Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist by Niall Ferguson, book review: A case for the defence

This biography attempts to redeem the former Secretary of State

Marcus Tanner
Thursday 10 September 2015 16:10 BST
Misunderstood: many believe Kissinger was scarred by his experience of being a Jew in Nazi Germany and being forced to flee as a teenager
Misunderstood: many believe Kissinger was scarred by his experience of being a Jew in Nazi Germany and being forced to flee as a teenager

Back in 2012, Niall Ferguson wrote an admiring article about Henry Kissinger's belated return to Harvard, where he had taught in the 1950s and 1960s but from which he had become estranged since the 1970s (as a result of his later career as President's Nixon's national security adviser). With evident pleasure, Ferguson described how the mainly young audience gave the old man a standing ovation, the only voluble dissenter being an "ageing hippy in a ponytail" who began shouting that Kissinger was a war criminal. Thankfully, he was soon escorted away.

Ferguson, who is Kissinger's official biographer, is not just the dutiful chronicler of an extraordinarily long and varied life but a genuine believer in his subject's virtue. Over the 900-plus pages of this vast book, which only runs up to 1968, the voice of a determined lawyer is audible. This is not only a definitive life of Kissinger, although it is that as well, but a closely argued case for the defence.

Kissinger's reputation certainly still needs defending because, especially among the older generation of the left in the US and elsewhere, he remains a hate figure, perhaps even more so than his late boss, Nixon. Possibly it is because he was obviously much cleverer than Nixon. Of Nixon the intellectuals had no hope. Of Kissinger they somehow expected more. A brilliant academic, he was in a sense from their own tribe – and an immigrant to boot. In some of the anger felt about his alleged crimes the feeling of betrayal is palpable.

The start of the book deals briskly with the case for and against, mainly to get it out of the way. Ferguson selects the claims of some of Kissinger's loopiest, most paranoid assailants and matches his alleged crimes with the horrors of the Soviet Union. By that standard, Kissinger naturally comes up smelling of roses. Clearly he was nicer than Stalin. He is not judged against a more reasoned indictment, which might say that the policies he espoused were not so much devilish as just damaging to America's claim to be a moral as well as a military force in the world – a different kind of superpower to Russia.

The message here is that Kissinger has been repeatedly and almost completely misunderstood, not least by his fans. Many of them fancy that he was scarred by his experience of being a Jew in Nazi Germany and forced flight as a teenager. They believe his first-hand experience of Nazi tyranny and of the Second World War turned him into a master of realpolitik. They admire a modern-day Metternich, Bismarck, or Machiavelli. All wrong, Ferguson insists. Neither cynical nor brutal, these were, in fact, attributes that Kissinger ascribed to De Gaulle. He was an idealist forced by experience to become a realist.

Ferguson is undoubtedly persuasive in presenting the young Kissinger as a man of ideals as well as ideas. His advantage as the authorised biographer, deployed with full force, has been access to a vast mass of previously unseen private correspondence that reveals his subject as nothing like the calculating cold fish of legend. A sense of Olympian detachment comes through but not indifference. One of the most revealing chapters, in terms of his character, details Kissinger's work as a counterintelligence officer in post-war Germany, helping to "de-Nazify" the US occupation zone. One might have expected a German Jewish refugee who remembered having always to cross the road to flee the Nazi gangs in his hometown to go about this task with almost vindictive zeal, but not a bit of it. Kissinger put his own Jewishness and the wider Jewish experience totally to one side. He felt no animosity whatever to the German people as a whole. When his father urged him to be "tough" on them, he administered a rare, gentle, rebuke.

The problem with the middle and latter half of the book is that Kissinger was not a particularly significant player for an awfully long time. Never nearly as obsessed with climbing the greasy pole as his detractors have claimed, he flitted in and out of government, working unhappily for the Kennedy administration for a bit but then attaching himself for years to Nelson Rockefeller – the man who was always going to be the next Republican president but who never actually made it. As a result, we wade through a great deal of important stuff happening in the world to which Kissinger contributed only comments from the sidelines.

For years in the 1950s and 1960s he was essentially a talking prof, writing books, penning articles, appearing on TV and winning fame as a contrarian foreign policy wonk, carping at whichever president was in office. They were all too weak, reactive and passive towards the Soviets in his view. They should take on communist expansion wherever and be ready to threaten the Soviets with a "limited" nuclear war, whatever that is.

Anyone seeking evidence of Kissinger as a warmonger will find plenty to reinforce their views here. However, in the weird world of the early 1960s, which saw chaos in American cities as well as a series of crises over Cuba, Berlin, Vietnam and more, apocalyptic language was almost routine. Ferguson's point is that even in this madhouse atmosphere, Kissinger clung to the idea that America could not just throw its weight around but had to stand for something more.

Of Vietnam, he told his patron, Rockefeller: "I do not like our country to be thought of in terms of the cynical use of power. Our strength is principle not manipulativeness. Our historical role is to identify ourselves with the ideals and deepest hopes of mankind. If we lost [sic] this asset, temporary successes will be meaningless."

Not the advice of a cynic, evidently, although it begs the question of how such a man then ended up backing carpet-bombing Cambodia. We will have to wait for volume two to find out.

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