Henry Kissinger and the American Century

June 5, 2008

The West," wrote Henry Kissinger in 1965, "requires nothing so much as men able to create their own reality." Within a decade, the Harvard academic would have done just that, recasting himself as the peacemaking, history-shaping super diplomat "Henry the K". His achievements as Richard Nixon's assistant for national security affairs and later Secretary of State, the first foreign-born citizen to occupy that office, loom large over our present-day global realities.

Kissinger remains a controversial figure. Critics and boosters alike still debate his historical import, his accomplishments and his complicity. While the accusations of criminality may rankle, we should not doubt that, on balance, Kissinger enjoys the attention. After all, the great man's suzerainty over history has remained a preoccupation for him, from his undergraduate meanderings on Kant, Spengler and Toynbee, to his musings on Bismarck and to his own memoirs.

Yet, in Henry Kissinger and the American Century, Jeremi Suri takes a different tack. He mostly bypasses the controversies about Kissinger's impact on history and has written a quite different, bracingly original book about history's impact on Kissinger.

Using extensive archival research and interviews with Kissinger, Suri shows us for the first time how Europe's nadir in the 1930s forged a mind that would define the course of American foreign policy. The crumbling of a bourgeois boyhood in Weimar Germany into the mayhem of Nazi Germany taught the young Kissinger indelible lessons about human nature and the nature of power. Social alienation and the constant threat of anti-Semitic violence seared a distrust of the mob on to Kissinger's psyche, leaving the residue of a conservatism that would define his reaction to the unrest of the 1960s.

Adeptly executed, Suri's portrait of the statesman as a young man enlivens the stale fare of academic Kissingerology. This is a book that should be read not only by historians but also by general readers with an interest in international affairs.

Arriving in the US as a refugee in 1938, Kissinger turned to the state for protection and advancement. He served in the US military occupation of his homeland, and he proceeded to Harvard University thanks to the GI Bill's largesse. It was to Kissinger's fortune that he possessed in spades the skills for success in the national security state. An expansive but methodical intellect, an unctuous capacity for networking and knowledge of European culture positioned Kissinger as an urgently needed "intermediary" between the new world and the old in the war's aftermath.

The role of insider-outsider, Suri contends, in what may be the most controversial part of his argument, came easily to Kissinger in large part because of his ethnicity. The "policy Jew" of the 20th century, a type that Kissinger exemplified, appears here as the successor to the early-modern "Court Jew" and the "State Jew" of the 19th century. The insider-outsider status that made Kissinger an awkward presence at Harvard in 1950s and left him playing Nixon's "sycophantic courtier" positioned him to broker peace between erstwhile foes: the US and the Soviet Union; America and Vietnam; and even Egypt and Israel.

While Kissinger may dispute points of Suri's interpretation, the former Secretary of State will not find much to contest in this mostly sympathetic biography. However stark Kissinger's calculus of violence and interest, despite his forsaking the most admirable tenets of American idealism, his statecraft offered, in Suri's verdict, an effective - and enduring - strategy for managing the travails of an inherently "troubled world".

While the scholarly trials of Henry Kissinger will surely continue, Suri has offered a disarming character statement, a testimony that will oblige readers to comprehend the statesman's complicity in terms of the troubles that history has rested upon him. In itself, that is an important accomplishment.

Henry Kissinger and the American Century

By Jeremi Suri
Harvard University Press
ISBN 9780674025790
Published 1 February 2008

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