home | books

Kissinger
1923-1928: the Idealist

by Niall Ferguson, Penguin Press, 2015

This is more than a biography on Henry Kissinger. In describing Kissinger, Ferguson is writing about Jews in Germany during the Nazi era, about New York City in the 1930s, about the American army in Europe in 1944-45, about Harvard University and about political philosophy. I am less than halfway through the first volume: to page 329 of 875 pages.

For a long time I've wondered about Kissinger's 1954 doctorate dissertation. Kissinger was a World War II veteran benefitting from the GI Bill. His subject was war and diplomacy. It was judged the best dissertation of the year at Harvard's Department of Government. It was to become a book titled A World Restored; Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems on Peace, 1812–1822. I'll make a few words about the dissertation the focus of this summary of Ferguson's book, to add a bit to what is supposed to be this website's concern with ideas and philosophy, including political philosophy – Kissinger's ideas on war and diplomacy while a young veteran working on his PhD at Harvard.

Kissinger held that international peace is best guaranteed not through international organizations but through a "distribution of power that moderates the ambitions of the strong." He was a balance of power realist. He believed the US should defend its vital interests with violence if necessary but in accepting a balance of power rather than absolute power.

Ferguson quotes Kissinger:

A man who has been used to command (Napoleon) finds it almost impossible to learn to negotiate, because, negotiation is an admission of finite power.

...the desire of one power for absolute security means absolute insecurity for all the others. ... Diplomacy, the art of restraining the exercise of power, cannot function in such an environment. ... [And] because in revolutionary situations the contending systems [communist Russia vs the US] are less concerned with the adjustment of differences than with the subversion of loyalties, diplomacy is replace either by war or be an armaments race.

Ferguson describes Kissinger as holding that for the sake of peace, 'the task of statesmanship is not to punish, but to integrate'. In Ferguson's words, "Only a settlement accepted by the vanquished power can hope to be the basis for a legitimate international order. In such an order, no one – neither the winners nor the losers of the war – can have 'absolute security'." Absolute security is described as a chimera. He quotes Kissinger:

The foundation of a stable order is the relative security – and therefore the relative insecurity – of its members.

Kissinger disliked absolute (black and white) thinking regarding war and peace. Concerning negotiations to end the war in Korea he said,

I also wish the candidates [running for US President] would finally quit talking about a "peace to be won" as if on a certain date "peace will break out" and tensions will magically disappear.

Absolutist thinking included a belief in the perfect flexibility a power's negotiators. Such thinking was an over-simplification and according to Kissinger it was "the illusion of amateurs."

Part of the statesman's tragedy is that he will always be in the minority, for, in Kissinger's words, it is not balance which inspires men but universality, not security but immortality." Ferguson adds:

Here Kissinger very clearly had Americans in mind and their tendency to judge the world by their own supposedly universal but in reality idiosyncratic yardsticks.

More Kissinger:

Moderation in an hour of triumph is appreciated only by posterity, rarely by contemporaries to whom it tends to appear as a needless surrender.

Enthusiasm can be dangerous when negotiating... for it deprives the negotiator of the pretense of freedom of choice which is his more effective bargain weapon.

It is characteristic of a policy which bases itself on purely military considerations to be immoderate in triumph and panicky in adversity.

The attempt to conduct policy bureaucratically leads to a quest for calculability which tends to become a prisoner of events.

Security consciousness tends to become the subterfuge of mediocrity and imagination is submerged in superficiality.

A threat to use force which proves unavailable does not return the negotiation to the point before the threat was made. It destroys the bargaining position altogether, for it is a confession not of finite power but of impotence.

(Shame on those absolutistic rightwing Cold Warriors who didn't want Reagan to negotiate with the Soviet Union and called him a "useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.)

Ferguson describes Kissinger as essentially a conservative, as opposed to revolution because of the need for social order (which doesn't rule out reforms). Kissinger is described as both admiring and critical of the Austrian diplomat Prince Metternich, who participated in establishing world order following the fall of Napoleon and end of the Napoleonic wars. Ferguson describes Kissinger as believing the years 1815 to 1914 as not perfect but as 'sane" and "balanced." (I don't think so. It was pregnant with that which gave rise to the terrible disorder called the World War One in 1914. The order that Kissinger was describing as sane and balanced was of big power empires, with rulers reinforcing each other as to the propriety of ruling people against their will, the empire-nationalist conflict that sparked the Great War.)

Regarding the French Revolution, Kissinger held that revolutions had to be judged on what they were, not on what they purported to be. Metternich and others attempted to obliterate the French Revolution – which Napoleon had both distorted and championed, but in the long run it was the revolution that won.

Kissinger, described by Ferguson, from what I've read so far, emerges as a man of character. He was a student who wanted to learn, to instruct himself, more than a twit dreaming of power.

Ferguson is also to be admired. I have not agreed with Ferguson the historian on every point, but I admire the amount of work he put into the work and the work itself.

Ferguson's quotes of Kissinger can be found in context online on Google Books.

At Amazon.com a five-star reviewer writes:

Dr Ferguson has lots of primary source material he references and used in writing the first volume of the biography. A lot of gems are located within these footnotes including Kissinger's essay the eternal Jew, written after liberating death camp survivors. Also I enjoyed his references to some of Kissinger's previous works that I used as texts in both college and intermediate service school.

A two-star reviewer writes:

This official biography is essentially a love letter to Henry Kissinger. In spite of this, I can't say it is entirely without merit. Its main benefit is the sheer quantity of information within its pages.

There is a single one-star reviewer who, reading the book, would better know the man, Kissinger, whom he describes as a murderer.

I'll finish the book. The next chapter, beginning on page 330, is titled "Strangelove?"

My reading of the second half of Ferguson's biography on Kissinger will begin with "Cold War Confusions: Kissinger and the Eisenhower administration."

Copyright © 2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.