Book Review: Henry Kissinger by Walter Isaacson

A young Walter Isaacson in 1992 published a wonderful biography of Henry Kissinger, which I read this week. It’s a sweeping history of Kissinger’s life and his consequential years in public service. Despite its level of detail, Isaacson writes lucidly with the skills of a journalist, so there’s good forward momentum over the course of the 800+ pages even for a hobbyist like me. You walk away with a deep view into both the man and the era he shaped. Highly recommended. (The Richard Holbrooke biography is another compelling look at a statesman who shaped our current foreign policy.)

I came to this biography after spending time in Cambodia and Vietnam, where Kissinger’s legacy looms large. His decisions with regards to both countries play a central role in the biography. My other personal interest here is Chile, where I lived more than a decade ago — another country where Kissinger exercised arguably problematic moral judgment.

The biography is balanced, according to people more expert than me who reviewed the book when it came out 20 years ago. And, all in all, it’s devastating to Kissinger. It’s obvious why Kissinger refused to speak with Isaacson for several years after the biography came out.

The theme that would recur throughout Kissinger’s career: the tension that often exists, at least in his view, between morality and realism. This is Isaacson’s bottom line:

But Kissinger’s power-oriented realism and focus on national interests faltered because it was too dismissive of the role of morality. The secret bombing and then invasion of Cambodia, the Christmas bombing of Hanoi, the destabilization of Chile—these and other brutal actions betrayed a callous attitude toward what Americans like to believe is the historic foundation of their foreign policy: a respect for human rights, international law, democracy, and other idealistic values. The setbacks Kissinger encountered as a statesman, and the antagonism he engendered as a person, stemmed from the perceived amorality of his geopolitical calculations.
…Kissinger’s legacy turned out to be one of brilliance more than solidity, of masterful structures built of bricks that were made without straw.

On the man himself and his mind and personality, a few excerpts from Isaacson:

“Kissinger came across as a chameleon—emphasizing different shadings to different listeners and attempting to ingratiate himself to one person by disparaging another. It was more than a negotiating tactic; it was a character flaw. His style with the Arabs and Israelis was not all that different from his style within the White House or at Washington dinner parties. In order to create a sense of intimacy, to hornswoggle as well as to charm, he shared denigrating confidences about other people. Intellectually he realized that people compared notes. But instinctively he never understood that swapping tales about encounters with Kissinger—and perhaps exaggerating the loose comments he made—was a prime amusement from Araby to Georgetown. In fact, rather than being a master manipulator, Kissinger seemed quite a maladroit one. If he had been better at it, fewer people would have accused him of it.”

“He had a fantastically strong ego,” said Professor Wylie. “Exceptionally pompous,” according to Schelling. “More arrogant and vain than any man I’ve ever met,” was Hoffmann’s first impression. Yet each developed complex, mixed feelings about him. He was, after all, a respected friend with a mind of undisputed brilliance. His personality, however annoying, was at least always worthy of fascination.

Rockefeller knew how to make people feel important, how to create an aura of fellowship, how to listen, and how to be frank and straightforward about his wishes in a way that put people at ease. Kissinger mastered none of these attributes, but respected them all.

Gelb would thenceforth consider Kissinger to be “the typical product of an authoritarian background—devious with his peers, domineering with his subordinates, obsequious to his superiors.”
With an acidic tone, Nixon spoke of Kissinger’s fascination with the celebrity set and his emotional instability when hit by good and then bad news.

I thought Kissinger’s own answer to the question “Are you shy?” was interesting, in his own words:

“Fairly so. But as compensation I think I’m pretty well balanced. You see, there are those who depict me as a mysterious, tormented character, and those who depict me as an almost cheerful fellow who’s always smiling, always laughing. Both those images are incorrect. I’m neither one nor the other. I’m . . . I won’t tell you what I am. I’ll never tell anyone.”

His relationship with critics was interesting: “He was drawn to his detractors like a moth to a flame. He craved their approval and felt compelled to convert or charm them.”

Overall, the theme is an unbelievable level of paranoia and secrecy coupled with high IQ brilliance and a historic grasp of grand strategy and negotiation.

On his legacy….

The secret bombings of Cambodia, kept from congress and the American people, were clearly bad, and it’s stunning that Kissinger hasn’t profoundly apologized for his role in this:

  • “In the history of civilization, few countries have ever endured a greater hell than the holocaust that engulfed Cambodia in the 1970s. The blame falls foremost on the genocidal Khmer Rouge communists, who took power in 1975. But the creation of the killing fields had many causes, and there was more than enough blood to stain many hands. The American share of the blame, and Kissinger’s, arises not from insidious intent, but from a moral callousness that placed America’s perceived needs in Vietnam above what would be best for a vulnerable neighboring nation.”
  • “Even in this most genocidal of all centuries, the Khmer Rouge stand on a par with the Nazis as being the most murderous of all. When they took over Cambodia in 1975, its population (after five hundred thousand or so deaths in the war that began at the time of the 1970 invasions) stood at about 8 million. By the time they were ousted in 1979, more than 3 million had died, many of them brutally, in a land turned into killing fields.” (Angelina Jolie’s film is a good one on this topic.)

The Christmas bombing in Vietnam – another moral atrocity: “The December 1972 decision to bomb targets in the urban areas of North Vietnam was an action that should and does haunt the United States, and Kissinger, to this day.”

The Middle East is a different story. Kissinger’s success at cultivating the Egyptians and the Israelis, among others, was remarkable, and Isaacson tells those stories in great detail, too.

Some other descriptions of other characters I enjoyed:

  • “He is the compleat cosmopolitan, urbane without swagger, self-centered without smugness.”
  • “He was equally at home in philosophic sweeps, historical analysis, tactical probing, light repartee”
  • “Discreet yet forthright, unflappable and able to keep human foibles in perspective, with a balanced and wise mind rather than a brilliant conceptual one, the air force general was decidedly different from his boss, which made both of them comfortable.”

Other random highlights from Kindle:

Kissinger’s ego, combined with the seriousness with which he took himself, enhanced his reputation for arrogance. He always seemed busy with something gravely important, impatient with such trivialities as making small talk in the halls or advising his students.

When challenges arose, Kissinger became intellectually engaged, almost obsessively so; Nixon became detached, almost eerily so. Kissinger’s mind mastered details; Nixon remained aloof from even some of the major components of issues he faced. Kissinger’s analytic lucidity took him straight to the core of any problem; Nixon’s more intuitive approach led him to roll a problem around for hours on end as he brooded on various conflicting options.

During his five and a half years in office, Nixon’s admiration for Kissinger would gradually become more infected by jealousy and suspicions of disloyalty. With no personal affection to serve as a foundation for their relationship, what had been a love-hate alliance eventually tilted toward the latter. As the president’s dependency on Kissinger grew, his resentment and bitterness increased.

William Safire was summoned back to write the speech. He was in New Orleans watching Dallas beat Miami in the 1972 Super Bowl when suddenly, as if he were an obstetrician, the public address system paged him to call his office. “This has to be absolutely top secret, but get back here fast,” said Lawrence Higby when Safire called. If it was so secret, Safire asked in response, why had he been paged before eighty thousand fans? Worse than that, Higby conceded, the page had been picked up on television, so 60 million others had heard it. Safire later noted: “We agreed that nobody would suspect I was being called back for a secret assignment because not even the Presidential staff of a banana republic would bumble like that.”

The line between diplomacy and duplicity, like that between charm and hypocrisy, is a fine one.

3 comments on “Book Review: Henry Kissinger by Walter Isaacson
  • Have not read all of Isaacson’s biographies, but what has struck me about them is that he seems to focus more on illustrating key themes in his subject’s life rather than chronically chugging through biographical details from birth to death. It is a refreshing approach – to me anyway – as a first pass for understanding an individual.

    I do think Kissinger is extraordinarily brilliant.
    One of the best books on history I have ever read was “A World Restored” by young Kissinger on the 1815 peace forged in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. Not a long book. Was his Ph.D. thesis. He is able to analyze diplomatic correspondence and work backwards to the underlying motivations like nothing I had read previously.

  • Great review, Ben, and timely. I listed to Isaacson on a podcast yesterday about his new biography of Elon and this biography came up several times. Thx for connecting those dots!

  • No one seems to remember this biography. It’s different. Judgmental driven by well sourced information. When Walter is interviewed, as he has been now interviewed for his more recent biography on musk, this first biography of the author is a worthy reference.

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