Niall Ferguson

Monday, Nov 30, 2015
by sarajg

“Kissinger, 1923-1968: the Idealist”

Henry Kissinger invited Niall Ferguson to write his biography.  He was not the first to be asked, and recalled being reluctant.  Kissinger enticed him with revelations about the survival of diaries and private letters, such as one to his parents in 1948 – quoted at length to launch the lecture – as well as the many essays he had written as a young man.  At the same time, Kissinger withheld documents, for example, all the other letters to his parents.  Eventually, he gave Prof. Ferguson the rest of these letters after the biography’s first draft had been completed.  Kissinger, in other words, manipulated the process, as expected.  Prof. Ferguson retained full editorial control by contract.

In addition to a “life and times” approach to biography, Prof. Ferguson explained that the key to his effort lay in extensively quoting the many original Kissinger documents and thereby, bringing his early intellectual development to life.  Kissinger’s formative experiences included Hitler’s accession to power when he was 10, frontline combat in the Battle of the Bulge, and the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps (Kissinger is Jewish).  Kissinger’s family had emigrated in 1933, and he discovered when he returned to his birthplace of Fürth, Germany a decade later that all his relatives who remained in Germany, close to thirty people, had been killed.  He decided to stay on as part of the American occupation of Germany longer than he had originally planned, and returned only in 1947.  Princeton turned him down; Harvard took him.

Prof. Ferguson’s provisional subtitle for volume I had been “American Machiavelli.”  Kissinger in the popular imagination was the arch-realist, the exemplar of the pursuit and exercise of power, the narrow calculus of national political interest; instead, Prof. Ferguson discovered a young idealist.  Not a Wilsonian “idealist.”  But not a realist in the sense of Hans Morgenthau either.  Kissinger was an idealist, firstly, by way of experience: he mocked the appeasers of Hitler in Britain as people who thought of themselves as realists but look what they wrought – if that was realism, he wanted no part of it.   Secondly, he fell under the influence of William Yandell Elliott, a towering and bombastic figure at Harvard, a Rhodes Scholar who had studied philosophical idealism at Oxford and inculcated this in his protégé.  Elliott sent Kissinger off to read the works of Immanuel Kant – perhaps as a way to brush him off, but Kissinger actually read Kant and came back.  He wrote a senior thesis entitled “The Meaning of History.”  It was a quintessential work of idealism, rumination on the question of free will, “the inner conviction of choice” – a central concept for the young Kissinger.  Thirdly, he understood the cold war not via social science (economics, political science), modes of thought he rejected as materialism.  He argued in the senior thesis that totalitarianism needed to be rejected even if it proved to be more effective economically, because it was a betrayal of ideals.

In a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace, during a discussion of nuclear war (Kissinger’s book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy had recently come out), Wallace asked if the U.S. was going to have to live with Communism.  Kissinger replied: “I think we should go on a spiritual offensive in the world.”  He wanted the U.S. to justify its actions not on the basis of a Communist threat but a sense of duty, American values, America’s intrinsic dynamism.

Kissinger’s career in government began with John F. Kennedy’s administration, as it did for much of the Harvard faculty.  In the dispute over the sudden erection of the Berlin Wall in East Germany, Kissinger showed himself to be the idealist (he was livid), while Kennedy emerged as the realist (he accepted the Wall)– exactly the opposite of what many think.

This brought Prof. Ferguson to the question of why on earth Richard Nixon appointed Kissinger as his national security adviser in 1968, the culmination of volume I.  Not only was Nixon an arch-realist and Kissinger an idealist, but he had also faithfully served Nelson Rockefeller, Nixon’s rival.  Kissinger had stuck with Rockefeller through three failed bids to win the Republican nomination, during which each side had made many nasty statements in anger, leaving a lingering bitterness.  Kissinger had barely even met Nixon, having ducked a possible meeting in 1960; they first met in December 1967, just a year before their second meeting, when Nixon made the offer to serve.  As if solving the mystery, one of Kissinger’s doctoral student quipped that “Henry was the only thing of Nelson’s that Nixon could afford.”  (Rockefeller, you will recall, was a barely literature – dyslexic – multimillionaire vying to get the Republican nomination: ring a bell?)

In response to a question about how the interaction with a living subject might have influenced the final product, Prof. Ferguson noted that George Kennan had asked John Lewis Gaddis to publish the biography he was writing only after Kennan’s death; Ferguson and Kissinger had no such deal, since Kissinger assumed the biography of him would appear posthumously, but he survived long enough to read it.  Kissinger argued points with Prof. Ferguson, but when he read the drafts, he was confronted with his own words, writings from when he was in his 20s, and could no longer give pat answers.  Details now came out, corrections to the historical record.  There remained disagreements over interpretations (Prof. Ferguson thought Kissinger was dangerously hawkish over Berlin in 1948, and kept this view despite HK’s objections). 

Prof. Ferguson obtained the input of Kissinger’s second wife Nancy, including over the breakdown of his previous marriage.  Kissinger had held back letters: his former wife was still alive and he was reluctant to let that story get into the book.  The letters reveal he was reluctant to come back from Germany because his deeply Orthodox Jewish family was pressuring him to marry a girl of another Orthodox family, and he held out, but then came back and married her – and it was a disaster.  They divorced in 1962; they had two young children.  Nancy also told Prof. Ferguson how early their own relationship had begun (it became public in 1973-4, but had begun 1964).

In response to a question about the bombing of Cambodia, an episode to be covered in volume II of his biography, Prof. Ferguson noted that Kissinger understood that most foreign policy decisions are choices between evils, made within a hierarchy of priorities.  Kissinger had enunciated this in his letter to parents already in 1948: no one chooses evil willingly if good is available; we must find the lesser evil, as defined in terms of the larger strategy; we can and must sacrifice of pawns on the chessboard, not engage in gratuitously evil acts, but make strategic choices between evils.

“Kissinger’s approach to foreign policy is through history: history is to states what character is to people,” Prof. Ferguson concluded.  “If you do not know history” – your own, your allies’, your adversaries’ – “you cannot engage in effective diplomacy.”