Monday, January 25, 2016

My Amazon Review of Niall Ferguson's "Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist"

The Rise of Henry Kissinger

Niall Ferguson’s authorized biography ends with Henry Kissinger’s appointment as national security advisor to Richard Nixon in late 1968. Given the controversy that followed it is hard to believe today that his appointment was nearly universally acclaimed by both the Left and the Right. That appointment was a dramatic move up for an Orthodox Jewish kid from Furth, Germany, whose family fled Nazi oppression in 1938.

Kissinger’s family established their household in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. Something must have been in the water because out of that neighborhood came Allan Greenspan and my ex-boss at Salomon Brothers, Henry Kaufman. Had not World War II intervened, Kissinger was on his way to becoming an accountant.

The army changes him. He sees combat at the Battle of the Bulge, witnesses first- hand the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and as a sergeant in the counter intelligence corps he works after the war to round up Nazis that have gone to ground. Along the way he leaves his orthodox faith. My guess is that is seeing the violence of the front in World War II enabled him 20 years later to risk is life visiting the war zones of 1965 Vietnam. Not much has been written about his physical courage. Further during his first visit he realized that the Vietnam War was unwinnable and a negotiated settlement was required.

Through some lucky breaks and an active mentor Kissinger ends up in Harvard and it is in undergraduate years he becomes an idealist in the Kantian sense. He truly believes in democracy and human choice. He goes on to his Ph.D. and writes a very remarkable dissertation on the Congress of Vienna and its aftermath which is later published as “A World Restored.” Although not as famous as Keynes’s “Economic Consequences…” about Versailles, he offers a unique insight into the geopolitics of 1815 Europe and the key roles of Metternich and Castlereagh. One can certainly argue that this book offered a window into Kissinger’s later thinking the 1970s with respect to U.S. policy concerning Russia and China. Where he appears to lose his idealism is in seeing up close how policy is really made and the machinations of De Gaulle and the North Vietnamese. He begins to merge Castlereagh with Bismarck to form the foundations of the “realpolitik” that he would become known for.

Kissinger becomes a public figure in 1957 with his publication of “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy” which places him in the center of the post-Sputnik foreign policy debate. From there it on to both Kennedy’s National Security Council and the Rockefeller Brothers think tank.  Ferguson demonstrates Kissinger’s adroitness in balancing his loyalties to both the Democrat Kennedy and the Republican Rockefeller. After leaving the administration he works as Rockefeller’s leading foreign policy wonk writing most of his speeches. He is horrified by the 1964 Republican Convention which brought back memories of 1930s Furth and goes on to vote for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater.

Ferguson highlights the importance of history to the making of foreign policy. Too many practitioners are unaware of the path dependence of the irrevocable decisions they make. He also rightly believes that Kissinger is correct that in analyzing policy it is important to look at the counter factuals. For example had Britain and France stopped Hitler in the Rhineland they likely would have avoided World War II, but they could very well have been blamed for whatever events transpired later. Statesmen have to act with incomplete information, because when you have full information it is too late.

We also see Kissinger as a man with his relationships with his parents, his less than happy marriage and his dog Smokey. In my opinion Ferguson has set the stage for his next volume, where we will see the Kissinger that most of us know, become quite a bit more controversial, to say the least.  

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