How much research and time would you be prepared to spend writing about a year in the life of one of your friends?
British author and historian Alistair Horne delved through a staggering 33 tons of archives and documents to write the first authorised biography of a man with whom he has an admittedly “spasmodic friendship”.
Alistair’s dedication and passion is evident in his writing on the former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. His book, entitled ‘Kissinger’s Year: 1973’, covers the international events of detente with the USSR, the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War and the end of the Vietnam War.
Numerous months of investigation in Washington and New York, was coupled with the writing of the substantial but lively narrative in Turville, Oxon.
Alistair enthuses: “It took about five years, which is a lot to write about one year in the life of Dr K. But he’s been a busy man (and still is!), and – yes – I do believe he has 33 tonnes of archives, and I doubt whether I saw them all.
“I had the misfortune to have three major illnesses during the period, not his fault but it set me back.”
The renowned writer of French political history frankly admits that his friendship with Kissinger encouraged him to accept the refreshing challenge. Indeed, America was his home throughout the 1980s and for three of his school years, therefore the country’s politics is close to his heart.
Speaking of Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser, the narrative historian says: “I had always respected what I knew of his record in office, and liked him personally- appreciating his keen sense of humour. But then I couldn’t write a biography about somebody I either disliked or despised. “
He continues: “My two previous biographies were about PM Harold Macmillan and Field Marshal Montgomery, ‘Monty’. I knew them both, and liked and admired them; though I would not have enjoyed serving directly under Monty.”
Alistair’s bond with the man he affectionately terms ‘Mr K’ is additionally based on common heritage; both men are Jewish, and experienced life in the midst of the anti-Semitism of the Second World War.
“Like Kissinger, I was a refugee from Hitler, though in a different sense, and I returned to Europe. I was lucky enough to find almost every door open to me.”
In stark contrast to Alistair’s warm portrayal, Kissinger is generally not a very well-liked character is he, I ask? Memories of university politics lectures place the former Secretary of State as a hard-nosed figure of realism, asserting the primacy of the nation state and war as a means of its protection.
Alistair readily agrees that Kissinger’s insecurity and hypersensitivity was a far cry from accusations of him as devoid of morality.
“Yes it was,” he says. “The insecurity of course stems from his Jewish background, and having to battle his way in an alien land, with few financial resources, when arriving from Nazi Germany in the 1930’s.
“President Nixon, too, was a most insecure personality, which made them perhaps understand each other – though they had very different backgrounds. Nixon was of humble birth, from a small-town background in California, and always felt the smart world of Washington looked down on him.”
So, Kissinger’s first authorised biographer strived to present a completely new account of his subject’s life. Nevertheless, the author is still adamant that his work does not represent the finished article.
“Of course, with Kissinger still very much alive (at 86) and still making history, the record may be incomplete.
“Biographies really need to be taken out, dusted off, and maybe rewritten every generation, every 25 years or so. So I can’t claim to know the whole story- but I have done my best to provide a fair historical account.”