Henry Kissinger: Subject of another new bio

Historians in the News

Perhaps because of the pungently Nixonian odor of the Bush White House -- the patriotism politics, the"l'état, c'est moi" declarations, the war -- this season has delivered a bounty of books about the men of Watergate. The current climate has vitalized anxieties about the imperial presidency, drawing fresh scrutiny to the Nixon years from such eminent writers as Robert Dallek, Elizabeth Drew, Margaret MacMillan, James Reston Jr., and Jules Witcover -- not to mention a Nixon biography from the scandal-plagued tycoon Conrad Black and the Broadway drama"Nixon/Frost."

Joining this lengthening queue is Jeremi Suri, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, with a useful, idiosyncratic study, Henry Kissinger and the American Century. Suri isn't trying to compete -- for audience or authoritativeness -- with Dallek's Nixon and Kissinger or MacMillan's Nixon and Mao, which combine scholarly rigor with popular appeal. Rather, he's gambling that less can be more. Suri's Kissinger is an academic rumination on the cerebral Harvard professor-turned-showboating national security adviser that, while intentionally narrow in scope, is bold in its reach....

... In describing the legacy he wished to leave, Kissinger once said that he wanted to erect a lasting international framework that would reflect not his own preferences but the basic interests of the United States. Yet, ironically, his grand scheme required that it all rest on his personal touch.

As the years pass, the case for Kissinger's greatness becomes increasingly hard to sustain. His academic reputation has long since been deflated. Most scholars now agree that Nixon conceived and directed his own policy (except when incapacitated by Watergate), with Kissinger functioning as his agent. Even the perennial accusations of war crimes against Henry sound like overwrought sloganeering -- too lofty a charge to level at a mere deputy.

Kissinger is, in the end, a smart man -- not a genius, not even unusually brilliant -- whose lot it was to serve a president whose mania for acclaim, dreams of grandeur and taste for secrecy and deceit matched his own. In one sense, hitching his star to Nixon's was unfortunate for Kissinger, because the shame of Nixon will always be his shame, too. But in another sense it was lucky, because in the Cold War's last years Nixon unleashed him to pursue their shared ambitions on the world stage, not without some benefit. When Nixon fell, Kissinger remained standing, poised with a sly smile to gather the credit.

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