I’D MADE IT 375 pages into Niall Ferguson’s newish first volume of a planned two-volume life of Henry Kissinger before receiving in the mail a copy of Greg Grandin’s review of same, in which the author of last year’s excellent Kissinger’s Shadow sums up Ferguson’s tome as follows: “The irony is that it has been Kissinger’s sharpest critics who have most appreciated his acute sense of self, who have treated him, however disapprovingly, as a fully dimensional individual with a churning, complex psyche. In contrast, Ferguson, tone deaf to Kissinger’s darker notes, condemns him to a literary fate worse than anything that Hitchens could have meted out: Kissinger, in this book, is boring.”
This is about as true a thing as has ever been written about any other thing, so much so that I feel both morally and professionally justified in simply abandoning this charmless book unfinished despite having promised to review it at the end of my last column (I would have figured out some other convenient justification for this regardless, but it’s always good to be able to show your work). Nor am I being insulting to Ferguson simply because I disagree with the pro-Kissinger stance he’s taken as the fellow’s authorized biographer and ideological admirer; two years ago I reviewed Kissinger’s own 1,200-page memoir, White House Years, which, though likewise betraying something of a pro-Kissinger stance, was also undeniably compelling and well-written. And while Kissinger is clever enough that one often needs to sort through a great deal of raw material in order to do a proper job of making fun of him, with Ferguson the threshold is somewhat … lower. Here, then, is my review of Ferguson’s 33-page introduction to Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist.
“A plainly unhinged woman writing as ‘Brice Taylor’ insists that, when she was a child, Kissinger turned her into a ‘mind-controlled slave,’ repeatedly making her eat her alphabet cereal in reverse order and taking her on the ‘It’s a Small World’ ride at Disneyland,” writes Niall Ferguson, Harvard’s Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History and a Hoover Institution senior fellow, who also scrutinizes Lyndon LaRouche’s claim that Kissinger is a British agent and David Icke’s assertion that he’s a reptilian shape-changer from the lower fourth dimension before concluding, “No rational people take such nonsense seriously. But the same cannot be said for the allegations made by conspiracy theorists of the left, who are a great deal more influential.” The conspiracy theorists of the left, it seems, include not only Oliver Stone but also Howard Zinn and Hunter S. Thompson.
Before things get totally out of hand, as they’re clearly about to, keep in mind that Ferguson was chosen by Kissinger to do this biography 10 years ago, which is to say that Ferguson had a decade to come up with some way of depicting the great bulk of anti-Kissinger sentiment as not only misguided but also malicious and at any rate beyond the pale of American political discourse as usually conducted, and that what follows is nonetheless the best that he could do.
Back to the text:
In his People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn argues that Kissinger’s policies in Chile were intended at least in part to serve the economic interests of International Telephone and Telegraph. In place of evidence, such diatribes tend to offer gratuitous insult. According to Zinn, Kissinger “surrendered himself with ease to the princes of war and destruction.” In their Untold History of the United States, the film director Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick refer to Kissinger as a “psychopath” (admittedly quoting Nixon). The doyen of “gonzo” journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, called him a “slippery little devil, a world-class hustler with a thick German accent and a very keen eye for weak spots at the top of the power structure” — adding, for good measure, “pervert.”
So Ferguson promises us influential left-wing conspiracy theorists, which we’re to understand are inherently silly things to be, as if one is not forced into theorizing about conspiracies when one studies a man who conspired to secretly carpet bomb Cambodia, and who did so under the aegis of a presidential administration in which was discussed the viability of assassinating a troublesome newspaper columnist by having LSD applied to his steering wheel.
Still, every allegation must be considered on its merits — something we are unable to do in the case of the single conspiracy theory Ferguson attributes to anyone by name, an allegation supposedly made by Howard Zinn, as Ferguson does not see fit to actually quote it for us. But he does find the space to quote Zinn deploying a disapproving metaphor to describe Kissinger’s decision to go to work for a man he himself had declared not long before to be unfit for the presidency. This, in Ferguson’s accounting, constitutes a “gratuitous insult” on Zinn’s part, whereas referring to another historian’s words as a “diatribe” without having the decency to even reproduce them is presumably not gratuitous at all.
IF ONE BOTHERS to check Ferguson’s footnotes, one comes across the first of several ethical oddities with which his introduction is dotted — for one finds that the “princes of war and destruction” remark is actually from another book written years after People’s History, and thus can hardly be said to constitute an especially good example of an insult offered “in place of evidence,” the place for evidence generally being in the vicinity of the allegation (but we’ll look at the actual evidence in a bit). We are not treated to any better examples down paragraph, where Ferguson quotes Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznik quoting Nixon insulting Kissinger — out of bounds, gentlemen, out of bounds! — without this time deigning even to summarize what allegations the two of them may have leveled at Kissinger to get them thrown in with the likes of Crazy Old Howard Zinn. Hunter S. Thompson makes an appearance as well, unencumbered by anything approaching a reason for being included in what was originally billed as a paragraph detailing unfounded conspiracy theories directed against Kissinger by influential leftists; by now Ferguson seems to have resorted merely to trying to prove that some on the left have insulted Kissinger, or at least quoted Nixon insulting him. To Ferguson’s credit, he does indeed prove this.
Ferguson himself may be aware that he’s promised more than he can deliver here; it may also have occurred to him that he’s just accused several people of failing to back up their allegations with evidence while he himself fails to back up this very allegation with evidence and that this sort of thing might be frowned upon in some circles, if not necessarily at the Hoover Institution. But rather than just deleting this paragraph due to one or more of these several distinct problems, which each on its own makes it worthy of deletion, Ferguson decides to just make it longer. “One left-of-center website recently accused Kissinger of having been somehow involved in the anthrax attacks of September 2001, when anthrax spores were mailed to various media and Senate offices, killing five people.”
Here we have finally been provided with something on the order of an implausible conspiracy theory emanating from the left. And we will be satisfied with this so long as we are willing to overlook the fact that Ferguson promised us that the bearers would be “influential” and yet here cannot bring himself to name the author or even the outlet, presumably in hopes that we won’t realize that both outlet and author are somewhat obscure and that this is merely the same manner of accusation that can be found on any number of minor websites about any number of powerful men.
If we check Ferguson’s endnotes again, we find that he’s referring to a piece by a certain Kevin Barrett titled “Arrest Kissinger for Both 9/11s.” If we check the URL he provides, which comes in the form of a blind bit.ly link-shortener, we find that it’s a dead link. Fair enough; perhaps it’s been taken down since then. If we simply Google the title and author (or have someone else do it for us because we’re in prison), we discover that the piece in question has appeared on a couple of sites, the most mainstream of which would seem to be presstv.ir, itself based on an Iranian host. If we go so far as to read the article, we find that the author does indeed accuse Kissinger of perpetrating the anthrax attacks. But he also accuses him of involvement in “the explosive demolition of the World Trade Center, and massacre of nearly 3,000 people in New York and Washington in 2001,” going on to denounce “Kissinger’s complicity in the coup d’état of September 11, 2001” and noting in passing that the former secretary of state was involved in “helping design the 9/11 shock-and-awe psychological warfare operation.”
One might ask why it is that Ferguson neglected to mention that this “left-of-center” website that’s supposedly mainstream enough to be worthy of inclusion in a paragraph with Zinn and Thompson actually went so far as to accuse Kissinger of involvement in 9/11 itself. After all, that would seem to be the smoking-gun proof that Kissinger really is subject to unsubstantiated allegations from influential leftists, an argument that Ferguson is plainly desperate to make. If we’re feeling gentlemanly, we might allow for the possibility that Ferguson is incapable of understanding what he’s reading — but then that would be something of a knock at Harvard, would it not? So wouldn’t it be even more polite to conclude, as is obvious anyway, that he left this out lest we realize that whatever site he’s taken pains not to name for us isn’t at all “influential” or even mainstream? Because, after all, Harvard?
AS A SORT OF professional courtesy to himself, Ferguson pretends that his case has now been made. “All this vitriol is at first sight puzzling,” he writes presently. A page later, after listing Kissinger’s various awards won and offices held and treaties negotiated, he invites us to ponder with him: “How, then, are we to explain the visceral hostility that the name Henry Kissinger arouses?” That there is to the contrary nothing puzzling about anything Ferguson has shown us and no degree of hostility to be found in connection with the name of this particular American political figure that cannot be found associated with dozens of others of similar prominence becomes even more, rather than less, evident to the extent that one’s been paying attention to Ferguson’s own examples. Hunter S. Thompson famously used similar language about everyone from Hubert Humphrey to his personal acquaintances. Oliver Stone is probably not best known for his reluctance to accuse public officials of involvement in criminal conspiracies (not that we’ve even been told what, if anything, he’s claimed about Kissinger, but whatever). And Howard Zinn has of course been a consistent critic of the American government’s amoral conduct abroad. Indeed, until his death a few years ago, Zinn was probably one of the nation’s most effective mobilizers of popular opposition to the ends-justifies-the-means-and-oops-we-fucked-up-the-ends-too foreign policy establishment that’s so perfectly represented not only by Kissinger, but by such quasi-intellectuals as Ferguson as well. Perhaps this is why Ferguson felt the need to lie about him.
For Zinn did not, in fact, argue that “Kissinger’s policies in Chile were intended at least in part to serve the economic interests of International Telephone and Telegraph,” as Ferguson claims he did, nor does he even imply it. What he actually wrote in People’s History, a copy of which I had sent to the prison from which I now currently serve as an unpaid fact-checker for Penguin, apparently, was this: “And in 1970, an ITT director, John McCone, who also had been head of the CIA, told Henry Kissinger, secretary of state, and Richard Helms, CIA director, that ITT was willing to give $1 million to help the U.S. government in its plans to overthrow the Allende government in Chile.” Elsewhere: “It was also learned from the investigation that the CIA — with the collusion of a secret Committee of Forty headed by Henry Kissinger — had worked to ‘destabilize’ the Chilean government headed by Salvadore Allende, a Marxist who had been elected president in one of the rare free elections in Latin America. ITT, with large interests in Chile, played a part in this operation.”
As these are the book’s only two references to ITT’s involvement in the Chile coup, and as Zinn does not in any way “argue” that those plans were originally composed or thereafter modified with any view to ITT’s economic interests whatsoever, and also taking into account that Ferguson refrained from actually quoting Zinn on this matter while having earlier given David Icke and his friends plenty of space in which to accuse Kissinger of being a shape-shifting lizard mage from the lower fourth dimension who forces children to eat cereal in an incorrect fashion, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Ferguson has chosen to simply lie about another historian who, being dead, is not in a position to defend himself (not that I’m angry about it; on the contrary, this was my original excuse for not finishing the book).
The alternative explanation, again, is that Ferguson is incapable of understanding his sources. But, again, Harvard.
But what about the two assertions that Zinn actually does make? Are they provided without evidence, as Ferguson would have us believe? Not at all. Both of Zinn’s brief references to ITT and Chile, including his single reference to ITT and Chile and Kissinger, are clearly indicated in the text as being drawn from the various post-Watergate congressional investigations into the CIA and the Nixon administration; indeed, both of these Zinn quotes appear in passages that discuss the results of those investigations. The reader may have noticed, for instance, that one of those selections that Ferguson refrains from quoting begins, “It was also learned from the investigation that …” Zinn, obviously, is not “arguing” anything at all, much less putting forth some novel and outlandish “conspiracy theory”; as with the rest of the book, he’s drawing upon the public record — everything Zinn discusses pertaining to the overthrow of Allende, along with much else, can now be found among various online government archives.
At any rate, the Senate’s findings that ITT offered through McCone to assist in the overthrow of Allende didn’t entail any accusation to the effect that the overthrow itself was actually intended even in part to assist ITT; regardless of the extent to which any such offers were motivated by the firm’s economic interests, or ideology, or just the pure joy of overthrowing a democratically elected government, no one involved accused anyone on the planning side, much less Kissinger in particular, of actually tailoring the plot to assist the firm’s bottom line. The only person to have brought this up is Ferguson, in order to portray it as something made up by Zinn; for everyone else, the truth is sufficient.
So Ferguson has falsely accused Zinn of having made a supposedly outlandish claim about Kissinger, whereas in fact, Zinn was closely paraphrasing a Church Committee report published by the U.S. Senate, and implies that Zinn insulted Kissinger rather than providing the necessary evidence for his claim, whereas the “insult” was actually delivered in an entirely different book, and whereas of course no evidence is necessary because Zinn is merely relating an account of events derived from an official inquiry.
EVEN ASIDE FROM this instance of outright libel, which has at least the pragmatic justification of being not easily detectable by the sort of toy fascist, National Review-subscribing scum who would presumably make up the central audience for an authorized biography of Henry Kissinger as written by a Hoover Institution scholar and who would be unlikely to have copies of Howard Zinn books lying around with which to check up on Ferguson’s claims, this whole haphazard bid to portray Kissinger as being subject to outsized criticism relative to his actual conduct is also remarkable for how it occasionally collapses even without any need for research or in fact any particular knowledge whatsoever beyond the understanding that if X applies to A, B, and C, then X is not particular to B, and does not tell us anything about B by which we might differentiate it from A and C.
Ferguson himself notes, for instance, that David Icke’s surreal allegations encompass pretty much everyone of socio-political prominence; Icke’s “List of Famous Satanists,” Ferguson writes, “includes not only Kissinger but also the Astors, Bushes, Clintons, DuPonts, Habsburgs, Kennedys, Rockefellers, Rothschilds, and the entire British royal family — not to mention Tony Blair, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Joseph Stalin. (The comedian Bob Hope also makes the list).” So why is it remarkable that Kissinger should be included? And what’s the point of bringing up Lyndon LaRouche’s allegation that Kissinger works for the British? Search LaRouche’s name on YouTube and you’ll find, among other things, a 1980s TV promo in which he denounces Walter Mondale as “not just a KGB agent in the ordinary sense” but also “wholly owned by the left wing of the Socialist International and the grain cartel interests.” If you’re wondering why I happen to have that memorized, the answer is that this was one of several amusing political clips I was in the habit of watching once a week or so prior to my arrest; the funny part is that if Mondale were indeed under someone’s control, the “grain cartel interests” is exactly the sort of lame-ass shit that he’d be fronting. Anyway, it’s none of your business.
Having finished doing whatever it is that he thinks he’s just done, Ferguson at last makes an effort to engage Kissinger’s critics on the complex issue of whether or not Kissinger bears any responsibility for his actions. He now lurches into an overview of Christopher Hitchens’s 2001 book The Trial of Henry Kissinger, in which Hitchens “went so far as to accuse Kissinger of ‘war crimes and crimes against humanity in Indochina, Chile, Argentina, Cyprus, East Timor, and several other places’ (in fact, the only other place discussed in his book is Bangladesh).” Apparently Hitchens didn’t think to just throw Hunter S. Thompson in there to round out his list, but then the old heretic apparently had worse problems than his well-known lack of imagination: “Hitchens was a gifted polemicist; his abilities as a historian are more open to question.” It’s the reverse with Ferguson, who’s undoubtedly an accomplished sorter-through of archives but who cannot seem to make even an exceedingly dishonest argument come out in his own favor.
But Ferguson isn’t done making dishonest arguments, and I’m not done making fun of them; we’ve really only covered three or four pages so far, after all. Next time we’ll take a look at how Ferguson handles Hitchens and certain other Kissinger critics. (SPOILER: He does it dishonestly.)
Awkward Questions of the Day, for the Hoover Institution and/or Harvard University to Ask Niall Ferguson About His Various False and Misleading Statements Taken From a Single Paragraph of His Introduction to His Mediocre Kissinger Biography: