Henry Kissinger became the most reviled and admired statesman of his time. Whatever his secret weapon might have been, it wasn't loyaltyby Ferdinand Mount / October 15, 2015 / Leave a comment
Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist, by Niall Ferguson (Allen Lane, £16.99)
Fürth is a small, sooty industrial town in Franconia, next to Nuremberg. Its Jewish population had been as high as 20 per cent in the late 19th century, but by May 1923 when Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born, the Jews of Fürth were a smaller, closeknit community, fiercely patriotic and loyal to the Weimar Republic which was struggling with hyperinflation. The Kissingers were Orthodox and Heinz was a devout boy. A cousin remembers going for a stroll with him outside their “eruv,” the real or symbolic boundary encircling the Jewish community beyond which, on the Sabbath, they were not allowed to carry anything in their hands or pockets, and Heinz reminding him of this and the two boys taking their handkerchiefs out of their pockets and tieing them to their wrists.
Only a few miles from this peaceful, cloistered world were the searchlights of the monstrous rallies. By 1932, unemployment in Fürth had reached 50 per cent. A year later, Hitler came to power, and the communists in Fürth were all rounded up and taken to Dachau. In 1934, Julius Streicher was made an honorary citizen of Fürth; in his acceptance speech, he promised that “if another war comes, all the Jews in Franconia will be shot, because the Jews were responsible for the last war.” Yet it was not until August 1938, justbefore the unmistakable crash of Kristallnacht, that the four Kissingers fled to New York. Dozens of their wider family stayed behind to be murdered.
Only six years later, Heinz, now Henry, Kissinger was back on German soil as a sergeant in the US 84th Division, and newly enrolled as an American citizen after enlisting. He briefly endured some of the worst fighting on the Siegfried Line, as did another New Yorker, JD Salinger. But with his native German, Henry was soon plucked out of combat to sift the unregenerate Nazis from those potential collaborators who might help in the rebuilding work.
The opening quarter of Niall Ferguson’s huge and irresistible biography tells of a cataclysmic life-change; a second volume will cover Kissinger’s career from the Richard Nixon years onwards. Yet Kissinger claims to have been untouched by it all. “My life in Fürth seems to have passed without leaving any deeper impressions,” he said when he went back there in 1958. He had been beaten up, but “the political persecutions of my childhood are not what control my life.” He wrote in his memoirs, “I have resisted the psychiatric explanations which argue that I developed a passion for order over justice and that I translated it into profound interpretations of the international system.”
Kissinger wants us to believe that he was always just as Oriana Fallaci described him in her memorable interview: “God, what an icy man! During the whole interview he never changed that expressionless countenance, that hard or ironic look, and never altered the tone of that sad, monotonous, unchanging voice. The needle on the tape recorder shifts when a word is pronounced in a higher or a lower key. With him it remained still, and more than once I had to check that the machine was working.”
It is his marmoreal persona as much as what he actually says that has made him the most reviled and most admired statesman of the second half of the 20th century. Ferguson is inclined to identify Herman Kahn, with a dash of Wernher von Braun, as the original of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove and of Professor Goetschele in Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe. Yet surely Kissinger was a more startling and unforgettable character than either of the others.
Occasionally, though, we get an inkling that his persona may be a manufactured one. There is the letter he wrote to a girlfriend shortly after arriving in New York, admitting that “since 95 per cent of my previous ideals have suffered shipwreck, I no longer have any clearly delineated goals… I am not so much pursuing a durable ideal as trying to find one.” He certainly lost his Jewish faith and adopted a harsh ironic tone, with quite a biting wit. But the strangest thing is that while his younger brother Walter, who was to become a successful tycoon, spoke flawless American, Henry kept and keeps to this day his heavy Bavarian accent. Walter’s explanation was “I listened, and Henry didn’t.” But is it not possible that Dr K is the modern equivalent of the Delphic Oracle, where the priestess was taught to put on a druggy, barely intelligible voice, in order to lend superhuman authority to her obscure pronouncements?
Oracles are always in competition with one another. Harvard, where Henry was to spend the rest of his life when he was not in Washington or New York, was Oracle Central. No fewer than 50 professors from Harvard joined the John F Kennedy administration, among them John Galbraith, McGeorge Bundy and Arthur Schlesinger.
In retrospect, it may seem as if Kissinger effortlessly acquired the role of every President’s indispensable guru. But as Ferguson shows, it was a never-ending struggle to establish his credentials with each incoming administration. His opening gambit was always Cassandra’s: “We’re losing the Cold War and people all over the world are turning to Communism.” That was in 1959, in the dying days of Dwight Eisenhower’s administration. A few years later, he was just as disillusioned with Kennedy: “I am filled with a sense of imminent national disaster… [I]f present trends continue, I expect not simply a foreign policy setback, but a debacle.” Such dark broodings were always welcome to a presidential candidate looking for ammunition.
So too were his repeated criticisms of the confusion, backbiting and incompetence inside the White House, which a new broom, preferably one wielded by himself, would sweep away. In fact, when he did manage to get halfway inside the Kennedy White House, he was caught up in vicious spats with Bundy, who eventually pushed him out again. Kissinger took his humiliation badly. The Kennedy administration had “demoralised the bureaucracy and much of the military,” relied on “public relations gimmicks and a superficial, somewhat managed press,” had “no respect for personal dignity” and had treated people as tools. So much for Camelot, from one who no longer had a seat at the Round Table.
Kissinger came to be distrusted by three successive American Presidents—Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Nixon—because his first loyalty remained with Nelson Rockefeller, whom he absurdly overvalued, not least because Rocky kept him on his payroll. He had told so many people how much he loathed Richard Nixon that when he finally accepted Nixon’s surprise invitation to become his Secretary of State, the Rockefeller staffers broke out into a chorus of “I wonder who’s Kissinger now.” Whatever Dr K’s secret weapon might be, loyalty it wasn’t. The fact that he and Nixon were to work together in such remarkable harmony only showed what a match for each other they were. Kissinger commented in a lordly way on the “curious phenomenon of people deciding to run for high office first and then scrambling around for some intellectuals to tell them what their positions ought to be.” But the scrambling of the intellectuals to be asked for their advice was scarcely less curious.
And what precisely did that advice amount to? Ferguson’s pages leave a damning impression; perhaps more damning than he expected to leave. For the first part of his career at least, Kissinger’s vatic pronouncements tended to be based on information that was skimpy and second-hand. Crucially, he had travelled nowhere in the Third World, where the Cold War was so cruelly hot. He swallowed, and then regurgitated, the conventional wisdom about the non-existent “missile gap,” the perceived superiority of the USSR’s missile arsenal over that of the US. Even in terms of the American response, he had no idea how energetic Eisenhower had been in the psychological offensive against Communism and how ruthless that apparently bumbling old golfer was prepared to be in getting rid of opponents.
At a deeper level, it is doubtful whether he had fully grasped the wisdom of George Kennan’s “long telegram” from Moscow and his follow-up 1947 article in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym of X. What Kennan called the “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansionist tendencies” was to remain the basis of American foreign policy right up to 1989. Behind it lay the assumption that Moscow was “highly sensitive to logic of force… It can easily withdraw and usually does when strong resistance is encountered.” If containment was sustained, over the long term, there was every reason for optimism because “Soviet power bears within it the seeds of its own decay.”
Kissinger, by contrast, repeatedly returned to his pessimistic theme, that the west was steadily losing. His analysis was further led astray by his indifference to economics. Only once in the book do we find him referring to any comparative statistics, when he points out that the USSR’s steel production was a fraction of the US’s. But then the whole Russian economy, by any estimate, was only a third the size of America’s. Like so many professional Sovietologists, it never seems to have crossed Kissinger’s mind that the glowing statistics pouring out of the Kremlin might be largely fictitious.
In place of the patient, unshowy containment recommended by Kennan and pursued in practice by Eisenhower, Kissinger repeatedly called for the President to show who was boss, by threatening a preventive war with tactical nuclear weapons. He went so far as to claim that “very powerful nuclear weapons” could be used “in such a manner that they have negligible effects on civilian populations.” He imagined that this kind of war could be fought with “pauses for calculation” between bouts of fighting and even that “battles will approach the stylised contests of the feudal period which were as much a test of will as a trial of strength.” Such wars need not spread into wars of annihilation.
Eisenhower was deeply sceptical that any sort of limited war, conventional or nuclear, could be fought against the Soviets without escalating. What other lessons did history teach? The Great War had begun with cavalry and ended with tanks and aircraft. The Allies had started the Second World War on the understanding that they would not bomb civilian targets. By the end, half of Germany’s cities were flattened and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were dust and ashes. The march of technology and the lust for revenge have always been deadly allies.
The threat of limited nuclear war was, however, Kissinger’s unique selling point, and he found it difficult to resile from it. The belief that followed from this line—that test bans, arms limitation treaties and concessions on Germany were pernicious sell-outs—left him stranded in the Berlin crisis of 1961. He had even less to say about the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year. By then, he was out of the loop, and his theory should have led him to oppose the backdoor deals between the Kennedy brothers and Khruschev. Buying the withdrawal of the Russian missiles from Cuba by surreptitiously withdrawing the US Jupiters from Turkey was just the sort of slippery trade which he thought undermined the US hegemony.
Kissinger’s advice in Vietnam was a rather different story. Henry’s physical courage was never to be doubted. Beginning in August 1965, he made three trips to South Vietnam, each time insisting on being taken to the hottest spots and talking to the men in the front line. He quickly concluded that the situation was far worse than the commanders would admit and that many of the supposedly safe areas returned to Vietcong control at night. The best that could be hoped for, he privately told Michael Stewart, the British Foreign Secretary, as early as May 1966, was “a better face-saving device to enable eventual American withdrawal.”
Yet in public he continued to maintain what he had said to Bundy before his first trip that “our present actions in Vietnam are essentially right.” Unlike Hans Morgenthau, he never came out publicly as an opponent of the war. Morgenthau, whose career as an adviser to Lyndon Johnson ended sharply as a result, despised him for it.
Instead, Kissinger pursued a series of fruitless negotiations through various more or less dodgy intermediaries. Elaborate initiatives bigged up in capital letters—MARIGOLD, SUNFLOWER, PENNSYLVANIA—all led nowhere. The politicians caught on quicker than the advisers that the North Vietnamese were simply stringing them along, being willing to wait another twenty years until the American will finally crumbled. In fact, it took another ten.
At times, in Ferguson’s remorseless narrative, I was reminded of Philip Ziegler’s tremendous life of Mountbatten, in which the author tells us that, in order not to be hoodwinked by his subject, he has to place on his desk a notice saying: “REMEMBER, IN SPITE OF EVERYTHING, HE WAS A GREAT MAN.”
In this first volume Kissinger seems so often mistaken and, for all his fabled intellect, so slow to catch on to the realities of power that you wonder how he ever got his reputation for realpolitik. In fact, as Ferguson argues, in the first half of his life he would be better described as an idealist. As for his equally fabled cunning, he often seems more like Mr Magoo than Machiavelli. As a kibitzer, though, he never fell below Olympic class.
The one achievement that cannot be disputed is his PhD thesis on the end of the Napoleonic wars, later published as A World Restored: Castlereagh, Metternich and the Problems of Peace, 1812-22. This still stands as a classic study in peacemaking, subtle and nuanced in its analysis, charming in its character studies and elegant in its style. Although Kissinger gives a delicious account of Metternich’s manoeuvres to disentangle Austria from Napoleon’s snares, it is Lord Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary, who is the book’s real hero. At every turn, Castlereagh is ready to make the necessary concessions to secure a lasting peace, knowing that Britain’s greatness lies in her industrial and financial strength and needs no enhancement by braggadocio or more colonial possessions. A great power should be great enough to give a little, and damn the domestic political consequences. Castlereagh took the flak, and it killed him. Happily Dr Kissinger is with us still.
But the lesson that Henry finally learns is Castlereagh’s. The Number One power must be prepared to lose a little and endure the occasional humiliation. The consequences are all to come in Ferguson’s second volume: the tragically delayed exit from Vietnam, the Strategic Arms Limitions Talks, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Helsinki Final Act, the opening to China and the Camp David Accords. Yes, he was great in the end, but not yet.