Entire libraries have been written about Henry Kissinger, and even now, decades after he left government, vitriolic disagreements rage about his legacy. Vanderbilt University history professor Thomas A. Schwartz concedes at the outset of his new book, “Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography,” that he’s taken on an impossible task: writing an objective biography of the country’s 56th secretary of state. 

Kissinger’s defenders cite his steady-handed policy with the Soviet Union, his pragmatic dealmaking everywhere from Israel to Vietnam, his efforts to establish a working relationship between the U.S. and China. His detractors recall his suport for an anti-democratic military coup in Chile, his tacit support for genocide during the Bangladesh War, and his accommodation of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. One side says he richly deserved his Nobel Peace Prize. The other side says he should stand trial at the Hague for war crimes.

Schwartz is well aware of the strong opinions his subject evokes, and he claims he seeks for a more balanced view. “Most treatments of Henry Kissinger have highlighted his role as a foreign policy intellectual who advocated a policy of realpolitik for the United States, a foreign policy that eschewed moral considerations or democratic ideology and was geared to a ‘cold-blooded’ promotion and protection of America’s security and interests,” he writes. “This is not incorrect, but it is incomplete.”

Drawing on a vast amount of primary sources (including interviews with the man himself), Schwartz carefully charts Kissinger’s evolution as one of the 20th century’s most controversial statesmen, briefly sketching his subject’s earlier stint as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army and as an academic before concentrating on his years as secretary of state and national security adviser for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. It was during this period that Kissinger conducted his famous “shuttle diplomacy” and developed his particular brand of diplomatic dealmaking.

Kissinger called this realpolitik, and he practiced it by sketching out détente with the Soviet Union, opening relations with China, and extricating America from a shooting war in Vietnam, among other things. “This marriage between geopolitical realism and American domestic politics, engineered by Nixon and Kissinger, was always a tenuous one,” Schwartz writes, “but it served the electoral purposes of Nixon and even won Kissinger a Nobel Peace Prize.”

Throughout all this, Schwartz always remembers to add darkly fascinating personal elements. When writing about the tense negotiations about Vietnam, for instance, readers get a typical exchange that inadvertently underscores Nixon’s plentiful belligerent qualities. “We’re going to bomb those [expletives] all over the place,” Nixon growls at one point. “The only point I disagree is we can do all of this without killing too many civilians,” Kissinger responds. “You’re so [expletive] concerned about the civilians,” Nixon accuses, to which Kissinger answers, “I’m concerned about the civilians because I don’t want the world to be mobilized against you as a butcher.”

The obvious problem here is one intrinsic to any attempt at writing a biography of Henry Kissinger. It’s difficult to avoid pointing out that the secretary, who was the willing, eager servant of a president who wanted to “bomb the [expletive]” out of civilians, also shares that president’s guilt.

Schwartz steps very carefully around that guilt. To take one example: the White House’s 1970 decision to invade and bomb Cambodia, which was heavily criticized by the American public, especially college students, is characterized as something that Nixon mostly decided while Kissinger was out of the room. Likewise, in summarizing the condemnation Kissinger encountered in 1974 when he suborned a dictatorial coup in Cyprus, Schwartz writes, “Kissinger now found himself increasingly challenged by those who sought greater morality and respect for human rights in U.S. foreign policy” – an utterly damning bit of phrasing, but Schwartz clearly isn’t intending it as a damnation.

Kissinger has been out of power for over 40 years, but he has raked in millions giving speeches and doing consulting work through his firm, Kissinger Associates. Presidents and presidential candidates make a point of being seen conferring with Kissinger, making a pilgrimage to his Park Avenue offices as a gesture of how serious they are about their international policy. The period when, as Schwartz puts it, he was “able to conduct a pragmatic and flexible foreign policy” on Nixon’s behalf was in many ways a turning point, and readers who watched that history as it was unfolding will almost certainly find “Henry Kissinger and American Power” disconcertingly even-handed in assessing how Kissinger acquired the reputation upon which so much political clout rests. 

“I am convinced that it is not necessary to render a moral judgment on Henry Kissinger in order to learn from his career,” Schwartz writes, and this is true: it isn’t necessary. But even so, it might still be the right thing to do.

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