Niall Ferguson’s new biography, Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist, takes the Kissinger narrative right up to the point that Richard Nixon, newly elected, invites a professor who had worked to defeat him to become his national security adviser.
That choice of a 45-year window postpones the searing controversies of the Kissinger years, such as the US bombing of Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War, to Volume 2 – a decision sure to disappoint critics with red pens at the ready.
But it also focuses attention on Kissinger’s life before he became the most revered and reviled statesman in modern times – not just what he saw and did, but what he read and how he thought. Like any ambitious biography, it’s also a history of Kissinger’s times, narrated in vivid color.
“I wanted to draw a clear line between Kissinger the thinker and Kissinger the actor,” Ferguson writes.
By thinker, Ferguson means “idealist” – a term most commentators wouldn’t dream of applying to Kissinger. The consensus view is that Kissinger is a “realist,” along the lines of Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich, or Italian writer Niccolo (“It is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both”) Machiavelli. Some critics call him a “war criminal.”
“Much as he denies it, he really believes himself to be the reincarnation of Metternich, that is to say an individual who depended only on himself to arrange matters while basing his actions on secrecy, absolutism, and the ignorance of people not yet awakened to the discovery of their rights,” wrote Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who interviewed Kissinger in the Nixon White House in 1972.
Ferguson says that he turned down Kissinger’s initial request to write his “definitive” biography. “I was not an expert on postwar US foreign policy. I would need to immerse myself in a sea of documents. I would inevitably be savaged,” he wrote.
A little context here: Ferguson is a celebrity academic with his own film company. Like Kissinger, he has written 14 books, five of which were adapted as TV series. His commentary circulates on radio, television, newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as social media. He thrives on controversy.
But he may be right about the outcry that a book on Kissinger entitled “the Idealist” could provoke, although the fierce battles of the Vietnam era have faded into ancient history for many readers. Ferguson chalks up such criticism to “hysteria” or “outright lunacy.”
“To enter the realm of journalism about Henry Kissinger is to encounter much in this hysterical vein,” he writes.
“The Idealist” doesn’t take on all of the historical judgments already settling into conventional wisdom on Kissinger. That’s a task for Volume 2. But it lays the groundwork for a highly original – critics will say self-serving – reading of Kissinger’s years in power.
Ferguson starts with a resource available to no previous Kissinger biographer: Kissinger’s full cooperation – and the access that it provides.
After Ferguson turned down the offer to write “a definitive – if not necessarily positive – evaluation” of his life, Kissinger wrote back that he had just found 145 boxes of letters and diaries from the 1950s, along with 20 boxes of correspondence from his years of government service, presumed lost. “It was the documents, more than their author, that persuaded me,” Ferguson writes.
There are stunning moments in these documents, especially in letters to family during his service with the US Army 84th Infantry Division in Germany. Trained as a rifleman, Kissinger was assigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps soon after his division landed in November 1944. After V-E Day, he was tasked with evacuating “German civilians considered unreliable” – a job that, for a time, gave him power to arrest at will.
For many years, he did not talk about what he saw, Ferguson says. But his letters home signal a strong resolve to avoid the appearance of hating Germans or taking revenge.
“You, dear father, say: be tough on the Germans. Like all generalities, that is a platitude. I am tough, even ruthless, with the persons whose participation in the party is responsible for all this misery. But somewhere this negativism must end, somewhere we must produce something positive or we’ll have to remain here, as guardians over chaos, for ever.
Just six years earlier, the Kissingers had fled Nazi Germany and resettled in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan. “Germany now knows what it means to wander and to be forced to leave places dear to one’s heart,” Kissinger wrote to his parents in November 1944.
After seeing the mass graves at the Ahlem concentration camp, where distinguishing the living from the dead was not obvious, he drafted a two-page essay entitled, “The Eternal Jew,” a reference to a Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda film. “People reach such a stupor of suffering that life and death, animation or immobility can’t be differentiated any more,” he wrote. “Human dignity and objective values have stopped at this barbed wire.”
Back in the US, Kissinger won a late admission, with scholarships, to Harvard University under the G.I. Bill. The era of residential segregation of Jews at Harvard was ending, “but slowly,” Ferguson writes. Kissinger was an invisible man in the life of the campus. “He spent a lot of time thinking,” a roommate says.
Ferguson calls the sum of all those late night hours reading, writing, and thinking “intellectual capital.” It’s what statesmen have to draw on when confronted with new situations. “A biographer who takes on the life of a scholar should read what that scholar has written, “even if that scholar goes on to attain high office,” Ferguson writes.
Kissinger says what influenced him the most was German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, and Ferguson takes him at his word. “The failure of writer after writer to understand Kissinger’s idealism has vitiated severely, if not fatally, the historical judgments they have passed on him,” he writes.
Kissinger’s senior thesis was a favorable critique of Kant’s philosophy of history. What Kissinger takes from Kant is that history is driven by ideals and not by historical materialism or economic determinism. It’s an idea he refers back to often over the next 60 years. Peace “will come about as the result of our vision or of a catastrophe invited by our shortsightedness,” he said in an address to the United Nations General Assembly in 1973, referencing Kant. “Kant dared to see in the general upheaval the faint beginnings of a new, more peaceful international order,” Kissinger writes in his most recent book, “World Order.”
In 1954, Kissinger had earned a Ph.D for his thesis on how Metternich made the peace after the Napoleonic wars, later published as “A World Restored.” But he had no job offer from Harvard and a dim view of academic life. “In academic life you are entirely dependent on the personal recommendation of some egomaniac,” he told Nixon in 1972.
Instead, he began writing for a wider audience on the hottest issue of the day: how to win the cold war. An essay in Foreign Affairs making the case for limited nuclear war landed him a berth with Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and an introduction to Nelson Rockefeller, whom he advised through three failed presidential bids. Later, in 1965, he reinvented himself as a Vietnam expert, advising the Johnson administration.
For Kissinger, “The Cold War was not about economics. It was not even about nuclear stockpiles, much less tank divisions. It was primarily about ideals,” Ferguson writes. The test of how those ideals weathered the Kissinger years in power will come in the next thousand-plus page volume. Stay tuned.