By the time Henry Kissinger was made secretary of state in 1973, he had become, according to a Gallup poll, the most admired person in America and one of the most unlikely celebrities ever to capture the world's imagination. Yet Kissinger was also reviled by large segments of the American public, ranging from liberal intellectuals to conservative activists. Kissinger explores the relationship between this complex man's personality and the foreign policy he pursued. Drawing on extensive interviews with Kissinger as well as 150 other sources, including US presidents and his business clients, this first full-length biography makes use of many of Kissinger's private papers and classified memos to tell his uniquely American story. The result is an intimate narrative, filled with surprising revelations, that follows this grandly colorful statesman from his childhood as a persecuted Jew in Nazi Germany, through his tortured relationship with Richard Nixon, to his later years as a globe-trotting business consultant.
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I always thought that Dr Kissinger's life would be interesting. A refugee from Nazi Germany who grew up to become a National Security Advisor, Secretary of State and a successful businessman. I had read Mr Isaacson's book on Einstein and found it to be interesting, informative and fair minded and naturally thought his book on Kissinger would also be worth reading. Unfortunately this turned out to not the case.
This book covers all of Dr Kissinger's life but mostly dwells on his time as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. While the portions of the book covering the rest of his life treat him fairly, the time covering his time as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State is of a different sort. Little that Kissinger did during these years is presented in an even-handed fashion and the author's descriptions of him fairly bristles with scorn and distain. Even actions that would normally be considered open minded, inclusive or far seeing are presented as somehow representative of personal faults. Some examples -
As a graduate student at Harvard then Mr Kissinger became heavily involved in a symposium involving present and future leaders of foreign countries. A graduate student involving himself in such a symposium might be considered far seeing, thoughtful and interested in the world at large but, in Mr Isaacson's view, this indicates that Kissinger had already decided that he was going to be in government and all of this effort was to secure his future. Even if this was true it is hard to see how it is a failing.
During the Viet Nam war Mr Isaacson says that Dr Kissinger reached out to anti-war protesters, met with them and tried to convince them that the Nixon Administration was trying its best to end the war. Such an action would normally be seen as an indication that the government was being inclusive and willing to listen to it's critics but Mr Isaacson sees this as an manifestation of Dr Kissinger's insecurity.
While Dr Kissinger was National Security Advisor and Secretary of State he was involved in turf battles with other officials. Normally this would be seen as normal in a political environment. Mr Isaacson sees this as an indication of Dr Kissinger's insecurity. During this time Dr Kissinger was also involved in political arguments with While House cabinet officials. One would think that this would be seen as normal but Mr Isaacson finds such actions examples of Dr Kissinger's aggressiveness and insecurity. During international negotiations Dr Kissinger would present only part of the whole to each party in an effort to reassure them and convince them that he was on their side. One would think that this would be considered regular negotiating tactics but Mr Isaacson sees this as an example of how secretive and devious Dr Kissinger was. Dr Kissinger was known to flatter President Nixon. One would think that this was the normal way subordinates acted when talking to the President but Mr Isaacson sees this as an example of how fawning Dr Kissinger was to his boss. It almost appears that Dr Kissinger's political enemies were interviewed and quoted extensively, his political friends far less so. And the list goes on. Practically nothing that Dr Kissinger did while in government is presented without Mr Isaacson saying that how it was done was somehow indicative of Dr Kissinger's dark side.
The only events that Mr Isaacson seems to think were worthy actions on the part of Dr Kissinger were the opening to China and the Salt negotiations. In this section of the book Mr Isaacson has (almost) only good things to say about Dr Kissinger but, based on this book, one could easily believe that everything else Dr Kissinger did involved misleading, lying, distorting or conniving and was probably done to further his own best interests. Dr Kissinger is said to be brilliant but difficult to deal with, as though this was somehow an unusual combination. Nixon is quoted as telling soon-to-be-President Ford that Kissinger was brilliant but had to be watched since he sometimes was difficult to handle and sometimes had bad ideas. This is supposed to be unusual? It is important for me to stress that these comments that Mr Isaacson makes about Dr Kissinger are not an occasional reference, but for a drumbeat throughout most of the book.
Toward the end of the book Mr Isaacson writes about how well Dr Kissinger was thought of, even years after he left government. There are portraits of how well he was received when traveling for business in places like China, Indonesia, Japan and the Middle East as late as the 1980s and 1990s. Such actions on the parts of the governments involved, when Dr Kissinger was only a private citizen, seem odd if one is to believe Mr Isaacson's view that Dr Kissinger deceived the government leaders of those countries, lied to them or told them half-truths.
While the view of Dr Kissinger presented in this book seems to me to be unfairly influenced by, I assume, Mr Isaacson's political views, the book does provide a very good history of the events of the Nixon and Ford Administrations involving both the well-known and less well-known events and, as a history of the period, I found it very complete. I found it far less so as an even handed and fair presentation of Dr Kissinger's actions.
The narration is very well done but I was surprised that quotes from Dr Kissinger were given in an imitation of his voice, including his heavy German accent. However it soon became clear that the narration of all of the famous people being quoted was done in a credible imitation of their own voices. It was so well done that it became easy to identify who was being quoted by just listening to they voices.
If you believe that Dr Kissinger was Dr Strangelove from the Stanley Kubrick move "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb", this is your book. If you are interested in an even-handed and fair look into Dr Kissinger's life you might want to look elsewhere.