American outsider

Published : Jun 05, 2009 00:00 IST

HE convictions that leaders have formed before reaching high office are the intellectual capacity they will consume as long as they continue in office, Henry A. Kissinger correctly perceived shortly after he left public office in 1977 as United States Secretary of State, never to return to it. But that judgment is no less true of the leaders roots, the family, the city, the upbringing, the school and the college and the early friendships.

The author not only interviewed Kissinger extensively for this book but caught him by surprise in the company of his brother, Walter, in his hometown of Furth in Germany. He had learnt that Kissinger would visit the old family apartment in the old Jewish ghetto. This is the first book to interpret Kissingers remarkable career as a whole. It examines how his experiences as a German Jew, an immigrant, an army officer, a student at Harvard, affected his world view and his policies. It is also the first book to treat Kissinger as a cultural figure.

The author notes the four main historical developments that made Kissingers career possible:

1. The immigration of German-Jewish refugees to the United States and their entry into mainstream American institutions;

2. The expansion of Americas role in international politics and the search for transatlantic experts in American universities and government institutions Hans Morgenthau was another German immigrant who enriched American academia;

3. The growth of new international networks of influence, led by cosmopolitan figures such as Kissinger; and 4. The increasing collaboration between intellectuals and policymakers in the U.S.

As a German Jew, Kissinger witnessed popular hatred and violence and developed an instinctive distrust of democracy. That led him, at times, to favour authoritarians over democrats. As a Jew, Kissinger always felt like an outsider in American society.

The author said in an interview: I was struck by how often Kissingers Jewish background was an explicit topic of discussion. His acquaintances in the United States and overseas mentioned the issue all the time. President Richard Nixon frequently demeaned Kissinger to his face for being a Jew. To my great surprise, Kissinger frequently raised the issue of his Jewish background in White House conversations, often to anticipate and pre-empt suspicions. He spent his entire life surrounded by people who were either anti-Semitic or at least mildly prejudiced against Jews.

I raised all of these points with Kissinger on many occasions. He is visibly uncomfortable discussing his Jewish identity, though he is firm in his statement that his Jewish background remains important to him.

No one probed into this facet of Kissingers personality ever before. The book performs the task very well. It does not deal with the man in isolation but in the context of his times. It is as much about those times as about him.

It is a narrative of global change, a study of how social and political transformation across multiple societies created our contemporary world. Kissinger was directly connected to many of these transformations from his early days as a schoolboy through his years as a White House official. His life offers a window into the complex international vectors of the period. It is a natural focus for understanding the intersection of different, seemingly contradictory, developments. Kissingers career is about the rise of fascism, the Holocaust, the democratic responses. It is also about ethnic identity, education and social networking. His thinking exemplifies the role of ideas, memories and prejudices in daily life. The main argument of this book is that we must understand the experiences of Henry Kissinger and American power as processes of globalisation the interpenetration of ideas, personalities, and institutions from diverse societies. The European Old World perspectives gained a greater hold on American society also through young men like Henry Kissinger. Influence was unequal, but it was multidirectional and multidimensional.

Kissingers intellectual contributions were eclipsed by his meteoric rise, which is a pity. He aroused distrust by his overweening ambition and his brazenly amoral approach. Morgenthau, the super realist, never neglected the moral aspect. He wrote: To choose the least evil among several expedient actions is moral judgment.

His knowledge and insights were deeper than those of Kissinger. But his approach and abrasive manner rendered him unfit to occupy a seat at the table of advisers. Kissinger, in contrast, knew his way about and was pre-eminently practical. He could be all things to all men.

Morgenthau was a great dissenter on the Vietnam War. Kissinger wrote to him on November 13, 1968, shortly after he (Kissinger) accepted Nixons invitation to be his National Security Adviser. In 1965 when I first visited Vietnam, I became convinced that what we were doing was hopeless. I then decided to work within the government to attempt to get the war ended. Whether this was the right decision we will never know.

The outstandingly able work sheds light on many an important turning in the history of the Cold War. As for Kissinger, his writings will be read long after his lapses are forgotten.

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