Chairman Mao and Henry Kissinger: A Problem of Perspective

Recently I have been reading “On China” by Henry Kissinger and am about halfway through.  Dr. Kissinger is, of course, an interesting man, but, in this writer’s opinion, a morally vacant one.  I inform this opinion mostly based on his involvement with Latin America, which involved our shameful support of right wing military leaders and death squads. This perception makes reading Kissinger’s work a challenging, but rewarding, task.

I have just finished the section based on Mao’s time in power.  At times the admiration that Kissinger shows for Mao and Zhou Enlai is off setting.  I distinctly get the impression that Kissinger is in awe of these two mens skill, and that he appreciates them as people playing the same game as him.  The Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward are skimmed over, and Kissinger comes across as an apologist for both events, barely touching on the human misery that both inspired.

I have come to something of a contradiction that has been bothering me.  Mao united China again, made it a major power again, and, possibly, set the stage for its current position in the world.  Kissinger believes that Mao will be looked on in a more favorable light in the future, and his ‘excesses’ will be put in a softer light as time marches forward.  One statement that has been playing out in my mind is Mao’s assertion that China is not scared of nuclear war because it has so many people that it would carry on even if it lost 500 million lives.  Kissinger believed that Mao might have been bluffing, but I am not so sure.  If you look at that mindset, than the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are easier to conceptualize.  China has a very long history, and Mao spoke in terms of hundreds of years, certainly longer than his lifetime.

Perspective is an odd thing when thinking of human lives.  The further away you get from the personal level, or even your lifetime, the less significant individual lives are.  If I think in terms of people I am related to, it is maybe around 30 people.  If I think of people I care about it is certainly not more than 100.  I maybe know the names of 1,000-2,000 people.  There are about 318,000,000 people in America and about 1,355,692,000 people in China.  There are about 7 billion total people in the world.  In all of human history, there have only been about 100 billion or so people.  If, like Mao, I think in terms of China, 500 million is not so many people, and historically it is meaningless.  If I think like Kissinger, geopolitics and national interest is played on a global scale, what are a few thousand or tens of thousand leftists in Latin America tortured or disappeared compared to balance of power and the game of international relations.

I think that when I was younger, I would have placed more of a value judgement on Mao and Kissinger for what they were individually responsible for.  Increasingly I can understand the different perspectives, but understanding is not the same as accepting them.  Even this mere understanding of this perspective feels me with something akin to dread.


About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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