A scholar’s jour­ney to the West Wing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Paul Monk

If your as­pi­ra­tion was to be­come a his­to­rian, you could hardly con­ceive of a bet­ter tra­jec­tory than that of Niall Fer­gu­son: Glas­gow Acad­emy, Ox­ford, Cam­bridge, Har­vard, the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics, the Hoover Institution at Stan­ford Univer­sity, 15 books, tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­taries, tren­chant pub­lic com­men­tary and now a bi­og­ra­phy of Henry Kissinger. It is an as­tound­ing record for a man still only 51.

This first vol­ume, Kissinger 1923-1968: The Ide­al­ist, is mas­ter­ful. It ex­hibits a ma­tu­rity of ex­pres­sion and judg­ment that is im­mensely im­pres­sive. It points ir­re­sistibly to the forth­com­ing sec­ond vol­ume as per­haps Fer­gu­son’s crown­ing achieve­ment.

He was only 40 when Henry Kissinger ap­proached him, in 2004, and asked if he would write an au­tho­rised bi­og­ra­phy. It was a re­mark­able trib­ute to the young his­to­rian that an el­der states­man twice his age should make this re­quest. Kissinger must have been im­pressed by Fer­gu­son’s body of work over the pre­ced­ing decade, start­ing in 1995 with Pa­per and Iron: Ham­burg Busi­ness and Ger­man Pol­i­tics in the Era of In­fla­tion, 1897-1927, and con­clud­ing in 2004 with Colos­sus: The Rise and Fall of the Amer­i­can Em­pire.

Fer­gu­son al­ready had many other projects on the draw­ing board and knew a bi­og­ra­phy of Kissinger would not only be a mas­sive un­der­tak­ing but, as he writes in the in­tro­duc­tion, ‘‘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, he com­ments wryly, ‘‘was to be my in­tro­duc­tion to the diplo­macy of Henry Kissinger’’, who wrote to him ex­claim­ing it was a pity he had de­clined, be­cause 145 boxes con­tain­ing his pri­vate pa­pers go­ing back ‘‘at least to 1955 and prob­a­bly to 1950’’, which he had be­lieved lost, had turned up; and also be­cause ‘‘our con­ver­sa­tions had given me the con­fi­dence — af­ter ad­mit­tedly some hes­i­ta­tion — that you would have done a de­fin­i­tive — if not nec­es­sar­ily pos­i­tive — eval­u­a­tion’’. Se­duced by the al­lure of those pa­pers, Fer­gu­son con­sented.

The book is im­pres­sive in at least seven dis­tinct ways: its mas­tery of a mass of de­tail; its ar­chi­tec­tonic bal­ance; its felic­ity of ex­pres­sion; its of­ten strik­ing and el­e­gant obiter dicta about hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence, aca­demic life and world af­fairs; its in­sight­ful and un­flinch­ing char­ac­ter sketches of suc­ces­sive Amer­i­can pres­i­dents and other prom­i­nent fig­ures, as well of nu­mer­ous other char­ac­ters in the ex­tra­or­di­nary story of Kissinger’s first 45 years; its uniquely orig­i­nal and strik­ingly in­de­pen­dent as­sess­ment of Kissinger’s char­ac­ter and de­vel­op­ment; and its mag­nif­i­cent stage set­ting for what is to come in the sec­ond vol­ume, which will ex­am­ine Kissinger as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser and sec­re­tary of state.

Fer­gu­son’s sweep­ing works and out­spo­ken stances as a pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual have drawn fire from both the po­lit­i­cal Left and aca­demic or jour­nal­is­tic writ­ers who find fault with his out­look or his work. Among those who have claimed to find fault with this book, Greg Grandin, writ­ing in The Guardian in mid-Oc­to­ber, typ­i­fies just the kind of ten­den­tious ‘‘sav­aging’’ that Fer­gu­son an­tic­i­pated would come from Hitchens and oth­ers.

Grandin, whose own book, Kissinger’s Shadow, is due out soon, as­serts that Fer­gu­son’s book is an ex­tended but liti­gious, lazy and ‘‘bor­ing’’ de­fence of its sub­ject. He in­sists Fer­gu­son has avoided the ‘‘dark side of Kissinger’s char­ac­ter and mo­ti­va­tion and is in er­ror — de­lib­er­ately and cul­pa­bly — in re­ject­ing the claim that Kissinger helped Richard Nixon sab­o­tage the se­cret ne­go­ti­a­tions with North Viet­nam in Paris in 1968, in or­der to se­cure his ap­point­ment as Nixon’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser.

Grandin plainly has the same view of Kissinger as Hitchens set out in The Trial of Henry Kissinger: that he was a war crim­i­nal on a large scale and should be hanged for de­ci­sions that he ac­tu­ally or al­legedly took while in of­fice, re­gard­ing Indo-China, Bangladesh, Chile and East Ti­mor, among other mat­ters. But Grandin is jump­ing the gun. Fer­gu­son ar­gues, very per­sua­sively in my view, that Kissinger was mo­ti­vated not by ‘‘dark’’ im­pulses but by a highly in­tel­li­gent, com­plex and per­cep­tive com­mit­ment to state­craft and to find­ing ways to make Amer­i­can for­eign and in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity pol­icy work bet­ter. He demon­strates metic­u­lously that Kissinger did not sab­o­tage the John­son ad­min­is­tra­tion or con­nive in any ma­lign way with Nixon, and that he did not ex­pect to be­come na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser at all, right up to the point when Nixon ex­plic­itly made him the of­fer in De­cem­ber 1968. He de­pends on no con­vo­luted or ten­den­tious rea­son­ing but on a de­tailed and ju­di­cious as­sess­ment of the roles of many ac­tors in the events lead­ing up to the De­cem­ber 1968 ap­point­ment.

De­ter­mined to as­sert that Fer­gu­son is out to ex­cul­pate Kissinger in vol­ume two, Grandin ap­pears not to have read most of vol­ume one. In fact, Fer­gu­son’s long, deeply in­formed ac­count of Kissinger’s in­tel­lec­tual for­ma­tion and his dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the John­son ad­min­is­tra­tion’s war in Viet­nam as early as 1965 make com­pelling read­ing. One of the most eye-open­ing rev­e­la­tions is that crit­i­cisms of John­son’s poli­cies, of the work­ings of his na­tional se­cu­rity de­ci­sion-making ap­pa­ra­tus and of the con­duct of the war in Viet­nam that have al­ways been as­so­ci­ated with left-wing crit­ics of the war and, in my opin­ion, with the think­ing of Daniel Ells­berg be­fore and af­ter he leaked the Pen­tagon Pa­pers to The New York Times, can be found ex­plic­itly in pa­pers and me­moran­dums writ­ten by Kissinger in 1965-66.


This is all the more strik­ing be­cause, at least in this vol­ume, Fer­gu­son hardly men­tions Ells­berg and cer­tainly shows no sign of hav­ing set out to ar­gue that Kissinger an­tic­i­pated Ells­berg’s Pa­pers on the War or more gen­eral pub­lic stance af­ter 1971. Yet the pre­cise word­ing used by Kissinger in a se­ries of pa­pers in the mid-1960s is so redo­lent of things Ells­berg wrote years later that I found my­self won­der­ing whether Ells­berg had un­con­sciously echoed Kissinger, whom he knew from Har­vard.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween the two, af­ter 1968, was that Ells­berg de­fected from the in­ner coun­cils of state and sought to change pol­icy by leak­ing vast quan­ti­ties of clas­si­fied doc­u­ments to the press. Kissinger sought to re­shape the in­ner work­ings of those coun­cils through his highly in­tel­li­gent and quite trans­par­ent writ­ings up to late 1968, and to take direct re­spon­si­bil­ity for their work­ings when of­fered the chance by Nixon, de­spite never hav­ing liked Nixon as ei­ther a per­son or a politi­cian.

Cen­tral to the ar­chi­tec­ture of Fer­gu­son’s bi­og­ra­phy is his at­tempt to trace the de­vel­op­ment of Kissinger’s think­ing over decades. Grandin as­serts that this makes Kissinger ‘‘bor­ing’’. He could not be more mis­taken. What is bor­ing are the tired old cliches of the Left about Kissinger. In this new bi­og­ra­phy we can see Kissinger’s gifted mind, his ideals, his use of history, his re­la­tion­ships with men­tors, his an­a­lyt­i­cal acu­men, his po­lit­i­cal out­look and his at­tempts as an im­mi­grant Ger­man Jew to grasp and then shape the ma­chin­ery of for­eign and se­cu­rity pol­i­cy­mak­ing in the US. The book con­cludes with a very fine sum­ma­tion, in the 14-page epi­logue, of what Fer­gu­son calls the bil­dungsro­man of Kissinger — ‘‘the tale of his ed­u­ca­tion through ex­pe­ri­ence, some of it bit­ter’’.

This epi­logue is in it­self a beau­ti­ful piece of writ­ing, open­ing with a ref­er­ence to Goethe’s fa­mous bil­dungsro­man Wil­helm Meister’s Ap

pren­tice­ship and con­clud­ing with an in­vo­ca­tion of the fifth cen­tury BC anti-war com­edy Peace by the Athe­nian play­wright Aristo­phanes. It is a mea­sure of the qual­ity of Fer­gu­son’s mind that he has been able to avoid look­ing at the early life of Kissinger through the jaun­diced lenses the Left would have had him wear; to ex­am­ine the sub­ject dis­pas­sion­ately; to have ap­pre­ci­ated both the ironies in Kissinger’s cir­cuitous as­cent to the West Wing of the White House and the acute dilem­mas that lay in wait for him as a scholar-states­man.

As he re­marks, Kissinger worked, through­out the 60s, for Nel­son Rock­e­feller, whose aris­to­cratic lib­eral Re­pub­li­can­ism he ad­mired, de­spite the fact that Rock­e­feller was never go­ing to be­come pres­i­dent; then was rec­om­mended to Nixon by both Rock­e­feller and John­son. What he took on had al­ready driven the Democrats, both lib­eral and con­ser­va­tive, to de­spair. He could have left it to oth­ers. He chose to take the poi­soned chal­ice and at­tempt to deal in­tel­li­gently with the vast chal­lenges con­fronting the US by the end of 1968.

What fol­lowed made him one of the tow­er­ing fig­ures of 20th cen­tury state­craft. Read­ing the sec­ond vol­ume of Fer­gu­son’s bi­og­ra­phy will, there­fore, be im­mensely ab­sorb­ing. But make no mis­take, in this first vol­ume he has pro­duced a mas­ter­piece and one that must be read in ev­ery graduate school of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, history and state­craft.

Henry Kissinger with Richard Nixon in 1970, far left, and dis­play­ing a copy of Time mag­a­zine de­pict­ing him and Nixon as Men of the Year, aboard Air Force One in 1972

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