There were few personalities in modern-day diplomacy as divisive as Henry Kissinger, who served in some capacity under five US presidents and had a hand in shaping US foreign policy for decades. His critics accuse him of having been the architect of US policies that led to thousands of deaths abroad or of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses committed by American allies. Others view him as a consummate pragmatist who guided the United States through the dangerous days of the Cold War while avoiding conflict with China into an era of relative peace.
Early life and the rise of the Nazis
Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in the Bavarian town of Fuerth on May 27, 1923. Throughout much of his childhood, the Kissinger family witnessed the rise of Adolf Hitler and the introduction of institutionalized anti-Semitism and segregation.
Summers that Heinz and his brother Walter spent swimming in a river near their grandparents’ home in Leutershausen were forever changed when a sign went up in 1933 banning Jews. Young Heinz defied new laws banning Jews from sporting events to attend soccer matches, incurring beatings from stadium security in the process. He and his friends were also bullied by gangs of Nazi youth.
“Jewish boys my age couldn’t understand why we were suddenly banned or segregated from the others, who joined the Hitler Youth,” Kissinger said in a 2007 documentary. “It was much harder on my parents,” he added.
The boys saw their father relieved of his teaching duties at an all-girl preparatory school, but it was their mother who suspected that worse was to come. Shortly before Kristallnacht in November 1938, she applied for exit visas and the family left for London, eventually setting sail for New York City.
Heinz enrolled in George Washington High School but the family’s precarious financial situation required him to work a full-time job in a shaving brush factory and to study at night.
After pursuing accounting at New York’s City College, Heinz – now known as Henry – joined the US Army in 1943 to serve as a rifleman and intelligence officer in Europe, just five years after having fled the Nazi regime. Upon returning to the United States he attended Harvard University, eventually earning a Ph.D, and in 1959 became a tenured professor at Harvard’s department of government.
Kissinger came to prominence in academic circles with his second book, “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,” in which he critiqued then president Dwight Eisenhower’s policy of deterring a Soviet attack with the threat of mass retaliation. Kissinger instead proposed a “flexible” response, arguing that a limited, tactical nuclear war was winnable.
While also teaching at Harvard, the man known as “Dr. K” served as a part-time foreign policy or security adviser to various US agencies as well as presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson throughout the 1950s and ’60s.
Détente and diplomacy
Kissinger took up his first full-time government post in 1969, when president Richard Nixon appointed him national security adviser.
His rapid rise through the ranks of US power has been attributed both to timing and to his ability to network, according to Kissinger biographer Niall Ferguson. “Kissinger from the outset devoted considerable energy to building a network that extended horizontally in all directions beyond the Washington Beltway,” including to the press, foreign governments and even the entertainment industry.
Kissinger rejected the “moralistic” American approach to foreign affairs, arguing for a more pragmatic doctrine based on a clear-eyed view of the balance of power. He rejected diplomatic approaches based on anti-communist ideology, preferring instead to pursue cooperation with Moscow based on the recognition of Russia as a rival superpower, a policy that became known as “détente“.
Similarly, he helped Nixon reopen dialogue with communist China, holding backchannel meetings with then premier Zhou Enlai in July 1971 and paving the way for Nixon’s historic trip the following year, the first-ever visit to China by a US president.
Nixon and Kissinger believed that engagement with China was not only important because of China’s size and significance, but that even a pro forma Sino-US alliance could offer an important counterweight to the Soviet Union. The status of Taiwan remained a sticking point, but the two sides managed to avoid any direct confrontation on the issue as they pursued rapprochement.
The “central rationale” of this engagement, according to Ferguson, was to avoid a third World War.
Perhaps surprisingly, Kissinger pursued this realist approach (he rejected the term “realpolitik”, so often used to describe his methods)to the point of a certain disassociation. At the height of the Cold War in 1973, he bluntly told Nixon that pressuring Moscow to allow Jews to emigrate to escape Soviet persecution was simply “not an objective of American foreign policy”.
“And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern,” Kissinger said before adding: “Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
“I know,” Nixon replied. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.”
Kissinger apologized after tapes of the conversation were made public in 2010, saying the remarks were taken out of context.
A dual role and a controversial Nobel
When Kissinger entered the Nixon administration, the war in Vietnam (1954-1975) had already been raging for some 15 years, becoming increasingly costly and unpopular as time wore on.
As part of the US war effort, Kissinger was intimately involved in the illegal carpet-bombing of Cambodia – officially a neutral country – and in keeping it a secret from both Congress and the American public. Kissinger approved more than 3,800 bomb raids over 1969 and 1970 as well as methods for keeping them out of the papers, according to a Pentagon report from 1973. Nicknamed “Operation Menu”, the bombing killed between 150,000 and 500,000 civilians.
By mid-December 1972, long-running peace negotiations between Washington and Hanoi in Paris had collapsed. Nixon ordered American B-52 bombers to bomb the North Vietnamese capital Hanoi over the Christmas period, prompting protests all over the world. Hanoi agreed to resume negotiations and the Paris Peace Accords were signed in late January 1973. As Kissinger later mused, “We bombed the North Vietnamese into accepting our concessions.”
Solidifying Kissinger’s role as America’s premier statesman, Nixon made the unprecedented move of appointing him secretary of state in 1973 while also keeping him in the role of national security adviser.
That autumn, Kissinger was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize along with North Vietnam’s chief negotiator, Le Duc Tho, for “jointly having negotiated a cease fire in Vietnam in 1973”. Many were outraged that Kissinger – the man who had been key in orchestrating the “Christmas bombings” – was rewarded for also spearheading the peace negotiations.
Tho refused to accept the joint Nobel on the grounds that Kissinger had violated the armistice.
Two oceans away, the United States was also worried about creeping socialism in Chile. Fidel Castro‘s communist revolution in Cuba had already set off alarm bells in Washington over the threat of Soviet influence in South America.
When Salvador Allende, a self-described Marxist and a member of the Socialist Party, won the 1970 presidential election, Kissinger urged Nixon to work to undermine him. The CIA, working with Chilean contacts, successfully fomented a coup that toppled Allende in 1973. General Augusto Pinochet soon emerged as Chile’s new leader, launching a campaign targeting suspected “communists” and “socialists”. More than 4,000 people would be killed or “disappeared” and almost 40,000 would become political prisoners during his 17-year reign.
Kissinger repeatedly dismissed concerns over Pinochet’s human rights abuses coming from his own State Department and reports of executions following the coup, telling a deputy: “I think we should understand our policy – that however unpleasant they act, this government is better for us than Allende was.”
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the United States backed military dictatorships across Latin America that were responsible for killing, raping, torturing and “disappearing” thousands of political opponents. Starting in the mid-1970s, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay established Operation Condor, an intelligence-sharing agreement dedicated to the eradication of political opponents designated as “terrorists” with US support – Condor activities were organized in part through a US base in Panama. Yet there were indications as early as 1976 that Condor nations had gone beyond intelligence-sharing and were now planning to carry out targeted assassinations of political figures abroad, including in Washington, London and Paris.
A military coup in Argentina that same year set the stage for the country’s “Dirty War” when nearly 9,000 people were “disappeared”, according to official figures, while human rights organizations put the figure closer to 30,000.
The extent of US acquiescence to the Argentinian regime’s brutal crackdown was not known until this century, with documents declassified in 2004 revealing that in 1976 Kissinger had promised the junta: “We won’t cause you unnecessary difficulties.”
Mideast peace and the ‘most admired man’
As the Watergate scandal dominated headlines from spring 1972 until Nixon’s resignation in 1974, Kissinger continued pursuing the administration’s foreign policy objectives, notably in the Middle East. The October 1973 Arab-Israeli War between Egypt, Israel and Syria – also known as the Yom Kippur War – and the subsequent oil embargo imposed on the United States had refocused US attention on the region. Kissinger launched a round of “shuttle diplomacy”, meeting directly with regional leaders as a peace broker on a series of short trips. He helped negotiate Egyptian-Israeli disengagement in January and, after a series of fraught negotiations over territory, secured a Syrian-Israeli accord in May.
Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, and vice president Gerald Ford took over the presidency. Ford kept Kissinger in his unusual dual role as both national security adviser and secretary of state.
A December 1974 Gallup poll found that Kissinger was “the most admired man in America” for the second year running.
But by the following year, discontent had grown among both Congress and the public that Kissinger held two posts. Ford named Kissinger’s deputy at the National Security Council to take over as national security adviser, keeping Kissinger in the role of top diplomat.
Kissinger left official public life in 1977 as Jimmy Carter took over the presidency, but he remained active behind the scenes of US policymaking as a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and the Defense Policy Board, among other governmental agencies.
He founded Kissinger Associates, a private strategy and investment consulting firm, in 1982.
A brush with the law at the Ritz
In the years after Kissinger left public life there were frequent reassessments of his legacy, with some going so far as to brand him a war criminal for his involvement in illegal US actions abroad. But efforts to call him to account were unsuccessful.
During a May 2001 stay at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, Kissinger was served with a summons to appear at court the next day to be questioned by Judge Roger Le Loire about the disappearance of five French citizens under General Pinochet in Chile. Instead of appearing, Kissinger quickly left the French capital.
The same week, Judge Rodolfo Corrall of Argentina requested Kissinger’s testimony on US involvement in Operation Condor. Kissinger declined to respond.
Chilean Judge Guzman submitted questions to US authorities in autumn 2001 requesting Kissinger’s testimony on the disappearance of US citizen Charles Horman in the early days of Pinochet. His request also received no reply.
Judge Balthazar Garzon of Spain, with the backing of judges in France, requested that Interpol detain Kissinger for questioning on crimes committed under Pinochet as he attended an April 2002 convention in London. Kissinger left the city unfettered.
As calls for justice continued to mount, Kissinger’s lawyer repeatedly argued that any questions related to actions taken by his client “in his capacity as secretary of state” should be directed back to the US State Department.
Balance of power
Despite the many controversies that have shadowed his career, there is no question that Kissinger was instrumental in many of the key decisions that molded the world order in the latter half of the 20th century.
A prolific author, he published his 19th book, “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy,” in 2022. In an interview that year with the Wall Street Journal, he emphasized “equilibrium” as being the necessary guiding principle for any statesman in the nuclear age.
For Kissinger, the apocalyptic capabilities of modern warfare made maintaining equilibrium through diplomacy paramount. This was evident in many of his pursuits, but he earned his fair share of criticism for acquiescing at times to what many found unconscionable as he sought to maintain a balance with other world powers, some of them less savory than others.
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