May 2020

The Inevitability of Tragedy

By Barry Gewen
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Henry Kissinger’s approach to American foreign policy continues to be a subject of controversy, even though he’s been out of government since the 1970s. Regarded as a brilliant statesman by many, he has also been called an appeaser, a villain and a war criminal. What was it that caused people to view him so differently? Are there lessons for today we can learn from him? 

Barry Gewen, a longtime editor at the New York Times Book Review, explores these and other questions in his meticulously researched, consistently stimulating and deeply insightful intellectual biography, The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World. Through detailed analyses of Kissinger’s policy decisions on Vietnam and Chile, the influence of his personal life on his professional worldview, and the views of other Jewish European refugee intellectuals, Gewen offers a better understanding of Kissinger’s ability to challenge people to rethink their assumptions.

Kissinger always loved the U.S. but remained skeptical about democracy. Although he downplayed the influence of his youth in Weimar Republic Germany during the rise of Hitler, who could forget that the leader of the Nazi Party came to power primarily by democratic means? Kissinger believed not in grand dreams but in dealing with realities. Peace is not the natural condition of humankind, he said, and democracy will not guarantee global peace and stability. A balance of power is essential. All of these ideas were controversial, of course, but probably nothing caused him more trouble than believing that we should accept evil in the world rather than trying to eradicate it. As he put it, “Nothing is more difficult for Americans to understand than the possibility of tragedy.”

This beautifully written and engaging gem is an exciting, exhilarating must-read for anyone interested in international relations, American foreign policy or the ideas of Kissinger, whether you agree with him or not.

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