1923-1968: The Idealist
From the bestselling author of The Ascent of Money and The Square and the Tower, the definitive biography of Henry Kissinger, based on unprecedented access to his private papers.
Winner of the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award
No American statesman has been as revered or as reviled as Henry Kissinger. Once hailed as “Super K”—the “indispensable man” whose advice has been sought by every president from Kennedy to Obama—he has also been hounded by conspiracy theorists, scouring his every “telcon” for evidence of Machiavellian malfeasance. Yet as Niall Ferguson shows in this magisterial two-volume biography, drawing not only on Kissinger’s hitherto closed private papers but also on documents from more than a hundred archives around the world, the idea of Kissinger as the ruthless arch-realist is based on a profound misunderstanding.
The first half of Kissinger’s life is usually skimmed over as a quintessential tale of American ascent: the Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany who made it to the White House. But in this first of two volumes, Ferguson shows that what Kissinger achieved before his appointment as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser was astonishing in its own right. Toiling as a teenager in a New York factory, he studied indefatigably at night. He was drafted into the U.S. infantry and saw action at the Battle of the Bulge—as well as the liberation of a concentration camp—but ended his army career interrogating Nazis. It was at Harvard that Kissinger found his vocation. Having immersed himself in the philosophy of Kant and the diplomacy of Metternich, he shot to celebrity by arguing for “limited nuclear war.” Nelson Rockefeller hired him. Kennedy called him to Camelot. Yet Kissinger’s rise was anything but irresistible. Dogged by press gaffes and disappointed by “Rocky,” Kissinger seemed stuck—until a trip to Vietnam changed everything.
The Idealist is the story of one of the most important strategic thinkers America has ever produced. It is also a political Bildungsroman, explaining how “Dr. Strangelove” ended up as consigliere to a politician he had always abhorred. Like Ferguson’s classic two-volume history of the House of Rothschild, Kissinger sheds dazzling new light on an entire era. The essential account of an extraordinary life, it recasts the Cold War world.
In the first of a planned two-volume Henry Kissinger biography, Harvard historian Ferguson (Civilization: The West and the Rest) traces Kissinger's life from his birth in Germany in 1923 through his service in WWII and growing career as a foreign policy expert, culminating in his 1968 appointment as national security advisor to newly elected President Richard Nixon. To readers' benefit, this is as much a history of post-WWII and Cold War foreign policy as a biography of Kissinger. Jumping off from Kissinger's high-level involvement in the 1961 Berlin Crisis and his role as an advisor in the early years of the Vietnam War, Ferguson offers a detailed and provocative examination of how foreign policy is developed in the midst of theoretical and political crosscurrents. Kissinger's views on Vietnam and his involvement in several failed Johnson administration Vietnam peace initiatives provide a deeper dimension to the complexities of American Vietnam policy. Ferguson also takes ample time to describe the Machiavellian jockeying for influence and power among high-end government officials. There is little discussion of Kissinger's personal life, and readers looking for such detail or psychological speculations will be disappointed. Some may see this complicated, generally admiring view of Kissinger as overly generous, but Ferguson endeavors to provide nuance around Kissinger's approaches to the challenges of Cold War foreign policy.
Meticulously Researched and Engagingly Narrated
I read The West and the Rest several years ago and enjoyed Dr. Ferguson’s literary style and broad-brush exploration of historical movements. While admittedly not a scholar, I found this biography to be meticulously researched (kudos to the research team) and engagingly narrated. As a baby boomer, my formative years were spent under the shadow of thermo-nuclear devastation, the endless Vietnam experience and myriad counterculture “influences". The book captures much of that era’s political/academic angst through the lens of Henry Kissenger’s life journey as a refugee from Nazi Germany to American G.I., Harvard whiz, best-selling author, and on-again/off-again politico/academic — all within a framework of the philosophical/historical context that made the author’s subject so fascinating. I look forward to the next volume!
Should be advertised as a ghostwritten autobiography. No detail is given about accusations made against Kissinger about involvements in the Iran-contra scandal and nothing at all is written about his compliancy with CIA cocaine operations. Even his more commonly known failures in central and Latin America are glossed over. Don't even read it.