You are here:   Text > The righteous and the Right

The fall of the Berlin Wall, November 1989: The moment when the limitation of righteousness was lifted (©David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

I owe my title to Dr Henry Kissinger, who needs no introduction other than the observation that he has been consulted by every president from Nixon to Trump. His first book, A World Restored, appeared in 1954 and was based on his Harvard doctoral dissertation. Its subject is “Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-22”. It focused on the Congress of Vienna, which ushered in a long era of peace after the Napoleonic wars. According to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Kissinger, his colleagues thought it odd that a member of the Department of Government should write about 19th-century statesmen; hadn’t he heard of the atom bomb? Kissinger’s reply was caustic: Hiroshima, he explained, “had not created a new world; it merely showed that man had yet to learn history’s lessons about shaping a stable balance of power”. The study of history, for the young Kissinger, was merely the occasion for him to set out his ideas on political philosophy. “The fundamental problem of politics,” he wrote, “. . . is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness.”

I have a very personal reason for choosing this particular book as the text for this lecture. In 1954 my mother, Marigold, was working for the newly-established publishing house of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, under the erratic direction of Sonia Orwell, the recently-widowed wife of the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four. One day my mother was summoned to the office of George Weidenfeld himself, who had returned from his post as assistant to Chaim Weizmann, the first President of Israel, to begin his remarkable publishing career and his no less extraordinary role as an informal intermediary between the Anglo-American, Germanic and Jewish worlds. Weidenfeld told my mother about his latest author, a young American academic who, like him, had been a Jewish refugee from the Nazis. Dr Kissinger (for it was he) was in urgent need of an index; would Marigold oblige him? My mother felt apprehensive: though she had recently graduated from Oxford, her subject had been English literature, not history or PPE; and she knew nothing about indexing. Weidenfeld relished throwing his staff in at the deep end, but he offered her a lifeline: at the US embassy the staff would, he was sure, be helpful. They were. Evidently Kissinger’s reputation, even at the outset of his career as a diplomatist, went before him. After several weeks of hard work (no search engines or even computers then) the index was done, the book was soon published, and my mother forgot all about it. Many years later, she found herself in the same room as Dr Kissinger, by now National Security Advisor or even Secretary of State. Introduced to the great man, Marigold was astonished by the warmth of his greeting and assumed that it was on account of my father, the historian and journalist Paul Johnson. In that uniquely gravelly voice, with its residual Teutonic accent, Dr Kissinger gently corrected her: “I hold your husband in great esteem, Mrs Johnson. But I have never thanked you for your index, and now at last is my opportunity. You did a great job!” Not surprisingly, this was an encounter that my mother has never forgotten. She reminded me of this episode when she presented me with the dog-eared proof copy of A World Restored that she had used to compile the index some 64 years ago. Gratifyingly, when I too met Dr Kissinger, he made a point of sending greetings to my mother as well as my father.
View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.