The Inevitability of Tragedy review: a life of Henry Kissinger for our Trumpian times

As US-China relations deteriorate, Barry Gewen offers an unsparing biography of a man still at the center of events

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shakes hands with former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in November.
The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, shakes hands with the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in November. Photograph: Jason Lee/Pool/EPA

Only two of America’s secretaries of state are foreign-born, and their presence in Foggy Bottom is owed to the downfall of the Weimar Republic. As the Third Reich rose, a teenage Henry Kissinger fled Germany for upper Manhattan. Ten years later, Madeleine Albright arrived in the US. Her father, Josef Korbel, was a Czech diplomat who spent the war years in London.

Same endpoint, different stories. During the 2016 election, Albright endorsed Hillary Clinton and intoned that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”. In late 2017, Kissinger met in the Oval Office with Donald Trump. He has also acted as a go-between for the administration in its dealings with China. Albright’s latest book is titled Fascism: A Warning. For Kissinger, ideological virtue signaling takes a back seat. His legacy is realpolitik.

Under the subtitle Henry Kissinger and His World, Barry Gewen delivers a highly readable biography of the 97-year-old diplomat. A longtime editor at the New York Times Book Review, Gewen looks to Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt and Hans Morgenthau, all German-Jewish émigrés and intellectuals, as prisms through which to refract Kissinger, a one-time Harvard professor. Strauss, Arendt and Morgenthau appear in names of chapters.

The Inevitability of Tragedy treats Weimar’s collapse as the formative event in Kissinger’s life. The book’s central premises are that democracies do not necessarily hold and that nations may be forced to choose from menus that offer only rancid dishes. From the author’s perspective, unyielding moral codes may end up as burdensome ballast that leaves decision makers frozen. Or worse.

Gewen’s prose is mellifluous even if his judgment of Kissinger remains debatable. The reader is drawn into the book’s telling, regardless of possible disagreement. More often than not, the author gives Kissinger the benefit of the doubt – even as the bodies pile up.

Against the backdrop of the the formulation and execution of Richard Nixon’s Vietnam policy, the overthrow and assassination of Salvador Allende in Chile, genocide in Bangladesh and East Timor and a coup and invasion in Cyprus, Kissinger was tagged as a “war criminal”. On college campuses, he was even compared to Charles Manson, the convicted mass murderer.

Although America elected Nixon to end the war, more than 20,000 US troops died on his watch. Sustaining American honor was a bloody undertaking that all involved knew couldn’t be won. Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers and occasional Guardian contributor, told the truth. Practically speaking, Nixon ended the draft in 1972 and inaugurated the volunteer army a year later.

Gewen asks, “What choices did Washington have when confronted” by Allende’s win at the ballot box? He poses the question of “how to extricate” the US from the “morass of Vietnam in a way that did the least damage to American interests”. He does not regard the answers as self-evident.

Quoting Morgenthau, one of the founding fathers of realism and a Kissinger friend, Gewen writes that the “the very act of acting destroys our moral integrity”. He continues: “Whoever wants to retain his moral innocence must forsake action altogether.” To be sure, for senior government officials, inaction is almost an alien concept.

Significantly, Morgenthau was an early critic of the Vietnam war. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson dismissed him as a state department adviser. On Vietnam, Morgenthau and Kissinger did not see eye-to-eye. Realpolitik does not necessarily lead to identical conclusions.

Ping-pong diplomacy and the prospect of detente with Russia actually led to criticism of Kissinger. In 1974, Nixon resigned and by the time of the 1976 New Hampshire primary, Kissinger had emerged as a punching bag for Ronald Reagan and the right of the Republican party. The Manchester Union Leader, the storied New Hampshire daily, labeled Gerald Ford, the president, as “the jerk” and Kissinger, his secretary of state, as “the kike”. 

The Union Leader wasn’t alone. The late Phyllis Schlafly, the leading opponent of the equal rights amendment and “‘warrior queen of social conservatism”, dangled Kissinger’s otherness as catnip for opposition to Ford. In Kissinger on the Couch, Schlafly and co-author Chester Ward opined that he failed to understand “typical American values” and alleged that his loyalty rested with a “supranational” order, not the US government. George Soros was the only thing missing from the equation.

Kissinger was eternally grateful for the refuge the US afforded. But he remained ill at ease with his adopted country’s Jacksonian populism. Parades weren’t his thing. 

According to Gewen, the 1964 Republican convention “reminded Kissinger of the Nazi rallies he had witnessed as a boy in Germany”. There, in San Francisco, Nelson Rockefeller, Kissinger’s patron and New York’s governor, vied unsuccessfully with Senator Barry Goldwater for the presidential nomination. Rockefeller would become Ford’s vice-president.

Kissinger, newly appointed secretary of state, sits with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office in September 1973.
Kissinger, newly appointed secretary of state, sits with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office in September 1973. Photograph: AP

Kissinger credits Reagan for the downfall of the Soviet Union, and saw him as possessing a greater grasp of the cold war than his advisers. Gewen also makes clear that George HW Bush and Kissinger were not close. 

While Kissinger was secretly pursuing upgraded US-Sino relations, Bush was defending Taiwan at the United Nations. During the 1980 convention, Kissinger was involved in a failed effort to shoehorn Ford on to the Reagan ticket, instead of Bush.

In other words, Kissinger was by no means error-proof. He supported the Iraq war, although not driven by the desire to bring democracy to the Gulf states. By contrast, Brent Scowcroft, Kissinger’s successor at the national security council and later a business partner, predicted the pitfalls of a US invasion. Scowcroft’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Don’t Attack Saddam, came to be viewed as the vehicle by which the elder Bush communicated his disapproval of the war to his son, the president. Whether it actually was is a different story.

As the US and China head toward another cold war, Kissinger’s “brand of realism” may be needed as a brake. Weimar wasn’t so long ago. Life is filled with grays. Desperate times birth excesses.

“We dismiss or ignore him at our peril,” writes Gewen. Perhaps.