- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Ferguson’s New Look at Kissinger and the Lessons of History

| Fall/Winter 2015-2016

Few figures provoke as much passionate debate as Henry Kissinger. Equally revered and reviled, his work as an academic, national security advisor, diplomat, and strategic thinker indelibly shaped America’s role in the 20th century. Kissinger’s counsel knew few boundaries. His advice was sought by every president from Kennedy to Obama. Yet the man and his ideas remain the object of profound disagreement.

Drawing on 50 archives around the world, including Kissinger’s private papers, Niall Ferguson’s new book, Kissinger: Volume 1: The Idealist, 1923-1968, argues that America’s most controversial statesman, and the Cold War history he witnessed and shaped, must be seen in a new light. In this first of a two-volume history, we learn that:

Kissinger was far from a Machiavellian realist. At least in the first half of his career, he was an idealist, opposed to philosophies that see human actions and events as determined by factors beyond our control, such as laws of history or economic development. Kissinger rejected the idea that such “necessity” was the crucial element in human affairs. He exalted the role of human freedom, choice, and agency in shaping the world.

Kissinger worried that the United States was forfeiting its moral leverage by accepting a Soviet-framed contest over economic productivity. In a remarkable interview with ABC’s Mike Wallace in July 1958, he made the startling argument that the U.S. was being insufficiently idealistic in its Cold War strategy. “I think we should go on the spiritual offensive in the world,” he said. “We should identify ourselves with the revolution.” The aim was not to win a contest between rival models of economic development but above all to “fill…a spiritual void.”

Kissinger believed deeply in the importance of applied history to good statecraft: “When I entered office, I brought with me a philosophy formed by two decades of the study of history,” he wrote in White House Years. “History is not, of course, a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims. It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”

A proper understanding of American history requires a proper understanding of Kissinger. As Ferguson notes in Volume One, “In researching the life and times of Henry Kissinger, I have come to realize that … I had missed the crucial importance in American foreign policy of the history deficit: the fact that key decision-makers know almost nothing not just of other countries’ pasts, but also of their own. Worse, they often do not see what is wrong with their ignorance. Worst of all, they know just enough history to have confidence but not enough to have understanding.”

What is most needed for students of economics and international relations alike, Ferguson says, is a stiff dose of applied history—a dose he will personally help provide through his continued affiliation with the Belfer Center and its emerging Applied History Project.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Burek, Josh. Ferguson’s New Look at Kissinger and the Lessons of History.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Fall/Winter 2015-2016).

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