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By the time Henry Kissinger was made secretary of state in 1973, he had become, according to the Gallup Poll, the most admired person in America and one of the most unlikely celebrities ever to capture the world's imagination. Yet Kissinger was also reviled by large segments of the American public, ranging from liberal intellectuals to conservative activists. Kissinger explores the relationship between this complex man's personality and the foreign policy he pursued. Drawing on extensive interviews with Kissinger...

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By the time Henry Kissinger was made secretary of state in 1973, he had become, according to the Gallup Poll, the most admired person in America and one of the most unlikely celebrities ever to capture the world's imagination. Yet Kissinger was also reviled by large segments of the American public, ranging from liberal intellectuals to conservative activists. Kissinger explores the relationship between this complex man's personality and the foreign policy he pursued. Drawing on extensive interviews with Kissinger as well as 150 other sources, including U.S. presidents and his business clients, this first full-length biography makes use of many of Kissinger's private papers and classified memos to tell his uniquely American story. The result is an intimate narrative, filled with surprising revelations, that takes this grandly colorful statesman from his childhood as a persecuted Jew in Nazi Germany, through his tortured relationship with Richard Nixon, to his later years as a globe-trotting business consultant.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Endlessly fascinating...A brilliant and disturbing study of power."
The New York Times

"Confirms Kissinger's place as one of the great international players, and takes him down a peg as well....Kissinger will rave about the parts he likes and rage about the rest....This makes for compulsive reading."
— Peter Jennings, ABC News

"Wonderful, entertaining, definitive biography."
Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Meticulously researched, intelligent and fair...a book full of insights."
The Washington Post

"A solidly researched, richly textured, and extremely readable account of a man in dramatic times who seemed bigger than life."
The Boston Sunday Globe

New York Times Books of the Century
...[T]he book to end all books on Kissinger...compulsive, and compulsory, reading (1992).
New York Times Books of the Century
...[T]he book to end all books on Kissinger...compulsiveand compulsoryreading (1992).
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The fullest account of Kissinger's life and career to date, other than his memoirs, this spooky, engrossing portrait provides plenty of ammunition for the former Secretary of State's supporters and detractors.
Library Journal
Isaacson, assistant managing editor of Time , has produced much more than another unauthorized biography, giving extensive insights into the younger years of Heinz Kissinger in Bavaria and how they shaped his character, his style in dealing with others, and his worldview. Over 150 interviews with Kissinger intimates, enemies, subordinates, and the man himself generate a less-than-flattering portrayal of the man behind the intellect and the myths. Isaacson covers Kissinger's Americanization, his use of Harvard ties to enhance his career, his forays into the stratosphere of the Council on Foreign Relations (NY), and his Washington years and exploits. He also examines Kissinger's ill-fated negotiations with the North Vietnamese, empire building as national security assistant, shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, arms control efforts, and later years as private citizen and consultant. While there are other excellent Kissinger biographies (Stephen Graubard's Kissinger , LJ 6/1/73; John Stoessinger's Henry Kissinger: The Anguish of Power , LJ 9/15/76; Bruce Mazlich's Kissinger: The European Mind in American Policy , LJ 9/15/76), this work is the best to date on Henry K. Superstar. Essential for general libraries. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/92.-- Frank Kessler, Missouri Western State Coll., St. Joseph
New York Times Books of the Century
...[T]he book to end all books on Kissinger...compulsive, and compulsory, reading (1992).
Kirkus Reviews
A critical but resolutely objective and utterly fascinating biography of the guileful, egocentric geopolitical scientist who became America's most celebrated secretary of state. Drawing on access to his subject's private papers, family members, friends, and foes, as well as on archival sources, Isaacson (an assistant managing editor at Time; coauthor, The Wise Men, 1986) offers an authoritative and comprehensive account. Tracking Kissinger from his boyhood as a persecuted Jew in Nazi Germany through his current estate as a globe-trotting business consultant who turns 70 next May, the author notes that Kissinger has displayed a knack for attracting influential patrons throughout his career. This talent served Kissinger well as an Army intelligence operative during WW II, at Harvard (where he earned a Ph.D. and professorship), and as a cold-war strategist who made a name for himself advising think tanks and government agencies. Latching on to an ultimate sponsor, he joined the Nixon Administration in 1969; survived Watergate largely unscathed; gained worldwide fame (plus a Nobel Peace Prize) for negotiating an end to the Vietnam War; and won even greater renown for feats of shuttle diplomacy in Africa, the Mideast, and elsewhere. While Isaacson gives Kissinger full marks for his many accomplishments in foreign policy, he minces few words in recounting the secretiveness, devotion to Realpolitik, and personal insecurities that gained Kissinger a reputation for Dr. Strangelove-like duplicity. Although Kissinger consistently had the courage of his conviction—that those engaged in statecraft must deal with ambiguities and accommodations—Isaacson concludes that a general perceptionof Kissinger's ruthlessness frequently cost him dearly owing to Americans' allegiance to human rights, democratic principles, the rule of international law, and other idealistic values. An evenhanded, warts-and-all portrait of a larger-than-life individual who has left his mark behind. (Sixteen pages of b&w photographs—not seen.) (Book-of-the-Month Dual Selection for October)
From Barnes & Noble
Examines the complex personality of Henry Kissinger--brilliant, conspiratorial, furtive, prone to power struggles, charming yet occasionally deceitful--and the unique form of foreign policy he pursued as secretary of state under Richard Nixon. B&W photos.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743286978
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 9/27/2005
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 896
  • Sales rank: 297,655
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, has been chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine. He is the author of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution; Steve Jobs; Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; and Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. He lives in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @WalterIsaacson.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      May 20, 1952
    2. Place of Birth:
      New Orleans, LA
    1. Education:
      Harvard, B.A. in History and Literature, 1974; Oxford (Rhodes Scholar), M.A. in Philosophy, Politics, & Economics

Read an Excerpt

Introduction: Kissinger's Realism and Today's Crusading Idealism

Three decades after he left office, Henry Kissinger continues to exert a fascinating hold on the public imagination as well as intellectual sway over the nation's foreign policy conversation. The longevity of his influence — and of his celebrity — is greater than that of any other statesman in modern times. He remains the most prominent foreign policy intellectual in the world, his advice sought by corporate and political leaders, his rumbling voice a regular on the airwaves, his byline stamping frequent analytic essays.

Partly this prolonged prominence is due, as even his detractors concede, to the power of his intellect. Nowadays, policy discussion too often tends to be polarized, partisan, and propelled by the type of talking points that work well on cable TV shows. Even people who disagree with Kissinger tend to be impressed by the rigor, nuance, depth, and unsentimental sharpness of his arguments. His writings and pronouncements combine historical axioms with timely insights to produce the same mixture of sweep and specificity that distinguished his memoirs.

Now that global politics is no longer oversimplified by the clarity of the cold war, Kissinger's approach of understanding and emphasizing balances of power has become even more relevant. Likewise, his fingertip feel for the world's webs of interdependence — how an event in one corner of the planet will reverberate in another — has become more important in an era of complex globalization.

Despite his continuing prominence, however, he has been notably absent from any official role in government. From the time he left office at the end of the Ford administration through the terms of the younger George Bush, there have been three Republican presidents in office for almost twenty of the last thirty-two years. Yet none appointed Kissinger to any high post. Why?

The answer says as much about the political changes in the Republican Party, and in the country, as it does about Kissinger. Kissinger represents a conservative internationalism that is largely rooted in realism, realpolitik, power balances, and pragmatism. In this book, I have described how the opponents who did him most harm were not those on the dovish left or liberal Democratic side, but rather the neoconservatives or highly ideological Republicans who saw America's global struggle in crusading, values-based, moral, and sentimental terms.

Ronald Reagan, as readers of this book will see, ended up being Kissinger's most wounding ideological adversary. Although Reagan at various points considered having a rapprochement with Kissinger, in the end he was excluded from the administration. More important, Reagan's approach to foreign policy — as a crusade for freedom rather than as a quest for a stable balance of power — came to define the Republican view.

This was especially true after September 11, 2001, during the George W. Bush administration. Some Kissingerian realists, most notably Brent Scowcroft and to some extent Lawrence Eagleburger, went public with their skepticism of a crusading foreign policy. Kissinger likewise had qualms, but he expressed them in a hedged, nuanced, subtle way.

That was typical for two reasons. First, his views are invariably rather nuanced, and the complexities he saw involving Iraq and the greater Middle East were typically subtle, smart, and filled with ambiguities that turned out to be prescient. The world is a complex and dangerous place, and Kissinger's great strength as an analyst (and his weakness at fitting in with more ideological conservatives) is that he is not very good at oversimplification. In addition, he is instinctively averse to open and outright challenges to people in power. This is particularly true when it comes to conservative Republicans in power, because he knows that their distrust of his ideological fervor is what has kept him exiled from office.

This relates to a core issue explored in this book, one that is, I think, even more valid today. I contend that Kissinger was one of the few realists — as opposed to idealists — to shape American diplomacy. In that approach he was a master. He had a feel for balances of power, spheres of influence, and realpolitik relations. He brilliantly created a triangular structure involving the U.S., Russia, and China, and that architecture preserved the possibility of America's power and global influence after the debacle of Vietnam.

On the other hand, he did not always have the same feel for the role that idealistic values — sentiments, he would call them — play in allowing a democracy to operate openly and with sustained confidence at home and abroad. Nor did he fully appreciate, I argue, that the openness and messiness of America's democracy is what gives strength, not weakness, to its foreign policy. He was thus — under Nixon's dark tutelage — too fond of secrecy, and too much in need of it.

Kissinger was not exactly thrilled by this argument or by this book when it first came out, even though he had given me many interviews. I think he was surprised that its critique came from the conservative side as much as from the liberal side. I also suspect, given the fact that he is not known for his thick skin, that he would probably be outraged if he reread his Nobel Peace Prize Citation or his own memoirs on the grounds that they are not favorable enough.

For a while after the book came out, he didn't speak to me. Then, after I had become the managing editor of Time, he was invited back to an anniversary party featuring all who had been on the cover. The phone rang and his distinctive voice came on to say, "Well, Walter, even the Thirty Years War had to end at some point. I will forgive you." (He did allow that his wife, Nancy, both loyal and smart, was partial to the Hunded Years War.) Since then, we have worked together on various projects, including a Middle East program at the Aspen Institute.

In our recent conversations, Kissinger has contended, persuasively, that he has always recognized the role of values in forging a sustainable foreign policy. For him there is a balance that must be struck between a nation's interests and its ideals, and that balance is best struck unsentimentally.

For a fuller expression of this argument, readers of this book should also read Kissinger's own works written subsequent to his time in office. Most notable is his 1994 tome Diplomacy, which traces the balances made in foreign policy, including that of realism and idealism, from the times of Cardinal Richelieu through brilliant chapters on Theodore Roosevelt the realist and Woodrow Wilson the idealist.

Kissinger, a European refugee who has read Metternich more avidly than Jefferson, generally tilts his book toward the realist camp. "No other nation," he wrote in Diplomacy, "has ever rested its claim to international leadership on its altruism." Other Americans might proclaim this as a point of pride; when Kissinger says it, his attitude seems that of an anthropologist examining a rather unsettling tribal ritual. The practice of basing policy on ideals rather than interests, he pointed out, can make a nation seem dangerously unpredictable.

Both in Diplomacy and in his other writings and pronouncements over the past two decades, Kissinger makes the most forceful case by any American statesman since Theodore Roosevelt for the role of realism and its Prussian-accented cousin realpolitik in international affairs. Just as George Kennan's odd admixture of romanticism and realism helped shape American attitudes at the outset of the cold war, Kissinger's emphasis on national interests rather than moral sentiments defined a framework for dealing with the complex world that emerged after the end of Soviet communism. As he put it in the conclusion of Diplomacy: "American idealism remains as essential as ever, perhaps even more so. But in the new world order, its role will be to provide the faith to sustain America through all the ambiguities of choice in an imperfect world."

In fact, America's idealism and realism have been interwoven ever since Benjamin Franklin played an ingenious balance-of-power game in France while simultaneously propagandizing about America's exceptional values. From the Monroe Doctrine to Manifest Destiny to the Marshall Plan, the U.S. has linked its interests to its ideals. This was especially true during the cold war, which was a moral crusade as well as a security struggle.

Kissinger realized, of course, that there was such a balance to be struck, and he appreciated the need for a values-based idealism to be part of this balance. However, my contention in this book, which I believe still holds, is that this balance was tilted in the 1970s a bit too much toward the secrecy and backchannel maneuverings that sometimes seem necessary in conducting a realist diplomacy in a democracy. When the third volume of his own memoirs, dealing with the Ford years, came out in 1999, well after I had written this book, he defended rather than denied this tilt. "The United States," he concluded, "must temper its missionary spirit with a concept of the national interest and rely on its head as well as its heart in defining its duty to the world." Although that sentence was written at the end of the Clinton years, it could be directed at the subsequent Bush administration as well.

Kissinger's realist power approach during the 1970s succeeded at building a worthy framework for stability, but it failed to sustain support from either end of the political spectrum, was not fully compatible with the sentiments that permit sustained international engagement in a democracy, and therefore tended to encourage an unhealthy secrecy.

Today, however, the questions facing the American polity may be from the reverse side: Have we tilted too far in the idealistic direction? Do we need a bit more Kissingerian realism and subtlety? Has the nation's international approach, in its zeal to spread freedom, become so driven by a sense of moral mission and crusading spirit that it could now use a sobering dose of caution, pragmatism, realism, cold calculation of interests, and traditional conservatism?

In answering these questions, I think it is crucial that we appreciate the role of the Kissinger conservative realpolitik tradition in the context of his forty-year struggle against what he regarded as the sentimental idealism of both crusading neoconservatives and moralistic liberals. An understanding of Kissinger and of his sense of global dynamics is just as relevant now as it was in the aftermath of Vietnam and at the end of the cold war.

Walter Isaacson

Washington, D.C.

June 2005

Copyright (c) 1992, 2005 by Walter Isaacson

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Table of Contents

Introduction 13
1 Furth: Coming of Age in Nazi Germany, 1923-1938 17
2 Washington Heights: The Americanization of an Aspiring Accountant, 1938-1943 33
3 The Army: "Mr. Henry" Comes Marching Home Again, 1943-1947 39
4 Harvard: The Ambitious Student, 1947-1955 59
5 New York: In the Service of the Establishment, 1954-1957 82
6 Harvard Again: The Professor, 1957-1968 94
7 The Fringes of Power: Kennedy, Johnson, and Rockefeller, 1961-1968 109
8 The Co-Conspirators: Kissinger and Nixon, 1968 129
9 Welcome to Vietnam: Secret Options, Secret Bombings 157
10 Kissinger's Empire: The Boss's Power and How He Operated 183
11 The Wiretaps: Office Bugs, Dead Keys, and Other Devices 212
12 No Exit: Vietnam Swallows Another Administration 234
13 The Invasion of Cambodia: An Expanded War, Resignations, and Rage 256
14 Two Weeks in September: An Hour-by-Hour Look at the Art of Crisis Juggling 285
15 Salt: Arms Control in the Back Channel 316
16 China: Creating a Triangle 333
17 Celebrity: The Secret Life of the World's Least Likely Sex Symbol 355
18 Winter of the Long Knives: After a Mishandled War, Kissinger Hits a Low Point 371
19 The Triangle: Summit Spring in Moscow and Beijing 399
20 Peace at Hand: The Paris Talks Produce an Elusive Accord 439
21 The Christmas Bombing: Hanoi Is Hit in Order to Convince Saigon to Sign 461
22 Secretary of State: A Rise That Was Helped Because Everyone Else Was Sinking 491
23 The Yom Kippur War: A Mideast Initiation, a Resupply Dispute, and a Nuclear Alert 511
24 The Shuttle: Step by Step Through Israel, Egypt, and Syria 546
25 The Press: How to Be Captivating on a Background Basis 573
26 Transitions: The Final Days, and a New Beginning 587
27 The Death of Detente: An Odd Coalition Takes a Hard Line 607
28 The Magic Is Gone: Setbacks in the Sinai and Southeast Asia 630
29 Morality in Foreign Policy: Kissinger's Realpolitik and How It Was Challenged 653
30 Africa: Covert Involvement Followed by Shuttle Diplomacy 673
31 Exit: Not With a Bang But a Whimper 693
32 Citizen Kissinger: The Jet-Set Life of a Minister Without Portfolio 705
33 Kissinger Associates: How the World's Most Famous Consultant Struck It Rich 730
34 Legacy: Policy and Personality 760
Acknowledgments 769
Notes 771
Bibliography 827
Index 841
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