Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World
by Margaret MacMillan (Random House)
Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power
by Robert Dallek (HarperCollins)
Powerful and Brutal Weapons: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Easter Offensive
by Stephen P. Randolph (Harvard)
Henry Kissinger and the American Century
by Jeremi Suri (Harvard)
In diplomacy, ideas must fight a grinding battle with circumstance. Very few statesmen possess what the first President Bush called “the vision thing,” and fewer still have been able to transcend the push and pull of events to force history to conform to that vision. In fact, only three American secretaries of state—Adams, Acheson, and Kissinger—have so succeeded.
While none of these books is definitive, together they form an impressive study of the relationship between ideas and power. Nixon was despised by most intellectuals (and reciprocated their disdain), yet as these works reveal, he and Kissinger had a similar worldview and a curious intellectual symbiosis, quite apart from their practical political partnership.
Despite its title, MacMillan’s volume shows Kissinger not merely as an éminence grise but as the essential player in much of the era’s drama. By far the most stylish and readable of these books, it’s also surprisingly pithy in its revelations—for example, Kissinger worried that the Chinese might spin the 1972 Sino-American Shanghai Communiqué “as a major American defeat.”
In Dallek’s detailed study of Kissinger and Nixon’s relationship, Kissinger dominates by his intellect, range, subtlety, and, of course, by his ability to flatter, manipulate, and forcefully yet pragmatically advocate a principle.
Randolph’s book is the driest of these works; it’s also the most specific and focused. In the spring of 1972, with the election looming, Kissinger and Nixon apparently concluded that the only way to break the logjam in the Paris peace talks with the North Vietnamese was to unleash the Linebacker bombing campaign. Drawing on extensive research and newly declassified materials, Randolph tells the story of how the White House overrode the objections of the Pentagon brass and the field command in Vietnam—which resulted in a display of shock-and-awe that was as impressive in the realm of realpolitik as it was on the battlefield.
Though relatively—refreshingly— brief, Suri’s book makes in some ways the largest claims for its subject’s enduring effect on American foreign policy. Probing thoughtfully into Kissinger’s background and character, Suri sees the secretary as the Cold War’s ultimate statesman. Eschewing polemics—indeed, none of these books do much ax grinding—this work explores what shaped and nurtured the phenomenon that was Henry Kissinger.
The Hellenistic Age: A Short History
by Peter Green (Modern Library)
Green draws upon a lifetime of scholarship to brilliantly sum up the 300-year Hellenistic age in less than 150 pages. Happily, this book’s brevity—admirable in itself, and in its concision, elegance, and authority—isn’t achieved at the expense of subtlety and complexity. Green makes good his promise to “study the three centuries of the Hellenistic age in a continuous ongoing diachronic narrative embracing the entire scene.”
The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein
by Martin Duberman (Knopf)
Few people have contributed more to ballet in America than Lincoln Kirstein, who imported George Balanchine and with him founded the New York City Ballet. Kirstein was also instrumental in creating Lincoln Center (which, contrary to popular legend, wasn’t named for him). One of the most perspicacious analysts of American culture, Duberman has painted a subtle, detailed portrait of a hard-driving force of nature. In addition, his profound knowledge of the byways of gay life in 20th-century America makes him superbly qualified to help us understand what made his subject—butch yet sensitive, bisexual yet lastingly married—tick.
Considering Doris Day
by Tom Santopietro (St. Martin’s)
Following the format of his book on Barbra Streisand, Santopietro makes a detailed survey of Doris Day’s career in film, records, and television. Breezy, adulatory, and long-winded (with plot summaries of nearly 40 films), this book offers serious insight into a relatively neglected life. The observations are apt—and often bold (“It is impossible to watch Pillow Talk today without responding to the gay subtext”).
Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters
by Elizabeth Brown Pryor (Viking)