Sunday, November 27, 2005

MEMOIR: Meeting Henry Kissinger in a Georgia bar

The first time I ever saw or heard of Henry Kissinger was in a bar outside Columbus, Ga. The bar was in the officers' club at Fort Benning. As I recall, the year was 1958.

The occasion was the annual convention of the Association of the U.S. Army, a professional society for career military men. At the time I was working as a reporter covering the Pentagon, and I was one of about a dozen journalists invited to attend the convention.

Kissinger, who was a relatively junior Harvard professor, had recently published a book entitled "Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy." The book dealt with such issues as the potential use of "tactical" nuclear arms in a so-called "limited war." Kissinger had been invited to the convention to speak about this exotic subject.

Although unknown to the general public, Kissinger had gained some attention in the military community as an expert on international relations and defense policies. His expertise was displayed in his new book and in research projects at the Council of Foreign Relations and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Kissinger's reputation had been enhanced by his standing as a protege of the fund's key figure, Nelson Rockefeller, who later became New York's governor and the nation's vice-president.

I recall reading somewhere that Kissinger had been an accounting student at the City College of New York before his induction into the Army in 1943. In the service, like many other young German Jewish refugees serving in the armed forces, he had been assigned to the Intelligence Corps because of his personal background.

His assignment brought him into close contact with a high-ranking officer who had been a college professor in civilian life. The professor had been a prominent scholar in the field of foreign affairs. He steered Kissinger's academic interest away from accounting to his own specialty, and he was influential in getting Kissinger admitted to Harvard as an undergraduate after his Army discharge.

Having been a mere Army sergeant during World War II, I am sure Kissinger must have gloried in his status a mere decade later as a consultant to whom generals and admirals would turn for advice.

The convention was scheduled to begin on a Saturday morning. Both Kissinger and I arrived late in the afternoon the previous day. After unpacking, I realized that none of the other journalists had arrived yet. I decided to go to the base's officers club for a drink. Uniformed officers were seated at tables scattered around the room. Standing at the bar I noticed a lone figure in civilian clothing.

It was Henry Kissinger. I introduced myself and told him what I was doing at the convention. He was notably unimpressed by my credentials. He had a sour expression on his face, and seemed bored making small talk with a mere young journalist. Personal charm was not one of his attributes. Our conversation was not very prolonged.

Who would have imagined that this grumpy guy, standing alone at a bar in Georgia, would ever become, for a while at least, one of the world's most influential men?


Blogger Richard Fouts said...

I live on East 52nd Street in New York City. Kissinger lives at the end of my block in a building known as River House. I've met him a couple of times....he's a smuck.

Sunday, January 29, 2006 10:40:00 PM  

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