This attentive, magnificently written, and profoundly researched biography of Henry Kissinger before he took office is stunningly good, and stuns as much for what it does not say as what it does. Earlier Kissinger biographers have tried to comprehend him, not quite in order to forgive his crimes but to share with others—usually Adolf Hitler—the blame for them. Hitler stung Kissinger at a tender age into his amoral realism, and caused him to lure us into a foreign policy that history has proved was unnecessary. Walter Isaacson’s 1992 biography ends with the triumph of the West in the Cold War in spite of realpolitik. Kissinger’s machinations came to naught because the Cold War was more like a TED conference than a life-and-death struggle: Victory came to us because our values “eventually proved more attractive.”
Niall Ferguson is 15 years younger than the midcentury baby boomers like Isaacson, Christopher Hitchens, and me, whose fathers were Kissinger’s contemporaries. Facing not an effortless Cold War victory but a victory squandered, Ferguson is free of the presupposition that both he and his reader are Kissinger’s moral superiors. Instead, using Kissinger’s thought and early career as his vantage point, Ferguson writes a marvelously capacious and dramatic history of American foreign policy during the Cold War’s first generation.
Ferguson devotes an entire volume to the period of Kissinger’s life that Walter Isaacson tells in 139 pages out of 767. This volume ends with president-elect Richard Nixon’s appointment of his national security adviser—and a portentous few pages on Kissinger’s appointment of a military adviser, a young Army colonel called Alexander Haig. Freed of the psychological pressure to get to the good bits, whatever horror you fancy in Kissinger’s public career, Ferguson has the space fully to explore every aspect of Kissinger’s past, including the most thorough account of the experience of his Jewish family in gritty Fürth, northern Bavaria, which had in 1813 taken the name Kissinger.
Arriving in New York at the age of 15, Kissinger turns himself into an American adolescent, a soldier, and a married student at Harvard on the GI Bill, where he prepared himself for his career as Harvard professor, defense intellectual, foreign policy adviser to the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations, and secretary of state in waiting to the man he thought would be the sixties’ greatest president, Nelson Rockefeller. When Ferguson is through, there is very little left of the picture of Kissinger as a wounded victim of history, or of court Jew—the man whom Isaacson described as a born courtier, “incorrigibly attracted to powerful, charismatic, and wealthy people.”
Ferguson depicts a very different type of midcentury figure. Kissinger enters history as a man of action in the mold of Albert Camus, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and André Malraux, with rifle in his hand. (Had it not been for World War II, Ferguson muses, Kissinger might have become a successful accountant.) History thrust him into the Battle of the Bulge, and as the U.S. Army advanced toward the Rhine, Kissinger found himself—with a rank never higher than staff sergeant—the de facto administrator of just-captured towns in southern Germany just behind the front, where he had to deal on his own with starvation and looting among a sullen, occasionally violent populace.
Soon he became a counterintelligence agent, routing out Wehrmacht cells behind American lines, for which he earned his Bronze Star. Even during basic training, the Army gave him, for the first time, the sense of being fully American, and he felt committed to its mission in Germany not as a Jew, but as someone dedicated to a common purpose. His distraught parents in New York wanted him to come home from that “terrible place,” and he tried to explain why he couldn’t: He and a friend had made a promise to one another the night Hitler died that “we would stay to do in our little way what we could to make all previous sacrifices meaningful. We would stay just long enough to do that.”
The sense of commitment to a mission that American arms discovered in action—that we had a responsibility to restore the world—kept Sergeant Kissinger in the Army and propelled him through the first 20 years of his academic career. As student and professor, Kissinger advised not realism but its opposite; not American supremacy but a commitment to our allies’ self-determination; not icy superiority but a sympathetic understanding of the motives of our adversaries, partners, and standers-by. Above all, he believed that a great power had the same obligation to commitment and action that he had felt as a soldier in Germany.