Exhaustive account of the first half of Kissinger’s life as a “tale of an education through experience.”
Courted by Kissinger to write this biography 10 years ago (“it was written at his suggestion”), Hoover Institution senior research fellow Ferguson (History, Harvard Univ.; The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, 2013, etc.) is both fascinated and seduced by the dazzling intellectual breadth of the senior statesman, now in his 90s. From Kissinger’s childhood in Germany, as the Nazis were ascendant, to participating in the official U.S. diplomatic effort to end the Vietnam War, the author finds Kissinger’s development falling into formative stages: seeing his civil servant father stripped of his livelihood and the family terrorized as Orthodox Jews before escaping to New York in 1938; returning to Germany via the Army Specialized Training Program during World War II, followed by de-Nazification work in the ruins of the Third Reich; schooling at Harvard courtesy of the GI Bill, where he found an important mentor in William Elliott and the choice of history for his academic work, specifically the sometimes-fraught choices that freedom awards an individual; his role as a public intellectual, writing about the new “great game” in “psychological warfare” just as the Cold War was heating up; and, finally, the harsh lessons he gained in political reality as adviser to Nelson Rockefeller and as one of John F. Kennedy’s fallible “best and brightest.” In his pronouncements on the war in Vietnam, Ferguson insists Kissinger was an idealist first and foremost: he was “committed to resisting the Communist advance and an advocate of ‘limited war.’ ” Bit by bit, Kissinger was becoming a foreign policy expert with “few rivals.” Ferguson also gives a thorough—sometimes long-winded—assessment of Kissinger’s use of conjecture and risk in policymaking.
A massive, occasionally bloated (will the next volume also run over 1,000 pages?) study of the formation of the young Kissinger, before the idealist became a realist with his selection by President Richard Nixon as national security adviser in 1968.