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9 November 2015updated 24 Nov 2015 12:20pm

Kissinger the Kantian idealist? Maybe

Kissinger – 1923-1968: the Idealist by Niall Ferguson offered an intriguing read on the president's foreign policy.

By Alan Ryan

Niall Ferguson’s Kissinger is a very odd book. Ferguson intends to stir up controversy with it, although the first row it has provoked is about the New York Times’s failure of judgement in getting Andrew Roberts to review it. Roberts was Kissinger’s first choice as his authorised biographer – as Ferguson notes here – and a friend who shares his enthusiasm for belligerent conservatism and imperialist projects, and has lent himself to promoting a book he thinks will be a “masterpiece” when volume two appears. The New York Times review editor, says the “public editor”, made a mistake.

That is not particularly odd; it’s par for the course in promoting celebrity biographies. What is odd is the choice of 1968 as the end-year of this first volume. It’s a halfway point in the 92-year-old Kissinger’s life, but that’s all. Until around page 540, Kissinger is less Hamlet without the prince than a very long programme note to read while Hamlet is getting dressed and made up. The period when Kissinger was (with some justice) thought to be one of the most powerful men in the world was the 1970s, when he was successively Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state, and then survived Nixon’s resignation, staying on as Gerald Ford’s secretary of state. Many of the photographs that illustrate this first volume date from 1969 and later.

It is possible to have some sympathy for Ferguson, though not a lot. Much of what occupies the first 350 pages of this volume belongs to a period that Kissinger himself dismisses as being of no interest. Perhaps he doth protest too much? On this evidence, no. Born Heinz Kissinger in the Franconian town of Fürth in 1923, the son of a schoolteacher, Louis Kissinger, he was a bright but not exceptional child, mostly interested in football. His family was Orthodox Jewish, but not devout.

Anyone interested in looking for deep psychological insights in any of this has never got anything from Kissinger, who has always resolutely denied that his childhood in an ugly industrial town in the decaying years of the Weimar Republic holds the key to the mystery of his personality. Nor do we get much from Ferguson, who devotes his substantial literary talents here to a lengthy guidebook account of Fürth and its suffering under the Nazis.

The Kissingers had the good sense and the necessary family connections to leave Germany in 1938, after the horrors of Kristallnacht and the burning of Fürth’s synagogues. They settled in Washington Heights in Manhattan, and the young Kissinger had a familiar induction into American life: excelling in high school but having to work at menial jobs to help the family. There is little evidence of how the Kissingers coped with downward social mobility, but to all appearances Heinz would have got a degree from the City College of New York and become an accountant, had the Second World War not intervened. When it did, he was drafted, took US citizenship, became Henry and, at the end of the war in Europe, had an interesting and perhaps formative time in the Counterintelligence Corps, rooting out Nazis and their sympathisers.

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His subsequent career at Harvard was not dazzling, even though in 1950 he graduated summa cum laude with the longest undergraduate thesis on record – after which Harvard imposed strict page limits. His graduate career and unavailing attempts to secure an assistant professorship defeat even Ferguson’s talent for livening up unpromising material. Two things emerge. One is the extent of Kissinger’s ambition, and his extraordinary persistence in trying to influence the makers of US defence and foreign policy with few initial resources beyond his friendship with a handful of Harvard professors and an ability to compose striking position papers. Setbacks never deterred him, and he worked assiduously to cultivate the connections that would get him into the corridors of power. The other is the role of sheer accident in his rise to the top.

His ability to think outside the box was impressive. In 1954, just when mutually assured destruction (MAD) was becoming entrenched as military orthodoxy, he wrote and gave Arthur Schlesinger the paper on “preventive war” that caught the eye of military planners and started his (far from swift or smooth) ascent.

Kissinger argued that nuclear war was far from unthinkable. The point of MAD was to deter nuclear attacks by threatening massive retaliation; as Richard Nixon understood, the fact that it was crazy to wipe out most of civilised life by launching a retaliatory strike demanded that our opponents should think we might be crazy. Kissinger thought war with the Soviet Union was inevitable and that it could be a limited war, fought with tactical nuclear weapons. Luckily, we never found out if the sceptics – who thought a nuclear power losing such a war would escalate
it to an all-out conflict – were right.

The last third of the book is too dense for summary, but anyone old enough to have lived through the Berlin crisis of 1961, the Cuban missile crisis of the following year and the drawn-out horror of the Vietnam War will need no persuading of Ferguson’s view that America and the Soviet Union, together with their allies, more than once stood on the edge of disaster. Why Ferguson supposes he is surrounded by critics who think that, since we weren’t incinerated, there cannot have been any credible danger, is a mystery.

Kissinger’s career was almost as complicated as the international politics in which he was embroiled. After working for the future vice-president Nelson Rockefeller in the 1950s, he was an adviser to the Kennedy administration, sacked, a consultant once more to Rockefeller, employed under Lyndon Johnson in fruitless attempts to negotiate a peace in Vietnam, and at last appointed as national security adviser after Nixon’s victory in the 1968 presidential election.

Ferguson sets great store by his description of Kissinger as an “idealist”. Given that almost everyone else thinks of him as a tough-minded realist about international relations, readers might wonder what the author has in mind. Everything seems to hinge on Kissinger long ago having written about Immanuel Kant’s wonderful short essay “Project for a Universal History With a Cosmopolitan Purpose” (1784). Ferguson describes Kissinger as a “Kantian” but not (in reference to Woodrow Wilson) a “Wilsonian” idealist.

If Kissinger really is a Kantian idealist, he must be committed to the view that the hidden purpose of history is to drive humanity into a law-abiding community of republican states. Just how the activities that led Christopher Hitchens to accuse him of crimes against humanity fit in to that consoling picture, we shall no doubt discover in volume two. Hitchens’s own book The Trial of Henry Kissinger appeared in 2002, and Ferguson has said he is sorry that Hitch is no longer here to continue the argument. Still, the book is easy to find, and should whet appetites for Ferguson’s second volume.

Kissinger – 1923-1968: the Idealist by Niall Ferguson is published by Allen Lane (1,004pp, £35)

Alan Ryan is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Oxford. His books include “On Politics” (Penguin)

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This article appears in the 04 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe