Nuclear Tension – Henry Kissinger and the Poet

Two highly ambitious young academics met at Harvard University in 1955. Both had a doctorate, she in philosophy, he in history. And both were about to become famous and infamous beyond academia, she in poetry, he in politics.

With his Jewish family Henry Kissinger had fled Nazi Germany in 1938. He had been married to Ann Fleischer, also a Nazi refugee, for six years, but the couple had no children yet. Work had always been Henry´s priority. He had finished his dissertation on the Statesmanship of Castlereagh and Metternich the year before (1954), was lecturing history at Harvard University and advising the “National Security Council´s Operations Coordinating Board”. As part of his further job as minute taker of the “Study Group on Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy” at the Council on Foreign Relations, Henry was working on his book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957), when he fell for the Austrian poet star Ingeborg Bachmann.

32-year-old Henry had seen her photo on the cover of Der Spiegel from August 1954 and he had read her poems featured in the article about her. 29-year-old Ingeborg Bachmann had just won the prestigious “Literature Prize of Group 47”.

Fascinated by both the image and the idea of Ingeborg, Henry obtained information about her from a German friend and invited her to the “Harvard International Seminar” he directed alongside his other work. It was the beginning of the Cold War when in 1951, Henry and his mentor William Y. Elliot had created the International Seminar as a component of a psychological warfare. The aim was to recruit young talent from overseas as American allies against communist Russia.

After a five-day voyage on the ocean liner Queen Mary, in July 1955, Ingeborg arrived in New York harbor. It was her first visit to the United States and she abhorred everything about it and about the “Harvard International Seminar”.

The only aspect that made her stay in Cambridge, were the Seminar host Henry Kissinger, his wife Ann, she liked, and fellow Seminar participant Pierre Burk, a French journalist, she found attractive.

Henry got jealous. Throughout the eight-week Seminar he tried hard to win Ingeborg over — for himself, for his country and for his anti-communist ideology. Yet the poet was reluctant on all levels.

Ingeborg respected Henry as an intellectual counterpart. She enjoyed the stolen hours that Henry carved out for the two of them alone between the tight seminar program of readings, discussions, sightseeing and tours in and around Cambridge, Boston and New York. Ingeborg challenged Henry´s conviction that arming America and Europe with nuclear weapons was the golden strategy to prevent a war with Russia. She rejected all forms of nuclear armament and American propaganda. To distract Ingeborg from his rival Pierre Burk, Henry got involved in the arguments with the outré poet. He realized that his intelligence impressed her and he hoped to seduce her with his nuclear-political insights.

The tête-à-tête between Henry and Ingeborg reflected the Cold War´s political friction between the Western and Eastern blocs: It was all about tension or detention, piece or war, a splendid first strike, massive retaliation or deploying nuclear bombs.

The better Henry and Ingeborg got to know each other in the summer of 1955, the more the erotic tension between them intensified.

At the end of August the Seminar ended. Ingeborg left Cambridge for Rome, where she was living at the time. Henry began writing letters to her in which he urged her to see him as soon as possible again. She wrote back and they met in Munich. Proposals to also meet in Rome or Paris, where Henry traveled for political negotiations, failed. Ingeborg, now an admired poet, had an affair with Pierre Burk, who lived in Paris, but she never married and had no children.

Henry followed Ingeborg´s life and career from the other side of the Atlantic. He read her books and never stopped courting her until she suddenly died. Ingeborg had gone to sleep in her bed in Rome with a cigarette in her hand and later succumbed to her burns. That was 50 years ago, in 1973.

That same year the Nobel Peace Prize was given jointly to Henry Kissinger and Lê Đức Thọ.

The American Security Advisor Kissinger and the North Vietnamese general Thọ had been awarded for having negotiated a cease fire in Vietnam. Thọ did not accept the Nobel Peace Prize because no peace had been concluded despite the Paris Peace Agreement. Henry took the award, but donated his prize money to charity.

In the early 1970s Ingeborg often drank heavily. She took pills and smoked a lot after an ill-fated relationship with the Swiss writer Max Frisch. Henry, a high-ranking member of the Nixon Administration and a divorcee, was seen partying with various women, including Hollywood actresses.

Henry became a sex symbol of the early 1970s (He remarried in 1974). Citing Napoleon Bonaparte he famously claimed, that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac” while warmongering in Southeast Asia and agitating against Salvador Allende in Chile. Ingeborg was no longer able to “enjoy” Henry’s new appeal. But she knew about his high profile in international politics. After her death the German edition of his book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy was found on her shelf.

At the age of 100, the powerful multi-faced diplomat Henry Kissinger, a highly controversial, praised and hated figure, died on November 29, 2023.

When, on February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine, reawakening fears of nuclear attacks, I began researching the peaceful and non-peaceful uses of nuclear energy. I read books on the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and learned what role Henry Kissinger played in this. I found out upon Kissinger’s psychological war and his “Harvard International Seminar”. And I stumbled across evidence of his infatuation with one of the Seminar´s few female participants.

Based on the true story, I wrote a novel of ideas on nuclear weapons proponent Henry Kissinger and pacifist poet Ingeborg Bachmann. It shows the sexual attraction and varying tensions between two careerists against the backdrop of the Cold War.

Contacts to courageous LITERARY AGENTS and PUBLISHERS very welcome: Get in touch.

Recommended citation / Empfohlene Zitierweise: Schmalz, Gisela: “Nuclear Tension – Henry Kissinger and the poet” (2023). Gisela Schmalz: