Nothing about this book is more remarkable than the fact that its author is in his hundredth year. Henry Kissinger is an extraordinary survivor. As a Jewish teenager he fled Nazi Germany, returning there with the US army during the war. He became a professor at Harvard but succumbed to the lure of Washington, where he gave counsel to an inexperienced President Kennedy. As an acolyte of Nelson Rockefeller, he warned that Richard Nixon was ‘the most dangerous of all men running to have as President’. Yet Kissinger served Nixon as national security adviser and secretary of state, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his role in ending the Vietnam War. Continuing in his post under Gerald Ford, he helped, by way of some shuttle diplomacy, to disengage the belligerents during the Yom Kippur War. Since then he has become a kind of global guru, public intellectual and consultant to the great. He is the ultimate geopolitical gerontocrat.
There is no denying his intellectual potency. Far from being the feeble maunderings that one might have expected from someone Kissinger’s age, this tome is a robust study of six leaders who, he asserts, ‘transcended the circumstances they inherited’. Konrad Adenauer restored legitimacy and dignity to a Germany crushed physically and disgraced morally during Hitler’s war. By sheer force of will, Charles de Gaulle revived France after defeat and occupation, shed the burden of Algeria and created the Fifth Republic. At the height of the Cold War, Richard Nixon made peace in Vietnam, reached an arms control agreement with the USSR and achieved a rapprochement with China. Anwar Sadat not only realigned Egypt, turning it away from the Soviet Union and towards the United States, but also came to terms with Israel. Against the odds, Lee Kuan Yew created a flourishing, multiethnic city-state in Singapore. Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain by championing free-market economics and enhanced her country’s position on the international stage.
All six leaders came from relatively humble backgrounds, rose through talent rather than nepotism and faced a world in which old certainties had been dissolved by two world wars. After 1945 two mutually hostile superpowers emerged, polarising the planet. Empires disappeared, often after bloody conflicts. Economies were reshaped by