Keeping Kissinger Secret
This essay was originally published in the Yale Daily News, and is archived here for posterity.
On Monday, a confidential email sent to a select set of Yale graduate students was irresponsibly leaked to Salon. According to the leaked email, Dr. Henry Kissinger, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, will give a talk titled “Europe at a Crossroads” at 3:30 p.m. on Friday at Evans Hall.
The Jackson Institute for Global Affairs doesn’t list this event publicly, even though they are hosting it. The School of Management, housed in Evans Hall, similarly has no information about the event on its website. In fact, no publicly accessible Yale website mentions a talk by Kissinger. If the Jackson Institute, the School of Management and the University at large all agree that this talk must be kept secret, it is hard to understand the motivations of the leaker who deliberately subverted the orders of her superiors.
I am confident that the extreme secrecy surrounding this talk (invitees are urged to respect the confidentiality of Kissinger’s words) exists for a reason. Openness, a spirit of inquiry and the free exchange of ideas — qualities that I believe are essential for the functioning of any University — cannot and should not always be exercised. These values must be put aside for some events, and Kissinger’s talk is one of them. Sometimes, it is necessary to create a space where young minds can be lectured to in private, on confidential matters in an event that must inevitably be secret.
The Jackson Institute balances the need for secrecy with its commitment to advertise its high profile speakers. Despite its silence about Kissinger’s upcoming visit, it does have information on his previous visits to Yale, which were put up post festum. This tactic of releasing information after the fact, when it is too late to act on it, would make Kissinger proud, who has orchestrated many a coup d’etat around the world.
Kissinger cemented his relationship with the Jackson Institute in 2011 when he donated his papers, covering an extraordinary slice of history from the invasion of Vietnam to the invasion of Iraq. His professional life and papers are valuable assets to academics. Given that researchers have access to privileged and confidential information from men who shaped history like Kissinger, the objectivity of their research is beyond doubt.
Kissinger’s relationship with the Jackson Institute and the University is not unusual. He is the embodiment of an increasingly common standard model in high-profile careers, where one transitions from political power to economic power, and then ultimately to academic power. We at Yale have been lucky to participate in this process, benefiting from insightful lectures by world leaders like Tony Blair and Stanley McChrystal.
Universities like Yale play an important role beyond that of mere research institutions. They are also de facto guardians of our historical record, maintaining libraries and supporting scholars who write books and publish papers. Orwell’s oft-quoted aphorism “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past,” imposes on universities and academics a moral duty to treat the stewardship of our history with neutrality and punctiliousness.
In this light, it is reassuring to know that Kissinger’s papers at the Jackson Institute have been kept away from the prying eyes of the general public. This secure guardianship of history and Kissinger’s role in it is in contrast to rogue, publicly available datasets like the Public Library of US Diplomacy that include over 1.7 million documents from the Kissinger era. We can be secure in the knowledge that only impartial and informed scholars at the Jackson Institute have access to Kissinger’s papers. It is certain that these scholars, whom we have charged with maintaining and analyzing our shared historical record, are aided in their task by the secrecy around today’s talk.
Secrecy has been shown time and again to be a robust strategy. Secrecy is especially important in diplomatic matters, and in agencies of national security. In particular, the secrecy of ideas and facts guarantees those with access to confidential information — graduate students at the Jackson Institute and in the history department — a competitive advantage. After all, there exist ideas so important that they can only be said to a few, and so disturbing that they must be kept from the public. I’m sure Kissinger’s talk will be full of them.