Henry Comes Home
Ferguson, Niall, Newsweek
Byline: Niall Ferguson
Kissinger returns to Harvard--and America turns a corner.
A successful college graduate is, as a general rule, loved by his alma mater. The more prominent he becomes, the more phone calls he receives. If he really makes the big time, there are invitations to host grand dinners, receive honorary degrees, give commencement addresses ... and of course, bestow his name on this or that chair or building (as well as on a very large check).
There are, however, a few painful exceptions to this rule. No graduate of Oxford University did more to restore Britain's postwar economic fortunes than Margaret Thatcher. Yet in 1985 Oxford dons voted against giving the then-prime minister an honorary doctorate degree, an unprecedented snub.
There was a similar-though if anything more bitter-rift between Henry Kissinger and his alma mater, Harvard. But last week, after decades of estrangement, Kissinger returned to the university where he studied and taught. It was an emotional occasion. It was also a fascinating sign of how liberal America is changing.
Full disclosure: I am writing Henry Kissinger's biography. I also happen to teach at Harvard, as he did between 1954 and 1969. And, having been an undergraduate at Oxford when Thatcher was denied her degree, I have long believed that universities should show respect to alums who attain high office, regardless of political disagreements.
In the 1970s and '80s that was not a fashionable view. Back then, liberal academics took pride in repudiating their most successful conservative alumni because they disagreed with their policies. In the case of Oxford, it was Thatcher's cuts in university funding. In the case of Harvard, it was the war in Vietnam. On May 8, 1970, shortly after U.S. forces invaded neighboring Cambodia, a deputation of Kissinger's former colleagues--among them the economist Thomas Schelling--visited Kissinger in Washington.
Kissinger welcomed his "good friends from Harvard University." "No," retorted Schelling, "we're a group of people who have completely lost confidence in the ability of the White House to conduct our foreign policy, and we have come to tell you so." It was the beginning of a schism that would endure for 42 years.
Books like the late Christopher Hitchens's The Trial of Henry Kissinger have perpetuated the notion that the foreign policy of the Nixon administration was uniquely wicked. …