By Chet Yarbrough
Kissinger: Volume I: 1923-1968: The Idealist
By: Niall Ferguson
Narrated by: Malcolm Hillgartner
Niall Ferguson (Author, Scottish American historian, former professor at Harvard University, London School of Economics, and New York University.)
It is a tribute to Kissinger’s intelligence to have chosen Ferguson as his biographer. However, in some ways Ferguson’s story reminds one of Shakespeare’s characterizations of Marc Anthony’s speech at the burial of Caesar. “I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him”.
“Kissinger: Volume I” is as objective as seems possible for the biography of an important man of history. It is written by an historian of erudition and intellect.
Niall Ferguson’s biography begins with Volume I that covers Henry Kissinger’s life from 1923 to 1968.
Ferguson’s erudite assessment of Kissinger seems so comprehensive that little is left to be known for a second volume.
One’s view of Kissinger will be changed by this detailed biography. Many who lived through the 60s and the Vietnam war think of Kissinger as a primary influence in Nixon’s withdrawal from war and America’s belated welcome of communist China.
Ferguson reinforces belief in Kissinger’s influence but implies Nixon is the prime mover. Nixon directs the end of the American war in Vietnam and opens communist China to the world of diplomacy and trade.
Kissinger is revealed as a brilliant teenage boy who lives in and experiences the beginnings of WWII in Germany. Along with his immediate family, he escapes Nazi Germany before the holocaust. When he returns as a soldier in the U.S. Army, he bares the consequence of relatives lost in his home country.
Ferguson shows Kissinger to be a good soldier. He is promoted to staff sergeant and awarded a medal for his work in exposing Nazi sympathizers in post-war Germany. Many believe Kissinger’s recommendations as adviser to American politicians is Machiavellian in the sense that fear is the best form of diplomatic control of adversaries. Ferguson suggests that labeling is a mischaracterization of Kissinger’s view of diplomacy.
Ferguson explains Kissinger is an idealist. Like the founding fathers envision the structure of American government, Kissinger focuses on balance of power. Kissinger advises American leaders to adopt international policies based on balance of power among adversaries.
Ferguson’s evidence is Kissinger’s doctoral thesis on the history of Metternich and the Austro-Hungarian empire in the mid-19th century. In Kissinger’s thesis, he explains Metternich withstood Russian and Ottoman incursions by using censorship, a spy network, and armed suppression against rebellion to maintain a balance of power between opposing forces interested in dismantling the Austrian empire. When Bonapart and Russia covet the Austrian empire, Metternich influences Napoleon to marry Austrian archduchess Marie Louise rather than the sister of the Russian Tsar. Ferguson explains the approach Kissinger uses in nation-state diplomacy is Metternich’s balance of power idea, not Machiavellian fear.
Kissinger, like Metternich, looks at balancing power among vying nations to achieve stability within one’s own state.
However, Ferguson infers there is a flaw in Kissinger’s reliance on balance of power diplomacy. America’s support of Pol Pot makes some sense in respect to Kissinger’s “balance of power” argument, but its cost exceeds its value. Cambodia fell to communism whether either warring party would prevail. America’s support of Pol Pot did not stabilize or improve America’s position in Vietnam.
Some might characterize America’s support of Pol Pot is Machiavellian. However, another way of looking at it is America’s support balanced two warring factions (the Vietnamese army and the Khmer Rouge who are both opposed to American hegemonic influence) to maintain America’s national stability. If anything, it increased American instability by inflaming anti-war demonstrations in the U.S.; not to mention the horrific human consequence of Pol Pot’s directed murder of 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians. Pol Pot is never tried or executed for these crimes against humanity.
A memorial is filled with the skulls of men, women, and children murdered by Pol Pot in the Cambodian “killing fields”.
What Ferguson makes clear is Kissinger focuses on the ideal of “balance of power” when recommending actionable political policy to American leaders. Kissinger focuses on stability, not equity or fairness when recommending American political policy. Cambodian massacre of its own citizens shows the weakness of Kissinger’s idealization.
Where “balance of power” becomes even more difficult as a diplomatic tool is in a nuclear age where annihilation of a nation becomes a zero-sum game. There is no balance of power. There is only mutual destruction and end times.
Ferguson shows Kissinger believes there is a place for limited nuclear bombing in war. Ferguson infers Kissinger agrees with those who believe nuclear weapons can be used as a strategic weapon. Kissinger believes diplomacy based on “balance of power” can ameliorate Armageddon. It seems a faith-based conclusion from a diplomat who is driven by intellect, not emotion. The problem is political leadership is often driven by emotion, not intellect.
Is Putin driven by emotion or intellect? Western support of Ukraine is a test that will answer the question.
Human emotion makes the idea of “balance of power” in a nuclear age chimerical and useless.
Ferguson shows, like all great leaders in history, there is education, experience, and often a mentor that influence one’s intellect. Education and experience are clearly evident in Ferguson’s story of Kissinger’s life. Ferguson reveals two influential people, one clearly identified as a mentor: the other as a great influencer.
Kissinger’s early mentor is Fritz Kramer whom he met when serving in the U.S. Army (Kramer is pictured below in a conference with President Nixon). Ferguson explains, Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, former V.P. of the U.S., and candidate for President becomes a great influence in Kissinger’s life. Rockefeller’s influence is personal as well as professional.
Kissinger promotes the idea of limited nuclear war as a tool for balance of power. This is an argument inferred by Putin in Ukraine’s invasion. To some Americans, and to Ferguson, that seems a slippery slope.
Ferguson’s book is an excellent biography of an American WWII veteran, a hero, an intellectual giant, and a flawed human being. Ferguson shows Henry Kissinger certainly is the first three, but also a flawed human being-just like the rest of us.