Niall Ferguson
Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist
Penguin Press 2015 986 pp.

“Surely no statesman in modern times … has been as revered and then as reviled as Henry Kissinger.” So begins Niall Ferguson’s commissioned biography. But reverence and revulsion for Kissinger have never been sequential. Instead, for sixty years, Henry Kissinger has been a paragon of of America’s bipartisan ruling class, whose evolving identity he has reflected. Ordinary people, however, sensed that he cared less for them than for his own career and ideas, and that he has served America badly. In 1976, as Democratic and Republican Party elites were celebrating Secretary of State Kissinger’s 1972 deals with the Soviet Union, his 1973 “Paris Peace Accords” after which America’s naval bases in Vietnam became Soviet bases, and were looking none too closely at the substance of the newly established relationship with China, the insurgent faction of the Democratic Party that nominated Jimmy Carter made rejection of Kissinger the winning issue of that year’s presidential campaign. Meanwhile Ronald Reagan was doing the same thing on behalf of the Republican rank and file, and continued to do it through his landslide victory in 1980.

Kissinger is the only person, ever, who both of America’s political parties reviled at the same time, and whose rejection helped elect two presidents in a row. For two generations, no one had greater influence on US foreign policy than Kissinger. America’s ins and outs have regarded him so differently because their views of America and of its role in the world are so different.

Although Niall Ferguson’s massive, detail-filled biography contains a surfeit of material by which the inquisitive reader may draw his own conclusions, its introduction heralds an explicit attempt to counter mostly critical biographies — from right and left — as well as the general public’s negative perceptions. This first volume, with young Henry on the cover looking innocent to the point of dreaminess, argues that we should regard whatever personal features of his that one might find distasteful as consequent to his “idealism,” defined in terms of Immanuel Kant’s conflation of a secularized “golden rule” with the imperative to craft a “federation of free states” to maintain “perpetual peace.” Yet the book makes no attempt to show how this translates to Kissinger’s behavior. It also treats his character evasively. For example, it asks the reader to accept that his own cynical explanation for his “not so secret”swinging single life  (“power is the greatest aphrodisiac”) was in jest, as were his other cynical explanations for his actions. Nevertheless, Ferguson gives chapter and verse on Kissinger’s un-endearing habit of tyrannizing subordinates while ingratiating and manipulating superiors.

The book does treat at some length the nexus between Kissinger’s personal character and his actions in public life, namely his relationship with Fritz Kraemer, who Walter Isaacson described as Henry’s “guide, mentor, father confessor and keeper of his conscience.” In 1943, Private Henry Kissinger had been assigned to the 84th Infantry division. Kraemer, also a German immigrant but already an accomplished scholar who was working for its commanding General, noticed Kissinger’s intelligence, befriended him, steered him into Military Intelligence, and later to Harvard. All the while, through the 1950s, and then decreasingly until Kissinger became Nixon’s National Security Adviser, Kraemer fed his protege’s mind and did his best to inspire in him his own nobility of spirit and devotion to righteousness over power and fame. Kraemer’s letters to Kissinger, some which Ferguson reproduces, show his increasing concern and then disappointment with Kissinger’s reversal of Kraemer’s priorities. Ferguson does not mention that Kissinger turned his back on Kraemer, or that he delivered an apologetic, tearful eulogy when Kraemer was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Following William Yandell Elliott, his mentor at Harvard, Henry Kissinger had chosen the pursuit of power over scholarship. Elliot helped him set up the Harvard International Seminar, which initiated him, as an undergraduate, into the world of high-level conferences. Then McGeorge Bundy, Harvard’s dean and later Kennedy’s National Security Adviser, made the newly minted Assistant Professor associate director of its Center for International Affairs. By 1956 Kissinger was running the staff of a group convened by the Council On Foreign Relations to craft an alternative to the nuclear weapons policy by which the Eisenhower administration was seeking to contain the Soviet empire while avoiding more Koreas. His first book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957) was his summary of this group’s work. His next book, The Necessity for Choice, (1961) resulted from his direction of a Rockefeller-sponsored Special Studies Project to define the nation’s “critical choices in national security.” All this was less original scholarship than immersion in and expression of the sentiments of the Left side of America’s socio-political Establishment.

This Establishment’s concern – to avoid nuclear war – was primordial over substantive issues of foreign policy, war, peace or the qualities thereof. This hierarchy of value is precisely what had led the Truman administration to disapprove of MacArthur’s plans for atom-bombing the Chinese army’s supply lines in Korea and instead to sacrifice some 50 thousand American lives in a no-win war. The Eisenhower policy of “retaliation at times and places and with weapons of our own choosing” was a preference for using nuclear weapons to avoid wasting american and allied lives as in Korea. Kissinger’s book, Ferguson makes clear, told allies that, to avoid nuclear war,  “the goal of war can no longer be military victory.” but rather to achieve “certain political conditions that are fully understood by the other side” that to this end, the U.S would “present (the enemy) at every point with an opportunity for a settlement…”, that the enemy would be afforded “pauses for calculation,” and that the enemy’s main forces (explicitly only nuclear ones but, by implication others as well) would be “ruled out as targets otherwise any war would be bound to escalate.” This invited other Korean wars and predicted how Kissinger’s America would manage Vietnam.

By the time Kissinger wrote, rational-choice theory, sometimes otherwise known as game theory, had bolstered the elite’s visceral notion that nuclear war was just too, too much for anyone. Thomas Schelling, Kissinger’s colleague down the hall at Harvard, had drawn up a matrix that shows that compromise is the best way for nations to maximize their achievement of conflicting goals. This, of course assumes that the conflicting parties are interchangeable. Kissinger’s work on international affairs is based on this assumption. It is a priori, abstract. Hence, in the Kantian tradition, it is “idealistic.” By the same token, it is removed from reality.

Indeed, that is the attractiveness of the Schelling-Kissinger approach to international affairs: it allows folks in positions of responsibility to imagine that numbers and kinds, and above all that functions of weapons do not matter, and that neither do the differences between the characters, ideas, or religions of peoples. But, as Fritz Kraemer never ceased to teach, they count for everything. By the time Henry Kissinger had been in charge of US foreign policy for eight years, the rank and file of Republicans and Democrats had figured out that his character and his choices had brought America discredit, defeat and danger. Alas, today’s bipartisan ruling class considers him a fount of wisdom.

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University, and a member of the Hoover Institution’s working group on military history. He is the author of fourteen books, including  Informing Statecraft, War, ends And Means, The Character of Nations, Advice to War Presidents, and To Make and Keep Peace.  He served on President Ronald Reagan’s transition teams for the Department of State and the Intelligence agencies. He was a US naval officer and a US foreign service officer. As a staff member of the US Senate Intelligence committee, he supervised the intelligence agencies’ budgets with emphasis on collection systems and counterintelligence. He was instrumental in developing technologies for modern anti-missile defense. Codevilla has taught ancient and modern political thought and international affairs at major universities.

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