Oh, Henry!

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By Reviewed by David Greenberg
Sunday, July 29, 2007



By Jeremi Suri

Harvard Univ. 358 pp. $27.95

Perhaps because of the pungently Nixonian odor of the Bush White House -- the patriotism politics, the "l'état, c'est moi" declarations, the war -- this season has delivered a bounty of books about the men of Watergate. The current climate has vitalized anxieties about the imperial presidency, drawing fresh scrutiny to the Nixon years from such eminent writers as Robert Dallek, Elizabeth Drew, Margaret MacMillan, James Reston Jr., and Jules Witcover -- not to mention a Nixon biography from the scandal-plagued tycoon Conrad Black and the Broadway drama "Nixon/Frost."

Joining this lengthening queue is Jeremi Suri, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, with a useful, idiosyncratic study, Henry Kissinger and the American Century. Suri isn't trying to compete -- for audience or authoritativeness -- with Dallek's Nixon and Kissinger or MacMillan's Nixon and Mao, which combine scholarly rigor with popular appeal. Rather, he's gambling that less can be more. Suri's Kissinger is an academic rumination on the cerebral Harvard professor-turned-showboating national security adviser that, while intentionally narrow in scope, is bold in its reach.

With his gravelly Germanic mumble, horn-rimmed glasses, cold-blooded espousal of realpolitik, and a head that Oriana Fallaci likened to that of a sheep, Kissinger has become a most improbable American icon. Like his equally complex and controversial benefactor, Richard Nixon, he has generated reams of chitchat, psychobabble and lore, from his 383-page undergraduate thesis to his rumored liaisons with starlets. (One favorite tale: when thanked by an admirer for "saving the world," Kissinger replied: "You're welcome.") If only for his Strangelovean presence in American culture, he warrants explication.

Suri comes at Kissinger in two ways. In the book's first part, he explores Kissinger's formative experiences in their binational context -- the Bavarian Jew living under the Nazis, the immigrant in New York's Washington Heights, the army administrator returning to postwar Germany. In each trying situation, Kissinger learned to leverage his status as an outsider into influence -- a practice that soon became a Kissingerian trademark. In the book's second part, Suri puts forth a close reading of Kissinger's scholarship, finding in it elaborations of the distrust of popular passions first instilled in interwar Germany. In the two final chapters he highlights these traits within Nixon's international policies.

Some readers, it should be warned, may bristle at the author's undisguised admiration for his subject, particularly the words "brilliant," "genius" and "revolutionary," which pepper the prose. And Suri surprisingly omits discussion of Kissinger's well-known role in the original sin of Watergate -- the illegal wiretapping of journalists and White House aides -- and his alleged perjury in hushing it up.

By and large, however, Suri adopts the stance not of a partisan but of a sedate academic. History, after all, while not eschewing normative judgments altogether, calls for understanding more than moralizing -- not just for adjudicating the debates over Nixon's continuation of the Vietnam War and détente, but also for explaining the meaning of those debates. If the book doesn't damn Kissinger for the 1972 Christmas bombing of North Vietnam or the 1973 coup against Chile's Salvador Allende, it does try to show why he favored those actions.

The roots of Kissinger's ideas matter because for all his failures of policy and morality, he still elicits purring admiration from a certain insider set. The insiders love Henry because in foreign affairs, despite the proven importance of personal diplomacy, Americans crave overarching visions and "grand strategies" from which policy decisions are said to flow naturally. Kissinger managed to associate the age-old doctrine of realpolitik with his own person.

Of course, policymakers don't implement pure ideas. Individuals must interpret doctrine in light of new situations and through the filters of their own habits of mind. In Kissinger's case, his realism was animated by a cynicism so virulent that it ultimately devoured itself: Whereas more principled realists such as the political scientist Hans Morgenthau opposed the Vietnam War from early on, Kissinger (following Nixon's direction) suppressed hard-headed analyses warning that the conflict was unwinnable, preferring to chase the chimeras of credibility and reputation. More recently, Kissinger's covert advice to Bush to mimic Nixon's Vietnam course by standing fast in Iraq -- in opposition to realist perspectives -- suggests that a hunger for influence may again have trumped the logical conclusions of his own nominal worldview.

The underlying problem is that Kissinger never admitted a fatal contradiction in his peculiar brand of realism. As Suri notes, Kissinger was so disdainful of democratic accountability that he came to think that effective statecraft "depended on an almost mythical grand master" -- a philosopher-king, a professor in a Superman uniform -- whose brilliance and personality could hold it all together. Regarding his own era, Kissinger left no doubt about whom he considered that grand master to be.

In describing the legacy he wished to leave, Kissinger once said that he wanted to erect a lasting international framework that would reflect not his own preferences but the basic interests of the United States. Yet, ironically, his grand scheme required that it all rest on his personal touch.

As the years pass, the case for Kissinger's greatness becomes increasingly hard to sustain. His academic reputation has long since been deflated. Most scholars now agree that Nixon conceived and directed his own policy (except when incapacitated by Watergate), with Kissinger functioning as his agent. Even the perennial accusations of war crimes against Henry sound like overwrought sloganeering -- too lofty a charge to level at a mere deputy.

Kissinger is, in the end, a smart man -- not a genius, not even unusually brilliant -- whose lot it was to serve a president whose mania for acclaim, dreams of grandeur and taste for secrecy and deceit matched his own. In one sense, hitching his star to Nixon's was unfortunate for Kissinger, because the shame of Nixon will always be his shame, too. But in another sense it was lucky, because in the Cold War's last years Nixon unleashed him to pursue their shared ambitions on the world stage, not without some benefit. When Nixon fell, Kissinger remained standing, poised with a sly smile to gather the credit. ·

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University, is the author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image" and numerous books and articles about Nixon and Kissinger.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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