HENRY KISSINGER’S return to Harvard this week was a homecoming of sorts for a man who has conspicuously avoided his alma mater for at least three decades. Kissinger attended Harvard College on the GI bill, received his doctorate at Harvard, and became one of its most celebrated professors. But after he left in 1969 to become President Nixon’s national security advisor, Harvard faculty and students issued such scathing criticisms of his policies in Vietnam and Cambodia that he turned down every opportunity to return to the school, including his own 50th reunion.
“The blood of dead and homeless Indochinese is on Kissinger’s hands,’’ read an editorial in the Harvard Crimson in 1973, on the eve of his appointment as secretary of state. But, in a testament to how the rift over Vietnam has passed increasingly into history, the current crop of students welcomed Kissinger with rock-star treatment, rushing the stage to shake his hand, take his photo, and get his autograph. Only one protester - who appeared to be about 60 years old - was escorted by police from Kissinger’s talk.
Those who remained heard Kissinger explain his past policies, admit some mistakes, and make predictions about the future.
Kissinger said every US war since World War II has been waged with great enthusiasm, until people discover their objectives can’t be met. Then the main preoccupation becomes how to manage a withdrawal - the problem of the Vietnam War, as well as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today’s problems are mostly global, and must be met with global solutions. He predicted that if the United States acts cooperatively with other nations, especially with China, many future conflicts can be avoided.
Invited back to Harvard by President Drew Faust as part of the university’s 375th birthday celebration, the 88-year-old Kissinger never alluded to the reason he stayed away for so long. But he did point out a key difference between himself and the professors he left behind: Academics have the luxury of writing another book if their theory is proved wrong. In the world of high-stakes diplomacy, he noted, there are no second chances.