Niall Ferguson's biography of Henry Kissinger is a masterpiece

Former British ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles hails the Kissinger biography as ‘a great work about a great man by a great historian’

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

Kissinger, 1923—1968: The Idealist Niall Ferguson

Allen Lane, pp.878, £35, ISBN: 9780713998702

I have met Dr Kissinger, properly, only three times. First, in Cairo, in 1980, when, as a junior diplomat escorting Edward Heath, I had to secure for an almost desperate former British prime minister a meeting with the former US secretary of state, also in town. Once with Kissinger, Heath promptly subsided into a deep slumber. I had the alarming experience of trying to keep the conversation going. The other occasions were more recent, but almost as scary. My hostess at the ‘secret’ (but much publicised) transatlantic talkfests which Kissinger (92 this year) still attends twice summoned me to sit beside the great man at dinner.

On each occasion I felt like the luckless passenger in the Economist’s vintage television commercial. Settling into seat 2A for a transatlantic flight, he finds Dr Kissinger descending into seat 2B. Not being a subscriber to that magazine, the traveller wonders how on earth he is going to make intelligent conversation with the great man for the next seven hours. But I at least needn’t have worried. In each of my talks with Kissinger, I found him not at all as advertised: unpretentious, charming, full of humour, plenty of small talk, with refreshingly sensible views on subjects as close to my heart as the Arab-Israel dispute and Afghanistan.

And that is the picture of Henry Kissinger, of high but deeply human intelligence, that leaps from the nearly 900 pages of the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s magnificent new biography. If the second volume is as good as the first, Kissinger will be remembered as Ferguson’s masterpiece. On the strength of the first (divided into five ‘books’, taking Kissinger from his childhood in Germany to the eve of starting work as Nixon’s National Security Adviser in January 1969), this will rank alongside Edmund Morris’s treatment of Teddy Roosevelt and David Gilmour’s account of Curzon as one of the great biographies of statesmen.

Like those works, Ferguson’s book is about not just the man but also his times. Like a historiographical equivalent of Montgomery, Ferguson advances deliberately, on a broad front, mopping up pockets of presumed ignorance, securing all the key features of the historical landscape before moving forward.

Thus, we learn not only about Kissinger’s orthodox Jewish childhood in the Bavarian industrial city of Fürth, but also — in passages which owe something to Ferguson’s excellent biography of Siegmund Warburg — much about how the Nazi horror crept up on Germany’s loyal and largely unsuspecting Jewish citizens. In perhaps the most uplifting and fascinating of the five ‘books’, we are told how US Army service turned a religious German Jewish immigrant set for suburban accountancy into a future statesman of deep humanity, with direct experience of combat and a real range of leadership. In passing, we learn much about America’s war machine, about the Battle of the Bulge and about Germany under Allied Occupation. And so it goes on. The chapters on Kissinger’s early academic career are not only about the interesting choices made by an evidently exceptional student (majoring in government rather than history, but then producing a doctoral dissertation on Metternich and the Congress of Vienna), but are also a celebration of Ferguson’s adopted alma mater on the Charles River.

As the charmingly ambitious and quite exceptionally able Kissinger starts to interest himself in nuclear confrontation between Russia and America, the reader is given a full account of why the Cold War was indeed a war, and of how containment worked. Made by, based in, Harvard, he learns to play Washington politics, and on the wider stage that he still adorns. The essence of this volume is the education of Henry Kissinger, through history, philosophy and bitter practical experience of the compromises of applied statesmanship. It ends with Nixon, to great acclaim, appointing as his National Security Adviser the man who had supported his rival Rockefeller in the 1968 presidential campaign.

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger
President Richard Nixon speaks with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger during a trip to Salzburg, Austria in May 1972. (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

On the way, in passages that must foretell both the agonies of Vietnam in the second volume and the unforced errors of America’s more recent expeditionary adventures, Kissinger reports back from Saigon on the folly of making war without any serious sense of wider strategy.

Ferguson starts with a pre-emptive strike against those who might criticise him for writing about, and with some help from, a living subject, and about someone whose career as a practising statesman has darker chapters — Chile, for example — to be covered in the second volume. There is a sense of an argument with the ghost of Christopher Hitchens. But Ferguson has no real need to be so defensive about writing about the Nobel laureate to whom the world owes the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Helsinki human rights agreements, the US-China rapprochement, and the basis for the Camp David accords.

With his usual meticulous research, Ferguson is master of all his work surveys. At least as important, he writes in an unobtrusive but compelling style that carries the reader along with unforced ease. Even on its own, the first volume of Ferguson’s life of Kissinger is a great work about a great man by — it has to be admitted — a great historian. It should be read, and enjoyed, by every serious student of the history of our times.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £27 Tel: 08430 600033. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles is a former British ambassador to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

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Show comments
  • commenteer

    Goodness, Sherard, this was supposed to be a book review, not an exercise in fundament-licking.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    War criminal.

  • Ari Asulin

    so… this guy is going to be arrested in his lifetime for his warcrimes.
    Will you then delete your abomination of an article The Spectator? or whoever the unnamed author of this trite is.
    There’s a reason hack authors hide their names these days. Look for it.

    • The sub-heading and the byline clearly state that this is a book review by Former British ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles.

      • Johnny Foreigner

        At school he was known as Cowpat-Coles.

        • trace9

          Now it can be Cowpat-Balls.

  • Karan Sharma

    hmmm…in western discourse such notorious ghost termed as statesmen…history,will remember him as the most brutal figure in the modern history…

  • dale ruff

    Kissinger is one of the great war criminals in all history. Ignoring that fact, this is an excellent book review.

    • Hamburger

      Worse than Stalin or Hitler? Some mistake surely.

      • dale ruff

        Don’t put words in my mouth and then criticize for a statement I did not make. I said Kissinger is one of the greatest war criminals in all history, and he is.
        Three million were slaughtered by the US in Vietnam, a nation which in no way threatened the US. Most were civilians, over a million women and children. Under international law, the attack on Vietnam was a war crime, and we know now from the US Navy archives that the pretext for the invasion–the attack on US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin–never happened.

        This ranks Kissinger as “one of the great war criminals in all history”
        Killing three million ranks in the top rung of evil war criminals.

        Please be honest enough to respond to what is written without distorting it

        • Hamburger

          Frankly he is nowhere near Pol Pot. Follow the history of the war in Vietnam and you will see that American involvement predated Kissinger by a good decade.

          • dale ruff

            1.You fail to acknowledge that you misrepresented what I wrote.

            2. Like apologists for Stalin and Hitler, you seek to minimize Kissinger’s involvement, by distorting history.

            3.”Kissinger’s involvement in Indochina started prior to his appointment as National Security Adviser to Nixon. While still at Harvard, he had worked as a consultant on foreign policy to both the White House and State Department. (1965).

            Nixon had been elected in 1968 on the promise of achieving “peace with honor” and ending the Vietnam War. In office, and assisted by Kissinger, Nixon implemented a policy of Vietnamization.” Wikipedia

            Almost all the 3 million deaths happened while Kissinger was at the center of the war effort, Even after the 1968 promise of “peace with honor” several million were killed.

            My mentor at Harvard, the late Samuel Huntington, designed the pacification program (concentration camps) in Vietnam so you are hardly the person to tell ME to “follow the history of Vietnam.”

            Kissinger was also responsible for the illegal bombings killings hundreds of thousands in other SE Asian nations and: ‘

            “Pol Pot’s chief torturer told Cambodia’s “Killing Fields” tribunal on Monday that U.S. policies in Indochina in the 1970s contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

            Duch, the first of five Pol Pot cadres to face trial for the 1975-79 reign of terror in which 1.7 million Cambodians died, said the Khmer Rouge would have faded if the U.S. had not got involved in Cambodia.

            “Mr Richard Nixon and Kissinger allowed the Khmer Rouge to grasp golden opportunities,” the 66-year-old former jailer said at the start of the second week of his trial by the joint U.N.-Cambodian tribunal.

            In 1970, then Prince Norodom Sihanouk was ousted in a coup led by U.S.-backed General Lon Nol, who cranked up the war against Vietnamese and Cambodian communists.

            Sihanouk later formed an alliance with the Khmer Rouge and he urged Cambodians to join the fight against Lon Nol’s regime, which fell to Pol Pot’s army in 1975.

            “Prince Sihanouk called on the Cambodian people to go and join the communist Khmer Rouge in the jungle and that allowed the Khmer Rouge to build up their troops from 1970 to 1975,” he said.

            Without these events, Duch said: “I think the Khmer Rouge would have been demolished.”

            The tribunal, set up to prosecute those deemed most responsible for Khmer Rouge atrocities, can only pursue individuals for crimes committed in Cambodia between April 17, 1975 and January 6, 1979, when the regime fell to invading Vietnamese troops.

            After Pol Pot’s death in 1998, Kissinger defended the decision to bomb Cambodia as part of the Vietnam War and said it could not be linked with Pol Pot’s killings later on.”

            Few mass murderers own up to being mass murderers the the numbers don’t lie.

            (Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Bill Tarrant)

          • Hamburger

            It is offensive to describe me as an apologist for Hitler and Stalin without knowing anything about me. I am not, otherwise I would not have challenged your assertion that Kissinger was worse than them. Think it through. .
            The war in Cambodia ran parallel to the war in Vietnam but should be treated separately. I would agree with you here, the invasion was criminal, regardless of the horrors of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. ( Was it not 6 million murdered?) I do not regard Duch as a reliable witness, his accusations remind me defence efforts of Nazis after the 2nd World War.
            Kissinger had no operational role in the war in Vietnam. Those who ordered the use of napalm or agent orange need prosecuting. Those actions were war crimes.

          • dale ruff

            Your lies about Kissinger, who was in the middle of the Vietnam War planning, is no different from those who seek to excuse or minimize the evil of other mass murderers. You are indeed an apologist for Kissinger.

            For the second time, you have lied about what I wrote. I have not claimed Kissinger was worse than Hitler or Stalin but that he is one of the greatest war criminals in all history. With 3 million slaughtered, that is probably about the 4th worse mass murder in history.

            The War in Cambodia was part of the US war effort….it was not parallel or separate. The bombing was illegal and was meant to help defeat the Vietnamese. Pol Pot, according to most sources, slaughtered about 1.7 million, and many sources document how the US manipulations brought about his rise to power.

            Kissinger was Secretary of State from 1969-77, during which period about 2 million were slaughtered (he was also involved prior).

            He was a critical leader in planning and strategy, which does not excuse him, any more than Hitler can be excused for never killing even one Jew. Those who justify and plan wars are the MOST responsible.

            Peter Thatchell, a human rights campaigneer who sought to prosecute Kissinger states:

            “As national security advisor to President Nixon from 1969-73, and later as US secretary of state from 1973-77, Henry Kissinger was the chief architect of US war policy in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

            In his own memoirs, White House Years, he boasts of his huge power and influence over the President, claiming that nothing happened in Indochina that he did not know about and authorise..

            During this same period, most of which coincides with Kissinger’s role as NSA to the President, the US dropped nearly 4.5m tonnes of high explosive on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – more than double the tonnage dropped during the whole of the second world war.

            What the US did in Indochina involved the mass killing of civilians and the premeditated, wholesale destruction of the environment using chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange. These are war crimes under the 1957 Geneva Conventions Act.

            I am merely seeking to have the law enforced, without fear or favour. No one should be above the law, not even Henry Kissinger. He may have escaped arrest this time, but my bid to have him prosecuted continues. Three million civilians are crying out for justice

            Much of the damning evidence against Kissinger is set out in the book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, by Christopher Hitchens (Verso, London, 2001)

            Hitchens demonstrates that Kissinger proposed, authorised, supervised and monitored the key elements of US war policy in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and was involved in day to day war management, including planning and approving major military operations.

            He also cites sources indicating that Kissinger approved bombing runs that were not limited to military targets and were likely to result in widespread civilian casualties.

            Kissinger was a senior party – second only to the president – to the secret, illegal invasion and bombing of two neutral countries, Laos and Cambodia, without a declaration war or any warning to the civilian population.

            In his biographical account, White House Years, Kissinger admits that on Air Force One on February 24 1969, together with HR Halerman, Alexander Haig and Colonel Ray Smitton, he conspired to work out “the guidelines for the [secret and illegal] bombing of the enemy’s sanctuaries” in Cambodia and Laos..”


            If Kissinger admits that he was the key figure and authorized everything, I don’t understand why you would excuse him. Perhaps it is simple ignorance of the power he had; perhaps, like many apologists of mass murderers, you find his crimes justifiable.

          • Hamburger

            Now I am an apologist for Kissinger? You appear not to read too well. We should stop now.

  • The Hoxton Hockler

    Nothing Ferguson writes is great. He is probably the most biased and abysmal historian working today. His Pity of War was a travesty. I binned it.

    • Tamerlane

      Yep, I’m sure he’ll be crying over that one. LOL!

      • The Hoxton Hockler

        Ferguson is a homophobic revisionist. He has zero credibility. Hence he must hide in the USA.

        • Tamerlane

          Yes that would be why he sells thousands of books and you and I are reduced to loitering here.

          • The Hoxton Hockler

            I do not dispute the populism of his pen . I dispute his motivation.

          • Johnnydub

            No you impugn his character because he won’t toe the PC line.
            As an intellectual heavyweight who defends things like the positive contribution the British Empire made to the world, self loathing leftists like yourself are lost. You can’t argue the facts as he’ll eat you intellectually for breakfast so you play the man.
            Well done pygmy well done.

          • The Hoxton Hockler

            I personally believe the British Empire was a massive force for good? When the finances are considered in detail our Empire cost us money, we did not pillage it. We spread civilised values, we helped develop every corner of our Empire. The only bit we ever made a few quid from was India.
            In contrast the French, the Dutch, the Belgians etc denuded their colonies of any hint of wealth. However, Ferguson is a nasty bit of spin and cynicism. He is not to be trusted. He makes a mockery of his intellect by selling it cheaply to disgraceful right wing prigs.

          • justejudexultionis

            ‘We spread civilised values’ —

            Yes, by annexing other people’s countries.

          • The Mayor of Trumpton

            Not sure if Britain annexed anywhere other than Ireland. Annexing is appropriating territory to one’s own nation , like Germany in the sudetenland or Russia in Crimea.

          • justejudexultionis

            It’s pure hypocrisy to suggest that the British Empire was some kind of ‘civilising force’ in the world. It was all about securing natural resources and export markets and getting one over on other European powers – Machtpolitik and Realpolitik in action. Are you so stupid as to believe that the annexation of South Africa was done for altruistic reasons? Nothing to do with gold or diamonds, then? Do you realise that India had an advanced civilisation in the eighteenth century before the British started meddling and destroying established industries and customs, including foundry techniques that were more advanced than anything the English had at that time? Do you believe that it was okay for General Amherst to give smallpox-infected blankets to native Americans in an early example of germ warfare? Do you think it was right for the British to allow 1.5 million Irish people to starve on their doorstep in the 1840s? Do you think it was okay to flood China with opium in the nineteenth-century? Was it, in your view, necessary, to murder 40,000 black and mixed race, and 20,000 Afrikaners (mostly civilians) in concentration camps during the Boer War?

            I suggest that your ‘civilised’ British Empire was in fact no more than a rather vulgar sub-Nazi attempt at global domination.

          • plainsdrifter

            I dispute your credibility, too. Stick to the New Statesman. Why read articles in a magazine you hate? You are simply a pernicious lefty.

          • justejudexultionis

            Are you so stupid as to believe that people should only ever read one magazine or newspaper? Surely you would wish ‘lefties’ to receive an education?

          • plainsdrifter

            Are you so stupid as to believe that becoming informed from reading material you hate is terribly bright? I suspect you are deeply unpleasant and very immature. Adieu.

          • The Mayor of Trumpton

            Why post on sites where everyone agrees with you? Not really adding value just reflecting your own prejudice.

          • Johnny Foreigner

            Is there such a thing as being Loiterphobic, as I have now an irrational fear, brought on by a certain Hockler?

          • justejudexultionis

            Since when does financial and critical success legitimate moral bankruptcy?

          • Tamerlane

            Redundant question, he’s not morally bankrupt. Perhaps in your opinion he is but who cares for your opinion except you? Not me, not him and not his thousands of readers.

          • justejudexultionis

            One doesn’t have to be a communist (and I am far from left-wing) to see that Ferguson is in thrall to a very virulent form of money worship that devalues the human soul and the necessity of doing good to one’s fellow man (and woman).

          • Tamerlane

            ‘…necessity of doing good to one’s fellow man (and woman)’ What necessity? There is no necessity. There is a vague nod to something called morality which means a different thing to each person and on the back of that the rich, powerful and influential are thought to be coerced into some sort of moral behaviour which is in any case code for ‘be nice to me’. I live in the real world, so does Ferguson.

          • Hamburger

            Analysis is not the same as belief.

    • justejudexultionis

      He is a very good propagandist for a certain kind of extreme neoliberal bigotry that demands total submission to Mammon and the crucifixion of all moral and spiritual values.

  • “Former British ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles hails the Kissinger biography as ‘a great work about a great man by a great historian’”

    A love fest for Marxists! So touching.

    The following is a discovery I made in April regarding the fake collapse of the USSR, and what that fraudulent collapse proves about the institutions of the West…

    When Soviet citizens were liberated from up to 74 years of horrific Marxist oppression on December 26, 1991 there were ZERO celebrations throughout the USSR, proving (1) the ‘collapse’ of the USSR is a strategic ruse; and (2) the political parties of the West were already co-opted by Marxists,* otherwise the USSR (and East Bloc nations) couldn’t have gotten away with the ruse.

    ZERO celebrations, as the The Atlantic article inadvertently informs us…

    Notice, however, the Kremlin staged anti-government demonstrations that took place in Russia (and other Soviet republics) in the years immediately preceding the ‘collapse’, yet ZERO celebrations after the ‘collapse’!

    For more on this discovery see my blog…


    The West will form new political parties where candidates are vetted for Marxist ideology, the use of the polygraph to be an important tool for such vetting. Then the West can finally liberate the globe of vanguard Communism.


    * The failed socialist inspired and controlled pan-European revolutions that swept the continent in 1848(1) thought Marxists and socialists a powerful lesson, that lesson being they couldn’t win overtly,(2) so they adopted the tactic of infiltration of the West’s political parties/institutions. In the case of the United States…(continue reading at DNotice)…

    Now you know why not one political party in the West requested verification of the collapse of the USSR, and the media failed to alert your attention to this fact, including the ‘alternative’ media. When determining whether the ‘former’ USSR is complying with arms control treaties, what does the United States do to confirm compliance? Right, the United States sends into the ‘former’ USSR investigative teams to VERIFY compliance, yet when it’s the fate of the West that’s at stake should the collapse of the USSR be a ruse, what does the United States do to confirm the collapse? Nothing!

    The fraudulent ‘collapse’ of the USSR (and East Bloc) couldn’t have been pulled off until both political parties in the United States (and political parties elsewhere in the West) were co-opted by Marxists, which explains why verification of the ‘collapse’ was never undertaken by the West, such verification being (1) a natural administrative procedure (since the USSR wasn’t occupied by Western military forces); and (2) necessary for the survival of the West. Recall President Reagan’s favorite phrase, “Trust, but verify”.

    It gets worse–the ‘freed’ Soviets and West also never (1) de-Communized the Soviet Armed Forces of its Communist Party officer corps, which was 90% officered by Communist Party members; and (2) arrested/de-mobilized the 6-million vigilantes that assisted the Soviet Union’s Ministry of the Interior and police control the populations of the larger cities during the period of ‘Perestroika’ (1986-1991)!

    There can be no collapse of the USSR (or East Bloc nations) without…

    Verification, De-Communization and De-mobilization.

    The West never verified the collapse of the USSR because no collapse occurred, since if a real collapse had occurred the West would have verified it, since the survival of the West depends on verification. Conversely, this proves that the political parties of the West were co-opted by Marxists long before the fraudulent collapse of the USSR, since the survival of the West depends on verification.

    The above means that the so-called ‘War on Terror’ is an operation being carried out by the Marxist co-opted governments of the West in alliance with the USSR and other Communist nations, the purpose being to (1) destroy the prominence of the West in the eyes of the world, where the West is seen (i) invading nations without cause; (ii) causing chaos around the globe; and (iii) killing over one-million civilians and boasting of torture; (2) close off non-Russian supplies of oil for export, thereby increasing the price of oil, the higher price allowing oil exporting Russia to maintain economic stability while she modernizes and increases her military forces; (3) destroy the United States Armed Forces via the never-ending ‘War on Terror’; the ultimate purpose of the aforementioned to (4) bring about the demise of the United States in the world, opening up a political void to be filled by a new pan-national entity composed of Europe and Russia (replacing the European Union), a union ‘From the Atlantic to Vladivostok’; which will (5) see the end of NATO.

    Now you know how Bolshevik Russia survived in 1917; how the West ‘lost’ China to the Communists in 1949; why the Eisenhower administration turned a deaf ear to the anti-Communist Hungarian uprising in 1956; why the Eisenhower administration in 1959 was indifferent to the Castro brothers’ Communist fidelity, actually used the CIA to overthrow the Batista government; why the Nixon administration abandoned Taiwan for Communist China, and signed treaties/provided economic aid to the USSR; why the Nixon administration refused to tell the American People that over 50% of North Vietnamese NVA regiments were actually Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers (attired in NVA uniforms, and proving that the Sino/Soviet Split was a ruse, as KGB defector Major Anatoliy Golitsyn told the West back in 1962), thereby (1) ensuring the Vietnam War would be lost; (2) destroying the prominence of the United States abroad and at home; (3) breeding distrust between the American people and their government; and (4) securing Communist victories in Southeast Asia. Working in the background within the political parties of the United States and Great Britain were Marxist agents doing their best to (1) ensure the survival of Communist nations when they popped up; and (2) sabotage any policies that would bring down a Communist nation. That’s why after the fake collapses of the East Bloc nations and USSR there was no mandatory Western verification process to ensure the Communists weren’t still in control.

  • Landphil

    Everything Kissinger does is ‘strategic’, even going to the loo.

    • justejudexultionis

      Does it also end in the needless deaths of one million Vietnamese?

  • davidshort10

    I am of a certain age. All of us of this age i am sure felt that Kissinger was some bloke who was part of the US government that waged war and killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people if not millions in Vietnam and neighbouring countries before it became too expensive so they withdrew. Surely this is the only story Kissinger needs and the only one that makes us feel he is in Hell and will be.

  • justejudexultionis

    Niall Ferguson constitutes a clear and present danger to western democracy.

  • justejudexultionis

    I’m sure the relatives of the 3000+ murdered by Pinochet’s brutal regime would like to thank Kissinger for overthrowing the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende.

    When are we going to see Kissinger on death row, where he belongs?