book cover imageKissinger 1923–1968: The Idealist
by Niall Ferguson. New York: Penguin Press, 2015. Hardcover, 986 pp., $39.95.

Henry Kissinger has been called many things in his long, eventful public career, but “idealist” is not one of them. Until now. The first volume of the prolific and eminently readable British historian Niall Ferguson’s new biography of Kissinger, which covers Kissinger’s life up to his surprise appointment as National Security Adviser by President-elect Nixon in December 1968, is subtitled “Idealist.” Ferguson contends that other biographers and scholars have overlooked, downplayed, or misinterpreted Kissinger’s early life in Weimar and Hitler’s Germany, experience in the U.S. Army during World War II, scholarly writings as a Harvard professor, and role as a consultant to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, which he claims demonstrate that Kantian idealism, not amoral realism as popularly imagined, was fundamental to Kissinger’s intellectual outlook and approach to world politics.

Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born on May 27, 1923, in Furth, Germany, a small town in Bavaria near Nuremburg. He grew up in a middle-class Orthodox Jewish but assimilated family in a Germany still reeling from its defeat in the First World War. In his early years, Kissinger and his family experienced the instability of a fragile democratic political system and the repressiveness of a totalitarian political system—experiences that Ferguson believes influenced the worldview of the future Harvard professor, National Security Adviser, and Secretary of State.

Kissinger and his immediate family fled Nazi Germany in August 1938 (as many as thirty members of his extended family died in the Holocaust), and arrived in a United States that was still suffering from the Great Depression, and whose people and leaders were slow to recognize the global geopolitical threat posed by Hitler’s Germany and a militaristic Japan. The Kissingers settled in the Washington Heights section of New York, home to a large population of German-Jewish refugees. He attended George Washington High School where he earned good grades in history and geography, and worked at a shaving brush factory.

While a student at City College in New York, Kissinger was drafted into the U.S. Army and subsequently selected for the Army Specialized Training Program which, Ferguson notes, “sent academically able soldiers to colleges all over the country” to learn special skills. Kissinger studied at Clemson and Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. The young private was assigned to the 84th Infantry Division that trained in Louisiana, where he met his first and most important intellectual mentor, Fritz Kraemer, who later remarked that Kissinger was “musically attuned to history.” That friendship, Kissinger later said, changed his life.

The 84th was shipped to England, crossed the Channel and landed on Omaha Beach in early November 1944, and later that month joined other American divisions in the attack on the Siegfried Line as part of General William Simpson’s Ninth Army. Kissinger survived the Battle of the Bulge, crossed the Roer River as part of Operation Grenade in February 1945, crossed the Rhine, and was placed in command of a counterintelligence unit, for which he earned a Bronze Star.

With Germany defeated, U.S. counterintelligence operations focused on Communist penetration efforts in Europe—these were the initial moves and countermoves of the Cold War that would dominate Kissinger’s academic and government career for the next four decades. Kissinger worked at the European Theater Intelligence School in Oberammergau, Germany, where he taught a course on Eastern Europe and the Communist threat.

Kissinger used the G.I. Bill to attend Harvard, after Columbia, Cornell, NYU, Penn, and Princeton rejected him. At Harvard he met his second intellectual mentor, Professor William Elliot, who recognized Kissinger’s “depth and philosophical insight” and under whose tutelage Kissinger wrote a remarkable 388-page senior thesis entitled, “The Meaning of History.” Ferguson calls it “a dazzling distillation of three years’ worth of reading,” which analyzed the writings of Spengler, Toynbee, Kant, and others.

After graduation and as an army reservist, Kissinger in 1951 served as a consultant to the Operation Research Office and visited Japan, Korea, and Germany to report on the army’s occupation policies. Later that year as a doctoral student, Kissinger helped organize and run the Harvard International Seminar and started a quarterly journal, Confluence, which brought him into contact with some of the West’s leading thinkers and writers.

Kissinger’s 1954 dissertation, “Peace, Legitimacy, and Equilibrium (A Study of the Statesmanship of Castlereagh and Metternich),” was later published in book form as A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812–1822. His second book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, however, brought Kissinger national and international recognition. The book, a product of the Council on Foreign Relations nuclear weapons study group, criticized the Eisenhower administration’s doctrine of “massive retaliation,” and suggested that a limited nuclear war could be fought and won. Kissinger also advocated a significant increase in conventional military forces to enable the U.S. and its allies to respond more symmetrically to Soviet and Soviet-inspired aggression along the Eurasian periphery, a foreshadowing of the doctrine of “flexible response” championed by the Kennedy administration.

Professor Kissinger taught a very popular course at Harvard, “Principles of International Politics,” which required students to read Thucydides, Machiavelli, Burke, Churchill, and Hans Morgenthau, among others. But Ferguson makes clear that Kissinger’s ambitions extended well beyond Harvard Yard and policy discussions at the Council on Foreign Relations. In the mid to late 1950s, he became a foreign policy adviser to Nelson Rockefeller whose ambitions extended to Washington, D.C. and the White House, and whose principal political rival was Richard Nixon.

In the early to mid 1960s, Kissinger did consulting work for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, focusing on Germany, NATO, and Southeast Asia. (Simultaneously, he continued to advise Nelson Rockefeller, a likely political rival.) He was tasked by Johnson to engage in secret talks with the North Vietnamese in an effort to negotiate an end to the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. Here, Kissinger the idealist learned about the harsh realities of international politics, domestic politics, and the nature of modern governmental bureaucracies, experiences he would not forget when he reached the White House a few years later.

Ferguson concludes the first volume by confronting and downplaying allegations of Kissinger’s involvement in leaking information to the Nixon campaign in 1968 about a so-called “October surprise” connected to negotiations to end the war. Ferguson deftly handles this very complicated and murky area in which no one involved, including Kissinger, emerges unsullied. His conclusion that “Kissinger was only one of numerous outside sources Nixon was . . . tapping in a desperate effort to avoid being stymied by the October surprise he knew Johnson was plotting,” seems about right.

The most original and interesting aspect of the biography is Ferguson’s ability to engage with and analyze Kissinger’s ideas as set forth in the voluminous letters, papers, articles, and books written by Kissinger as a student, academic, and policy adviser. According to Ferguson, Kissinger the political philosopher was closer to Kant than Machiavelli. While he admired the brilliance of Metternich and Bismarck, his ideal statesmen (e.g., Castlereagh) sought to construct international orders that did not depend upon a guiding genius for their stability.

He was not, however, a Wilsonian idealist—idealism based on abstraction instead of experience, he believed, was a “prescription for inaction.” “The insistence on pure morality,” Kissinger once told a colleague, “is in itself the most immoral of postures.” Statesmen must act under a cloud of uncertainty and often their decisions reflect a choice among evils.

Kissinger also understood the lessons of classical geopolitics, most importantly the need for political pluralism on the Eurasian landmass. But he also understood the constraints of domestic politics and bureaucratic inertia on the conduct of foreign policy. Above all, Kissinger appreciated the importance of the study of history to an understanding of international politics. “He learned to use historical analogies,” writes Ferguson, “always remembering that ‘whatever relationship [exists between two historical events] depends, not on a precise correspondence, but on a similarity of the problems confronted,’ because ‘history teaches by analogy, not identity.’”

If Kissinger’s idealism is the central theme of the first volume, Ferguson foreshadows the theme of the forthcoming volume: “Could the idealist inhabit the real world of power and still retain his ideals?” We shall see.  

Francis P. Sempa is a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books), and the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books). He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, American Diplomacy, Strategic Review, The National Interest, The Washington Times, and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.