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Perilous Polarities: A Defense of Historical Ecumenism

[Note that this piece is a part of our weeklong series on Kissinger and historians. Come back during the rest of the week for more!]

We live in polarized times, and the polarization of our debates has, regretfully, infected the way we write history. Greg Grandin and Niall Ferguson are talented historians, but they have written books that caricature more than they analyze the complexities of their controversial subject. Both books offer a proliferation of mostly old materials to reinforce their pre-existing commitments to condemning or glorifying Henry Kissinger. Both books are predictable, polemical, and at times quite boring—especially for scholars in search of fresh analysis.

Barbara Keys’s essay does an admirable job of exploring how the two authors not only interpret the same events in different ways, but how they choose extreme meanings from ambivalent moments. Instead of analyzing the complexity of their evidence, the authors are more intent on proving their larger arguments. Although that is not unique to these two books, the authors are more predetermined (and self-assured) in their interpretations than most.

For Grandin, Kissinger is consistently craven, aggressive, and self-serving. For Ferguson, he is reliably strategic, statesman-like, and even idealistic. The last claim is hardest to swallow. Ferguson adopts Kant’s framing of human dignity and morality as the center of gravity for politics, but then finds “idealism” repeatedly lacking in Kissinger’s positions on nuclear weapons, wars, and coups that clearly violate those principles. When Kissinger departs from the expectations of an idealist, according to Ferguson, he is making tough trade-offs; when others (e.g. McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, and Walt Rostow) do the same, they are hypocrites and sycophants. Grandin has the opposite double-standard.

Ferguson makes use of some privileged evidence from Kissinger’s personal archive, including select letters to his parents and early mentors. Ferguson is, however, noticeably silent on other parts of Kissinger’s personal life, including his relationship with his first wife. The author’s obvious selectivity and his heavy-handed interpretations do not diminish the value of the privileged evidence, but they lead readers to question how representative his quoted materials are. What is Ferguson excluding from his quotations of Kissinger’s personal materials and how would the excluded materials change the story? No one else has access to these documents, so we cannot assess them independently, and we have reason to doubt the author’s fairness of presentation.

In the case of Grandin, the exclusions are overwhelming. His book cherry-picks the worst, and leaves out the less damning. Kissinger’s efforts to bring peace in the Middle East through “shuttle diplomacy,” his opening of relations between the United States and China, and his pursuit of U.S.-Soviet arms control, among other issues, are given minimal attention. These were not necessarily positive accomplishments, and they do not necessarily compensate for Kissinger’s misdeeds that Grandin discusses in detail. The point is that the brighter spots in Kissinger’s record require serious attention in a book that purports to interpret American foreign policy on a broad canvas.

Good history writing is built around narrative and argument, but it also grapples with the contradictions, uncertainties, and frustrating messiness of human agency. This is particularly true for international history, where the range of actors is so diverse and the lines of causality are so multifaceted. The full-throated attacks and defenses of Kissinger offered by Grandin and Ferguson are instructive for the polarities they renew, rather than the creative analysis the controversial subject merits. Barbara Keys is certainly correct that it is time to transcend the “Kissinger wars”—they have become boring and, like most other ideological battles, a hindrance to historical ecumenism.

Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor in the Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs. He is the author and editor of eight books, and a new forthcoming book on the history of the presidency, due out in 2017. He blogs at He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.