What "politics" does to history: The saga of Henry Kissinger and George Shultz's right-hand man

You probably haven't heard of Charles Hill — but his influence on the dire mistakes of U.S. foreign policy ran deep

Published May 8, 2021 12:00PM (EDT)

Henry Kissinger, Charles Hill and George Shultz (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/U.S. Navy/Eric Dietrich)
Henry Kissinger, Charles Hill and George Shultz (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/U.S. Navy/Eric Dietrich)

The apothegm "De mortuis nil nisi bonum" ("Of the dead, say nothing but good") urges compassion and respect for the recently deceased, no matter how flawed they were in life. That injunction was obeyed last week in a memorial conference arranged by Yale's Johnson Center for the Study of American Diplomacy for Morton Charles Hill, the university's "Diplomat in Residence," who died, at 84, on March 27. 

The conference webinar's virtually assembled (and tightly monitored) participants — some Yale faculty were "removed" by the website host from the "audience" — parodied unintentionally Hill's long career of diplomatic dissembling. A Vulcan conservative, he revered England's iron-fisted 17th-century Puritan "Lord Protector" Oliver Cromwell but also John Milton, an enigmatic diplomatic aide and chronicler. Both were models for Hill's own Foreign Service work and as a confidant and ghostwriter for secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali; as the chief foreign policy adviser to Rudy Giuliani's 2008 presidential campaign (during which Sen. Joe Biden quipped that Giuliani's every sentence "contains a verb, a noun and 9/11"); and as the purveyor to starstruck Yale students of his own dark reading of liberal education's great conversation across the ages about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit.

"Nil nisi bonum" has long been Yale's way of arranging senior luminaries' comings and goings with announcements "staged in a sequence indicative of sound judgment, good feeling, and the dawn of a bright new day," as Lewis Lapham put it in "Quarrels With Providence,"his poignant, sometimes hilarious short history of Yale. In one such orchestration, you might have thought that Charles Hill was ascending to oceans of eternal light last week as the tributes to him flowed at the Yale conference. 

Kissinger, now 97, characterized Hill as a master practitioner of "anonymous indispensability" throughout their 50-year relationship. Hill was Shultz's top executive assistant in the State Department and then a fellow with Shultz at the conservative Hoover Institution. 

Yale named him "Diplomat in Residence" and a "distinguished fellow" of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, which has been funded by former Reagan Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and securities analyst Charles Johnson, as well as by the conservative Olin and Smith-Richardson Foundations. For more than 20 years, that program's faculty triumvirate — John Lewis Gaddis, Paul Kennedy and Hill — worked to make "grand strategy" a brand name within Yale and at other universities, collaborating with other conservative-funded Yale initiatives: the Jackson School of Global Affairs, the William F. Buckley Program and the Johnson Center.

Conference tributes came also from Yale alumnus L. Paul Bremer III, the former American proconsul of Iraq's Green Zone in 2003; from former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills (who embarrassingly praised Charles Hill's work with a man whom she misnamed "Boutros Boutros-Gandhi"); and from toadying Yale faculty, including Hill's Grand Strategy partners, the historians Gaddis and Kennedy, as well as from the ubiquitous political scientist Bryan Garsten and the self-avowed "public interest lawyer" and longtime program functionary Justin Zaremby. 

But a better admonition to conference goers would have been "De mortuis nil nisi veritas" ("Of the dead, say nothing but the truth"). The whole truth is that Hill instilled in student acolytes the strain of that iron yet duplicitous discipline that has run from Yale's own Puritan founders and from its first "spy," Nathan Hale, class of 1773, through its birthing of the CIA (see the movie "The Good Shepherd") and Yale's outsized role in designing and staffing 20th-century American foreign policy. "Nothing but the truth" would reveal that, in Washington as well as at Yale, Hill perpetrated something worse than diplomacy's inevitable, artful deceptions.

If you're tempted to consider this assessment over-determinedly liberal or leftist, read a strongly similar assessment of Hill in The American Conservative magazine by Michael Desch, a professor at the George H.W. Bush School at Texas A&M University. Desch reports — as the recent, credulous, error-ridden Washington Post obituary for Hill does not — that "Hill was forced to resign from the Foreign Service after it became clear that he had concealed evidence of Shultz's extensive knowledge of the Iran-Contra scandal from federal agents." Hill was a "Diplomat in Residence" at Yale because he was a diplomat in exile from Washington. And that's only the beginning of what the nil nisi bonum faithful evaded.

When teaching becomes political 

It's worrisome enough that today's financialization of everything in America is forcing university development officers to rely not only on conservative donors with "agendas" such as those of the Yale programs I've mentioned, but also on civically rudderless benefactors such as private equity baron Stephen Schwarzman, whose priorities constrain universities to become business corporations in an education industry that incentivizes students to become not citizens of a republic or the world but mincing, self-marketing, indebted buyers and sellers.  

Some leftist and "politically correct" initiatives on college campuses are feckless reactions against these pressures. Some conservative faculty at Yale welcomed Hill as a superior antidote to such civic mindlessness and as the embodiment of an older social discipline and sense of duty on which Yale had been founded. Hill and his backers insinuated themselves into liberal education in ways that prompt two cautionary lessons.

First, the writing of history may be damaged, not enriched, when would-be statesmen teach it and write it.

Second, a university dedicated to liberal education's great conversation across the ages needs an immune system and antibodies strong enough to resist not only financialized greed and power lust but also all ideologies that serve such pressures instead of resisting them.

By the early 1990s, Yale's immune system had been weakened, if not traumatized, by demographic and economic upheavals in New Haven and within the university itself — a long, sad story, beyond my scope here. As if sensing blood in the water of left-liberal responses to these dislocations, right-wing journalists and operatives began attacking Yale as too gay, too feminized, too hostile to the Western canon. Yale president Richard Levin made tactical responses to the university's many challenges, engaging more seriously with New Haven's social institutions and residents, rebuilding the university's physical plant, and welcoming the lavishly funded conservative initiatives and operatives and exponents such as Hill.

Those tactics successfully deflected some of the right-wing assaults; Hill put out some fires set by conservative bashers of "liberal Yale," some of whom had been his confederates in conservative policy making and Wall Street Journal punditry. But his Vulcan, almost pagan sense of human nature and its prospects compromised the classically liberal freedoms of expression and inquiry that he claimed to defend. Thousands of people beyond campus and the U.S. have become "mortuis" thanks to thinking and policies that Hill propounded as a sage to young acolytes at Yale.

Shortly before the war in Iraq began, I watched him pitch it forcefully to a packed Yale Law School auditorium audience. Interviewed on March 5, 2003 by "PBS NewsHour" correspondent Paul Solman (who would later join the Grand Strategy Program as a part-time lecturer), Hill assured PBS viewers that the United States had the capability "to do this operation swiftly, and it will be a war that will not do great damage to Iraq, to its installations, to its infrastructure, or to its people. … We will see … the restoration of American credibility and decisiveness. We'll see an Iraq that is freed from oppression." 

Five years later, at a dinner in Yale President Levin's home, Hill regaled the guests with a Periclean assessment of Giuliani's recent presidential campaign, which he'd served while on leave from Grand Strategy.

What bad politics does to history

By 2010, when I was reading Hill's "Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order" for my Foreign Policy magazine review, PBS was broadcasting a documentary based on George Shultz's 1993 memoir, "Turmoil and Triumph," which had mainly been written by Hill. The PBS ombudsman criticized the film's hagiographical, conservative slant, but the deeper problem was that Hill's crafting of the memoir revealed unintentionally what can happen when former statesmen try to write or teach history.

Iran-Contra special counsel Lawrence Walsh's 1993 report on how American officials had secretly funneled proceeds from illegal arms sales to Iran to right-wing insurgents in Nicaragua established that although Hill and Shultz opposed the scheme, bureaucratic self-interest kept them from trying to stop it. In congressional testimony written by Hill, Shultz lied about what they'd known and when, compromising the public investigation but providing Ronald Reagan with plausible deniability. By not telling the truth about the scandal, they hoped to avoid retribution from top Reagan aides. As the report goes, "Independent Counsel concluded that Shultz's testimony was incorrect, if not false, in significant respects and misleading, if literally true, in others, and that information had been withheld from investigators by Shultz's executive assistant, M. Charles Hill."

Desch of the American Conservative notes that Hill "describes himself as an 'Edmund Burke conservative,' but as one former Yale International Security Studies Fellow told me, 'There's not much if any daylight between Charlie and the neocons….'" Always at Hill's elbow were the admonitory ghosts that had haunted him since his student years at Brown University. A large oil portrait of Oliver Cromwell hung in Hill's New Haven home. The paleoconservative Richard Weaver, whose "Ideas Have Consequences" (1948) roused Hill's and other conservatives' dread of "the crumbling of modern man and the philosophical and moral threats hatching on the other side of the Iron curtain," as Molly Worthen, a former Hill student, wrote in her biography of Hill, "The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost." 

An energetic autodidact, Hill spun great literature, classical and modern, to justify his mottled Foreign Service record, paleoconservative convictions and neoconservative alliances. That might suit the schoolmaster of a military boarding school better than a teacher of liberal arts. But it sidestepped what becomes of great men's ideas when those who virtually write their memoirs, as Hill did Shultz's, twist their record to evade the judgment of history (and, in his case, of the Iran-Contra independent counsel). In real life, Hill's dissembling compromised not only Shultz and foreign policy making but also an old, civic-republican college's three-century-long struggle to balance humanist truth-seeking with training for republican power-wielding.

Dissembling in print

In 1993 The New York Review of Books published a damning review of Shultz's "Turmoil and Triumph" by Theodore H. Draper, the grand historian of Communism and of the Cold War (which had been sputtering toward its close in the Reagan-Shultz years). Draper faulted Shultz's facts and his methodology in presenting them. That prompted a letter from Hill contesting Draper's judgment but, ultimately, discrediting his own. Hill contended that the factual errors Draper flagged in the memoir reflected Shultz's sound decision to confine his narrative "to what he knew or was told at the time" and, in so doing, to exclude "information and evidence which came to light after a decision or event occurred."

Defending this strange methodology, Hill unintentionally revealed what was untrustworthy in his own methods. He claimed that Shultz's decision to report only what he knew of past events as they were unfolding (or only what Shultz and Hill want readers to think he knew) "makes 'Turmoil and Triumph' a unique, irreplaceable and unchallengeable historical document, as it reveals a reality that 'memoirs' invariably obscure: decisions of statecraft must be taken on the basis of partial and sometimes erroneous reports." Parrying one of Draper's factual corrections, Hill admitted that "it may be true that [Iranian-born arms merchant Albert] Hakim, not [CIA official George] Cave, was the … drafter [of a memo on the Iran-Contra deal], but Shultz at the time was told it was Cave, and to be true to how things actually were, Shultz's narrative must say 'Cave.'"

But shouldn't the narrative have moved on to tell what Shultz learned shortly thereafter? Hill's casuistry is all too common in memoirs written by or for statesmen seeking to sanitize their own blunders and lies. His letter to the editor concluded his justification of that hoary practice with a try at literary grace: "In this review … Draper reads every note, but never seems to be able to hear the music." But Hill's own music was meant to distract attention from his flimsy rationale for Shultz's presenting as factual the many suppositions that he and Hill knew — but never told readers — had already been discredited by the time they were writing the memoir.

Such gyrations would offend Thucydides, and they open a Pandora's box or Orwellian memory hole in the writing of history: Hill's is a "peculiar interpretation of 'how things actually were,'" Draper replied, since the truth, as Hill and Shultz knew when they were writing the book, was that "Hakim was the [memo's] drafter, so that is how 'things actually were,'" while "Shultz was told at the time that it was Cave, so that was how things actually were not. But even if we accept [Hill's] strange premise that Shultz had to put in his book only what he was told at the time, however erroneous, a question arises: Was not Shultz obliged to tell the reader what the truth was? As for notes and music," Draper concludes, "the music cannot be right if the notes are wrong."

This was no trivial exchange. It bared something wrong not only in Hill's writing but also in the slippery historiographical and pedagogical modus he imparted to Yale students in lectures, seminars and campus publications. It should have disqualified him from teaching at a liberal arts college, but, as his students told me, and as I sometimes witnessed firsthand, he used his position as a supposed guide to the great humanist conversation, not to deepen their reckonings with the humanities' lasting challenges to politics and the spirit, but to advance his Vulcan logic and his superiors' strategic interests. His firmness and his intimacy with the great and powerful impressed students eager to learn how not to say that an emperor has no clothes and how to supply the necessary drapery if someone is incautious enough to say it.

Both Hill and a student reporter seemed disposed to do precisely that in a Yale Daily News interview a month after 9/11:

[M]any have noted a change in President Bush's behavior in the last month, the New York Times going so far as to say that he has achieved a certain degree of "gravitas." Do you agree?

I think that people with basically sound leadership instincts … will find them growing stronger over time. So it seems to me that what we have seen in the president's behavior is a string of more and more able performances, more and more firm and definitive performances. And this is what you want to see. It's a growing process, and I don't see any limitation to this growth.

Hill wasn't teaching student readers here how to conduct an inquiry in the spirit of liberal education. He was engaging in his almost instinctive misrepresentation of what was actually going on in order to reinforce political instincts and premises he believed the young reporter and his readers were inclined to share.

Hill loathed Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose understanding of equality and the General Will challenge the Lockean liberalism and Anglo-American hegemony that Hill claimed to defend. Never mind that more serious threats to Lockean liberalism and American hegemony come not from the revolutionary left but from casino-finance capital and corporate welfare that would have horrified Locke and Adam Smith, under banners of "free markets." On one occasion Hill made students from his freshman seminar in Yale's Directed Studies program recite in unison, from wherever each was seated in a larger assembly of the program's students and faculty, a Rousseauian Creed, intended "to depict Rousseauianism as proto-totalitarian," as one of the participants later wrote me.

"We went in feeling rather excited about it," the student added, "but as soon as it happened, I felt rather uncomfortable. … There was something disturbingly authoritarian in Hill's getting students to recite certain words at his prompting. In trying to combat a particular sort of groupthink, Hill actually wound up emulating what he claims to oppose." A faculty member later confirmed that impression and more. "People were at each other's throats over it afterward, he told me. 'This isn't liberal education,' some of us felt."

In 1998 Hill wrote another duplicitous, doomed letter to the New York Review, this one charging that Joan Didion's review of "Lion King," Dinesh D'Souza's hagiography of Ronald Reagan, recycled an "erroneous story" that Reagan had falsely claimed to have seen the Nazi death camps in person during World War II. (Reagan never left the U.S. during the war. He'd seen only footage from military cameramen, which he edited into briefing films.) Hoping to protect Reagan (as the Iran-Contra independent counsel had found him eager to do when that scandal broke), Hill cited Shultz's claim in "Turmoil and Triumph" that Reagan showed filmed footage of the death camps to visiting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who told it to "the Hebrew language" press, whose reports of the meeting, according to Hill, were garbled in translation back to English, giving the misimpression that Reagan had claimed to have been in the camps. 

Didion's reply showed that Hill's effort to deny Reagan's blurring of romance and fact was wishful, at best. She cited Washington Post correspondent Lou Cannon's report that both Shamir and Elie Wiesel told friends that Reagan, in separate, unrelated meetings with them, had given them the impression he'd visited the camps, and that both men had sincerely believed and been moved by what they understood to have been his experience. Perhaps four "statesmen" were only embellishing the past as they wandered through the fog of Reagan's mind. But more likely Hill was compounding Reagan's dissimulations. Scholars don't do such things. Foreign Service officers are expected to do it. Hill shouldn't have done such things so often at Yale.

Sometimes his footwork was so fancy that it only compounded suspicions he was trying to allay. In April 2006, the Yale Daily News noted that "An article published in the Yale Israel Journal by Charles Hill … has become the center of a debate over alleged plagiarism in a lecture delivered by … George Shultz at the Library of Congress. The controversy arose when a group of Stanford students revealed last week that they had come across 22 sentences in Shultz's 2004 Kissinger Lecture that had previously appeared in Hill's article, published the prior year."

It was really a non-story, given the two men's long relationship. But with colleges struggling to prevent plagiarism as opportunities for it proliferate, students are often concerned and confused about what plagiarism entails. In this case Hill need only have explained that he'd been Shultz's speechwriter and confidant for years and that the mix-up that led both to publish the same words under separate bylines hardly involved one person claiming credit for another's work.

But Hill couldn't leave well enough alone, probably because, as a teacher at Yale, he had to defend his scholarly integrity as well as that of Shultz, who was by then a "professor" at Stanford. Hill's first feint was to fall nobly on his sword, as a Foreign Service officer would: "It was my doing, and [Shultz] is blameless," he told the Yale Daily News before explaining that he, too, was blameless because he and Shultz met every summer "to discuss and debate current world issues, usually while taking notes and writing throughout."

Hill told the paper "he believes that after one such trip a few years ago, when Shultz was preparing for a lecture, they both took notes on their discussions, and then each returned home and wrote something up. Although Hill did not intend to publish his paper, he submitted it to the Yale Israel Journal when he was approached for an article on a short deadline. While he and Shultz later corresponded about the latter's upcoming Library of Congress lecture, Hill said, he found a copy of the paper he had written and recommended that Shultz take a look at it, forgetting that the paper had been published.

"[Shultz] got blindsided and it was my fault because I just didn't recall any of this," Hill said. "I guess I plagiarized something in reverse by using my own thing and gave him something he had contributed to without knowing it, so the whole thing is kind of upside down."

The image of Shultz and Hill scribbling madly as they "discuss and debate current world issues" in the California sun and then writing up their notes in their rooms soon afterward seems too clever by half — an effort to spare Shultz embarrassment over what shouldn't have been embarrassing at all to a former public official with a longtime amanuensis and few scholarly pretensions.

But Hill was still trying to live down the fact that his voluminous note-taking for Shultz had shown federal investigators, who wrested the notes from Hill only with difficulty, that the Senate testimony he'd prepared for Shultz on Iran-Contra was false. The report of the independent counsel called Hill's efforts to blame others "unworthy," as I mentioned in the Foreign Policy review.

A last telling instance of Hill's prevarications that I'll offer here highlights the dangers of entangling a state's public discourse with a university's teaching of the liberal arts. This time the late Tony Judt, not Theodore Draper, unmasked it. Reviewing a book by Hill's Grand Strategy colleague John Lewis Gaddis in the New York Review in 2006, Judt noted sardonically that "Gaddis' account of [Mikhail Gorbachev] gives the Reagan administration full credit for many of Gorbachev's own opinions, ideas, and achievements — as well it might, since in this section of the book Gaddis is paraphrasing and citing Secretary of State George Shultz's memoir, 'Turmoil and Triumph.'"

Not only had Hill ghostwritten Shultz's claim; he'd made the same claim himself, in the Hoover Digest in 2001, writing that "through the quiet pressure of Secretary of State George Shultz," the United States had become in the 1980s "a guide for [the Soviet Union's] ridding itself of much of its socialistic economic system." Judt counters that "what changed [Gorbachev's] perspective" on Communism and capitalism" was not … Shultz's private lectures on the virtues of capitalism (as both Shultz and, less, forgivably, Gaddis appears to believe) but the catastrophe of Chernobyl and its aftermath."

Chernobyl isn't mentioned by Shultz, Hill or Gaddis or by Hill and Gaddis' former student Molly Worthen in her book's brief account of Hill's role in the U.S.-Soviet endgame. Worthen's account is Hill's account, polished by Gaddis, with whom she took a course in biography before writing the book and whom she thanks in her acknowledgments for having "read every chapter" in manuscript. So Gaddis, in his book "The Cold War," credits Shultz's account in "Turmoil and Triumph," which was really written by Gaddis' own Grand Strategy partner Hill; and all three men use a 24-year-old, prepped by Gaddis and Hill, to tell the story as they want it told.

What should we learn?

I've been sketching here the highly self-indulgent claims to omniscience of people who consider themselves credentialed and entitled to determine a republic's grand strategies. A lot depends on how and by whom they've been trained. The predominantly Ivy graduates whom the late David Halberstam dubbed, with mordant irony, "The Best and the Brightest," masterminded the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam fiascos, and their successors masterminded our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wrong conceptions and training reinforce arrogant ignorance of how the world really works. A republic must determine its vital interests by taking its innermost bearings through teaching and public discourse unlike Hill's.

A republic needs a well-disciplined but open elite — an "aristocracy of talent and virtue," as Jefferson characterized it, not of breeding or wealth. Charles Hill believed in this goal, which he warned that some liberals and leftists had forsaken in the name of a facile "equality" and cultural relativism. But strategists who are drawn inexorably to top-down crisis-definition and management can be facile and feckless too, corrupting the republican ethos and liberal education they mean to rescue from liberals.

"Superpowers Don't Get to Retire," warned the neoconservative Hill admirer Robert Kagan in a 2013 essay, insisting, as Hill did, that often only willpower and force can sustain the liberal order we've taken for granted. Quoting Michael Ignatieff, Kagan warned that liberal civilization itself "runs deeply against the human grain and is achieved and sustained only by the most unremitting struggle against human nature." Perhaps, Kagan added, "this fragile democratic garden requires the protection of a liberal world order, with constant feeding, watering, weeding, and the fencing off of an ever-encroaching jungle." 

But such encroachments come not only from jungles abroad but also from within our own garden, and some of Yale's postwar strategists have been their carriers, casualties and apologists, too eager to supply missing drapery to emperors who lack clothes. Yale's own founders anticipated such dangers. They crossed an ocean to escape a corrupt regime and to build a college and society on moral and civic foundations stronger than armies and wealth. Soon enough, though, they had to seek material support from Elihu Yale, a governor of the East India Company, one of the world's first multinational corporations.

Yale has embodied that tension ever since, struggling to balance students' preparation for capitalist wealth-making with truth-seeking (first religious, then scientific) and civic-republican leadership training. The truth-seeking that I and other Yale students encountered in the 1960s nurtured in some of us enough independence of mind and spirit to resist established premises and practices when alternative strategies must be tried. Grand-strategic ventures abroad depend ultimately on such independence at home. Without it, the civic-republican strengths that effective foreign policy-making requires will be stampeded too easily into feckless ventures like the ones that Hill served in Vietnam and the Middle East and that he continued to defend and promote in New Haven.

A fuller accounting of this miscarriage will go farther than I can go here. But surely the true story of Charles Hill's experience should teach us to stop applauding tricksters and their funders who train young Americans to mistake presumed omniscience for clear-eyed assessment, total surveillance for real security and chronic lying for necessary discretion.

By Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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