Skip to main content
Read page text

Page Text

biography frigid, the weaknesses of this all-or-nothing doctrine were increasingly apparent. The Soviets were rapidly developing their own nuclear capabilities, and without impunity the American strategy lacked credibility. Moreover, massive retaliation undermined American alliances for two reasons: first, it was defence-on-the-cheap, which meant allies, especially in Europe, could get away with much less spending for their own protection; and secondly, it promoted a neutralist, peace-at-any-price mentality, because no eventuality short of national survival could justify nuclear obliteration.

Kissinger’s analysis (and the contribution of many others as well) eventually led to a new doctrine called ‘flexible response’, which is essentially still in place today. This was calculated to give decision makers what decision makers always want: a range of options in the escalation of conflict. Kissinger’s distinctive contribution, laid out in his 1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, was to include tactical nuclear weapons within that range, making limited nuclear war conceivable, at least in game theory.

But this, too, was fallible. Although Harvard-tidy in concept, the doctrine aimed to make the use of nuclear weapons more acceptable and pretended that crossing the nuclear threshold at a lower level meant a degree of control rather than an escalation into an unpredictable chain of action and reaction, paradoxically leading directly to the calamity the strategy was intended to avoid. Moreover, to allies, limited nuclear war seemed to suggest that Europe could be burned to a crisp without endangering America. Critics saw Kissinger as Strangelove in disguise.

While it was hard to make the prospective use of nuclear weapons an agreeable proposition, particularly in the tense times of the Berlin access crisis in 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis the following year, the exercise nonetheless lifted Kissinger into the country’s top echelon of strategic thinkers. He went on to chair various important study groups, became an intimate adviser to the presidential aspirant Nelson Rockefeller, and joined the tribal migration from Boston to Washington when John Kennedy, and then Lyndon Johnson, assembled their administrations. He remained an adviser, however, and not an insider, perhaps because of his Republican affiliation. Still, as a kind of political Tantalus, Kissinger hankered to be a real player in the Washington power structure.

Initially a supporter of the war in Vietnam – a tabula rasa for Kissinger – his analytical perspicacity quickly changed his view. A negotiated settlement was the only possible alternative to Johnson’s mired and conventional military strategy in defence of an indefensible regime in Saigon, a situation compounded by the rancorous bureaucratic dysfunction in Washington. He was briefly involved in an unofficial, shadow negotiation in Paris, which came to nothing (but that was OK, reveals Ferguson, because Henry was courting his future second wife, Nancy Maginnes, who was studying at the Sorbonne).

When Rockefeller’s presidential hopes fizzled in 1968, Kissinger switched his Republican allegiance to the former vice president, Richard Nixon, about whom he knew enough to have said earlier, ‘That man is unfit to be president.’ No one was more surprised than Kissinger when Nixon tapped him to become his national security adviser. That stunning redirection in this remarkable life awaits Ferguson’s second volume.

Ferguson is an acute and gifted historian, and despite the doorstop weight of this tome the prose runs fast. He is at pains to assure the reader that he enjoyed unfettered access to Kissinger’s voluminous private papers and retained full editorial control of the result. His aim is to fix Kissinger’s true character, especially as the political Left has long vilified Kissinger as vain, devious, conspiratorial and downright evil, as shown in Walter Isaacson’s hatchet job and Christopher Hitchens’s vitriolic indictment.

In so far as any biographer can know the truth of another’s soul, Ferguson succeeds. His effort to construct an overarching theme of Kissinger as a misunderstood idealist comes across as strained, however, and Kissinger himself would buck against the simplistic label. If Kissinger is anything, he is an ‘orderist’ (alas, the word does not exist), and has remained so throughout his long, eventful career. One thing is certain: Kissinger brought a genius to the conduct of international relations that is manifestly absent today. To order this book at a 10 per cent discount, see our bookshop on page 28

Cambridge Literary Festival Winter 2015 28/29 November

In partnership with

Festival highlights Simon Armitage Vince Cable Jonathan Dimbleby Carol Ann Duffy Jenny Eclair Alexandra Harris Christina Lamb Richard Mabey Andrew Marr David Mitchell Neel Mukherjee Simon Schama Ali Smith

All student tickets £6

Book at 01223 300085 october 2015 | Literary Review 7

Skip to main content