That most Strangelovian of public servants—and his legacy comes in for close analysis—and are found badly wanting.
Kissinger cut a brilliant figure for a long while, writes Hanhimäki (History and Politics/Graduate Institute of International Studies), bringing analytical skills, a broad range of references, and a pronounced gift for networking to the service of whoever would listen to him. (Kissinger appears to have wanted a post in the Kennedy administration, Hanhimäki hints, but was rebuffed.) Almost alone in academia in applauding Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam, Kissinger was rewarded with a consultancy that involved backroom negotiations with North Vietnam, “his first touch of secret diplomacy for which his appetite would later prove insatiable.” Further rewards would come when Kissinger linked his fortunes to Richard Nixon’s, and when he refined his own notions of “linkage and leverage” to go head to head with the world powers, playing the Soviets off the Chinese and inventing an elaborate system of punishments and rewards to gain diplomatic concessions. The major flaw there, writes Hanhimäki, was that Kissinger had little or no interest “in the intricacies of the local causes of conflicts” or in the world outside the superpowers, which drove him to distraction when the North Vietnamese insisted on going their own way during the peace talks, and which led to many other American debacles. Hanhimäki provides breaking news by revealing Kissinger’s efforts throughout the early 1970s to engineer a way of extracting US forces from Vietnam “without immediate embarrassment,” meaning he was willing to betray South Vietnam: “While we cannot bring a communist government to power,” Kissinger wrote at the time, “if, as a result of historical evolution it should happen over a period of time, we ought to be able to accept it.”
Hanhimäki writes, by way of faint praise, that Kissinger has “never even come close to being irrelevant.” Still, those who take the view that Kissinger is a war criminal will find little to contradict them in this absorbing and rich account.