Book review – Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist

The first volume of Niall Ferguson’s biography of Henry Kissinger would have served its subject better if he had submitted him to a Kissingerian analysis.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: December 11, 2015 11:29 pm
kissinger, gerald ford, henry kissinger, kissinger book, book review, pratap bhanu mehta, new books, latest book review President Gerald Ford (left) and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, on the grounds of the White House, August 1974. (Thomas J O’Halloran; Source: Library of Congress, US. LC U9 29987 19)

Title: Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist
Author: Niall Ferguson
Publisher: Allen Lane (Penguin Books)
Pages: 936
Price: Rs 2067

Reading volume one of Niall Fergusson’s prodigiously researched and deeply engrossing account of the first half of Henry Kissinger’s life, you cannot help but wonder if this would have been a more effective book, had Ferguson taken on more of Kissinger’s virtues and fewer of his vices. At his best, Kissinger’s own writings can be astonishingly unflinching in their analysis. They are a deft combination of unsparing psychological portrait, stark political logic, placed against the larger sweeps of history, with a sharp eye for both irony and tragedy, and conveyed in a style whose charms are hard to resist. This irresistible combination is, for example, evident in a wonderful essay on Bismarck, ‘The White Revolutionary.’ Fergusson discusses this essay at some length, to establish Kissinger’s own distance from Bismarck. But Kissinger can also be evasive, occluding vital truths. Fergusson is by no means an uncritical biographer. His discussion of the book that made Kissinger a celebrity, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, for example, in a subtle way, leaves relatively little of the argument of that book standing. But so much of Fergusson’s energy goes into exonerating Kissinger of various charges that he does his own skills a disservice. He becomes less unflinching in his analysis than Kissinger himself would be.

This is a powerful, engrossing and wonderful book. Ferguson was given access to an astonishing archive of Kissinger’s papers and had full control over the final outcome. The book has roughly three themes: Kissinger’s early life, his intellectual development and rise as an intellectual celebrity, and his transformation into a major policy figure, particularly in the lead-up to Vietnam. The most engrossing parts of this biography are on Kissinger’s early life. Fergusson’s portrait of the era in which Kissinger grew is masterly: his early childhood and banishment from the town of Furth in Germany, the challenges of growing up and assimilation in New York, Kissinger’s wartime experiences and his role in counterintelligence in post-war Germany. This part of the book is successful at many levels. It is a great tribute to Ferguson’s literary skills — his ability to use telling details to great effect makes these milieus come alive, and in a few deft chapters, all the transformations and horrors of the early 20th century unfold before us.

But this section is heartstoppingly moving because of Kissinger himself. He wrote letters during the war that have an extraordinary poignancy to them. You see a remarkable young man witnessing the tragedies of the 20th century with a sense of moral delicacy and resolve, and even silence. Fergusson has uncovered a two-page manuscript, ‘The Eternal Jew’, written shortly after Kissinger encountered the concentration camp at Ahlem. Ferguson has the good judgment to reproduce it without comment. Even those familiar with the Holocaust, or other atrocities, will recognise that humanity cannot look at itself in the mirror again. But the war also reinforces a sense of the tragic cast of the world. The account of Kissinger’s early life works also because of Kissinger’s extraordinary capacity for self-examination. Here, for example, is a letter to his parents, where Kissinger complains that the circumstances of his family have “forced me into the attitude I have today, of aloofness, of slight irony, an attitude designed to prevent rejection before it occurs.” But what makes Kissinger deeply interesting is his extraordinary interest in all aspects of what Kant called “The crooked timber of humanity.” What strikes you most about Kissinger is his astounding ability to be curious and to love life in all its aspects; but also his capacity of detachment and self-analysis. Life can survive too much knowledge.

The second section deals more with Kissinger’s public career — his days at Harvard, his rise as a celebrity academic, his extraordinary ability to become a powerful interlocutor in public debates. This section provides a wonderful history of the key crises in the cold war, and treating the Cuba and Berlin crises together sheds interesting light on the nuclear debate. Unusually, becoming a celebrity was Kissinger’s route to power rather than the other way round. It is astonishing how early in life he became a figure to be publicly engaged with, even caricatured and reviled, most notably as a Dr Strangelove for his advocacy of tactical nuclear weapons. It has always been something of a puzzle why Kissinger became the indispensible reference for so much of the 20th century. I think part of the answer is evident here: there is no question that even when Kissinger is mistaken, his way of articulating something forces a remarkable clarity about the issues. He has the capacity to follow the logic of an argument wherever it might lead. His instinct — that no options, including the most dreadful that can be contemplated, should be prematurely taken off the table — has a ruthless machismo about it. But it also helps clear the moral stakes. Even his detractors find the clarity of their own convictions through reckonings with him. The final third deals with Kissinger’s increasing involvement with Vietnam.

But is Kissinger an idealist, as Ferguson suggests? In posing the question this way, Fergusson does his subject a disservice. Kissinger’s own advice is to stay away from simplistic binary constructions. The fact that titles like “Machiavelli’s Ethics” or “Kant’s Realism” are not oxymorons, suggest that the realist-idealist divide as construed in American international relations is often besides the point. Fergusson’s attempt to play philosophical lawyer rather than historian also backfires in other respects. He construes idealism as the idea that “reality does not exist independently of our perception of reality.” But he forgets, that for idealists in the philosophical sense, this is a transcendental account of all knowledge; it does not refer to the empirical project of perception-shaping reality. His other piece of evidence is that Kissinger himself disavowed Machiavelli and Bismarck. But you don’t have to believe in esoteric readings to take these disavowals with a grain of salt. I doubt even Machiavelli would have admitted to being Machiavellian.

But more damningly, Fergusson’s own introduction gives the game away. He writes: “arguments that focus on the loss of life in strategically marginal countries — and there is no way of describing Argentina, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile, Cyprus and East Timor — must be tested against the question: how in each case, would an alternative decision have affected US relations with strategically important countries like the Soviet Union, China and major Western powers?” He glides over the fact that two of these countries experienced genocides. The relevant question is that even after keeping US strategic objectives in mind, could the extraordinary suffering in these countries have been minimised? And he contradicts Kissinger’s own claim that these countries were not strategically marginal. After all, as Fergusson lucidly recounts, these countries would be part of a Soviet Plan to isolate the US; and in turn, as Kissinger argues, these would be the sites for the US to show its might. Fergusson almost chides Adennauer for accepting Germany’s partition; while Kissinger’s view that tactical nuclear weapons could be contemplated to create a unified Germany is considered the idealist position.

The second volume will, doubtless, test Fergusson’s allegiances even more. His extraordinary skills as a historian will be better served if he subjects Kissinger to a Kissingerian analysis.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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