Kissinger, by Walter Isaacson

Five stars

Returning to the wonderful world of political biographies, I chose to tackle another of Walter Isaacson’s collection, looking at Henry Kissinger. Isaacson traces Kissinger’s humble beginnings in Germany through to his meteoric rise through the American political stratosphere, concentrated in the Nixon and Ford White Houses. Throughout the book, numerous storylines present three distinct themes in Kissinger’s life: the stellar academic, the megalomaniacal fiend, and the astute statesman. Isaacson offers a plethora of information and detailed accounts of Kissinger’s life to date, which allows the reader a sensational look into some of America’s formative years in the mid- to late-20th century. While his prominence has waned of late, Kissinger’s impact on foreign policy and the historical footprint he’s left will forever be seen in historical tomes. One of the most detailed biographies I have ever read, Isaacson goes above and beyond to bring Kissinger to life.

One key aspect to Kissinger’s success in life traces back to his academic prowess. From an early age, Kissinger’s aptitude for his studies were second to none. After fleeing Germany and the Nazi regime in 1938, a fifteen year old Kissinger and his family settled in New York with many of the others of Jewish descent. He scored the highest grades in his classes, even with the language barrier, and never sought to use these hurdles as a means of pity. While he had an early penchant for mathematics, an eventual passion for history turned Kissinger’s academic focus to the liberal arts. Kissinger elevated his studies and headed to Harvard on scholarship, with a strong focus on international history. He could impress his professors with a passion for better understanding the nuances of the world through past historical events. He leapfrogged into graduate studies and eventually earned a doctoral degree with a dissertation examining the post-Napoleonic organisation of Europe through the role that Klemens von Metternich (the Austrian Empire’s foreign minister) played in sewing up diplomatic relations, which would prove highly useful in understanding the world’s development during the Cold War years. Turning to teaching at Harvard, Kissinger could formulate strong opinions that caught the eye of many in the upper echelons of government, especially his views on nuclear weapons armament, which ruffled the feathers of many liberals within the Harvard family. These sorts of studies not only earned him recognition in Washington, but exemplified his academic foundation, which would prove essential when he worked with Nixon and Ford in the White House, formulating foreign policy and negotiating with Cold War enemies.Isaacson shows Kissinger’s passion for research and delving to the depths of the issue in order to extract core elements essential for a better understanding of the process, pulling in Metternichian ideas during numerous occasions.

Kissinger’s brilliant academic foundation led to megalomaniacal tendencies, fostered by his superiority sentiment. As an academic, Kissinger utilised his position of authority to direct research of his graduate and doctoral students, going so far as to steamroll over their proposals, only to take the ideas for himself. In one instance, Isaacson illustrates how Kissinger quashed a publication option by one of his students, citing an earlier inclination to publish on the topic. Forcing the student to alter their research, Kissinger never got around to writing or publishing the contentious piece, though he never thought to apologise for the oversight. This only laid the groundwork for many other instances of power-hungry Kissinger pushing for control and domination over all around him. Isaacson portrays Kissinger as one who must always be within the inner circle of power, or at least around the discussion table. He would drone on to the likes of Kennedy, circumnavigating protocol and those within the inner sanctum, only to be rebuffed behind his back. Once Nixon brought him into the White House inner sanctum, Kissinger’s megalomaniacal nature only flared, leaving him to step on the toes of his subordinates, equals, and superiors alike. In a highly-detailed narrative of Nixon’s first term in office, Isaacson shows how Kissinger overstepped his position as the National Security Advisor to run large portion of the State portfolio while keeping the Secretary, Will Rogers, completely in the dark. One concrete example of this come in the secret mission to open up ties with China in 1971. Kissinger went to China to pave the way, after convincing Nixon that he was the obvious and only choice for the job. He dodged the bureaucrats and organised the mission without State’s input, releasing the details only afterwords in a tightly-spun lie. These clashes only heightened the more time Kissinger remained in his position, fuelled by a somewhat passive (or enabling) Richard Nixon. Kissinger could not have climbed the ladder of control without the permission or support of Nixon, which Isaacson shows throughout the text. These two men, destined for complete power, rarely butted heads, but used one another to climb over all opponents in their way, as though they were a pair of hedonistic political juggernauts, happy only when the world turned to them in awe.

 With strong beliefs and an indestructible sense, Kissinger’s role as statesman was second to none. As mentioned above, he took the reins of lead statesman in Nixon’s government long before the role was given to him. Nixon turned to Kissinger to diffuse many of the world events in which America had a vested interest. The China mission and secret talks with the Viet Cong remain two of the great events in which Kissinger was involved, though both commenced when he was not yet in the role of Secretary of State. Kissinger was seen to be long-winded and somewhat of a diplomatic bouncer for world leaders who hoped to bend Nixon’s ear on issue. Indira Ghandi mentioned during her State Visit in 1971 that Nixon would demur to Kissinger’s opinions and allowed him to lead the discussions surrounding the India-Pakistan War, which troubled her, but led to a quick end to the conflict. Kissinger was more than an academic, spouting the textbook approach to resolution in his realist perspective, which Isaacson cites throughout. Kissinger got results and helped move diplomacy in areas of the world stuck in stalemates for long periods of time, through duplicitous means, in Isaacson’s view. The statesman would play both sides against one another by appearing to side with them in individual discussions and promising not stop at nothing to advocate for fairness. While handling statesman roles during Nixon’s first administration, Kissinger could work in any sphere, save for those of a Middle East capacity (at least until crowned as Secretary of State in 1973). Isaacson indicates throughout the tome that Nixon felt Kissinger’s Jewish background might prove to be too much of an impediment to successful negotiating. However, once Kissinger became Secretary of State, he utilised the Yom Kippur War to open a dialogue between Israel and Egypt, paving the way to successful advancements in the Middle East. For this, Kissinger must be lauded as he opened up key discussions that led to the famous Camp David Accords, under Carter’s Administration. To call Kissinger a powerful statesman would undercut his abilities. The latter chapters, including those in the Ford Administration, show Kissinger forging new and never-ending attempts to settle the Cold War geo-political divisions within and between states, though his relationship with the Soveits would taint his ability to work with subsequent Republican administrations, including Reagan and both Bushes. Kissinger’s statesman abilities surpass many of those who served as Secretary in America’s history.

After taking a thorough examination of the book, including Isaacson’s sentiments in the forewards offered, it is hard to determine Isaacson’s tilt on the man. Much of the biography is supportive of his ability to change the world and America’s place therein with a strong reliance on a political butterfly effect (an issue in one part of the world could have strong implications on those in another sphere).There are also segments that paint a highly negative or confrontational light of Kissinger, peppered throughout Isaacson’s narrative. I did not leave this biography hating Kissinger, nor did I leave feeling that he was pure as the driven snow. Perhaps that is the hard part for Isaacson; finding that happy medium in a political period mired in conflicts around the world with Cabinet members and White House staffers so energised to make a difference. I did, however, take away a great deal of knowledge and insight from the book, which does not shirk on its details. Isaacson paints vivid pictures of the battles that developed and ensued, portraying Nixon (and Ford) as lapdogs to Kissinger’s wiles, some of which were blatant violations of his role in the Cabinet. Any reader looking for a powerful insight into the shaping of politics in the 1960s and 70s need look no further than this biography to extract scores of concrete examples about America’s role in shaping the Cold War world and steering it away from the communistic clutches of the Soviets.

Kudos, Mr. Isaacson for this wonderful piece of work. I was drawn in to this sensational biography and will recommend it to anyone with a political curiosity.