A review of Kissinger (1923-1968): The Idealist by Niall Ferguson
I am willing to venture that you couldn’t tell me much about Lawrence Eagleburger, Edmund Muskie or Warren Christopher. I didn’t know who they were till I looked them up on Wikipedia. Yet they have all been America’s Secretary of State more recently than Henry Kissinger. Who you probably know a fair amount about and have a strong opinion on.
It’s striking that a man who has not held a significant public office for nearly 40 years remains so politically potent. In last night’s debate between the Democrat candidates for president, Bernie Sanders charged that:
[Clinton] talked about getting the approval or the support or the mentoring of Henry Kissinger. Now I find it kind of amazing: Because I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country.
I’m proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend.
I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger. And in fact, Kissinger’s actions in Cambodia, when the united States bombed that country, over — through Prince Sihanouk, created the instability for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in who then butchered some 3 million innocent people – One of the worst genocides in the history of the world. So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger.
Of course this argument is really about foreign policy in the present rather than in the 1970s. But even if Kissinger is serving as a symbol, he’s a remarkably strong one.
It would be an understatement to say that their are divergent views regarding him. He is praised by many as a kind of a diplomatic genius and branded a criminal by others. The title of Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger is not meant entirely metaphorically: he really was hoping that it would lead to Kissinger’s prosecution.
If Hitchens presented a bill of indictment, then Niall Ferguson is providing the defence. This biographer clearly likes his subject. He reveals in the preface that he knew Kissinger socially before becoming his biographer and seems to identify with his subject. There’s also, dare I say it, a whiff of wishful thinking to Ferguson writing about how a Harvard historian with conservative political views and a taste for the public eye goes on to become a major figure in global politics.
That identification does have its problems. Ferguson often presents Kissinger’s account as rebutting some point made against him by a contemporary, without giving a good rationale why Kissinger is the more reliable witness. To be fair, Fergusson only really does this when it comes to personal matters or office politics. He’s more rigorous when it comes to affairs of state. Nonetheless, it still creates an air of deference, that borders on cloying.
The flip side is that because Ferguson likes Kissinger as a person, he readily finds the human behind the media image. The early sections on how Kissinger and his family were forced to flee the Nazis and make a new life in the US are genuinely moving. And his service as a military intelligence officer in Belgium and Germany is an effective window into quite how messed up the middle decades of the Twentieth Century were. He was part of the force that liberated a concentration camp and Ferguson ably conveys what a horrifying experience this was – especially for someone who could potentially have found himself in one.
Humanising Kissinger serves to rebut not just the allegations of those on the left but also the backhanded complements of the right. When it comes to Kissinger, hagiographies share a remarkable number of premises with critiques. Both tend to take it as a given that he was a calculating machine weighing up what was in America’s interest without concern for niceties like international law, political freedom and human life. They both make him into the exemplar of a particularly ruthless kind of realism.
Ferguson contends – somewhat convincingly – that Kissinger is actually an ‘idealist’. The Idealist lays to rest the common assumption that Machiavelli was one of Kissinger’s intellectual influences. In fact, he seems to have been unusually disinterested in the Florentine. Instead, he wrote his undergraduate dissertation – which was so long it was directly responsible for Harvard introducing word limits on such documents – on Kant: the theorist of perpetual peace. Nor does it appear that Kissinger felt any special affinity with Bismarck or Metternich. He wrote a book on the later figure but that was supposed to be the first in a series that was never completed. And Ferguson notes that time and again, Kissinger’s explanations of diplomacy privilege explanations based around ideas over those rooted in material factors like economics.
But ‘idealism’ and ‘realism’ have a different meanings when used by an academic historian than they do in general political discussion. If this period of history demonstrates anything it’s that the most ruthless people are often those in pursuit of grand ideas. And so it is with Kissinger. His earliest forays into public service see him clash with the Kennedys over West Berlin. He wants to take a tough line, they opt for conciliation. His position is certainly grounded in principle: West Berlin has a right to self-determination and if it proves necessary force should be used to defend it. But it requires a great deal of cold and calculated determination to place the application of this ideal to half a city above the desire to protect the whole world from nuclear incineration. JFK’s compromise in the face of this possibility was not only more pragmatic, it seems a more human response to such a terrifying possibility.
This tension is only likely to become more acute in the 2nd volume of this biography. That will include Kissinger’s time as the architect of Nixon’s foreign policy and if Ferguson wishes to continue praising rather burying Kissinger then there’s a lot he will need to explain. In the Idealist, Ferguson claims that by 1968 Kissinger had already decided the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. Why then did the administration he was part of fight it for another 5 years? And most problematically he will have to contend with the accusation made by Sanders and many others: that the teenager who saw first hand Europe’s Holocaust first hand would decades later precipitate a genocide in Cambodia.