At the Republican Governors’ Conference in Austin, Texas late last month, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger described the collapse of the Shah as “the biggest debacle” for American foreign policy in recent years and added that Americans are “sick and tired of being pushed around.” In response, the New York Times condemned what it called Kissinger’s “partisan outburst” as both “reckless” and “repellent,” while praising President Carter’s “measured efforts” to solve the hostage crisis in Tehran. To explain his thoughts on Iran, his personal role in finding asylum for the Shah and his view of U.S. foreign policy challenges in the 1980s, Kissinger spoke with Clare Crawford-Mason of PEOPLE:
What should the U.S. attitude be to the takeover of our embassies abroad?
First of all, we have to stop our self-flagellation. Not everybody who attacks us is doing so because we supplied a just grievance. Secondly, it must be made clear that challenging the U.S. is not for free. There has to be some penalty for opposing us and some reward for being friendly. Unless we can reestablish that balance, this trend will continue.
What should the penalties be?
It would be irresponsible for me to speak in the abstract. With Iran, the best way is to demonstrate to terrorists that, whatever our divisions, we are a united people in a crisis. After the crisis, we should develop a posture that makes it clear that the United States is not to be trifled with in the conduct of its foreign policy.
Are you satisfied with the U.S. treatment of the Shah?
I have held the position all along that the Shah was a friend of the U.S. for 37 years. Every President, starting with Truman, lauded the Shah’s friendship and his modernizing tendencies and spoke of the gratitude we owed him. Even President Carter said in January 1978 there was no family with whom he would rather spend New Year’s Eve than the Shah and Shahbanou. With those circumstances, I believe we owed them private humanitarian asylum, not political support, after he left office.
Can you give specific examples of the Shah’s helpfulness?
When I was in office, he always kept Iran’s oil production at its maximum. His was the only country adjoining the U.S.S.R. in the ’73 Middle Eastern war that did not permit overflights of Soviet transports. He never joined the oil embargo, he fueled our fleets, he supported our negotiations. We, of course, should have the best possible relations which the present government of Iran permits, but we cannot give up our tradition of asylum.
Did you personally intercede to have the Shah admitted to the U.S.?
My original involvement with the Shah’s domicile was in January. I was asked by the Administration to help find a residence in the U.S. in order to encourage the Shah to leave Iran, although I did not approve of that policy. Eight weeks later I was asked by Washington to go to Morocco to tell the Shah he was no longer welcome. This I refused to do.
Did you take any private actions?
I inquired whether our government was helping him get into any other country. I was told no. Over the next few weeks I made three telephone calls to senior officials, and I saw Secretary Vance twice to try to convince them to reverse their decision. They refused. In light of the Shah’s help to our nation, I felt a duty to help. I called up the President of Mexico and encouraged him to grant the Shah asylum, which Mexico did.
After the Shah became ill, did you intercede with the U.S, government?
No, neither directly nor indirectly. As I understand it, the government was informed of his medical condition and admitted him, and I think they took the right decision.
You have been mentioned as being instrumental in admitting the Shah.
I do not want to give the impression of walking away from the decision. The fact is I did not intervene myself in October to get him admitted. I was out of the country. Had I known and had it been necessary, I would have made an appeal. Had I been asked, I would have strongly supported the government’s decision. It was right and courageous.
But former U.S. diplomat George Ball has said, “Had it not been for Mr. Kissinger and a few others making themselves enormously obnoxious trying to force the Shah into this country, maybe we wouldn’t have done it, even for reasons of compassion.” What is your reaction?
Your readers can judge from what I have just told you whether I did generate pressure.
How often have you seen the Shah since he came to the U.S.?
I have seen him twice.
Have you urged the Shah not to leave the U.S. unless or until the Carter administration directly asks him to?
Absolutely not! It’s a lie put out by those unwilling to assume responsibility for their own actions.
Are you surprised at the anti-Americanism surfacing in Muslim countries?
No, anti-Americanism such as we are seeing in Iran is partly the result of a government’s using it to deflect attention from its own domestic difficulties. Envy of the richest nation is not hard to whip up, especially when you have Marxist-front organizations and PLO-type revolutionary activists who have their own reasons.
Isn’t it true that the Shah did not enjoy popular support?
The Shah’s government was certainly authoritarian, but it had the best educational system in the area. It spread literacy, sent students to the U.S., wiped out malaria, eradicated locusts. It was a reforming government, but the process of economic development is unbelievably unsettling. It moves people from their villages and traditional societies into the cities, where they are rootless. They need some values to make the changes bearable. So we witness resentment against the West, which principally offers economic progress, and a return to religious orthodoxy and in some cases religious fanaticism. This is the fundamental problem in Iran.
On your recent trips abroad, what was the mood about the ’80s?
There’s a feeling of confusion. Everybody knows great changes are coming and feels uneasy about them. Nobody is quite sure what these changes will be, or how to master them, partly because there is a sense that America has given up its leadership role, and there is no substitute for it.
What is the mood here at home?
We’ve gone through 15 years of tremendous travail of a war we did not know either how to win or conclude, and a domestic crisis unrelated to any popular issue, but really to the personality of the President—I mean Watergate. There was a feeling that America should retrench. Now I think this post-Vietnam retreat syndrome has come to an end and we are prepared to play a larger role. We are essential to peace and progress, and I don’t think the handicap to our playing such a role is the public mood.
Then what is the handicap?
We have developed impotence into a cult. It is one thing to say we must learn the limits of our power, which is true; it is another to concentrate foreign policy on our limits. We also must know the scope of our possibilities.
What would you say will be the spiritual keynote to the ’80s?
A search for faith, but without definition as yet. Indeed, there is a great danger that the nihilism of the early ’70s could turn into an irrational faith for its own sake. Jonestown would be the absurd extreme. Our necessity now is to give the search for faith a content that is also rational.
You say that America is looking for a spiritual center. Where is yours?
I have no doubt been profoundly influenced by my experience with totalitarianism as a young man. I remember what America meant to us. With all the imperfections of American society, I know that they are relatively trivial compared to the hope that we give the rest of the world. Having lived in a truly totalitarian society, I can distinguish between flaws in a healthy society and real oppression.
Have you been consulted by private industry about its investments in the world?
My position with regard to private industry is the following: I will not make introductions. I will not establish contacts. I will not give commercial-type advice. If somebody asks for my assessment of political circumstances and foreign policy trends, I will give that judgment, but I will not apply it to any concrete cases they may face. I don’t want to know what those cases are.
From your days in government, what do you recall about the moments of crisis?
One consolation is that you are doing something that makes a difference to your country’s future and hopefully to the future of mankind. The disadvantage is, of course, that your decisions become irretrievable. Therefore people who are obsessed by the uncertainty of events become exhausted emotionally. Everyone aspiring to high office probably needs a touch of monomania; in uncertain situations, without that self-confidence you will destroy yourself.
Did Nixon have such self-confidence?
Yes, and so does Carter, although he doesn’t know how to apply it, at least not yet to concrete situations.
How do you foresee our relations with the Soviet Union in the decade ahead?
I would say that history will be on our side by the late 1980s. But in the first half of the ’80s the military balance could be against us. Sometime in the decade the Soviet Union is going to face the problem of all Communist societies, namely, that you cannot run the modern industrial state by a system of total planning, and you cannot encapsule your population into a rigid orthodoxy which leaves no scope for human personality. Before it turns to its internal reforms, the Soviet Union will have a very great temptation to dominate the external environment.
During this period, what should U.S. foreign policy be?
If we can keep the global turmoils from turning in a pro-Soviet, anti-Western direction, we can have genuine coexistence. We have no clashing interest with the Soviet Union as a national state, only as an expansionist power. If we can get through the first half of the ’80s without an international collapse, then I would be very optimistic for the second half of the decade.
Are there potential Vietnams ahead?
Right now in almost every continent the situation is sliding out of control. In Southeast Asia, since our withdrawal we face the same problem of the threat of Vietnam to all surrounding countries. In the Middle East, Iran is only a symptom of the overall situation of radicals intimidating the moderates. In Central America, we are at the beginning of great turmoil. I hope both presidential candidates in the campaign will tell the American people that there are crises to be dealt with.
What techniques did you evolve for personal relaxation while in office?
I am a bad person to ask. I’m fundamentally a workaholic. I like to listen to music, see friends. I’m a sports nut and a ballet fan. In office when I had time to read, I read classified documents. Now I read books a lot.
You said you have become more secure since your marriage.
I have never had such a close relationship with any person. It sounds corny, but trust and love are freely given by Nancy. And this makes me more secure in all other relationships.
Will there be a Senator Kissinger in the ’80s?
I expect Senator Javits to run from New York in 1980, and I expect to support him. I will under no circumstances oppose Senator Moynihan in 1982. So ask me about 1986—in 1986 I might be tempted.