The Myth of Henry KissingerHistorians in the News
tags: national security, Vietnam, Henry Kissinger, international relations
For more than sixty years, Henry Kissinger’s name has been synonymous with the foreign-policy doctrine called “realism.” In his time as national-security adviser and Secretary of State to President Richard Nixon, his willingness to speak frankly about the U.S.’s pursuit of power in a chaotic world brought him both acclaim and notoriety. Afterward, the case against him built, bolstered by a stream of declassified documents chronicling actions across the globe. Seymour Hersh, in “The Price of Power” (1983), portrayed Kissinger as an unhinged paranoiac; Christopher Hitchens, in “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” (2001), styled his attack as a charge sheet for prosecuting him as a war criminal.
But Kissinger, now approaching his ninety-seventh birthday, no longer inspires such widespread loathing. As former critics crept toward the political center and rose to power themselves, passions cooled. Hillary Clinton, who, as a law student at Yale, vocally opposed Kissinger’s bombing of Cambodia, has described the “astute observations” he shared with her when she was Secretary of State, writing in an effusive review of his most recent book that “Kissinger is a friend.” During one of the 2008 Presidential debates, John McCain and Barack Obama each cited Kissinger as supporting their (opposite) postures toward Iran. Samantha Power, the most celebrated critic of the U.S.’s failure to halt genocides, was not above receiving the Henry A. Kissinger Prize from him.
Kissinger has proved fertile ground for historians and publishers. There are psychoanalytic studies, tell-alls by former girlfriends, compendiums of his quotations, and business books about his dealmaking. Two of the most significant recent assessments appeared in 2015: the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s authorized biography, which appraised Kissinger sympathetically from the right, and Greg Grandin’s “Kissinger’s Shadow,” which approached him critically from the left. From opposing perspectives, they converged in questioning the profundity of Kissinger’s realism. In Ferguson’s account, Kissinger enters as a young idealist who follows every postwar foreign-policy fashion and repeatedly attaches himself to the wrong Presidential candidates, until he finally gets lucky with Nixon. Grandin’s Kissinger, despite speaking the language of realists—“credibility,” “linkage,” “balance of power”—has a view of reality so cavalier as to be radically relativist.
Barry Gewen’s new book, “The Inevitability of Tragedy” (Norton), belongs to the neither-revile-him-nor-revere-him school of Kissingerology. “No one has thought more deeply about international affairs,” Gewen writes, and adds, “Kissinger’s thinking runs so counter to what Americans believe or wish to believe.” Gewen, an editor at the New York Times Book Review, traces Kissinger’s most momentous foreign-policy decisions to his experience as “a child of Weimar.” Although Gewen is aware of the pitfalls of attributing too much to a regime that collapsed before his subject’s tenth birthday, he is fascinated by the connections between Kissinger and his émigré elders, whose experiences of liberal democracy made them fear democracy’s capacity to undermine liberalism.