BookMark: "Kissinger's Shadow" by Greg Grandin

Dec 3, 2015

I was intrigued to hear about a new book that seeks to reconcile the seemingly contradictory legacies of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Greg Grandin, author of well-received books like “Fordlandia” and “Empire of Necessity,” tackles the thorny issue of one of the United States' most notorious diplomats in the book “Kissinger's Shadow: The Long Reach of America's Most Controversial Statesman.”

Drawing on newly declassified documents, Grandin's portrayal of Kissinger is far from complimentary. While Grandin gives him credit for helping to normalize relations with China and brokering an arms-reduction treaty with the Soviet Union, the majority of the work zeroes in on ethically ambiguous acts that reflected Kissinger's personal philosophy of history. Kissinger believed that decline was not inevitable in a great power, as long as it acted decisively to maintain that power. This is the theory that drove acts as varied as the illegal bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War to his tacit support of right-wing death squads in Latin America during the 1970's. Kissinger believed consequences and right or wrong were not important as long as the United States displayed its power. Kissinger never second-guessed himself, and has steadfastly stood by the rightness of his decisions. In fact, when Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara publicly apologized for his role in the conflict, Kissinger mocked him for his contrition. From Kissinger, there would be no apology, not then and not ever.

In spite of the disastrous consequences of his decisions, in the post-Vietnam War era, when he worked for the Nixon and Ford Administrations, Kissinger doubled down. He helped facilitate the flow of weapons to the Shah of Iran, who was himself helping Islamic terrorists destabilize Afghanistan. He supported murderous governments in the Philippines and Indonesia, and he quietly allied with the apartheid regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa. In the name of "decisive action," he even suggested military seizure of Saudi Arabian oil fields, just to show that the U.S. could.

In spite of his foreign policy blunders, Kissinger has shown himself to be amazingly adaptable. Initially disparaging of Ronald Reagan, Kissinger reinvented himself for the ascendant conservatives on the Right. While his reputation has waxed and waned in his later years, Kissinger positioned himself as an elder statesman. His opinions were sought on both sides of the aisle. There were few conflicts he didn't like, so long as America appeared strong, and he served as a cheerleader for both Iraq Wars. Many actions that were controversial in the 1970’s became commonplace, Kissinger having paved the way.

Grandin's accounting of Kissinger is by no means balanced, but it never pretends to be. The author's deft handling of sources, and his engrossing writing style, combine for a fascinating portrayal of the statesman. If you are a history buff who wants to dig deeper into Kissinger’s legacy, then this book is for you. 

That book is “Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman” by Greg Grandin. It’s published by Metropolitan Books.

Reviewer Brady Clemens is the district consultant at Schlow Regional Library.