Volume I : 1923-1968 : the IdealistBook - 2015
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.
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A very detailed evaluation of Kissinger's life from boyhood to accepting the position of National Security Adviser in the Nixon Administration. Obvously a controversial figure. I think this book pretty much addresses all the major myths/rumors regarding Kissinger prior to Jan 1969, when he became National Security Advisor. The author uses his access both to Kissinger's personal papers and to numerous outside sources to address these. His conclusions seem to be that, while Kissinger was subject to typical human failing, the more sensational accusations during this period do not hold up to serious scrutiny.
What I found particularly intriguing is the insight provided in the development of US security policy during the 1950's and 1960's. The author uses Kissinger's proximity to the many events to describe what was going on leading to things like development of nuclear weapons policy and the build-up to the Vietnam War. Neither of these emerged spontaneously, and the book traces their tortuous development. The book also gives a view of the many personalities, presidents and otherwise, that Kissinger interacted with.
At times, particularly in the latter half of the book, it reads like a spy novel, describing the byzantine undertakings that Kissinger was going through as an ad hoc US Government representative to initiate negotiations with the North Vietnamese.
Despite its length, it is well written, uses exquisite language, and some of the very dry, British (or should I say Scottish?) humor of the author leaks through! A long read: this is an academic book, exquisitely researched and referenced. In my view, well worth it. Can't wait to read the follow-on book, where Kissinger steps into the position of National Security Advisor.
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