The former secretary of State will be forever connected with President Richard M. Nixon, particularly for their efforts in three areas: getting America out of the Vietnam War, opening diplomatic relations with China and reducing tensions with the Soviet Union. For decades thereafter, Kissinger’s work with Nixon and President Gerald Ford earned him the role of the Republican Party’s elder statesman when it came to foreign policy.
“The Middle American professional politician and the German-born Harvard professor,” wrote George C. Herring in “America’s Longest War” of Nixon and Kissinger, “could hardly have been more different in background, but they shared a love of power and a burning ambition to mold a fluid world in a way that would establish their place in history. Loners and outsiders in their own professions, they were perhaps naturally drawn to each other.”
In 1973, Kissinger shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Le Duc Tho, his North Vietnamese counterpart, for hammering out an agreement to end the Vietnam War. The accord, which was signed Jan. 27, 1973, had “brought a wave of joy and hope for peace over the entire world,” the Nobel committee said.
However, Tho declined to accept the prize, saying peace was not yet a reality, and the war rapidly flared up again, minus the American troops.
More significant in the long term was Nixon’s “opening” of China; Kissinger helped establish relations with communist government there. The duo also focused on “detente,” an effort to improve relations with the Soviet Union. These developments came about as Nixon and Kissinger played the two Communist superpowers off each other, a tactic that also helped extricate America from the quagmire in Vietnam.
“Our objective,” Kissinger once wrote, “was to purge our foreign policy of all sentimentality.”
Nixon and Kissinger saw nearly all international issues through a Cold War prism, so their efforts, for instance, to end the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the Middle East turned into a high-stakes poker game involving the Soviets. The 1971 India-Pakistan war set off similar calculations about superpower relations.
Political developments in South America and Africa — often in places most Americans couldn’t find on a map — also attracted their interest and involvement. Every crisis was assessed, every triumph leveraged. Lethal force was often part of the equation.
“Kissinger personified human complexity — his characteristics ranging from brilliance and wit to sensitivity, melancholy, abrasiveness and savagery,” Stanley Karnow wrote in “Vietnam: A History.” “As he adapted to Nixon’s court, with its arcane and unsavory intrigues, he was able to acquire a talent for duplicity.”
Mostly untainted by the Watergate scandal that toppled Nixon, Kissinger continued to wield influence in the waning days of the administration. “You have saved this country, Mr. President,” he was heard telling Nixon in an April 1973 White House tape. “The history books will show that, when no one will know what Watergate means.”
Nixon resigned in August 1974, but Kissinger remained in office.
“He is, so far as this American is concerned,” said Ford in awarding him a Presidential Medal of Freedom in early 1977, “the greatest Secretary of State in the history of our Republic. His superb record of achievement is unsurpassed in the annals of American history.”
Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born May 27, 1923, in Germany to an Orthodox Jewish family. He fled in 1938 for New York to escape the Nazi persecution of Jews, picking up a new first name and later becoming both an American citizen and American soldier.
In World War II, his knowledge of Germany landed him a role as a counterintelligence officer in the Army, working with Fritz Kraemer, a fellow refugee who became his mentor. After the war, Kissinger was given a significant role in the occupation of Germany.
Kissinger went on to attend Harvard University and then teach there, gaining attention with a 1957 book, “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy.” He also served as a consultant to Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and he was part of Johnson’s early efforts to bring the North Vietnamese into negotiations. In 1968, he was advising Republican presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller, but Rockefeller was defeated by Nixon, whom Kissinger initially had little respect for.
“Nixon’s nomination drove him to despondency,” Karnow wrote. “The country, he feared, was about to be taken over by an anti-Communist fanatic. Over the next few weeks, however, ambition spurred him to reconsider. He began to ingratiate himself with the Nixon camp.”
Weeks after the November election, Nixon brought Kissinger in as national security adviser.
Kissinger and his chief military aide, Gen. Alexander Haig, took charge of Nixon’s power center on foreign policy, allowing Nixon to routinely bypass Secretary of State William Rogers and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird — and the career professionals working for them. Diplomatic niceties were adhered to only when they served Kissinger’s aims.
“After Nixon made it clear to Anatoly Dobyrnin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, that he should work through Kissinger, the two men met regularly in Kissinger’s office without anyone else being present,” wrote Margaret MacMillan in “Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World. “Dobyrnin entered and left the White House by the service entrance. In time, a private telephone linked Kissinger’s office directly to the Soviet embassy.”
Having boxed him out, Kissinger eventually supplanted Rogers. In September 1973, Kissinger, without surrendering the duties of national security adviser, became secretary of State. By the time Kissinger was overwhelmingly confirmed to that post, author Ray Locker wrote in “Haig’s Coup,” “most senators saw Kissinger as the island of stability in the roiling seas of the Nixon administration.”
Nixon distrusted the Eastern establishment (particularly Ivy Leaguers of the Jewish faith), but he made an exception for Kissinger, who would tolerate Nixon’s rants about the “flabby soft bastards” and “sipping martini crowd” of places like Kissinger’s Harvard. The two men weren’t friends, but they were partners. “Our differences made the partnership work,” Nixon wrote in his memoirs.
“Nixon and Kissinger viewed themselves as principled realists,” John A. Farrell wrote in “Richard Nixon: The Life,” as opposed to “dreamy” idealists in the mold of President Woodrow Wilson.
Together, they treated the world like an elaborate chess board that needed to be played skillfully. Everything was linked.
“The result,” Herring wrote in his study of the Vietnam War, “was a foreign policy that was sometimes bold and imaginative in conception, sometimes crude and improvised, sometimes brilliant in execution, sometimes bungling; a policy dedicated to the noble goal of a ‘generation of peace,’ but frequently ruthless and cynical in the use of military power.”
When he became president in January 1969, Nixon inherited the brutal, formless mess that was the Vietnam War. The turbulence it had generated in the United States was one of the main reasons Nixon had been elected over Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
“No sooner was he installed in the White House,” Karnow wrote, “than Kissinger directed his staff to canvass American officials in Washington and Saigon for their appraisals of the prospects for Vietnam.”
In working to extricate the U.S. from Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger combined extended negotiations in Paris with tactics designed to intimidate North Vietnam during difficult points in the talks. Those included conducting massive bombing raids (“War by tantrum,” as James Reston of the New York Times dubbed it) and hinting at the possibility that Nixon was irrational enough to use nuclear weapons, the so-called “madman theory.”
The aim behind this cutthroat behavior was to bring America’s troops home without suffering an outright defeat or diminishing the nation’s superpower status — “peace with honor.”
At times, Kissinger secretly negotiated with North Vietnam without the presence of anyone from South Vietnam, reflecting his fatalistic and ultimately accurate view that America’s partner in combat could only be propped up so long. The U.S. State Department was also excluded.
“The only problem is to prevent the collapse in ’72,” Kissinger told Nixon at one point, a cold-blooded calculation about South Vietnam meant to ensure that Nixon’s re-election prospects were not destroyed by a North Vietnamese victory. The war could not be won, but neither could it be lost — at least not right away.
Fighting continued until the Paris Peace Accords of January 1973. America’s troops came home at long last, and so did U.S. prisoners of war, but combat soon resumed. By the end of 1975, all of Vietnam was ruled by communists, as were neighboring Laos and Cambodia (which Nixon had invaded in the spring of 1970, with Kissinger’s backing).
Efforts in China turned out better: Nixon’s surprise visit in February 1972 was set up by a series of calculated moves. Foremost among them were Kissinger’s secret visit in July 1971— the first by a U.S. government official since Mao Zedong seized power in 1949 — and a follow-up Kissinger visit in October.
Kissinger’s first visit was, Farrell wrote, “the stuff of thrillers.” While in Pakistan, Kissinger feigned illness and went to the airport in disguise, leaving even his clothes behind as he secretly flew to Beijing.
“We have come to the People’s Republic of China with an open mind and an open heart,” Kissinger told Zhou Enlai, China’s prime minister, in their meeting July 9, 1971. The two men spoke about Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea — Asia’s hot spots. Two days later, Kissinger sent a prearranged signal to Nixon that the meeting was a success — the word “Eureka.”
According to MacMillan, Kissinger told the American ambassador in Pakistan as he headed home: “I got everything I wanted. It was a total success on my part. I did a beautiful job.”
Months later, Kissinger joined Nixon in visiting China and meeting with Mao, its ailing supreme leader. On that trip, Kissinger painstakingly negotiated a joint communique that set the tone for future relations. Years later, Kissinger wrote: “For both sides, necessity dictated that a rapprochement occur.”
When relations were established, the power dynamic of the Cold War shifted dramatically. The Soviet Union came to fear a new U.S.-China partnership, leading to Nixon-Kissinger breakthroughs with Leonid Brezhnev’s stagnating Soviet regime on arms control and trade.
“We were quite convinced that once we were in contact with Beijing, the diplomacy between Washington and Moscow would become unfrozen,” Kissinger said in a 1983 interview, who added: “We would seize the opportunity.”
This Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy served to shake up the dynamics of relationships around the globe, after a long period of superpower stalemate. Remaking the world required the ability to conduct drawn-out negotiations and in-depth geopolitical analysis, as well as to understand the limitations of any diplomat’s knowledge. Those were Kissinger’s strengths.
“The superpowers,” he later wrote, “often behave like two heavily armed blind men feeling their way around a room, each believing himself in mortal peril from the other, whom he assumes to have perfect vision. Each side should know that frequently uncertainty, compromise, and incoherence are the essence of policymaking.”
In September 1973, with the help of the United States, Chilean President Salvador Allende was ousted by the military. A Marxist, Allende had been democratically elected, but Nixon — urged on by Kissinger — feared that example might be contagious. Allende ended up dead, and Gen. Augusto Pinochet launched a bloody regime.
One of Kissinger’s most telling quotes came amid discussion over the situation: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” (That quote is sometimes rendered with stupidity in place of irresponsibility, but the scorn for democratic processes remains intact.)
During that era, Kissinger became an unlikely celebrity whose name and image were evoked in many different ways.
His name commonly popped up in situations that required delicate diplomacy. So it was that when the general manager of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles wanted to convey how complicated things were in his office, Jim Murray said he “had the most Henry Kissinger-type job of anybody I know in my position.” To be a “Kissinger” or “Dr. Kissinger” in that era was to be the person in your workplace, organization, school or rock band who was always trying to keep the peace. There is no current equivalent.
Kissinger was known to hobnob with celebrities at such New York night spots as Studio 54, often in the company of famous women. John Belushi (“I’m a really, really fat roly-poly diplomat”) and future Sen. Al Franken portrayed him during the early years of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,“ and Kissinger appeared on such TV shows as “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast.”
The 1976 Peter Sellers comedy “The Pink Panther Strikes Again” featured a German-accented secretary of state with bushy eyebrows who was clearly Kissinger. And Woody Allen made a fake TV documentary mocking Kissinger called “Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story,” though PBS got cold feet and shelved it.
The sports world also claimed him.
In 1975, Kissinger threw out the first pitch at baseball’s annual All-Star Game. A year later, the master of shuttle diplomacy was named an honorary member of the Harlem Globetrotters, that basketball team’s first-ever such honoree. The owners of the New York Cosmos used his diplomatic skills (and lifelong affection for soccer) to help recruit soccer superstar Pele from Brazil.
Kissinger’s eagerness to be in the public eye often led to jibes about his ego.
“Everything pompous that you could possibly want to say about him, he says about himself first,” quipped broadcaster Barbara Walters when Kissinger was an unlikely selection in 1980 as “man of the year” by New York’s Friars Club, an organization generally focused on having comedians make fun of other comedians.
Others held Kissinger in contempt, particularly those who had worked to end the Vietnam War.
“For more than four decades,” Weather Underground co-founder Mark Rudd said, “I’ve harbored the faint hope that Kissinger would be indicted for war crimes in having planned and prosecuted the mass murder of hundreds of thousands in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Chile, and other countries.”
In particular, Kissinger was criticized for his advocacy of using bombing raids and other lethal tactics as diplomatic leverage.
“The drama of any air raid on a civilian population, a gesture in diplomacy to a man like Henry Kissinger, is about the inhumanity of many of man’s inventions to man,” novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote in 1994.
Fellow novelist Joseph Heller devoted part of 1979’s “Good as Gold” to the efforts of his protagonist, Bruce Gold, to write a book demolishing Kissinger’s image.
“In Gold’s conservative opinion,” wrote Heller, “Kissinger would not be recalled in history as a Bismarck, Metternich or Castlereagh but as an odious schlump who made war gladly and did not often exude much of that legendary sympathy for weakness and suffering with which Jews regularly were credited.”
Kissinger’s Jewishness was an essential aspect of his image and often seemed to factor in America’s complex relationship with Israel. He was the first Jewish person to serve as U.S. secretary of state.
“No Jew in modern times has yielded greater power on the world stage,” wrote J.J. Goldberg in “Jewish Power,” a 1996 book.
But he had sharp critics within the Jewish community. He helped marshal the Nixon administration’s unsuccessful opposition to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, legislation designed to force the Soviet Union to improve treatment of its persecuted Jewish citizens.
His complicated balancing act during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel, came under intense scrutiny. Israeli military hero Moshe Dayan complained that Kissinger exchanged “the security of Israel for the good graces of the oil countries.”
After Ford lost the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter, Kissinger moved on to a career as a consultant and lecturer on international affairs.
President Ronald Reagan subsequently appointed him to chair the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America. It was one of many boards and commissions he would serve on; for instance, when Elizabeth Holmes wanted to enhance the credibility of her over-hyped Silicon Valley startup Theranos, she brought in Kissinger and George Shultz for a double dose of prestige.
Kissinger was a prolific author, with a career capped by his three volumes of White House memoirs: “White House Years,” “Years of Upheaval,” and “Years of Renewal.” A 2011 book, “On China,” discussed his role in the opening of China.
He could also always be counted on to offer informed commentary, either on TV or in print. Kissinger’s approach to the practical applications of American power never changed very much; he always attempted to cut through conventional rhetoric to find what he perceived as deeper truths about what the United States needed to do in each new situation.
“The management of a balance of power,” he said in a 1993 interview, “is a permanent undertaking, not an exertion that has a foreseeable end.” In that same interview, he said: “History knows no resting places and no plateaus.”
Through the years, he was frequently called upon to lend an air of authority on global affairs to would-be candidates. In February 2015, Michael Crowley noted that many presidential hopefuls still considered it something of a necessity to pay a visit to Kissinger.
“Candidates running for president like to be seen with or described as having talked to Kissinger,” one expert said, “because they think it sends a message that they themselves are serious about foreign policy.”
He also remained an unconventional thinker. In discussing his 2022 book “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy” with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Kissinger offered a distinctly differently opinion on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aims in waging war against Ukraine.
“You can interpret it in one of two ways,” he said of Putin. “The way it is generally interpreted — I know almost no exception — is that he wanted to reconstruct the empire.”
“But you can also interpret it as a recognition of growing Russian relative weakness, that the domestic situation is not evolving very rapidly, and, here, the West is approaching via Ukraine. … I interpret it to myself as much as a last act to show that there were limits to what Russia could tolerate.”
In July 2023 at the age of 100, he returned to China, where he was an honored guest. Chinese leader Xi Jinping hosted him in the same building where Zhou had met him 52 years earlier.
“China and the United States’ relations will forever be linked to the name ‘Kissinger,’” Xi said.