As something of a history/foreign policy buff, I found Micki Kaufman’s data visualization/distant reading of the Henry Kissinger archives fascinating. While this type of analysis cannot give an in-depth assessment of Kissinger’s thoughts and plans, it does give remarkable insight into the general trends and patterns of the topics discussed, emotions displayed, and strategies planned in these meetings and telephone conversations.

In the post titled “Topic Modeling Force-Directed Graphs (Static)”, I was struck by the groupings of topics labeled as “Secret” and “Top Secret”. Understandably, the “Top Secret” memos tended to deal with subjects like the Soviet Union, the Vietnam War, and other areas of vital importance to national security. But interestingly, the subject around which one of the largest “Top-Secret” sections of the graph was centered was not a nation state, but a man: Lê Đức Thọ (seen shaking Kissinger’s hand in photo below).


Thọ was Kissinger’s opposite number in the Vietnamese government during the Vietnam War, and the man whom Kissinger primarily dealt with to work out the Paris Peace Accords (the treaty which ended the war). It makes sense that this man would occupy a prominent place among the top-secret communiques, as he would have been the person whom Kissinger negotiated with most often, and consequently Kissinger would have often discussed him in strategy meetings and phone calls with his subordinates.

One aspect of the graph that really surprised me was the fact that one of the more prominent words in the corpus was “Laughter”. One does not ordinarily think of high-level foreign policy meetings as places where laughter is common, but I suppose diplomats have to have a sense of humor too. I did notice that “Laughter” seemed to be clustered with the less-secretive memos and transcripts, and appeared to be strongly linked to the group of points labeled “South Africa”. The introductory video on Kaufman’s website mentions a “jovial” series of communiques concerning that nation, which fits well with the location of “Laughter” on the graph.

Kaufman also notes with surprise in “Sentiment Analysis Line Graphs” that despite his reputation as a very forward-thinking diplomat, the language in Kissinger’s memos and telephone conversations is almost entirely present and past-tense. This is not as surprising as one might think, as most of Kissinger’s day-to-day meetings would have concerned current world happenings, and his decisions would have been made using lessons learned from events in the past.