Henry Kissinger and History

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to be part of a Q&A session featuring Henry Kissinger. At 89, Kissinger was still sharp. Being in the same room with him was a tremendous connection back to many significant figures on the world stage from the mid-twentieth century.

Now, this isn’t meant as a full endorsement–there’s plenty to criticize over Kissinger’s long career. To my money, the best critical biography out there is Jeremi Suri’s.

I’ll also leave aside the foreign policy discussion, although it’s worth noting that last year Kissinger published a book On China.

What really caught my ear, though, was his praise of the liberal arts and especially history.

He encouraged the undergraduates in the crowd to make use of their time in college to read widely. He stated that the best thing for undergraduates to do is to read books for their own sake and to read things they’ll never have time for once they are working.

Further, Kissinger indicated that the best substructure for understanding foreign policy is history. Thus, to understand foreign relations, he encouraged people to understand History and Philosophy. He suggested that would be a better preparation than technical descriptions of the field. Implicit in this was a suggestion that understanding histories and cultures really matter for relating to other nations.

On a related point, Kissinger observed that another extremely necessary component to learn for foreign affairs is Context. And, I would suggest, what discipline better teaches contextual thinking than history?

Now, I’ve come to read recently that Rachel Maddow also thinks “history is king.”

So, I think we have a bi-partisan agreement on the importance of historical understandings for relating to issues both domestically and across borders. Finally, something we can all rally behind!

Great: I’ll be planning on that overwhelming increase in enrollment in history departments starting this fall.

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