Monday, 24 January 2011

Harvard’s Finest? The Ferguson-Kissinger Connection

If Niall Ferguson is to produce a first rate biography of Henry Kissinger, he will need to present more convincing arguments than the ones on display at the LSE...
Last week Harvard historian Professor Niall Ferguson was back at the London School of Economics, in his year-long capacity as Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs, to deliver the third part in his lecture series on the Cold War. The topic of the most recent instalment was ‘the grand strategy of detente’, which as Ferguson made clear straight away, meant focusing on the architect of said strategy, Henry Kissinger. In addition to their mutual link to Harvard University, Ferguson is also Kissinger’s official biographer, having been given access to the former secretary of state’s papers, as well as to the man himself, to write a ‘warts and all’ (Ferguson’s phrase) account of Kissinger’s career.
 After an initial throat clearing in which he declared that since he had scarcely written a word of the book yet, his conclusions would be only tentative ones, he set straight out to attack those who have criticised Kissinger, and in particular, Christopher Hitchens. Making light of the fact that Hitchens’ book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, started life as an article ‘in that renowned scholarly publication, Vanity Fair’ (actually it was Harpers), he went on to criticise the author for using an insufficient number of primary source documents in his footnotes. Considering the fact that Ferguson himself has been highly criticised by historians for failing to use any footnotes at all in his most popular books, accusations of being unscholarly seem a little hypocritical.
Following this, he again peddled the argument (first put forward in an article in the Sunday Times in May 2008) that criticism of Kissinger may have something to do with the fact that he is Jewish. Aside from the fact that his two most famous critics, Hitchens and Seymour Hersh, are themselves of Jewish ancestry, this disgusting accusation seems to suggest that there can be no political or moral reasons to dislike the man.
The point Ferguson is trying to make with this slur is that Kissinger has been unjustly singled out for special criticism, since similar policies to his own were adopted by all foreign policy makers during the Cold War. He sarcastically posed the question, why has no one written ‘The Trial of John Foster Dulles’, who as Secretary of State during the 1950s oversaw the calamitous American policy towards Guatemala? The answer to this question, to put it in a similar format, is the same reason why no one would think to deliver a lecture on ‘The Grand Strategy of Madeline Albright’. The fact is that Henry Kissinger had a hold upon American foreign policy that no other secretary of state could be argued to have possessed. When biographers write of Kissinger as virtually a second president when it came to foreign affairs, this is not hubris, and for much of the 1970s it was almost impossible to think of a foreign policy decision that had not been instigated by Kissinger. In fact, one of the most lamentable things about Kissinger is his willingness to boast about the amount of power he has when it suits him, yet insist that events were outside of his control when it does not, as in the cases of Cyprus and East Timor, to take just two examples.
Of the charges made against Kissinger by his critics, Ferguson dealt directly with only one in his hour long lecture, namely Kissinger’s involvement in the Vietnam debacle. With the help of a chart, Ferguson pointed to the ‘extraordinarily rapid decrease of American casualties in the Vietnam war after Richard Nixon became president, to the point that by the time he was re-elected, American casualties in Vietnam had essentially ended’. What the professor omitted is that the terms that the war ended on in 1973 were essentially the same as those being negotiated back in  1968 at the Paris peace talks, which the Nixon campaign (with Kissinger’s help) managed to undercut by insisting to the South Vietnamese that they could offer them a better deal should they abandon the negotiations. Moreover, Ferguson failed to make any reference to the number of Vietnamese who were killed after 1969, thus ignoring the important question, ‘is it morally acceptable to use whatever tactics one likes to achieve fewer American casualties?’ What if those tactics included (as they did) the illegal bombing of the independent state of Cambodia, which in addition to killing an unknowable number of Cambodians,  created the conditions necessary for the murderous Khmer Rouge to attain power?  
In attempting to demonstrate the incredibly difficult world situation that Kissinger faced, and thus the need for his grand strategy of detente, Ferguson asserted that the 1970s were the most violent of all the Cold War decades. Here he is in danger of confusing cause and effect. Is it not more accurate to point out that much of the violence in that decade was the product of actions that Kissinger supported – Bangladesh being only the most salient example – precisely because he was following a strategy that required him to worry only about the actions of the superpowers? This is something Ferguson tentatively admitted during the question period when he stated that ‘the superpowers probably made it [violence] slightly worse, maybe a lot worse in some cases’.
Finally, Ferguson turned to the most recent Kissinger controversy, namely the tape of him declaring to Nixon in March 1973, following a plea from Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to push Moscow to allow the emigration of Soviet Jewry, that:
The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.
Having made reference to the event at the start of the lecture and merely stated that if we heard all the telephone conversations of other statesmen we would get a pretty nasty image of them too (not exactly a good defence), Ferguson returned to the subject towards the end of his lecture to assure us that contrary to how Kissinger’s statement may appear, it in fact shows how moral the man is. ‘Imagine’, Ferguson declares ‘what it means to say something like that when you personally, as a Jew, have seen a Nazi concentration camp liberated’. The professor went on to proclaim Kissinger to be ‘somebody who grapples endlessly with the fundamental moral problem of choice, of priorities, which is at the heart of any meaningful foreign policy’. Now come on. It is one thing to defend Kissinger on the basis that the anarchical nature of the international realm requires morals to be superseded by state interests, but to suggest that the man ‘grapples endlessly’ with moral issues is not borne out by the facts. Like any egomaniac, Kissinger has refused to accept that he made any mistakes in his time in office or to show any sympathy for the fate of small countries, which, when one considers the calamitous effects of many of his policies, is a rather disturbing sign.
Ferguson in undoubtedly a talented historian with a rare ability to make you challenge commonly held views. But if he is to produce a first rate biography of Kissinger, he will need to present more convincing arguments than the ones on display at the LSE.   

By Matt Jones


  1. Pretty good post. I like Ferguson too, but I was also underwhelmed by his defense of Kissinger in the LSE lecture.

  2. Wow! Very nice piece. I sometimes wonder what the U.S. would be like if not for having a German born, obviously traumatized immigrant, imagine our policy for us. I think that the reason, U.S. presidents tended to be more moral, (think Wilson & the league of nation, and his opposition to the German reparations; FDR's peacefulness with Stalin, compared to Churchill's belligerence, et. all), was because they didn't come from a position of trauma. They didn't have to deal with "never again" and "justice".