Washington Post's Harold Meyerson writes that "Kissinger's quote remains the most despicable thing to come out of the mouth of a major American official (not to mention the official in charge of American foreign policy) since God only knows when." In a letter published in the New York Times, Marion Kaplan, a child of refugees from Nazi Germany and a professor of modern Jewish history at New York University, writes that "it is appalling that less than 30 years after some of Mr. Kissinger’s and my own relatives and countless other victims perished in the Holocaust, he can say something so despicable."
The one exception is the New Republic's ever-counter-intuitive Martin Peretz -- yes, that Martin Peretz -- who rushes to the defense of Dr. K. "Of course," Peretz writes, "all the Kissinger-haters are saying: 'You see, he's a monster.'" But Peretz sees things differently:
I know something about Kissinger's maneuvering for the Jewish state and for the Jewish people. I and a few Harvard colleagues were in touch with him, actually met with him during the dread days of the Yom Kippur War when Israel's very survival was at peril. (Henry Rosovsky, Samuel Huntington, Michael Walzer, Thomas Schelling and I comprised the group.) Dr. K. confided to us how difficult it was to persuade his bigoted boss that a great deal of American arms (and sufficient Lockheed C-130s "Hercules" aircraft to deliver them) were needed and needed instantly. There is no doubt in my mind that Kissinger rescued the third commonwealth with these munitions.
He adds: "If Kissinger needed to flatter Nixon in order to convince him, that flattery was also a blessing."