Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

From Realpolitik to Perpetual Peace: Niall Ferguson on Henry Kissinger

This past Friday local residents were offered a firsthand glimpse into the mind of one of the English speaking world's most renowned historians, and his account of one of today's most polarizing political figures. Niall Ferguson treated the Ottawa International Writers Festival to a discussion of his newly released book, Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist.

If you know anything about Henry Kissinger, idealist is probably not the first word that comes to mind. Kissinger often draws references to Machiavelli, and has become synonymous with Cold War realpolitik . Yet, as Ferguson eloquently suggested to attendees, the narrative that been built up around Kissinger is far too simplistic to capture the life and career of a man as complex as Henry Kissinger.

Not only did Ferguson elaborate on the content of his book, he also gave the audience unique insights into the origin and writing of the book. Ferguson recalled the first time he met Kissinger at a party in London. With a mix of humour and sophistication that few can replicate, Ferguson explained that Kissinger approached him about writing the book  a task that he initially refused given the magnitude of such a project. However, Kissinger returned with an offer no historian could refuse; access to over 140 boxes of unpublished letters and journals written by Kissinger.


It was within this material that Ferguson discovered a new Kissinger, one he describes as an "idealist." The first volume covers Kissinger's life from 1923-1968, before he became National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State. The second volume will thus deal with the parts of Kissinger's career that ignite so much debate among both scholars and laymen. Ferguson was clear that he had not yet devoted enough research or thought to this part of Kissinger's life, and would not be drawn into judgements over his legacy.

In defending his characterization of Kissinger, Ferguson explained that Kissinger the statesman was deeply shaped by his early experiences. The early Kissinger, from his humble beginnings as a German Jewish refugee, to his combat experience in Germany in the Second World War, to his academic career, was not the power hungry Machiavellian he is so often described as. Ferguson recalled intimate details of Kissinger's life, such as his immersion in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant; his incredibly long undergraduate thesis that led to Harvard creating a limitation on the length of such theses still known as the "Kissinger rule"; his casual strolls on World War Two battlefields with his mentor Fritz Kraemer (who remained for much of Kissinger's life a second conscience); and his hopeless attempts to convince the Washington bureaucracy to allow him to take a position part-time while he continued his academic career.  For all this, Ferguson went as far to call the young Kissinger "naive." As Ferguson elaborated, the values and ideals that shaped young Kissinger remained the first principles that defined his entire career, which has led Ferguson to understand this Kissinger as an idealist.


Ferguson is not one to shy away from unorthodox historical and political positions, and it was clear by some of the questions asked by the audience that his portrayal of the early Kissinger made some uncomfortable. Yet, throughout the night Ferguson made use of his unique charm and wit to suggest that the standard opinions about Kissinger simply do not provide a truthful and complete account of the man. Seducing the audience with a mixture of humor, anecdotal stories and mastery of the material he has been given access to, Ferguson showed at the very least why his argument is worth consideration. The discussion was aided by the guidance of the CBC's Adrian Harewood, whose gentle yet thorough questioning maximized the time available. The challenge Ferguson now faces is completing his biography of this intriguing figure with a second volume as compelling as the first.