Book Review: Whitewashing Kissinger
By Will Banyan, Copyright © 15 May 2016
- Niall Ferguson, Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist, Penguin Press, New York, 2015
Perhaps the most obvious point to make about this bloated and lifeless tome, the first of two projected volumes, is that former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger can feel confident he has chosen the right person to write his life story. Over nearly 930 pages (including footnotes), celebrity academic Niall Ferguson formerly a Professor of History at Harvard and now currently a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, proves yet again that when it comes to chronicling the lives of the rich and powerful, he is by far the perfect academic-for-hire. With very little direction, but with a great deal of enthusiasm and industry, Ferguson will strive to paint the best picture possible of his client, turning blemishes into rosy cheeks, sinister frowns into wise laugh-lines, and skeletons into necessary sacrifices. And so it is in this strangely anodyne account of Kissinger’s path to power; one that strips our protagonist of the sins of ambition and duplicity, and instead presents an unlikely tale of a selfless “idealist” who seems to have stumbled into the Nixon White House by happenstance rather than by design.
That Ferguson has performed this important task well is confirmed by the torrent of praise the book has received from Kissinger’s admirers, including his many friends. Convicted felon Conrad Black, for example, a friend of both Kissinger and Ferguson, praised it as a “brilliant book by an outstanding historian about a great and durably interesting statesman, who is also a distinguished historian and gifted strategic thinker.” It was a “compelling book about a towering figure”, claimed Walter Russell Mead in Foreign Affairs (Nov/Dec 2015); a “deeply compelling read” according to the Washington Free Beacon (Oct. 17, 2015); an “epic account of an amazing life”, claimed neo-conservative polemicist Max Boot (National Review, Oct 19, 2015); and according to the Weekly Standard (Dec. 07, 2015) this “attentive, magnificently written and profoundly researched” biography was “stunningly good…”
Writing in the New York Times, historian Andrew Roberts described it as the “most comprehensive defense of Kissinger’s outlooks and actions” since Kissinger’s own three-volume autobiography. But it was “no hagiography”, insisted Roberts (who was Kissinger’s first choice to write his memoir, but who balked at dealing with some “30 tons of material” in Kissinger’s personal archive – Ferguson dismisses him for having “cold feet” p.xiv), but rather “an admiring portrait rather than a particularly affectionate one.”
But such generous praise is difficult to take seriously when one takes a closer look at Ferguson’s massive volume. Indeed, despite its length and copious footnotes, a critical reading reveals that the Professor has merely delivered a lengthy whitewash of a justifiably controversial figure. From his central claim that Kissinger pre-Nixon was at first not an amoral “realist”, but an “Kantian idealist” with a genuine commitment to fighting for freedom and democracy, through to his treatment of Kissinger’s relationship with the various doyens and institutions of the Establishment, Ferguson has sought to distort the record in an heroic effort to ensure that Dr Kissinger is painted in the best possible light.
The Compliant Professor
Given his intent to defend Kissinger from his critics, it is fitting that Ferguson almost from the outset seeks to deflect charges of being an obedient hagiographer. Ferguson presents himself as an initially unwilling biographer who eventually succumbed to Kissinger’s charms. Over a series of meetings, telephone calls and letters in 2004, Kissinger managed to woo the supposedly reluctant professor, sealing the deal with the promise of access to a trove of hitherto undiscovered personal files dating back to the 1950s (p.xv). Ferguson also emphasises his independence, citing a legal agreement between himself and Kissinger drawn up in 2004, that gave the “Author…full editorial control over the final manuscript of Work”, while the “Grantor” (Kissinger) would have “no right to vet, edit, amend or prevent the publication of the finished manuscript of the Work” (p.xii). But such an agreement was largely redundant for in the person of Professor Ferguson, Kissinger had found a biographer sufficiently deluded to think he was presenting Kissinger’s life “as it actually was”, when the first volume demonstrates again and again that the “Author” is incapable of doing anything that would offend the “Grantor”.
Kissinger’s hook that caught Ferguson was the promise of access to his personal papers. And it is his access to those documents that Ferguson is most proud of and the scaffolding on which he purports to deliver his account of the life of Henry Kissinger “as it actually was.” He invites unfavourable comparisons between his work drawn from 111 archives, with 8,380 documents retained in his digital database, and the “dozen documents” cited in another unnamed “widely read book about Kissinger” (p.xiii). This is a reference to the late Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial Of Henry Kissinger (2000) which only cited a smattering of such documents. Moreover, by focusing on his access to thousands of documents, Ferguson also implicitly criticises Walter Isaacson’s Kissinger: A Biography (1992), which relied heavily on interviews. Ferguson informs us that he always gives preference to documents or audio recordings from the time rather than more recent interviews with key protagonists on that grounds that memories can be unreliable (p.xvi).
This is not unreasonable, but Ferguson is not consistent in this approach. In the acknowledgements he lists just 14 people he interviewed other than Kissinger (p.880). Of this group it is Ferguson’s interviews with Kissinger that are referred to most often; so it seems one person’s memories are still considered reliable! In comparison’s Isaacson’s tome lists interviews with 148 of Kissinger’s colleagues, friends, rivals and critics (pp.830-831). To be sure many of those interviewed by Isaacson nearly thirty years ago have passed away, but in choosing to confine himself to documentary sources, on the grounds that interviews are inherently unreliable, Ferguson short-changes himself and the reader. After all, this is not meant to be a dull academic tone that examines the evolution and application of Kissinger’s foreign policy thinking; there are already plenty of those to be found in university libraries, but a popular biography written by a celebrity academic about a major public figure.
Yet he also acknowledges, through an anecdote from Kissinger’s wife (at a private dinner with Kissinger) about the real reason for his trips to Paris in the late 1960s (Dr Kissinger was also trying to woo her while she studied in France), that the written records actually do not reveal all and sometimes people’s memories are all that we have (pp.xvi-xvii). This lesson, though, is not taken up elsewhere in the book which is otherwise highly dependent on documentary sources. More puzzling are the numerous instances where Ferguson speculates on Kissinger’s motivations or knowledge about particular issues, which raises the question about why didn’t he ask his good friend? Coupled with Ferguson’s transparent awe and admiration for Kissinger, we get less of a history “as it actually was”, but as with all such works, a history as it seemed to the biases of a historian who adores his subject.
The Professor’s “Great Friend”
The fundamental problem with this weighty tome is quite simply that Niall Ferguson is too close to his subject; in ways that he not only fails to fully disclose, but which clearly colour his approach to Kissinger. The extent of this interaction extends beyond merely interviewing Kissinger and being at the same parties (though held by mutual friends such as Conrad Black), to include more intimate functions such as “private dinners” with the Kissingers where Ferguson had brought along “women other than his wife…” Ferguson later divorced his wife Susan Douglas – for whom Kissinger had reportedly written an endorsement to get her on the “A-list” of Conservative candidates (Daily Mail, Feb. 12, 2010) – and married his primary paramour Somalian born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, at a ceremony at which Kissinger was present (The Telegraph, Sep. 18, 2011). Perhaps the Daily Mail (Feb. 20, 2010) was not out of line when it described Kissinger as Ferguson’s “great friend”
Ferguson’s closeness and admiration for Kissinger had already manifest itself in a range of commentary well ahead of this book’s publication. Back in 2008, for example, in the Times Literary Supplement, he was already rehearsing some of his arguments, damning Hitchens’ polemic for its “documentary thin” and “footnote free case for the prosecution…” and taking a swipe at those involved in the “never-ending hunt for ‘smoking-gun’ quotations.” He also posed the question as to whether: “the ferocity of the criticism which Kissinger has attracted perhaps got something to do with the fact that he, like the Rothschilds, is Jewish?” In numerous op-ed pieces since 2004 Ferguson had praised Kissinger for his skill in forging grand strategy for the US, his accurate opinion on the Iran-Iraq war, and for being one of the “greatest statesmen”. Two years ago he praised Kissinger’s most recent book, World Order (2014) as a “magisterial meditation on the international system”; he lauded Kissinger as a “statesman”, the “grand old man of applied history” and as a “historical thinker.”
There are also hints of Kissinger exerting his influence on the supposedly independent author; often by showing his displeasure. Ferguson acknowledges the assistance of the Ambassador Richard Viets and the late William D. Rogers in playing the role of “intermediary and occasional peacemaker between author and subject” (p.879). And in an interview with The Star (Nov. 1, 2015) Ferguson claimed that his relationship Kissinger had hit a “real low point” in 2011 because Kissinger had “hated” the documentary he made of their interviews. But that does not appear to have ended Kissinger’s cooperation with his project; documents were not withdrawn, more interviews presumably took place (though this is difficult to tell, as Ferguson’s copious footnotes do not include dates for any of his interviews with Kissinger, just the standard annotation “HAK, interview by author”). Kissinger clearly remained comfortable with Ferguson; they appeared together at Yale University in April 2015 to discuss “world order”.
Finally, another factor worth considering is the circles that the celebrity Professor now moves amongst include a lot of wealthy and influential people who really like Kissinger and would not take too kindly to their hero and highly regarded dinner guest being given a hard time. To illustrate a few examples of a pro-Kissinger bias amongst Ferguson’s known patrons and admirers: James Tisch co-owner of New York based conglomerate Loews once signed a letter in 2010 to the New York Times praising Kissinger’s “constructive role” in US-Israel relations; Peter G. Peterson, long an Establishment stalwart, was described by Kissinger in 2000 as having been one of his “close friends and business associates for decades”; billionaire media magnate Rupert Murdoch, who has taken to endorsing Ferguson’s writings, has long counted Kissinger amongst his friends, at a function in 1997 Kissinger praised him as a “visionary” and in 2015 Kissinger expressed “admiration” for Murdoch, adding that “Rupert is an impressive man and he has done great things.” Kissinger has long shown a thin-skin when it comes to negative appraisals of his record, using his connections to try to pressure publishers to change or withdraw offending texts, as Walter Isaacson discovered in 1992 and British historian Kenneth Maxwell found out to his cost in 2004.
The Mask of “Idealism”
Being too close to his subject means that Ferguson finds it incredibly difficult to criticise Kissinger and thus he goes to great lengths to excuse and rationalise his frequently unpleasant personal behaviour (i.e. his propensity for bullying subordinates) and reinterpret his foreign policy thinking. The principal mechanism or literary device for achieving the goal of overturning the previous much harsher criticism of Kissinger as both an amoral realist and desperately ambitious careerist is to label him an “idealist.” But exactly what Ferguson means by an “idealist” is neither consistent nor easily comprehensible. In the Introduction Ferguson argues that Kissinger had adopted the “idealism” of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, but succeeds only in delivering some philosophical abstractions about the nature of reality, and Kissinger’s scepticism about “materialist theories of capitalist superiority…” (pp.28-29). Yet in practice this label of “idealist”, which means whatever Ferguson wants it to mean, actually performs two vital functions to absolve his hero.
First, the claim of “idealism” is used to suggest that Kissinger’s foreign policy thinking was driven, not by an amoral pragmatism, but a genuine commitment to American ideals about freedom and democracy, and thus supposedly translating into support for solutions that would preserve these ideals rather than compromising or negotiating with Communism. Pushing this requires Ferguson elevate the importance of Kissinger’s undergraduate thesis, which examined Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, beyond the marginalia and launch it into the centre of Kissinger’s foreign policy thinking. The results though are hardly inspiring and suggest that the financial historian is out of his depth.
For example, he argues that Kissinger’s “idealism” is different from its traditional understanding in US foreign policy that “emphasised the subordination of ‘might’ to supranational laws and courts” (p.28) – although he manages undermine this argument on that page and the next. Ferguson claims Kissinger’s Kantian idealism is “compellingly” demonstrated in his most recent book World Order as it “quotes Kant at length” (p.28). Yes Kant is quoted in World Order (p.40) but only on one page, and then only to illustrate Kant’s proposal for a “permanent peaceful world order” based on a “voluntary federation of republics”; Kissinger does not endorse Kant. Then, to illustrate Kissinger’s apparent affinity to Kant, Ferguson quotes from his speech to the United Nations in 1975 where the Secretary of State basically endorsed Kant’s prediction that “perpetual peace” would come about through evolution or out of necessity. Kissinger’s statement – “Our only choice is whether the world envisaged in the [United Nations] charter will come about as the result of our vision or a catastrophe invited by our shortsightedness” (p.29) – comes across as an explicit endorsement of containing “might” through supranational controls (in this case the UN), the same supranational “idealist” approach Ferguson just told us Kissinger did not support.
Indeed one of the more intriguing revelations this book actually delivers is that Kissinger’s apparent support for European or trans-Atlantic federation, came not from his reading of Kant, but was entirely due to the “influence” of and his alleged loyalty to his primary patron Nelson Rockefeller (pp.415, 451, 456). In fact, it was only because he was so “loyal” that he continued work on the subject despite his own growing doubts about the practicality of establishing regional confederations in the North Atlantic and western hemisphere (p.456). Of course being “loyal” can be read as opportunistically doing as his wealthy patron demanded, as opposed to proposing what he actually believed. Furthermore Kissinger, supposedly a Kantian “idealist”, was also deeply sceptical of world government, particularly as a method of nuclear disarmament, warning in 1958 that “we were likely to have war before we have world government” (p.426).
Ferguson’s fixation on “idealism” not only means that he fails to recognise Kissinger was a classical realist (as Jonathan Kirshner cogently argues in the Boston Review), but he overlooks other more consistent themes in his foreign policy thinking. In particular Ferguson fails to see that throughout the 1950s and 1960s much of Kissinger’s policy advice, whether offered as a “kibitzer” in the pages of Foreign Affairs and The Reporter, or as a consultant for the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, or as Nelson Rockefeller’s foreign policy adviser, frequently involved a belligerent defence of US strategic and military credibility as the lynchpin of global stability.
In an essay he wrote in 1954 (later published in Foreign Affairs), Kissinger worried about US credibility, fearing that unless the Soviet knew “the extent of U.S. determination it may engage in a probing action which may then result in an avoidable war…” (p.334). Credibility was also behind Kissinger’s hysterical rants during the Berlin Crisis in 1961, despite the “realism” of the Kennedy Administration that sought to avoid escalating the dispute into war (p.513). Writing to administration officials in his capacity as a consultant, Kissinger claimed the Soviets had made the US “look like monkeys, weak monkeys” and instead of negotiations the US should threaten war to force the Soviets to backdown (pp.498-99). In another missive he worried that without a strong stance, America’s European allies might “lose confidence in us”, leading to German neutralism and a weakened NATO (p.502).
US credibility rather than this supposed commitment to “idealism” also drove Kissinger’s private criticisms about the conduct of the Vietnam War. In a 1965 diary entry reproduced by Ferguson in the Foreword (but for some reason not discussed later), Kissinger tells Johnson advisor Clark Clifford that the “future world position of the United States is at stake” in Vietnam, the fate of the Vietnamese in contrast was “no longer the issue” (p.xvi). In his Foreign Affairs (January 1969) article, “The Viet Nam Negotiations”, praised by Ferguson as “classic” and as “one of the most brilliant analyses” of the US “predicament in Vietnam that anyone has ever written” (p.838); Kissinger again invoked “confidence in American promises”, “credibility” and “prestige”, and the need to ensure the US was not seen as unreliable by its allies as key variables to be considered in reaching a settlement (p.842).
The second purpose of the “idealist” moniker is more interesting and reflects more acutely the problems caused by Ferguson’s closeness to his subject. By painting, rather unconvincingly mind you, Kissinger as a tormented “idealist”, Ferguson also tries to undermine and subvert the far more damaging personal portraits of Kissinger as a ruthlessly ambitious, unprincipled, untrustworthy, deceitful and duplicitous schemer, office bully, solely intent on his own advancement and on preserving his place in history. Kissinger’s ugly personal traits – his abrasive and humiliating treatment of subordinates, his sycophancy to superiors, his reputation for lying, and his at times seemingly bipolar personality– have been detailed in numerous books, particularly Walter Isaacson’s impressive volume; but Ferguson seems determined to deny all this and more or less rewrite history.
Ferguson invokes Kissinger’s supposed “idealism” at numerous points to excuse what are clearly blatant acts of opportunism by an ambitious man eager to get out the rut of academia. Kissinger’s work on the Harvard International Seminar, for example, which he directed from 1951, has long been recognised as a networking opportunity that he had avidly pursued until the program came to an end in 1968. It provided Kissinger with a “network of foreign friends—persons in the prime of their political and professional lives—[that] was unrivalled” according to Stephen Graubard in his 1973 book Kissinger: Portrait of Mind (p.58). According to Isaacson:
Of the six hundred foreign students who participated before the program came to an end in 1969, many went on to become important to Kissinger in power. Among them: Yasuhiro Nakasone in Japan in 1953, Valery Giscard D’Estaing of France in 1954, Yigal Allon of Israel in 1957, Bulent Ecevit of Turkey in 1958, Leo Tindemans of Belgium in 1962, and Mahathir Bin Mohammed of Malaysia in 1968. Others became foreign ministers, newspapers editors, and bank presidents. Even in the 1990s, Kissinger was still calling on them in his work as a private consultant (pp.71-72; emphasis added).
Ferguson, though, takes this paragraph and its clear implication Kissinger’s hard work on the Seminar was mainly driven by his ambition and desire to build up a network that would in some way elevate his reputation at Harvard and more widely, and turns on its head somewhat disingenuously. According to Ferguson, the notion that Kissinger’s work on the Seminar was “actuated by self-interest by inviting participants…who would useful to him later in life…seems unfair.” He then tries to downplay the Seminar’s significance:
Of the six hundred foreign students who a participated in the International Seminar between 1951 and its final year in 1968, some did indeed go on to become leaders of their countries: the Japanese prime minister Yashiro Nakasone, who attended the Seminar in 1953, the French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing (1954), the Turkish prime minister Mustafa Bulent Ecevit (1958), the Belgian Prime Minister Leo Tindemans (1962) and the Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Bin Mohammed (1968). But most seminar participants went on to lead lives of obscurity (p.281; emphasis added).
Then he suggests organizing the Seminar would be a “drab” activity and then boldly claims, without any supporting evidence, that it is more plausible to suppose Kissinger was “sincerely” motivated by a desire to make a contribution to the “psychological against Soviet Communism to which he was sincerely committed” (p.282). To support his claims about the “obscurity” of Seminar participants, Ferguson footnotes Jeremi Suri’s book Henry Kissinger and the American Century (2007), but manages to misrepresent his arguments which clearly recognise that Kissinger’s “driving ambitions” were as much a part of his enthusiasm for the Seminar as was its presumed value to the Cold War effort (p.124). Moreover, in citing Suri as his primary source for the “obscurity” claim, he overlooks Suri’s description of the Seminar participants as “one of the most influential groups of international figures who came of age in the 1950s.” In addition to the national leaders it generated, Suri also notes that other participants “went on to influential nongovernment positions as corporate directors, public intellectuals and publishers.” This formed a “cohort of new empowered policy actors on a global stage” with Kissinger “at the center of this emerging network” (p.123).
This isn’t just whitewashing by Ferguson in service of his Kissinger worship, but a deliberate misrepresentation of the arguments made by a key source. But there are some deeper problems with the whole Seminar issue. Graubard and Suri cite no sources to back their accounts, while Isaacson’s has some references, but Ferguson also fails back up his claims. It is probable that Graubard, Isaacson and Suri are correct, but for Ferguson to reject their claims he would need to do the legwork of sorting through the names of 600 Seminar participants to see what their careers amounted to and what post-Seminar contacts they had with Kissinger. Ferguson’s casual evidence-free dismissal of the Seminar suggests this work has not been done, despite the decade he supposedly spent working on this book.
This is hardly the only example. Ferguson’s account is littered with other evidence of Kissinger’s penchant for duplicity and hypocrisy in service of his ambition; evidence that Ferguson ties himself up into knots to deny. Thus, according to Ferguson, Cary Reich’s claim in The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller (1996) that Kissinger was “downright fawning” in Nelson Rockefeller’s presence but “deprecating” behind his back, “does not ring true” (p.395). Ferguson offers no direct evidence to refute this, other than to claim the Kissinger-Rockefeller relationship was “turbulent”, drawing on Reich’s book and the more recent biography of Rockefeller by Richard N. Smith, On His Own Terms (2014). Although Smith’s book also claims that behind Rockefeller’s back Kissinger “mocked his patron for not doing his homework”, but in person was “deferential to the point of sycophancy” (p.255). Perhaps Ferguson does not want to contemplate what his “friend” really thinks of him…
Ferguson repeatedly struggles with evidence of Kissinger’s ambition to make foreign policy in Washington DC, of which examples are legion. For instance, we read that: in 1953 Kissinger was feeling “frustration” as his strategic jottings failed to result in him being “summoned to Washington” (p.323); in 1954 he complained that Harvard was a “narrow and sterile” place where “No one really cares about anyone else’s work…” (p.326); that year he also rejected an offer from the University of Pennsylvania, because it had “little prestige” (p.330-331); in 1961 Kissinger “prepared to answer the long-await summons to the corridors of power” (p.460); and Kissinger “yearned for admission to the corridors of power” (p.513).
On the Vietnam War, Ferguson uses “idealism” to make a patently absurd explanation as to why Kissinger publicly supported a war that he privately knew to be unwinnable and a major strategic error. After his first visit to Vietnam in 1965 as a consultant to the Johnson Administration, Kissinger came to see that the US effort would end in failure, and said as much at a dinner in Saigon to a group of journalists, one of whom reported his comments. In what foreshadowed a future pattern of behaviour, Kissinger denied making such comments – Ferguson, though cannot bring himself to acknowledge that Kissinger was lying (pp.657-661). It was also noteworthy that he progressively toned down his report to the US Government, even adding a line that he was “deeply persuaded that Vietnam is the hinge in our national effort…” (p.665). As Ferguson then documents, Kissinger went on to publicly defend the war in a number of forums, including at universities and in the media, while other realist academics, particularly Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan publicly eviscerated the Vietnam War as strategically unsound and doomed to fail. Bizarrely, Ferguson thinks this contradiction between Kissinger’s private assessment and public statements reflects his “idealism”, his sincere belief that freedom and democracy in South Vietnam were worth defending, when the most likely reason is opportunism: Kissinger’s desire to remain in the Johnson Administration’s good graces and further his career prospects.
The strategy of denial taken by Ferguson is to treat Kissinger’s missteps, examples of backing the wrong patron, specifically Nelson Rockefeller, as somehow refuting claims that Kissinger was “ruthless and calculating in his pursuit of power” (p.565). This means Kissinger’s careful fence-sitting is both acknowledged and downplayed: such as his repeated public declarations from 1957 through to 1968, that he was neither Democrat nor Republican but an “independent” (pp.384, 417, 436, 442, 537, 706 &826). At various times Ferguson concedes that he was acting “prudently” (p.384) and “keeping his options open” (p.443) when doing this. But in the midst of the key events of 1968 he insists that Kissinger’s anti-Nixon rants should be taken at “face value” and it is “not plausible” to see it as a “smokescreen” to conceal his intention to work secretly for Nixon. He also tells us that claims Kissinger was wooing the campaign are “not quite accurate” (p.826). Yet the evidence he details on the next page tells us the exact opposite: Kissinger rejects an offer to be on Nixon’s foreign policy advisory board, but instead offers to “work behind the scenes”, and through another intermediary offers to provide advice “discreetly” to the Nixon campaign (p.827).
Nothing to See Here…
Ferguson’s wilful gullibility extends to the allegations, first made by Seymour Hersh in his book Kissinger: The Price of Power (1983, pp.16-22), that Kissinger had passed on secret information to the Nixon campaign about the negotiations with the North Vietnamese in a bid to disrupt the peace process – with Nixon allegedly inducing the South Vietnamese to abandon the process – to deny the Democrat campaign an October Surprise. In his bid to refute these claims, Ferguson resorts to a number of standard tricks including: suggesting that the “key witness”, Nixon’s campaign foreign policy advisor Richard Allen, was unreliable because he was a “lifelong enemy” of Kissinger (pp.793-795); that Nixon’s memoirs affirm that Kissinger did not give them any information of interest (pp.795-796); details of the peace negotiations were public; that HAK’s information would not have been of any import; and the North Vietnamese were never negotiating in good faith anyway, and nor would the South Vietnamese have agreed to the proposed peace agreement.
Yet, absent from Ferguson’s bluster is the man at the centre of this controversy. A browse through the footnotes for this the twenty-first chapter reveals no “HAK, interview by author”; it would seem that Kissinger was not questioned, or refused to discuss the issue. At one stage Ferguson confidently informs us there is “no documentary evidence whatever that Kissinger made any effort to obtain confidential information about the Paris talks” (p.793). Later, though, the reason for this becomes clear: there are some curious gaps in Kissinger’s private records for the periods in question. For example, concerning his visit in June 1968:
Unusually, Kissinger apparently made no record of his conversations on this trip to Europe. That may be because the records have been lost or destroyed. Or it may be that there was nothing worth writing down (p.815).
Ferguson does not seem at all bothered by this convenient omission, and gives the same oddly credulous reaction when the same problem emerges for Kissinger’s September 1968 trip to Paris, at a time when he is alleged to have passed on critical information about the peace talks to the Nixon campaign: “No records survive in Kissinger’s hand of his September trip to Paris…” He then adds in a footnote that it is “of course conceivable that Kissinger subsequently destroyed or simply did not record evidence of his activities” (p.828). But he later concedes that Nixon’s source “was surely Kissinger”, and in a sign of his intellectual bankruptcy makes the incoherent argument that “none of this was intelligence leaked from Harriman’s delegation in Paris…”, only to contradict this with a quote from Kissinger where he admitted to having seen “the instructions to Harriman” (p.829). Just knowing Johnson’s confidential negotiating position not only counts as “intelligence”, it also conclusively negates Ferguson’s earlier claim Kissinger was “out of the Vietnam loop” (p.816).
Given these strange gaps in his private files, the two lines Kissinger offers in the first volume of his memoirs about his contacts with the Nixon campaign in 1968 – that Ferguson mysteriously fails to quote or cite – seem deliberately misleading:
During the national campaign in 1968 several Nixon emissaries – some self-appointed – telephoned me for counsel. I took the position that I would answer specific questions on foreign policy, but that I would not offer general advice or volunteer suggestions (White House Years, p.10).
Particularly when contrasted with Nixon’s memoirs, which attribute a more robust role for Kissinger in providing his campaign with “advice” on the peace talks. Kissinger “continued to have an entrée into the [Johnson] administration’s foreign policy inner circles”, wrote Nixon, so he directed that John Mitchell should “continue as liaison with Kissinger and we should honor his desire to keep his role completely confidential” (Memoirs, p.323). Later, when discussing his decision to appoint Kissinger, Nixon credits him with “providing us information about the bombing halt” (ibid, p.340).
The bottom line of all this is the good professor is all on his own in this brave defence of Kissinger’s controversial role during the 1968 election. Despite being an authorised biography, when it comes to this issue Kissinger has prudently withdrawn from the scene, offering nothing to Ferguson who must construct a series of slender and unconvincing excuses out of a few fragments of fact. For this reason, Ferguson’s claim Kissinger’s appointment “had nothing to do with mythical leaks from Paris” (p.834), is tenuous to say the least, given that he has conceded the leaks probably did happen, and that Nixon specifically credits Kissinger’s leaks with making him “more aware of his knowledge and influence” (Memoirs, p.340). The whole affair, right down to Kissinger’s appointment, and his kabuki-like performance of anguish at accepting Nixon’s offer, reek of Kissinger’s determination, after the failure of Nelson’s campaign, to smooth his own path into the White House.
This is all part of a general pattern where Ferguson documents the enormous effort Kissinger put in to getting into government, his writings, his consulting work, his assiduous cultivation of the Establishment, but then insists the opposite to be true, that Kissinger was not being ambitious or duplicitous, merely an “idealist” and that his mistakes supposedly prove this. Yet, despite Ferguson’s contortions, the evidence does not lie, as Professor Alan Ryan from Oxford noted in his review of Kissinger, two things become clear about Kissinger’s rise:
One is the extent of Kissinger’s ambition, and his extraordinary persistence in trying to influence the makers of US defence and foreign policy with few initial resources beyond his friendship with a handful of Harvard professors and an ability to compose striking position papers. Setbacks never deterred him, and he worked assiduously to cultivate the connections that would get him into the corridors of power. The other is the role of sheer accident in his rise to the top (New Statesman, Nov. 9, 2015).
This is not the chronicle of an “idealist.”
The Establishment Goes Missing
In line with Ferguson’s herculean effort to sanitise both Kissinger’s dubious foreign policy approach and his ambition to occupy a position of note in government, the extent of Kissinger’s dealings with the US Establishment and the trans-Atlantic elite, are also repeatedly whitewashed. Details are provided about Kissinger’s work on the CFR’s nuclear weapons study group (which lead to his first best-selling book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy), his supposedly loyalty to Nelson Rockefeller, and his efforts to cultivate relationships with some Washington DC insiders. But this is undercut by Ferguson’s strained effort to deny that Kissinger was overly ambitious and his apparent belief that claims about the power of the CFR and other groups are mere conspiracy theories.
Both of these arguments are set up in the Introduction where Ferguson not only introduces his Kissinger as “idealist” theory, but also signals his disinterest in exploring the Establishment connections by mocking conspiracy theories about Kissinger. He gives a number of examples of “outright lunacy” and “[w]ild allegations” about Kissinger including: the Lyndon LaRouche’s “Anglophobe” theory that Kissinger was a “British Agent of Influence”; the “paranoid anti-Communist” theories of Gary Allen and Alan Stang that Kissinger was a Soviet spy; and the claims of “out-and-out fantasists” Jim Marrs, that Kissinger was part of a “wholly imagined conspiracy” involving the CFR, Trilateral Commission and Freemasons, and of David Icke that Kissinger is a “Satanist” (pp.6-8). This litany of “nonsense” builds a convenient strawman that suggests focusing on the Kissinger’s burgeoning elite connections throughout the 1950s and 1960s would be a waste of time, if not a descent into insanity.
Ferguson’s treatment of Kissinger’s relationship with the CFR provides a good example of this. Initially he downplays the CFR’s role in shaping US foreign policy, describing it as “influential—though not as all-powerful, and certainly not as sinister, as has sometimes been claimed” (p.349). But later he concedes that thanks to both the CFR and his friendship with Nelson Rockefeller, “Kissinger had come closer than he had ever been to the commanding heights of the US government” (p.384). But other aspects of his relationship with CFR are not explored even though they are clearly significant. A key one that Ferguson seems to overlook is that Kissinger managed to publish eleven articles in the CFR’s journal Foreign Affairs between 1954 and 1969. This is quite a feat and makes him one of Foreign Affairs more prolific contributors during the 1950s and 1960s. Ferguson, though, despite being armed with both Kissinger’s private files and access to the CFR’s archives, never bothers to delve into why Foreign Affairs’ editor, Hamilton Fish Armstrong, and its managing editor, Philip Quigg, were so keen on publishing Kissinger’s articles, a significant favour that did much to raise his profile as a strategic thinker.
In fact, Ferguson’s account of the circumstances leading up to the publication of his first article in Foreign Affairs, are also rather murky. Ferguson traces it to a cocktail party held by Kissinger’s friend, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr and his neighbour, the economist John K. Galbraith in 1954. After taking part in a discussion with newspaper columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop, and former Truman Administration official Paul Nitze about Eisenhower’s strategic policy, Kissinger apparently “dashed off an essay” (p.332), that went on to become his first article published in the Foreign Affairs, an event that marked Kissinger’s “emergence…as a public intellectual” (p.336). But Ferguson fails to mention that the Alsop brothers, Galbraith, Schlesinger and Nitze were all part of the so-called “Georgetown Set”, a combination of academics, officials and journalists credited with shaping US Cold War policy during 1950s and 1960s. And he also provides no information on how Kissinger’s essay came to be published in Foreign Affairs; it just suddenly happens (p.336). There is probably an interesting story to be told, but one will not find it in this bombastic tome.
Ferguson seems determined to deny the existence of the Establishment, even though it has been freely acknowledged by Kissinger. In the second volume of his memoirs, Years of Upheaval (1982), for example, Kissinger praises the “American foreign policy Establishment…that had won the battle against isolationism in the 1940s and sustained a responsible American involvement throughout the post-war world” (p.86); Ferguson though uses the term “Washington establishment” once (p.378) and later makes a clearly sceptical reference to the “so-called ‘Establishment’” (p.596).
Also missing from this narrative is any consideration of Kissinger’s early involvement with the Bilderberg Group. Instead Ferguson artfully dismisses its significance, making a single disparaging reference to conspiracy theories about Bilderberg’s “nefarious activities” (p.6). Thus there is no reference made to Kissinger’s participation at three Bilderberg meetings in the 1950s and 1960s – he participated in two meetings in 1957 and then in the 1964 meeting. Of these the 1957 meetings are the most significant. At the first meeting, held in St Simons Island in Georgia in the US, Kissinger was meant to present a paper on nuclear strategy, based on his CFR book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, but because of time constraints, this did not happen. Kissinger was then called back for the second meeting that year, held in Fiuggi, Italy. That he was given a second chance to present his paper is surely a sign of how important the Bilderberg Steering Committee thought Kissinger and his ideas were.
According to Thomas Gijswitj’s thesis Uniting The West: The Bilderberg Group, the Cold War and European Integration, 1952-1966, for Kissinger the Bilderberg meeting “opened many doors in Europe which were useful for his frequent travels to Europe in later years” (p.190). But more importantly the Fiuggi conference provided Kissinger with an opportunity to showcase his book among an elite European audience, in fact there was a “long debate on Kissinger’s ideas” (p.199). Ferguson, though, not only ignores or is unaware of Gijswitj’s thesis, but actually excises from the record the Bilderberg setting of a seemingly humorous exchange between Kissinger and Nitze at Fiuggi (p.376), even though his source, Isaacson’s Kissinger, clearly mentions that it took place “at a meeting of the Bilderberg Group near Rome…” (p.89). A conflict of interest seems to explain this: Ferguson has participated in three Bilderberg meetings, attending in 2009, 2010 and 2012 (where he no doubt saw his hero in action)[i] – thus our brave scholar is probably committed to its secrecy provisions. We can therefore anticipate that Volume 2, after it gets past lavishing praise on Kissinger’s stellar White House years, will ignore Kissinger’s participation in some forty more Bilderberg meetings since 1969 and his key role in the Bilderberg Group’s Steering Committee.
Ferguson also gives a somewhat limited picture of Kissinger’s other elite friends. True, some of his mentors and friends are mentioned, such as McGeorge Bundy, Arthur Schlesinger and Nelson Rockefeller; but other lesser known, yet equally significant relationships are mysteriously absent. That Kissinger was also quite friendly with Nelson Rockefeller’s youngest brother David, for example, is not mentioned at all, despite the plutocrat being widely regarded as one of the most powerful financiers and global networkers at that time. Moreover, as revealed in some 45 telephone transcripts that have been released in recent years, David Rockefeller had no problems calling Kissinger directly and the tone of their discussions suggest a level of friendship. But not only is this relationship absent, for some reason David Rockefeller’s name is even missing from Ferguson’s account of the CFR Study Group (pp.350-351), despite Rockefeller clearly being listed as a member in the Foreword to Kissinger’s book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (p.vii).
Also totally ignored is Kissinger’s relationship with former Dutch diplomat Ernst van der Beugel (1918-2004) who was Bilderberg’s Honorary Secretary-General for Europe from 1960 to 1980. According to Professor Giles Scott-Smith, they had first met in 1957 when Kissinger was touring Europe to promote Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. Apparently “intrigued and stimulated by each other’s political and intellectual insight” they went on to become close friends. Although ignored by most Kissinger biographers, Kissinger had not forgotten him, dedicating the second volume of his memoirs to Beugel, describing life without him as “unimaginable.” Interviewed about his relationship with Beugel in 2012 by a PhD student, Kissinger described him as a “very close friend, someone you could rely on.” He also credited Beugel with helping to hold the Bilderberg group together.
In his fawning review of the book he had prudently elected not to write himself, historian Andrew Roberts opined that “if the second volume of ‘Kissinger’ is anywhere near as comprehensive, well-written and riveting as the first, this will be [Ferguson’s] masterpiece.” A more honest judgement would be that Kissinger:1923-1968: The Idealist represents Ferguson’s success as a propagandist for the power elite, but his utter failure as both a historian and a serious scholar. Despite the surfeit of unique documents at his disposal all he has managed to deliver in this dull doorstop is a clumsy whitewash of a vain and ambitious man. Ferguson might boast that his book has been “ten years in the making” (p.xii), but he has manifestly failed to deliver a biography on par with Robert Caro’s multi-volume multi-decade effort devoted to the life of Lyndon B. Johnson.
One key problem noticed by many of the more discerning reviewers is Ferguson’s reluctance to probe Kissinger’s character. Angelo Codevilla, for example, claims Ferguson “treats [Kissinger’s] character evasively (Asia Times, Oct 15, 2015); The Economist (Oct 03, 2015) noted that Ferguson has “so little to say about the professor’s machinations in the pursuit and manipulation of power.” The reviewer in the Washington Monthly (Sept/Oct 2015) accused Ferguson of making “an unpersuasive attempt to convince readers that Kissinger was not the relentless ladder climber we think we know.” Even historian and columnist Dominic Sandbrook, in an otherwise sympathetic review, observed that “Kissinger the man sometimes disappears from view” (Sunday Times, Sep. 27, 2015). “Disappointingly”, observed Ian Thomson in his review, “we learn little of Kissinger’s emotional life or likely sexual infidelities during his first marriage and after” (Guardian, Oct. 25, 2015). Greg Grandin, the author of a rival biography of Kissinger’s record in the Nixon Administration (Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman), speculated that Ferguson’s “reticence to probe his subject’s emotional life” was to avoid confirming “established opinions about Kissinger.” Moreover:
The irony is that it has been Kissinger’s sharpest critics who have most appreciated his acute sense of self, who have treated him, however disapprovingly, as a fully dimensional individual with a churning, complex psyche. In contrast, Ferguson, tone deaf to Kissinger’s darker notes, condemns him to a literary fate worse than anything that Hitchens could have meted out: Kissinger, in this book, is boring (Guardian, Oct 15, 2015).
It is certainly noteworthy how early in his very first volume on Johnson, The Path to Power (1982), based on nearly eight years of full-time in-depth research drawing on both documents and interviews, that Caro was able to give a concise summation Johnson’s character as being driven by a “hunger for power in its most naked form” (p.xix). This theme and finding has been developed further in the subsequent volumes. Similarly, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Kissinger, which relied heavily on both interviews and primary documents, also had no trouble when it came to describing how his book sought to:
explore how Kissinger’s personality—brilliant, conspiratorial, furtive, sensitive to linkages and nuances, prone to rivalries and power struggles, charming yet at times deceitful—related to the power-orientated realpolitik and secretive diplomatic maneuvering that were the basis of his policies (Kissinger, p.16).
It is striking that the most vivid and critical personal portraits that appear in Ferguson’s Kissinger are of those people Ferguson perceives as antagonistic to his hero. Thus, Ferguson defers to Kissinger’s judgement that one of his informers in post-war Germany was a “self-seeking opportunist” (p.189); a term Ferguson never uses to describe Kissinger’s own actions. Later, drawing almost entirely on Caro’s interview-reliant research, Ferguson dismisses Lyndon Johnson as a “not very nice man”, “corrupt as well as a base”, and a “bully” whose “defining characteristic…was his ability to bend others to his will” (p.595). Yet when it comes to Kissinger himself, Ferguson frequently demurs; evading strong judgements and disputing the less flattering assessments with little or no contrary evidence. In fact large parts of his personal life, including his ultimately failed first marriage and the fact he had two children, are given minimal coverage. The bulk of this doorstop is devoted to chronicling the evolution of Kissinger’s foreign policy thinking; the result of that effort is less a “biography” and more a tedious intellectual history.
We can expect no less in the second volume, whenever it finally appears. Ferguson has already begun to rehearse his arguments to play up his achievements and to dispute the war-crimes charges levelled against Kissinger. Writing earlier this year in New York Times (Feb. 13, 2016), for example, after Democrat presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton was criticised by Bernie Sanders for her enthusiasm for Kissinger, Ferguson countered the charge referring to Kissinger’s “major achievements”, specifically:
the first strategic arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union; the exclusion of the Soviets from the Middle East in 1973; the first steps toward peace between Israel and Egypt; not to mention the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, ignominious though it ultimately was. …Kissinger’s policy of détente with Moscow, repudiated by Ronald Reagan only to be adopted by him at Reykjavík in 1986.
As for the charge of war crimes, Ferguson has also taken to invoking Kissinger’s argument that “nearly all strategic choices in the Cold War were likely to be between evils. The moral challenge was to try to choose the lesser evil.” Otherwise, as he did in an interview with Miller Center at the University of Virginia earlier this year, Ferguson signalled his intention to downplay Kissinger’s responsibility for the more controversial actions of the Nixon Administration, such as the secret bombing of Cambodia, on the grounds that he had merely inherited “some of the hostility to Nixon that had been there in liberal America all along.” Moreover, Ferguson also plans to argue that Kissinger was somehow not responsible for these decisions as they were only Nixon’s to make:
So one thing I really want to emphasize when I come to write volume two is that we shouldn’t exaggerate Kissinger’s importance. It’s the president that makes the key decisions, and it’s the president who should be held accountable for the bombing of Cambodia. You can complain if you dislike the policy that Kissinger went along with it when he could have resigned, it’s likely that he thought of resigning on more than on occasion but he didn’t. Then one can then make an assessment, but one can’t equate Nixon’s strategy with Kissinger’s because his advice wasn’t always taken [emphasis added].
How Ferguson will manage to overturn the thousands of pages of existing scholarship, much of it based on the extensive trove of recordings, transcripts and memoranda of White House meetings between Kissinger and Nixon, which demonstrates Kissinger’s complicity in these decisions will surely be a wonder to behold. Perhaps it will be his greatest work – of fiction. Equally amazing will be what arguments Ferguson will deploy to justify a ledger of Kissinger’s “major achievements” on the one hand, and of war-crimes for which he is not responsible on the other, when the evidence of Kissinger’s collusion with Nixon on each is the same. Whatever the result, we can be certain that just as Volume 1 has signalled his final descent into the realms of sycophantic hackery, Volume 2 will herald the utter destruction of what remains of Professor Niall Ferguson’s academic credibility, though it will surely endear himself to the foreign policy elite that still revere Kissinger…