Bi­og­ra­phy or ha­giog­ra­phy?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY MARIO DEL PERO

A fawn­ing, au­tho­rized ac­count of Kissinger’s early years.

Niall Fer­gu­son wants us to re­ject the stereo­typed im­age of Henry Kissinger as a cyn­i­cal, amoral re­al­ist. He’d like us to be­lieve that Kissinger was a kind of tor­mented ide­al­ist who be­lieved in the “need for a moral foun­da­tion for for­eign pol­icy.” Fer­gu­son goes to great lengths — nearly 1,000 pages, in fact — to con­struct his ar­gu­ment, but ul­ti­mately it proves un­con­vinc­ing.

This first in­stall­ment of a long-awaited, two-vol­ume bi­og­ra­phy cov­ers the pe­riod from Kissinger’s birth in 1923 to his se­lec­tion as Nixon’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser in 1968.

The 1,000 pages of Vol­ume 1 are them­selves di­vided into five “books.” The first, and the most orig­i­nal and bal­anced, cov­ers the 1920s to World War II. The sec­ond is on Kissinger’s years at Har­vard, where he did his un­der­grad­u­ate and grad­u­ate stud­ies; the pe­riod at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions (when Kissinger made his first splash with his con­sid­er­a­tions of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of­fered by lim­ited nu­clear war); and his work as an ad­viser to a prince who never was, Nel­son Rock­e­feller. The third book fol­lows Kissinger’s ini­ti­a­tion into the world of high pol­icy (and rough pol­i­tics) and his as­so­ci­a­tion — al­ways frus­trat­ingly in­for­mal and par­tial — with Kennedy’s best and bright­est. Books IV and V nar­rate Kissinger’s re­flec­tions and rec­om­men­da­tions on the in­ter­ven­tion in Viet­nam, dis­cuss in hy­per-dense de­tail his

in­volve­ment in the botched peace ne­go­ti­a­tions of 1967- 68, and end with his de­ci­sion to serve a pres­i­dent, Richard Nixon, he had just de­clared “un­fit” for the role.

The ob­jec­tive of Fer­gu­son, whom Kissinger per­son­ally se­lected for the task, is to write a Bil­dungsro­man: “the story of an ed­u­ca­tion that was both philo­soph­i­cal and sen­ti­men­tal.” For a life like Kissinger’s, a “global bi­og­ra­phy” and there­fore global re­search were needed. Fer­gu­son is not shy in de­scrib­ing his archival feats: In the open­ing pages the reader is duly in­formed that ma­te­ri­als were drawn from “111 ar­chives all around the world” and that the to­tal pages wor­thy of in­clu­sion in the dig­i­tal data­base cre­ated for the book to­taled 37,645.

As is of­ten the case, there is some ex­ag­ger­a­tion be­hind this archival machismo. In re­al­ity, the vast ma­jor­ity — in­deed the quasi-to­tal­ity — of the pri­mary sources came from the two Kissinger col­lec­tions, one at Yale and the other at the Li­brary of Congress. But Fer­gu­son and his staff have un­earthed some very in­ter­est­ing and nar­ra­tive-en­rich­ing doc­u­ments from un­likely repos­i­to­ries, such as the mu­nic­i­pal ar­chives of Fürth and Krefeld, the Ger­man cities where Kissinger was born and, in 1945, placed in charge of the Army’s counter-in­tel­li­gence corps re­spon­si­ble for de­naz­i­fi­ca­tion.

The sec­tion on World War II and Kissinger’s fast-for­ward Amer­i­can­iza­tion by way of New York public schools and Army train­ing is the most en­gag­ing and per­sua­sive. By stress­ing the for­ma­tive value of this ex­pe­ri­ence, Fer­gu­son ef­fec­tively dis­man­tles some el­e­ments of a su­per­fi­cial Kissin­ge­rian mythol­ogy, first and fore­most the no­tion that he was a “child of Weimar,” bound for­ever to be in­flu­enced by his ex­pe­ri­ence with the frail and col­laps­ing Ger­man democ­racy. As Fer­gu­son cor­rectly points out, Kissinger was not even 10 when the Weimar democ­racy fi­nally col­lapsed, and in his later writ­ings he de­voted lit­tle or no at­ten­tion to it.

When the nar­ra­tive moves to the ColdWar, how­ever, the prob­lems be­gin. Fer­gu­son chal­lenges another in­grained stereo­type: Kissinger as a hard-nosed and amoral re­al­ist, a Euro­pean re­alpoli­tiker on lease to naive and hy­per-ide­al­ist Amer­ica (an im­age, it must be said, that the man him­self has al­ways at­tempted to con­vey). To counter the sim­plis­tic por­trait of an arch-re­al­ist, Fer­gu­son pro­poses an equally rigid and one-di­men­sional char­ac­ter­i­za­tion: the anti-ma­te­ri­al­ist, Kan­tian ide­al­ist (hence the sub­ti­tle of the book). Just like the Kissinger-as-re­al­ist of many other bi­ogra­phies, Fer­gu­son’s Kissinger-as-ide­al­ist of­ten seems out of place in a ColdWar Amer­ica dom­i­nated by prag­ma­tists such as the whiz kids of the Kennedy and John­son ad­min­is­tra­tions: tech­nocrats who, Fer­gu­son ar­gues, thought that the com­pe­ti­tion with the Soviet Union could be car­ried out, and even­tu­ally won, not by of­fer­ing higher ideals but by prov­ing the eco­nomic su­pe­ri­or­ity of the Amer­i­can ver­sion of in­dus­trial moder­nity.

To com­pound mat­ters, Fer­gu­son, who makes lit­tle ef­fort to en­gage with the rich his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of the ColdWar, adopts a very sim­plis­tic and bi­nary de­scrip­tion of the post-1945 bipo­lar an­tag­o­nism (“the Cold War,” he writes — en­tomb­ing into this sen­tence a half-cen­tury of schol­arly de­bate — “was a strug­gle be­tween two ri­val ide­olo­gies: the the­o­ries of En­light­en­ment as en­cap­su­lated in the Amer­i­can Con­sti­tu­tion, and the the­o­ries of Marx and Lenin as ar­tic­u­lated by suc­ces­sive lead­ers”). Here the bi­og­ra­phy of­ten slips into ha­giog­ra­phy, with Kissinger por­trayed as the lonely, en­light­ened voice in the land of the deaf; a man hero­ically com­mit­ted to the strug­gle against the con­cep­tual vacu­ity and, even more, against the “history deficit” that Fer­gu­son iden­ti­fies as one of the quin­tes­sen­tial de­fi­cien­cies of U.S. po­lit­i­cal cul­ture. Kissinger’s early pon­der­ings on the won­ders of lim­ited nu­clear war are thus de­scribed as pre­scient, bold and orig­i­nal (they weren’t, and they were soon out­dated by events). His 1965 pre­dic­tion that Ger­many would be re­uni­fied not via de­tente but through transat­lantic and pan-Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion is pre­sented as “al­most prophetic.” In re­al­ity, it was pre­cisely through de­tente and en­gage­ment that the re­uni­fi­ca­tion could peace­fully hap­pen, and Fer­gu­son’s non­cha­lant de­scrip­tion of Ost­poli­tik will leave most Cold War his­to­ri­ans in dis­may.

Kissinger’s po­lit­i­cally con­ve­nient (and wholly fal­la­cious) belief in a mis­sile gap fa­vor­ing the Sovi­ets in the 1950s is not thor­oughly ex­am­ined. His in­abil­ity to un­der­stand some key U.S. strengths dur­ing the ColdWar — the ir­re­sistible at­trac­tion of its model of mass con­sump­tion, in par­tic­u­lar — is com­pletely over­looked. Mean­while, Fer­gu­son takes some cheap and avoid­able shots, as when he pairs the crit­i­cal com­ments of the Prince­ton his­to­rian Arno Mayer on Kissinger’s nom­i­na­tion as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser with those of Robert Welch of the John Birch So­ci­ety, and con­cludes that “only those on the po­lit­i­cal fringes could se­ri­ously ob­ject to Kissinger’s ap­point­ment.”

On rare oc­ca­sions, Fer­gu­son of­fers crit­i­cisms of his sub­ject, the strong­est con­cern­ing the al­leged “am­a­teur­ish­ness” of Kissinger dur­ing the in­for­mal 1967 peace ne­go­ti­a­tions with the North Viet­namese in Paris. (Claims of global re­search notwith­stand­ing, Fer­gu­son’s con­fi­dence in putting the blame for the fail­ure of the peace ini­tia­tive squarely on North Viet­nam is sup­ported by no Viet­namese doc­u­ments and only lim­ited use of the mass of avail­able U.S. sources.) But ha­giog­ra­phy abounds, and more than once Fer­gu­son goes over the top in cel­e­brat­ing Kissinger’s deeds, to the point of de­scrib­ing a let­ter Kissinger wrote in 1946 to the aunt of a con­cen­tra­tion camp sur­vivor, in which he re­flects on the camps as “test­ing grounds” that re­quired vic­tims to “dis­re­gard or­di­nary stan­dards of moral­ity” in or­der to sur­vive, as “of­fer­ing in­sights that in some ways an­tic­i­pated the later writ­ings of Primo Levi.”

By re­plac­ing re­al­ism with ide­al­ism — or the war-crim­i­nal stereo­type with that of the thinker of un­matched so­phis­ti­ca­tion and his­tor­i­cal eru­di­tion — Fer­gu­son seems to ac­cept the ex­cep­tion­al­ist nar­ra­tive that stresses Kissinger’s unique­ness as in­tel­lec­tual, strate­gic the­o­rist and po­lit­i­cal ac­tor. By do­ing so, Fer­gu­son ex­ag­ger­ates the co­her­ence, orig­i­nal­ity and bold­ness of Kissinger’s writ­ings and his ad­vice to the many princes he courted. His quasi-Del­phic prose notwith­stand­ing, Kissinger was in re­al­ity a fairly con­ven­tional thinker who fol­lowed the vogues of the times far more than shap­ing them. De­spite what Fer­gu­son wants us to be­lieve, he rarely chal­lenged power (or who was in power) as other in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions ex­perts, like Hans Mor­gen­thau and Ge­orge Ken­nan, were prone to do. In ad­vance of Vol­ume 2, this of­ten pleonas­tic and re­dun­dant first part thus leaves the reader won­der­ing whether Kissinger as an in­tel­lec­tual — re­al­ist, ide­al­ist or how­ever we choose to la­bel him — truly de­serves 1,000 pages.


Top: Henry Kissinger tes­ti­fies be­fore sen­a­tors in 1966. Above: Kissinger meets with Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son in De­cem­ber 1968 af­ter pres­i­dent-elect Richard Nixon named him as­sis­tant for na­tional se­cu­rity

KISSINGER Vol­ume 1 1923-1968: The Ide­al­ist By Niall Fer­gu­son Pen­guin Press. 986 pp. $39.95

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