Henry Kissinger, with President Richard Nixon and advisor Richard V. Allen, in 1968. / Courtesy of Yale University

Kissinger, 1923–1968: The Idealist
Niall Ferguson
Penguin Press, $39.95 (cloth)

Roger Ebert once defined a blockbuster movie sequel as a “filmed deal.” The literary equivalent is the official biography. A towering ego, obsessed with the judgment of history, hand selects a scribe-for-hire, offering the promise of heady remuneration and consort with fame in exchange for a fawning hagiography. It would be refreshing to be able to report that Niall Ferguson’s Kissinger, 1923–1968: The Idealist, is more than that. Unfortunately, clocking in at nearly a thousand densely packed pages, it is simply more of that.

The response has been predictable, too. By engaging in such unabashed cheerleading, Ferguson’s book elicited reviews that reflect the opinions people already hold of Kissinger: he is either a genius or war criminal, depending on your view of the years not covered by this volume. Foreign Affairs, house organ of the Kissinger-friendly Council on Foreign Relations, urges its subscribers “to read this compelling book” about a “brilliant” statesman who stands as a “towering figure.” The Wall Street Journal was also deeply moved, welcoming the book as “a corrective to harsher historical judgments of Mr. Kissinger”; the week before this review appeared, the journal published an essay by Ferguson describing his subject as unfairly victimized by the ceaseless “vitriol of the left.” Conservative historian Andrew Roberts, the author’s friend and Kissinger’s first choice to serve as his official biographer, predictably heaped mountains of praise on both author and subject in his New York Times review. (More surprising is that the Times saw fit to publish a piece that so reeked of conflict of interest.)

Others, of course, had a somewhat different perspective. The Washington Monthly, adding a barnyard epithet for good measure, scorns Ferguson’s effort at “rescuing his subject’s tarnished reputation” and concludes that the author “has made himself a hypocrite’s bullhorn.” Columbia University sociologist and counterculture historian Todd Gitlin dismisses the book as “grotesque.” Eminent political philosopher Alan Ryan was more reserved, but his takeaway is clear: The Idealist is “a very odd book” by an author with “enthusiasm for belligerent conservatism and imperialist projects.”

But these dueling perspectives make it too easy to dismiss the book out of hand, without engaging it on its own terms. And such an assessment is sorely needed because the analytical problems of The Idealist run deep. As the title implies, Ferguson proffers a radically novel interpretation of Kissinger, a turn that is, in theory, welcome. (Though it may well have been simply a marketing necessity, intended to provoke, as the book is a late entrant to an enormously crowded field).

Ferguson wants to cast Kissinger as an idealist. Actually, the book vaguely specifies Kissinger’s “idealist” credentials and seems to root them in the fact that as an undergraduate he found Kant interesting. But Ferguson’s main project is to insist that Kissinger was not a realist.

Was Kissinger an idealist, among those hopefuls who envisioned pathways toward a world of perpetual peace? Or was he, in contrast, deeply attuned to the perennial, cold-blooded imperatives of power politics?

Perhaps learning at the feet of his protagonist (whose own memoirs sprawl across thousands of pages of score-settling bias), Ferguson has embraced a strategy of literary overkill, a saturation-bombing of verbiage aspiring to pummel stubborn facts into submission. But while his central claim—Kissinger the idealist—is indeed novel and revisionist, it is also wrong. Simply, plainly, fundamentally, and exactly wrong. Confidently and repeatedly asserting the same erroneous claim does not make it accurate.

• • •

Ferguson is under enormous pressure to justify his effort because The Idealist invites an obvious question: Do we really need nearly a thousand new pages on Kissinger, and on that part of his life before he joined the Nixon White House? There is no shortage of biographies and studies on Kissinger. Among the many is Walter Isaacson’s Kissinger: A Biography (1992), which was not an “authorized biography,” but one with which Kissinger cooperated fully, sitting for interviews, providing papers, and actively encouraging friends and affiliates to share their recollections. Isaacson produced a big, valuable book, but even he managed to get to 1969 by page 157.

Innumerable studies have already walked us through the contours of Kissinger’s life. Young Henry came of age in emerging Nazi Germany, dealing with virulent anti-Semitism, increasing isolation, and considerable stress, his immediate family fleeing at the last minute in 1938. The extended family was less fortunate. Kissinger has insisted to every biographer that these childhood traumas had no influence on him; all have wisely ignored these implausible protestations, and most could easily see in these experiences—an indelible illustration of barbarism and of the fragility of civilized order—the roots of a realist worldview.

Settling with his family in the immigrant community of Washington Heights, Manhattan, Kissinger was drafted in 1943 and trained in South Carolina and then Louisiana. Assigned to the 84th Infantry Division he faced real danger in Belgium, but soon enough, given his language skills, was assigned to intelligence and then counter-intelligence. He went on to serve in important administrative posts, overseeing the fates of local Germans and ferreting out former Gestapo officers seeking to blend into the population—by all accounts, without vengeance. Returning to America, Kissinger went to college on the GI Bill, thriving at Harvard University, first as an undergraduate, where he famously penned a 383-page senior thesis that inspired the “Kissinger Rule” limiting their length. An ambitious graduate student, his dissertation would be published in 1957 as A World Restored. After school, Kissinger landed a gig at the Council on Foreign Relations. Two important legacies of these New York years were his book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957)—a sensation that sold tremendously well—and the relationship he forged with Nelson Rockefeller, wealthy scion of the legendary American family, future governor of New York, and perpetual presidential aspirant. Kissinger would be Rocky’s man—and on his payroll—for the balance of the 1950s and ’60s.

Kissinger loathed the idea that science, progress, and problem solving could lead to perpetual peace.

Kissinger returned to Harvard in 1957 and remained there through 1968. In these years he developed a reputation as something of a celebrity public intellectual and legendary bureaucratic infighter. Essentially loaned out by Rockefeller to serve as an advisor to the new Kennedy administration, Kissinger was frustrated by his inability to crack the young president’s inner circle. He retreated to his patron’s welcoming arms and supported his bids to secure the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 and 1968. Still on loan from the governor, Kissinger was also an informal advisor to the Johnson administration. He visited Vietnam three times in the mid-1960s on fact-finding missions and traveled to Paris in 1967 in ultimately fruitless efforts to establish “back channel” negotiations with Hanoi. Rocky’s man, Kissinger nevertheless managed to ingratiate himself with both the Nixon and Humphrey campaigns, hoping to land an influential position in government no matter who won the 1968 election. Kissinger became Nixon’s national security advisor.

What does The Idealist add to this story? Considerably more detail, some of which is colorful. (Like my father, the teenage Kissinger was in the crowd at the Polo Grounds watching a football game the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.) But much of it is drudgery, as the book also has the tiresome habit of abandoning the narrative thread to introduce ad hominem attacks and petty, provocative asides. Ironically, the avalanche of detail covers up more than it reveals: uninitiated readers will come away from this book with an incomplete and skewed sense of its subject.

Even for a commissioned biography, the rose-tinted presentation of Kissinger presents a new standard for photoshopping away unsightly flaws. One friendly biographer described the well-known Kissinger persona: “particularly his abrasiveness, self-centeredness, and excessive ambition.” Ferguson acknowledges that Kissinger was “reputed to be arrogant,” but chooses to emphasize instead, at length, Henry’s devotion to his dog. The book reads as if no slight against Kissinger, real or imagined, might go unanswered. Consider, for example, the international seminar and “journal” Confluence that Kissinger ran as a Harvard student. In Ferguson’s assessment, “as for the oft-repeated charge that Kissinger was actuated by self-interest, inviting participants to the seminar and contributors to Confluence who would be useful to him in later life, this seems unfair.” No, it seems accurate.

• • •

The Idealist, then, is clearly not the book to reach for if one seeks an insightful portrait of the man. So this book must rise or fall on its head-turning central claim. Ferguson clearly understands this; his title is designed to throw down the gauntlet. “Was Kissinger,” he asks, “really a realist? The answer matters a good deal.”

The answer is: yes. To his fingertips. How do we know this? Because the record could not be clearer. In pitching his idealist fantasy, Ferguson postulates that one reason the conventional wisdom endures is that Kissinger’s critics and others who would characterize him as a realist have “not read” or “willfully misread” his writings. In particular, Ferguson suggests that a proper read of Kissinger’s “four weighty books” published before 1969—actually two major books and two minor efforts—would reveal the true idealism of his hero. In fact, all four books are plainly, indelibly, and robustly realist.

Part of the problem is that Ferguson is clumsy with his use of terms, and he deploys them in an arbitrary fashion over the course of the volume. The definition of “idealist” is stretched past the breaking point, and the meaning of “realism” wanders aimlessly from chapter to chapter, commonly underspecified and often reduced to caricature. This reflects another basic weakness of the entire enterprise: Ferguson, a financial historian, does not have a supple command of the relevant international relations theory. Kissinger was a nuanced and often insightful theorist, and he certainly thought that ideas mattered and that political legitimacy was important. But to understand that “ideas matter,” for example, does not make one an “idealist.”

Kissinger was a classical realist. Some superficial confusion about his intellectual pedigree is not entirely surprising, because in contemporary international relations theory classical realism is a minority perspective. The mainstream of the discipline is dominated by a more modern style of realism that focuses almost exclusively on the balance of power and by a “scientific” turn to the study of world politics emphasizing ahistorical abstractions and universal laws. Classical realism, while centrally attentive to power, nevertheless places great emphasis on the roles of history, ideas, contingency, and uncertainty. As Kissinger incisively wrote, against the spirit of the contemporary mainstream, “No significant conclusions are possible in the study of foreign affairs—the study of states acting as units—without an awareness of the historical context.” Kissinger also placed great emphasis on consequential diplomacy—the role of great men in advancing interests and shaping outcomes—throughout his career.

Additionally, classical realism—in contrast to theoretical points of departure rooted in idealism—sees international politics as characterized by the clash of interests (as opposed to misunderstandings), and thus continuous: the resolution of one set of challenges will reveal a set of new contestations. Moreover, for reasons that might have to do more with realists than realism, it must be said that the paradigm—again, in stark contrast with idealism—is properly associated with a brooding, deeply pessimistic streak based on assumptions about humanity’s enduring potential for barbarism, the looming danger of war, and other hazards smoldering just below a thin crust of civilization.

In Kissinger’s postwar cohort, Hans Morgenthau’s Scientific Man vs. Power Politics (1946) and George F. Kennan’s American Diplomacy, 1900–1950 (1951) articulate core tenets of realism and reflect sentiments that resonate throughout Kissinger’s writings. Anyone familiar with these seminal statements of realism would see plainly that Kissinger was writing expressly in their tradition. With Morgenthau, Kissinger dissents from the “can-do” idea that science, progress, and problem solving can overcome the perennial and intractable clashes of international politics. Alongside Kennan, Kissinger bemoans the foreign policy practice of democracies and especially of the United States, with its tendency to swing wildly between under-attentive naïveté and overzealous crusading. Both are perceived as dangerous, and neither well suited to advance the national interest. This is classical realism.

Kissinger’s A World Restored is an excellent book. It is one of the finest works in the classical realist tradition of the postwar era, steeped in the core themes and analytical concerns of that perspective. (It is required reading for a class I teach, Realist Theories of International Relations.) A study of balance-of-power politics in Europe after the Napoleonic wars, it is, as anyone who has studied Kissinger will properly conclude, a tribute to the realpolitik diplomacy practiced by Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian Foreign Minister for nearly forty years. It is hard to overstate Kissinger’s awe at the statecraft of “the cool calculator in Vienna” (elsewhere the “sober manipulator” of Vienna), who could engage in balancing acts “so skillful . . . that it was hardly noticeable that the balancer was tipping the scale.”

Metternich’s diplomacy, self-evidently, is not for the idealists. “Whatever one may think of the morality of this step,” Kissinger observes at one point, “there is no doubt that it achieved Metternich’s objectives.” In case inattentive readers missed the point, he later notes, “Philosophers may quarrel with the moral stature” of Metternich’s diplomacy, “but statesmen can study it with profit.” He goes on: “Austrian policy was based not on sentiment but on cold calculation.” Kissinger also notes his hero’s “extraordinary cynicism, his cold-blooded exploitation of the beliefs of his adversaries.”

Ferguson showers A World Restored with praise and rightly calls attention to Kissinger’s emphasis on national identity and historical experiences in explaining behavior in international politics—again, that is what makes Kissinger a classical realist. But there is simply no evidence to support Ferguson’s radically revisionist claim that A World Restored does not reflect Kissinger’s enormous admiration for Metternich. Reviewers at the time, as well as subsequent scholars, have invariably acknowledged the obvious place of Metternich in Kissinger’s pantheon. “So strongly is [Kissinger] under Metternich’s influence,” sniffed one reviewer, “that in some cases he is led into biased accounts and unconvincing explanations.” No reviewer dissented from the first observation, which is obvious even to less experienced readers. When I first read the book for an undergraduate seminar, my classmate opened the discussion by suggesting that its subtitle should have been, “Why I want to have Metternich’s baby.”

Kissinger originally intended to include in his dissertation a long section on the German statesman Otto von Bismarck, but, like many graduate students, wisely realized that the best dissertation is a completed one. He never let go of the material, though. His admiration for that realist was of a kind with his worship of Metternich. Indeed Kissinger eventually published a paper on Bismarck, filled with effusive praise for another grandmaster of realpolitik. Comparing his successes to those of “mythological figures,” Kissinger reports in awe, “With a few brusque strokes Bismarck swept away the dilemmas that had baffled the German quest for unity.” Touting Bismarck’s “magnificent grasp of the nuances of power relationships,” Kissinger defends the first chancellor of Germany from charges that he was a cynical opportunist, lauding him for choosing military alliances based not on shared values but “strictly on considerations of utility.”

Ferguson takes on this glaring contradiction of his thesis by sidestepping the published paper, instead working his way through discarded drafts of a never-published manuscript. Describing it as “an uncharacteristically uncertain tangle of deletions and insertions,” he nevertheless quotes at length passages that Kissinger explicitly crossed out. On the strength of this, Ferguson announces Kissinger’s “disavowal” of Bismarck. Never plausible, the claim is embarrassed by passages that incongruously flow from the same pen. Elsewhere, in a consideration of European politics, Ferguson accurately observes, “Here as in much else, [Kissinger] was led by de Gaulle and by his historical precursor as a practitioner of realism, Bismarck.” A few pages later, we are told, “Kissinger’s map of Europe was a Bismarckian one.”

Published the same year as A World Restored, Kissinger’s Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy is an ambitious, innovative, realist study, inspired by two vexing problems of the day: dissatisfaction with the Korean War and the Eisenhower administration’s all-or-nothing military doctrine of “massive retaliation.” Kissinger argued, cogently, that adversaries would call such a bluff and that such a strategy was poorly suited to the goal of extended deterrence, which would assure the security of distant allies, such as those in Europe.

Kissinger opens with a good realist lecture: “We added the atomic bomb to our arsenal without integrating its implications into our thinking.” And he bemoans the fact that “we could not translate it into a strategy for achieving positive goals,” most obviously in Korea, where Kissinger seems to regret that they were not used. His approach derived from the realist tendency to emphasize continuity over change (armor and airplanes changed warfare, but not the recourse to war), and like many realists he was thus sluggish to grasp the implications of the nuclear revolution. To their credit, realists also are invariably attentive to the relationship between force and politics. This is realism 101: the use of force only has meaning in the context of the broader political objectives for which it is introduced. It was this relationship, applied to nuclear weapons, that Kissinger was inventively thinking through.

Burning political ambition alone led Kissinger to support the Vietnam War.

An admirable effort, perhaps, but ultimately a failure. Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy is a bad book—bloated, unkempt, with flaws so obvious that Kissinger soon abandoned his central claim: that the United States needed to adopt the strategy of fighting limited nuclear wars. Moreover, not only should the United States initiate (limited) nuclear war, it should, Kissinger argued, do so promptly. It would be a blunder “to concede the first nuclear blow” because of the tremendous advantages to be found in “the sudden introduction of nuclear weapons.”

Kissinger made two plain errors. First, his doctrine of limited nuclear war would inevitably set the world on a hair trigger of nuclear exchange, something he notes in passing (“each side will be constantly tempted to anticipate its opponent in the first use of nuclear weapons”) but brushes off without much concern. Second, despite the book’s elaborately detailed schemes for keeping nuclear war limited, as a practical matter it seemed obvious that “limited” nuclear war would invariably escalate into a mutually annihilating exchange.

Serious critics received the book correctly: realist approach, awful theory. Morgenthau was representative, admiring Kissinger’s realist disposition and praising his understanding that the use of force is about “the judicious application of what is technologically possible to what is politically desirable and tolerable.” Again, good realism: “This is, of course the classical military doctrine restored and applied to the conditions of the atomic age.” But when it came to policy prescriptions, Morgenthau exposed and eviscerated the utter folly of the limited war scheme. Or, as Ferguson puts it, gently retreating to the passive voice, the book “fails to convince.”

The Necessity for Choice (1960) and The Troubled Partnership (1965), Kissinger’s two other books from this era, are minor efforts. They are more or less calling cards dropped on Washington’s doorstop, reminding the centers of power of his availability. And they are obviously and unambiguously steeped in realism. Necessity is most notable for its volte-face abandonment of the arguments of Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. It is also marred by its emphasis on the purportedly extreme dangers posed by the missile gap—that is, by a supposed Soviet nuclear advantage. Ferguson drapes the former in back-bending understatement (the “remarkable shift” in Kissinger’s position was “a not unreasonable adjustment”), and, more dubiously, steers the reader away from an understanding of the latter. As Ferguson recounts, the United States actually enjoyed considerable nuclear superiority at the time, and he gently chides that Kissinger’s judgments “now seem wide of the mark,” hastening to add that the errors are understandable, “a product of the ‘missile gap’ era.” Closer to the truth, however, is Greg Grandin’s assessment in Kissinger’s Shadow (2015) that Kissinger “contributed to the false idea” of the missile gap and was an important player in selling the myth.

Looking past Kennedy-era policy debates, what strikes the modern reader of Necessity for Choice (and Troubled Partnership) are the depths of Kissinger’s gloomy, dyed-in-the-wool realism, especially his profound Kennanesque despair at the dangers caused by the naïve foreign policy idealism that American democracy produced. From page one, the drumbeat is steady: the declining United States is facing imminent, mortal dangers, but “nothing is more difficult for Americans than to understand the possibility of tragedy” or to “visualize national disaster.” And “nothing is more important for America than to give up its illusions.” Americans fundamentally misunderstand international politics, erroneously attributing “the cause of war to machinations of wicked men,” when in reality it derives from the stubborn clash of interests. Thus the problem is perennial and demands constant vigilance. For reasons more than puzzling, Ferguson asserts that with Necessity for Choice, “once again Kissinger was writing not as a realist but as an idealist.”

Ferguson does not dwell on Troubled Partnership, describing it as “written in a hurry” and soon “out of date,” but it is half a good book, and its strengths are rooted in Kissinger’s realism. Increasing tensions between the United States and its European allies, he explains, derive from changes to the international balance of power: European economies have grown considerably, the prospect of a Soviet invasion now seems remote, the putative missile gap vanished. Thus the urgent threat that had held the Atlantic alliance together was no longer sufficient to mask inevitable political differences among its members. And once again, as the historical details fade in significance, Partnership’s essential realism endures. A principal theme contrasts the follies of naïve American idealism and the wisdom of European realism. “The American historical experience,” Kissinger sighs, “encourages the belief that all problems are soluble through goodwill and a willingness to compromise,” and its leaders “envisage a world where all conflict has ended.” In contrast, Europeans “live on a continent covered with ruins testifying to the fallibility of human foresight.” They understand that “an equilibrium can never be permanent but must be adjusted in constant struggles.”

• • •

Ferguson’s flawed thesis forces him to whip up increasingly implausible interpretations for Kissinger’s most shameful behavior in the 1960s, most notably with regard to the Vietnam War. Like all realists, Kissinger knew, early, that the war could not be won.

Kissinger made three trips to Vietnam in 1965 and 1966, and he observed firsthand that, in spite of its impressive military might, the United States could not reach its political objective: a viable South Vietnamese government that could survive after U.S. forces finally left the county. In his first memoir, Kissinger recalls finding that “self-delusion took the place of analysis,” and “our effort lacked political perspective.” In October 1965 he wrote in his diary, “No one could really explain to me how even on the most favorable assumptions about the war in Vietnam the war was going to end.” Quietly, he told some of Johnson’s advisors “we couldn’t win.”

But in the corridors of power, and to the American public, Kissinger sang a different tune. Ferguson and Grandin, in their sharply contrasting takes, don’t agree on much. But they both detail the disingenuous obsequiousness with which Kissinger supported the administration’s military efforts in conversations with top government officials—and how he sought their approval by initiating an energetic, high-profile campaign to build public support for the war despite his private understanding of the plain truth.

Why did Kissinger lack the courage of his convictions and fail to go public with opposition to the war? Many of his fellow realists bravely stepped up. Morgenthau, with extraordinary prescience, had been critical of the American effort from the late 1950s and remained an outspoken critic; Kennan’s riveting Senate testimony in 1966 spelled out the coherent and irrefutable logic of the antiwar case that Kissinger knew all too well.

Kissinger’s behavior—amounting to professional malpractice—derived from his burning ambition. His goal was to climb to the highest possible perch in government. That required public support for a war he privately knew was a lost cause. Democrats —Johnson and then candidate Humphrey—were orchestrating the war; Republicans—especially Nixon, throughout the ’60s—were criticizing them for not fighting it hard enough.

Offering tortured logic and no evidence, Ferguson attributes Kissinger’s posture to idealism: the belief “that South Vietnam’s right to self-determination was worth American lives.” Nonsense. Kissinger knew that was not going to happen. It was rank opportunism. In fact, opportunism—a quality Kissinger praises in assessing the great statesmen of the past—is a fitting descriptor of how Kissinger managed his entire career. Whether at Harvard, within the Rockefeller circle, or in government, his reputation as a climber and ruthless infighter was legendary.

The master opportunist’s best trick—surely Metternich would have smiled—came in 1968. Once it was clear that Rockefeller would not get the Republican nomination, Kissinger, who by all accounts despised Nixon and thought him unfit to be president, threw his lot in with the Humphrey campaign. Mostly. For as Robert Dallek observes in Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power (2007), “In his eagerness for a White House appointment, Kissinger was cozying up to both Democrats and Republicans.” In particular, Kissinger betrayed the trust of Humphrey’s men, passing on information to Nixon’s camp about the Paris peace talks between Washington and Hanoi. Nixon was concerned that a breakthrough at the talks might be an “October surprise” that would cost him the close election, and evidence shows that Nixon indeed attempted to undermine those talks. Ken Hughes’s Chasing Shadows (2014) is the best account of this sordid affair.

Ferguson addresses this affair with a diversion, arguing vociferously that the information Kissinger passed along didn’t amount to much. But these claims are irrelevant in taking the measure of the man. Kissinger proved his value to Nixon by taking such outrageous, and, it must be said, shameful risks: as Ferguson concedes, “Kissinger went to impressive lengths to ‘protect his secrecy.’” The president-elect was sold. He named Kissinger his national security advisor, and Rocky handed him a $50,000 check (equivalent to $325,000 today) as a parting gift.

Was Kissinger an idealist? Or was he, as he described one set of adversaries, “single-minded, unemotional, dedicated, and, above all, motivated by an enormous desire for power”? In 2004, the historian Jeremi Suri, author of Henry Kissinger and the American Century (2007), a warmly disposed though level-headed biography with which Kissinger cooperated, asked Kissinger, “What are your core moral principles—the principles you would not violate?” Kissinger, then three decades removed from public service, responded, “I am not prepared to share that yet.”

It may be, contrary to Ferguson’s thesis, that there is nothing to share. Isaacson records that during the Holocaust, “at least thirteen close relatives of Kissinger were sent to the gas chambers or died in concentration camps,” including his father’s three sisters. Ferguson describes in detail how as a young American GI, Kissinger arrived at the Ahlem concentration camp: “Wherever they turned, the incredulous soldiers encountered new horrors.” About thirty years later, discussing with Nixon the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, Kissinger volunteered, “If they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Maybe.