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Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist

December 9, 2015

Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History, Harvard University

Acclaimed author and historian Niall Ferguson visited the Johns Hopkins SAIS Washington, DC campus December 9, 2015, to discuss his new book—Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist

The first of a two-part book project, Ferguson pointed out that the most frequent questions observers ask about Kissinger pertain to the second half of the statesman's life. However, Ferguson enjoyed researching and writing the earlier volume because it revealed often misunderstood truths about his subject, stating that Kissinger’s “early life was essential in understanding his later years.”

Ferguson asked the audience to look beyond the remarks of critics who painted Kissinger as an “evil villain—a power hungry social climbing politician,” and instead see a man who was thoughtful, pragmatic, and a person who was most often unpolished and unapologetic. In fact, Ferguson wanted to rescue Kissinger from history’s reductionist caricature and depict him “as he actually was.” To paint a humanistic picture of Kissinger, Ferguson recalled a man of many titles; “Kissinger was a refugee, conscript, solider, a member of the proletariat, and a Nazi hunter — all of these things before he had even become an undergraduate. He went on to become one of the most public intellectuals of his generation.”

A deep consideration for history was at the very heart of Kissinger’s foreign policy. Reading a passage from the book, Ferguson continued — “History is to states what character is to individuals.” Ferguson did not dispute Kissinger’s involvement in notable international exigencies, but suggested that they “shouldn’t bear on how we assess his legacy: arguments that focus on loss of life in strategically marginal countries – Argentina, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile, Cyprus, and East Timor – must be tested against this question: How, in each case, would an alternative decision have affected U.S. relations with strategically important countries like the Soviet Union, China, and the major western European powers?” The US won the cold war and that means that the burden of proof is on critics to show how different policies would have produced better results, Ferguson asserted.

When asked of his opinion on the current landscape of American foreign policy, Ferguson revealed that “analyses aren’t perfect, they never are, but we have run now into foreign policy without any insight.” In regards to foreign policy and how aptly it is applied today Ferguson took a hard stance against what he sees as an ineffectual strategy for the Obama administration. Drawing on a quote from Kissinger to highlight these complexities, Ferguson used a notable Kissinger quote; “most choices are between evils.” In essence Ferguson offered the rationale that “the thing you do will indeed always be an evil. The issue is whether the right choice was made. In decision-making there is a hierarchy. The insistence of absolutes is a prescription of absolutes.”

Harvard University Professor Niall Ferguson shares insights from his book on the early career of Henry Kissinger.