Helmut Sonnenfeldt: Protege and rival of Henry Kissinger

 

If naturalised German Jews seemed to run American foreign policy for much of the 1970s, Henry Kissinger wasn't the only reason. Another was Helmut Sonnenfeldt, friend, protégé, hatchetman and on occasion rival of Kissinger, and also a prime architect of the Nixon era policy of détente with the Soviet Union.

Indeed Sonnenfeldt, though never a president or even Secretary of State, had the rare distinction of a diplomatic philosophy named after him: the so-called "Sonnenfeldt Doctrine" that advocated peaceful co-existence with Moscow and, it was said by critics, accepted that Eastern Europe was legitimately within the Soviet sphere of influence.

Sonnenfeldt always disputed that interpretation, insisting it rested on a wrong understanding of the "organic relationship" between Moscow and its satrapies that he urged at a meeting of US ambassadors to the region in early 1976. But it reflected the intense belief in realpolitik he shared with Kissinger, then Secretary of State, whose counsellor Sonnenfeldt was, and whose background was remarkably similar.

Helmut Sonnenfeldt was a six-year-old boy in Berlin when the Nazis came to power. In 1938 his Jewish parents, both physicians, concluded that the future held nothing but menace, and sent him and his elder brother Richard to boarding school in England as a first step in moving the entire family out of Germany.

The plan succeeded. Walter and Gertrud Sonnenfeldt settled in Baltimore, Maryland, and in 1944 the 18-year-old Helmut joined them – along with Richard, who after the war would become interpreter and subsequently chief interrogator for American prosecutors at Nuremberg – and took American citizenship. By mid-1945 Helmut was serving with the US occupation forces in Germany, where he met and became friends with Kissinger, then deployed with American military intelligence.

After returning to the US, Sonnenfeldt studied international relations at Johns Hopkins University and took a masters degree in 1951. The following year he joined the State Department as a specialist in Soviet and Eastern European affairs. All the while, however, he remained in touch with Kissinger and moved with him to the White House in 1969 as an assistant when Kissinger was picked as national security adviser by the newly elected Richard Nixon.

The intrigues and backstabbings at the Nixon White House, and not least at the National Security Council, were legendary: at least once Kissinger had Sonnenfeldt wiretapped after the alleged leaking of documents. But a tough school produced a talented crop: not only Sonnenfeldt, but also the likes of Lawrence Eagleburger, Winston Lord, John Negroponte and Anthony Lake, diplomatic stalwarts of future administrations, both Republican and Democratic.

The similarities between Sonnenfeldt and Kissinger, three years his elder, extended well beyond their common origins. They shared an intellectual arrogance. But both were pragmatists open to reasoned argument, and, when needed, tireless negotiators. Both believed that world stability depended on a modus vivendi with the rival superpower. And, having personally experienced what can happen when German regimes run amok, both were suspicious (and perhaps jealous) of Willy Brandt, who became West German chancellor in 1969 and beat Washington to the détente punch with his Ostpolitik, calling for closer ties between the Germanys and reconciliation with the wartime foes of Poland and the Soviet Union.

The next seven years, under presidents Nixon and Ford, produced a string of US-Soviet agreements, from arms control to the 1975 Helsinki Accords ratifying Europe's postwar borders in the best realpolitik tradition but opening a crack in the door of human rights – never a Kissinger priority – that would contribute to the unravelling of the Communist bloc a decade and a half later.

When Kissinger became Secretary of State in 1973 Sonnenfeldt followed him to Foggy Bottom as special counsellor. "He was with me in practically every negotiation I conducted with the Soviets," Kissinger said, "an indispensable collaborator." Not least during a mid-1970s trip to the Soviet Union when Leonid Brezhnev asked Kissinger what he thought his luxurious hunting lodge might be worth in the US property market. Perhaps $400,000, ventured Kissinger, to the chagrin of the Soviet leader, who was clearly expecting a much higher figure. "More like $2m," Sonnenfeldt quickly interceded, averting diplomatic disaster.

Rupert Cornwell

Helmut Sonnenfeldt, diplomat: born Berlin 13 September 1926; US State Department 1952-69; National Security Council 1969-73; Counsellor, State Department 1973-1977; married 1953 Marjorie Hecht (one daughter, two sons); died Chevy Chase, Maryland 18 November 2012.

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
football
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Qualified Primary Teaching Assistant

£64 - £73 per day + Competitive rates based on experience : Randstad Education...

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam