At The Financial Times: Lord Patten reviews Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist, by Niall Ferguson, a comment by Political Reporter

If you had any doubt as to the direction of Lord Patten’s review of Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist, by Niall Ferguson might take, this sentence assuages any doubt the reader might have entertained:

What these passages admittedly do is to remind us that Kissinger’s life is not a value-free zone; he was clearly shaped more by Spinoza and Kant than by Machiavelli.

Mr. Ferguson’s use of the word Idealist in his title gave an intellectual opportunity to Lord Patten to follow his lead.Compare Lord Patton’s review, carefully laundered and pressed, with Michael O’Donnell’s review at The Washington Monthly.

On the question of Idealist vs Realist here is a telling part of  Mr. O’Donnell’s argument:

The subtitle of this volume gives some indication of what Ferguson is missing in his psychoanalysis of Kissinger’s critics: The Idealist. The author’s revisionist thesis is that Kissinger was not in fact a realist, as he is so frequently portrayed. Hence Ferguson provides lofty epigrams from his subject to begin his chapters, such as this one: “It is true that ours is an attempt to exhibit Western values, but less by what we say than by what we do.” He shows us Kissinger moralizing against the use of “small countries as pawns” in the game of global strategy. Ferguson even quotes Kissinger privately scolding the Kennedy administration (those “unscrupulous pragmatists”) for tacitly authorizing the assassination of South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem: “The honor and the moral standing of the United States require that a relationship exists between ends and means.… Our historical role has been to identify ourselves with the ideals and deepest hopes of mankind.”

Horseshit. By reproducing these quotations with a straight face, Ferguson has made himself a hypocrite’s bullhorn. The ideals and deepest hopes of mankind? Kissinger and Nixon bombed Cambodia to pieces in a secret four-year campaign that annihilated some 100,000 civilians. “Anything that flies, on anything that moves,” were the parameters Kissinger gave to Alexander Haig. He countered African liberation movements by embracing the white supremacists of Rhodesia and South Africa, a policy known as the “Tar Baby option.” Kissinger facilitated the overthrow of the governments of Chile and Argentina by right-wing generals, and then worked tirelessly to deflect criticism of the new governments’ torture and murder. A declassified memorandum of his meeting with Augusto Pinochet in 1976 shows Kissinger in a particularly unflattering light: “We welcomed the overthrow of the Communist-inclined government here. We are not out to weaken your position.” In 1975 Kissinger and President Ford met with Indonesian strongman Suharto and authorized him to invade East Timor, which he promptly did the following day; another 100,000 lost their lives. “It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly,” Kissinger advised.

On the question of the personal vanity of Kissinger, his social and political climbing and his relationship with Nixon, Lord Patten cannot emancipate himself from his awe of The Great Man.Mr. O’Donnell is refreshingly candid, as demonstrated by the last quotation.

The book also largely sidesteps the topic of Kissinger’s famous vanity, thin skin, and penchant for insincere flattery. (This is a man whose memoirs are longer than the combined memoirs of Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan.) Yet when Ferguson addresses Kissinger’s interpersonal traits, it is usually to defend his subject. For instance, Kissinger left academia to advise Nelson Rockefeller on foreign policy throughout the 1960s as the moderate Republican repeatedly sought his party’s presidential nomination. Both of Rockefeller’s biographers, Richard Norton Smith and Cary Reich, portray Kissinger as obsequious to his boss’s face (Smith: “deferential to the point of sycophancy”; Reich: “downright fawning”) yet derisive about him when Rockefeller was not around. We know from many witnesses that a similar pattern prevailed between Kissinger and Nixon the following decade. Yet Ferguson is not convinced: “This does not ring true. Theirs was a turbulent friendship.” Reich cites two separate eyewitness accounts, but Ferguson dismisses them without explaining why they should be disbelieved.

Ferguson concludes this volume with a revisionist telling of Kissinger’s infamous maneuverings during the 1968 presidential election. Hersh was the first to write—and Isaacson and others have verified—that after Rockefeller dropped out of the race, Kissinger provided the Nixon campaign with inside information about the progress of the Vietnam peace talks then under way in Paris. Kissinger had contacts on the staff of the U.S. delegation, and he pumped them for details. He learned that a deal was coming together: Lyndon Johnson would halt the bombing of North Vietnam, and in return North Vietnam would finally come to the table. Kissinger provided information and analysis to Nixon’s aide Richard Allen in breathless telephone calls, which he insisted be kept secret. Nixon’s campaign subsequently passed word to the South Vietnamese government that it could obtain better peace terms under a Nixon administration. South Vietnam pulled out of the talks just days before the U.S. election, the Democratic Party was humiliated, Nixon won the presidency—and then he immediately appointed Kissinger, a man he had met only once, his national security advisor.

After reading Lord Patten, avail yourself of Mr. Michael O’Donnell’s essay titled ‘Restoring Henry’. A brilliant exercise in polemical history, with a winning stylistic verve and ethical pungency .

Political Reporter

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.'
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