American history does not lack for superintendents of devastation whom the taxidermy of whitewashed history puts on display as illustrious persons for the admiration of schoolchildren. While ghosts prowl the outskirts of national mythology, herds of admirers graze agreeably, ever cowed.
Consider Thomas Jefferson, who in 1803 wrote confidentially to the governor of the Indiana Territory that if natives east of the Mississippi persisted in refusing to give up their hunting ways and take up sedentary agriculture instead, they should be rounded up and sent West. Consider his protégé Andrew Jackson, whose Indian Removal Act, the legal justification for grabbing Cherokee land in the southeast and force-marching the “savage hunters” westward, was, he said, a policy “not only liberal, but generous” and “a happy consummation” that might “perhaps cause” the natives “to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.” Or consider Jackson’s protégé James K. Polk, who then-Congressman Abraham Lincoln showed had provoked war with Mexico in 1848. Thirteen thousand Americans died in the ensuing Mexican War, but the story told to American schoolchildren is that the memorable local event was the martyrdom of the Anglo victims of the earlier battle of the Alamo. None of this is even to speak of the several presidents and other high officials of the United States who owned slaves—which entailed holding onto them by force and violence, which may not technically qualify as war criminality but may surely be understood as the continuation of war (on Africans) by other means. At his death in 1845, Jackson owned about 150 slaves, his protégé James Polk more than 50. (Writes one historian: “More than half of the children among Polk’s slaves died before reaching age 15”—a mortality rate more than 50 percent higher than that for all blacks in America.) But that’s by the by. The official website about Jackson baronial home “The Hermitage,” the same that tells us about the slaves, calls him “The People’s President,” and his face still adorns the $20 bill.
Or consider Henry Kissinger, who finds America self-evidently glorious and the expansion of American power an unquestionable virtue. In a 1956 article that his often reverent biographer Niall Ferguson characterizes mildly as “self-confident,” Kissinger deplored Americans’ penchant for blind optimism. Americans, he wrote, lack the ability to “grasp … the nuances of possibilities,” as (surprise!) none other than Henry Kissinger was adept at doing. Eighteen years after arriving in the United States as a refugee from Nazi Germany, Kissinger had stars in his eyes. Poor enfeebled Americans: They suffered from a “lack of tragic experience.” They needed close encounters with the abyss. They need a gravel-voiced, heavily accented refugee from the old country—Henry Kissinger.
How the historian Niall Ferguson (late of Harvard, now heading to Stanford’s Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace) will assess Kissinger’s years in Richard Nixon’s White House we shall see when he brings out his second volume, which will take up the saga in 1969, when Kissinger assumes the office of national security adviser and more than 21,000 Americans and between 800,000 and 1.5 million Vietnamese who would die before Nixon left the White House in disgrace are still breathing.
But it is not a happy forecast of what is to follow that Ferguson sees Kissinger’s critics as grudge-bearing self-seekers. The flavor of Ferguson’s approach emerges as early as page 16 in Vol. I, subtitled “1923-1968: The Idealist.” Ferguson tells the tale of 13 former Harvard colleagues descending upon Washington to meet with Kissinger in May 1970. “We’re a group of people,” the game-theory pioneer Thomas Schelling, no radical and a later Nobel Prize-winner in economics, told Kissinger, “who have completely lost confidence in the ability of the White House to conduct our foreign policy, and we have come to tell you so. We are no longer at your disposal as personal advisers.”
Ferguson goes on that the Schelling “group’s stated reason for breaking with Kissinger was the invasion of Cambodia. (As their spokesman Schelling put it, ‘There are two possibilities. Either, one, the President didn’t understand … that he was invading another country; or, two, he did understand. We just don’t know which one is scarier.’)” Ferguson goes on to acknowledge that “[n]o doubt Schelling and his colleagues had cogent reasons to criticize Nixon’s decision.” But he does not tarry to present any of those “cogent reasons.” Instead, Ferguson’s next sentence reads: “Still, there was something suspiciously staged about their showdown with Kissinger. Each one [of the 13] … had experience in government, and at high levels. … For these men, publicly breaking with Kissinger … was a form of self-exculpation.”
In this view from Ferguson’s planet Kissinger’s Harvard critics were not only pinkly fatuous moralists but dishonest, carping, bitter men trying to whitewash their own dirty records. Some of them were, in fact, eminently conventional Cold Warriors themselves who had come to see that the wheels were coming off the express. But to mention their conventionality would deprive Ferguson of his main line of argument: namely, that Kissinger was the reasonable statesman-hero in action. It’s of interest, then, to compare the historian Greg Grandin’s longer version of the Schelling story in his own useful survey, Kissinger’s Shadow, published concurrently, as if to haunt Ferguson’s dithyrambic tome. Grandin, unlike Ferguson, includes Schelling’s comment about the invasion of Cambodia: “Sickening.” And Schelling spoke this most un-Schelling-like word at a time when neither he nor his colleagues knew yet about the secret, pulverizing B-52 bombing of Cambodia that Kissinger had been personally directing for a year.
Not only was Kissinger possessed of “tremendous drive and discipline,” Ferguson writes, he was “brillian[t] as a prose stylist.” Another way to introduce Kissinger would be to note that until 1968, the only remarkable aspect of his career as an pedestrian Cold Warrior was his skill at acquiring bedazzled patrons. His thinking was the standard stuff of the defense intellectuals whom C. Wright Mills reasonably dubbed “crackpot realists.” It is true that Kissinger’s wartime and immediate postwar reports from embattled and then occupied Germany were sparkling—these, quoted at length, are the Ferguson book’s chief revelations, signs of the intelligence that Kissinger had to keep contained, if not drowned, in order to make his illustrious career in social climbing. It is to Ferguson’s credit that he and his research assistants have dredged through so many cubic feet of Kissinger diaries, correspondence, and drafts that they have unearthed more than enough material to demonstrate that Kissinger was not only an accomplished stylist but an intellectual hack when he was not a raving hysteric.
Much of what Ferguson credits as “brilliance” reads as the sheerest banality, yet it leaves the biographer breathless. For example, Kissinger’s dissertation on Metternich and post-Napoleonic Europe, published in 1957 as A World Restored, contains, Ferguson tells us, “striking formulations” such as these:
• “To plan policy on the assumption of the equal possibility of all contingencies is to confuse statesmanship with mathematics.”
• “[C]alculations of absolute power lead to a paralysis of action … strength depends on the relative [Kissinger’s italics] position of states.”
1 + 1 = 2, writes the great man. But there is worse. Ferguson is also “struck” by this Kissingerian aperçu:
[T]o divine the direction on a calm sea may prove more difficult than to chart a course through tempestuous waters, where the violence of the elements imparts inspiration through the need for survival.
Which is to say that only the inspired, the action freaks, are entitled to rule. The agonist is the divine.
Indeed, as early as his Harvard undergraduate thesis, written in 1950 at age 27, Kissinger insisted that “inaction has to be avoided” to overcome the bureaucracy’s “incentive for inaction.” The state has its reasons about which citizens need not inquire, and the belligerence that Kennedy would later call “vigor” is always imperative. Because the state is august, its struggles are near-holy. One theme that runs throughout Kissinger’s writing of the fifties and sixties is his dismay over the inefficiency that arises from diffusion of power.
The struggle to overcome the self-canceling inefficiencies and indecisions of bureaucrats would become Kissinger’s lifelong cause, probably the single conviction that recommended him most to Richard M. Nixon, who had his own reasons to conquer his own underlings. Grandin, by the way, makes too much of Kissinger’s undergraduate work, a mishmash of Spengler and, weirdly, Kant (thus Ferguson’s subtitle, “The Idealist”), but he is right to note that Kissinger’s saw grandeur in his ideal of the self-justifying nation-state that is morally (though incoherently) bound to bring forth its own purpose like a rabbit out of a hat.
In A World Restored, Kissinger wrote of the otherwise admirable Austrian Prince Metternich that he lacked
the attribute which has enabled the spirit to transcend an impasse at so many crises of history: the ability to contemplate an abyss, not with the detachment of a scientist, but as a challenge to overcome—or to perish in the process.
Kissinger could stare at the abyss with aplomb. As he applied his heroics to the problem of making the world safe for “limited nuclear war,” Kissinger had what he construed to be the courage to accept that millions, tens or hundreds of millions of human beings might actually perish along with Kissinger’s ideal hero-statesman. Kissinger would neglect Nietzsche’s warning that “if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” No matter. Kissinger seemed to revel in bringing abyss news from abysmal Europe to impress naïve Americans. His complaint about Metternich served, among other things, as Kissinger’s memo to himself to stay tougher than suckers, the self-description of a man of limitless ambition and no small gift for self-promotion learned early to put his European aura to huge use making connected friends and influencing impressionable people.
So, seemingly discontented with the haughty provincialism that grows on trees in Harvard Yard, Kissinger went about working his way up the greasy influence pole. As rubber-jointed sage he could go ponderous or he could go witty. He cultivated, among many others who might be of use, Harvard’s McGeorge Bundy, dean of the faculty and later national security adviser and leading war hawk under both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Bundy got Kissinger a job at the Council for Foreign Relations, which led, in turn, to years of service at the side of—or elsewhere near the anatomy of—New York Gov. and putative Republican front-runner Nelson Rockefeller. Kissinger proved a virtuoso of sycophancy. And one good feat of sycophancy deserved others: Not surprisingly, “Dr. Kissinger” was lionized for years by Nightline’s Ted Koppel and still is so, by Koppel’s current epigones.
How, apart from his gravitas-bearing accent, did Kissinger pull off this feat? Part of the explanation was that Kissinger was not original; he was, for the most part, conventional. Virtually everything he wrote during his surprising climb to fame in the 1950s was either a) the taken-for-granted wisdom of his time (the Russians, a revolutionary power, were always coming), or b) nonsense (a passage from his diary: “Spiritual force, multiplied by economic force, multiplied by military force, is roughly equal to security”); or—and here is where some originality crept in—c) wild-eyed hysteria in the face of the USSR’s conventional military might and its accumulating nuclear bombs.
The hysterical mode gave rise to sentences like this (from 1955): “If we refused to fight in Indo-China [on the French side] when the Soviet nuclear capability was relatively small because of the danger that a limited war might become general, we shall hardly be readier to risk nuclear bombing for the sake of Burma or [the Shah’s] Iran or even Jugoslavia.” Such unmanly unreadiness to risk nuclear bombing was, in Kissinger’s world, a very bad thing. But he breathed easier at more pleasant prospects in Southeast Asia: “In Indo-China, an all-out American effort may still save at least Laos and Cambodia.” Kissinger worried about “substantial Soviet gains among the uncommitted peoples of the world” but did not begin to grasp that they were not only uncommitted peoples but poor and ex-colonial peoples who were ready to follow compelling nationalists like Ho Chi Minh.
The wild-eyed part was Kissinger’s panic about Soviet nuclear weapons. He criticized President Eisenhower let-’er-rip strategy to blast away all the Soviet Union’s cities if the Red Army went on the move. “There had to be some alternative to massive retaliation,” as Ferguson puts it. Kissinger came up with that alternative: Prepare for limited nuclear war. In his overblown, lavishly reviewed and 1957 “magnum opus” (as Ferguson calls it), Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, Kissinger built up the fantasy of a nuclear war that could be kept “limited.” Richard Nixon admired this book, Ferguson tells us. Ferguson calls the book “coherent” and lauds its “appealing toughness”—although Kissinger delicately called for “pauses for calculation between bouts of fighting and negotiation between two sides even as the [limited nuclear] war was going on. Ferguson does note: “Conspicuous by its absence … was any serious discussion of what a limited nuclear war might actually be like.” But any flaws in the book, he insists, were not Kissinger’s but “reflect the reality that … the book remained, at root, the work of a committee.”
Weirdly, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy became a best-seller. The Sputnik scare helped by pumping up American panic. It was as if a casting call went out for a gravel-voiced, heavily accented German-Jewish sage, heavy with tragic aura, to intone that the world was complicated and therefore it was necessary to prepare to fight a limited nuclear war in Central Europe. Mind you, such a war, Kissinger proposed, should obey rules. One was this: each “battlefield nuclear weapon” should observe “a 500-kiloton maximum”—that is, the equivalent of 25 Hiroshimas. After Central Europe was to be rendered a smoking radioactive ruin, the United States would pause to chat with the Kremlin about what would happen next.
Kissinger had long patented, as if original, the boilerplate notion that “it was an inherently moral act to make a choice between lesser and greater evils.” He brandished such self-justifications so often, it was as if he thought he was making a grand contribution to moral philosophy. In truth, the limited nuclear war fantasy was sheer lunacy. Indeed, three years later, Ferguson tells us, Kissinger had “repudiated” the thesis that had established him as the nation’s Big-Thinker-in-Chief, noting that “[s]ince no country has had any experience with the tactical use of nuclear weapons, the possibility of miscalculation is considerable.” Oh.
To judge from Ferguson’s biography, when it suited Kissinger to take credit for noting the uncertainties of the world, because they made the world safe for vigorous statesmanship, he did so. At other times, it suited him to argue, as in 1957, after the Soviets’ panic-inducing satellite launch:
We’re really in trouble now. We’ve been pushed back gradually, position by position. … The basic trend is against us. [The Soviets] had “superior organization and superior doctrine. … If things continue as they are, our expulsion from Eurasia is a mathematical certainty.”
A mathematical certainty. This was sheer hysteria speaking. As it continued to speak in 1958: “We’re losing the Cold War.” “We simply lost our nerve.” In 1959, Kissinger was so distraught at hearing that his patron Rockefeller was withdrawing from a run as presidential nominee, he described a “feeling almost of despair. … We are heading, I am convinced, for dark, perhaps desperate times.” By which he did not mean that nuclear war was a clear and present danger—it came within a hair’s breadth of breaking out on Oct. 27, 1962, in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis. Kissinger meant that Western collapse was nigh and the Western alliance was crumbling because Washington was guilty of an “abdication of doctrine.” That is, Washington lacked himself.
Picking up part-time work running errands for the Kennedy White House, Kissinger brandished his résumé as a hack militarist plumping for precisely that “credibility” fetish that delivered the United States into the grotesque and, in the strategic terms beloved of Kissinger, utterly pointless, war in Southeast Asia. It wasn’t just that he participated in what Ferguson delicately calls “the missile gap era” (as if everyone believed in such nonsense at a time when the gap was vastly in America’s favor). “By June 1960,” Ferguson tells us, “Kissinger was no longer debating that ‘the “missile gap” will materialize in the period 1960-64”; the only question was whether it would lead to “a Soviet surprise attack or merely to ‘the piecemeal erosion of the free world.’ ”
For such sagacity, Kissinger was courted not only by Rockefeller (who put up a grateful Kissinger in his Caribbean “palace”) but by John F. Kennedy. Desperate to get to the right hand of power, Kissinger courted the two at the same time. Ferguson exempts him from the charge of obsequiousness on the ground that Kissinger must have understood that his patron Nelson Rockefeller would never be president. But his time with Rockefeller was time well spent legitimizing Kissinger as a Great Mind. By 1961, in the midst of Kennedy’s Berlin crisis, he was grumpy about being treated as a mere “idea man.” For Kissinger craved the thick of the diplomatic action.
To speak of his power lust is a decided understatement. When it came to power, Kissinger had an urgent zipper problem. When the time came for the Richard Nixon he “loathed” to come calling, Kissinger could adapt. He was ever-ready. His wartime mentor Fritz Kraemer warned him that “the trap is in your own character.”
When Kissinger said, in 1962, that the United States must make “the internal commitment to ourselves to see that a sufficient military effort is made to end the guerrilla attacks” in Vietnam, Ferguson speaks of “the conditional nature of Kissinger’s position.” He claims that in August 1965 Kissinger “already knew” that “this was a war that could not be won by military means.” For this claim, for all the thousands of pages he had access to, Ferguson offers no serious evidence. While Kissinger recognized that the military briefers in Vietnam were obfuscating, he still welcomed “an outcome in which we achieve a major pacification.” A couple of months later, after briefly forfeiting his standing as an insider by giving a press briefing, Kissinger whined to Bundy about the injustice of it all when he, Henry Kissinger, had “consistently supported Administration policy in Vietnam.” The nerve of Johnson’s ungrateful underlings! It was this Kissinger who, Ferguson writes, was not the sort of gullible fool whom Graham Greene brilliantly described in The Quiet American. For one thing, Ferguson says, Kissinger lacked the “insufferable self-assurance” of Greene’s character. Right.
It’s to Ferguson’s credit that he lays before careful readers ample—bulging—material for such severe judgment. Look no further than his own numerous quotations for heaps of testimony to Kissinger’s banality. Ferguson also, to my eyes, makes mincemeat of the charge that Kissinger, by relaying inside information about the 1968 Paris negotiations that Lyndon Johnson was sponsoring, helped sabotage those talks and therefore to elect Richard Nixon. (Even Grandin, who concludes that Kissinger was “implicated in Nixon’s preelection machinations” to get the Saigon government to scuttle the talks so that Johnson could not announce a deal that might put his acolyte Hubert Humphrey over the top, thinks Kissinger has been over-blamed for sabotage on that occasion.) And even as he is swallowing Kissinger’s conventionality as insight, Ferguson is not without criticisms of his own. When Kissinger went on about America’s “margin of survival” having “narrowed dangerously” to the point that “national disaster” loomed and the United States was “in ‘mortal danger’ of a Soviet surprise attack,” Ferguson allows that his uproar “seems overdone.” But don’t count on Ferguson to point to the sheer craziness of so much that Kissinger maintained.
Kissinger was surely one of the most gifted exponents of an intellectual disaster that led to moral disaster. But such exponents were legion. Mario Del Pero, a professor of international history at Sciences Po in Paris and author of The Eccentric Realist: Henry Kissinger and the Shaping of American Foreign Policy, has it right:
Kissinger has been a quintessential 1950s U.S. Cold War intellectual. He was not particularly original or bold, once we scratch away from his writings the deliberately opaque and convoluted prose he often used, possibly to try to render more original thoughts and reflections that were in reality fairly conventional…. What the archival record has so far revealed is that Kissinger was often simplistic, binary and even uninformed….His often broadcasted realism notwithstanding, he tended to adhere to a dogmatic, zero-sum-game of the international game. In short, he wasn’t a war criminal, he wasn’t a very deep or sophisticated thinker, he rarely challenged the intellectual vogues of the time (even because it would have meant to challenge those in power, something he always was—and still is—reluctant to do), and once in government he displayed a certain intellectual laziness vis-à-vis the intricacies and complexities of a world that he still tended to see in black-and-white.
Ferguson’s readers need reminding what kind of thought was conventional during the years of Kissinger’s ascent and his White House reign as (to borrow the brilliant title of Russell Lees’s 1974 play) Nixon’s Nixon. Kissinger’s heedlessness was thought with a bludgeon. As for his time in the White House, no better introduction to Kissinger’s wartime achievement there can be found than that contributed by his onetime Harvard colleague (they taught classes together), the most hard-headed realist Stanley Hoffmann. Hoffmann, whose inspiration was the underrated French liberal Gaullist political writer Raymond Aron, early in his Harvard career was raking peaceniks like this writer, then his admiring though skeptical student, over the coals. By the late Sixties, Hoffmann had fervently turned against Kissinger and the war. When a British journalist named William Shawcross published his devastating 1979 book Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia, Hoffmann began his review with this quote from the work: “Cambodia was not a mistake; it was a crime.” Hoffmann continued:
This is what William Shawcross demonstrates in his careful, detailed, and incisive book. Sideshow is both masterly and horrifying. It lays bare the fallacies and the shame of the Vietnam war with so much evidence and force that recent attempts at rewriting this tragic story in order to vindicate American policy appear as ludicrous as the policy itself….[It] presents hard and irrefutable documentary evidence showing that the monsters who decimated the Cambodian people [the Khmer Rouge, who slaughtered at least 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979 until they were brought down by the Vietnamese invasion, as case of “liberal Intervention” if there ever was one] were brought to power by Washington’s policies…. the ordeal inflicted on the Cambodian people by its rulers since April 1975 was not merely preceded but prepared by America’s own atrocious policy
Hoffmann came round to describing Kissinger’s view of the world as an “Olympian but distorted view,” which “was accompanied by another form of hubris: a self-intoxicating confidence in our capacity to manipulate other societies.”
But such hubris could not be purchased without a massive capacity for dissembling. In 25 small-print pages in a 1987 Appendix to Sideshow, Shawcross amply demonstrated that Kissinger was a serial liar. He lied in 1970 about the Cambodia bombing. When, in 1979, the interviewer David Frost, working for NBC, and Kissinger, looking angry, admitted to making a public statement then that was “not correct,” Kissinger moved “heaven and earth” to convince NBC executives to eliminate this exchange from the broadcast. He called them “dozens of times,” Shawcross wrote. He lied, and covered up, and lied about lying and about covering up. Examples are legion; see, for example, accounts by Nick Thimmesch, Bob Woodward, Walter Isaacson, Seymour Hersh, Rep. Joshua Eilberg, and the late Christopher Hitchens, among others. This is a man who does not stint at self-taxidermy or taking evasive action. An authorized rebuttal published under the name of Kissinger’s amanuensis, Peter Rodman, smeared Shawcross for “political apologetics” and called it “obscene.” Pot, meet kettle.
Shawcross noted that the final 894 pages of Kissinger’s first memoir, White House Years, included no mention at all of the horrors that the American bombing and the consequent Khmer Rouge takeover (itself inconceivable without the American bombing) brought to Cambodia. “Indeed,” as Shawcross wrote, “White House Years demonstrates more forcefully and more conclusively than any of his critics could do that for Kissinger Cambodia was a sideshow, its people expendable in the great game of large nations.” It will be interesting to see how Ferguson deals with the horrors of Cambodia, and Kissinger’s dissembling about how they came to pass, in his second volume.
One also looks forward to seeing how Ferguson will deal, for example, with a 2001 book by Kissinger called Does America Need a Foreign Policy? (Spoiler alert: Yes, it does; and guess who can supply it.) There, Kissinger wrote that America’s allies held themselves “aloof” from the Vietnam war—Aloof! In truth, France’s Charles de Gaulle and Great Britain’s Harold Wilson both tried mightily to dissuade the Americans from their nightmare course. Before, during, and after Kissinger served Nixon, it never dawned on him that what actually threatened the Western alliance was the American insistence on defying sound advice against the nation’s deep dive into the wicked and doomed Vietnam war.
We shall see if the Ferguson of Vol. II agrees with Kissinger’s congratulating Nixon for what he called “negotiated extrication from Vietnam.” With extrication like that, who needed war? It will be interesting, too, to see how Ferguson deals with such items as Kissinger’s memorandum of his 1976 conversation with Chile’s dictator Agosto Pinochet, in which, by his own account, Kissinger told the murderous Pinochet: “My evaluation is that you are a victim of all left-wing groups around the world and that your greatest sin was that you overthrew a government that was going Communist.”
Where Henry Kissinger is concerned, so many smoking guns are still smoking, it will take superhuman strength for the biographer to hold his nose as the stench reaches high heaven.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.