Henry Kissinger’s years as President Nixon’s national security adviser and as secretary of state to both Nixon and President Ford are well documented, in Kissinger’s own writings and in previously classified material. Among major achievements in those years were: détente with the Soviet Union, including negotiating arms treaties; opening a relationship with China; shuttle diplomacy with Israel and others in the Middle East; and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in officially ending the war in Vietnam. But Kissinger continues to be criticized because of his ruthless pursuit of foreign policy goals. His detractors point to his involvement in invasions or interventions in East Timor, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Cypress, and against the Kurds. In his richly detailed and stimulating new book, Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, historian Greg Grandin writes that Kissinger was “the quintessential American, his cast of mind perfectly molded to his place and time.”
The book tracks Kissinger’s views and decisions and focuses on the central role those decisions have played in influencing his successors’ actions in creating the world we have today, “which accepts endless war as a matter of course.” From U.S. intervention in Central America and the invasions of Grenada and Panama to the first Gulf war and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, to the more recent drone attacks in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, we have seen increased U.S. commitment, more military forces deployed, and more lives lost.
Grandin, whose books include Fordlandia, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, is quite aware that many individuals, not Kissinger alone, are responsible for the evolution of the U.S. national security state. But he argues convincingly that Kissinger’s influence is greater than anyone else’s. He explores Kissinger’s thinking, including careful readings of his written work, with particular attention to his senior thesis at Harvard in 1950 on “The Meaning of History.” Kissinger has repeated many of its premises and arguments to the present day. He contends that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that truth isn’t found in facts but in the questions we ask of those facts. Often considered a foreign policy realist, Kissinger wrote in the 1960s that he respects facts, but “There are two kinds of realists: those who manipulate facts and those who create them. The West requires nothing so much as men who create their own reality.” His “realism” is profoundly elastic and means that hunches, conjecture, will and intuition are as important as facts. This approach was taken up and extended by some defense intellectuals and policy makers. Even some who initially opposed him, both Republicans and Democrats, came to adopt aspects of his thinking when their administrations were in power.
Kissinger helped reconstruct the national security state based on spectacular displays of violence, intense secrecy, the increasing use of militarism and the establishment of an imperial presidency. Power is weakness unless a country is willing to use it in “little wars,” such as Vietnam, he argued.
A key to his approach in helping the national security state adapt to new challenges was the establishment of a denial mechanism that led to strict secrecy and the falsification of records. Kissinger also insisted that what had happened in the past shouldn’t limit what action we pursue in the future. Past policies of the United States and the violence and disorder in the world are not related. Something or someone else is always the reason that led to U.S. involvement. Also, previously classified material indicates that it is hard to find a single foreign policy initiative that was not taken for political gain.
Kissinger’s Shadow attempts to move beyond praise or condemnation to demonstrate that Kissinger, for good or ill, is the architect of much foreign policy thinking that followed him. Whether a reader agrees with the author’s judgments or not, the book makes for fascinating reading.