Comments on “The Kissinger Wars”

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[Note that this piece is the final installment of our weeklong series on Kissinger and historians.]

Among the virtues of Barbara Keys’s thoughtful and engaging essay is its forthright defense of counterfactual analysis. As she and Niall Ferguson both understand, thinking about unrealized alternatives is an indispensable part of the historian’s craft—we can judge the forces that won out only by comparing them with those that were defeated. Moreover, as historians we all do it, including Greg Grandin, who in his book rails against such analysis only to engage in it a few pages later. To make causal judgments is to engage in speculation, to contemplate alternative developments, even when these alternatives are not stated outright. Keys puts it well: “All historical explanation is at least implicitly a reckoning with what might have been, and all sides in the Kissinger wars need to weigh the effects of Kissinger’s interventions by considering alternative scenarios.”

Keys is also right to point out that, for all of their differences, these two books are remarkably alike in depicting a monumental, larger-than-life Kissinger, “a colossus astride U.S. foreign policy, but like a yin-yang symbol, one version is painted white and the other black.” Keys tacitly distances herself from this image of Kissinger as intellectual heavyweight and policymaking giant, but she might have mined this ground more fully. For the truth is that Kissinger’s champions as well as his detractors tend to exaggerate the coherence and originality of his ideas, and the extent of his influence on policy.

True, his Harvard undergraduate thesis on “The Meaning of History” was an impressively precocious piece of work that clocked in at 383 pages and inspired the “Kissinger Rule” limiting how long Harvard theses could be (the current maximum is 130 pages); and true, Kissinger’s doctoral dissertation, published in 1957 as A World Restored, remains to this day a very impressive study. (Incidentally, to my mind these and other Kissinger writings from the period show him to be a dyed-in-the-wool classical realist in line with contemporaries such as Hans J. Morgenthau and George F. Kennan, not the idealist Ferguson depicts him to be. Kissinger’s emphasis on ideas, on history, on contingency and the unexpected, is fully in accord with the classical realist tradition.)

Overall, though, Kissinger was a fairly conventional thinker who followed the intellectual trends of the times rather than shaping them, and whose defining characteristics from the start of his career were his burning personal ambition and his desire for power. Unlike other international relations theorists such as Morgenthau and Kennan he seldom challenged the prevailing policy ideas—or the officials who implemented the policies. With the notable exception of A World Restored, Kissinger’s interpretations have never exerted great influence in academic circles, and in the policy world he has always been comfortably in the mainstream. Though he and Richard Nixon were a formidable duo at the pinnacle of U.S. diplomacy and statecraft, Nixon was the key player, the grand strategist to Kissinger’s tactician. Even then their “Grand Design” in foreign policy was not all that grand or original. Important preparatory work on détente with the Soviet Union and on the opening to China had been done by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, respectively, while on Vietnam Nixon and Kissinger upon taking office seemed no less determined than the Johnson team had been to achieve an “honorable” exit from the war (notwithstanding Kissinger’s private musings in earlier months that the cause was hopeless), i.e., one that preserved, for the foreseeable future, an independent, noncommunist South Vietnam.

Keys is surely correct that what she calls the “Kissinger wars” will not end anytime soon. But the choice the two sides give us is really a false one. Neither a foreign policy genius nor a war criminal, Kissinger was above all a master political operator. Armed with a winningly self-deprecating sense of humor, a basso profundo German accent, and a slow delivery that seemed to add authority to his pronouncements, he tirelessly cultivated the powerful in his single-minded drive for the top. In 1968 he courted both sides in the presidential race, hoping for a plum position in Washington whoever won the election. The tactic succeeded, and by the end of that year, which is where Ferguson’s deeply researched and often engrossing account ends, he had reached the zenith at last. In a sense, he never left.

Fredrik Logevall is a professor of international affairs and history at Harvard University.

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