"Memorandum for Mr. Bundy": Henry Kissinger as Consultant to the Kennedy National Security Council

By Mohan, Shannon E. | The Historian, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

"Memorandum for Mr. Bundy": Henry Kissinger as Consultant to the Kennedy National Security Council


Mohan, Shannon E., The Historian


IN THE FOREWORD to his book White House Years, Henry A. Kissinger (b. 1923) acknowledges that "for better or worse, I was called upon to play a prominent role in the making and execution of United States foreign policy." (1) Indeed, for the last fifty years, Kissinger's name has been synonymous with diplomacy, and he is widely considered as a preeminent expert on the subject. It does not surprise that a majority of those who analyze Kissinger's career focus on the policies he executed while he was National Security Adviser and Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford. However, historians and biographers have largely neglected Kissinger's first White House position as consultant to President Kennedy's National Security Council (NSC) in 1961. As he would be many times throughout his career, Kissinger was called upon for his expertise on foreign policy, but as a Kennedy administration consultant, he played a less prominent role in shaping (in contrast to executing) foreign policy during a critical period in the Cold War: the crisis with the Soviet Union over Berlin in 1961. With his staunch belief in negotiation as the "tool of the statesman," (2) Kissinger advocated a negotiated settlement to the crisis, but did not renounce the threatened use of military force as an additional instrument in crisis resolution.

Kissinger's biographers have placed little emphasis on his consultancy to the Kennedy administration, judging him as oafish, pretentious, and interested in matters at odds with the Kennedy team. (3) Existing scholarship devotes little attention to his policy recommendations during his relatively short term as consultant, preferring instead to focus on the facts that as a German Jew, he was an ill-fit in a Kennedy administration replete with elite Brahmins; that he possessed divergent views on policy from those of the administration; and that he was unsuccessful in influencing the administration's foreign policy. (4) But dismissing the experience as an overall failure overlooks a crucial stepping-stone in Kissinger's career. The man who would be known as "Super K" during the Nixon and Ford administrations in 1961 was an evolving statesman who benefited from his first real experience at the White House. As this article will demonstrate, Kissinger, in spite of his position as an outsider, was persuasive and recommended the execution of sound policy to avert a major confrontation with the Soviet Union. In addition, the experience in the Kennedy administration left an indelible impression on him, as he observed how key foreign-policy decisions were made by a few in the White House rather than by many State Department bureaucrats. He was to embrace eagerly a similar modus operandi as National Security Adviser under a president also intent on controlling foreign policy from the White House.

The German-born Heinz Alfred Kissinger's road to the Kennedy White House interchanged professional appointments with brief academic spells. He had studied under the tutelage of William Y. Elliott, and, as a doctoral student, became the executive director of Harvard's Summer International Seminar. His dissertation on Metternich and Castlereagh juxtaposed "problems that confronted European statesmen early in the nineteenth century" with the "nature of the international system of the mid-twentieth century." (5) These "parallels" demonstrate the breadth of his understanding of international relations and his reliance on "balance-of-power diplomacy" to "defend an existing world order." (6) From his earliest days as a scholar, Kissinger had great respect for the notion of a statesman, who by his definition "must bridge the gap between a people's experience and his vision, between a nation's tradition and its future." (7)

In 1957, Kissinger's dissertation was published as a book. By then, he had already published his first article in Foreign Affairs in 1955, which had criticized the Eisenhower administration's "massive retaliation" policy. …

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