When the nefarious Cardinal Richelieu died in 1642, Pope Urban VIII is said to have declared: “If there is a God, the Cardinal de Richelieu will have much to answer for. If not … well, he had a successful life.” Henry Kissinger likes that anecdote. He cites it in his writings. This is, perhaps, projection. Has Kissinger, sly and witty, revived the tale as a wink toward his elegists? He has surely enjoyed success — secretary of state, winner of the National Book Award and the Nobel Peace Prize — yet always in chorus with charges of sin. Barry Gewen tackles the contradictions, and offers absolution, in this book, a timely and acute defence of the great realist’s actions, values and beliefs. “We dismiss or ignore him at our peril,” writes Gewen, a long-time editor at The New York Times Book Review. “His arguments for his brand of realism — thinking in terms of national interest and a balance of power — offer the possibility of rationality, coherence and a long-term perspective at a time when all three of these qualities seem to be in short supply.” Kissinger has little use for pieties. Canonical neoconservatives, Wilsonian dreamers, crusaders for human rights and other adherents of American exceptionalism ended his active career in government in 1977. Indeed, a striking aspect of Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik is the range of his array of enemies: Dreamy leftists accused him of war crimes as right-wing anti-Communists maligned him as a squish. Gewen’s book is not a womb-to-tomb biography. We learn little about Kissinger’s marriages, children or business clients, or the cultural phenomenon he became in the mid-1970s. The reader will find Max Weber, Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche in these pages, but nary a reference to Jill St John.
What Gewen focuses on, and excels at, is the story of how the rise of gangster dictators left an irradicable impression on the Jewish intellectuals who escaped Nazi Germany before World War II. These men and women — Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Hans Morgenthau and Kissinger — bent their brilliant minds toward the questions raised by the century’s savagery. It was America’s naïve who bred Kissinger’s affection for his adopted country. Yet Kissinger “was separated from most other Americans by his sense of tragedy,” Gewen writes. In Germany, “he had seen how the processes of democracy could go disastrously wrong.” Fair enough. Who will enter an argument about appeasement with Kissinger, whose uncles, aunts and cousins died in the death camps, who fled Germany with his parents and brother as a teenager and returned in soldier’s gear to fight for its liberation in 1944? Not Gewen, who most capably illustrates how the lessons of Munich steered two generations of American statesmen during the Cold War, and into killing grounds like Southeast Asia: none more so than Kissinger and his boss, Richard Nixon. As Gewen sees it — accurately, for the most part — Richard Nixon dictated the strategy, and Kissinger supervised its execution.
The rift between the Soviet Union and China may have been, as Kissinger has said, inevitable. But Nixon’s insight to seize the moment and exploit the split was not.