on December 7, 1999
As Walter Isaacson will tell you, Kissinger is the sort of man who will draw polar reactions from people-- you either love him or hate him. This makes it difficult to write an objective biography of him while still providing useful commentary. Isaacson succeeds brilliantly. Although he is very penetrating in analyzing Kissinger's techniques and views as National Security Advisor and later as Secretary of State, he stops short of giving us his views on whether they were good and bad, focusing instead on whether or not they worked, and what reaction they provoked. This leaves the reader to form their own opinion on whether or not Kissinger was justified in his actions, or if his policies were the best ones. This is as it should be-- Kissinger is too complex a subject and too emotional a topic to be fed someone else's reaction to his actions. Isaacson points out the successes of Kissinger's noted duplicity and his pragmatic, sometimes ruthless, worldview, as well as the negative reactions it often drew, but leaves the reader to decide their own opinion. What Isaacson does is provides an excellent insight into Kissinger's complex personality, as well as an analysis of his foreign policy, the effects of his personality on his policy, and the options available to him. I have never seen a better guide to Kissinger and his policies.
This book has sat on my shelf unread for years - I think because I'm somewhat leery of "contemporary" biographies. Just another error in judgment on my part - this is an excellent book. (A back cover review describes it as "riveting" and that's not far off - I found it difficult to put this book down.)
It's all here - the chronology - Kissinger's family's escape from Nazi tyranny, Kissinger's time in the armed services, Harvard, Rockefeller - with the bulk of the book, (understandably so), covering Kissinger's life and times in the Nixon administration - including the bizarre relationship that only these two men could have had.
As for concerns about objectivity, the author addresses this in his introduction - how can a reader not come to this book without preconceived notions/opinions on such controversial/polarizing topics as Watergate, the Vietnam War, détente, etc. - I found the writing to be fair as well as extremely engaging.
Concerning "gossipy" issues - the subject's thin skin, temper tantrums, zeal for secrecy, back-biting, etc. - and "real-politik" issues - China, the USSR, the Paris Peace Talks - All deftly covered in this book combining anecdotes, news reports, analysis, and behind the scenes sources. Kissinger's place in history is up for time to tell - this biography's place is secure. If you're debating about reading this book - don't - pick it up and start it - you won't be disappointed.
It's impossible to write a completely objective biography on a contempory and highly controversial figure - but Walter Isaacson has come decently close with "Kissinger."
This massive best-seller is a wild, often uproarious and always entertaining read. Isaacson traces Kissinger from his turbulent childhood in Nazi Germany, his formative years in the US Army during the Second World War and his storied tenure as a Harvard underclassman, graduate student and imperious young professor. He presents Kissinger as undeniably brilliant yet completely insecure, callous and driven by unbridled ambition. His ultimate success as an academic, a bureaucrat and a statesman were all attributable to an uncommon mix of exceptional talent, incredible hard-work and constant manipulation.
Isaacson highlights Kissinger's academic focus on 19th century European diplomacy and attempts to show how the method and practice of Napoleonic era foreign secretaries such as Metternich directly influenced his behavior as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. His attempts to centralize power and decision-making across all facets of foreign policy result in some of the most entertaining pieces of the biography: Kissinger's bizarre relationship with his boss, Richard Nixon. For instance, Isaacson tells how Kissinger always did his best to keep Nixon away from direct meetings with foreign leaders and diplomats, citing the president's "Walter Mitty tendencies" - as if the chief executive's desire to play an intimate role in his administration's foreign policy were ominous signs of delusions of grandeur. He also describes how the totalitarian leadership in the Soviet Union and North Vietnam were often befuddled by the incessant use of back-channel contacts and covert diplomatic horse-trading proposed by Kissinger and the Nixon White House. Finally, Isaacson's description of a maudlin Nixon begging Kissinger to kneel and pray with him in the White House on the eve of his resignation is simply unforgettable.
In the end, the best description of Kissinger is the one Isaacson writes in the final pages of his biography: "...[Kissinger's] mixture of brilliance and abrasiveness, ego and insecurity, charm and furtiveness, humor and ambition had made him, for better and for worse, one of the premier stars of his era."
Walter Isaacson, who has written esteemed biographies of Benjamin Franklin, The Wise Men, and Einstein, tackles the complex character of Henry Kissinger, academic, diplomat, and consultant. Kissinger is a difficult character to pin down, as Isaacson notes. He was devious, self-promoting, self-deprecating, intelligent, ambitious, and successful. The author interviewed over 150 people--including Kissinger himself--to gather information for this lengthy volume (767 pages of text).
At the outset, Isaacson says (page 9): "Three decades after he left office, Henry Kissinger continues to exert a fascinating hold on the public imagination as well as intellectual sway over the nation's foreign policy conversation." He was a well-known apostle of "Realpolitik," emphasizing doing what had to be done to advance the national interest, balancing power with power, concerned more with accomplishing things than getting caught up in ideology and morality. Again, a realist as opposed to an idealist. And this is the tension that is described throughout the course of this powerful volume (page 15): ". . .Kissinger had an instinctive feel. . .for power and for creating a new global balance that could help America cope with its withdrawal syndrome after Vietnam. But it was not matched by a similar feel for the strength to be derived from the openness of America's democratic system or for the moral values that are the true source of its global influence."
The book begins with a brief early biography of Kissinger, including the misery he experienced after the Nazis came to power and the departure of his immediate family from Germany when they came to understand how inhospitable that country was becoming for Jews. The book also notes that many of his relatives died during World War II, part of the Holocaust. There follows the tale of his adolescence, his military service, his graduate study, and his promising academic career.
But the major portion of this book focuses on his role as National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State under Richard Nixon's presidency and Secretary of State under Gerald Ford. There is a relatively brief discussion in several chapters of his life after Nixon-Ford, as consultant, commentator, intellectual-without-portfolio.
After having worked with Nelson Rockefeller as an advisor, it is somewhat surprising that he ended up serving one of Rocky's antagonists, Richard Nixon. The book traces the odd relationship between Nixon and Kissinger. Sometimes hard-edged and combative, sometimes oddly supportive of one another. The secretive Nixon and Kissinger as lone cowboy accomplished a great deal in foreign policy; however, their penchant for secrecy also created problems of its own. Kissinger could be viewed is devious (for telling different people things in such a way as for each to think that Kissinger was on his/her side), but he also earned the trust of many leaders as he invented "shuttle diplomacy." Leaders might become exasperated with his style and his deviousness, but he was effective in a number of key instances. Examples worth exploring and reflecting upon in the book include the negotiations with North Vietnam to extricate the United States from a quagmire of its own making; the effort to end the Yom Kippur War in a manner that would stabilize the Middle East; the opening to China; détente with the Soviet Union.
This is a biography that is worth investing time and energy into. It portrays Kissinger, warts and all, in a manner that illuminates this complicated individual. On some pages, one will think of railing against him; on other pages, one may well feel admiration for his strengths and accomplishments.
on February 4, 2004
Walter Isaacson simply set out to chronicle and highlight to the life and times of Henry Kissinger. What resulted was one of the most comprehensive, insightful, and nonpartisan biographies of the field. Isaacson draws extensively from Kissinger's own memoirs, Years of Upheaval, White House Years, and Years of Renewal, as well as other works written by Kissinger. However, Isaacson also uses other secondary sources written by authors sympathetic and unsympathetic to the former Secretary of State. Yet Isaacson doesn't narrow his focus to any particular period of time in Kissinger's life or career. He details Kissinger's experiences as a university student at Harvard, as a professor there, then as a prominent government figure, then into a full blown public position as National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State. Isaacson does not shy away from controversial topics in or facets of Kissinger's life. He mentions Kissinger's standing as a jet-setter, courting the heads of state and traveling the world, solving, or working to solve, major world problems such as the Vietnam war, the Yom Kippur War, problems with the Soviet Union, and many more. Part of what makes Isaacson's biography a work of quality is his attention to the lesser known events in which Kissinger was a major player. It is up to the reader to judge whether or not Kissinger is biased, manipulative, or any of the other range of qualities, positive or negative, on which Isaacson sheds light. Isaacson, although judgmental at times, simply provides enough material or direction for any reader to make such a choice. It is more than likely that Kissinger is a polarizing figure of such magnitude that any author or biographer simply cannot resist the temptation to judge. Isaacson's work remains, in spite of any judging, a must-have resource for any reader set on inquiring into Kissinger's life and career. It is a very thorough introductory survey of Kissinger despite any shortcomings.
on September 20, 2002
I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a book so much. Every time I put it down, I found myself thinking of when I would have time to pick it up and continue reading it. Mr. Isaacson has really grasped his subject matter and written a balanced book. It does not seek to praise or castigate Kissinger. His goal seems to be to present him as objectively as possible, yet not without assessment.
The overarching question that came to me again and again as I read this book concerned integrity. I kept wondering how anyone could believe anything that comes out of Kissinger's mouth. To say he is disingenuous seems to be an understatement. Isaacson brings out the fact that Kissinger would flatter a person and then insult him or her behind their back. Quite often this would come back to haunt Kissinger.
Isaacson does a masterful job in articulating the "realist" school of foreign policy and the "idealist" school. The realist view sees things in terms of balances of power, whereas the idealist school sees things in terms of promoting American values in foreign policy (like democracy, human rights, etc.). Kissinger, holding to the former school, had no feel for the latter whatsoever. This left his foreign policy open, and I believe rightly so, to criticism from human rights groups and from average Americans who felt we should put our best values forward in conducting foreign affairs.
Isaacson makes the point that Kissinger waited five years until he started his international consulting business. He has literally made millions as a consultant. He was also on the boards of major corporations. While there is nothing unethical in serving in those capacities, he was, at the same time, a paid commentator on foreign affairs for major networks. Just as a judge is bound to excuse himself in a case where he has conflicting interests, it seems to me that Kissinger should have done the same when it came to offering his views about foreign policy concerns. I think it reprehensible that journalists rarely, if ever, brought up his possible conflict of interests. Evidently his flattery routine worked quite well on journalists also. Over the years, I have never read or heard any meaningful criticism of Communist China from Kissinger. Quite the contrary, he seems to be their greatest apologist! Is this because of his realist view of foreign policy? Is it because he has business interests in China? I guess we will never know. So I take what he says with a grain of salt.
Which takes me back to the overarching question of how anyone can believe anything he says. Isaacson's book can't answer that question, but it makes the asking of it necessary.
on January 20, 2015
I didn't enjoy this book as much as others written by Walter isaacson. I don't think there was anything wrong with the research or the writing. I did gain a stronger understanding of history and also great insights into the mind of Henry Kissinger. The problem may be that continuous analysis of Henry Kissinger's character flaws grew tiresome in such a long book. My next book choice will be something more uplifting.
on March 3, 2016
Comprehensive biography which gave insight into how his experiences as a youth impacted his philosophy and actions as an adult. Brought back all the issues of his tenure with Nixon and all the failures of their shared view of the world. Isaacson pointed out how some of Kissinger's accomplishments are long lasting and for the good of mankind and others were harmful to our nation. An interesting if not at times a distressing read.
on January 30, 2016
I wish I knew where to start. I was a child during kissinger hey day. So I thought I would read the biography of the man that was Secretary of state to one and a half presidents. This is a well researched book and by no means is it a bright breezy biography. I'm 140 pages in as of the writing of this review. To say I knew nothing of the subject matter isn't quite true I lived in a house where my mother saying get off my tv you arrogant Jew bastard was a nightly occurance. To say my mother hated kissinger would be an understatement and as an adult I find her hatred of people tirsome at best. But after reading what I have of this biography for once I find her assessment spot on. Kissinger is mean arrogant and horrible to the people who care about him. He is a social climber in the worse sense of the word. I despise him for the way he and other men have used first wives to get what they desire wealth,education,stature. What they feel will advance THEIR career. Then when they've reached the top the dutiful wife that has worked two jobs kept house and made it possible for the husband to attain HIS goals is no longer suitable to mingle in her husband's social circle. So she is discarded like rubbish. Now the newly minted PhD is free to find the arm candy that will nod politely at snobby cocktail parties and host her own snobby party. Not to mention bring her own truckload of money with her name. Kissinger is and ugly (both physically and morally) inveterate social climber that seeks highest social circles so he can be flattered and fawned over. He's not brilliant he's stupid to the utmost because he fails to give people the respect that he wants for himself. Will I finish the 770 page book the answer is yes and I will have learned what not to be and how not to treat people
on October 31, 2015
Having read several books by Walter Isaacson, I find him to be a good writer. Being an admirer of Kissinger and having a love of history, I expected this to be a perfect book for me. After reading about a fourth of it, I find that it is certainly well-researched but also a slow and difficult read. It is not a book one would read for pleasure but more for the serious history or biography buff.