Magazine | October 19, 2015, Issue

Super K, Revisited

Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin, 1,008 pp., $39.95)

‘Surely no statesman in modern times, and certainly no American secretary of state, has been as revered and then as reviled as Henry Kissinger.” So begins Niall Ferguson’s monumental biography, the first volume of which takes the story from Kissinger’s birth until his appointment as national-security adviser by President-elect Richard Nixon in 1968.

Surely Ferguson is right. Once upon a time — in 1974, to be exact — Kissinger was depicted on the cover of Newsweek as a cartoon figure dubbed “Super K.” Time called him “the world’s indispensable man,” and he even became an improbable sex symbol. More recently he has been denounced as a war criminal and held responsible for massacres from Bangladesh to Cambodia.

Whatever else he is, Kissinger, who is still active at the age of 92, has been an object of never-ending fascination. Thus it is hardly surprising that he has been the subject of numerous books, including a previous biography by Walter Isaacson, and numerous studies of his diplomacy — to say nothing of Kissinger’s own sprawling memoirs. But Kissinger has apparently not been satisfied with this outpouring of print. He asked Ferguson, a prolific Scottish-born historian at Harvard, to undertake his official biography and as an inducement granted him access to private papers that no previous author has seen.

Kissinger no doubt hoped the final product would be more flattering to him than most of what had previously been written. And it is. But Ferguson is hardly gushing. He can be critical when need be. Ferguson’s real achievement is to present Kissinger not as a cartoon superhero or supervillain but as a real person — and one who was not motivated solely, as some authors suggest, by career advancement but also by a desire to help his adopted homeland.

Ferguson’s daring thesis is that Kissinger did not start out as a Realpolitiker — i.e., someone devoted to preserving the balance of power at all costs so as to keep the peace. “Far from being a Machiavellian realist,” he writes, “Henry Kissinger was from the outset of his career an idealist, having immersed himself as an undergraduate in the philosophy of the great Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant.” Kant’s idea of creating a “federation of free states” to maintain “perpetual peace” also inspired Woodrow Wilson, among others. But, Ferguson clarifies, Kissinger was not “an idealist in the sense in which the word is often used to characterize that tradition in U.S. foreign policy that emphasized the subordination of ‘might’ to supranational laws and courts.”

Rather, he suggests, Kissinger was an “idealist” because he believed that the contest with Communism would have to be waged not only in the material realm — pitting economies and weapons systems against each other — but also in the battle of ideas. In 1958, for example, Kissinger told Mike Wallace that it was important to mount a “spiritual offensive in the world” to identify America with aspirations for freedom. “These are things we want to do because of the values we stand for,” he said, “not because we want to beat the Communists.”

Moreover, Kissinger parted ways with Cold War “pragmatists” (or “realists”) who were willing, Ferguson writes, to “quietly surrender Cuba, East Berlin, Laos, and South Vietnam to Communist control rather than risk a confrontation with Moscow or Beijing.” To Kissinger, such ideas smacked of 1930s appeasement. But was this the counsel of idealism, or of a higher realism that held that America’s strategic position would become untenable if it abandoned key allies?

I confess to being slightly confused by the distinctions Ferguson draws between different schools of foreign policy. But he makes the valid point, quoting John Lewis Gaddis, that it is far too easy to pigeonhole a thinker as an “idealist” or “realist,” whereas in the real world most people act on a spectrum that changes according to the circumstances.

And however one might characterize Kissinger, in the end it doesn’t much matter, because the real attraction of this volume is that it gives a more well-rounded, intimate, and complete portrait of Kissinger’s rise than any previous work. It is long, to be sure — more than 1,000 pages, and that’s before Kissinger even became a policymaker. But it is never boring. Ferguson is a witty and graceful stylist who keeps the reader’s attention throughout this epic account of an amazing life.

The young man born as Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Bavaria in 1923 emigrated to New York with his family in 1938. Most of his extended family perished in the Holocaust. Already 15 when he arrived, he became thoroughly Americanized in high school, which he attended while working at a shaving-brush factory to help support his family. The process of assimilation — which involved shedding the Orthodox Judaism of his parents — was completed in the U.S. Army, which he joined as a draftee in 1943. On November 25, 1944, Kissinger found himself back on German soil, this time as a sergeant working in Army counterintelligence.

His job was to stop German sabotage and root out Nazis in occupied territory. Although Kissinger later denied that he had been scarred by the Holocaust, Ferguson shows that he was profoundly affected when his unit liberated the concentration camp at Ahlem and came face to face with the scarecrow-like survivors. “We had to kick them to tell the dead from the living,” Kissinger wrote in an unpublished essay. Yet he resisted the urge to seek vengeance, telling his counterintelligence team that “this negativism must end, somewhere we must produce something positive or we’ll remain here forever. . . . Lose no opportunity to prove by word and deed the virility of our ideals.”

Getting out of the Army, Kissinger applied to college and was turned down by Columbia, Cornell, and a number of others. Oddly enough, only Harvard accepted him. Older than other students, a veteran, and already married (to a German Jewish girl from New York whom he eventually divorced), Kissinger did not fit in with other undergraduates. But his brilliance carried him to academic glory.

After getting his B.A. in 1950, with a record-length thesis, he chose to enter graduate school. “It cannot be said that Kissinger chose the obvious route to power,” Ferguson comments of his choice to pursue a Ph.D. in Harvard’s department of government. He did not help his own cause by writing his dissertation — subsequently published as A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812–1822 — on the seemingly dusty subject of peacemaking after the Napoleonic Wars.

Yet by the end of the 1950s, Kissinger had become an “intellectual-celebrity” granted tenure by Harvard, interviewed on television shows, and cited by politicians. His breakthrough came when he was hired to direct a Council on Foreign Relations study group on nuclear-weapons policy. This resulted in the 1957 publication of Kissinger’s book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, in which he argued that it was possible and even desirable to use tactical nuclear weapons in limited conflicts short of World War III. The book received a rapturous reception even though its thesis was so unconvincing — how could anyone, Ferguson points out, have any assurance that “any use of nuclear missiles, no matter how limited in intent and scale,” would not “escalate into full-blown Armageddon”? — that Kissinger himself repudiated it three years later.

By then, he had already become the closest foreign-policy adviser to New York governor and presidential aspirant Nelson Rockefeller — a relationship that Kissinger would maintain throughout the 1960s even as he also worked as a part-time consultant to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Like most of his colleagues in what Ferguson calls “Boswash” (Boston–Washington), Kissinger had nothing but disdain for Richard Nixon, believing him “unfit to be president.” By contrast, he idealized “Rocky” as (in Ferguson’s words) “an American aristocrat, a moderate Republican, and an enlightened ruler.” His unwavering faith in Rockefeller, and his concomitant belief that Nixon was unelectable, shows how out of touch he was with the realities of American politics.

But it also shows that he was not as power-mad as he was made out to be. Ferguson writes that the only position Kissinger sought in 1968 was that of under-secretary of defense under Rockefeller, whom he wrongly imagined would be named secretary of defense in the Nixon administration. Kissinger was startled when Nixon, a man he had met only once before and then only briefly, offered him the job of national-security adviser. (Actually he did not at first understand that Nixon had offered him the job, so strange and indirect was his first long conversation with the president-elect.) Kissinger did not accept on the spot, acceding only after friends such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. urged him to take this powerful post.

Kissinger was only 45, and about to ascend to the pinnacle of power. But that is a story for a later volume. If it is as fascinating as volume one, it will be well worth waiting for.

– Mr. Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is writing The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Experience in Vietnam.

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