With this fat and richly detailed volume, the first half of an authorized biography, Niall Ferguson joins a long parade of scholars and journalists who have gone simply wild over Henry Kissinger.
Seymour Hersh and Christopher Hitchens wrote punishing book-length indictments of his policies in Indochina, Chile, and elsewhere. Walter Isaacson examined the swift ascent and personal failings of the man who, as an Orthodox Jewish teenager named Heinz, fled Nazi Germany with his parents just days before the Kristallnacht. Jeremi Suri and Greg Grandin have probed the world-view behind Kissinger’s diplomatic deeds. Hundreds of other authors have illuminated every significant aspect of his rise—as well as his 15 books, and his attempts, in and out of office, to protect and advance America’s global power. Kissinger references are sprinkled throughout American mass culture, too. Woody Allen once made a mockumentary about him, and there’s even a novel, A Friend of Kissinger, in which the title character never actually appears.
One cannot deny that the man once dubbed “Super-K” is worth a good deal of thinking and arguing. After all, no other American diplomat has combined relentless ambition, stunning erudition, and elegant prose, or played so pivotal a role in some of the most critical Cold War events—escalating and then ending U.S. intervention in Vietnam, breaking the ice with Mao’s China, negotiating détente with the USSR, and abetting the coup that overthrew an elected left-wing government in Chile. What’s more, no prime maker of foreign policy landed in the U.S. as a working-class refugee and ended up an international celebrity, one who still revels in his fame. Last year, at the age of 91, an affable Kissinger showed up on Comedy Central where he traded quips with Stephen Colbert and hawked his latest book, immodestly entitled World Order. Almost four decades after he stepped down as secretary of state, Kissinger was still in the game.
It’s a game Kissinger has played with high principle as well as extraordinary skill, at least according to Niall Ferguson. The Harvard historian interprets the first half of his subject’s life as a Bildungsroman—“the tale of an education through experience, some of it bitter.” But it is a learning process in which the budding scholar and diplomat with the gravelly Teutonic accent always seems to be a fast learner and soon becomes wiser than his powerful elders.
Thus, as a low-level military official in occupied Germany just after World War II, Kissinger roots out “subversive” communists who his superiors believed were helping to cleanse the society of Naziism. A decade later, Kissinger, by then a Harvard professor, criticizes the Eisenhower administration’s doctrine of threatening all-out war to keep the Soviet Union at bay and recommends the potential use of small, tactical nuclear weapons in the event the Red Army marched into a NATO country. In the mid-1960s, as a respected adviser to both Republicans and Democrats, Kissinger travels to South Vietnam and realizes that the U.S. needs to negotiate its way out of the “the debacle… unfolding in Southeast Asia” or suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of the indigenous forces led by Ho Chi Minh.
Ferguson argues that, at every step, Kissinger was deeply motivated by a commitment to the survival and eventual victory of the democratic, capitalist West over its totalitarian rivals. The Cold War, writes his biographer, was, “at its root… a struggle between two rival ideologies,” represented by “great empires,” one of which believed in “struggle” and was “wholly unconstrained by the rule of law.” Ferguson grants that Kissinger made his reputation by delivering coldly realistic assessments of the policies of his own side. But his aim was always the triumph of “free society.” “I think we should go on the spiritual offensive in the world,” Kissinger told Mike Wallace, then of ABC television, in a 1958 interview. Beating the communists was the necessary means to achieve a higher end. A decade later, when President-Elect Richard Nixon named Kissinger his National Security Adviser, the Jewish boy from a charmless Bavarian city was ready to apply his idealism all over the world.
Ferguson narrates Kissinger’s ascent with a compelling blend of sharp observations about his subject’s daily life and long, often insightful analyses of his writings and statements, both public and private. From a massive database of documents, he uncovers such nuggets as the modest brand of car Kissinger chose to drive during his stint in occupied Germany and that when he later applied to colleges on the GI Bill, every school rejected him—except Harvard. Ferguson also discovered that Kissinger flew off to Paris as often as possible in the late 1960s not to conduct diplomacy, as other biographers assumed, but to tryst with Nancy Maginnes, a historian of France and consultant to a Rockefeller philanthropy. In 1974, they got married.
As an authorized biographer, Ferguson had access to innumerable personal documents unavailable to other—and less favorable—Kissingerians. “I have also been able to interview the subject of this work on multiple occasions and at considerable length,” he adds. But Kissinger has never been shy to talk about himself. No one has told the story of his pre-White House years so engagingly or so completely before.
Yet, neither has anyone, except the super diplomat in his own memoirs, rendered it so uncritically. Ferguson agrees too fiercely with his subject to render a persuasive account of what Kissinger got wrong as well as right about the world he wanted the U.S. to dominate. He is at his best when narrating his subject’s youthful struggles to transcend his orthodox upbringing and stand out, first in the U.S. Army during and just after World War II and then in the green fields of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
However, when Ferguson turns to the diplomatic and political controversies that are at the heart of the book and his subject’s career, he turns defensive and apologetic. Yes, Kissinger argued, in a 1958 report financed by Nelson Rockefeller, that “very powerful nuclear weapons” could be dropped “in such a manner that they have negligible effects on civilian populations.” But, Ferguson quickly adds, that was written at a time when all policymakers believed the USSR was winning the arms race, and the report did please Rockefeller and sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
Yes, Kissinger understood as early as 1965 that the U.S. could never win in Vietnam and yet declined to criticize Lyndon Johnson and his top aides when they sent hundreds of thousands of troops and thousands of bombers to pulverize the lands and peoples of Indochina. But how could one expect the rising idealist to jeopardize his access to powerful men who should have known better? In his preface, Ferguson quotes from a diary entry Kissinger wrote after a conversation in the mid-1960s with a veteran diplomat about the quagmire in Vietnam: “I said I had great sympathy for the difficulties of the president, but what was at stake here was the future world position of the United States…[Clark] Clifford asked me whether I thought the Vietnamese were worth saving. I said that was no longer the issue.” His biographer gives no indication he thinks such a statement was either irrational or inhumane.
Given Ferguson’s sympathy for his subject, as well as his own intellectual renown, it’s not surprising that three former secretaries of state and a deputy secretary (all of them Republicans) blurbed his book. They have an emotional and political stake in seeing their predecessor lathered in esteem. But to take the true measure of Kissinger’s career and influence requires doing more than chronicling the thoughts and deeds of power brokers in Washington and other metropoles.
Ferguson fails to unearth the roots and tally the costs of U.S. policies that turned out disastrously, as in Vietnam, or tragically, like the decades-long nuclear stalemate that wasted trillions of dollars and rubles on an elaborate game of chicken. Like Kissinger, he seems concerned only to explain which great empire was gaining or losing advantage at every juncture in the Cold War. But some of the decisions Kissinger helped to make, even before he became Nixon’s partner, caused great misery to people who knew nothing about his motives. Ferguson says he was inspired to write Kissinger’s biography after reading documents like the diary entry I quoted above. They might also have caused him to reflect on the dark side of the man whose life and work he and others find so enthralling.