ost people who live a long life are fortunate, but Henry Kissinger is more fortunate than most. At 92 he can still make significant interventions on issues of foreign policy. He has outlived not only most of his contemporaries but also some significantly younger critics. And he has survived to see his reputation rebalance itself, in part by living into a foreign-policy era that suggests even his most controversial actions were at least agonizingly considered. Longevity has been good for Henry Kissinger.
Now he has also lived to see the publication of the first volume of his authorized biography. It is no reflection on the work ethic of the historian Niall Ferguson to say that some of us a third of Kissinger’s age wondered if we would live to read this book. At least two other historians were at some point announced as the author of the “authorized” Kissinger. Rumors over why these arrangements fell through were feverish. Did Kissinger try to preempt the conclusions of their research? Did the biographers discover something terrible in the archives that persuaded them not to persist? Or did they simply survey the quantity of work and decide against it? It turns out it was worth the wait.
There is something charmingly honest about Ferguson’s admission in his preface that one reason he at first turned down Kissinger’s request to write his biography was that he would “inevitably be savaged by Christopher Hitchens and others.” He puts the arrangement between author and subject out there at the start, reproducing a portion of a 2004 legal agreement to demonstrate the freedom with which he pursued his researches and drew his conclusions. The only interference made by his subject in the final text was a handful of occasions on which Kissinger asked for, and was granted, the deletion of certain intimate family matters.
Reading about at the Kissinger at the Battle of the Bulge and his activities in de-Nazification after the war are a reminder that no generation’s experiences after Kissinger’s could possibly be as admirable or horrifying.
The opening chapters of most political biographies are often worth skimming, but nobody could skim these. Ferguson’s account of the Kissinger family’s origins in Bavaria offers a devastating portrait of a society in the process of turning septic. In interviews throughout his life Kissinger has tended to overcompensate against popular psychoanalysis by dismissing the import of growing up in 1930s Germany. But it cannot be dismissed, and when he got out with his immediate family just in time (in 1938), Kissinger did not arrive in America as an ordinary 15-year-old. Apart from anything else, he already knew what most of the world had yet to learn: that the world can fall about your ears with outrageous ease.
When war came, the young American joined up, met his first serious mentor in the historian Fritz Kraemer, and under Kraemer’s tutelage developed intellectually while he served in uniform. Ferguson’s accounts of Kissinger at the Battle of the Bulge and his activities in de-Nazification after the war are a reminder that no generation’s experiences after Kissinger’s could possibly be as admirable or horrifying as these. A scholarship to Harvard after his discharge opened up the possibilities of a young man who already had the depth and scope of a man several times his age.
One of the treats of this book is Ferguson’s ability to weave into the story of one life the knowledge he’s acquired as a historian of the great movements of history (as in his history of finance, The Ascent of Money). His descriptions of the key moments of the postwar period and its seamless contraction into the Cold War period in particular are outstanding, as are his nuanced but important corrections to some of the myths surrounding his subject.
The subtitle of this volume—The Idealist—is no mere provocation as a description of the man whose key years in power would find him eschewing idealism for what he believed to be stark realism. The young Kissinger was deeply influenced by his reading of Kant, and quotations from his letters and early work more than justify the moniker. Ferguson also neatly chases away the common misperception that Machiavelli was a particular influence or, later on, that Bismarck was his role model.
Ferguson’s account of Kissinger’s rise shows someone who was certainly glum when he wasn’t listened to but who was a good way from the scheming climber he is presumed even by his admirers to have been. What besides an admirable loyalty made him tie himself to Nelson Rockefeller’s endless races for the Republican nomination? An uncharitable explanation that he was a young academic seeking proximity to wealth doesn’t quite do it when you consider the number of times he could have backed other more likely winners.
His time served on the fringes of the Kennedy administration—and the view it afforded him of what had gone wrong at the center—provided Kissinger an early lesson in the sewers of Washington politics. It was during this time that his reputation grew, elevating him from someone interesting to someone indispensable. He sought to build upon his startlingly learned early books and unusual clarity on nuclear questions in the mid-1960s when he chose to make a number of risky but rewarding trips to Vietnam to understand, from the ground up, a situation on which most policymakers were simply bloviating.
Party politics were ugly to him throughout, but his venture to the Republican convention in 1964 to see Rockefeller get heckled by the insurgent followers of the populist Barry Goldwater was revelatory. In a previously unpublished account Kissinger describes his horror at watching the behavior of delegates in the hall and at being asked for his name on the way out of the room by one of Goldwater’s men with a list: “I was not on it. But he knew me and said, ‘Kissinger—don’t think we’ll forget your name.’ ” As Ferguson adds, “those were chilling words to a refugee from Nazi Germany.” The connection was one that—in private—Kissinger made very clear.
Ferguson’s account of how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations floundered their way through the Vietnam period are appropriately terrifying, but he is also careful to stress, in all of this, what Kissinger was not responsible for. Indeed, at the crucial moment when Vietnam turned into a world-historical calamity, Kissinger was still just the chief foreign-policy adviser to “two-time loser” Rockefeller, not the cross between Grima Wormtongue and Dr. Strangelove of popular imagination.
Volume I’s 850-page narrative concludes at the halfway point in Kissinger’s life, when the professor-adviser had just joined the Nixon administration and turned into the most unlikely global celebrity of the postwar period. Fascinating and dauntingly impressive though this book undoubtedly is, it is made more so by the awareness that it is merely the groundwork. The real fight—for Kissinger and his biographer—is yet to come.
Arguing for Kissinger up to 1968 is one thing. Arguing for him (as Ferguson to a considerable extent does) from 1968 onwards is a different and more daunting task altogether. Nevertheless, it already seems to me that Ferguson and his readers are at the midway point of one of the great American biographies.