Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld are the two most reviled men to have served in the position of Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. Yet the irony — and majestic genius — of the careers of both men is that they have, and will, each do more to educate the public (and academia) about the conduct of US foreign policy than any other men in their respective positions.
Henry Kissinger made the bold step in 1976 to turn over his entire personal papers to the Library of Congress under a special deed that would keep the papers private from the public (but accessible to him for the purposes of continuing his books) until after his death. A law suit resulted in him turning over many of the transcripts of his meetings following a court ruling in 2001 (which, much to the frustration of many people, did not prove the criminal activity they so expected to find in the “secret” papers). But Kissinger’s complete personal papers — his handwritten notes, personal letters, and meeting memorandums — are to be made public five years after his death. The disclosure of so many of his personal files to a public government archives is a move made by very few (if any) persons who served in the positions he did, and this is made all the more remarkable that Kissinger’s tenure was so controversial and he is hounded, even to this day.
But what makes Kissinger unique is that in all his books, he has placed a special emphasis on educating the public about foreign policy, and frequently warns that when it comes to foreign policy, the American public — and as a result, their elected representatives — just don’t get it. They are excessively optimistic, assume that every problem has a solution, and apply their own cultural values to other societies where they are not compatible, often with disasterous consequences. Kissinger hopes with his papers to give academic and the public access to all his papers so that historians can understand the history of what took place in the Nixon White House — and what made it one of the most successful foreign policies of any US presidency in history.
Yet as extraordinarily transparent as Kissinger’s move was when he did it back in 1976, Donald Rumsfeld has gone a step further with his book Known and Unknown. At his own personal expense, he spent four years digitizing his entire personal files from his time at the Pentagon from 2001 – 2006 and made them available online at rumsfeld.com — together with many other documents from his political career with the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations. All of his endnotes in his new book are listed exhaustively — and almost all of them (all that are not copyrighted material) appear on rumsfeld.com, often as original documents. You can read the State Department Cable following on Rumsfeld’s visit with Saddam in 1983 or his memorandum to Bush following on his visit to the ME/CIS region a month after 9/11, unedited, showing an exact snapshot of the information that was available at the time — a key issue that Rumsfeld has always focused on and which forms the title of his book, the phrase: “known and unknown.” I have never heard of another statesman going to the lengths to inform his readership of his sources.
Like Kissinger, Rumsfeld is keenly interested in educating the public so that they know what was behind the decisions at the Department of Defense during his tenure there — something he recently explained on C-Span’s Q&A (watch here).
Say what you will about both men. Maybe you don’t like their personalities. Maybe you don’t like their policies. But their legacies in making public information that was previously critically confidential viewed by only a few people in government. That’s why I call these men the Educators — and know that history will show that both of them were unfairly reviled.