Jeremi Suri - Henry Kissinger and the American Century

"Righteousness is the parent of fanaticism and intolerance." -- Henry Kissinger as quoted on page 10
Many years ago, as a true-believing Mormon, I read the entire, 7-volume History of the Church. While the reading was frequently interesting, there were several points in each volume that made me scratch my head and wonder why the author didn't go into more detail about unusual items. Basically, the author and editor of the work raised occasional red flags but then failed to elaborate. While I don't believe that Suri is as much of a whitewasher of Kissinger as Joseph Smith and B. H. Roberts were of Mormon history, this book had familiar red flags and lack of details when things really got interesting. I liked this book, and I liked the 7-volume History of the Church, but you shouldn't rely on either for a complete picture.

Suri doesn't promise a traditional biography. He says as much on page 4, but he is a fan of Kissinger (despite calling himself a critic on the final page). While he mentions critics in general terms, you'll have to look elsewhere to find out who those critics are and what their arguments contain. By about page 240 I realized Suri wasn't going to discuss Kissinger's private life at all. I wanted to find out if he ever married or had kids. (Imagine a biography in which you don't know this yet more than 4/5 of the way through! A picture of the kids does show up on page 250 however.) So I turned to Wikipedia to find out. Wow! What a surprise! The fairly short wiki biography contained much information not included in Henry Kissinger and the American Century. And then I spent an hour and twenty minutes watching this. Wow again! Suddenly Suri alluding to Kissinger's staff resignations took on a whole new meaning. It's unfortunate that Suri doesn't always or completely tell both sides of the story. Christopher Hitchens doesn't either. So my suggestion is to look at both sides and get a fuller view of Kissinger.

Laying aside the issue of objectivity and balance (or the lack thereof), Kissinger is a fascinating individual. Kissinger was not a fan of democracy and Suri does a good job of showing the reader why. The "cold war university" discussion is insightful, but it drags on too long. Some themes of this book (like Kissinger's Jewish background) are beaten to death. I would have preferred some editing (especially in the first half of the book) and then more detail about Kissinger the person and the controversies (Watergate, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Chile take up only a small section of the book). I was too young at the time to know much about these events. I was hoping that a Kissinger, book-length biography would suffice. I had to turn elsewhere to really get brought up to speed.

Suri concludes, of course, that Kissinger was not a war criminal. (p. 248) After his death, when we finally get to see his sealed papers, Suri may have to change his mind.

"In the darkest days of Watergate--when the president, according to Kissinger, exhibited 'suicidal states of mind'--he managed to hold things together and continue moving forward with a coherent grand strategy. Regardless of how one judges the substance of Kissinger's policies, he exhibited extraordinary leadership in his ability to manufacture opportunities out of chaos." p. 247
from the publisher:
What made Henry Kissinger the kind of diplomat he was? What experiences and influences shaped his worldview and provided the framework for his approach to international relations? Jeremi Suri offers a thought-provoking, interpretive study of one of the most influential and controversial political figures of the twentieth century.

Drawing on research in more than six countries in addition to extensive interviews with Kissinger and others, Suri analyzes the sources of Kissinger's ideas and power and explains why he pursued the policies he did. Kissinger's German-Jewish background, fears of democratic weakness, belief in the primacy of the relationship between the United States and Europe, and faith in the indispensable role America plays in the world shaped his career and his foreign policy. Suri shows how Kissinger's early years in Weimar and Nazi Germany, his experiences in the U.S. Army and at Harvard University, and his relationships with powerful patrons--including Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon--shed new light on the policymaker.

Kissinger's career was a product of the global changes that made the American Century. He remains influential because his ideas are rooted so deeply in dominant assumptions about the world. In treating Kissinger fairly and critically as a historical figure, without polemical judgments, Suri provides critical context for this important figure. He illuminates the legacies of Kissinger's policies for the United States in the twenty-first century.