Two deaths, two different lives, a retrospective


Two deaths, Henry Kissinger at 100 on Nov. 29 and Sandra Day O’Connor, 93, two days later, mark the end of an era. Few people will be able to emulate them, their achievements, or their shortcomings.

Most controversial was Kissinger. As a resolute member of the realist school, he rejected what historians call Wilsonian idealism, and accepted a realist view of power politics in foreign policy. “Idealism” derives from President Woodrow Wilson’s clarion call for moral clarity in national security affairs, and his vision of world peace.

For Kissinger, power politics, not ideals, were the sole means to preserve American national interests. A well-known foreign policy scholar at Harvard, he advised 12 presidents, from John F. Kennedy to Joe Biden. President Nixon appointed him national security advisor in 1969, and then, four years later, added the title of secretary of state. He is the only person to serve in both roles at the same time.

From a positive perspective, he helped open the way to détente with the Soviet Union, leading to a strategic arms limitation treaty and a lowering of tensions between the Russians and the Americans. He led the way to ease U.S. hostilities with Communist China. He set forth the framework for talks with the North Vietnamese to end the Vietnam War, and when a peace accord was signed, he along with his Vietnamese counterpart was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He engaged in “shuttle diplomacy,” traveling back and forth throughout the Middle East to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict in light of the 1973 Mideast Yom Kippur War.

But critics abound. They condemn him for prolonging American involvement in Vietnam, and for instigating the U.S. involvement in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Chile and the assassination of its president, Salvador Allende. They attack his support of Richard Nixon’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War: It led to extremely high civilian deaths and casualties, and the destruction of villages and settlements, as well as the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the consequent deaths of some 2 million civilians. 

He approved sending heavy weapons to Pakistan to staunch an eventual successful independence movement in East Pakistan, which eventually became Bangladesh. And he promoted Indonesia’s attacks on East Timor, leading to over 100,000 civilian deaths.

For Kissinger, this was realism: power politics combined with military strength to preserve American interests. He once wrote, “A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security.”

Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman justice confirmed on the Supreme Court. She led her colleagues to moderately conservative, pragmatic positions. In her 24 years of service, as journalist Adam Liptak notes, she carved out a position that sought “compromise and common ground.”

Nowhere was this more obvious than in her 1992 effort to preserve a woman’s right to an abortion. Her opinion in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey upheld the central holding in Roe v. Wade (1973). She wrote that overruling Roe “under fire in the absence of the most compelling reason to re-examine a watershed decision would subvert the court’s legitimacy beyond any serious question.”

Last year, the court overruled Roe, to O’Connor’s dismay.

She led the court in finding a way to allow governmental organizations to achieve racial and ethnic diversity in employment, contracts, and higher education admissions. Again, it was a moderate approach: The court must use its highest form of review, known as strict scrutiny, to ensure that fairness and equity were important elements when public officials in a government agency decide hiring, promotions, or layoffs. In higher education, it meant that admissions officers may use race as one factor among many when reviewing student applications.

Earlier this year, the new conservative majority overruled her affirmative action decision in higher education in two cases involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.

In 2003, she upheld a major campaign finance reform act sponsored by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Russell Feingold (D-MN). The act required limits on contributions to campaigns and revelations of donors’ identities, especially major donors of what is now called “soft money” donated to political parties. She wrote that the goal was to overcome corruption and the appearance of corruption in political campaigns.

Six years later after O’Connor retired, the court overruled much of the McCain-Feingold Act to argue that corporations, like individuals, have a free speech right. And there is no evidence of corruption, or appearance of corruption.

She told an interviewer that once she left the court and the new justices moved to the far right, her decisions were being “dismantled.” One area that has yet to be overruled is gender discrimination. She often joined Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to uphold women’s rights to participate in public affairs. And critics will often point to her decision to join the bare majority in the 2000 Bush v. Gore case, leading to George W. Bush’s presidency.

O’Connor, a moderate on the court, found commonality with liberals and conservatives and a middle way to decide cases. Kissinger was determined to maintain American dominance in global affairs, but the world today is so fragmented, it is difficult to see how a secretary of state can act with the authority Kissinger did in the 1970s, and with the influence he had until his death.

In today’s political climate, it is doubtful we will see the likes of either one any time soon.


Jack Fruchtman, who lives in Aquinnah, studied at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and is currently updating his book on the Supreme Court and constitutional law.