Book review: Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist

It’s nearly 40 years since Henry Kissinger held political office but he is still influential — and deeply divisive. Neil Robinson says Niall Ferguson’s first instalment of his biography won’t change anyone’s mind about him.

Niall Ferguson

Allen Lane, £35

HARVARD historian Niall Ferguson is no stranger to controversy. His stock-in-trade is to annoy liberals.

His rewriting of British imperial history led to accusations of whitewashing Britain’s past. 

His recommendation that the USA play a more assertive role in global politics led to him being accused of providing intellectual fig-leaves to cover the aggression of the Bush presidency, and acting as an advocate for US imperial power to replacing Britain’s.

Ferguson’s new book, the first of a two-volume official biography of Henry Kissinger, is going to stir things up some more.

Kissinger has a life story that is worth telling.

He was born into a respectable German Jewish family in 1923. The Nazis ascent to power led to the Kissinger family’s flight to the USA. 

The young Henry put the difficulties of emigration behind him to graduate from American high school and begin a college career. 

This career was interrupted by war. Active service in the US army in Europe saw Kissinger rise from the infantry service to army intelligence, where he served with some distinction.

His army career helped Kissinger get into Harvard. His Harvard career was at first slow but finally triumphant. 

He not only completed his undergraduate studies and gained a doctorate, he made connections that provided him with an entrée into the US foreign policy-making community.

As the Cold War raged in Europe and began to spread to other parts of the world Harvard was a major think-tank for US foreign policy making, its professors serving as advisors to all of the branches of government engaged in the struggle against the global communist threat.

Kissinger relished this engagement with policymakers. While a professor at Harvard during the 1950s, his advocacy of ‘limited nuclear war’ as a strategic possibility made his reputation as a foreign policy thinker.

He advised Nelson Rockefeller in his campaigns to secure the Republican nomination for president. 

In the early 1960s, Kissinger changed political sides twice, first to become an advisor to Kennedy’s Democrat administration, and then back to the Republicans, working first for Rockefeller and then for Richard Nixon as Rockefeller’s campaign for the presidency failed again.

Nixon was Kissinger’s route to high office and infamy. He served as Richard Nixon’s national security advisor and then secretary of state, and held on to these posts under Gerald Ford after Watergate forced Nixon’s resignation.

Although Kissinger was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in the negotiations that helped end direct US involvement in Vietnam, he is known mainly for his reputation as a warmonger and cynical master of amoral international politics. 

Kissinger’s critics blame him for the illegal bombing and invasion of Cambodia under Nixon, for connivance (at least) in the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Greece and Chile, and for encouraging aggression in the developing world in Bangladesh, Cyprus, Argentina and East Timor amongst other places.

Out of office, Kissinger is often regarded as the ultimate foreign policy cynic. 

He is associated with the Machiavellian belief that the end of promoting US power justifies any means, no matter how repugnant those means might be. 

He supported the US invasion of Iraq, until it went wrong, and his consultancy firm, Kissinger Associates, is often seen as a vehicle to peddle political influence for international corporations.

Although Kissinger has not held office for nearly 40 years, his influence on US foreign policy has been constant. His advice, and often his blessing, has been sought by nearly all US presidents.

His central role in US foreign policy making for the last half century means that if you don’t like what the US does in the world, you don’t like Kissinger. 

For many people, on the right and the left, he is the living symbol of America’s moral failings as a great power.

Defending Kissinger is not an easy task given how entrenched opinion is about him. Ferguson’s defence of Kissinger as a statesman will come in the next volume of his biography. In the current volume Ferguson is more concerned to defend Kissinger

against three other charges: rampant careerism and hunger for power, and cynical realism.

Ferguson accepts that Kissinger needs to be seen warts and all. This is not an uncritical biography, Ferguson argues. 

Kissinger may have sanctioned the book and given access to his private papers, but he had no editorial control. Where Kissinger was wrong, Ferguson promises, he will tell us.

To an extent Ferguson delivers on this promise. But only to an extent. He admits that Kissinger makes mistakes, but there’s generally a let-out clause that Ferguson does not apply to Kissinger’s rivals and critics.

Ferguson’s Kissinger is not always right, but he’s never actually wrong. 

Where Kissinger gets something not quite right he does so, Ferguson argues, for the right reasons, or because he makes a mistake that everyone else makes so he can’t be faulted specifically. 

This leeway is not one granted to Kissinger’s opponents in the struggle to forge US policy or his critics. They are just wrong.

This defence works for a time, but eventually it begins to grate on the reader’s nerves. Kissinger may have been wrong for good reasons — don’t we all think that when we are wrong? — but he was still wrong, and other people were right. 

A simpler acknowledgement of the times Kissinger got it wrong would perhaps make Ferguson’s account of him more honest and do history and his subject more favour.

Ferguson’s second line of defence is that everything people think they know about Kissinger is wrong. Kissinger was not Machiavellian or unconcerned about morality in international affairs. In fact, Ferguson argues, he was a not a realist at all, but an idealist.

Again, this is only partially convincing. The young Kissinger may have been something of an idealist, but the core of this idealism seems shallow and does not last. 

Kissinger’s idealism reads as a rejection of Marxism more than anything else. Rejecting Marxism was, of course, eminently sensible if you were ambitious in the USA of the 1950s.

Beyond that, Ferguson struggles to show that Kissinger’s idealism had great substance. 

Kissinger’s political philosophy in the end looks less like an actual moral code and more like an assertion that statesmen who think they are right should be free to act as they choose. 

It’s not surprising that even Ferguson has to admit that by the late 1950s some Machiavellianism creeps into Kissinger’s work.

Finally, Ferguson argues that if Kissinger was power hungry he would not have spent so much time working for Rockefeller, and falling out with gatekeepers to power.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can perhaps see that Rockefeller was always going to struggle to become US president. The benefit of hindsight, however, is a poor defence against a charge that Kissinger was hungry for power.

Kissinger clearly did see Rockefeller as his way to high office. Making a bad choice of patron does not mean that you are unambitious, it just means that you make bad choices.

Kissinger’s falling out with people who could have helped his career is a better defence against the charge of ambition. 

But in the end these arguments only point to another character flaw that Kissinger is often accused of: egotism. Sometimes Kissinger alienated the powerful because he knew he was right (even when he wasn’t). 

It’s not much of a defence of Kissinger to show, as Ferguson often inadvertently does, that he was willing to sacrifice his career on the pyre of an intellectual pride so great that it always justified its owner’s actions to himself and now to his admirers like Ferguson.

Neil Robinson is professor of politics at the University of Limerick


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