Winner of the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award
No American statesman has been as revered or as reviled as Henry Kissinger. Once hailed as “Super K”—the “indispensable man” whose advice has been sought by every president from Kennedy to Obama—he has also been hounded by conspiracy theorists, scouring his every “telcon” for evidence of Machiavellian malfeasance. Yet as Niall Ferguson shows in this magisterial two-volume biography, drawing not only on Kissinger’s hitherto closed private papers but also on documents from more than a hundred archives around the world, the idea of Kissinger as the ruthless arch-realist is based on a profound misunderstanding.
The first half of Kissinger’s life is usually skimmed over as a quintessential tale of American ascent: the Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany who made it to the White House. But in this first of two volumes, Ferguson shows that what Kissinger achieved before his appointment as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser was astonishing in its own right. Toiling as a teenager in a New York factory, he studied indefatigably at night. He was drafted into the U.S. infantry and saw action at the Battle of the Bulge—as well as the liberation of a concentration camp—but ended his army career interrogating Nazis. It was at Harvard that Kissinger found his vocation. Having immersed himself in the philosophy of Kant and the diplomacy of Metternich, he shot to celebrity by arguing for “limited nuclear war.” Nelson Rockefeller hired him. Kennedy called him to Camelot. Yet Kissinger’s rise was anything but irresistible. Dogged by press gaffes and disappointed by “Rocky,” Kissinger seemed stuck—until a trip to Vietnam changed everything.
The Idealist is the story of one of the most important strategic thinkers America has ever produced. It is also a political Bildungsroman, explaining how “Dr. Strangelove” ended up as consigliere to a politician he had always abhorred. Like Ferguson’s classic two-volume history of the House of Rothschild, Kissinger sheds dazzling new light on an entire era. The essential account of an extraordinary life, it recasts the Cold War world.
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Indeed I cannot conceive a more perfect mode of writing any man’s life, than not only relating all the most important events of it in their order, but interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought; by which mankind are enabled as it were to see him live, and to “live o’er each scene” with him, as he actually advanced through the several stages of his life. . . . I will venture to say that he will be seen in this work more completely than any man who has ever yet lived. And he will be seen as he really was; for I profess to write, not his panegyrick, which must be all praise, but his Life. . . . [I]n every picture there should be shade as well as light.
—BOSWELL, Life of Johnson1
The task of the biographer, as James Boswell understood, is to enable the reader to see, in her mind’s eye, his subject live. To achieve this, the biographer must know his subject. That means reading all that he wrote as well as much that was written about him. It also means, if the subject is living, not merely interviewing him but getting to know him, as Boswell got to know Johnson: conversing with him, supping with him, even traveling with him. The challenge is, of course, to do so without falling so much under the subject’s influence that the reader ceases to believe the disclaimer that the work is a life, not a panegyric. Boswell, who grew to love Johnson, achieved this feat in two ways: by making explicit Johnson’s boorish manners and slovenly appearance, but also (as Jorge Luis Borges noted) by making himself a figure of fun—a straight man to Johnson’s wit, an overexcitable Scot to Johnson’s dry Englishman.2 My approach has been different.
In addition to the help of all those thanked in the acknowledgments, this author has had one noteworthy advantage over his predecessors: I have had access to Henry Kissinger’s private papers, not only the papers from his time in government, housed at the Library of Congress, but also the private papers donated to Yale University in 2011, which include more than a hundred boxes of personal writings, letters, and diaries dating back to the 1940s. I have also been able to interview the subject of the work on multiple occasions and at considerable length. Not only has this book been written with Henry Kissinger’s cooperation; it was written at his suggestion.
For this reason, I can predict with certainty that hostile reviewers will allege that I have in some way been influenced or induced to paint a falsely flattering picture. This is not the case. Although I was granted access to the Kissinger papers and was given some assistance with the arrangement of interviews with family members and former colleagues, my sole commitment was to make my “best efforts to record [his] life ‘as it actually was’ on the basis of an informed study of the documentary and other evidence available.” This commitment was part of a legal agreement between us, drawn up in 2004, which ended with the following clause:
While the authority of the Work will be enhanced by the extent of the Grantor’s [i.e., Kissinger’s] assistance . . . it will be enhanced still more by the fact of the Author’s independence; thus, it is understood and agreed that . . . the Author shall have full editorial control over the final manuscript of the Work, and the Grantor shall have no right to vet, edit, amend or prevent the publication of the finished manuscript of the Work.
The sole exception was that, at Dr. Kissinger’s request, I would not use quotations from his private papers that contained sensitive personal information. I am glad to say that he exercised this right on only a handful of occasions and always in connection with purely personal—and indeed intimate familial—matters.
This book has been just over ten years in the making. Throughout this long endeavor, I believe I have been true to my resolve to write the life of Henry Kissinger “as it actually was”—wie es eigentlich gewesen, in Ranke’s famous phrase (which is perhaps better translated “as it essentially was”). Ranke believed that the historian’s vocation was to infer historical truth from documents—not a dozen documents (the total number cited in one widely read book about Kissinger) but many thousands. I certainly cannot count how many documents I and my research assistant Jason Rockett have looked at in the course of our work. I can count only those that we thought worthy of inclusion in our digital database. The current total of documents is 8,380—a total of 37,645 pages. But these documents are drawn not just from Kissinger’s private and public papers. In all, we have drawn material from 111 archives all around the world, ranging from the major presidential libraries to obscure private collections. (A full list of those consulted for this volume is provided in the sources.) There are of course archives that remain closed and documents that remain classified. However, compared with most periods before and since, the 1970s stand out for the abundance of primary sources. This was the age of the Xerox machine and the audio tape recorder. The former made it easy for institutions to make multiple copies of important documents, increasing the probability that one of them would become accessible to a future historian. Nixon’s and Kissinger’s fondness for the latter, combined with the expansion of freedom of information that followed Watergate, ensured that many conversations that might never have found their way into the historical record are now freely available for all to read.
My motivation in casting the widest and deepest possible net in my trawl for material was straightforward. I was determined to see Kissinger’s life not just from his vantage point but from multiple vantage points, and not just from the American perspective but from the perspectives of friends, foes, and the nonaligned. Henry Kissinger was a man who, at the height of his power, could justly be said to bestride the world. Such a man’s life requires a global biography.
I always intended to write two volumes. The question was where to break the story. In the end, I decided to conclude the first volume just after Richard Nixon announced to the world that Kissinger was to be his national security adviser, but before Kissinger had moved into his office in the West Wing basement and actually started work. There were two reasons for this choice. First, at the end of 1968 Henry Kissinger was forty-five years old. As I write, he is ninety-one. So this volume covers more or less exactly the first half of his life. Second, I wanted to draw a clear line between Kissinger the thinker and Kissinger the actor. It is true that Kissinger was more than just a scholar before 1969. As an adviser to presidents and presidential candidates, he was directly involved in the formulation of foreign policy throughout the 1960s. By 1967, if not before, he had become an active participant in the diplomatic effort to begin negotiations with the North Vietnamese government in the hope of ending the Vietnam War. Yet he had no experience of executive office. He was more a consultant than a true adviser, much less a decision maker. Indeed, that was former president Dwight Eisenhower’s reason for objecting to his appointment. “But Kissinger is a professor,” he exclaimed when he heard of Nixon’s choice. “You ask professors to study things, but you never put them in charge of anything. . . . I’m going to call Dick about that.”3 Kissinger was indeed a professor before he was a practitioner. It therefore makes sense to consider him first as what I believe he was before 1969: one of the most important theorists about foreign policy ever to be produced by the United States of America. Had Kissinger never entered government, this volume would still have been worth writing, just as Robert Skidelsky would still have had good reason to write his superb life of John Maynard Keynes even if Keynes had never left the courtyards of Cambridge for the corridors of power in His Majesty’s Treasury.
It was in London, in a bookshop, that Boswell first met Johnson. My first meeting with Kissinger was also in London, at a party given by Conrad Black. I was an Oxford don who dabbled in journalism, and I was naturally flattered when the elder statesman expressed his admiration for a book I had written about the First World War. (I was also impressed by the speed with which I was dropped when the model Elle Macpherson entered the room.) But I was more intimidated than pleased when, some months later, Kissinger suggested to me that I might write his biography. I knew enough to be aware that another British historian had been offered and had accepted this commission, only to get cold feet. At the time, I could see only the arguments against stepping into his evidently chilly shoes. I was under contract to write other books (including another biography). I was not an expert on postwar U.S. foreign policy. I would need to immerse myself in a sea of documents. I would inevitably be savaged by Christopher Hitchens and others. And so in early March 2004, after several meetings, telephone calls, and letters, I said no. This was to be my introduction to the diplomacy of Henry Kissinger:
What a pity! I received your letter just as I was hunting for your telephone number to tell you of the discovery of files I thought had been lost: 145 boxes which had been placed in a repository in Connecticut by a groundkeeper who has since died. These contain all my files—writings, letters, sporadic diaries, at least to 1955 and probably to 1950, together with some twenty boxes of private correspondence from my government service. . . .
Be that as it may, our conversations had given me the confidence—after admittedly some hesitation—that you would have done a definitive—if not necessarily positive—evaluation.
For that I am grateful even as it magnifies my regret.4
Excerpted from "Kissinger"
Copyright © 2016 Niall Ferguson.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Heimat 33
Chapter 2 Escape 62
Chapter 3 Fürth on the Hudson 82
Chapter 4 An Unexpected Private 112
Chapter 5 The Living and the Dead 137
Chapter 6 In the Ruins of the Reich 169
Chapter 7 The Idealist 209
Chapter 8 Psychological Warfare 244
Chapter 9 Doctor Kissinger 291
Chapter 10 Strangelove? 330
Chapter 11 Boswash 386
Chapter 12 The Intellectual and the Policy Maker 421
Chapter 13 Flexible Responses 461
Chapter 14 Facts of Life 514
Chapter 15 Crisis 544
Chapter 16 The Road to Vietnam 581
Chapter 17 The Unquiet American 626
Chapter 18 Dirt Against the Wind 667
Chapter 19 The Anti-Bismarck 693
Chapter 20 Waiting for Hanoi 731
Chapter 21 1968 786
Chapter 22 The Unlikely Combination 835
Epilogue: A Bildungsroman 865
Illustration Credits 946