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The Servile Fanatic: Niall Ferguson’s Grotesque but Telling New Biography of Henry Kissinger

American history does not lack for superintendents of devastation whom the taxidermy of whitewashed history puts on display as illustrious persons for the admiration of schoolchildren. While ghosts prowl the outskirts of national mythology, herds of admirers graze agreeably, ever cowed.

Consider Thomas Jefferson, who in 1803 wrote confidentially to the governor of the Indiana Territory that if natives east of the Mississippi persisted in refusing to give up their hunting ways and take up sedentary agriculture instead, they should be rounded up and sent West. Consider his protégé Andrew Jackson, whose Indian Removal Act, the legal justification for grabbing Cherokee land in the southeast and force-marching the “savage hunters” westward, was, he said, a policy “not only liberal, but generous” and “a happy consummation” that might “perhaps cause” the natives “to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.” Or consider Jackson’s protégé James K. Polk, who then-Congressman Abraham Lincoln showed had provoked war with Mexico in 1848. Thirteen thousand Americans died in the ensuing Mexican War, but the story told to American schoolchildren is that the memorable local event was the martyrdom of the Anglo victims of the earlier battle of the Alamo. None of this is even to speak of the several presidents and other high officials of the United States who owned slaves—which entailed holding onto them by force and violence, which may not technically qualify as war criminality but may surely be understood as the continuation of war (on Africans) by other means. At his death in 1845, Jackson owned about 150 slaves, his protégé James Polk more than 50. (Writes one historian: “More than half of the children among Polk’s slaves died before reaching age 15”—a mortality rate more than 50 percent higher than that for all blacks in America.) But that’s by the by. The official website about Jackson baronial home “The Hermitage,” the same that tells us about the slaves, calls him “The People’s President,” and his face still adorns the $20 bill.

Or consider Henry Kissinger, who finds America self-evidently glorious and the expansion of American power an unquestionable virtue. In a 1956 article that his often reverent biographer Niall Ferguson characterizes mildly as “self-confident,” Kissinger deplored Americans’ penchant for blind optimism. Americans, he wrote, lack the ability to “grasp … the nuances of possibilities,” as (surprise!) none other than Henry Kissinger was adept at doing. Eighteen years after arriving in the United States as a refugee from Nazi Germany, Kissinger had stars in his eyes. Poor enfeebled Americans: They suffered from a “lack of tragic experience.” They needed close encounters with the abyss. They need a gravel-voiced, heavily accented refugee from the old country—Henry Kissinger.

How the historian Niall Ferguson (late of Harvard, now heading to Stanford’s Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace) will assess Kissinger’s years in Richard Nixon’s White House we shall see when he brings out his second volume, which will take up the saga in 1969, when Kissinger assumes the office of national security adviser and more than 21,000 Americans and between 800,000 and 1.5 million Vietnamese who would die before Nixon left the White House in disgrace are still breathing.

But it is not a happy forecast of what is to follow that Ferguson sees Kissinger’s critics as grudge-bearing self-seekers. The flavor of Ferguson’s approach emerges as early as page 16 in Vol. I, subtitled “1923-1968: The Idealist.” Ferguson tells the tale of 13 former Harvard colleagues descending upon Washington to meet with Kissinger in May 1970. “We’re a group of people,” the game-theory pioneer Thomas Schelling, no radical and a later Nobel Prize-winner in economics, told Kissinger, “who have completely lost confidence in the ability of the White House to conduct our foreign policy, and we have come to tell you so. We are no longer at your disposal as personal advisers.” ...

Read entire article at Tablet