HENRY (HEINZ) ALFRED KISSINGER
Born in Germany in 1923, Henry Kissinger had a legendary career as a politician, diplomat, and geopolitical consultant. He received his PhD from Harvard, writing on the diplomacy of post-Napoleonic Europe, which became the foundation of his first book, A World Restored: Castlereagh, Metternich and the Restoration of Peace, 1812-1822, published in 1957. He served as National Security Adviser (1969-1975) and Secretary of State (1973-1977) under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. A Jewish refugee, he fled Nazi Germany with his family in 1938. Larger than life with a notably thick German accent and avuncular demeanor, Kissinger’s actions—and awards—have been controversial. For his work negotiating a ceasefire in Vietnam, Kissinger received the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with South Vietnamese General Le Duc Tho (who refused to accept it). The war was still underway, however, causing two members of the Nobel committee to resign in protest.
A believer in what has been called Realpolitik, under which policy decisions are made based on facts and not ideology (which may partially explain Nixon’s overture to Communist China), Kissinger pioneered the policy of détente, easing hostilities with the Soviet Union; orchestrated the opening of relations with China; and engaged in what became known as shuttle diplomacy among capitals in the Middle East to end the 1973 Yom Kippur War—the fourth war at the time between Israel and her Arab neighbors. He has also been associated with such controversial policies as U.S. involvement in the 1973 Chilean military coup and U.S. support for Pakistan during the Bangladesh War despite the genocide being perpetrated by its allies.
Kissinger remains a polarizing figure in U.S. politics, both condemned as an alleged war criminal by many journalists, political activists, and human rights lawyers, and venerated as a highly effective U.S. Secretary of State by many prominent international relations scholars.
A story recounted in The Final Days (1976), by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, gives color to Kissinger’s relationship with Nixon:
“There was the President in his chair, as he had seen him so often. Kissinger reflected on the fact that he really didn’t like the President. Nixon had made him the most admired man in the country, yet the secretary couldn’t bring himself to like his patron. They sat for a time and reminisced about events, travels, shared decisions. The President was drinking. He said he was resigning. It would be better for everyone. They talked quietly—history, the resignation decision, foreign affairs. Then Nixon said that he wasn’t sure he would be able to resign. Could he be the first President to quit office? Kissinger responded by listing the President’s contributions, especially in diplomacy. “Will history treat me more kindly than my contemporaries?” Nixon asked, tears flooding to his eyes. Certainly, definitely, Kissinger said. When this was all over, the President would be remembered for the peace he had achieved. The President broke down and sobbed. Kissinger didn’t know what to do. He felt cast in a fatherly role.”
Kissinger evokes strong feelings to this day. Author Charles Pierce has an Esquire piece (March 24, 2021) headlined, The Fact That Henry Kissinger Is Still Alive Convinces Me That There Is No God, with the subhead New documents suggest the U.S. role in Argentina’s 1976 military coup was considerable, shameful, and had a lot to do with Kissinger. But I repeat myself.
After leaving government, Kissinger formed an international consulting firm. He has lectured widely and has written over a dozen books on diplomatic history and international relations. At 98, he is the oldest living former U.S. Cabinet member and the last surviving member of Nixon’s Cabinet. His ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin remain close.
In a perhaps fitting coda, historian David Rothkopf says this about Nixon and Kissinger:
“They were a fascinating pair. In a way, they complemented each other perfectly. Kissinger was the charming and worldly Mr. Outside who provided the grace and intellectual-establishment respectability that Nixon lacked, disdained and aspired to. Kissinger was an international citizen. Nixon very much a classic American. Kissinger had a worldview and a facility for adjusting it to meet the times, Nixon had pragmatism and a strategic vision that provided the foundations for their policies. Kissinger would, of course, say that he was not political like Nixon—but in fact he was just as political as Nixon, just as calculating, just as relentlessly ambitious … these self-made men were driven as much by their need for approval and their neuroses as by their strengths.”