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Henry Kissinger Was a Complex Man for a Complex Century

Niall Ferguson Speaking
Thought Leader: Niall Ferguson
November 30, 2023
Source: Bloomberg

Henry Kissinger, who died Wednesday at 100, was as multifaceted as the century he lived through and outlived.

Having spent nearly 20 years researching and writing his life, I have come to see that he requires a kind of Cubist treatment. Like Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon, you need to see him from multiple angles at the same time fully to comprehend him. And just as only the 20th century could have produced Picasso and made his vision not merely intelligible but wildly popular, so no other century could have produced a man like Kissinger.

Born in southern Germany in 1923, as the Weimar hyperinflation reached its crescendo, and not yet 10 years old when Adolf Hitler came to power in Berlin, Kissinger was a refugee at 15, when his family fled Germany for New York. He worked in a shaving brush factory before World War II swept him and his brother into the Army. He fought as a rifleman at the Battle of the Bulge. He witnessed the liberation of the Ahlem concentration camp outside Hanover. He interrogated Nazis as a counterintelligence officer.

It was in occupied Germany that he learned of the deaths of more than a dozen of his relatives in the Holocaust. Is it plausible that such a man would be as callously indifferent to the victims of other wars and genocides as his critics have asserted?

After the end of the Cold War, Kissinger came under vituperative attack. Critics heaped opprobrium on him for sins of omission and commission in countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile and East Timor.

Yet Kissinger himself insisted that foreign policy was nearly always about making choices between evils. The only way to understand the decisions he took is to see that there was, from the outset, a hierarchy of strategic priorities. To get the US out of Vietnam meant establishing linkage to other issues about which the Soviets cared more. It meant exploiting the Sino-Soviet split by opening channels of communication to Beijing. It meant applying military pressure on Hanoi in the hope of achieving a diplomatic breakthrough.

Bangladesh was collateral damage of a strategic “tilt” toward Pakistan. Bombing and then sending troops into Vietnam was a response to the North Vietnamese violation of Cambodian neutrality. The attempt to stop Salvador Allende from becoming Chilean president in 1970 was a failure; his overthrow in 1973 owed much more to domestic forces than the CIA. Good relations with Indonesia mattered more than East Timor’s desire for independence. And so on.

Not all Kissinger’s choices look optimal today, with the benefit of hindsight. But he always insisted on the conjectural nature of decision making. At the point of decision, the statesman cannot be sure how things will turn out. Indeed, there is always a strong temptation not to act, rather than to risk acting and being wrong.

What, then, was Henry Kissinger really like? The first answer I would give is intellectually formidable. Kissinger could analyze almost any problem with a speed and rigor that verged on the superhuman, bringing to bear both theoretical clarity and the insight that comes only from experience.

Kissinger was a kind of mind reader, with a breathtaking ability to enter the thinking and feelings of his interlocutor. No matter how great the cultural chasm — imagine those early encounters with Zhou Enlai or Anwar Sadat — Kissinger could almost instantly mind-meld. I watched him do this on several occasions. It was one of the reasons that for years I preferred to communicate with him by letter. I felt too transparently legible in person.

Let me give an example. Four years ago, I interviewed him at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Beijing. For months, I had been wondering if the deterioration of relations between the US and China marked the beginning of a new cold war. But it was only on stage that I plucked up the courage to ask him if he agreed. He replied, memorably, “We are in the foothills of a cold war.” It was just what I had been thinking but phrased more vividly than had occurred to me. (A year later, in an interview with Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait, he upgraded that to “the mountain passes of a cold war.”)

Kissinger was omnivorous, in every sense. I recollect long breakfasts at his apartment at Manhattan’s River House, with a seemingly endless supply of sausages and bacon, which he consumed with relish, in the full knowledge that both his wife, Nancy, and his doctor deplored every mouthful. Our lunches at the old Four Seasons and dinners at La Grenouille were equally for gourmands only.

But his approach to literature was omnivorous, too. Whenever I met him there would invariably be the moment when we compared notes on what we had recently read. His range was always wider than mine. I remember feeling I had won a great victory when I gave him a copy of Conrad’s The Rover for his 100th birthday because he had never read it. But neither had I.

The title at least fit. He was a rover, indefatigably trotting the globe long after the need for shuttle diplomacy had passed. And when the Covid pandemic struck, no nonagenarian took more readily to Zoom, which allowed him to converse late into the night, oblivious of the signs of fatigue on my face.

Nothing relieved the fatigue of acting as Boswell to Henry’s Johnson more than his sense of humor. To an extent his enemies found intolerable, Kissinger was a very funny man, with a style of comic delivery that owed much to the American entertainers of Bob Hope’s generation. Almost from the moment he became Richard Nixon’s national security adviser in 1969, Kissinger realized that his quick wit was a powerful tool. It could break the ice at tense meetings. And it could get the press corps on his side.

In an interview in 1976, the New York Times asked Kissinger a semi-serious question:

Q: A number of serious charges have been made against you, and The Times thought you should have the opportunity to answer them. The first charge is that in a solemn world you tried to be funny.

A: In this job, you have only two choices: You are either funny deliberately or you are funny unintentionally.

That was a typical “Henry the K” response. But the same thing went on in private, all the time. His correspondence with William F. Buckley was almost entirely facetious. When Kissinger attended my wedding at the Harvard Memorial Church in September 2011, it was the first time he had been inside Harvard Yard in many years. To my surprise, he arrived at the church early, before any other guest. I nervously welcomed him and began muttering about his long estrangement from Harvard, where I was then a professor. “I came here for her,” he cut in, “not for you.” He loved to burst social bubbles.

That brings me to Henry Kissinger the ladies’ man, so often photographed on the arm of a beautiful woman. Kissinger adored feminine pulchritude even more than Central European food.

My very first meeting with Kissinger was at a cocktail party in London, and I was naturally flattered when the elder statesman expressed his admiration for a book I had written about World War I. We began to discuss it. But in mid-sentence he suddenly disappeared into thin air — only to reappear seconds later standing next to the model Elle Macpherson, who had entered the party. I have never seen anyone cross a room faster.

Yet all that had happened since he entered the White House in January 1969 had not altered Kissinger’s fundamentally professorial personality. I recall bringing the members of a seminar I taught at Harvard to meet him in New York 10 years ago. I had rather carefully prepared for the session. There was no need. He took over the class and taught it himself. I might as well have stayed in Cambridge.

Unlike some professors, however, he had a talent for friendship. It is given to few of us to celebrate our 100th birthdays. But surely only Henry Kissinger would mark his centenary with four separate birthday parties — in Connecticut, New York City, Buckinghamshire and, to cap it all, his birthplace of Fürth, Bavaria. I finally realized it was the only way to fit in all his friends.

Yet the gregarious man was also in his heart a family man. He adored Nancy, his wife of 50 years, so much that I can honestly say I have never seen a happier couple. The truly touching tribute paid by his son David at the birthday party in New York made it clear that the international man of mystery had somehow found the time and energy to be a good and loving father. And how could I omit the dogs, a central part of Kissinger’s life since he first bought one in Paris in 1946. Have any hounds been more thoroughly spoilt than Kissinger’s?

Those who have dedicated much time and energy to loathing Henry Kissinger will by now likely have stopped reading. But there is a “but.” There has to be.

The fiery temper, described by a number of those who worked closely with him in the White House, was occasionally to be glimpsed even in his twilight years. His famous ability to manipulate others I also witnessed.

I was more intimidated than pleased when, years ago, Kissinger first 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 shoes. I was under contract to write other books. I would inevitably be savaged by Kissinger’s critics. 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. He wrote:

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 1960, 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.

A few weeks later I was in Kent, Connecticut, turning pages.

Yet it was the documents, more than their author, that persuaded me to take on the project. I remember vividly the first one 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.”

And I remember thinking to myself: Now that doesn’t sound much like the high priest of Realpolitik.

Could he be secretive? Yes. It was only after volume I of the biography was substantially written and about to go to press that Kissinger handed me a file with all the other wartime correspondence with his parents — intensely private letters which he had obviously considered keeping from me.

I also saw at firsthand the insecurity, about which the late New York Times columnist William Safire writes so cruelly in his memoir of the Nixon years (and bitterly, as he had been shocked to discover Kissinger’s involvement in the decision to wiretap his phone). When Kissinger first read through the volume in its entirety, I heard nothing for weeks. Not a word. Chilly doesn’t do justice to the atmosphere. I later discovered he was in an agony that he had given away too much about his personal life. It took one of his oldest friends to convince him that such revelations might do his reputation more good than harm.

Looking back on Kissinger’s furious efforts after 1977 to defend himself against the critics, whether through legal action or acrimonious letters of rebuttal, I have concluded that they ended up doing much more harm than good, drawing attention to the books and articles concerned and incentivizing the muckrakers to keep raking.

And yet I understand why his skin remained so thin, despite all the stresses to which it had been subjected. The great Secretary Kissinger, the Nobel laureate, the counselor to presidents and prime ministers, was to the very end still Heinz Kissinger, the Jewish refugee — the outsider.

Like a Cubist portrait, a historically faithful biography of this extraordinary man must somehow show at one and the same time the bombastic figure of “Super K,” lording it over the columnists and correspondents in the White House briefing room, and the insecure immigrant sensing antisemitism around each corner; the calculating courtier at the court of King Richard, pandering to the president’s prejudices; and the dutiful son, reassuring his parents that the threats to his life — and there were many — werenothing to worry about.

I am no Picasso, and no doubt critics will complain that one facet or another of Henry Kissinger’s protean personality has been neglected in my portrayal. It is nevertheless characteristic of a man who so embodied all the contradictions of the 20th century that this should be so.

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