“Kissinger,” he said meaningfully. “Don’t think we’ll forget your name.” Those were the words an assistant at the 1964 Republican National Convention said as he checked in a young and at that point obscure Henry Kissinger.
It’s hard for someone like me, born in 1990, to understand the reason for the polarity of opinion the name Kissinger brings about in older generations. That’s why, when I tell someone I’m reading (and enjoying) Niall Ferguson’s Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist, they tend to scoff not only at the subject, but certainly also the subtitle.
But Kissinger the man is just as interesting as Kissinger the statesman. His story itself is one of the great American immigration stories. Born and reared in Germany just before and then during the Third Reich, the Kissingers escape merely weeks before Kristallnacht. As a teenager in Washington Heights, young Henry worked in a brush factory by day and went to George Washington High School by night, an alma mater he shares with Alan Greenspan and Harry Belafonte.
I’m a sucker for stories like these. For a young person who came of age in a relatively peaceful 1990s, it’s remarkable to read about people from Kissinger’s generation, who have collectively come to be known as the Greatest Generation. That generation famously came of age during both the Great Depression and World War II, and therefore never knew true international stability until their young adulthood or even middle age. For whatever reason, I can’t get enough about that generation. In addition to Kissinger, my recent reading has been focused on either individuals from this generation, like George H.W. Bush, in Destiny and Power from Jon Meacham.
George H.W. Bush, at the time the youngest member of the Air Force, watched one of his copilots be shot down. Still feeling guilty for his comrade’s death some 70 years later, Bush holds onto the responsibility that was thrust upon him at such a ripe age. And Kissinger, however you feel about him, embraced such responsibility at an even younger age. The newspapers call our times tumultuous and maybe they are when compared with past ages. Current international and domestic political turmoil certainly make me uneasy. But reading about how people like Bush and Kissinger embraced change and upheaval at such tender ages gives me perspective. As Kissinger often himself says, international peace is the exception, not the rule.
That doesn’t make the fast and scary pace of our times any easier. But we can definitely take heart from a generation that responsibly, if stoically, rose to the occasion in the face of turmoil. Historical perspective is one reason I love reading political biographies. Getting a nuanced view of controversial figures like Kissinger, and even Bush 41, is another reason.