Over at Gawker the other day, I did a post on the absurdity of The New York Times Book Review’s picking Andrew Roberts, whom Henry Kissinger first asked to be his authorized biographer, to review Niall Ferguson’s authorized biography of Henry Kissinger. Margaret Sullivan, the best public editor that the Times has ever employed, has likewise questioned the choice. Sullivan asked the Review’s editor, Pamela Paul, to comment. She writes that Paul told her:
that she was unaware of that fact before the publication of a Gawker piece that makes much of that relationship and of Mr. Roberts’s acquaintance with the book’s author, Niall Ferguson.
Gawker’s headline: “Kissinger Biography Is Great, Says Pal of Author and Kissinger in New York Times.” Indeed, the review is kind to Mr. Kissinger and to Mr. Ferguson; it calls the book “comprehensive, well-written and riveting.”
“We rely on our reviewers to disclose conflicts of interest,” Ms. Paul said. Mr. Roberts disclosed no conflict, saying only that he had met Mr. Ferguson a few times but that this wouldn’t affect his review.
(Disclosure: I’ve reviewed for the Times, and I’ve done an interview with Paul, whom I like very much, related to my last book, The Empire of Necessity.)
Let’s underscore the fact that Roberts said “that he had met Mr. Ferguson a few times but that this wouldn’t affect his review.” As I wrote in Gawker, according to The Guardian they have been mates for nearly 25 years. The paper called Roberts “a little biased” after Roberts called Ferguson “the brightest historian of his generation.”
Indeed, in 2009, Roberts, after telling a reporter that Kissinger had originally tapped him to be his authorized biographer, predicted that Ferguson would “do a wonderful job.” And, lo, he has, according to Roberts.
Also, get this, Roberts and Ferguson co-authored a paper together (h/t Jonathan Stein): “Hitler’s England: What if Germany had Invaded Britain in May 1940?” Here’s a better counterfactual: What if the Times had googled “Andrew Roberts” and “Niall Ferguson”?
Sullivan also pointed out that “Mr. Ferguson and Mr. Roberts will share a London stage to discuss Kissinger and the authorized biography later this month.
But there has to be something more behind this story than a combination of a bad pick on the part of the assigning editor and Roberts’s not coming clean about his ties to Ferguson. Roberts is fairly well known in Britain (see below), but not in the United States. He isn’t a scholar of postwar US history, much less of US diplomacy. I could think of a score of other, more qualified establishment reviewers who wouldn’t necessarily have been hostile to Kissinger or unsympathetic to Ferguson. How did the assigning editor get Roberts’s name? Who suggested him? Inquiring minds want to know.
Roberts’s review, now online, is officially published this Sunday (let’s hope that it carries an asterisk). In it, Roberts says that “Kissinger’s official biographer certainly gives the reader enough evidence to conclude that Henry Kissinger is one of the greatest Americans in the history of the republic, someone who has been repulsively traduced over several decades and who deserved to have a defense of this comprehensiveness published years ago.”
By the way, there’s a review of my slightly less hagiographic book on Kissinger coming out in this Sunday’s issue. In the Gawker piece, I gave some of Roberts’s background as an arch militarist in “deep mourning” for the British Empire, according to The Economist, which found his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900 riddled with errors.
This kind of literary kerfuffle is usually presented as “conflicts of interest.” In this case, though, no conflict exists. There is a perfect convergence of interest and ideology. Like Ferguson and Kissinger (who was one of the first in 1990 to compare Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler), Roberts has been wrong, catastrophically so, when using history to justify militarism in the present. As was Winston Churchill, Roberts wrote in early 2003, Tony Blair will be vindicated “when Iraq is successfully invaded and hundreds of weapons of mass destruction are unearthed.”
Kissinger, Ferguson, and Roberts are also unique among historians (Kissinger has in the past identified himself as an historian more than a statesman) in that they understand the study of history to be, primarily, a warrant for never, ever, apologizing. For anything. All three predictably respond to any catastrophe the United States finds itself in as a result of intervention by arguing that the problem wasn’t enough intervention. “He had no stomach for endless war,” Kissinger once said of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under JFK and LBJ—as if endless war was a too spicy Bánh mì.
McNamara’s public act of contrition for Vietnam (“We were wrong, terribly wrong,” he said) particularly annoyed Kissinger. Speaking with a reporter who had just interviewed the remorseful former secretary of defense, Kissinger, mocked what he imagined to be McNamara’s “singsong voice,” rubbing his eyes and pretending to cry: “He’s still beating his breast, right? Still feeling guilty.” “Boohoo, Boohoo.”
Kissinger refuses to consider that his actions in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Chile, East Timor, Bangladesh, Angola, among other places, were anything other than morally justified. Whenever the topic comes up, he inevitably says the real tragedy was that Congress, the press, and a protesting public tied his hands. Responding to critics who say that his massive, illegal, five year bombing of Cambodia—which killed 100,000 civilians—created the conditions for the rise of the genocidal Pol Pot, Kissinger responds: “If anything doomed the free Cambodians, it was war weariness in the United States” which prevented him from continuing the bombing beyond the congressional cutoff of August 1973. “The effect of congressional restrictions was to impose an unbearable, almost vindictive constraint,” he wrote in his memoir, on “the scale of American assistance to impoverished Cambodia.” Hamstrung by Congress, there was “nothing left” for Kissinger “to do other than to watch in anguish” as Cambodia eventually fell to the Khmer Rouge. Get it? The destruction of Cambodia was not caused by Kissinger’s bombing, but by Congress not allowing him to bomb some more.
Ferguson, too, says the United States doesn’t need to apologize for Iraq. As to Roberts, he said British PM David Cameron was “right not to apologize” for a 1919 British massacre in colonial India. And he accused Ferguson’s Harvard colleague Carrie Elkins of “blood libels against Britain” for documenting barbaric torture the British inflicted on Kenyans in her book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. Recently released documents have proven Elkins’ book correct, and Roberts’ criticism of her yet just another expression of his deep mourning for empire that The Economist pointed out.
Maybe when Roberts and Ferguson take that London stage, they should walk out to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”
Since my previous post, Jeet Heer, an editor at The New Republic, pointed me toward this story by Johann Hari on Roberts, which was published in TNR shortly after Roberts was greeted at the White House by George W. Bush and Laura Bush as if he were that Churchill bust they kept in the Oval Office (until Obama removed it) turned pasty flesh.
It’s worth reproducing an extended extract of Hari’s essay:
Beyond this surface sycophancy, there is something darker and more fetid. Bush, Cheney, and–in a recent, glowing cover story–National Review, have, in fact, embraced a man with links to white supremacism, whose book is not a history but an ahistorical catalogue of apologies and justifications for mass murder that even blames the victims of concentration camps for their own deaths. The decision to laud Roberts provides a bleak insight into the thinking of the Bush White House as his presidential clock nears midnight.
Andrew Roberts describes himself as “extremely right wing” and “a reactionary,” and, in Great Britain, the 44-year-old has long been regarded as a caricature of a caricature of the old imperial historians. He famously lauds the British Empire–and its massacres and suppressions–as “glorious” on every occasion. He sucks up to the English aristocracy to the point that Tatler, the society journal, says, “[H]is adolescent crush on the upper classes is matched by virtually no one else in this country.” One of the few things that can silence Roberts is a mention of his origins in the distinctly nonaristocratic merchant classes, with a father who owned a string of Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. Much as he longs to be K&C (Kensington and Chelsea), to those he adores, he will always have the whiff of KFC.
Yet this Evelyn Waugh tomfoolery masks an agenda that the distinguished Harvard historian Caroline Elkins describes as “incredibly dangerous and frightening.” To understand the core of Roberts’s philosophy–from Waugh to war–it’s necessary to look at a small, sinister group of British-based South African and Zimbabwean exiles he has embraced.
In 2001, Roberts spoke to a dinner of the Springbok Club, a group that regards itself as a shadow white government of South Africa and calls for “the reestablishment of civilized European rule throughout the African continent.” Founded by a former member of the neo-fascist National Front, the club flies the flag of apartheid South Africa at every meeting. The dinner was a celebration of the thirty-sixth anniversary of the day the white supremacist government of Rhodesia announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, which was pressing it to enfranchise black people. Surrounded by nostalgists for this racist rule, Roberts, according to the club’s website, “finished his speech by proposing a toast to the Springbok Club, which he said he considered the heir to previous imperial achievements.”
The British High Commission in South Africa has accused the club of spreading “hate literature.” Yet Roberts’s fondness for the Springbok Club is not an anomaly; it is perfectly logical to anybody who has read his writing, which consists of elaborate and historically discredited defenses for the actions of a white supremacist empire–the British–and a plea to the United States to continue its work.
Roberts advises Bush to embrace the idea of the United States as a civilizing empire ruling the world: the white man’s burden in the White House….
In his most radical piece of revisionism, Roberts argues that, far from being a “war crime,” the concentration camps “were set up for the Boers’ protection.” Mike Davis of the University of California, Irvine, author of Late Victorian Holocausts, says bluntly: “This is tantamount to Holocaust-denial. His arguments about the Boer concentration camps are similar to the arguments of the Nazi apologists about those camps.”
Yet Roberts’s denialism extends to an even greater crime by the British Empire: the creation and perpetuation of famines that killed millions. In the 1870s, under British rule, India was reduced to a state of extreme famine. One dissident British civil servant, Lieutenant-Colonel Ronald Osborne, described staggering through the horror: “Mothers sold their children for a single scanty meal. Husbands flung their wives into ponds, to escape the torment of seeing them perish by the lingering agonies of hunger.”…
Robert’s raw imperialism informs the advice he offers Bush today. For one, he urges Bush to adopt a supreme imperial indifference to public opinion. He counsels that “there can be no greater test of statesmanship than sticking to unpopular but correct policies.”
Kissinger, too, has quite a shady history defending white supremacy in southern Africa, helping to execute, during his first years in office, what became known as the “tar baby option.” You can read about it in my Kissinger’s Shadow and, in more detail, in Anthony Lake’s book on the topic.
“I have a basic sympathy with the white Rhodesians,” Kissinger once said, lamenting that “black Africa” was going to force him to act against their interests.
On second thought, then, scratch any criticism: Roberts is the perfect reviewer for Kissinger’s perfect biographer.