AS Walter Isaacson reminds readers in this outstanding biography, Henry Kissinger - the architect of American foreign policy in the Nixon years - had become the most admired individual in the United States by 1973. That year he won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a cease-fire in Vietnam.
Kissinger also became US secretary of state that year, a stunning advancement for an immigrant-American, from his former position as assistant to the president for national security affairs. He could be found night after night on television newscasts or gracing the covers of the nation's news magazines.
Yet, for all their familiarity with Mr. Kissinger, few Americans really knew or understood this secretive and ambitious man. And Isaacson, an assistant managing editor of Time, shows why in Kissinger: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 893 pp., $30). To understand Kissinger required knowing him as a young child growing up in Nazi Germany.
He was born Heinz Kissinger in Furth, Germany, near Nuremberg, in 1923. By the time young soccer-fan Heinz was in his teens, Adolph Hitler had turned Germany into a police state. Kissinger, whose heritage was Orthodox Jewish, found himself living in mortal danger. On Aug. 20, 1938, the Kissinger family packed their belongings and fled to America - "less than three months before the mobs of Kristallnacht would destroy their synagogue and most other Jewish institutions in Germany." Heinz was 15 when he lef t Furth.
In America, the Kissingers settled in the Washington Heights section of New York City. Heinz became Henry, but his name was not all that he discarded. Henry gradually disassociated himself from the orthodoxy of his parents' faith. "For Kissinger, the holocaust destroyed the connection between God's will and the progress of history - a tenet that is at the heart of the Jewish faith and is one of the religion's most important contributions to Western philosophy," Isaacson writes.
Success first came in an unexpected way - via the US Army. While stationed in Louisiana during World War II, Kissinger became associated with Fritz Kraemer, a Prussian-Lutheran aristocrat who had himself fled Germany out of distaste for Hitler. It was Kraemer who later suggested attending Harvard University to Kissinger. At Harvard, Kissinger achieved academic success through his intellectual prowess, a number of brilliant books that he wrote, and an ability to attach himself to persons of influence. Tha t trait - the ability to shift personal alliances depending on the prevailing political winds - was to mark his personal life through such mentors as Nelson Rockefeller and, later, Richard Nixon.
Initially, Kissinger was neither a Nixon supporter nor even a Republican. He voted for John F. Kennedy in 1960, says Isaacson. Still, it was his eventual link with Nixon that culminated in America's dalliance with Kissinger's power-oriented foreign policy of the 1970s.
The story is now legend: The cease-fire in Vietnam in January, 1973; going to China in 1971 to help prepare for Nixon's visit in 1972; traveling to the USSR in 1972 to help arrange Nixon's visit in 1973; helping to pull warring armies apart in 1974 in the Sinai Peninsula.
Kissinger, says Isaacson, was haunted by a deep aversion to international or political disorder; he never really appreciated the untidy nature of American democracy. Nor did he like foreign policy based on mere idealism. Young Heinz Kissinger, after all, had seen the terror of Nazi Germany. To Kissinger, power and alliances were superior to personal trust and dreamy idealism.
Isaacson not only spent hours interviewing Kissinger but also talked to some 150 friends and adversaries of the former secretary of state. He finds much to admire in Kissinger. "The structure of peace that Kissinger designed places him with Henry Stimson, George Marshall, and Dean Acheson atop the pantheon of modern American statesmen. In addition, he was the foremost American negotiator of this century and, along with George Kennan, the most influential foreign policy intellectual."
Yet, Isaacson also paints a troubling portrait: of a man given to deceit; ruthless towards adversaries and associates; and manipulative and totalitarian.
Isaacson is clearly most uncomfortable with Kissinger's "realpolitik" European-style of diplomacy. The United States won the cold war, argues Isaacson, "not because it won a competition for military power and influence," but because "the values offered by its system - among them a foreign policy that could draw its strength from the ideas of its people - eventually proved more attractive."
Perhaps. But Kissinger's crucial contribution was to merge a policy of diplomatic compromise and negotiation - "detente" - with military strength, thus girding the US for the long haul until the Soviet system collapsed from its own internal exhaustion.
This magnificent study adds remarkable insights into the contributions of America's immigrants, as well as into US foreign policy.