Henry Kissinger captured the imagination of an era and became the most renowned and controversial diplomat of his age. A brilliant scholarly student of the diplomacy of Klemens von Metternich and Viscount Robert Castlereagh, as a statesman his reputation rivaled that of his subjects. During the presidency of Richard Nixon, he shared in some of the most dramatic foreign policy initiatives in American history. He also cultivated the persona of a bon vivant, and by mixing socially with moguls and movie stars attained a degree of celebrity unprecedented for a government official. Years after leaving office, Henry Kissinger still was regarded as a leading authority on foreign relations and had become a permanent fixture as a commentator on radio and television. Walter Isaacson has written a penetrating biography of this fascinating man. Although Isaacson presents a balanced and scrupulously fair assessment of his subject, Kissinger: A Biography becomes a frightening indictment of the irresponsible exercise of executive power and an elegant argument for a more democratic foreign policy.
Kissinger’s early years were shadowed by tragedy. He was born May 27, 1923, in the town of Fürth in Germany. History denied Kissinger a normal boyhood. As Jews, he and his family became increasingly isolated as Germany surrendered itself to Nazism. Young Kissinger grew used to the indignities meted out to Jews in his homeland. He endured discrimination in public places and in his schooling, and beatings on the street by other boys. In 1938, the Kissingers emigrated to the United States, just ahead of a new wave of terror launched against the Jews. During World War II, thirteen of Kissinger’s relatives died in the Nazi death camps, a fact he rarely referred to but never forgot. Kissinger discovered in America a security and acceptance he had never known. For this he would always be grateful, and his later policies, no matter how calculated, would always rest on a firm bedrock of patriotism.
He began to Americanize himself with enthusiasm, learning the rules of baseball and how to drive. He became an honor student in high school and demonstrated a precocious intellectual brilliance. Service in the United States Army during World War II completed Kissinger’s assimilation to American ways. He mixed with young men from all over the country and with very different backgrounds, and he found the experience bracing. In the Army, Kissinger also met the first of a string of mentors who would help him in his ascent. Fritz Kraemer was an anti-Nazi German serving in the American army. A bluff, brilliant man, he recognized Kissinger’s talent and had him transferred from the infantry into military intelligence. Under Kraemer’s tutelage, Kissinger would help root out Nazis in American-occupied Germany. Though only a sergeant, he was placed in charge of entire towns. Kissinger, despite his background, proved himself a mild and considerate governor. His Army experience gave Kissinger a self-confidence he would never lose. Kraemer encouraged him to get a first-rate education, so upon leaving the Army in 1947 Kissinger applied for and received admission to Harvard University.
Kissinger made a brilliant record at Harvard. Quickly gravitating to the government department, he won the patronage of Professor William Yandell Elliott, who became a major influence on the budding political scientist. Elliott encouraged Kissinger to pursue public service. He also inculcated in him an appreciation for philosophy, especially that of Immanuel Kant. Kissinger’s philosophical concerns would color all of his later academic and political writings. After producing a 383-page undergraduate thesis on the meaning of history, the longest such thesis in the history of the university, Kissinger was accepted into the government department’s graduate program. As a graduate student, Kissinger began developing the political and diplomatic skills that would make him famous later in life. He took charge of the Harvard International Seminar, which brought rising young world leaders to spend the summer at the university. Kissinger used the seminar to build an international network of contacts. Decades later he would still be in touch with seminar participants, many of whom had risen to high positions in their native lands. He edited a short-lived journal named Confluences, soliciting submissions from a distinguished list of contributors and further extending his world of contacts. Conscious of his own mental prowess, Kissinger was openly contemptuous of individuals he considered his intellectual inferiors, and there were few he considered either his equal or his superior. At the same time, he displayed a born courtier’s gifts in flattering people he respected or needed. As a result, Kissinger made a few friends but many enemies at Harvard.
Kissinger surprised his fellow graduate students with his topic for a doctoral thesis. Instead of treating the implications of the atomic bomb or the Cold War, Kissinger turned to the seeming irrelevancies of nineteenth century diplomacy. It would be Kissinger’s genius to demonstrate the enduring lessons of Metternichian diplomacy, both in print and practice. Kissinger believed that statesmen such as Prince Klemens von Metternich and Viscount Robert Castlereagh deserved study because they contained the revolutionary forces of Napoleonic France and created an enduring peace, precisely the challenge facing the United States in containing the ambitions of the Soviet Union. Metternich and Castlereagh were successful because they created a favorable balance of power, rather than a countervailing ideological response to the French Revolution. Like his exemplars, Kissinger would be an unabashed practitioner of power politics. He firmly believed that the verities of military and...
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