Niall Ferguson’s ‘Kissinger. Volume I. 1923-1968: The Idealist’
It is very rare for an official biography to be also a revisionist biography, but this one is. Usually it’s the official life that the revisionists attempt to dissect and refute, but such is the historical reputation of Henry Kissinger, and the avalanche of books and treatises already written about him, that Niall Ferguson’s official biography is in part an effort to revise the revisionists. Though not without trenchant criticisms, “Kissinger. Volume I. 1923-1968: The Idealist” — which takes its subject up to the age of 45, about to begin his first stint of full-time government service — constitutes the most comprehensive defense of Kissinger’s outlooks and actions since his own three-volume, 3,900-page autobiography, published between 1979 and 1999.
Unlike the revisionists, Ferguson has had access to every part of Kissinger’s vast archive at the Library of Congress, which weighs several tons and comprises 8,380 documents covering 37,645 pages on the digitized database alone. These include a heartfelt essay on “The Eternal Jew” written by the 22-year-old German-born Sergeant Kissinger after witnessing the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp; some loving but uncompromising letters to his parents about his separation from their Orthodox faith; a jejune and somewhat cringe-making teenage note to a would-be girlfriend; and the minutes he took as secretary of a Jewish youth organization to which he belonged as the Nazis were seizing power in his homeland. Although this book is long at 986 pages, and Kissinger has only just joined the Nixon administration as national security adviser when it ends, the sheer quality of the material unearthed justifies the length and detail.
Ferguson gives the full story of the Kissinger family’s experience under the Third Reich before they emigrated in 1938, and Ferguson has identified at least 23 close family members who perished in the Holocaust. (Of the 1,990 Jews who lived in their hometown, Fürth, in 1933, fewer than 40 were left by the end of the war.) The first chapters covering the Kissingers’ life in the late 1930s and early 1940s in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York recapture the Jewish immigrant experience superbly and put into perspective the fact that Henry (born Heinz) became the first foreign-born United States citizen to serve as secretary of state.
Whereas Kissinger has regularly underplayed his bravery during World War II, Ferguson shows that he saw action during the Battle of the Bulge, where he came under severe shelling. “His very presence” in the Meuse town of Marche “was hazardous in the extreme,” Ferguson writes, as German 88s, mortar shells and a V-1 rocket pulverized “the narrow streets of the town center where the divisional HQ was based.” After V-E Day, Kissinger became an extremely effective Nazi hunter with the Counter-Intelligence Corps.
The subtitle of the book will surprise many for whom Kissinger’s name is almost synonymous with modern realpolitik and who are familiar with the revisionist accounts that equate him with Machiavelli, Bismarck and other such thinkers and statesmen normally thought far from idealists. Yet Ferguson’s investigation of Kissinger’s intellectual roots, especially through the influence of his Army mentor Fritz Kraemer and his Harvard supervisor William Yandell Elliott, shows Kissinger was indeed an idealist in the Kantian sense, rather than in its modern American political version. Kissinger’s unpublished senior thesis, “The Meaning of History,” was an investigation into Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of history, especially in contrast to the views of Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler, although Ferguson slightly dismisses it as “an exercise in academic exhibitionism.”
In his thesis, Kissinger argued that “freedom is . . . an inner experience of life as a process of deciding meaningful alternatives” and that “whatever one’s conception about the necessity of events, at the moment of their performance their inevitability could offer no guide to action.” He also said, “However we may explain actions in retrospect, their accomplishment occurred with the inner conviction of choice.” The importance of choice led Kissinger to a belief in democracy. “Kissinger was never a Machiavellian,” Ferguson argues, but neither was he an idealist of the Woodrow Wilson variety. “It was an inherently moral act,” Ferguson says of Kissinger’s outlook, “to make a choice between lesser and greater evils.”
What brought Kissinger to huge public prominence while still only an assistant professor was his radical prescription for how to deal with the perceived (though in fact chimerical) relative weakness of the United States vis-à-vis the Soviet Union at the time of the successful launch of the Sputnik space satellite in October 1957. As Ferguson puts it, “Sputnik launched Kissinger into a new orbit.” Kissinger had only months earlier published his widely reviewed and highly controversial best seller “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,” which argued that the threat of a limited nuclear war was a more effective deterrent to Soviet incursions in the third world than the Eisenhower administration’s strategy of mutually assured destruction. And as Kissinger wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine, “The best opportunity to compensate for our inferiority in manpower” is “to use our superiority in technology to best advantage” (although he did rule out using any bomb of more than 500 kilotons in a tactical situation). For Ferguson, Kissinger’s argument “fails to convince,” but it won Kissinger interviews on “Face the Nation” and with The New York Herald Tribune that — once his accent and acerbic wit came to be appreciated by the American public — put him on the trajectory to intellectual rock star status that he never lost.
Partly because he described himself as an independent, Kissinger could be called upon by both political parties for advice. After failing to make an impact as a consultant to the Kennedy administration — he didn’t like the men or the methods, and they didn’t see him fitting the Camelot image — he went to work for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York. Ferguson is clearly fascinated by what he calls the “turbulent friendship” between the aristocrat and the immigrant, and is at pains to point out that “Henry Kissinger has often been portrayed as very ruthless and calculating in his pursuit of power. But in committing himself again and again to Rockefeller, he failed to see that he was backing a man who would never be president.” Kissinger’s loyalty was based on affection and genuine admiration, rather than mere miscalculation.
Ferguson’s access to the diaries Kissinger kept before, during and after his visits to Vietnam in 1965 and 1966 allows him to argue, totally convincingly, that on his missions for the Johnson administration, Kissinger realized very early on that the United States had little or no hope of winning the war and therefore needed to enter into direct negotiations with Hanoi sooner rather than later, albeit from a position of strength. This book contains the first full account of the abortive initiative to start talks with Hanoi in 1967; as Ferguson puts it, “to an extent never previously recognized by scholars,” Kissinger attempted “to broker some kind of peace agreement with the North Vietnamese, using a variety of indirect channels of communication to Hanoi that passed through not only Paris but also Moscow.”
Yet it is in Ferguson’s comprehensive demolition of the revisionist accounts of the 1968 election by Seymour Hersh, Christopher Hitchens and others that this book will be seen as controversial. For he totally rejects the conspiracy theory that blames Kissinger for leaking details of the Paris peace negotiations to the Nixon camp, details that enabled Nixon, it was said, to persuade the South Vietnamese that they would get better treatment if he and not Hubert Humphrey were in the White House. Ferguson goes into this theory in great detail, disproving it on several grounds, but especially for its lack of even the most basic actual or circumstantial evidence. (It turns out that one of the reasons Kissinger was in Paris in 1967 was that he was secretly going to the Sorbonne to woo the only great love of his life, Nancy Maginnes, whom he subsequently married.)
Of course it will be in the second volume that Ferguson will come to grips with the revisionists’ attacks on Kissinger’s actions involving places like Chile, Argentina, Cyprus, East Timor and Bangladesh. The book’s introduction strongly implies that he will be acquitting Kissinger of the monstrous charge of war criminality that the revisionists have made over the years.
Yet this is no hagiography. As well as being highly critical of Kissinger’s theory of limited nuclear war, Ferguson describes a letter of his as a “solipsistic screed”; says of one of Kissinger’s books that it “remained, at root, the work of a committee”; and states that Kissinger was “even more demanding to his own subordinates” than Rockefeller was to him: “He learned to rant and rage.” The criticisms — and there are many more waspish ones — absolve Ferguson from the charge of whitewashing Kissinger and make his praise all the more credible.
This is an admiring portrait rather than a particularly affectionate one. Ferguson acknowledges in his preface all of the “conversing with him, supping with him, even traveling with him” that he did over the many years he spent researching and writing this book. But if Kissinger’s official biographer cannot be accused of falling for his subject’s justifiably famed charm, he certainly gives the reader enough evidence to conclude that Henry Kissinger is one of the greatest Americans in the history of the Republic, someone who has been repulsively traduced over several decades and who deserved to have a defense of this comprehensiveness published years ago.
Part of Kissinger’s charm of course derives from his highly developed sense of humor, which is given full rein here. “Nobody will ever win the battle of the sexes,” he once joked. “There’s just too much fraternizing with the enemy.” When someone came up to him at a reception and said, “Dr. Kissinger, I want to thank you for saving the world,” he replied, “You’re welcome.” All of this was delivered in the trademark voice that the journalist Oriana Fallaci described as like “that obsessive, hammering sound of rain falling on a roof.”
Niall Ferguson already has many important, scholarly and controversial books to his credit. But if the second volume of “Kissinger” is anywhere near as comprehensive, well written and riveting as the first, this will be his masterpiece.
Volume I. 1923-1968: The Idealist
By Niall Ferguson
Illustrated. 986 pp. Penguin Press. $39.95.