Henry Kissinger and Historians

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This week, Process will publish a five-part series deciphering the legacy of Henry Kissinger, edited by guest editor Jessie Kindig. As one of the most influential diplomats in modern American history, Kissinger has long provoked interest and controversy, adulation and protest. Most recently, the near-simultaneous publication of Greg Grandin’s Kissinger’s Shadow and the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s biography, Kissinger: The Idealist led our editors to ask how two historians can approach the same archive and come to wildly divergent conclusions. If historians rarely, anymore, claim objective access to historical truth, what practices and ethics guide our interpretive inquiry into the past?

We put this question to leading historians of US power and foreign policy. Later today, an essay from Barbara Keys (reprinted from the Nov. 2016 issue of The American Historian) provides an overview of what she terms “The Kissinger Wars.” For the rest of the week, we will publish responses to Keys’s piece from Jeremi Suri, Bruce Cumings, and Fred Logevall. But to start, we present the reviews of Grandin and Ferguson’s works from the Journal of American History’s Sept. 2016 issue, reproduced below.

Niall Ferguson, Kissinger: 1923–1968; The Idealist, reviewed by Jeremi Suri.

Few contemporary figures have elicited more controversy than Henry Kissinger. Niall Ferguson is no stranger to controversy himself, but he has now entered the Kissinger battle space for the first time. His stout biography merits serious attention for three reasons. First, Ferguson offers the most detailed narrative so far of Kissinger’s rise to power, from his German-Jewish birth in 1923 through his selection as President Richard M. Nixon’s special assistant for national security affairs in 1968. Second,Kissinger narrates this extraordinary rise with unique access to personal materials (including private diaries) unavailable to other researchers and personal intimacy with the subject. Third, Ferguson makes a bold argument about Kissinger: he was a “Kantian idealist,” not a realist, as so many others have claimed (p. 870). “For Kissinger,” Ferguson writes,

the burning historical question was how far Kant’s view of the human predicament—as one in which the individual freely faced meaningful moral dilemmas—could be reconciled with the philosopher’s vision of a world ultimately destined for “perpetual peace.” (p. 29)

This sounds very sophisticated and it is Kissinger’s own self-conception, especially because it validates his higher “statesman” purposes and diminishes the sacrifices of principle and blood along the way. Ferguson struggles to make the framework fit. One of his methods is to overwhelm readers with details and repetition of his argument. Ferguson asserts an idealistic Kissinger commitment to self-determination for Germany, but neglects Kissinger’s backsliding on this moral position for Germany and many other states during his career, especially after the Berlin crisis. He claims that Kissinger had idealistic reasons for demanding attention to limited nuclear war in the 1950s, then abandoning the idea in the early 1960s, then picking it back up in the middle 1960s, and dropping it again later. When others shift with the winds they are opportunists; when Kissinger does he is following Immanuel Kant’s spirit. “Idealism” becomes apology for Kissinger’s flirtations with self-serving positions on McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, and authoritarianism.

There is also too much of Ferguson lurking in the narrative. The text abruptly turns from detailed reconstructions of meetings to editorial soliloquies on Aristophanes, Niccolò Machiavelli, Faust, and, of course, Kant. These references distract and sometimes distort. In addition, Ferguson cannot resist his own self-serving judgments about the media, marriage, and other topics: Kissinger had married a woman from his neighborhood “out of love and respect for his parents … It was a compromise that had failed—as such compromises usually do” (p. 478). Kissinger, according to Ferguson,

fell into a trap all too familiar to Harvard professors before and since: the trap of thinking that, if a journalist asks one a question about a subject, it must be because he believes one knows something about that subject, and therefore one must know something about it. (p. 521, emphasis in original)

Ferguson is a talented historian with fascinating material, but he is trying to do too many other things in this bloated tome. He is justifying more than analyzing, and commenting more than explaining. He is defending an alleged idealist without defending any ideal other than power. Kissinger and Ferguson have a lot to offer, but this volume becomes more of a lawyer’s brief than a historical investigation.

Greg Grandin, Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, reviewed by Bruce Cumings.

Dean Acheson, often considered to be the greatest secretary of state in the twentieth century (even by Henry Kissinger), liked to say that statesmanship consisted of “the apprehension of imponderables.” Foreign policy decisions are complicated and intricate, always based on imperfect information, and their genesis ultimately resides in the intuitive feel of the statesman for particular situations and structured outcomes. For Greg Grandin, Kissinger is similarly an “existentialist,” who believes not in the transparency of decision, but in its opacity; not in truth, but in how statesmen create truths (p. 15). Grandin traces this stance to Oswald Spengler, whose pessimism influenced Kissinger less than did his belief in intuition, hunches, or “a soul sense” (p. 19). Kissinger made these ideas his own. “History discloses a majestic unfolding,” he wrote, “that one can only intuitively perceive, never causally classify” (p. 18).

In other words, Kissinger follows his intuition, and history majestically unfolds. Perhaps this was true of the opening to China in the 1971–1972 period, a master stroke, except that it was Richard M. Nixon’s idea, not Kissinger’s. The simultaneous détente with the Soviet Union was also quite an achievement, except that within a few years Kissinger had repudiated it: history had unfolded to make Kissinger look like an appeaser, at least according to Ronald Reagan (p. 161). But what about the secret bombing of Cambodia and Kissinger’s connivance in overthrowing Prince Sihanouk’s government and demolishing his careful neutralism, both of which, in Grandin’s view, led to the Pol Pot nightmare? What of his constant intrigues to depose Salvadore Allende’s democratic government in Chile and his squalid succoring of Augusto Pinochet; his cultivating Indonesian generals when they first invaded and then wreaked genocide in East Timor; his holding Deng Xiaoping’s hand after the Tiananmen massacres; his fawning on Ferdinand Marcos, Park Chung-hee, and the Shah of Iran? All of these Grandin effectively lays at Kissinger’s doorstep. Yet for Ted Koppel in these same years, here was “a legend, the most admired man in America, the magician, the miracle worker” (p. 110). When we compare Kissinger’s appalling record to his continued standing among American elites (Hillary Clinton is a fan), perhaps we can call him a mess of a statesman but a great ventriloquist.

President Barack Obama’s foreign policy motto, “don’t do stupid stuff,” may not sound like Spenglerian metaphysics, and it fits exactly with Kissinger’s critique of Foggy Bottom—“things are so complicated that nothing can be done about anything” (in Grandin’s words) (p. 165). But when we apprehend the full measure of Kissinger’s (and Nixon’s) callous interventionism as this book does, we may look back on the Obama years and be thankful for a myriad of complications (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea) about which, the White House thought, nothing could be done. Meanwhile, for the next president this excellent book would be a useful guide. Concise and to the point, unlike so many other weighty tomes on the same subject—including those by Kissinger himself—it is also one of the few that should find wide use in the classroom.

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