Kissinger the Legend

The term “legendary” seems made for former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in both senses of the word. He rose from academia to wield unimaginable power on a global scale, and then in his long “retirement’ from public service, as he has burnished his reputation with vast memoirs and well-timed Olympian op-eds and controversies over his actions have faded, he’s slowly ascended to a level of Great Man prominence beyond criticism. He is to world affairs as the Kardashians are to entertainment: famous for being famous.

But it seems even from the heights he occupies, Kissinger is unhappy with his legacy, and so has authorized a biography from the well-known conservative revisionist historian Niall Ferguson. In the September/October issue of the Washington Monthly, Michael O’Donnell reviews the first volume of Ferguson’s effort (Kissinger: The Idealist 1923-1968), along with a new critical biography of Kissinger from NYU historian Greg Grandin (Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman).

While acknowledging that Kissinger’s many critics sometimes fail to credit him with his actual accomplishments (e.g., the opening to China, the nuclear agreements with the USSR), O’Donnell adjudges Ferguson’s effort more of an ideological whitewashing than an objective biography. This first book, of course, is limited to the years before Kissinger rose to power as Richard Nixon’s national security advisor (and de facto Secretary of State, to the dismay of the actual holder of that position, William Rogers). But by painting Kissinger as an “idealist,” of all things, Ferguson sets an interesting task for himself in his next book:

Having set the terms of debate, Ferguson is now on the hook for his next volume to weigh the strategic implications of Kissinger’s most barbaric foreign policies once he assumed power. Ferguson must explore the impact that reining in Suharto rather than stepping aside might have had on the U.S.-Indonesia alliance, and on broader Cold War dynamics. He must analyze what would have become of Chile and Latin America more broadly had the United States not engineered the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected government in favor of the fascist Pinochet. And not to overlook Kissinger’s strategic boners: Ferguson must consider the implications for the Middle East over the past forty years had Kissinger not inaugurated the policy of wholehearted support for the Shah of Iran in the early 1970s. The answers had better be good.

O’Donnell is especially acerbic in debunking Ferguson’s account of Kissinger’s 1968 maneuver to ingratiate himself with Richard Nixon after serving as Nelson Rockefeller’s chief foreign policy advisor for years, which involved helping Nixon sabotage LBJ’s Vietnam negotiations via the South Vietnamese government. This incident was indeed a foreshadowing of Kissinger’s willingness to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives and arguably his own country’s interests in order to achieve personal or symbolic victories.

This latter tendency is at the center of Grandin’s book, which focuses on Kissinger’s insistence of using the threat or reality of military force as an all-purpose token of national strength.

The abiding concern driving Kissinger’s foreign policy was therefore maintaining credibility: action to avoid the appearance of inability to act. Hence, Grandin persuasively argues, the bombing of Cambodia is Kissinger’s signature policy, supported as it was by a self-perpetuating justification. Kissinger helped scupper the Paris peace talks in 1968, and then when the talks were set to resume, the United States needed to show its resolve—so it began bombing Cambodia. In secret.

We see this part of Kissinger’s baleful legacy in the inveterate reliance on war and war threats by conservative politicians today in virtually every arena of foreign policy.

More, apparently, than Ferguson or Grandin, O’Donnell also insists we have to consider Kissinger’s character:

[Ferguson’s] book also largely sidesteps the topic of Kissinger’s famous vanity, thin skin, and penchant for insincere flattery.

This may actually be the most “legendary” thing about Kissinger–his genius for self-promotion. It’s no accident that David Brook’s savage 1995 essay a number of years ago offering sardonic advice for the young preening think-tanker or congressional staffer was entitled “How to Become Henry Kissinger.” It concludes with the successful striver’s status in old age:

By now you are a Colossus….

You sometimes visit your office at the Hoover Institution, but most of the time you’re traveling with Felix Rohatyn on business for Lazard Freres. They bring you into meetings just as deal negotiations are underway, to dazzle the various parties.

By now you are so important you no longer need to be interesting. You drop your words down on people, as if you are always speaking from a tall lectern.

Perhaps when Ferguson’s second volume comes out Kissinger will achieve the Nirvana-like state Brooks describes as “smug complacency.” But if he lives to 200, I doubt he will ever be able to live down his deeds.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.