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Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography
By Thomas A. Schwartz

Hill and Wang, August 2020, 560 pages

Review by Fletcher M. Burton

With Edward Gibbon listening in the gallery, a speaker took to the floor of Westminster Hall to commend the historian’s monumental work on the Roman empire, praising its “luminous pages” —only later to claim he had said “voluminous.” This controversy from 1788 seems picayune; while smiling at it, we may yet draw on it to evaluate Thomas Schwartz’s new book Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography.
The book is wonderfully luminous. It comprises one volume, “short and concise,” as the author says, a distillation compared to the three volumes Kissinger filled with his memoirs, not to mention his dozen other works. Any serious student of Kissinger, and any meticulous scholar like Professor Thomas A. Schwartz of Vanderbilt University, must contend with what might be called Kissinger’s MAD doctrine: mutually assured documentation. Kissinger is voluminous.

The premise of the book is short and sound. Revere or revile Kissinger, we must try to understand him. His impact was deep; his legacy is large. A judgment must therefore be dispassionate—not void of conclusions at the end but free of indictments at the beginning. And Schwartz has pursued his premise and sifted his research with outstanding results. Above all, he brings original scholarship to bear on three aspects that, interwoven, make up Kissinger’s exercise of American power, particularly from 1969-1976: foreign policy, domestic politics, and public persona. In these pages we find Kissinger the statesman, the operator, and the showman.

A high school student in the early 1970s, I followed Kissinger’s diplomacy with avid interest, watching many of his TV appearances and compiling an entire notebook with his press profiles (the origin of my ambition to join the Foreign Service). This is the Kissinger in Schwartz’s pages: the consultant, then National Security advisor, then Secretary of State as he rocketed up in the administrations of that time and in the media of that day. This approach has real value for history-telling. Today Kissinger is a polarizing figure in a polarized culture. It was not always so.

Drawing on his field of expertise at Vanderbilt, Professor Schwartz reconstructs the foreign policy of the Nixon and Ford administrations with Kissinger at its heart. For those of us who lived through it, we are reminded of the staggering challenges and real dangers. This book gives us a fresh appreciation of the whirlwind, the frenetic diplomatic activity of the global design, in all its good and bad manifestations.

The author probes deeper to consider the domestic politics of the foreign policy. Here the White House tapes add dimension to his story. He dismisses with a knuckle-rap Kissinger’s protestation that Nixon never discussed politics with him. At once the reader sees the “power” of the book’s title in a new light. Thus, Schwartz writes about the “trifecta” of diplomatic breakthroughs in 1972 (opening to China, détente with Moscow, settlement in Vietnam): “as much about the struggle of power at home as it was about Kissinger’s new international ‘structure of peace.’“ Sailing on this tailwind, Nixon blew past McGovern in the 1972 contest, lifting Kissinger to his cabinet, the first immigrant to become Secretary of State.

The third aspect of the book’s construct, Kissinger’s public persona, is one of the author’s most intrepid forays into diplomatic history. It certainly is his most original, for he was able to open up an untapped source, the Television News Archive at Vanderbilt, which recorded the evening news programs of ABC, CBS and NBC since 1968. It represents “a rich record of Kissinger’s media exposure.” Here is the Kissinger of our living rooms, the Kissinger of my youth. Schwartz argues persuasively that Kissinger’s public image was part of his influence, his power.

The book, a “political biography” in its subtitle, unfolds as a cultural study. It recreates an American culture attuned to the lead stories on the evening news and the cover stories of the newsweeklies. Schwartz orchestrates these media voices as a Greek chorus that comments on events, interprets them, and, in the course of a few short years, magnifies Kissinger’s rise and foreshadows his fall.

There is a resounding irony to this story. The TV figures of the Nixon and Ford years—Eric Severeid, John Chancellor, Howard K. Smith, to name a few—have all vanished or at least been banished to the Vanderbilt vault, their commentaries forgotten. Kissinger in a way grabbed their roles. He became the Olympian commentator, in print and in person, on global events. Practitioners paid close attention, as I can attest. In my career, I always scanned for his op-ed pieces and read them eagerly, not so much for their prescriptions (certainly not on our Balkan policy) but for their premises, their Weltanschauung.

For decades Kissinger has kept up this second act. I have heard all manner of foreign officials quote him—for instance, a deputy prime minister cite knowingly the different conundrums facing a scholar and a statesman. Here is Kissinger in 2001, a month after 9/11 and shortly after our invasion of Afghanistan: “Using U.S. military forces for nation-building or pacifying the entire country would involve us in a quagmire comparable to what drained the Soviet Union” (from my own archive). Twenty years on, this looks very much like an insight. The spectral phrase, “decent interval,” coined during the Vietnam endgame and examined by Schwartz, is once again haunting U.S. policymakers, this time with regard to American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Dr. Johnson criticized Shakespeare for hurrying his plays to their end, for “shortening the labour to snatch the profit.” Professor Schwartz resists the temptation. The bulk of the book deals with Kissinger in office, in power; the author properly adds a last chapter covering Kissinger out of office though not, shall we say, out of power. A sharp-edged epilogue takes up charges against Kissinger as a war criminal and spells out the author’s own judgments on his subject, including one likely to stir debate: “Kissinger was far more a tactician than a strategist.”

Schwartz’s own trifecta—analyzing Kissinger as a policymaker, politician and performer—yields striking results. One of the most important is his characterization of Kissinger as a polytropos: a many-sided figure, one worthy of the 19 adjectives strewn in the book’s last paragraph. A polyhedron of 19 sides, at least. A complicated figure, in short. This approach is much more sensible than descriptions by the media (Super K, Playboy of the Western Wing)—which are too constructed; or by another historian (The Idealist)—too compressed; or even by Kissinger’s own self-portrayal (Lone Ranger, cowboy at the head of a wagon train) – too contrived.

Kissinger comes closest to revealing his true spirit not in his conceited images or ironic quips. Thomas Schwartz is drawn to Kissinger’s remembrance of Fritz Kraemer, an early mentor, and it’s easy to see why. This little eulogy and those on other public figures (some three dozen in all, collected on Kissinger’s website under “remembrances”) seem more reflective of Kissinger’s innermost thoughts than any other source. Their tone is that of a cello not trombone.

From the author we can also infer that Kant not Spengler left the greater intellectual imprint; and that Zhou Enlai not Metternich served as the greater diplomatic model. (Both Kant and Zhou make glowing appearances on the last page of Kissinger’s On China.) This sheds new light on the many-shaded polytropos.

In subtle fashion, Schwartz presents Kissinger’s humor in a new way. The author lets stand the many thuds of mockingly self-mocking comments by Kissinger. A genuine spark of humor, that of exasperated wit, comes through in Kissinger’s put-downs: Castro as a “pipsqueak,” a Saudi king as a “kook but shrewd cookie.” And one amusing comment reveals Kissinger unguarded: Referring to Nixon and Ford, he bemoaned his destiny “to work for losers.”

Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography offers lessons for the incoming U.S. administration. A defining theme in Professor Schwartz’s narrative deals with the risk and reward of a big personality serving the President. Dean Acheson once remarked that strong personality was part of expansive power, citing Napoleon and FDR and Churchill (and implying himself). True, but it also carries risk. High voltage can mean high maintenance and haywire circuitry. Schwartz recalls the disconnect between President Obama and the troubleshooter Richard Holbrooke. The one cool, the other hot, they simply did not mesh. President Biden, an empathetic but not emphatic personality, might ponder this warning.

After four years of dubious results from Dealpolitik, we may see a revival of Realpolitik. If not in its software, then in its machinery: relentless tactics in pursuit of a global design, in pursuit of, yes, a diplomatic strategy. This is an enduring Kissingerian legacy, forged in power, sustained by influence, that Thomas Schwartz illuminates.End.


Thomas A. Schwartz is the Distinguished Professor of History, Professor of Political Science, and Professor of European Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He has served as President of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations, and as the representative of the Organization of the American Historians on the United States Department of State’s Historical Advisory Council.

Fletcher M. Burton, a U.S. Foreign Service Officer from 1988-2014, has written on Vernon Walters and David Newsom for the Foreign Service Journal; and on George Kennan and Woodrow Wilson for the Princeton Alumni Weekly. His reflections on diplomacy reside here: The crisis of crisis management | Devex

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