“It would certainly be more impressive to an audience if there were some mea culpa expressed,” Henry Kissinger concludes in National Geographic Channel’s (NGC) new two-hour documentary Kissinger, regarding his powerful - and controversial - career. “For better or worse, the main strategic decisions, they reflected my convictions. And I certainly would go that same direction again.”
At age 88, Kissinger makes no apologies. On Sunday, 15 January at 21:00, NGC’s Kissinger offers comprehensive insight into this pre-eminent figure in 20th century global politics. Culled from 25 hours of interviews, this is the only interview of this length and detail he has ever granted. The film expands upon his contemporary comments with archival recorded conversations with President Nixon as well as film and photographs from Kissinger’s personal library never before seen by the public.
His credentials are renowned: political scientist, diplomat, Nobel Peace Prize recipient. He served as national security advisor and later as secretary of state in the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Even after leaving office, he continued to act as counselor to 10 successive presidents as well as governments around the globe. For many, though, he is implicated in war crimes allegedly committed with his knowledge. And with a reputation for being power-hungry and arrogant, there is perhaps no more controversial or influential figure on the American political scene over the last half century.
InKissinger, he addresses his critics on the bombing of Cambodia (“one of the most deliberately misrepresented episodes of that period”); American involvement in Chile (“We had nothing to do with the military coup”); spearheading the first strategic arms limitation agreement (“It was one of those … moments of exhilaration”); and the collapse of South Vietnam (“the saddest moment of my governmental experience”).
He also reveals the basis of his relationship with Nixon, saying, “Nixon did not have close friends, nor was I one of them … here is a man who was not a natural politician. He hated to meet new people, he was basically shy. He felt fundamentally threatened. … My influence depended on my relationship with Nixon. I would call 10 times a day and see him every time I could.”
After Watergate brought the Nixon administration crashing down, Kissinger relives the events that transpired during the president’s last night in the White House. “He had destroyed himself by his own effort, by his own actions. And he knew that. … he asked me to kneel down in a prayer with him. Given the magnitude of the occasion, and the awfulness of the destiny, there was nothing particularly bizarre about it. What else was there to do?”
We’ll learn more personal details about Kissinger and his upbringing as a Jew fleeing Germany during Hitler’s ascension. Arriving in the United States in 1938 when Kissinger was 15 years old was a “wrench in my life that had a deep impact on me.” And after being drafted into the U.S. Army, Kissinger came back to Germany and saw starving concentration camp victims. He says, “So the immediate instinct was to feed them. And I and my colleagues gave them our rations. And we killed some of them by giving them solid food which they could no longer digest.” He says that many family members and about 70 percent of his classmates died in concentration camps. “So that is something one cannot forget. My obligation was to contribute to something that would prevent that from happening again,” he says.
Kissinger delves into his family life and concern for his children who, he claims, were harassed by teachers. When his children were asked to write on a blackboard, “Please drive the love of war out of President Nixon’s heart,” he says it was a “painful choice they had to make.”
He discusses chairman Mao’s ability to dominate a room like a great actor and his sardonic sense of humor; the vulnerability of Russian leaders who had the enormous desire to be recognized as equals in terms of Western economic standards; and his conviction that Vietnam did not have to fall — “we did that to ourselves,” he says.
Finally, when asked about his famous phrase that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” Kissinger answers, “But it’s not. It’s not something that I want to have inscribed on my tombstone.”
Kissinger is produced for NGC by Chimerica Media Ltd. Adrian Pennink is director; Niall Ferguson is interviewer; Melanie Fall is producer. For NGC, executive producer is Kathleen Cromley, interim senior president of content is Michael Cascio.
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