Jeremi Suri. Henry Kissinger and the American Century. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
The historical literature on Henry Kissinger is enormous. Numerous biographies have extolled the former national security advisor and secretary of state’s virtues and failures. Journalist Christopher Hitchens went so far as to suggest that the iconic father of modern Realpoltik should be tried for war crimes. While Kissinger’s academic standing has taken numerous hits, his influence is still measurable. Judging by the success of his protégés—Brent Scowcroft, George Shultz, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice—and his advisory role in the Bush administrations newly acquired realist rhetoric in the Middle East, the self proclaimed Doctor of Diplomacy remains relevant. But is yet another biography about this American foreign policy official really necessary?
Jeremi Suri thinks so. In Henry Kissinger and the American Century, the University of Wisconsin historian draws on multinational archival research, in addition to extensive interviews with Kissinger, in an effort to create a new model for understanding America’s statesmen, one that looks at the global sources of their power and ideas. Suri’s account rests on the assumption that it is more important to understand how Kissinger came to his dominant position and why so many people invested in the German-Jewish immigrant than to look at the record of his actions, with its easy moral judgments.
In further defining the field of international history, Suri’s account is not so much a biography but “a narrative of global change, a study of how social and political transformations across multiple societies created our contemporary world.” In this framework, Kissinger must be understood in context of transnational factors such as the rise of Nazism and the resultant democratic responses, the Holocaust, and ethnic and religious identity issues. Suri describes these factors as processes of globalization that defined the “American Century,” with Kissinger in the middle of it all.
Suri begins with Kissinger’s formative experiences as a German Jew. The Kissinger family identified as Bavarians rather than Germans. Bavarian centralized government policies were more empowering to Jews, especially on emancipation, than democratic opinions, which trended toward anti-Semitism. The record of the strong Bavarian state government, along with the demise of democratic Weimer Germany, fostered young Henry’s notions that progress was made through powerful statesmen, not grassroots activists.
Next, Suri focuses on Kissinger’s arrival in the United States in 1937 and his subsequent “Americanization.” The postwar turn towards militarized, hierarchical politics benefited the immigrant, who was able to leverage his status as an outsider into professional mobility. Suri demonstrates Kissinger’s talent at self promotion as a wartime army counterintelligence officer, a postwar occupation official in Germany, a Harvard academic and author of a legendary 383-page undergraduate thesis, and finally into the higher levels of the foreign policy establishment. With the construction of a transatlantic Judeo-Christian community between Europe and America, Kissinger was uniquely situated for his realist foreign policy ideas to catch fire in what Suri calls “the cold war university.”
Suri moves seamlessly from Kissinger’s days as the director of the Harvard International Seminar to his successful leveraging of a high level federal “Grand Strategy” to the Nixon White House, all while highlighting his fear of popular democracy and his German Jewish identity. In the seventies Kissinger began to view himself more as a grand strategist—“Super K” —but his principled realism faltered, and Kissinger dismissed the realist analysis that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. Suri suggests Kissinger preferred to think that shrewd diplomacy required the work of a “mythical grand master.” Kissinger ultimately won the role he himself created. Unfortunately, the American century that formed Kissinger’s diplomatic philosophy proved inadequate to address legitimate concerns about human rights and broader criticism from the Third World about his hierarchical world order.
Suri’s interpretive analysis of Kissinger will leave some critics befuddled. Few would think of hardnosed Kissinger as an idealist, a “man of passion who sought to do good in the world by making tough choices.” Suri’s account is short at 300 pages, and he sheds little ink on Kissinger’s role in Watergate or his part in the human rights disasters in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile, Laos, Mozambique, or Vietnam. Suri’s non-polemical treatment goes beyond the moral implications of Kissinger’s policies to the conditions that created them.
In showing how Kissinger was a product of global changes, transatlantic ties, and, perhaps more importantly, religious identity, Suri offers a convincing account of the motivations that drove not only the individual but also the American foreign policy establishment. Of particular note is Suri’s placement of Kissinger’s Jewish identity at the center of the book. Too often historians of foreign relations employ religion a la carte: they use religion in bits and pieces. Suri’s examination of what was in many ways a very “Jewish century” is bold and convincing. On the other hand, Suri’s reliance on the phrase “American Century” is rather puzzling. Many of Suri’s transnational factors suggest that perhaps the twentieth century was more of a “global century” than an American one. Nonetheless, Henry Kissinger and the American Century is an important and well written book that should reach a large audience.