Shared destinies: Kissinger and Dienstbier meet in 1964

Henry Kissinger

The early 1960s saw dramatic developments in the Cold War, with the building of the Berlin Wall and then the brinkmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But there were also signs of a greater pragmatism in East-West relations. One channel for dialogue was a series of international gatherings, where scholars and public figures discussed how to reduce the risk of armed conflict. These were known as the Pugwash Conferences, named after the town in Canada where the idea was first launched back in 1957. In September 1964, one such conference was held in the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary.

The participants included Henry Kissinger, at 41 already well known as an academic and advisor to the US State and Defense Departments. He told Czechoslovak Radio what he saw as the priorities for reducing East-West tensions:

“As far as the West is concerned, I think it is important that the existing frontiers of Germany be accepted, that is that the frontiers of Czechoslovakia and Poland, as they now exist, be considered as the permanent boundaries of Germany, which means that the Munich Treaty should be formally abrogated insofar as any country still maintains that it has validity. In addition, I think that the West should give Eastern European countries any assurances against legitimate security concerns that they have. As for the East, I believe it must accept two things: one – that the freedom of Berlin is not negotiable and that Western troops will stay in Berlin, that they will not be withdrawn; secondly – that the division of Germany is one of the obstacles towards a relaxation of tension, and that if one wants to make progress towards an all-European security system, one has to keep in mind that the division of Germany is unnatural and will only increase the tensions over an indefinite period.”

Kissinger was interviewed by a bright young Czech reporter. His name was Jiří Dienstbier, and at the time neither of them could have had an inkling that one day their lives would follow a similar path. In the 1970s Henry Kissinger served in two US administrations as Secretary of State. Just over a decade later, Jiří Dienstbier was to become Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist foreign minister, having spent many years as a dissident after the Soviet-led invasion of his country in 1968. But for now, let’s go back to 1964 and to Dienstbier asking Kissinger about a view expressed in his book “The Necessity for Choice”.

Dienstbier: “You wrote that absolute security for one country means insecurity for all others. In this light, how do you see the future possibility of nuclear disarmament?”

Kissinger: “In a society of states of about equal strength, if one country wants to be absolutely secure, it can do so only by neutralizing all others. That is the only way you can be sure, absolutely sure. Therefore, I think every country has to accept a measure of relative security. Now relative security means that you have to run some risks, and this seems to me perfectly consistent with nuclear disarmament. You have to balance the risks of disarmament against the risks of continued armament, and I think most of us would feel that a measure of disarmament is more desirable than an indefinite continuation of the arms race.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on November 20, 2008.

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