In the fall of 1947, Henry Kissinger, just out of the army, took up residence at Harvard University. And Smoky the cocker spaniel went with him. Kissinger, who had acquired Smoky on a whim while on active service in Europe during World War II, had asked his girlfriend to arrange the dog’s flight back to the United States, and he sent detailed instructions to his parents about how to look after the animal (“Don’t ever beat him.”).
Kissinger: The Idealist, 1923-1968
Penguin Press, 1,004 + xvi pp, $36
But Harvard did not allow pets to live in student halls. “As charming as dogs may ever hope to be,” wrote his army mentor, Fritz Kraemer, who had moved heaven and earth to get his protégé into the school, “Smoky still poses a problem.” Kissinger went ahead and took the dog with him anyway. In the end, America’s oldest university relented. Kissinger, the college authorities concluded, may have been suffering from shellshock; the dog might be the only thing keeping him out of the sanatorium.
The story of Smoky is revealing of the character who emerges in this first volume of this authorized life of the Harvard professor, 56th U.S. Secretary of State, and controversial foreign policy eminence grise.
From early in his adult life, Kissinger seemed to understand that he was perceived as boring. (“Perhaps Kissinger’s only weakness,” Kraemer admitted in his reference, “[is] his somewhat unyouthful, though friendly, seriousness, which is coupled with the absence of an active sense of humor.”) So Kissinger outsourced the lightheartedness, letting the dog do the work. Later he would cultivate the unlikely (and inaccurate) image of a playboy, and make sure to wax lyrical about his love of soccer: like Smoky, they added color to an otherwise deadly serious character.
But the dog, as his name suggests, was also a smokescreen for young Henry. As Niall Ferguson makes clear, the casual anti-Semitism at Harvard even in the 1940s made it a daunting place for a Jew to study, particularly one with a noticeable foreign accent. Kissinger thought it better to be in on the joke, laughing at himself by accentuating his difference, including that accent. Roy Jenkins, the mid-century British historian and politician, would often remark that the greatest figures of the past such as Churchill, De Gaulle and Lincoln often had a strong element of the ridiculous about them. Kissinger understood that fact implicitly, embraced it even, and used it as a protective barrier against xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
The sentimentality Kissinger showed towards Smoky (“You may say it is only a dog, but he has been a good pal to me”) may come as a surprise, particularly to younger readers, who perhaps think of him as a ruthless, pragmatic foreign policy realist. The stories of his rages as President Nixon’s National Security Advisor are legion, but the soft-hearted dog lover is perhaps less well known. That common perception of a scheming Machiavellian character willing to sell anything and anyone down the river to further his own cause is one element of the subtle corrective that Niall Ferguson offers in this biography of Kissinger “the idealist.”
Niall Ferguson, another Harvard professor, had quite some task in taking on this authorized biography. The stakes were bound to be high in writing a life of one of the most famous politicians of the modern era, whose reputation for good and ill far exceeds that even of most American Presidents. The fact that Kissinger is back in fashion as a geopolitical thinker, courtesy of ISIS and President Putin, adds not just to interest and presumably sales, but also to the pressure of expectation. Moreover, as Ferguson concedes, because the book was written at Kissinger’s suggestion, “hostile reviewers will allege that I have in some way been influenced or induced to paint a falsely flattering picture.” Ferguson also has to contend both with an excellent previous biography by that master of the art, Walter Isaacson, and the well-known fact that Ferguson was not Kissinger’s initial choice (fellow British historian Andrew Roberts was asked first).
In truth, Ferguson is a tad sensitive about these facts. He takes swipes both at Roberts (“cold feet”) and at books written using only “a dozen documents (the total number cited in one widely read book about Kissinger).” In truth, he has no need to worry. For Kissinger: The Idealist is a brilliant, magisterial work, as clever, perceptive, and occasionally contrarian as its complicated subject. While the author is broadly sympathetic to Kissinger as a conservative thinker, he does an outstanding job presenting the material in a way that makes his own case while leaving readers room to draw their own conclusions. In this way, then, Ferguson comes close to meeting his own gold standard: in Ranke’s famous phrase, history “as it actually was.”
Kissinger’s journey from refugee escaping Nazi Germany to Secretary of State is an astonishing one, but it is also a tale that is extremely well known in its broad outline. Ferguson’s response to this problem is to play what we might call the “Robert Caro” card: a big study that explores every avenue, takes time to turn over each stone and scan every horizon. His publisher also seems to have wanted a big book. Just as Churchill recognized the headlining power of the “Thousand Bomber Raid” as opposed to a “900 or so bomber raid,” Penguin Press manages to nudge Ferguson past the 1,000-page mark by double-spacing the footnotes in larger than typical font, thus giving readers a book that looks suitably weighty on a coffee table, but which requires them to hire a forklift truck in order to read it.
The drama in the Kissinger story begins in 1938 with young Heinz fleeing from Fürth, southern Germany, to the United States to escape the Nazis. Kissinger always said later that he never “thought of myself in those terms,” but the reality is that at least 23 members, and perhaps as many as thirty, of his immediate family subsequently died in the Holocaust. When Kissinger, now Secretary of State, returned with his parents to the place of his birth to receive honorary citizenship in 1975, he did so with visible grace and forgiveness. His mother, however, remained implacable. “I was offended in my heart that day, but said nothing,” she wrote afterwards. “In my heart, I knew they would have burned us with the others if we had stayed.”
That was the environment in which Heinz—soon renamed Henry—was raised in the United States for the remainder of his childhood. Perhaps what saved him from adopting his mother’s understandable anger was that he was as entranced by the New World as much as he remained attached to the old. From Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood to the “Yankee Clipper” Joe DiMaggio and Orson Welles’s stunning radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, the U.S. in general and New York in particular, even in the Depression, seemed like a place of astonishing creativity, enthusiasm and vitality to the young immigrant.
And yet it was also a place of reassurance and comfort. About a quarter of the city’s population was Jewish; Washington Heights, where the Kissingers settled, was a comfortable, middle-class Jewish community. If there were concerns that Jewish immigrants, even reasonably wealthy ones, were living in new “ghettos,” the experience of fighting the Second World War soon changed that for Kissinger and his generation. By the time he returned home in 1946, having served in Germany as a Counterintelligence Corps agent, he found, Ferguson notes, “the United States little altered, but he knew that he himself was quite different.” Facilitated by Kraemer and the G.I. Bill, Kissinger enrolled in the class of 1950 at Harvard. He would stay at the university for the next 21 years of his life.
Unlike Arthur Schlesinger Jr., only five years his senior but already an associate professor and (aged 28) a Pulitzer Prize winner, Henry Kissinger was never “golden” at Harvard. Instead he bludgeoned his way to success through relentless hard work and the epic scale of his intellectual ambition. “He worked harder, studied more,” wrote a roommate. “He’d read until 1 or 2 a.m. He had tremendous drive and discipline.” Certainly he was relentless. His undergraduate thesis, portentously called “The Meaning of History,” at 388 pages, was so long that it prompted the introduction of maximum word limit that even today is still known as the Kissinger Rule. A PhD dissertation on Castlereagh and Metternich followed that was published three years later as A World Restored.
That book, which examines the diplomacy that reestablished a balance of power in Europe after the defeat of Napoleon, is often seen as a key to Kissinger’s subsequent statecraft. “Kissinger’s purpose in writing,” his friend Stephen Graubard said, “was principally to instruct himself.” Ironically for a Government major, Kissinger’s conclusion was that social science had become an enemy of effective statecraft, because “scholarship of social determinism has reduced the statesman to a lever on a machine called ‘history,’ to the agent of a fate which he may dimly discern but which he accomplishes regardless of his will.” That was an important counterblast against the move toward theory in political studies, but it also made it next to impossible to get the book through the peer review process of American university publishers; in the end it was London and George Weidenfeld, another refugee from Nazi Germany, who took a risk on the young scholar.
Kissinger’s PhD had won the Harvard government department’s 1954 prize for the best dissertation, which at the time would have given him reason to be confident of an assistant professorship at the university. There was no such luck for Kissinger. In general, he was not popular with faculty, most of whom found him ponderous and self-important. More significant was his conservative mindset and what was perceived as the old-fashioned nature of his research. When his doctoral adviser asked a friend at MIT whether he was interested in a political scientist who knew something about Metternich, the sharp reply came back, “Hell, no!” Kissinger faced the possibility of oblivion—or at least Chicago, the university that did eventually make him offer. “In 1954 at Harvard,” he wrote later, “I was always an oddball, I was always in that sense an outsider. I had one hell of a time.”
What saved him was a chance encounter with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in Harvard Yard. Schlesinger, pulling a note from his pocket that he had received that day from a former U.S. Air Force Secretary Thomas Finletter, asked Kissinger what he thought about Finletter’s defense of the Eisenhower Administration’s nuclear strategy of “massive retaliation.” Immediately afterwards, Kissinger dashed off an essay, “The Impasse of American Policy and Preventative War,” that argued local war was still possible even in the thermonuclear age. Schlesinger was so impressed that he helped Kissinger get it published in Foreign Affairs the following year. Almost overnight, writes Ferguson, “Kissinger would be one of the foremost American experts on nuclear strategy, a best-selling author, a star guest on television talk shows, the subject of debate in Washington, and the object of denunciation in Moscow.” Some even cited him as the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove, the mad nuclear strategist played by Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film of the same name. Kissinger, incidentally, never forgot his debt to Schlesinger.
That stratospheric rise inevitably brought with it proximity to power, but for more than a decade it was unclear to which political mast Kissinger would nail his colors. Ferguson’s detailed approach really comes into its own as we witness the various circumlocutions, evasions, omissions, and somersaults that Kissinger performed as he tacked, at times deftly, at others less so, between Nelson Rockefeller, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Richard Nixon. Ferguson, however, refutes the argument of Seymour Hersh that Kissinger was, in effect, a traitor who leaked information from the Paris Peace Talks on Vietnam in order to ingratiate himself with the Nixon campaign.
Indeed, for a man so often seen as Machiavellian, Kissinger emerges from these pages as curiously lacking in guile. “Yes, he sincerely believed he was the man best qualified as the next national security advisor,” Ferguson notes, “but he scarcely went about getting that job in a rational way.” Indeed, more often than not, Kissinger seemed “indifferent to his own career prospects.” Why else would he have reenlisted in 1968 with Nelson Rockefeller, a candidate with little chance of stopping Nixon from getting the nomination in 1968, other than because he admired him?
If Kissinger was sometimes his own worst enemy throughout the 1960s, McGeorge Bundy—dean of arts at Harvard and later NSC adviser and White House chief of staff—was not far behind him. Ferguson skewers Bundy time and again as devious, lordly, and hubristic. Something about Kissinger’s status as a celebrity public intellectual increasingly offended Bundy’s patrician ways. When in 1968, with Nixon forming his administration, Kissinger asked Bundy for advice, the former dean could not believe that they were talking about anything more substantive than an assistant secretaryship. When Kissinger was announced as National Security Advisor, Bundy was astonished. He must have been the only man in Washington who was.
This engrossing first volume closes in November 1968 with Kissinger standing on the threshold of power. The story, Ferguson says, has been a Bildungsroman, “the tale of an education through experience, some of it bitter.” What characterizes Kissinger for his biographer is that at every stage—from fleeing Germany as a refugee, discovering the horror of the Holocaust, learning about History itself at Harvard, and developing a political ability to “project beyond the known” as an action-intellectual—Kissinger “learned something new about the nature of foreign policy, cumulatively building an understanding of international relations that, by the end of the 1960s, had few rivals.”
Yet just as Kissinger prepares to move into the White House, his first mentor, Fritz Kraemer, returns to warn his protégé about the lesson of Bismarck in making power an end in itself. “You are beginning to behave in a way that is no longer human (menschlich),” he cautioned, “and people who admire you are starting to regard you as cool, perhaps even cold.” That judgment may sound like sour grapes from an early guru, but as Ferguson points out, there was a kernel of truth in his words. For “what Kissinger had yet to learn was the answer to Kraemer’s—and his own—most difficult questions. Could the idealist inhabit the real world of power and retain his ideals?”
In order to answer that question, Kissinger would be thrown together with Richard Nixon and his “gang of self-seeking bastards.” Kissinger understood the challenge only too well. “I used to find the Kennedy group unattractively narcissistic,’ he reflected, “but they were idealists. These people are real heels.”
One way or another, Henry Kissinger was about to learn how to be a realist.