Kissinger: Volume One: 1923–1968: The Idealist
by Niall Ferguson
Penguin Press, 2015, 1008 pages, $79.99
Henry Kissinger’s career has unquestionably made him one of the leading statesmen not only of the United States but also of the Western world for much of the last third of the twentieth century. That fact alone ensures that he has been, and will continue to be, the subject of unstinted admiration as well as virulent hatred. Both kinds of comments have centred on the two decades from 1960 to around 1980, when Kissinger was effectively in charge of the foreign policy of the world’s greatest power.
To write his life story, he has commissioned Niall Ferguson, previously known for his major books—such as Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire and The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World—and for his lectures and television appearances. But this time he has written, with meticulous care, the first half of what may yet turn out to be his masterpiece. In writing it, he has been able to make full use of the huge Kissinger archive—it weighs several tons—at the Library of Congress.
The story begins with the experience of the Kissinger family in Fuerth, northern Bavaria, and in what became the Third Reich before they managed to emigrate. Ferguson has identified at least twenty-three close family members who perished in the Holocaust arranged by Adolf Hitler, who believed, quite literally, that Jews were sub-human. The Kissingers were lucky. They had a relative in the United States who could help with money, visas and passports, so they were able to leave in 1938 and settle in the Washington Heights section of New York.
At school young Henry was notably studious. After the Second World War began, he joined the army, which in turn slowly recognised him as uncommonly able. He served in the 84th Infantry Division and went through the 1944-45 Battle of the Bulge, where he escaped injury. He then joined the Counter-Intelligence Corps, where he became a most effective hunter of Nazis. He even came across a Nazi death camp, an experience he never forgot, and managed to find, and “take care of”, a group of ex-Gestapo officials trying to form a resistance group in post-war West Germany.
From there his dedication to learning and the classics—plus the GI “Bill of Rights”—brought him to Harvard University, where his intellectual qualities, as well as his dedication to aspects of political thought, brought him almost immediately to professorial notice. His “adviser” immersed him in the classics of Western philosophy and literature with assignments ranging from Homer to Hegel, Stendhal and Dostoevsky, and, of course, Immanuel Kant. Kissinger’s senior thesis, unpublished at 35,000 words and titled “The Meaning of History”, seems to remain still the longest thesis ever written by a Harvard senior. It led, among other things, as Ferguson points out, to the idea of “democracy” as based on an inner conviction of choice, “between lesser and greater evils”, a choice that would assail Kissinger regularly during his period in public office.
He stayed at Harvard but became increasingly attracted to the links between ideas and philosophy on the one hand and practical (especially Washington) politics on the other. That included the issues around Western “containment” of the Soviet Union and problems of the control of nuclear weapons, especially once it became clear that the Russians had acquired thermo-nuclear weapons of their own. He came to public prominence in the middle and late 1950s when, as a mere assistant professor, he published his influential Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. This argued, among other things, that President Eisenhower’s strategy of mutually assured destruction as defence against the Soviet Union was less effective as a deterrent to Moscow than the threat of a limited nuclear war would be. Debate on the matter lasted for years.
Soon both Democrats and Republicans began to seek his advice. He found himself neither welcome nor comfortable as an occasional consultant to the Kennedy White House. Kennedy’s staff kept him away from direct contact with JFK, which badly limited his contributions. For instance, during the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, Kissinger wanted the US to adopt much stronger positions with Moscow, while Kennedy, more wisely, could see Khrushchev’s defensive need to stem the flow of young and able refugees from East Berlin to the West. Altogether, Kissinger felt much more comfortable working for Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, whom he admired.
That process reinforced the lesson that a mastery of history and philosophy was not enough. He would have to learn to play real Washington politics. Such practical politics or applied statesmanship sometimes required compromises, even tactics from which one would prefer to stay away. Furthermore, as he later observed:
High Office teaches decision making, not substance. It consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it. Most high officials leave office with the perceptions and insights with which they entered; they learn how to make decisions but not what decisions to make.
In any event, he had no hesitation about criticising various aspects of government policy. For instance, the Kissinger diaries show that after visiting Vietnam in 1965 and 1966 he became convinced that the US could not win the war there; in any case it was folly to make war at all without any serious sense of a wider strategy. As things stood, there would have to be an attempt to start talks with Hanoi, a move that he tried to promote in 1967 with communications going through Paris and Moscow.
The book ends with Kissinger’s appointment as National Security Adviser to the newly elected President Richard Nixon in 1968, very much with Rockefeller’s agreement. As Ferguson notes, some critics have strongly accused him of secretly passing confidential information to both the Democratic and the Republican sides during the 1968 presidential election. The charge is almost certainly untrue as well as being at variance with what is known about Rockefeller’s recommendation of Kissinger to the incoming President Nixon.
We shall have to wait for the second volume to see details of the later agonies of America in Vietnam, and of Kissinger’s success in extricating the US. That extrication was coupled with promises to Saigon of continuing military and material aid to South Vietnam that Congress eventually, and against Kissinger’s strong resistance, refused to honour. It will be interesting to see what judgment Ferguson makes of these events, taking place, as they did, at a time when the Watergate affair was weakening Nixon’s political position and moving him towards resignation.
Not only that, but it may well be the case that, in time, the readership for Ferguson’s two volumes will find itself divided. On one side will be the dispassionate historians of the Hitler period in Europe, of modern Jewish history, of the Cold War and containment, and so on. On the other will be readers most interested in the achievements of the Nixon and Ford presidencies. For it is only in the second volume that Ferguson will get to deal with Kissinger’s claim to historical greatness and thus with the standards by which statesmen should be dispassionately judged.
Kissinger’s writings suggest several standards for judging the conduct of foreign policy: that a grasp of history is basic to any understanding of allies and rivals; that many (most?) foreign policy decisions are choices between greater and lesser evils; that leaders should stick to realism but not to a realism that is morally vacuous; and that guesswork is not helpful in making policy. As early as 1956 Kissinger had written acutely to a friend that “the insistence on pure morality is in itself the most immoral of postures”. Or, as he put it later:
whenever peace—conceived as the avoidance of war—has been the primary objective of a power or a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of the most ruthless member of the international community.
None of that has prevented a host of Kissinger and Nixon critics from rushing to judgment on a variety of issues, ranging from an allegedly imperfect understanding of solutions for any given problem, to critiques and arguments based simply on loss of life. To be sure, for critics after the fact, hindsight almost always confers brilliance, but they almost never take account of critical details, such as the conditions of the time, or the personalities or moods of the decision-makers. As early as 1957 Kissinger noted (in his doctoral dissertation) that “no significant conclusions are possible in the study of foreign affairs … without an awareness of the historical context”. And so far as the public is concerned, “what ‘really’ happened is often less important than what is thought to have happened”. Indeed, history is especially important for Europeans who, “living on a continent covered with ruins … feel in their bones that history is more complicated than systems analysis”. Put simply, as he also wrote in 1957, the most difficult choices in foreign policy are certain to be between evils, so the truly moral act is to choose the lesser evil even if it is politically the harder choice. Maintaining an equilibrium of power in the Cold War was always certain to require just such hard choices.
Kissinger’s ideas and actions in relation to many other places and events, such as Chile or Cambodia, Cyprus or Argentina, have also attracted severe criticism. And it is obviously true that statesmen, including Kissinger, sometimes err. Yet we already know that the critics, too, can be wide of the mark. The right-wing General Pinochet staged a coup in Chile because the strongly left-wing President Allende had become increasingly dictatorial in an atmosphere that smacked of a coming Marxist revolution; even Santiago housewives were complaining that the army was doing nothing. Kissinger had to decide the attitude of the US to a domestic coup that was certainly going to occur whatever Washington’s wishes, and that would damage US interests whether it succeeded or failed. Equally, critics of America’s bombing in Cambodia damn the US—and especially Kissinger—for bombing on the Cambodian side of a Vietnamese border which Hanoi itself was ignoring so as to bring fresh troops and supplies securely into South Vietnam. An effort to halt North Vietnam’s massive resupply to its forces in the South seemed an essential strategic move at the time. Inaction would have signalled to all sides America’s eventual retreat.
Even that is not the essence of the matter. Ferguson is surely right when he writes:
Arguments that focus on loss of life in strategically marginal countries—and there is no other 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 the major western European powers?
The point that Ferguson is raising here is that any coherent arrangement for world order must give more freedom of action to the major powers which created that order in the first place and which act—often in combination—to maintain it afterwards. A case in point is the Security Council of the United Nations in which the five major states have been given, from the beginning, the power of veto and other privileges. There is no serious suggestion that minor powers should obtain the same advantages. A similar phenomenon might yet turn out to be a Sino-American agreement—whether tacit or documented—about uses of the ocean and the ocean-bed in the South China Sea, that takes little regard of, or consults with, the smaller states involved. Some of Kissinger’s policies—whether interventions or inactions—in relation to side-crises in the Cold War need to be seen in this context.
Kissinger has some truly great achievements to his credit, which we must wait to see Ferguson cover in detail in Volume Two. One is the way in which he contrived to withdraw America from the Vietnam quagmire (though he received little credit for it). Another is the achievement of the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the United States and the Soviet Union and the resulting SALT I treaty. That treaty significantly reduced the tensions inherent in the balance of terror. Less noticed, but perhaps no less valuable, was his continued conduct of “containment” (following the famous advice of George Kennan) in a period when the Cold War was truly a war. He sought to draw the Soviets into a web of economic co-operation at the price of a variety of diplomatic or political concessions.
More importantly, Kissinger’s most significant and dramatic achievement is the way in which, with the solid support of President Nixon, he achieved nothing less than a fundamental alteration of the entire global balance of power. Until 1970, that balance had had, at its core, the effort by the United States to “contain” the joint and allied communist powers of the Soviet Union and China (whose Communist Party Moscow had created and supported since its foundation in 1921). It was only after the death of Josef Stalin, whom the Chinese leader Mao Zedong had honoured as leader of the communist world, that Sino-Soviet tensions and fractures began to appear. They were accentuated by Nikita Khrushchev’s public criticism of Stalin in 1956 and his even more scathing critique of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” at the end of the 1950s, followed by the “Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s. From the point of view of the USA, and of Kissinger, these events created opportunities for global change. In short, during the early 1960s US “containment” of the USSR-China combination remained standard and mandatory. Ten years later, and especially following minor Sino-Soviet military clashes in 1969 and President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972, it became clear that the US now had better relations with China and with the USSR than these two had with one another. The world balance had fundamentally changed.
It is not in the least surprising that senior officials and potentates from all round the world even now, so many years after Henry Kissinger left public service, continue to beat a path to “Kissinger Associates” in New York to seek his advice. They want to learn from the Sorcerer himself.
Harry Gelber is Emeritus Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania.