Early on in Greg Grandin’s recently released historical and biographical appraisal, Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, the reader meets the young intellectual as a Harvard student and later faculty member. That Henry Kissinger had left the notion of God behind in the charnel houses of the Nazi death camps, but he was deeply influenced by philosophers of history such as Arnold Toynbee and especially Oswald Spengler, and he grappled with the existential implications of morality in the philosophical milieus of Kant and Goethe. This provides a fascinating juxtaposition to the later Kissinger, one of the most consequential men of our era, who seems to operate most successfully and entirely guiltlessly in a decidedly amoral vacuum that advances the geopolitical goals of the great men in politics that he orbits and guides.
The initial orbit was centered upon liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller. This Kissinger was an admirer of Kennedy who was all but repulsed by Richard Nixon, yet handily and opportunistically shifted that orientation as Nixon’s star rose. Grandin reminds us that the glue cementing the Kissinger-Nixon bond was the once secret and ever unsettling fact that it was Kissinger who tipped off Nixon to confidential intelligence gleaned from an insider at the Paris Peace Talks in the waning days of the Johnson Administration that Nixon manipulated to make certain the peace talks failed, intimating to the South Vietnamese that they would fare far better in a treaty negotiated should he become President. This often overlooked historical “factlet” is not only significant but both tragic and ironic, as the terms of the Paris Peace Accords signed off on by Nixon-Kissinger some five years later were nearly identical to the those in the original negotiations that they effectively derailed. In the meantime, of course, tens of thousands of American soldiers were killed along with uncounted hundreds of thousands of civilians as the war was expanded – first in secret and then publicly – into Cambodia and beyond.
Hundreds of thousands of lives. Lives that should haunt all of us when the yet unrepentant elder statesman Kissinger appears as an honored guest on television talk shows or reemerges huddling with top policymakers. All of those lives, euphemistically dismissed as “collateral damage,” for no strategic advantage. Arguably, our destabilization of Southeast Asia while the Nixon-Kissinger team sought an exit strategy they optimistically called “Peace with Honor” actually instead acted against our strategic interests. It is difficult or even impossible to talk about this in the United States today. Americans cannot easily even come to terms with our much more ancient crimes; we often refuse to acknowledge that our republic of freedom was constructed upon the twin poles of human chattel slavery and the willful extermination of Amerindians. Looking back only several decades to crimes of this scale is not only simply resisted but ignored. When Vietnam comes up in conversation, especially on the right, it most often redirects to a demonization of the wayward Jane Fonda, who is assigned an outsize influence that is not only distorted but silly. Kissinger, then and now, frequently gets a pass.
At the end of the day, perhaps, what is even more shocking than the sheer numbers of civilians capriciously sacrificed is that the policies that effected that horror were primarily crafted and executed by a White House that arbitrarily usurped the authority of the Congress, of the cabinet, of the people – and got away with it. The suggestion by apologists that Watergate was a “second-rate burglary” that should not have unseated the President is unsupportable; yet history has established that Nixon committed many crimes that make Watergate pale in comparison.
Kissinger survived both Vietnam and Watergate virtually unscathed and went on to maintain a strong power base in the brief Ford Administration, only to fall victim to relentless attacks by the emerging new right led by Ronald Reagan who blamed Kissinger not only for the loss of Vietnam but also for what they viewed as an ill-considered détente with the Soviets and the approach to “Red China.” But this proved hardly fatal. If historians and pundits have famously tagged Kissinger as Machiavellian, amoral and chameleon-like, Grandin’s portrait both confirms and underscores this and more. Out of power during the Carter years and in the first part of the Reagan era, Kissinger effortlessly tacked right and left to suit prevailing winds, clinging to whatever influence he still maintained until he could emerge as a born-again neocon, shamelessly in opposition to the very policies he had once shaped. Grandin follows Kissinger in his decades of influence and finds his fingerprints smeared in the blood of his realpolitik in Bangladesh, in East Timor, in Angola, in Latin America, in the Middle East with Iran and Iraq, and wherever a hot spot might emerge. Unsurprisingly, today the ninety-two year old Kissinger is allied with the contemporary intransigence of right-wing forces in the ill-conceived “War on Terror” that dominates American foreign policy these days.
Unfortunately, this book is far more of an extended polemic than a work of history or biography. Grandin’s Kissinger is an epic arch-criminal with essentially no redeeming qualities, which stretches the credibility of the work even if the factual basis for this appraisal is often difficult to challenge. I feel as if the chief weak point of this portrayal of Kissinger is that it gives him far too much credit as a mover and a shaker. While Kissinger hardly played a mere Igor to Nixon’s Dr. Frankenstein, based upon my research I tend to agree with the assessment of biographer Richard Reeves that Nixon was the chief architect of Nixon’s foreign policy. Kissinger may have indeed been a consequential member of the team, but he was neither its leader nor even a peer. Except for his brief tenure in the Ford Administration – when he may indeed have led rather than followed the often weak and less-than-imaginative Gerald Ford – Kissinger whatever his level of influence never held anything close to the reins of power again, so it is probably unfair to tar him with every bloody disaster of American foreign policy since the Bicentennial, even if, as Grandin chronicles, he undoubtedly egged these on. Another weakness of the book is an over-reliance on footnotes within the narrative to expand upon the account rather than to simply cite sources. Not since the late David Foster Wallace have I seen diminutive text excursions like these that are sometimes longer than the page containing the referenced material.
I read Kissinger’s Shadow as part of an early reviewer’s program; this review is based upon an Advance Reader’s Edition. For the scholar who seeks to learn as much as possible about Kissinger, this work should probably not be overlooked. For others, I would suggest that Grandin essentially offers nothing new and that there are better options out there for a more nuanced view of Kissinger and his place in American history.