The indispensable idealist

Vernon Bogdanor enjoys the first slice of a big biography.


Kissinger 1923-1968: The IdealistBy Niall Ferguson
Allen lane, £35
Reviewed by Vernon Bogdanor

Henry Kissinger, born in Bavaria to an Orthodox family, has been one of the most influential Jews - perhaps the most influential - in 20th-century America. National Security Adviser to President Nixon from 1969, he became the first Jew to be appointed Secretary of State - roughly the equivalent to Foreign Secretary - under Presidents Nixon and Ford from 1973 to 1977.

He guided American foreign policy for eight crucial years - years that saw the end of the Vietnam war, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the opening to China, and arms control agreements with the Soviet Union.

He personally negotiated the end of the Yom Kippur war between Israel, Egypt and Syria in 1973, and his shuttle diplomacy paved the way for the Camp David Accords of 1978, which brought peace between Israel and Egypt. He was, during his period of office, a major world statesman - in the words of one profile in Time magazine, "the world's indispensable man".

Kissinger is unusual among practitioners of politics in that he was a professor before becoming a statesman. Indeed, his activities in office were deeply influenced by his thinking as an academic. This first volume of his authorised biography analyses his thinking and the experiences that formed his approach to the world.

But, perhaps the most original part of the book is the account, based on considerable research, of Kissinger's childhood in Nazi Germany from which he and his parents escaped in 1938 when he was 15. Having settled in New York, Kissinger would cross the road whenever he saw a group of youths moving towards him, fearing that he would be attacked. Yet he has always insisted that he had not been traumatised nor even greatly affected by his childhood, "Fuerth", where he was born, "is", so he has said, "a matter of indifference to me". That is difficult to believe.

Kissinger has often been seen as the Dr Strangelove of Stanley Kubrick's film - though the model for Strangelove was probably the nuclear strategist, Herman Kahn - a Machiavellian manipulator, oblivious to human concerns and prepared to risk even nuclear war if that was needed to maintain the balance of power.

Ferguson regards this as a caricature. He sees Kissinger as an "idealist". What he means is, first, that Kissinger emphasised the fundamental importance of history in understanding the relations between states; and, second, that he believed that ideas were more important than material interests.

Kissinger admired, not Machiavelli, but the great German idealist philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Yet Kant had hoped for perpetual peace - the title of one of his essays - while Kissinger, more realistically, saw diplomacy as a process of permanent adjustment. His great achievement during the Cold War was to integrate the Soviet Union and China into the international system so that they would resolve their grievances by mutual adjustment rather than a radical assault on the democracies.

Kissinger is biography on a massive scale - 878 pages of text take us only to 1969 when its subject is about to take office under Nixon. It is essentially a prologue, top-heavy with detail, some of it unnecessary.

Still, Ferguson writes beautifully, so that, although he cannot resist following all sorts of byways, the book remains gripping. It is, indeed, compulsory reading for anyone interested in the history of our times.

It whets one's appetite for the sequel, when we will learn about the strange relationship between Kissinger and Nixon, that strange and complex president, capable, in his darker moments, of antisemitic utterances, even when addressing the German Jew whom he had made his chief foreign policy adviser.

Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government at King's College, London

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