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Niall Ferguson's biography of Henry Kissinger is a masterpiece

Former British ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles hails the Kissinger biography as ‘a great work about a great man by a great historian’

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

Kissinger, 1923—1968: The Idealist Niall Ferguson

Allen Lane, pp.878, £35

I have met Dr Kissinger, properly, only three times. First, in Cairo, in 1980, when, as a junior diplomat escorting Edward Heath, I had to secure for an almost desperate former British prime minister a meeting with the former US secretary of state, also in town. Once with Kissinger, Heath promptly subsided into a deep slumber. I had the alarming experience of trying to keep the conversation going. The other occasions were more recent, but almost as scary. My hostess at the ‘secret’ (but much publicised) transatlantic talkfests which Kissinger (92 this year) still attends twice summoned me to sit beside the great man at dinner.

On each occasion I felt like the luckless passenger in the Economist’s vintage television commercial. Settling into seat 2A for a transatlantic flight, he finds Dr Kissinger descending into seat 2B. Not being a subscriber to that magazine, the traveller wonders how on earth he is going to make intelligent conversation with the great man for the next seven hours. But I at least needn’t have worried. In each of my talks with Kissinger, I found him not at all as advertised: unpretentious, charming, full of humour, plenty of small talk, with refreshingly sensible views on subjects as close to my heart as the Arab-Israel dispute and Afghanistan.

And that is the picture of Henry Kissinger, of high but deeply human intelligence, that leaps from the nearly 900 pages of the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s magnificent new biography. If the second volume is as good as the first, Kissinger will be remembered as Ferguson’s masterpiece. On the strength of the first (divided into five ‘books’, taking Kissinger from his childhood in Germany to the eve of starting work as Nixon’s National Security Adviser in January 1969), this will rank alongside Edmund Morris’s treatment of Teddy Roosevelt and David Gilmour’s account of Curzon as one of the great biographies of statesmen.


Like those works, Ferguson’s book is about not just the man but also his times. Like a historiographical equivalent of Montgomery, Ferguson advances deliberately, on a broad front, mopping up pockets of presumed ignorance, securing all the key features of the historical landscape before moving forward.

Thus, we learn not only about Kissinger’s orthodox Jewish childhood in the Bavarian industrial city of Fürth, but also — in passages which owe something to Ferguson’s excellent biography of Siegmund Warburg — much about how the Nazi horror crept up on Germany’s loyal and largely unsuspecting Jewish citizens. In perhaps the most uplifting and fascinating of the five ‘books’, we are told how US Army service turned a religious German Jewish immigrant set for suburban accountancy into a future statesman of deep humanity, with direct experience of combat and a real range of leadership. In passing, we learn much about America’s war machine, about the Battle of the Bulge and about Germany under Allied Occupation. And so it goes on. The chapters on Kissinger’s early academic career are not only about the interesting choices made by an evidently exceptional student (majoring in government rather than history, but then producing a doctoral dissertation on Metternich and the Congress of Vienna), but are also a celebration of Ferguson’s adopted alma mater on the Charles River.

As the charmingly ambitious and quite exceptionally able Kissinger starts to interest himself in nuclear confrontation between Russia and America, the reader is given a full account of why the Cold War was indeed a war, and of how containment worked. Made by, based in, Harvard, he learns to play Washington politics, and on the wider stage that he still adorns. The essence of this volume is the education of Henry Kissinger, through history, philosophy and bitter practical experience of the compromises of applied statesmanship. It ends with Nixon, to great acclaim, appointing as his National Security Adviser the man who had supported his rival Rockefeller in the 1968 presidential campaign.

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger
President Richard Nixon speaks with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger during a trip to Salzburg, Austria in May 1972. (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

On the way, in passages that must foretell both the agonies of Vietnam in the second volume and the unforced errors of America’s more recent expeditionary adventures, Kissinger reports back from Saigon on the folly of making war without any serious sense of wider strategy.

Ferguson starts with a pre-emptive strike against those who might criticise him for writing about, and with some help from, a living subject, and about someone whose career as a practising statesman has darker chapters — Chile, for example — to be covered in the second volume. There is a sense of an argument with the ghost of Christopher Hitchens. But Ferguson has no real need to be so defensive about writing about the Nobel laureate to whom the world owes the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Helsinki human rights agreements, the US-China rapprochement, and the basis for the Camp David accords.

With his usual meticulous research, Ferguson is master of all his work surveys. At least as important, he writes in an unobtrusive but compelling style that carries the reader along with unforced ease. Even on its own, the first volume of Ferguson’s life of Kissinger is a great work about a great man by — it has to be admitted — a great historian. It should be read, and enjoyed, by every serious student of the history of our times.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £27 Tel: 08430 600033. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles is a former British ambassador to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.


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