biography raymond seitz
Kissinger: 1923–1968 – The Idealist
By Niall Ferguson (Allen Lane 986pp £35)
Strolling across Harvard Yard one fine day in 1954, 31-year-old Henry Kissinger bumped into Arthur Schlesinger Jr, the historian already close to renown, who would become Kissinger’s lifelong friend. Kissinger had a newly minted PhD, but despite his obvious brilliance and prizewinning dissertation, the university had not offered him an expected associate professorship; nor had he been invited to join the Society of Fellows. Kissinger was adrift.
According to Niall Ferguson’s monumental first volume of Kissinger’s life (at almost one thousand pages, ‘monumental’ in the sense of ‘very large’), the chance conversation with Schlesinger set Kissinger in a new direction that would eventually take him far from the ivy-covered compounds of American academe. He had already travelled a fair distance. Born in Fürth, Germany, in 1923 and raised within the Orthodox strictures of the town’s close-knit Jewish community, Kissinger emigrated with his family to the United States in 1938, only months before Kristallnacht. At least thirteen of his relatives eventually perished in the Holocaust.
The Kissingers settled in the GermanJewish neighbourhood of upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights, where Henry attended a secular high school and where he gradually transferred his sports enthusiasm from soccer to baseball. In 1940, he switched to night school so he could take an $11-per-week job in a shaving-brush factory on West 15th Street. His duties included squeezing acid out of badger bristles (an experience that may have later enhanced his negotiating skills). Unlike his brother, Walter, Henry retained his German accent, delivered in his occasionally ponderous and famously basso profundo speech.
Life took another dramatic turn in 1942 when Kissinger was drafted into the United States Army. It’s hard to imagine him as a grunt, but he took to the military life, both its seriousness of purpose and its camaraderie. Shortly after induction, Kissinger became a US citizen, and it was during his training in Louisiana that he met his longtime mentoring Mephistopheles, Fritz Kraemer, another brilliant German-Jewish refugee who preached the primacy of the moral over the material (it was Kraemer who later described Kissinger as being ‘musically attuned to history’).
The 84th Infantry Division shipped out in the autumn of 1944. Kissinger was a rifleman in the 335th Regiment, which soon found itself in bitter combat along the Siegfried Line (curiously, the author relies on the official regimental history for
this brief section of the book and recounts none of Kissinger’s first-hand experiences); but ‘at some point’ Henry was transferred to the intelligence section of regimental headquarters. In April 1945, the unit liberated the Ahlem concentration camp, but Kissinger has never spoken much about the impact of this searing experience.
He remained in occupied Germany for almost two years after the war concluded. As he explained to his parents, he wanted to help give meaning to the sacrifices that had been made. Now in the Counter-Intelligence Corps, he directed an intense deNazification programme and was awarded a bronze star for breaking up a Gestapo sleeper cell. His analytical skills were so manifest that he became an instructor at the intelligence school in Oberammergau.
Back in the United States, Kissinger went off to Harvard on the GI Bill. He also made his parents happy, but apparently not himself, by marrying Ann Fleischer in 1949. The marriage, which is mercifully left unexamined in the book, was in the Orthodox tradition, but Kissinger had long before set Orthodoxy aside.
As an undergraduate, Kissinger was seen as a loner with a ferocious appetite for study. He chose ‘Government’ as his speciality, but he steeped himself in history and philosophy. From his senior thesis, entitled ‘The Meaning of History’, and from his subsequent doctoral dissertation on Metternich and Castlereagh (which developed into his first book, A World Restored) emerged the conceptual foundation for Kissinger’s later theories and practice of diplomacy: that the Kantian pursuit of ‘perpetual peace’ allows for a ‘moral personality’; that historical determinism does not pre-empt the exercise of free will; that motive is as important to events as objective realities; that history is paramount, not only for analogies but as the defining factor in national self-identity (‘History is the memory of states’); that a stable order is a balance of power in which ‘no grievance is so great that it cannot be accommodated within the accepted and therefore legitimate framework’; and that statesmen must make conjectural decisions on the basis of imperfect and ambiguous information. This was heavy-duty thinking for a young and aspiring academic with no place to go.
And so to Harvard Yard. Schlesinger showed Kissinger a letter expounding the merits of the Eisenhower administration’s strategic doctrine called ‘massive retaliation’ and asked him for a written opinion. The essay, which appeared the following year as an article in Foreign Affairs, instantly transformed Kissinger into an intellectual celebrity and a prophet in the new field of strategic studies.
Massive retaliation postulated that any aggressive move by the Soviet Union would be countered by an overwhelming nuclear attack by the United States. But by the mid1950s, when the Cold War was at its most
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