Understanding Kissinger

Historian Jeremi Suri has written what may become the definitive scholarly analysis of Kissinger's controversial legacy.

kissinger 88 (photo credit: )
kissinger 88
(photo credit: )
Jeremi Suri, associate professor of history and senior fellow at the Center for World Affairs and the Global Economy at University of Wisconsin-Madison, looks through Vietnam-era political posters in the manuscript reading room of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Suri is completing a book entitled Henry Kissinger and the American Century, due out in late 2006. "Much of my interest in history derives from my desire to understand the present and the human condition," says Suri. "To understand where we are today, you need to know where we've come from." When Jeremi Suri received an e-mail in February 2004 with the imposing subject line, "A Message from Dr. Henry Kissinger," his first thought was: "Which colleague is pulling my leg?" It turned out to be the real deal - a message from the statesman's assistant, indicating Kissinger would like to meet promptly with the historian. "Like the meek intellectual, I said I'll be there when Dr. Kissinger wants me to be there," says Suri, a UW-Madison history professor and expert on post-World War II global politics. That exchange opened up an opportunity of a lifetime for Suri. Since then, he has met on nearly a dozen occasions with the former secretary of state, and immersed himself in Kissinger's historical archives in both the United States and Europe. The end result will be a thorough biography examining one of the most influential and polarizing figures of the modern era. Suri says he knew that first meeting would be rather awkward. Kissinger was angry about his portrayal in Suri's 2003 book Power and Protest, which explored the rise of d tente in the early 1970s. Suri's critique of the policy, largely the brainchild of Kissinger, was unflattering, arguing the policy was meant to prop up the status quo and that US and Soviet leaders "colluded to contain their own citizens." But Suri found in Kissinger not just a man who wanted to argue a point, but someone much more deeply concerned with his legacy. Few people in American politics, in fact, have inspired such mixed perceptions about their impact on the world. Kissinger served as national security adviser and secretary of state during the most tumultuous period in modern history (1969-1977), and his work produced a blueprint for a world order that largely still exists. He opened nascent relations with China. Nearly every foreign policy figure after him - Brent Scowcroft, George Shultz, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell - has direct lineage to Kissinger's tenure. And remarkably, at age 82, he's still in the game. His consulting firm, Kissinger and Associates, has clients all over the world, most notably in China and the Middle East, and he still commands the ability to win friends and broker deals with corporate and political bigwigs across the globe, says Suri. On the other hand, his policies in Vietnam, South America and other hotspots have been seen as human rights debacles, with one author in particular arguing they are tantamount to war crimes. Suri says Kissinger's highly secretive, back-door dealing created deep distrust, and Kissinger has, by his own admission, lied as a tactic to "reach greater ends." "He's suspicious and concerned about his historical reputation," says Suri. "I'm also convinced that he's a very troubled man - that he has his nightmares, his ghosts." Suri says those troubles apparently do not stem from guilt or regret, but a sense that he had a "moral obligation" to make the world a better place and sees scant evidence of that goal. One of the key elements of his book will be in addressing Kissinger's relentless motivation, exploring why he's still driven to be a player at age 82. "A lot of it has to do with the immigrant experience," says Suri. "He comes from a society - Weimar, Germany in the 1930s - that was one of the most advanced democratic societies of its time, that collapses under a group of Nazi extremists. He sees the weakness of democracy, and he sees how quickly a person can fall from a position of respectability to a position of almost being killed. "There is no possibility of retirement or relaxation for him, because he's never achieved enough, he's never secure." Kissinger's politics, for the most part, are sharply defined by that immigrant experience. His family escaped the Nazis through the good fortune of leaving his native town of Fuerth, Germany in 1938, but many of his relatives were killed. "Fundamental to Kissinger's perception of the world is that democracies are weak and they wait too long to act," Suri says. "September 11 would be one example. Pearl Harbor, Munich in 1938, the Korean War." Based on this perception, Suri argues that Kissinger's policies placed security above human rights, and security comes from meaningful relationships among states - even those states with a track record of treachery. "His argument is that the lesser of two evils is better than empty human rights rhetoric," Suri says. "That is the standard position of people from his generation. They came out of World War II, when the isolationists were talking about human rights and those who went to war were not. And they were the ones who defeated the Nazis." Suri says that Kissinger is "a wonderfully interesting person to talk to," but can also be manipulative and is always "spinning" his image. "It's not like I really interview him - he takes control of the conversation," Suri says. "I have to be more in tune with what he wants to say." Suri was surprised that once he gets access to Kissinger, he devotes a lot of time and becomes remarkably engaged. Kissinger has shown a lot of interest in the book, but seems to both respect and fear Suri's scholarly approach. Not even Kissinger is entirely sure what Suri will unearth in the archives. "I see my book as the first stab at trying to understand him," Suri says. "One thing I'm sure of from talking to him," Suri adds. "He still thinks he has the best ideas on foreign policy, and he still thinks he's needed. He doesn't have the kind of modesty that comes with older age." (University of Wisconsin-Madison)