Mario Del Pero is professor of International History at the Institut d’études politiques/SciencesPo of Paris.

Niall Ferguson wants us to reject the stereotyped image of Henry Kissinger as a cynical, amoral realist. He’d like us to believe that Kissinger was a kind of tormented idealist who believed in the “need for a moral foundation for foreign policy.” Ferguson goes to great lengths — nearly 1,000 pages, in fact — to construct his argument, but ultimately it proves unconvincing.

This first installment of a long-awaited, two-volume biography covers the period from Kissinger’s birth in 1923 to his selection as Nixon’s national security adviser in 1968.

The 1,000 pages of Volume 1 are themselves divided into five “books.” The first, and the most original and balanced, covers the 1920s to World War II. The second is on Kissinger’s years at Harvard, where he did his undergraduate and graduate studies; the period at the Council on Foreign Relations (when Kissinger made his first splash with his considerations of the possibilities offered by limited nuclear war); and his work as an adviser to a prince who never was, Nelson Rockefeller. The third book follows Kissinger’s initiation into the world of high policy (and rough politics) and his association — always frustratingly informal and partial — with Kennedy’s best and brightest. Books IV and V narrate Kissinger’s reflections and recommendations on the intervention in Vietnam, discuss in hyper-dense detail his involvement in the botched peace negotiations of 1967-68, and end with his decision to serve a president, Richard Nixon, he had just declared “unfit” for the role.

The objective of Ferguson, whom Kissinger personally selected for the task, is to write a Bildungsroman: “the story of an education that was both philosophical and sentimental.” For a life like Kissinger’s, a “global biography” and therefore global research were needed. Ferguson is not shy in describing his archival feats: In the opening pages the reader is duly informed that materials were drawn from “111 archives all around the world” and that the total pages worthy of inclusion in the digital database created for the book totaled 37,645.

‘Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist’ by Niall Ferguson (Penguin)

As is often the case, there is some exaggeration behind this archival machismo. In reality, the vast majority — indeed the quasi-totality — of the primary sources came from the two Kissinger collections, one at Yale and the other at the Library of Congress. But Ferguson and his staff have unearthed some very interesting and narrative-enriching documents from unlikely repositories, such as the municipal archives of Fürth and Krefeld, the German cities where Kissinger was born and, in 1945, placed in charge of the Army’s counter-intelligence corps responsible for denazification.

The section on World War II and Kissinger’s fast-forward Americanization by way of New York public schools and Army training is the most engaging and persuasive. By stressing the formative value of this experience, Ferguson effectively dismantles some elements of a superficial Kissingerian mythology, first and foremost the notion that he was a “child of Weimar,” bound forever to be influenced by his experience with the frail and collapsing German democracy. As Ferguson correctly points out, Kissinger was not even 10 when the Weimar democracy finally collapsed, and in his later writings he devoted little or no attention to it.

When the narrative moves to the Cold War, however, the problems begin. Ferguson challenges another ingrained stereotype: Kissinger as a hard-nosed and amoral realist, a European realpolitiker on lease to naive and hyper-idealist America (an image, it must be said, that the man himself has always attempted to convey). To counter the simplistic portrait of an arch-realist, Ferguson proposes an equally rigid and one-dimensional characterization: the anti-materialist, Kantian idealist (hence the subtitle of the book). Just like the Kissinger-as-realist of many other biographies, Ferguson’s Kissinger-as-idealist often seems out of place in a Cold War America dominated by pragmatists such as the whiz kids of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations: technocrats who, Ferguson argues, thought that the competition with the Soviet Union could be carried out, and eventually won, not by offering higher ideals but by proving the economic superiority of the American version of industrial modernity.

To compound matters, Ferguson, who makes little effort to engage with the rich historiography of the Cold War, adopts a very simplistic and binary description of the post-1945 bipolar antagonism (“the Cold War,” he writes — entombing into this sentence half a century of scholarly debate — “was a struggle between two rival ideologies: the theories of Enlightenment as encapsulated in the American Constitution, and the theories of Marx and Lenin as articulated by successive leaders”). Here the biography often slips into hagiography, with Kissinger portrayed as the lonely, enlightened voice in the land of the deaf; a man heroically committed to the struggle against the conceptual vacuity and, even more, against the “history deficit” that Ferguson identifies as one of the quintessential deficiencies of U.S. political culture. Kissinger’s early ponderings on the wonders of limited nuclear war are thus described as prescient, bold and original (they weren’t, and they were soon outdated by events). His 1965 prediction that Germany would be reunified not via detente but through transatlantic and pan-European integration is presented as “almost prophetic.” In reality it was precisely through detente and engagement that the reunification could peacefully happen, and Ferguson’s nonchalant description of Ostpolitik will leave most Cold War historians in dismay.

Kissinger’s politically convenient (and wholly fallacious) belief in a missile gap favoring the Soviets in the 1950s is not thoroughly examined. His inability to understand some key U.S. strengths during the Cold War — the irresistible attraction of its model of mass consumption, in particular — is completely overlooked. Meanwhile, Ferguson takes some cheap and avoidable shots, as when he pairs the critical comments of the Princeton historian Arno Mayer on Kissinger’s nomination as national security adviser with those of Robert Welch of the John Birch Society, and concludes that “only those on the political fringes could seriously object to Kissinger’s appointment.”

On rare occasions, Ferguson offers criticisms of his subject, the strongest concerning the alleged “amateurishness” of Kissinger during the informal 1967 peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese in Paris. (Claims of global research notwithstanding, Ferguson’s confidence in putting the blame for the failure of the peace initiative squarely on North Vietnam is supported by no Vietnamese documents and only limited use of the mass of available U.S. sources.) But hagiography abounds, and more than once Ferguson goes over the top in celebrating Kissinger’s deeds, to the point of describing a letter Kissinger wrote in 1946 to the aunt of a concentration camp survivor, in which he reflects on the camps as “testing grounds” that required victims to “disregard ordinary standards of morality” in order to survive, as “offering insights that in some ways anticipated the later writings of Primo Levi.”

By replacing realism with idealism — or the war-criminal stereotype with that of the thinker of unmatched sophistication and historical erudition — Ferguson seems to accept the exceptionalist narrative that stresses Kissinger’s uniqueness as intellectual, strategic theorist and political actor. By doing so, Ferguson exaggerates the coherence, originality and boldness of Kissinger’s writings and his advice to the many princes he courted. His quasi-Delphic prose notwithstanding, Kissinger was in reality a fairly conventional thinker who followed the vogues of the times far more than shaping them. Despite what Ferguson wants us to believe, he rarely challenged power (or who was in power) as other international relations experts, like Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan, were prone to do. In advance of Volume 2, this often pleonastic and redundant first part thus leaves the reader wondering whether Kissinger as an intellectual — realist, idealist or however we choose to label him — truly deserves 1,000 pages.

Volume 1
1923-1968: The Idealist

By Niall Ferguson

Penguin Press. 986 pp. $39.95