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For students of history, the definitive biography of Henry Kissinger

NONFICTION

Kissinger: The Idealist, 1923-1968

By Niall Ferguson

Penguin Press

1004 pages, $36

By Edward Cuddihy

Henry Kissinger has stirred controversy in American public life for half a century.

To some, he is a voice of wisdom, intelligence and integrity, a figure of reasoned determination through the dangerous years when the U.S. and the Soviet Union kept thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at each other’s cities.

To others, he is an academic opportunist, always turning up as an expert consultant to top decision-makers, and then always quick to criticize their decisions.

Most agree Kissinger with his thick-rimmed glasses, heavy German accent and Harvard doctorate is a complex man: An idealist who acts pragmatically; a realist who clings to his ideals.

Noted British historian Niall Ferguson has been controversial in his own right. One of the eminent historians of our time, this Harvard history professor (he also holds positions at Oxford and Stanford) has written a string of major best-sellers, including “The Great Generation” and his masterful 2006 “War of the World.”

Yet to some critics, Ferguson the elitist and Ferguson the conservative classical scholar always remain front and center in a Ferguson history. No matter the subject, some insist, a Ferguson history is all about Niall Ferguson, his beliefs, his philosophy and his view of the world.

Not to be overlooked is that a Ferguson history is highly intellectual – some would say highbrow – yet his prose maintains a clarity and fluidity even when his subject is dense and multilayered.

It is fitting that Henry Kissinger in the twilight of his career (he is 92) would choose Ferguson to undertake his definitive biography. And it is just as fitting Ferguson would agree to this decadelong project only on the condition of full access to the man, and to the thousands of notes, letters and previously closed private papers compiled in a career working for the administrations of three presidents, and whose advice was sought by at least three others.

The result to date is Volume I of a planned two-volume biography of Kissinger and his times. This ambitious undertaking, when completed, certainly will run to nearly 2,000 pages.

Volume I, published this month and subtitled “The Idealist,” ends when Kissinger accepts President-elect Richard Nixon’s summons to become national security adviser in the upcoming administration. So this book ends just as Kissinger crosses the threshold of the 1968 Oval Office into the greatest challenge of his life. (Volume II is reported well along, but with no official publication target.)

Still, the first 45 years of Kissinger’s life contain enough excitement, enough anguish and enough drama to sate most mortals. And these years include the one event – or non-event – Kissinger’s detractors have harped on for four decades in an attempt to tarnish his name.

To the conspiracy theorists, Kissinger surreptitiously conspired with candidate Richard Nixon to scuttle Vietnam peace negotiations with Hanoi, at a cost of countless thousands of lives, in order to sabotage President Lyndon Johnson’s grand plan to salvage a win for Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election. Complicated? Conspiracy theories usually are.

Ferguson debunks the conspiracy theory in the most passionate 150 pages of this volume. He shreds the hypothesis and then goes on to poke holes in its corollaries.

Like a master litigator preparing his brief for the Supreme Court, Ferguson dissects the White House politics of the Vietnam War. He reveals the total dysfunction of the Johnson Administration in the pursuance of that war, and the futility of White House plans to end it.

He piles on layer after layer of evidence that Hanoi never intended to enter into peace talks with the United States in 1968, no less reach an agreement. Kissinger already had concluded, as did many in the Johnson White House, that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. Hanoi knew that. It was only a large segment of the American public who didn’t.

Ferguson implies that if there were any conspiracy – and he insists the conspiracy theory is a complete fiction – it would have been President Johnson claiming a nonexistent peace breakthrough on the eve of the election in order to stave off Democratic defeat.

As for Kissinger’s role being the quid pro quo for his national security adviser job in the new administration, Ferguson destroys that theory with evidence Kissinger disliked and distrusted Nixon, had a long relationship with Nixon’s Republican nemesis Nelson Rockefeller, did not seek a position in the Nixon White House, and was shocked when one was offered, even reticent about accepting it.

The author concludes that “Johnson was not denied peace by Nixon. Johnson was denied peace by Johnson.”

Ferguson’s case that the conspiracy theory was created out of whole cloth is a strong one. There is room for Kissinger detractors to dispute Ferguson’s arguments. The reader can make up her own mind.

Nelson Rockefeller, the East Coast liberal Republican and governor of New York, had for years been Kissinger’s patron. Most of Rockefeller’s foreign policy statements over 15 years either had been authored or edited by the Harvard professor who shuttled back and forth between Cambridge and Manhattan when Rocky called.

Kissinger was a White House adviser in the Kennedy Administration, specializing in Europe and the Berlin Crisis. (Yes, Kissinger worked for Rockefeller and Kennedy simultaneously.) Yet biographer Ferguson criticizes JFK as “a double-dealing master of flexible response” and a “consummate cheat” who cheated on his wife and on the American people. It is not clear if Kissinger agrees.

Again in the Johnson Administration, Kissinger was called upon to act as an adviser on Vietnam and the former Indochina. And again, Ferguson vilifies President Johnson as “corrupt as well as base ... [and] an alcoholic like his father before him.” Later he writes off Johnson as an “unscrupulous blowhard.”

Kissinger never is quoted as describing the Democratic presidents in as harsh terms as the author uses, but he is highly critical of Nixon well before his presidency. During the ’68 campaign which led up to the Nixon election, Kissinger is quoted as saying of Nixon: “The man is, of course, a disaster.” He went on: “Six days a week I’m for Hubert (Humphrey) ... but on the seventh day, I think they’re both awful.”

Always known for his mordant wit, Kissinger even takes himself on. When Time magazine described him as “the world’s indispensable man,” Kissinger quipped in his dry monotone: “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”

Despite these occasional and welcome human insights, this book is fundamentally a history of Cold War politics through the eyes and writings of a man who until 1968 when this volume ends was an acute up-close observer of world leaders but not one himself. At times, Ferguson departs from Kissinger altogether, as in the Cuban crisis, and strikes out on his own.

This is not so much a traditional biography as it is a diplomatic history in which Henry Kissinger is the leading character. As such, it is a monumental undertaking. When both volumes are completed, it likely will define Kissinger’s place in American history for years to come.

Yet the density and detail of this book can be put-offish. To borrow a Ferguson description of an early Kissinger work: This book is trenchant when Ferguson is at his best; sluggish at its worst.

The book, like Kissinger himself, can be brilliant if not always accessible. But it is difficult to see how those without a working familiarity of – or at least a strong interest in – the geopolitics of the 1950s and ’60s will find it a pleasurable read.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.