The Person Behind the Politician

Article excerpt

AS Walter Isaacson reminds readers in this outstanding biography, Henry Kissinger - the architect of American foreign policy in the Nixon years - had become the most admired individual in the United States by 1973. That year he won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a cease-fire in Vietnam.

Kissinger also became US secretary of state that year, a stunning advancement for an immigrant-American, from his former position as assistant to the president for national security affairs. He could be found night after night on television newscasts or gracing the covers of the nation's news magazines.

Yet, for all their familiarity with Mr. Kissinger, few Americans really knew or understood this secretive and ambitious man. And Isaacson, an assistant managing editor of Time, shows why in Kissinger: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 893 pp., $30). To understand Kissinger required knowing him as a young child growing up in Nazi Germany.

He was born Heinz Kissinger in Furth, Germany, near Nuremberg, in 1923. By the time young soccer-fan Heinz was in his teens, Adolph Hitler had turned Germany into a police state. Kissinger, whose heritage was Orthodox Jewish, found himself living in mortal danger. On Aug. 20, 1938, the Kissinger family packed their belongings and fled to America - "less than three months before the mobs of Kristallnacht would destroy their synagogue and most other Jewish institutions in Germany." Heinz was 15 when he left Furth.

In America, the Kissingers settled in the Washington Heights section of New York City. Heinz became Henry, but his name was not all that he discarded. Henry gradually disassociated himself from the orthodoxy of his parents' faith. "For Kissinger, the holocaust destroyed the connection between God's will and the progress of history - a tenet that is at the heart of the Jewish faith and is one of the religion's most important contributions to Western philosophy," Isaacson writes.

Success first came in an unexpected way - via the US Army. While stationed in Louisiana during World War II, Kissinger became associated with Fritz Kraemer, a Prussian-Lutheran aristocrat who had himself fled Germany out of distaste for Hitler. It was Kraemer who later suggested attending Harvard University to Kissinger. At Harvard, Kissinger achieved academic success through his intellectual prowess, a number of brilliant books that he wrote, and an ability to attach himself to persons of influence. That trait - the ability to shift personal alliances depending on the prevailing political winds - was to mark his personal life through such mentors as Nelson Rockefeller and, later, Richard Nixon. …