Kissinger and Sonnenfeldt

Who was Kissinger’s Kissinger?

Print edition : August 16, 2019

October 22, 1973: U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (left) and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko with Helmut Sonnenfeldt behind them at the airport in Moscow after talks on the Arab-Israeli conflict that took place that year. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Henry Kissinger and Helmut Sonnenfeldt, his Counsellor in the U.S. State Department, had a love-hate relationship: they disliked each other as much as they were dependent on each other.

THE man and his views are hardly known in our part of the world. But Helmut Sonnenfeldt and the “Doctrine” that came to bear his name are of abiding relevance. At a time when the United States deliberately expands the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) eastward, flouting Russia’s legitimate security concerns, the doctrine is of particular relevance and interest. Sonnenfeldt was hand-picked by Henry A. Kissinger to be his Counsellor in the State Department, a formal designation. A powerful, knowledgeable analytical brain ensured proximity to the “doctor”. There were other factors too.

Sonnenfeldt was born in Berlin on September 13, 1926. He 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 a boarding school in England as a first step in moving the entire family out of Germany.

The parents settled in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1944, the 18-year-old Helmut joined them—along with Richard, who after the War would become an interpreter and subsequently the chief interrogator for U.S. prosecutors at Nuremberg—and took American citizenship. By mid 1945, Helmut was serving with the U.S. occupation forces in Germany where he met and became friends with Kissinger, then deployed with U.S. military intelligence.

After returning to the U.S., Sonnenfeldt studied international relations at Johns Hopkins University and took a master’s 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 President Richard Nixon.

The Independent wrote on November 22, 2012:

“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. But a tough school produced a talented crop: not only Sonnenfeldt, but also the likes of Lawrence Eagleburger, Winston Lord, John Negroponte and Anthony Lake, diplomatic stalwarts of future administrations, both Republican and Democratic.

“The similarities between Sonnenfeldt and Kissinger, three years his elder, extended well beyond their common origins. They shared an intellectual arrogance. But both were pragmatics open to reasoned argument, and, when needed, tireless negotiators. Both believed that world stability depended on a modus vivendi with the rival superpower. And, having personally experienced what can happen when German regimes run amok, both were suspicious (and perhaps jealous) of Willy Brandt, who became West German Chancellor in 1969 and beat Washington to the detente punch with his Ostpolitik, calling for closer ties between the Germanys and reconciliation with the wartime foes of Poland and the Soviet Union.

“When Kissinger became Secretary of State in 1973, Sonnenfeldt followed him to Foggy Bottom as Special Counsellor. ‘He was with me in practically every negotiation I conducted with the Soviets,’ Kissinger said, ‘an indispensable collaborator.’ Not least during a mid 1970s trip to the Soviet Union when Leonid Brezhnev asked Kissinger what he thought his luxurious hunting lodge might be worth in the U.S. property market. Perhaps $400,000, ventured Kissinger, to the chagrin of the Soviet leader, who was clearly expecting a much higher figure. ‘More like $2 million,’ Sonnenfeldt quickly interceded, averting diplomatic disaster.”

Sonnenfeldt died on November 18, 2012. He was 86.

The “Doctrine”, as it came to be known, was propounded towards the end of Nixon’s tenancy of the White House. Since it was explained at a closed-door meeting, accounts varied. The most authoritative account is in the third and concluding volume of Kissinger’s memoirs, Years of Renewal (Simon & Schuster, 1999). It bears quotation in extenso:

Sonnenfeldt Doctrine

“The debate was soon overwhelmed by a violent controversy over remarks before a meeting of American ambassadors in December 1975 by a close collaborator of mine, Hal Sonnenfeldt, counsellor of the State Department. What made the debate so maddening was that I read these remarks for the first time after a wildly distorted version appeared in the media.

“Hal Sonnenfeldt is my friend. He is also one of the most able public servants I have known. A thoughtful student of the Soviet Union, both his published record and his service to our country over the course of three decades would mark him as an unsentimental hard-liner.

“At the time, Sonnenfeldt’s primary responsibility was Soviet relationships and European policy. Friends as we were, ours was nevertheless a complex relationship. Sonnenfeldt had the same background as I: born in Germany, educated in the United States, service in the U.S. Army. We even shared the same mentor in Fritz Kraemer, though Hal—despite the so-called Sonnenfeldt Doctrine (described below)—did not draw on his head the interdict I suffered. Hal interpreted his charter to deal with Soviet affairs in such expansive terms and conditions that he claimed a role in everything even remotely affecting, or being affected by, the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union being a superpower, that, of course, covered about the same subject matter as my job description. In pursuit of that goal, Hal was indefatigable in checking on my schedule to make sure that I did not overlook his jurisdictional prerogative as he saw it. ‘Hal has the best intelligence system in town,’ said an exasperated aide. ‘Unfortunately, it is aimed at you.’…

“All this had been accomplished in the London meeting of American ambassadors in December 1975, which I had concluded with a speech on Europe, East-West relations, and, above all, Eurocommunism…. The normal work of the ambassadorial conference being completed, Hal, as usual, found a gap in my presentation. He felt I had neglected Eastern Europe, and he offered to hold an informal session with the ambassadors the next morning, a Sunday.

“I saw some good in Hal’s proposal and no prospect for a monumental event, much less the emergence of a new ‘doctrine’. I did not attend the session—in itself a sign of its informal status—nor did any member of my immediate staff. But if Hal had said anything the assembled ambassadors considered new or outrageous, I would certainly have heard about it.

“Matters would have rested there had Hal not decided—two months after the event—to memorialise his extemporaneous remarks for the benefit not only of the ambassadors present but also their staffs. To this end, a summary—not a transcript—was prepared by a staff aide. At this point, some sharpshooter discovered a paragraph in the document that could be twisted into tacit American collusion with Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe and went to work.

“The offending paragraph read as follows: With regard to Eastern Europe, it must be in our long term interest to influence events in this area—because of the present unnatural relationship with the Soviet Union—so that they will not sooner or later explode, causing World War III. This inorganic, unnatural relationship is a far greater danger to world peace than the conflict between East and West.…

“… So it must be our policy to strive for an evolution that makes the relationship between the Eastern Europeans and the Soviet Union an organic one. Any excess of zeal on our part is bound to produce results that could reverse the desired process for a period of time, even though the process would remain inevitable within the next 100 years. But, of course, for us that is too long a time to wait.

“Had Hal asked for my views, I might have called his attention to infelicitous phrasing but, being familiar with his thinking, I would have understood what he meant: that we should seek to eliminate to the extent possible the ‘unnatural’ military domination of the Soviet Union over Eastern Europe and insist that the relationship become more normal (what Hal, in an unfortunate turn of phrase, called ‘organic’). Deprived of its military domination, the Soviet Union would not be able to control the increasingly visible pressures for autonomy in East European countries [emphasis added]. Indeed, Sonnenfeldt specifically mentioned Poland and Hungary as examples of what he had in mind: to achieve for the countries of Eastern Europe at the very least a status similar to that of Finland, cramped by Soviet proximity but carving out a wide area of internal freedom and a relatively independent foreign policy not inimical to the West. In that period of history, this would have been seen as a political and moral breakthrough” (pages 862–864).

Sonnenfeldt explained his views in his interviews in The Washington Quarterly (then called The Washington Review of Strategic and International Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2 (April 1978), pages 41-51), and in his congressional testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on International Relations, U.S. National Security Policy vis-a-vis Eastern Europe (“The Sonnenfeldt Doctrine”, Hearings before the Subcommittee on International Security and Scientific Affairs, 94th Congress, 2nd session, April 12, 1976, pages 1-28).

An “Organic Union’

Rowland Evans and Robert Novak set the ball rolling in two successive columns in March 1976. Their theme was that an “Organic Union” spelt a Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. It was an election year. Ronald Reagan capitalised on this with equal irresponsibility.

Kissinger’s quote is inadequate. Walter Isaacson’s biography Kissinger (Simon & Schuster, 1992) gives a more relevant quote. “Political vilification, however, was immediate. Aggravating the issue was a secret briefing on Helsinki given to a meeting of American diplomats in London by Kissinger’s aide Helmut Sonnenfeldt. The briefing was summarised in a State Department cable, which promptly leaked to columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak.

“Sonnenfeldt, known as Kissinger’s Kissinger because of the complex and occasionally tricky nature of his strategic views, was reflecting his boss’s own realpolitik outlook about the Soviet sphere of influence in Europe. What Sonnenfeldt said at the London meeting was rather subtle and therefore open to oversimplification: ‘The Soviets’ inability to acquire loyalty in Eastern Europe is an unfortunate historical failure, because Eastern Europe is within their scope and area of natural interest.… So it must be our policy to strive for an evolution that makes the relationship between the Eastern Europeans and the Soviet Union an organic one.… This has worked in Poland. The Poles have been able to overcome their romantic political inclinations which led to their disasters in the past.

“Sonnenfeldt’s point was that an ‘organic’ relationship was better because it would not be based on force. Even so, what became known as the Sonnenfeldt Doctrine was pretty close to the conservative’s worst nightmare of a secret Yalta-like sell-out: an admission by the U.S. that the ‘captive nations’ of Eastern Europe were naturally part of Moscow’s sphere of influence.”

Raymond L. Garthoff’s appreciation was sound (Détente and Confrontation, The Brookings Institution, 1994). He was a scholar who shunned Cold War rhetoric and was objective. “The principal Soviet concerns, however, were with longer-range American aims with respect to Eastern Europe. An address by Department of State Counsellor Helmut Sonnenfeldt at the same conference of U.S. ambassadors to which Kissinger spoke was also leaked. It heightened Soviet suspicion, but in part because of widespread misinterpretation of Sonnenfeldt’s remarks. He spoke specifically on American policy toward Eastern Europe, and his comments were promptly dubbed (initially by critics) the Sonnenfeldt Doctrine. The United States, he said, should ‘strive for an evolution that makes the relationship between the eastern Europeans and the Soviet Union an organic one’. This formulation was obscure, subject to the initial misinterpretation it swiftly earned that the United States endorsed and supported Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. In fact, he also said that the existing relationship was ‘unnatural’ and that ‘our policy must be a policy of responding to the clearly visible aspirations in Eastern Europe for a more autonomous existence within the context of a strong Soviet geopolitical influence’.”

Long before Sonnenfeldt spoke, Anatoly Dobrynin, the legendary Soviet Ambassador to the U.S., wrote in a report to Moscow in July 1969: “In the course of a conversation on European affairs Kissinger repeated that President Nixon takes into account the special interests of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, and does not intend to do anything there which could be evaluated in Moscow as a ‘challenge’ to her position in that region. This is Nixon’s basic approach to this question, and it is not necessary, asserted Kissinger, to pay much attention ‘to isolated critical public comments about some East European country, because that is only a tribute to the mood of certain substrata of the American population which play a role in American elections’” (The Cold War, Jussi M. Hanimaki and Odd Arne Westad (eds), Oxford University Press, page 505, 2003).

Detente with the USSR

In 1975, the collapse of Soviet influence and power, which happened in 1989, seemed a very distant prospect. To achieve detente with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the U.S. was prepared to respect its legitimate security interests in Eastern Europe and assure it of that in the hope that it would relax its hold on Eastern Europe and give its people the freedom they yearned for. The U.S. assurance would 1) persuade the USSR to relax its hold on Eastern Europe; 2) give its people greater freedom; and 3) promote detente.

All three are relevant in 2019. It is provocative to extend NATO to that region and prod Ukraine to fight Russia. Between Kissinger and Sonnenfeldt, there was a love-hate relationship. Each admired, distrusted and manipulated the other. They fell out after leaving office. Sonnenfeldt bared his feelings to Isaacson freely. Isaacson writes in Kissinger:

“The primary source of their rivalry was Sonnenfeldt’s resentment at being treated like a Kissinger staffer rather than an official in his own right who deserved independent access to the President. ‘From the very first day Henry felt a sense of rivalry with me,’ Sonnenfeldt recalled, ‘especially in terms and conditions of dealing with Nixon.’ Unlike previous National Security assistants, Kissinger made sure that his staff did not have independent access to the President, the press, or diplomats. ‘It was,’ said Sonnenfeldt, ‘a manifestation of his insecurity.’

“Once, when Kissinger’s aides could not fit into his schedule at a White House lunch that Nixon was hosting for the president of Notre Dame, they knew they could enlist Sonnenfeldt to fill in. Just beforehand, when Sonnenfeldt was in a meeting with Kissinger, Eagleburger—as a prank—marched in and handed Sonnenfeldt a memo saying, ‘Hal, this is about your luncheon with the President.’ Kissinger, as was his wont, looked over and read it. Unable to contain himself, he came out of the meeting and insisted that his schedule be revised; he went instead of Sonnenfeldt. At another point, his aides devised a plan to solve the problem of getting Kissinger to look at and approve his calendar of future appointments. They simply put his proposed schedules in a folder labelled ‘Sonnenfeldt’ and left it lying where he would spot it; invariably he would pick it up and look inside.

“Kissinger apparently took pleasure in inflicting small humiliations on Sonnenfeldt. ‘Not you, Hal, you’re not important enough,’ he said at a White House ceremony as he excluded Sonnenfeldt from a group picture. ‘Petty instances of friction began to accumulate,’ Sonnenfeldt said. ‘Once I realised how sensitive he was, I started teasing him and pretending I was really challenging him for access to the President. It was in order to get a rise out of him.’ Then, almost sadly, Sonnenfeldt added: ‘The more loyal I was, the more he would sense a vulnerability, and the more devious he would be.’

“Yet for all of their personal friction, Kissinger had a great respect for Sonnenfeldt’s analytic ability. Repeatedly he would turn to him for assessments of Soviet intentions or sound him out about a variety of policies.”

Kissinger was hopelessly disorganised. Isaacson writes in Kissinger: “Because Kissinger, ever disorganised, refused to delegate authority or manage his schedule, his office became a bottleneck. ‘In the first year it was like a Moroccan whorehouse, with people queuing up outside his door for hours,’ said Sonnenfeldt. Kissinger was invariably ten minutes late wherever he was supposed to be, even White House staff meetings; top officials grumbled that they were being treated like college undergraduates waiting for a professor to show up for a seminar.

“Some meetings, such as those with the U.S. arms negotiating team, were repeatedly cancelled at the last moment. When Kissinger did arrive, he would often be interrupted by a secretary a few minutes into the meeting, depart abruptly to take a phone call and then return after a half hour or so while the others fumed.

“Kissinger’s management style was conspiratorial rather than open; secretive rather than inclusive. ‘He didn’t like large meetings because he didn’t want people to form factions and confront him,’ said Sonnenfeldt. ‘He created a bond by sharing confidences and making snide comments about everyone else.’” Sonnenfeldt stood at Kissinger’s door obsessively. They distrusted and disliked each other but each respected the other’s intellect.

One hopes that someone would write with equal knowledge and candour of the history of India’s Ministry of External Affairs. It has been studded with famous feuds since its inception. Lacking is freedom and originality in thinking. The warriors fight with blunt knives, lots of noise and much intrigue. But the carpet is spared. Our leaders know how to slit throats while ensuring that no blood is shed.

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