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Twentieth Century Metternich
on 16 October 2011
Like many reviewers (on Amazon.com), I enjoyed this book very much.
Unlike Kissinger's memoirs, it covers his whole life, though most of the focus is on his years in power with Nixon.
The chapters on the early life are well written and evocative. Kissinger's parents were strong and courageous, living as respected citizens in a part of Germany with many Jewish people. As Kissinger grew up his family watched all their rights being taken away and at the last minute (in 1938) left for the USA.
Kissinger's regard for the values of the USA is in contrast to the suffering of his family in Germany, but according to Isaacson bitterness was not a part of his life.
To me one of the most interesting parts of the book is the picture of Nixon. Nixon and Kissinger were a match for each other. Each was emotional, given to tantrums, though in different styles, and each played their colleagues like a Wurlitzer.
Kissinger was brilliant and devious and famously capable of steaming into any situation and maintaining his concentration on half a dozen different aspects of a crisis simultaneously. Nixon largely gave him his head but quite unlike President Ford later, called the shots when it mattered to him to do so.
Interestingly, in some ways, at least in comparison to the Republican leaders who came after him, Nixon comes over like a liberal. He is of course associated with the Vietnam War, but when Nixon came to power there were nearly 600,000 US troops in Vietnam. He immediately began regular withdrawals, and at no point during his presidency were these regular troop reductions halted for more than a brief period. According to Isaacson, the aggressive moves made by the US after 1968 were to protect `American credibility' and their bargaining position at the peace table.
Given the situation they were in, and depending on what your view of what constitutes credibility is, they probably did a fair job. Kissinger is of course blamed for the invasion of Cambodia, but the way Isaacson tells it, it was the US invasion of Vietnam in the first place, and the subsequent use of Cambodia as a base by the Viet Cong which really led to the development of the Khmer Rouge, rather than the much later US bombing and invasion of Cambodia.
Isaacson's own views are clear and not clear. He frequently rebukes Kissinger for what he presumably sees as non-liberal actions, eg the conspiracy against Allende and the supplying of arms to the Indonesians to suppress the rebels in East Timor, but then lets him off the hook, by for instance pointing out that Allende was no democrat and an economic disaster.
Isaacson's viewpoint, like Kissinger's, appears to be that if it's American it's great, and anything Soviet, or anything which could be construed as pro-Soviet, is the enemy. Remember this book was written in 1992). It is this viewpoint, however `liberal', which let in the fundamentalists we are all suffering with today, I mean the `Let the market rule' and democracy or death guys.
The biggest lesson of this book for me though is the utter contrast between the world of the sixties and seventies and what came after. The closing chapters of the book are the least interesting, you feel Isaacson has to push himself to sustain the narrative in a period where the values are all different and Kissinger himself struggles to obtain any leverage.
Despite its limitations, a great read, and incidentally, frequently hilarious.