No American diplomat's career has been more thoroughly documented and debated -- or celebrated and reviled -- than Henry Kissinger's. There are shelves of biographies by distinguished authors, and Kissinger himself has produced a massive three-volume memoir followed by a steady flow of books, essays, and commentaries. These two books do not provide startling new historical accounts of Kissinger, but they do offer some fresh glimpses of his motives and personality on display in high office.
Suri traces Kissinger's remarkable journey from German Jewish refugee to preeminent diplomat, setting the narrative against the backdrop of the rise of postwar U.S. power. It is not a chronicle of Kissinger's actions so much as an extended reflection on Kissinger's life as a quintessential American story: a young immigrant outsider who, thanks to talent and circumstance, turns himself into the ultimate establishment insider. Suri's thesis is that Kissinger is not so much a great man as a "child of his times." It was the changing world around him -- the Cold War and the United States' increasingly global reach -- that provided a stage on which Kissinger excelled. Kissinger's "genius was not his originality but his ability to recognize the changed circumstances around him and take advantage of them." It is this thesis -- that Kissinger was a man of the Cold War and a captive of his time -- that serves to mute Suri's judgments about controversial Nixon-era policies. Suri also attempts to illuminate the impact of Kissinger's German Jewish identity on his foreign policy vision. At one level, it was simply instrumental: Kissinger's early career was built on his ability to translate German society for Americans. But Suri also sees a more profound impact in Kissinger's abiding suspicion of unbridled democracy and idealistic liberal projects.
Dallek focuses on the complicated Nixon-Kissinger relationship, providing the authoritative historical treatment of this oddest of diplomatic couples. Dallek draws on thousands of hours of Oval Office tapes and voluminous Kissinger phone transcripts to tell a gripping, even Shakespearean, story of the machinations of Nixon-era foreign policy culminating in the ignominy of Watergate. Dallek contends that these unlikely diplomatic partners were actually quite alike -- outsiders seized with ambition to remake the world, cynical of other people's motives, impatient with bureaucracy and Congress, and willing to relax their scruples in pursuit of power and policy. Dallek's substantive evaluation of Nixon and Kissinger's foreign policy sits comfortably within the mainstream. What the book does is give a more detailed rendering of the motives and maneuvering in the Nixon administration, advancing the view that abundant pride, secrecy, and ambition helped generate both the administration's greatest successes (namely, its policies toward China and the Soviet Union) and its greatest failures (most tragic, the long ending of the Vietnam War).
Where Suri sees Kissinger as emblematic of his time, operating well within the Cold War framework, Dallek sees a more distinctive, if flawed, brilliance that advanced relations among the great powers but also compromised the country's moral vision. The debate will not soon end on these fundamental issues, if only because, as Dallek concludes, the foreign policy of Nixon and Kissinger "is as ambiguous as the men themselves."