Indeed I cannot conceive a more perfect mode of writing any man’s life, than not only relating all the most important events of it in their order, but interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought; by which mankind are enabled as it were to see him live, and to “live o’er each scene” with him, as he actually advanced through the several stages of his life. . . . I will venture to say that he will be seen in this work more completely than any man who has ever yet lived. And he will be seen as he really was; for I profess to write, not his panegyrick, which must be all praise, but his Life. . . . [I]n every picture there should be shade as well as light.
—BOSWELL, Life of Johnson1
The task of the biographer, as James Boswell understood, is to enable the reader to see, in her mind’s eye, his subject live. To achieve this, the biographer must know his subject. That means reading all that he wrote as well as much that was written about him. It also means, if the subject is living, not merely interviewing him but getting to know him, as Boswell got to know Johnson: conversing with him, supping with him, even traveling with him. The challenge is, of course, to do so without falling so much under the subject’s influence that the reader ceases to believe the disclaimer that the work is a life, not a panegyric. Boswell, who grew to love Johnson, achieved this feat in two ways: by making explicit Johnson’s boorish manners and slovenly appearance, but also (as Jorge Luis Borges noted) by making himself a figure of fun—a straight man to Johnson’s wit, an overexcitable Scot to Johnson’s dry Englishman.2 My approach has been different.
In addition to the help of all those thanked in the acknowledgments, this author has had one noteworthy advantage over his predecessors: I have had access to Henry Kissinger’s private papers, not only the papers from his time in government, housed at the Library of Congress, but also the private papers donated to Yale University in 2011, which include more than a hundred boxes of personal writings, letters, and diaries dating back to the 1940s. I have also been able to interview the subject of the work on multiple occasions and at considerable length. Not only has this book been written with Henry Kissinger’s cooperation; it was written at his suggestion.
For this reason, I can predict with certainty that hostile reviewers will allege that I have in some way been influenced or induced to paint a falsely flattering picture. This is not the case. Although I was granted access to the Kissinger papers and was given some assistance with the arrangement of interviews with family members and former colleagues, my sole commitment was to make my “best efforts to record [his] life ‘as it actually was’ on the basis of an informed study of the documentary and other evidence available.” This commitment was part of a legal agreement between us, drawn up in 2004, which ended with the following clause:
While the authority of the Work will be enhanced by the extent of the Grantor’s [i.e., Kissinger’s] assistance . . . it will be enhanced still more by the fact of the Author’s independence; thus, it is understood and agreed that . . . the Author shall have full editorial control over the final manuscript of the Work, and the Grantor shall have no right to vet, edit, amend or prevent the publication of the finished manuscript of the Work.
The sole exception was that, at Dr. Kissinger’s request, I would not use quotations from his private papers that contained sensitive personal information. I am glad to say that he exercised this right on only a handful of occasions and always in connection with purely personal—and indeed intimate familial—matters.
This book has been just over ten years in the making. Throughout this long endeavor, I believe I have been true to my resolve to write the life of Henry Kissinger “as it actually was”—wie es eigentlich gewesen, in Ranke’s famous phrase (which is perhaps better translated “as it essentially was”). Ranke believed that the historian’s vocation was to infer historical truth from documents—not a dozen documents (the total number cited in one widely read book about Kissinger) but many thousands. I certainly cannot count how many documents I and my research assistant Jason Rockett have looked at in the course of our work. I can count only those that we thought worthy of inclusion in our digital database. The current total of documents is 8,380—a total of 37,645 pages. But these documents are drawn not just from Kissinger’s private and public papers. In all, we have drawn material from 111 archives all around the world, ranging from the major presidential libraries to obscure private collections. (A full list of those consulted for this volume is provided in the sources.) There are of course archives that remain closed and documents that remain classified. However, compared with most periods before and since, the 1970s stand out for the abundance of primary sources. This was the age of the Xerox machine and the audio tape recorder. The former made it easy for institutions to make multiple copies of important documents, increasing the probability that one of them would become accessible to a future historian. Nixon’s and Kissinger’s fondness for the latter, combined with the expansion of freedom of information that followed Watergate, ensured that many conversations that might never have found their way into the historical record are now freely available for all to read.
My motivation in casting the widest and deepest possible net in my trawl for material was straightforward. I was determined to see Kissinger’s life not just from his vantage point but from multiple vantage points, and not just from the American perspective but from the perspectives of friends, foes, and the nonaligned. Henry Kissinger was a man who, at the height of his power, could justly be said to bestride the world. Such a man’s life requires a global biography.
I always intended to write two volumes. The question was where to break the story. In the end, I decided to conclude the first volume just after Richard Nixon announced to the world that Kissinger was to be his national security adviser, but before Kissinger had moved into his office in the West Wing basement and actually started work. There were two reasons for this choice. First, at the end of 1968 Henry Kissinger was forty-five years old. As I write, he is ninety-one. So this volume covers more or less exactly the first half of his life. Second, I wanted to draw a clear line between Kissinger the thinker and Kissinger the actor. It is true that Kissinger was more than just a scholar before 1969. As an adviser to presidents and presidential candidates, he was directly involved in the formulation of foreign policy throughout the 1960s. By 1967, if not before, he had become an active participant in the diplomatic effort to begin negotiations with the North Vietnamese government in the hope of ending the Vietnam War. Yet he had no experience of executive office. He was more a consultant than a true adviser, much less a decision maker. Indeed, that was former president Dwight Eisenhower’s reason for objecting to his appointment. “But Kissinger is a professor,” he exclaimed when he heard of Nixon’s choice. “You ask professors to study things, but you never put them in charge of anything. . . . I’m going to call Dick about that.”3 Kissinger was indeed a professor before he was a practitioner. It therefore makes sense to consider him first as what I believe he was before 1969: one of the most important theorists about foreign policy ever to be produced by the United States of America. Had Kissinger never entered government, this volume would still have been worth writing, just as Robert Skidelsky would still have had good reason to write his superb life of John Maynard Keynes even if Keynes had never left the courtyards of Cambridge for the corridors of power in His Majesty’s Treasury.
It was in London, in a bookshop, that Boswell first met Johnson. My first meeting with Kissinger was also in London, at a party given by Conrad Black. I was an Oxford don who dabbled in journalism, and I was naturally flattered when the elder statesman expressed his admiration for a book I had written about the First World War. (I was also impressed by the speed with which I was dropped when the model Elle Macpherson entered the room.) But I was more intimidated than pleased when, some months later, Kissinger suggested to me that I might write his biography. I knew enough to be aware that another British historian had been offered and had accepted this commission, only to get cold feet. At the time, I could see only the arguments against stepping into his evidently chilly shoes. I was under contract to write other books (including another biography). I was not an expert on postwar U.S. foreign policy. I would need to immerse myself in a sea of documents. I would inevitably be savaged by Christopher Hitchens and others. And so in early March 2004, after several meetings, telephone calls, and letters, I said no. This was to be my introduction to the diplomacy of Henry Kissinger:
What a pity! I received your letter just as I was hunting for your telephone number to tell you of the discovery of files I thought had been lost: 145 boxes which had been placed in a repository in Connecticut by a groundkeeper who has since died. These contain all my files—writings, letters, sporadic diaries, at least to 1955 and probably to 1950, together with some twenty boxes of private correspondence from my government service. . . .
Be that as it may, our conversations had given me the confidence—after admittedly some hesitation—that you would have done a definitive—if not necessarily positive—evaluation.
For that I am grateful even as it magnifies my regret.4
A few weeks later I was in Kent, Connecticut, turning pages.
Yet it was the documents, more than their author, that persuaded me. I remember vividly the ones I read. A letter to his parents dated July 28, 1948: “To me there is not only right or wrong but many shades in between. . . . The real tragedies in life are not in choices between right and wrong. Only the most callous of persons choose what they know to be wrong.” A letter from McGeorge Bundy dated February 17, 1956: “I have often thought that Harvard gives her sons—her undergraduates—the opportunity to be shaped by what they love. This, as a Harvard man, you have had. For her faculty, she reserves the opportunity—dangerous, perhaps fatal—to be shaped by what they hate.” A letter from Fritz Kraemer, dated February 12, 1957: “[U]ntil now things were easier. You had to resist only the wholly ordinary temptations of the ambitious, like avarice, and the academic intrigue industry. Now the trap is in your own character. You are being tempted . . . with your own deepest principles.” A diary of the 1964 Republican National Convention: “As we left . . . some Goldwaterite was checking off names on a list. I was not on it. But he knew me and said, ‘Kissinger—don’t think we’ll forget your name.’” Another diary of a visit to Vietnam in the fall of 1965: “[Clark] Clifford then asked me what I thought of the position of the President. I said I had great sympathy for the difficulties of the President, but what was at stake here was the future world position of the United States. . . . Clifford asked me whether I thought the Vietnamese were worth saving. I said that that was no longer the issue.” The more I read, the more I realized that I had no choice. I had to write this book. I had not been so excited by a collection of documents since my first day at the Rothschild Archive in London more than ten years before.
This book, then, is the product of a decade of painstaking archival research. In writing it, I have faithfully adhered to the three propositions of the great philosopher of history R. G. Collingwood.
1. All history is the history of thought.
2. Historical knowledge is the re-enactment in the historian’s mind of the thought whose history he is studying.
3. Historical knowledge is the re-enactment of a past thought incapsulated in a context of present thoughts which, by contradicting it, confine it to a plane different from theirs.5
In trying to reconstitute the past thoughts of Kissinger and his contemporaries, I have nearly always given preference to the documents or audio recordings of the time over testimony from interviews conducted many years later, not because documents are always accurate records of what their authors thought, but because memories generally play bigger tricks than letters, diaries, and memoranda.
Yet there are limitations to the traditional historian’s methods, no matter how critical a reader he has trained himself to be, particularly when one of the defining traits of his subject is (or is said to be) secretiveness. Let me illustrate the point. A few weeks after finishing chapter 20—which deals with Kissinger’s ultimately abortive attempt to open negotiations with the North Vietnamese through their representative in Paris, Mai Van Bo—I went to dinner with the Kissingers. The chapter had been by far the hardest to write of the entire book, but I felt that I had succeeded where others had failed in making sense of the secret peace initiative that the Johnson administration had code-named PENNSYLVANIA. I had shown, I thought, that the novice diplomat had allowed himself (despite his earlier academic strictures on the subject) to become the captive of his own negotiation, prolonging it far beyond what was justified and falling into Hanoi’s trap, which was to flirt with the idea of talks without actually committing to them, in the hope of reducing if not halting the American air attacks on their major cities.
Mrs. Kissinger, who did not intend to join us for dinner, surprised me by sitting down. She had a question. There was a pause. “Why do you suppose,” she asked me, “that Henry was really making all those trips to Paris?”
I had completely missed—because it was nowhere documented—that Kissinger’s prime motive for being in Paris in 1967 was the fact that she was studying at the Sorbonne that year.
The history of Kissinger’s relationship with his second wife may serve as a warning to all biographers, but particularly to biographers of Henry Kissinger. Walter Isaacson correctly established that Kissinger had first met Nancy Maginnes in 1964 at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco.6 But in chronicling Kissinger’s career as a less than secret “swinger” during his time as Nixon’s national security adviser, Isaacson assumed that she was no more than Kissinger’s “most regular date.” In his chapter on Kissinger’s “Celebrity,” he listed no fewer than a dozen other women whom Kissinger went out with in the early 1970s.7
Isaacson was right that his fellow journalists had missed the story. Nancy Maginnes went wholly unmentioned by The New York Times until May 28, 1973—nine years after their first meeting—when the newspaper reported that she ...Revue de presse :
“Magisterial….Like Mr. Kissinger or loathe him, this is a work of engrossing scholarship.” – The Economist
“Mr. Ferguson offers a remarkably rich discussion of Mr. Kissinger’s strategic thought and of how it took shape over time… The book… is well worth reading as a corrective to harsher historical judgments of Mr. Kissinger.” — Wall Street Journal
“If Kissinger’s official biographer cannot be accused of falling for his subject’s justifiably famed charm, he certainly gives the reader enough evidence to conclude that Henry Kissinger is one of the greatest Americans in the history of the Republic, someone who has been repulsively traduced over several decades and who deserved to have defense of this comprehensiveness published years ago….Niall Ferguson already has many important, scholarly and controversial books to his credit. But if the second volume of “Kissinger” is anywhere near as comprehensive, well written and riveting as the first, this will be his masterpiece.” —Andrew Roberts, The New York Times Book Review
Combine careful and extensive scholarship, clear writing, and a magnificent subject and you get Niall Ferguson on Kissinger, a genuinely educational read.”-George P. Schultz, 60th U.S. Secretary of State
“When an accomplished historian writes about one of the world’s great diplomats, the results are sure to be a masterpiece -- and that is exactly how to describe Niall Ferguson’s epic on Henry Kissinger.”-James A. Baker, III, 61st U.S. Secretary of State
“This is a terrific biography, and a must read for understanding the evolution of one of the most important and compelling architects of American foreign policy of our age.”-Condoleezza Rice, Former Secretary of State and Denning Professor in Global Business and the Economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business
“With all that’s been written about Kissinger over so many years, you might think that there’d be little new to say. Think again. Niall Ferguson's Kissinger: The Idealist shifts the trajectory of Kissinger studies fundamentally. Always thorough, often surprising, at times deeply moving, this is an extraordinary biography of the most significant scholar-statesman-strategist of our time, by one of our most accomplished historians. Not to be missed.”-John Lewis Gaddis, Yale University
“Ferguson’s biography will be a classic. This is a story of an influential, complex, and shrewd historical figure set in the context of the drama of America and the world in the mid-20th Century. Ferguson’s research is fresh and revealing, his writing is pleasure to read, and his insights are sharp and thought-provoking.”-Robert B. Zoellick, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, Former President of the World Bank, and U.S. Trade Representative
"Fresh and imaginative, this carefully researched biography reads like a novel. Under Niall Ferguson’s skilled pen, Kissinger the public colossus becomes Henry the boy and man. A wonderful read!”-Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and author of Is the American Century Over?
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