Dec 04 2023 Watch
In Depth

Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger, America’s most influential and controversial diplomat, died at his country home in Kent, Connecticut on Wednesday, November 29, 2023. He was 100 years old.

The width and depth of the commentary about Henry Kissinger speaks volumes. As in his life, he is now, in one obituary after another, around the world, being celebrated and condemned, praised and criticized, portrayed as a brilliant strategist and at the same time a man with flaws, especially when it came to a commitment to human rights. He has been described as our greatest statesman by most but a war criminal by some.

Whether admirer or critic, few doubt Henry Kissinger’s first rate mind, his strategic gifts, his negotiating skill, his command of language and his knowledge of history. And many have known his humor, the man who said power was the ultimate aphrodisiac. Two things that have served him throughout his life: his curiosity about people and ideas. Late in his 80’s and into his 90’s he became obsessed with the possibilities and risks of artificial intelligence, writing a book about it with Eric Schmidt and David Huttenlocher. His final book, published just a year ago when was 99 years old, was “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy.” It profiled Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Lee Kwan Yew, Anwar Sadat, Richard Nixon and Margaret Thatcher. Like him or loathe him, the journey of Henry Kissinger is a fascinating trip. Think of who he knew, from Queen Elizabeth to Mao Tse Tung, and scores of men and women who In their art, science and power define us.

Kissinger, perhaps believing in the Winston Churchill notion that history will be kind to me because I will write it, has used the written word to explain his ideas and actions throughout his academic and professional life starting with his senior thesis, “The Meaning of History” to his doctoral dissertation “The World Restored” which later became a book.

His other books include three memoirs of his years in Washington: “White House Years”, “Years of Upheval” and “Years of Renewal.” He also wrote “On China,” in 2011 and “World Order” in 2014. Many consider his best book to be “Diplomacy,” published in 1994.

When you look at the years Henry Kissinger has been relevant and part of the political/foreign policy conversation from the 1960’s until his death in November 2023, it is a remarkable achievement of more than 50 years, half of his life. Yet, he was only in government (National Security Advisor and Secretary of State) for eight years, from January 1969 to January 1977. He left power in 1977 when Jimmy Carter was inaugurated, yet continued to travel the world and be invited for meetings with heads of state. No one seems to know exactly how he achieved it beyond a will to be relevant and compelling.

The final example, four months before his death, at age 100, and 52 years after he made his historic, secret trip to China to meet with then Chinese Premier, Zhou EnLai, Kissinger traveled to Bejing, China and met with Chinese President Xi Jingping and the defense minister, Li Shangfu, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. government. He was clearly invited because the Chinese wanted to send a message about the U.S.-China future. Their admiration was clear in their condolence message: “He will always remain alive in the hearts of the Chinese people as a most valued old friend.”

And so was the message from Russian president Vladimir Putin: “a wise and far sighted statesman.”

Emmanuel Macron, the President of France posted: “Henry Kissinger was a giant of history. His century of ideas and diplomacy had a long standing influence on his time and on our world.”

Born in Furth, Germany in 1923, Heintz Kissinger (later Henry) was 15 years old when he fled Nazi persecution with his parents, coming to New York City in 1938.

A young Henry Kissinger was drafted and served in the U.S. Army in the Battle of the Bulge, interviewing captured Germans. His unit freed the concentration camp at Ahlem where he saw firsthand what had happened to his former homeland. Kissinger later discovered that 13 members of his family, including his grandmother, were killed in concentration camps. Many have asked what the nature of the Hitler regime had in shaping his views of the world.

After the war, Kissinger enrolled at Harvard, became a member of the class of 50, graduating summa cum laude, writing a 363 page Senior thesis, “The Meaning of History.” He went on to graduate school in history at Harvard, receiving a Phd in 1954. His dissertation became his first book, “A World Restored.” Kissinger spent 2 decades on the Cambridge campus, embarking on a career teaching, writing and holding seminars on important global issues. He wrote a book in 1957 called "Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,” in which he articulated a new philosophy of limited nuclear war as an alternative to the prevailing view of mutual assured destruction. It was a bestseller and made him known beyond the academy. In the 1960’s, Kissinger became an advisor to Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, and a candidate for president. After Rockefeller lost the Republican nomination to Richard Nixon, Kissinger, to the surprise of many, became Nixon’s national security advisor.

Henry Kissinger entered the White House in January of 1969 as an advisor to the president of an America still in the midst of a war in Vietnam, a country shaken by the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Robert Kennedy and and an adversary, the Soviet Union, fully armed with nuclear weapons and important friends around the world including China, Egypt and India.

His primary challenge was to end the war in Vietnam and that objective led to the bombings in Cambodia hoping to force the North Vietnamese to stop their fighting. Later, Kissinger would be critcized not only for the bombing in Cambodia but for finally agreeing to terms that may have been accomplished a year earlier and because it wasn’t led to unnecessary deaths on both sides. In the passions about the Vietnam war, disclosure of the Cambodia bombing was the beginning of some critics calling Kissinger a war criminal. In 1973, Henry Kissinger and and Le Duc Tho, the Vietnamese negotiator, received the Nobel Peace Prize for the cease fire agreement and American withdrawal.

Nothing defines the life and legacy of Henry Kissinger more than the US China relationship. Richard Nixon came to the Presidency wanting to reach out to China and so in 1971, Henry Kissinger with the help of the President of Pakistan make a secret trip to Beijing to meet with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and plan a presidential visit to Beijing by President Nixon and a meeting with the Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung. President Nixon went to China on February 21, 1972. The development of the relationship changed the world, setting in motion China becoming the second most powerful country in the world. Russia took note and soon negotiated with Kissinger a series of nuclear arms treaties called Salt (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks).

On September 21, 1971, William Rogers resigned as Secretary of State and Henry Kissinger became Secretary of State without giving up his position as national security advisor, the first time in American history, before and since, one person held both jobs.

After a resounding re-election victory in November 1972, against George McGovern, Nixon and Kissinger looked forward with a grand strategy for reshaping the world, only to have everything turned upside down by a break-in at the Watergate Hotel office complex in 1972 during the presidential campaign. There was a Senate hearing in 1973, a report issued in 1974, and President Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. Much has been written about the besieged President and his Secretary of State during the time the Watergate scandal held the nation’s attention. One aspect: it gave Kissinger even more power.

After President Nixon resigned as President and Gerald Ford, the Vice President, became President, Henry Kissinger continued as both Secretary of State and National Security Advisor until the end of President Ford’s tenure on January 20, 1977, following his defeat by Jimmy Carter.

1973 was a momentous year for Kissinger because of the Yom Kippur War. It became one of Kissinger’s most skillful applications of his negotiating style. After Israel was invaded in a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria, the Israeli government of Golda Mier was back on its heels until Kissinger engaged shuttle diplomacy between Cairo, Damascus and Tel Aviv while keeping the Soviet Union out of the conflict. It was a masterful act of diplomacy and Kissinger believes, one of his best moments. It led to the development of relations between Egypt and Israel, and helped make America, more than the Soviet Union, the dominant outside force in the Middle East.

The question for history is how large are his achievements and what weight should historians give to the criticisms. You begin with what Kissinger acknowledges: that he believed in a realpolitik with an emphasis on order. He acknowledged that he would choose order over justice because without order you could lose justice. Order and a balance of power are central to understanding Henry Kissinger’s philosophy and actions. It is clear in all he has written since “A World Restored” in 1957.

Kissinger’s chosen biographer, Niall Ferguson, has robustly made the case for his achievements which he lists after his death in an article in the Daily Mail:

  • Extricate the United States from Vietnam;
  • Détente with the Soviet Union;
  • Diplomatic dialogue with the People’s Republic of China;
  • A negotiated end to the Yom Kippur war;
  • Creation of the g-7 of industrialized democracies;
  • Resist leftist regimes in Latin America;
  • Expedite the end of white minority rule in South Africa, and
  • Limit the impact of the Watergate scandal.

The criticism of Henry Kissinger, like his achievements, are well known: the bombing in Cambodia, the failure to stop the Pakistani put down of the Bengalis in what is now the country of Bangladesh, the failure to oppose Suharto’s invasion of what became East Timor, the support of the revolt in 1973 which led to the death of Salvador Allende, the president of Chile.

At the core of the criticisms is the argument that Kissinger’s realpolitik had little regard for human rights and human life and in its emphasis on global power at any price, sacrificed not only human lives but America’s foundational values. The continuing argument from Kissinger’s friends is twofold: choices are often the lesser of two evils and the other side only understands power. These are ongoing debates, not only in America, but also in other parts of the world like the current war between Israel and Hamas.

Until his death, Henry Kissinger was engaged, active and so were those who found fault with him and his actions. Not only his decisions but also his writings suggest the debate on his place in history will continue. It will be a large space in the annals of American diplomacy with appropriate comment.

I interviewed Henry Kissinger more than 50 times and recorded more than 35 hours of conversation. The last time I spoke with him was October 24, 2023.

The video above was filmed in 2011, after the release of his book, “On China.”