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A nation must think before it acts.
No one would ever say that Henry Kissinger’s life has been shrouded in obscurity. From the late 1950s onward, he was a well-known public intellectual who shaped crucial debates about Cold War strategy. During his subsequent time as national security adviser (1969-75) and secretary of state (1973-77) in the Nixon and Ford administrations, he was arguably the most powerful non-president in the history of U.S. foreign policy. He bestrode the bureaucracy in a way that his successors can only envy, and he helped fashion some of the most consequential—and controversial—initiatives in modern American statecraft. The opening to China, the forging of détente with Moscow, the painful and protracted withdrawal from Vietnam: For better or worse, these and other policies had enduring ramifications for U.S. foreign relations, and Mr. Kissinger played an outsize role in all of them.
When Mr. Kissinger was at the peak of his influence, he was the subject of innumerable magazine profiles and gossip columns. Since then, historians and other analysts have filled bookcases with studies of the man and his policies. Sometimes he has been described as a flawed but generally far-sighted policy maker; at other times he has been reduced to a cartoon image of a scheming war criminal. Either way, he has been a source of continual fascination—or infuriation—for decades.
Yet is it possible that we still don’t know Henry Kissinger? Could the most commonly accepted propositions about him—that he was an arch-realist ill at ease in a democratic society, for instance—in fact be clichés that obscure more than they reveal? In the first volume of his authorized biography, “Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist,” Harvard historian Niall Ferguson argues that the real Mr. Kissinger has indeed eluded us and that an in-depth portrait of his early decades—the 45 years ending with his selection as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser following the 1968 election—can fundamentally overturn the conventional wisdom about who Mr. Kissinger was and what he represented.
“In-depth” is the key word here. Whereas most biographers have dispatched Mr. Kissinger’s formative years in a few chapters at most, Mr. Ferguson redresses this tendency—and then some—with a thousand-page book that covers only the part of Mr. Kissinger’s life before he gained real power. (A second volume will take the story through Mr. Kissinger’s Washington years and after.) If it is true, as Mr. Kissinger has written, that policy makers, once in office, simply consume the intellectual capital they have built beforehand, then Mr. Ferguson’s biography represents a determined effort to understand precisely what capital Mr. Kissinger possessed when he reached the corridors of power and how he accumulated it.
Mr. Ferguson traces this process across the major stages of Mr. Kissinger’s early decades: his childhood in…
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