Helmut Sonnenfeldt

By Cornwell, Rupert | The Independent (London, England), November 23, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Helmut Sonnenfeldt


Cornwell, Rupert, The Independent (London, England)


Protege and rival of Henry Kissinger

If naturalised German Jews seemed to run American foreign policy for much of the 1970s, Henry Kissinger wasn't the only reason. Another was Helmut Sonnenfeldt, friend, protg, hatchetman and on occasion rival of Kissinger, and also a prime architect of the Nixon era policy of dtente with the Soviet Union.

Indeed Sonnenfeldt, though never a president or even Secretary of State, had the rare distinction of a diplomatic philosophy named after him: the so-called "Sonnenfeldt Doctrine" that advocated peaceful co-existence with Moscow and, it was said by critics, accepted that Eastern Europe was legitimately within the Soviet sphere of influence.

Sonnenfeldt always disputed that interpretation, insisting it rested on a wrong understanding of the "organic relationship" between Moscow and its satrapies that he urged at a meeting of US ambassadors to the region in early 1976. But it reflected the intense belief in realpolitik he shared with Kissinger, then Secretary of State, whose counsellor Sonnenfeldt was, and whose background was remarkably similar.

Helmut Sonnenfeldt was a six-year-old boy in Berlin when the Nazis came to power. In 1938 his Jewish parents, both physicians, concluded that the future held nothing but menace, and sent him and his elder brother Richard to boarding school in England as a first step in moving the entire family out of Germany.

The plan succeeded. Walter and Gertrud Sonnenfeldt settled in Baltimore, Maryland, and in 1944 the 18-year-old Helmut joined them - along with Richard, who after the war would become interpreter and subsequently chief interrogator for American prosecutors at Nuremberg - and took American citizenship. By mid-1945 Helmut was serving with the US occupation forces in Germany, where he met and became friends with Kissinger, then deployed with American military intelligence.

After returning to the US, Sonnenfeldt studied international relations at Johns Hopkins University and took a masters degree in 1951. The following year he joined the State Department as a specialist in Soviet and Eastern European affairs. All the while, however, he remained in touch with Kissinger and moved with him to the White House in 1969 as an assistant when Kissinger was picked as national security adviser by the newly elected Richard Nixon.

The intrigues and backstabbings at the Nixon White House, and not least at the National Security Council, were legendary: at least once Kissinger had Sonnenfeldt wiretapped after the alleged leaking of documents.

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