(This name has come up during the bruising politics of the current Presidential election. I decided to go learn something about this bête noire of the left, hence reading this book and my review of it. Review is also posted at Goodreads. If you want to buy a copy, I recommend powells.com or your local bookstore.)
Grandin, Greg. 2015. Kissinger's Shadow: the Long Reach of America's Most Controversial Statesman. Henry Holt, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2015. 279 pp.
A short easily readable political biography of the remarkable Henry Kissinger by respected New York University history professor Greg Grandin. The book covers Kissinger’s theoretical writings as a brilliant college student, his success as statesman, and his evolution into a respected elder statesman.
As only an amateur political scientist, it is hard for me, personally, to assess the book’s accuracy. At least, it is not obviously falsified and there are extensive citations. Some 10% of the book’s pages contain endnotes, and there are many long discursive footnotes as well. But multiple stories can be told from any set of facts and I can only wonder what other stories might be told from these. Still, it is hard for me to see how the record of military interventions and deaths that grew from Kissinger’s policies could lead to a story which gives a positive account of Kissinger. It is also difficult for me to see how one can honestly deny the long-term failure of these policies. Kissinger himself would probably say that these realities which US policy created can themselves be changed, but that does not in fact appear to be the case; the US ability to control the long-term results of its policies becomes less and less as allies and enemies become exhausted and resentful of abuse, and as new media technology makes quickly visible the results of policy. It was possible, back in the days of Nixon, for a compliant media to bury the endless deaths that US foreign policy produced and this is no longer so. Kissinger, as a student in the 1950s, hated the idea that policy could be grounded in measured sociological reality, what today we would call “big data,” but big data, aided by the internet, seems to have won the day.
Kissinger is the original “policy creates reality” man, a German Jewish refugee who came to the USA with his family at 15, yet it is striking to me how horrible the realities he created were. Was there never, in his philosophy, the idea that he might create peace and justice rather than simply making his adopted nation strong and terrible? Perhaps there was. Faced with a sufficiently powerful enemy, he did negotiate, creating pacts with the USSR and China. While these probably would have eventually been negotiated had Kissinger not been involved, it remains true that he did negotiate these deals, earning him the ultimate hostility of the far right, and his own marginalization. The peak of Kissinger's power came with the Nixon administration. By the time Reagan came to power, he was shut out.
Grandin argues, I think correctly, that the monster Kissinger created, which Grandin names “Kissingerism,” has outlived Kissinger’s direct participation. Kissinger was consulted by both Bush administrations. His ideas of power and intervention, and their uses in persuading a democratic polity to war, live on.