The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World

Norton. Apr. 2020. 480p. ISBN 9781324004059. $30. BIOG.
Gewen, longtime editor of the New York Times Book Review, presents a balanced, erudite biography of former U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger (b. 1923), asserting that he is the most important diplomat of the nuclear age. Kissinger, as the author lucidly shows, is an advocate of realism, the political school that promotes balance of power and national interest. More than a third of the book is devoted to realism’s founders: Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, and Kissinger’s mentor, Hans Morgenthau. All four shared a mistrust of democracy in international relations because of their Holocaust experiences; additionally, all barely escaped Nazi Germany, where Kissinger lost 13 relatives. Kissinger, a master of realpolitik, promoted praiseworthy policies that opened China and established détente with the USSR, but supported less-than-honorable strategies in Southeast Asia that sacrificed Vietnamese and American lives for a face-saving U.S. retreat. Gewen skillfully shows that Kissinger’s realism diplomacy accepted evil as something that could not be destroyed, making tragedy inevitable.
VERDICT This authoritative and exhaustive biography will challenge general readers, but will find an appreciative audience among political scholars and modern philosophy academics. A solid companion to Thomas Schwartz’s Henry Kissinger and American Power.
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