Henry Kissinger is one of the most controversial statesmen in American history. Some regard him as the country’s greatest strategic foreign relations thinker, while others describe him as conspiratorial or as a war criminal. Noted Harvard historian Niall Ferguson tells the first part of Kissinger’s story in great detail in Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist, the first of a projected two-volume biography. His research included access to previously private papers, documents from more than 100 archives and many interviews with his subject’s former colleagues, friends and foes, as well as lengthy sessions with Kissinger himself. All of this will not end controversy, however, and may even provoke it, since Kissinger suggested to Ferguson that he write the biography.
Kissinger left Germany with his family in 1938. At least 13 members of his family were killed in the Holocaust, with the actual number probably closer to 30. Despite this, he has always strongly denied that the Holocaust was crucial to his development. More important was his return to Germany as a private in the U.S. Army. He led a team responsible for historical research and psychology, in an effort to prevent sabotage and to identify ardent Nazis.
Kissinger has said that Fritz Kraemer, a fellow soldier, was “the greatest single influence on my formative years.” Kraemer, also born in Germany, was a highly educated conservative whose training was in international law, and he generated Kissinger’s systematic interest in history. Later, at Harvard, William Elliott encouraged him and demonstrated that a professor could also be a political actor.
Ferguson offers a rich exploration of the interplay among Kissinger’s study, his own writings and his experience. He is often identified as a “realist,” whose primary influences were Metternich, Bismarck and Machiavelli, a label he rejects. Instead, he says the work of the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant has meant the most to him.
Two subjects in Kissinger are most likely to generate strong reactions. The first is that as early as 1965, Kissinger believed that the war in Vietnam could not be won by military means but could be ended only by negotiation. Why then did it take eight more years to reach an agreement? The second is Kissinger’s alleged role in a conspiracy to leak information from the Paris Peace Talks to the 1968 presidential campaign of Richard Nixon. Ferguson points out numerous weaknesses in the arguments that such leaks took place. He does say, however, that Kissinger might have destroyed or failed to record evidence of his activities in Paris.
Whatever one thinks of Kissinger or whether one agrees with Ferguson’s assessments of people and events, this magisterial work should be required reading for anyone interested in one of the major figures of 20th-century history.