March 21, 2016
Niall on Kissinger–A Case of Wobbly Logic
Henry Kissinger. That “very name”, Niall Ferguson writes in the first volume of his biography of the former US National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, “hit some neuralgic spot in the collective brain of a generation”. Eric Idle mocked him, the novelist Joseph Heller described him an “odious shlump who made war gladly” and Christopher Hitchens pronounced him guilty of crimes against humanity.
Such “vitriol” is “puzzling”, Ferguson says. Many American policymakers can “just as easily be accused of war crimes”, but it is Kissinger whom critics single out. The journalist William Shawcross blamed Kissinger’s bombing of Cambodia from 1969 to 1973 for giving rise to the genocidal Pol Pot. Recently, Princeton’s Gary Bass accused him of expediting Pakistan’s 1971 genocide in Bangladesh.
Ferguson doesn’t dispute Kissinger’s responsibility for such atrocities, but suggests, in his Introduction, that they shouldn’t bear on how we assess his legacy: “Arguments that focus on loss of life in strategically marginal countries – and there is no other way of describing Argentina, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile, Cyprus, and East Timor (Timor Leste)– must be tested against this question: how, in each case, would an alternative decision have affected US relations with strategically important countries like the Soviet Union, China, and the major western European powers?” The US won the cold war, and that means that the “burden of proof” is on critics to show how different policies “would have produced better results”.
The logic is wobbly. How can it be simultaneously true that Cambodia and Bangladesh were strategically marginal and that the outcome of the cold war depended on their destruction? How, exactly, might one prove that a counterfactual past, infinite in its potential variations, would have been better than the present?
But the real problem with this out-of-the-gate defensiveness, for Ferguson, has to do with style. He wants to rescue Kissinger from history’s dock and depict his life “as it actually was”. Yet the tone is litigious, setting the biographer up as barrister. Having established the terms of the defence in this volume – which covers Kissinger’s life until his 1968 appointment as National Security Adviser – Ferguson will have to carry through in the next and show that all of Kissinger’s many initiatives, including assaulting Cambodia and Laos, greenlighting Suharto’s invasion of East Timor, waging proxy war in southern Africa, building up Iran (before its revolution) and Saudi Arabia, supporting Latin American dictators, and pushing, as an influential conservative intellectual, for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “produced better results” than “different foreign policies that might have been adopted”.
His conclusion previews what is to come. Dozens of pages argue against “a succession of writers” who have charged that Kissinger, in late 1968, leaked confidential information about peace talks taking place in Paris between Washington and North Vietnam to Nixon’s presidential campaign. As told, the intrigue not only launched Kissinger’s public career but kicked off a chain of events with catastrophic consequences: Nixon used Kissinger’s intelligence to urge South Vietnam to reject a potential ceasefire (which might have benefited Nixon’s Democratic rival); the negotiations collapsed; Nixon was elected president, after which he appointed Kissinger national security adviser; in office, Nixon and Kissinger bombed Cambodia to pressure Hanoi to return to the negotiating table; the bombing was illegal, so it had to be done in secret; pressure to keep it secret spread paranoia within the administration, leading to a series of covert actions resulting in the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation. The war, meanwhile, dragged on pointlessly for years.
The Rusputin of Geo-Politics
No vindication of Kissinger can let this story stand, and Ferguson’s narrative is weighed down by hypotheticals and speculations meant to downplay Kissinger’s role in derailing the peace talks. Saigon would have rejected a potential deal without Nixon’s intercession; Nixon would have won without Kissinger’s help; and, anyway, the information Kissinger passed on to Nixon wasn’t very specific. “We can see now,” Ferguson concludes, that Kissinger’s “appointment had nothing to do with mythical leads from Paris.” Readers who keep attention through the many layers of conjecture might not be convinced. The Nixon campaign did, after all, identify Kissinger as a “top diplomatic source who is secretly with us and has access to the Paris talks and other information”. Kissinger himself has been caught on tape a number of times admitting he passed information to Nixon.
The Idealist fills in episodes that were glossed over in Walter Isaacson’s 1992 biography, such as Kissinger’s childhood in Fürth, Germany, and his experience in military intelligence during the second world war. Yet throughout, one wonders why Ferguson didn’t make more of the unprecedented access he had to his subject, not just through his private papers but informal social encounters, including dinners at Kissinger’s home in Kent, Connecticut. For instance, Ferguson reproduces a lengthy passage from Kissinger’s published memoir to describe Kissinger’s first impression, as a teenage refugee, of New York. Why not ask Kissinger?
Ferguson relies heavily throughout on not particularly interesting block quotes, on to which he tags cursory analysis. This isn’t, I think, just laziness; it suggests a reticence to probe his subject’s emotional life lest he confirms already established opinions about Kissinger. The singularity of Kissinger fades as Ferguson shadow boxes with earlier, more unfavourable biographers, such as investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. “The oft-repeated charge that Kissinger was actuated by self-interest,” Ferguson writes, “seems unfair.” Then what did actuate him? Ferguson doesn’t say, but his observations verge on babbitry. “Divorce is indeed expensive,” he writes, on Kissinger’s separation from his first wife in 1964, “but it can be worth every penny:” Kissinger got to move into an “elegant apartment.” The irony is that it has been Kissinger’s sharpest critics who have most appreciated his acute sense of self, who have treated him, however disapprovingly, as a fully dimensional individual with a churning, complex psyche. In contrast, Ferguson, tone deaf to Kissinger’s darker notes, condemns him to a literary fate worse than anything that Hitchens could have meted out: Kissinger, in this book, is boring.
Ferguson tries to goose the narrative. A fact-finding tour of Vietnam in the mid-1960s “awakened the man of action” inside Kissinger. He was, Ferguson writes, like a character out of Mission: Impossible. Yet aside from the inconvenience of having to “fly economy the whole way” to Saigon and paying “for his own upgrades”, nothing really happened on the trip other than Kissinger’s realisation that the war, for Washington, was unwinnable. He “could scarcely have been less responsible for the fateful decision to escalate the war”, Ferguson states, which is fair enough since he didn’t take office until 1969, well after the escalation.
This judgment, though, undercuts Ferguson’s own insistence that ideas matter; that, indeed, they are the true subject of history. He rightly identifies the influence of German idealism on Kissinger – the notion that reality doesn’t exist independently of our perception of that reality – demonstrating his influence, as an a intellectual in the 1950s and 1960s, in shaping our perception of reality, convincing America that there was a missile gap with the Soviets when there was none and urging Washington to confront global communism even in peripheral areas, such as Vietnam. Then, in 1965, having returned from Vietnam, Kissinger threw himself into a campaign to publicly defend the war, though he knew it lost. Ferguson is right to downplay the passing of information to Nixon in 1968. The real historical problem that needs to be explained comes after that episode; why, with every lurch to the militarist right, Kissinger lurched with it, from Nixon to the neocons, from Vietnam to Iraq.
Great statesmen have great critics, and Ferguson could have made a case for Kissinger’s greatness by honestly grappling with his many formidable foes. Instead, he tries to trivialise their arguments by dismissing their motivations. The criticisms of, among others, Hans Morgenthau, the dean of postwar realism; Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, who helped pioneer game theory; and George Ball, a respected career diplomat (who thought Kissinger’s blind support of the Shah of Iran an “act of folly”) , are described as driven either by resentment, envy, opportunism or antisemitism.
In so doing, Ferguson trivialises his own book: well before mentioning any serious critic, he cites the conspiracy cultist David Icke, who apparently believes Kissinger is one of the human race’s reptile overlords. “No rational people take such nonsense seriously,” Ferguson writes, who nonetheless uses such nonsense to open Kissinger’s life story.
Among Ferguson’s more novel explanations for why so many people disliked Kissinger is that they didn’t appreciate his jokes, which, he writes, owed much to the absurdism of the Marx Brothers; it “was a characteristic feature of the ‘counterculture’ generation of the 1960s and 1970s that it did not find the Marx Brothers funny”. That, to borrow from Groucho himself, is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. The 60s generation revived the anti-establishment and anti-militarist Marx Brothers, who left their mark on everything from the movies of Woody Allen to the activism of the yippies. Ferguson misses the more interesting point. The new left did get Kissinger’s humour, but recoiled from its use to serve, rather than mock, power.
The US dropped more than 6m tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, killing hundreds of thousands of people. It was all for nothing, though it did give Kissinger an opportunity to make one of his famous jokes: “We bombed them,” Kissinger said in early 1973, after finally negotiating a peace deal similar to the one on the table in 1968, “into letting us accept their terms.”