Henry Kissinger: The Idealist?

Review – Kissinger 1923–1968: The Idealist by Niall Ferguson

Henry Kissinger remains one of the world’s most controversial statesmen. He is a man who is, as Niall Ferguson states at the beginning of this new biography, covering the first 45 years of his subject’s life, both revered and reviled in equal measure. Kissinger is held up by some as a kind of seer, an intellectual without parallel in recent times; others declare – just as fiercely – that he has exercised an entirely corrosive influence on world affairs, that he is a war criminal – and, perhaps most oddly, that he is an agent of the shadowy forces which operate behind supposedly democratic nations to control the way the world really works. (The latter position is obviously ridiculous, but it is worth mentioning – not least because the risible imaginings of David Icke and his ilk can sometimes reflect the more vigorous denunciations of Kissinger which exist in significantly more acceptable circles.) There is one thing, however, on which both sides of this particular debate – which seeks to decide whether Kissinger is a hero or villain, a saint or sinner – appear to agree: that Kissinger was a realist, and a realist par excellence. Ferguson, however, takes a dramatically divergent view, one which is contained within his provocative subtitle. For him, Kissinger is (or at least was) an idealist, which represents the exact opposite of much of the popular and scholarly perception of Kissinger’s life and his work. It appears that everyone else has got the man entirely wrong.


One of the most important aspects of Kissinger’s story is his childhood. But such a statement should not be taken to its logical extent, which would imply that there would be value in subjecting his early life to a minute and exhaustive (and often overly psychological) analysis. This is a trick too many biographers have tried before; and it grows tired in the repetition required to maintain the pretence. Apparently – at least according to other chroniclers – Kissinger as a young boy saw at first-hand the horrors of the perpetually unstable Weimar Republic, where hyperinflation wiped out the nascent middle classes and the nation was rocked by a succession of political crises. It was in reaction to this instability that Kissinger developed – in addition to a supposed suspicion of democracy – the hard-edged pragmatism for which is he famous, the same biographers suggest. (In an apparent irony, the effect of living as a practicing Jew during the early years of the Nazi tyranny and witnessing the many cruelties and indignities meted out to those whom this new regime considered inferior is also widely held to have sparked the cold realism which many consider one of Kissinger’s hallmarks. The fact that this interpretation does not exactly square with the former is of little consequence. After all, such is the strength of received wisdom pertaining to Kissinger that writing about him can often take the form of making the evidence fit this conclusion.)

Ferguson does not do this. Though he expends a fairly significant portion of the book’s opening pages to a description of Fürth, the unlovely town in Germany where the young Heinz Kissinger spent his childhood, this is not in aid of a pseudo-psychoanalytical conclusion hastily drawn; instead this detail constitutes the important act of setting the scene, including the rapid transformation of Fürth, a town which had seemingly rejected the appeals of the NSDAP at the ballot box, into a hotbed of oppression (it must not be forgotten that the town lies barely miles from Nuremburg, which was in many ways the centrepiece of the ostentatious Nazi myth).

That the family fled Germany for America is well known; but it was still a close run thing. Many of Kissinger’s relatives were to perish in the Holocaust, and the pre-war Jewish community of Fürth was to be devastated and shaken to its foundations in the coming conflict. It was as a refugee that Henry Kissinger first set foot in the United States, and his adjustment was not an easy one. The family suffered a decline in their material standards of living; Kissinger had to attend night school while working during the day to keep the food on the table. But despite all of that, he managed to excel, doing well at school in spite of the language gap and finding a home of sorts in the largely immigrant community of New York within which the Kissingers found themselves.

When the Second World War broke out, and after the United States had joined the hostilities, Kissinger soon found himself enlisting. He became a naturalised citizen of the United States and, perhaps surprisingly, seemed to take to military life. After a time studying with the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), Kissinger found that this lifestyle became considerably less comfortable and more dangerous; the programme was cancelled, and he found himself attached to a combat unit and shipped across the Atlantic to Europe, and to war.


It was in the Army where Kissinger first met Fritz Kraemer, a man so influential in the formation of Kissinger’s future life and career that Ferguson employs a favoured literary analogy: ‘It is tempting to call him the Mephistopheles to Kissinger’s Faust’. Indeed, it is not just tempting; it is apt (and so apt that Ferguson returns to the reference repeatedly). An almost comic Prussian officer within the US Army, Kraemer first came to Kissinger’s attention after he delivered an impromptu lecture to the men of G Company, Kissinger’s unit. The younger man was so taken with what he heard that he wrote and sent a note of, in Ferguson’s words, ‘almost naively direct’. ‘Dear Pvt. Kraemer’, the letter read, ‘I heard you speak yesterday. This is how it should be done. Can I help you in any way? Pvt. Kissinger.’

This marked the beginning of Kissinger’s precocious and idiosyncratic intellectual development. This cultivation took place – and was able to take place – because Kraemer noticed something in the way his fellow private solider thought and spoke; he had a certain preternatural intelligence, an analytical skill which marked him out as talented and different, which Kraemer lost no time in telling him; and he was a willing learner, one who could be both a companion and counterpart for Kraemer. Kissinger possessed ‘the urgent desire not to understand the superficial thing but the underlying causes. He wanted to grasp things’. And thus the unique relationship took shape; it was one in which, according to Kissinger, Kraemer ‘sort of taught me history’. It was the very subject which was to become the focus of much of his future academic life.


An important point sometimes forgotten about Kissinger’s time in the military is that he saw combat. (This somewhat goes against the verdict of Joseph Heller, who writes of Kissinger in Good as Gold: ‘in Gold’s conservative opinion, Kissinger would not be recalled in history as a Bismarck, Metternich or Castlereagh but as an odious schlump who made war gladly’.) Though his time at the front line was fairly brief – and he did not end the war, like some of his comrades, either dead or wounded (indeed, ‘his company, G Company, suffered disproportionately high casualties’) – Kissinger did not have an entirely easy time of it.

At one point in Ferguson’s narrative, the reader is presented with an interesting attempt at dual authorship: Kraemer and Kissinger co-wrote a letter in which they described some of their wartime experiences. One of the most memorable, and one which Ferguson describes in detail, includes an episode in which the town where Kissinger (and Kraemer) was billeted. In a foolhardy display of bravery, and in an attempt to escape the stifling claustrophobia of being indoors, Kissinger clambered out of the cellar in which he had been hiding in order that he might (as Ferguson puts it) ‘walk out in the open in the midst of a barrage of shells’. This recklessness – a trait which claimed the lives of many soldiers, both American and otherwise, in the war – was not a temporary or transient one; it was to make further appearances at other intervals in Kissinger’s life. After this particular event Kissinger and his unit were moved; they travelled away from the front line – and away from any comparable danger. But that does not mean that their war could not continue to contain horrors; and that brute fact gives rise to one of the most unique and fascinating (not to mention one of the most emotive) sections of the book.

Some of the descriptions of basic training, for example, put me in mind of Henry Reed’s poem “Lessons of the War” – specifically the first section: “Naming of Parts”.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
                Any of them using their finger.


This work is a tremendously valuable one in that it reproduces some frankly extraordinary documents, including a meditation written by Kissinger, then a GI who had barely returned to his country of birth, upon witnessing the liberation of a concentration camp; the resulting essay – titled “The Eternal Jew” – is a blistering and raw document which serves to provide some insight into what observing the apparent depths of human depravity can do to a young man. The essay is pointed; it is sharply written and often unsophisticated in both style and structure; but it is effective in conveying the brutality of the situation, and the terrible weight of tragic reality which confronted Kissinger and the many men who had similar experiences during the war. Doubtless Kissinger’s background as a refugee – as one of the lucky ones (if that term can be deployed without unbecoming levity) – made this situation all the more stark for him; the attendant emotional impact was perhaps for him all the more scorching.

Doubtless the emotional after-effects were great; these things – one expects – cannot slip the mind easily, and they cannot be processed without some turmoil. This is what makes Ferguson’s decision to print the work ‘without abridgement or comment’ both understandable and slightly perplexing. As a source the document is eye-opening; as a testament to the intellectual and moral turmoil of a young man who became an immensely consequential figure, this bearing witness to the Holocaust could be presented – and, in tandem with tales of his personal suffering under the Weimar and Nazi regimes, has been presented – as an essential event, one which laid foundation stones within Kissinger’s consciousness for the apparent realism his future academic and political careers were to embody. Ferguson disputes the latter claim – he dismisses it for the pseudo-psychology it often is – but to leave this particular product of Kissinger’s developing intellectual faculties without any interpretation or analysis seems odd, if not a little negligent. This is not mere juvenilia, after all. Kissinger’s words are simply put; they are contained within sharp, pointed sentences; and the effort is mostly unadorned. But the essay carries the weight of terrible knowledge. ‘Human dignity, objective values have stopped at this barbed wire’, he wrote.


The book also contains a tremendously poignant letter from the young man in which he pledges to his parents and to the world that he would work to make the terrible price paid by all in the war worthwhile. Rightly, because he is committing to staying on in Germany – the nation which had, by the policies of its government and the hostility of its people, forced his family out and murdered en masse his relatives and their co-religionists – for longer than was necessary, Kissinger begins by stating that ‘[y]ou’ll never understand it’. But still he tries, with the visceral appeal to ‘blood & misery & hope’, to make his case for remaining behind, working in the dust and rubble of a vanquished nation, understood. ‘Sometimes when I look down our table’, Kissinger wrote, ‘and see the empty spaces of our good and capable men, the men that should be here to nail down what we fought for, I think of … the night Hitler’s death was announced’.

What he wrote next embodies a great deal in very few words. ‘That night Bob Taylor & I agreed that no matter what happened, no matter who weakened, we would stay to do in our little way what we could to make all previous sacrifices meaningful’. It is the simple desire of a soldier, of a refugee, of an American, to do all he could to render the horror, the misery, the toll taken and borne by all who fought – to render it worthwhile, and not in vain. ‘We would stay just long enough to do that’. This summative sentence, exhibiting both tremendous resolve and barely suppressed unease, packs an uncommon moral punch. It contains confidence and insecurity; vulnerability and determination; persistence when demobilisation and the prospect of returning home could have presented a more alluring option. In other words, this was a decision that signified something quite noble; it was, in a phrase, the act of an idealist. And – perhaps surprisingly – it exhibited more than a hint of skill with the English language, something for which Kissinger is not very well remembered.

The fine details of Kissinger’s post-war work – as an official charged with de-Nazification and local governance in the remains of Germany – need not detain us here; but they are interesting, especially in the sense that they gave the young man a first-hand experience of government, with all of its petty squabbles and bureaucratic impediments. In addition to the wryly amusing story Ferguson tells of Kissinger being outfoxed by a wily German pen-pusher in the game of local government, this experience also gave ‘Mr. Henry’ (as he insisted on being called, lest his rather obvious surname stir some kind of sectarian impulses within the communities he helped oversee) a perfect vantage point from which to observe the increasing froideur between East and West. While ‘Mr. Henry’ toiled in Germany George Orwell was writing about the new ‘cold war’, and Churchill made his epoch-defining speech at Fulton, Missouri, in which he warned about what he skilfully termed the ‘Iron Curtain’. In later years, when policymakers and academics chastised Kissinger for operating with ‘a Cold War worldview’, it might have been worth their while to remember that he was there at the very beginning; and events of that nature, and the political ramifications which were attendant, loomed large in the minds of many Americans in Germany at the same time.

The optimism – perhaps submerged, but certainly present in this role – strikes me as similar in essence to the melancholy beauty of Keith Douglas’ poetry – the work of another intellectual who found himself fighting in the Second World War. His “Villanelle of Spring Bells” seems aptly and hesitantly optimistic.

All evil men intent on evil thing
falter, for in their cold unready ears
bells in the town alight with spring
make clear the fresh and ancient sound they sing.

It even comes complete with a statement of ‘fresh and ancient’ sound, which puts one in mind of Kissinger’s unsteady but determined status upon returning to Germany.


This prolonging of Kissinger’s stay in Germany was not indefinite; eventually he did have to return to the United States. Return he did and, thanks to the GI Bill, he was able to study at Harvard. The following years would, to an extent, make Kissinger: though he had engaged in intellectual contemplation with Kraemer, it was of an unstructured kind; and though the latter was highly intelligent, the circumstances rather prohibited a thoroughly pedagogical pose. It was at Harvard, however, where Kissinger had his most profound intellectual flowering. It was at Harvard where he met William Yandell Elliott, a historian and compulsive adviser to those in power. Elliott would spend his time shuttling between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Washington; he would bridge the gap between academia and governance, providing presidents and administration officials the intellectual backing they needed to justify decisions – and even having a part in taking those decisions. In addition to being politically experienced and worldly in this respect – and therefore fascinating to the young Kissinger – Elliott was also a former student of Balliol College, Oxford, and possessed a personality to match. His fondest hopes were for a kind of Anglicisation of the American system; and some of his most interesting political suggestions contained traces of this evident Anglophilia. The idea of his shuttling off to Washington, in particular, to take what must have seemed a vital role in the governing of the country must have been appealing, even romantic, to anyone both interested in and cognisant of it.

Ferguson presents him as being – at least initially – rather aloof and standoffish; and this trait was manifested in the first meeting he had with Kissinger, in which the young man informed the professor that he was to be his tutee. The professor, perhaps more than a little irritated to have been disturbed, told Kissinger to read the works of Kant (a suggestion which, as Ferguson suggests elsewhere, is generally made when an academic wishes to be rid of a student). Unlike many students, however, Kissinger actually carried out the assignment, and soon impressed Elliott with his subtle grasp of the most complex of German philosophers.

This relationship, with its interesting focus on the philosophy of history, gave rise to Kissinger’s undergraduate thesis, which was the longest ever submitted to Harvard (after he had graduated, rules were instituted to stop it ever happening again). Entitled “The Meaning of History”, Kissinger’s efforts totalled 388 pages in length – ‘and that was after chapters on Hegel and Schweitzer had been cut’. It was an undoubtedly ambitious work, which synthesised the thought of philosophers such as Kant with that of pessimistic historians such as Spengler. In part because of its truncated style, it can be difficult for readers to differentiate between declarations of Kissinger’s own opinion and descriptions of those he attributes to other; this being said, however, Ferguson argues that ‘the correct reading of “The Meaning of History” is as an authentically idealist tract’. Kissinger ‘had done his homework … but detected a flaw in Kant’s reasoning. Peace might indeed be the ultimate goal of history.’ But this is not true for individual action, as Kissinger wrote: ‘Whatever one’s conception about the necessity of events, at the moment of their performance their inevitability could offer no guide to action’. And furthermore, Kissinger signalled a profound scepticism about the ‘claims of economics’, which was, in Ferguson’s words, ‘increasingly seen as the concentration of choice for an ambitious Harvard man’.

As … the cold materialistic intellect replaces the sentimentality of the romantic, life emerges as but a technical problem. The frantic search for social solutions, for economic panaceas, testifies to the emptiness of a soul to which necessity is an objective state … and which ever believes that just a little more knowledge, just one more formula will solve the increasing bafflement of a materialistic surrounding.

This suggestion, especially when buttressed by the idea that it was unsatisfactory to allow ‘an argument about democracy [to] become a discussion of the efficiency of economic systems, which is on the plane of objective necessity and therefore debatable’. Rather, ‘[t]he inward intuition of freedom … would reject totalitarianism even if it were economically more efficient’. This was the stuff of a serious historical thinker – and, perhaps more importantly, it was the thinking of an idealist.


Another choice of Kissinger’s which suggests a kind of idealism at work was his decision to study the Congress of Vienna. This subject in particular – which takes in the study of diplomatic equilibriums and continental balancing acts which promoted a fragile, if long-lasting, peace – was hardly in vogue at the time. Kissinger was unsuccessful in future job applications because of the apparently unfashionable nature of his chosen subject. But Ferguson successfully argued that it was this period in Kissinger’s early life – and A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822, the book which resulted from his researches in this area – which had a tremendous formative influence on Kissinger’s conception of global politics, as well as manifesting a surprising amount of youthful idealism. (The system of congresses and diplomatic dealings which characterised the century after the end of Napoleon’s continental ambitions never approached the Kantian ideal of ‘perpetual peace’; but they served to allay the fears of statesmen and the chances of a major continental war for a not insubstantial amount of time – a ‘period of peace lasting almost one hundred years’. In a way, this strategy – especially as proposed by Kissinger – could represent a new phenomenon: the forging of a sort of pragmatic idealism.)

In Kissinger’s judgement, alongside the establishment of order and ‘legitimate peace’, one of the essential features of the post-Napoleonic age was the existence of Great Britain as an ‘island power’. The fact that British statesmen such as Castlereagh could remain fundamentally detached from the continent in both deed and thought was a powerful stabilising influence. The inference to be drawn is an obvious one: like Britain in the century of peace which ensued, the United States could act as a kind of ‘island power’ for the new age, with the fundamental geographic detachment necessary to arbitrate on the complex and seemingly intractable quarrels and squabbles taking place within Europe at the time. At the same time, this book delivered an implied rebuke to those in America who advocated for just a little too much detachment from world affairs at large. The dangers – at least as far as continental peace was concerned – of Britain’s post-Castlereagh lurch toward ‘splendid isolation’ are not difficult to discern.

An extra element of interest is also added by an appreciation by Kissinger of the personal, which, as Ferguson relates, was often introduced with ‘a memorable flourish’. Many of the era’s personages were afforded memorable pen portraits. Metternich, Kissinger surmises, ‘was a Rococo figure, complex, finely carved, all surface, like an intricately cut prism. His face was delicate but without depth, his conversation brilliant but without ultimate seriousness.’ Lord Castlereagh was ‘[m]isunderstood at home’; and he ‘conducted himself with … methodical reserve’ and was ‘cumbersomely persuasive, motivated by an instinct always surer than his capacity for expression’. Tallyrand, the French diplomat perhaps better remembered for his wit than his diplomacy, ‘failed of ultimate stature because his actions were always too precisely attuned to the dominant mood, because nothing ever engaged him so completely that he would bring it the sacrifice of personal advancement. This may have been due to a sincere attempt to remain in a position to moderate events; outsiders may be forgiven if they considered it opportunism.’ These fine words are indeed impressive, as Ferguson says; but ultimately they are not evidence enough, in this reader’s view, to fête Kissinger’s supposed ‘brilliance as a prose stylist’. But the book did contain moments of remarkable lucidity and writerly skill. ‘Luck, in politics as in other activities, is but the residue of design’; ‘it is the essence of mediocrity that it prefers the tangible advantage to the intangible gain in position’; ‘Infinity achieved by finite stages loses its terrors and its temptations’. As prettily written as these maxims are, Ferguson has it right when he comments that ‘they surely were a little out of place in a doctoral dissertation’.

‘Like A.J.P. Taylor,’ Ferguson writes, ‘Kissinger could not help being infected by the epigrammic style favoured by many nineteenth-century diplomats.’ (This being the same Taylor who, when assessing Metternich’s attempts in the realm of philosophical aphorisms, declared that ‘most men could do better while shaving’.)


A short digression may be of interest here. It is interesting when reading Kissinger’s own words to reflect on his development as a prose stylist. Ferguson declares him to have a certain flair in this area, but this reader must admit that it is hardly on show through much of the book. The phrases most worthy of repetition – and also the most raw, the most visceral, and the most notably effective – are not the polished sentences constructed in an academic setting and with a head full of the diplomatic papers of the long nineteenth century; instead, the best examples of Kissinger’s prose can be found in his wartime writings. “The Eternal Jew” has been referenced before, and this is only right. It is a piece for which the words ‘searing’ and ‘biting’ would have been appropriate; but this is an inexact comparison as those words themselves have been blunted and dulled by overuse. His letters home have a similar quality. They are a world away from the varnished, complex sentences of Kissinger’s academic work. Perhaps, however, a more direct continuity can be drawn from one to the other. Both manners of writing were affected by Kissinger’s circumstances – martial in the first instance, and academic in the second. The fact that his style changed to match these does not deny him credit. But the underlying theme could be seen to be idealistic in nature. And that was exactly what Kissinger sought to develop in his initial forays into academic formulation.


At the same time, Kissinger was developing his idealism in other ways. Long used to the line of argument which suggested that Western liberal democracy was superior to Soviet communism on the basis of economic production, he took a different tack. Democracy and its antecedents would be worth defending even if they did not necessitate (or help to inculcate) a more productive way of doing things economically, he said. They are vital freedoms on their own terms, and Kissinger argued that the defence of these values and these traits required the sort of action he described in A World Restored.

This, incidentally, is a political line which was noticeably more idealistic than many of Kissinger’s more famously principled contemporaries; it marks him out, therefore, as either a political ingénue – which seems unlikely – or a genuine idealist.

Interestingly, such a stance should, at least in some readings, place Kissinger in opposition to the practice of maintaining foreign despots in power if they were sufficiently capitalist in their methods – something he was accused of doing during his time in government. Whether the aforementioned idealism wore off – or whether it was abandoned entirely – will be a major theme, one imagines, of Ferguson’s second volume.


After the completion of his doctoral studies and the publication of his first book, it could be argued that Kissinger started engaging with the wider world in a way previously unseen in his earlier life – even including his time in Germany, both during and after the Second World War. He simply became more worldly, and this is not to say that he was not a man of experience beforehand. Rather, he gained a different type of experience, and one which was to serve him well in his increasingly serious (and assured) expeditions into the arena of policymaking.

The content of Kissinger’s second book – the one which made his name – does not need a great deal of elucidation. Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy was a document very much of its time, in that it argued for the possibility of limited nuclear war (i.e. one involving only tactical – as opposed to ‘strategic’ – weapons), perhaps taking place in Europe, with some kind of general agreement of the combatants only to target the armies and military capacity of the others.

In many ways this seems decidedly fanciful – after all, we are all used to the idea of the world-ending nuclear war, one which is written to some extent into the fundaments of how we perceive the subject – and ultimately rather strange. But it does make some sense, especially if the reader considers the nature of Kissinger’s surroundings at the time of its publication in 1957. The fact that a limited war including the use of nuclear weapons had taken place barely a decade before must have had some influence on this idea; and Kissinger’s talk about flying platforms, able to transport vast armies and masses of equipment to remote battlefields, could be read in the tradition of slightly wide-eyed post-war writing about science and technological progress.

Though it does seem strange in many respects to more modern readers, the book was significant. It was nominated for awards; it was read by the sorts of people an aspiring policymaker would want to notice his thoughts. It precipitated a media career of sorts. Kissinger fluffed some of his early TV appearances – Ferguson relates a particular incident (though this took place later) in which he was beaten in a debate by Michael Foot, Tariq Ali and Stephen Marks on the Vietnam campaign, where he was all but forced into sticking to the line taken by the Johnson administration – but in general this increase in profile helped him in a major way.

It was at about the same time that he fell in with one of his most consistent employers and associated, Nelson Rockefeller, with whose repeated and doomed presidential runs Kissinger was to assist (of which more later).

During this time, Kissinger also founded Confluence, an ultimately unsuccessful academic journal which took international relations for its focus. Kissinger, whose decision to study history and the diplomacy of the past, was moving his focus to the present; in tandem with becoming more involved in contemporary politics generally, he also began to study its effects. Confluence was not a great success; it disappeared mere years after its foundation, as the competing pressures on Kissinger forced him into paying it less attention. Ferguson paints the journal as an early opportunity for Kissinger to exercise the skills associated with management, and to work within the frameworks enjoyed by foreign policy analysts, which gave him contact with some distinguished personages (Stephen R. Graubard, writing to The New York Times in 1992, cites Walter Isaacson in attesting to ‘a dazzling array of famous contributors whom Kissinger, as editor, was able to court’, himself listing such ‘eminent individuals as Leo Silberman-de Villiers, Guido Calogero, Humayun Kabir, Hazil, Herbert von Borch, Gunzo Kojima and R. J. Henle’).

In addition, Kissinger was heavily involved in Harvard’s International Seminar, an activity which, though useful for meeting important people and engaging in the lively exchange of ideas, seems to have been less distinctly careerist than many might imagine.


Nonetheless, there were certainly many aspects of the academy that Kissinger did not like. He spelt out some of them in a discussion with Richard Nixon, describing the low pay, the pettiness of some of the work, and the fact of spending a lot of time with teenagers as low points of the job. It is no surprise, therefore, that when the opportunity came to work with Nelson Rockefeller, Kissinger would have leapt at the chance to do so. That this represented his rise to prominence could not have hurt. Ferguson writes that Rockefeller would have just as easily bought a writer than read a book, and in this case it appears to have been Kissinger’s thinking on nuclear policy which made him seem a prize candidate.

Over the course of the latter’s three failed attempts to win the office of president, Kissinger became increasingly involved and associated with Rockefeller. He helped to draft speeches, to inform his candidate on foreign affairs and the policy choices they were associated with, and his work on various other projects – for example in Rockefeller-sponsored think tanks – gave the ultimately unsuccessful candidate some much-needed intellectual heft. Aside from this, however – and aside also from the confidence inspired by Rockefeller’s fabulous wealth, which may have proven quite an inducement – there is something a little strange about Kissinger’s sticking by his man when the going got tough.

By the third time around, it should have been obvious, Ferguson writes, that the presidency was not going to fall to Rockefeller. He was too rich, too louche in his private life, and in some ways too metropolitan – he served as Governor of New York state – to win over the mass of people who supported Barry Goldwater, for example, in 1964.

Perhaps this support for an increasingly unlikely cause illustrates Kissinger’s idealism – or at least values which one might speak of in the same breath, loyalty chief among them. The example of Goldwater may have had something to do with Kissinger’s support for Rockefeller, too.

After Rockefeller had withdrawn from the running, Kissinger attended the Republican Convention in San Francisco. What he saw there deserves quotation at length.

Almost every aspect of the convention appalled Kissinger. There was Mel Laird, ‘showing the brass knuckles’ as he ran the platform committee in anticipation of Goldwater’s victory. There were the ‘so-called moderates … impotent, incompetent and selfish’ – and worst of all, divided. There were the old boys of the Eisenhower administration, far too wily ever to commit themselves to one of Kissinger’s principles. Worst of all were the Goldwater supporters. Far from being ‘old ladies in tennis shoes and retired colonels,’ Kissinger noted, they were ‘bright, eager young men’ with a fondness for ‘semantic purism … intense, efficient, curiously insecure.’

This may sound a little too like a courtier at Versailles catching sight of the sans-culottes, but this portrayal – part Hunter S. Thompson’s Kentucky Derby, part present-day account of the campaigns surrounding the 2016 election – rings true. And it becomes decidedly more dramatic.

Time and again Kissinger was reminded ominously of the politics of his German childhood. ‘The moderates behaved today in what has become characteristic vacillation,’ he wrote on July 9. ‘The whole behavior is reminiscent of that of the Democratic parties in the face of Hitler – an unwillingness to believe that their opponent is serious, tendency to play for small stakes and to overlook the basic issues.’ The Goldwater supporters, by contrast, were ‘middle class and “respectable.” They feel threatened and insecure. They crave the safety of total commitment. Whatever Goldwater’s “real” views, as a phenomenon his movement is similar to European fascism.’

Again, worse was to come.

Nothing chilled Kissinger more than an encounter with a Goldwater supporter in the early hours of Monday, June 13, after a late-night meeting at which Rockefeller, [William W.] Scranton, and [Henry Cabot] Lodge had attempted to agree on the wording of the amendment to the nuclear weapons plank. ‘As we left the room,’ Kissinger recorded in his diary, ‘some Goldwaterite was checking off names on a list. I was not on it. But he knew me and said, “Kissinger – don’t think we’ll forget your name.”’ Those were chilling words to a refugee from Nazi Germany.

To an extent this image is one of a vanished era – one in which national party conventions were places of debate, manoeuvre and deals being done. All of this is different now; conventions are designated for acclamation. But what Kissinger later witnessed, outside the cliché-ridden ‘smoke-filled rooms’, was of this latter character – but it was rather more sinister. From Kissinger’s diary:

I was immediately struck by the frenzy, the fervour and the intensity of most delegates and practically the entire audience. The atmosphere was more akin to a revival meeting than to a political convention. A revolution clearly was in the making. Neither spectators nor delegates had come to participate in a traditional victory. They were there to celebrate a triumph. They wanted to crush, nor integrate, their opponents. …  it would be impossible to describe the witches’ cauldron that was the Cow Palace on this evening. The roars of Ba-rry, Ba-rry filled the hall.

Kissinger was in no doubt what all of this reminded him of; and he said so with no hesitation in his diary: ‘The frenzy of the cheering at the Cow Palace was reminiscent of Nazi times’.

His absolute abhorrence of Goldwater’s winning the nomination, and likely the implicit fear such a situation instilled, almost certainly compelled him to support Rockefeller again in 1968, when there was very little chance of his candidate getting anywhere. Does opposition to this kind of politics count as idealism? It certainly seems superior in moral terms to the sort of opportunism which may have compelled a more accommodating and less judgemental stance; and a true party man would probably have found himself in a less conflicted position.

The fact that Kissinger did not do this, temporarily placing himself in opposition to both the Republican and Democratic nominees, suggests a deeper moral engagement than principle-free pragmatism would allow. In other words, if this was idealism, it was a choice arrived at in spite of political difficulty.


What can be considered idealistic, though, are some of the foreign policy stances taken by Kissinger in the early 1960s. One of particular interest was Kissinger’s opposition to the 1963 coup in South Vietnam against the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, which was carried out with fairly explicit American support, and which resulted in Diem’s deposition and murder.

Kissinger rightly declared that such things would erode the precious trust of America’s allies, and make the spreading or even preservation of democracy decidedly more difficult. (In this view he apparently combined idealism and the necessities of pragmatic policy.) In the statement Kissinger prepared for Rockefeller in the aftermath of this ‘shameful’ episode, Kissinger wrote in guarded but critical terms.

The government of an allied country – which had been established originally with strong U.S. support – has been overthrown by a military coup encouraged by our own government. Its leaders have been assassinated. … A thinly disguised military dictatorship has been established. I am deeply worried about a U.S. policy which has given rise to such methods. The honor and the moral standing of the United States require that a relationship exists between ends and means. … Is it conceivable that the troop movements leading to the coup could have occurred without our knowledge? Would the leaders of the junta have revolted had they been given to understand, in their talks with Secretary McNamara less than a month ago, that our abhorrence of military coups was not confined to Latin America?

Kissinger used the statement to remind that ‘the Diem regime was not just any government. The United States was largely responsible for its establishment in 1955 and backed it in its struggle to establish a viable state in a partitioned country’. And yet after that, this action was tacitly commended ‘with the argument that the Diem government was losing the war against the Communist guerrillas. This contrasts strangely with repeated, highly optimistic accounts from the Administration about the struggle against the Vietcong’.

Ferguson ends this section with a rather playfully phrased, but deadly serious, sentence, which uses as its starting point the popular misconception of John F. Kennedy as a dovish president, killed before he could usher in a new era of peace: ‘And Kissinger concluded in terms that once again marked him out as an idealist compared with the unscrupulous pragmatists of Camelot.’ Here is how he concluded:

[N]o American can take pride that our government should have been associated with events leading to the assassination of two leaders [Diem and his brother] with whom we are formally aligned. I do not like our country to be thought of in terms of the cynical use of power. Our strength is principle not manipulativeness. Our historical role has been to identify ourselves with the ideals and deepest hopes of mankind. If we lost [sic] this asset, temporary successes will be meaningless.

The case of Vietnam in particular serves to provide an interesting example of Ferguson’s work diverging from the accepted history of Kissinger’s life. Rather than painting Kissinger as a bloodthirsty character, one who wanted to ‘win’ in Vietnam despite the mounting losses and despite the spill-over of the conflict into other nations, Ferguson suggests that Kissinger undertook several missions in order to find out for himself about the situation in Vietnam and, quite explosively, that his subject came to the conclusion that the war was unwinnable long before many others.


The question of Vietnam casts a long shadow over the reputation not only of Kissinger but of his contemporaries and his associates. Aside from Watergate, it is the debacle most associated with Richard Nixon; and the awarding of the Noble Peace Prize to Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973 (though the latter declined it) is often stated – though erroneously – to have been the reason why Tom Lehrer stopped writing humorous songs, with the man in question declaring that this event signalled the death of satire. Facetious though that is, the fact remains that Vietnam and its war are very important indeed.

When Kissinger arrived in Vietnam in November 1965, Ferguson writes, it would have been reasonable to expect him to be a ‘quiet American’ in the mould of Graham Greene’s novel of the same name (this despite the fact that Kissinger’s being there at all signified an uncommon drive and desire to understand the nature of the country and its war). But Ferguson suggests that Kissinger was the opposite of the naïve diplomat the novel depicts. He made his way to Saigon ‘with questions, not answers’.

One conclusion he had already reached, however, was, pace Ferguson, ‘as bleak as it was prescient’.

I am quite convinced that too much planning in the government and a great deal of the military planning assumes that the opponent is stupid and that he will fight the kind of war for which one is best prepared. However … the essence of guerrilla warfare is never to fight the kind of war your opponent expects. Having moved very many large units into Vietnam … we must not become prisoners now of a large-unit mentality. Otherwise I think that we will face the problem of psychological exhaustion.

One facet of Ferguson’s look at Kissinger’s time in Vietnam is the way his subject, in his personal diary, viewed the place and its people. Copy which described Saigon as a hellish landscape, exotic and enthralling but full of fear, sold well; Ferguson provides a few examples. Kissinger’s impressions were considerably less dramatic. He noted that ‘there is no appearance of physical danger whatever’. In Saigon, he wrote, ‘there really is no choice except conducting one’s business as if one were in downtown New York’, such was the way ‘everything appear[ed] perfectly normal’. Despite the danger he was undoubtedly in, Kissinger declared that ‘[t]he result [of this mood] is, curiously enough, that there is never any particular fear’.

Sometimes, there was even an aspect of bleak, farcical comedy to proceedings.

Kissinger himself felt safe. It was everyone else who was jumpy. He was woken one night by a ‘fusillade of shots,’ but this was because one of the embassy guards had discharged his rifle by accident, ‘whereupon all the guards, and above all the Vietnamese on the outside of the compound, began firing like mad, even though there were no targets.’ He was struck by the fact that the security measures at the embassy were so patchy, with heavy protection at the front entrance but absolutely no defenses at the other end of the street. ‘Nothing would have been easier than to set up a mortar and start shooting at the house.’ But nobody did.

Beyond this, he made trips out of Saigon to Hue, in order to see for himself the state of US and allied forces in the region. He met with important functionaries within the American crowd, as well as with local leaders, both political and religious. He was particularly impressed by some of them, it seems, and thus more than a little different from the many Americans who left Vietnam with unfortunately negative ideas about the racial and national characters of those who lived there. Indeed, one of the predominant sources of Kissinger’s persistent frustration was sparked by the machinery comprising the Americans he met and way their transplanted institutions functioned.

This largely pre-figures his problems with the apparatus of foreign policy decision-making in the States; but it can also be traced in this instance to the way some of the Americans – ‘in theatre’ and outside it – interacted with him: one of them descended into racial stereotyping after a discussion of world affairs Kissinger likened to the that which would be helpful to a sophomore. Others were indolent or excessively eager in the pursuit of office politics, which was sufficiently pervasive to include the quarantining of documents within certain offices, even though their wider circulation could help in the war effort, or assist in the formation of more coherent planning.

All of this made an impression. Kissinger had worked – both as a lower-level functionary and on a higher plane – within government operations before; and he had served in Germany, which was in many ways a task with comparable intentions: both in the ruins of the old Reich and in Asia the Americans were trying to build nations and defend democratic elements from communist takeover, after all.

When Kissinger returned from Vietnam, he had some of the answers he had sought. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his first hand experience marked him out as an academic who could analyse the situation beyond the abstract. His practical understanding of it seemed to suggest that the United States, with its vast superiority in air power, in technology, and in resources, would not be defeated. But, naturally, avoiding the ignominy of defeat is not the same as winning; and in such a conflict as Vietnam, with the eyes of the world increasingly falling upon the actions of the United States, a failure to secure ostensive victory could prove to be its own defeat.

Perhaps it is at heart this understanding which prompted Kissinger, in part, to participate in doomed attempts to get the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table before he was appointed Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor; this particular assessment is decidedly contrary to what has become to an extent the accepted story of Kissinger’s time in Paris. It is held by some that, rather than attempting – in an ultimately futile way – to initiate or sustain negotiations, Kissinger purposefully leaked items from the talks, or even sought to sabotage them, with the intention of helping Richard Nixon win the 1968 presidential election. Though the debate is too complex – and also too dull, fundamentally – to delineate, Ferguson’s writing on this particular argument is compelling, and in this reviewer’s opinion do not leave it standing.


One of Ferguson’s latter sections is particularly illuminating in that it covers one of the subjects most central to the understanding many people have of Kissinger and his character. This concerns the spectre of Otto von Bismarck and what Ferguson calls ‘the deep ambivalence with which Kissinger viewed Bismarck – whose genius he never disputed, but whose achievements he regarded as fatally flawed’. To understand this, eager students of history must read Kissinger’s essay “The White Revolutionary”; but even this work, which is certainly ‘celebrated’, does not, according to Ferguson, ‘provide a complete reckoning’:

[B]y 1961 he had in fact written ‘half of … a book on Bismarck’s diplomacy,’ and most of that had probably been done in the later 1950s. (In February 1967, when he sent the unfinished draft to Marion Dönhoff to read, he urged her to ‘remember that this was written over ten years ago.’ But he also made it clear that he still intended to ‘work on it’.) This book was intended to be the first of two sequels to A World Restored, the second of which was to cover the period from Bismarck’s dismissal in 1890 to the outbreak of the First World War. Put differently, the Bismarck volume would have been the centerpeice of a triptych ‘on the maintenance of a hundred-year peace in Europe through a system of alliances based on a balance of power.’ That, at any event, was what Kissinger’s London publisher George Weidenfeld had been led to expect. After the ‘miniscule sales’ of the first volume, he had ‘lost sight’ of Kissinger, only meeting him twelve years after the appearance of A World Restored, by which time the author had been named as Richard Nixon’s national security advisor. ‘I had been tipped off by his American publisher,’ Weidenfeld recalled, ‘that he might be coming to the end of the Bismarck volume.’ But Kissinger had disappointing news for him. ‘I am burning the manuscript,’ he said. ‘Even a few weeks near the center of power have made me realise how much I still have to learn about how policy is really made.’

The upshot of this – the book drafts (which Kissinger did not burn) – shows that ‘what Kissinger published as “The White Revolutionary” was only part of the argument he had intended to make’.

Within the work itself, Ferguson identified ‘extraordinary aperçus’, including: ‘Too democratic for conservatives, too authoritarian for liberals, too power-orientated for legitimists, the new order was tailored to a genius who proposed to restrain the contending forces, both domestic and foreign, by manipulating their antagonisms’. Kissinger also wrote about Bismarck’s personal methods:

It was not that Bismarck lied – this was much too self-conscious an act – but that he was finely attuned to the subtlest currents of any environment and produced measures precisely adjusted to the need to prevail. The key to Bismarck’s success was that he was always sincere.

Fascinatingly, Kissinger remarked that Bismarck’s plans to unify Germany ‘succeeded because [his] opponents could not believe in the reality of [his] objectives’. This is a contention which leads nicely on to the following, which discusses the nature of Bismarck’s opportunism: ‘Anyone wishing to affect events must be opportunist to some extent. The real distinction is between those who adapt their purposes to reality and those who seek to mold reality in the light of their purposes’.

One of Kissinger’s contentions was that, in the words of his biographer, ‘Bismarck was not only a genius but also a demon (the archaic word demoniac is applied to him as an epithet)’. Bismarck manipulated and connived, always ensuring that Prussia was carefully intertwined with the interests of other powers – ‘closer to any of the contending parties than they were to each other’. In many respects, this means an effective discarding of the ideas of legitimacy upon which the European system depicted in A World Restored depended.

But Bismarck’s many skills did not in fact help cement his system. As Ferguson says, the new system ‘was unsustainable because it could not be institutionalized’. In other words, because the entire European order became too dependent on a single man, the stability he provided proved illusory. Kissinger wrote with insight into the problems of government, perhaps noting the lessons he learnt when grappling with the middling bureaucracy of the American system: ‘institutions are designed for an average standard of performance. They are rarely able to accommodate genius or demoniac power. A society that must produce a great man in each generation to maintain its domestic or international position will doom itself’.

In other words ‘[Bismarck’s] very success committed Germany to a permanent tour de force … [and] left a heritage of unassimilated greatness. … A system which requires great men in each generation sets itself an almost insurmountable challenge, if only because a great man tends to stunt the emergence of strong personalities’.

In addition to this, in the draft chapters of his abandoned book, ‘Kissinger [made it] clear that he saw Realpolitik as dangerously amoral’; this is not something Kissinger’s critics – and many of his biographers, too (when first approached to write the book, Ferguson himself expected to title it something along the lines of “American Machiavelli”) – would oblige him.

Much of the rest of the book comprises a mass of cuttings and additions and alterations, with several paragraphs of what Ferguson takes to be its conclusion struck out entirely. But the book itself is deeply revealing; and Ferguson’s final assessment of the essay and the book which precipitated it is well put:

This tortured disavowal of Bismarck is of a piece with all that Kissinger had hitherto written on the impossibility of basing strategy on pragmatism alone. The idealist still held out against realism. And yet it is surely significant that [much of the conclusion] was struck out; surely significant that the project of a book about Bismarck … ended here, in an uncharacteristically uncertain tangle of deletions and insertions.

It can serve, in a way, as to encapsulate the possible beginnings of an ideological transition within his subject, brought on by his ascent to high office, from idealism, perhaps, to realism for which he is famed.


This is a large book, and that cannot be forgotten; it is expansive in tone and littered with extensive quotations from Kissinger’s writings. This is very valuable, and looking at the man through the prism of his own words is something which evades many chroniclers of a more polemical bent, a large portion of the most famous of which have tackled Kissinger’s long and varied life by insulting the man and characterising him in increasingly grotesque ways. This all makes for punchy, dynamic writing, but it rather lacks the reasonable nature and judicial assessment of evidence expected of the historian. In this Ferguson’s book succeeds; it is both weighty and effective, containing evidence marshalled with skill. The sheer volume of source material consulted for the creation of this volume is never oppressive, and the extent to which it is drawn from Kissinger’s own words is distinctly pleasing. For it is this perspective – Kissinger’s own – which has been studiously omitted from critical assessments of his legacy; and furthermore, his early life – the only subject at hand in this volume – is often missed out entirely. It is therefore satisfying to bear witness to a more sustained exposition.

Ferguson’s prose is effectively employed not only to link excerpts of Kissinger’s writing but to give effective insights into the man and his times. This reviewer particularly enjoyed the cultural snapshots which were provided for societal reference; Ferguson’s extended allusion to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, for example, which is employed to detail the torturous slowness of waiting around in Paris for a fabled North Vietnamese offer of peace, seems both effective and acute. It is true, however, that this work does not contain some of the dazzle which made earlier books – such as The Pity of War – so compelling. But this can be explained in part because of the fundamental difference between Kissinger and that other book in particular; the former is dedicated to elucidation, presenting the results of years of archival research, whereas the latter was a collection of crisp analyses of the flaws of current thinking on aspects of the First World War. In short, when expounding new perspectives built up with the backing of the documents, much-needed groundwork – some of which makes for writing which is not entirely lapidary – cannot be neglected. And in any case, it cannot be forgotten that the life in question is one which is already varied, successful and interesting. In such cases unnecessarily well-adorned prose could be little more than a distraction.


In addition to questions of prose style, something must also be said about the very nature of this biography, as well as the circumstances which brought it about. It cannot be denied – and indeed it is referred to openly throughout the book – that Ferguson was approached by Kissinger for the exact task of writing his biography. It is also true that, in the process, he was given access to many materials which had not been made available to other researchers, some of which provided more personal insights into Kissinger’s early life, his motivations for action, and his war service. Furthermore, Ferguson and Kissinger know each other socially, and the former has interviewed the latter on numerous occasions, both for the book and with the object of creating a documentary film.

All of this, it would seem, points towards this volume being somewhat authorised; and authorised biographies always have a hint of something not quite objective about them – some, of course, can prove to be little more than outright hagiographies. Historians are enticed with promises of access to famous individuals and unparalleled resources, and they sacrifice their objectivity for this reward. So goes the standard refrain on this particular matter. It is true that, though Ferguson maintains that he was allowed a high degree of personal freedom to write about what he chose in a style of his own selection, he did allow his subject to request the removal – or rather the non-appearance – of some things deemed too private to warrant examination.

Ferguson was not the first man to be offered the job; another historian had already turned it down, and Ferguson himself was sincerely minded to do the same. He did not like the vast work (and possibly unrewarding aspects) the book promised. But then he came into contact with what he described as ‘my introduction to the diplomacy of Henry Kissinger’. Kissinger wrote him a note in which the historian was informed that his future subject had discovered ‘145 boxes’ of various artefacts and documents from his early life, many of which had been apparently ‘thought lost’. Ferguson examined the documents and, as he tells it, he was simply compelled by their contents to take up the task.

As good as the story is – and as true as it sounds to anyone who has ever completed any archival work – this all creates something of an ethical dilemma. Ferguson could be seen to have been steered; and besides that, he may well have been chosen to some extent on the back of his reputation, which holds that he is likely to defend or advance propositions that are not nestled within the current orthodoxy. And with a spate of books in recent years decrying Kissinger as a war criminal, an ally of dictatorship and brutality across the world, such support may have been seen by the old man as a potentially pleasant change to what had become the standard refrains.

This sort of criticism has been levelled by many, and Ferguson is disarmingly honest about much of it in his preface. That said, however, I do not believe much of what the critics allege holds water. This is an extended, nuanced assessment of the first half of one of the most consequential lives of recent years. It is not a whitewash.

Ferguson opens the book with an extended quotation from James Boswell, who found fame and literary success as the biographer of his friend Samuel Johnson. In the book which resulted from this endeavour, his Life of Johnson, Boswell has this to say about the nature of his uncommon and pleasing but nonetheless rather challenging enterprise:

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 all praise, but his Life. … [I]n every picture there should be shade as well as light.

As for Ferguson, the relationship he has with Kissinger and his relatives does not appear all-encompassing. There are many incidents within the book of the historian obviously critiquing the actions of his subject – not least in writing about Kissinger’s ill fated attempts to make contact with the North Vietnamese in Paris before he became formally affiliated with the Nixon administration. Ferguson writes of seeing himself – and being perceived by others – as ‘Kissinger’s Boswell’, and it seems the evidence suggests that he performs such a role with skill.

Andrew Roberts, the man who turned down Kissinger’s offer to write his biography before Ferguson, wrote in The New York Times that ‘if the second volume of Kissinger is anywhere near as comprehensive, well written and riveting as the first, this will be his masterpiece’. He could well be right.