by Andrew Nagorski
In 1961, Henry Kissinger visited Harry Truman at the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri. The former president gave him a personal tour and then invited him to his office.
Truman already knew that this “junior professor at Harvard,” as Kissinger described himself with coy modesty in his book Diplomacy, was a rising star of the foreign-policy establishment. He had directed study programs on foreign policy and nuclear weapons at the influential Council on Foreign Relations and served as a part-time consultant to the National Security Council, both during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.
Truman asked his visitor what he had learned from his government consulting experiences. As Kissinger recalled, he responded with “standard Washington cocktail-party wisdom” that the bureaucracy functioned as a fourth branch of government, limiting any president’s ability to act. Truman was not impressed, employing an expletive to make the point that this was empty “professor talk.” Truman added: “If the president knows what he wants, no bureaucrat can stop him. A president has to know when to stop taking advice.”
In recounting his meeting with Truman, Kissinger displayed the talents that propelled him to the pinnacle of power during the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, serving from 1969 to 1977 as national security adviser and then secretary of state. Whether as a scholarly analyst or top government official, he skillfully placed himself at the center of debates about foreign policy right up until his death on Wednesday at age 100 at his home in Connecticut, his consulting company confirmed in a statement. No cause of death was provided.
In his frequent speeches and writings after leaving office, Kissinger could be counted on to deploy a dash of self-deprecating humor while leaving no doubt that he saw himself as nothing less than a modern-day Prince Metternich. That master diplomat served as Austria’s negotiator at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, shaping the balance of power that kept the continent at peace longer than ever before. It was no accident that Kissinger made Metternich the subject of his Ph.D. thesis at Harvard and kept returning to his role in his multiple volumes on statecraft. His vision of the world—and of his own role in it—was always a sweeping one.
But the specific actions he pursued while he was in a position to shape American foreign policy sparked angry accusations that he was responsible for a broad array of disasters that cost countless lives. His admirers saw him as a foreign-policy maestro and Nobel Peace Prize winner who smoothly transitioned into the role of elder statesman; his detractors charged that he was nothing less than a war criminal, callously indifferent both during and after his terms in office to those who suffered as a result of his brand of Realpolitik. It was almost as if two Henry Kissingers had lived simultaneously.
Born into a German Jewish family in 1923, Kissinger fled Hitler’s Germany with his parents and brother in 1938. He attended high school in New York’s heavily German-Jewish Washington Heights neighborhood, and studied accounting part-time at the City College of New York. But when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, his life’s trajectory changed dramatically. Serving in the infantry in Europe, he was soon tapped for much more than combat. His fluent German made him an ideal candidate for the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC), which was charged with tracking Nazis; as no more than a sergeant at war’s end, he also took on responsibilities for administering newly conquered territory.
After teaching at the European Command Intelligence School in Germany, he returned to the United States with no desire to continue with accounting. Instead, he enrolled at Harvard, starting on the academic path that would launch his career. He soon took on the additional role of foreign-policy adviser to New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who had set his sights on the White House. When Rockefeller fell short and Nixon re-emerged as the Republican nominee in 1968, Kissinger was tapped to serve in the new administration.
The good Kissinger, as his admirers saw him, could boast of an impressive list of accomplishments. Most spectacularly, he made two secret visits to China in 1971 that set the stage for Nixon’s trip there in 1972 that forged a rapprochement between Washington and Beijing. This represented a dramatic break with previous U.S. administrations that had sought to isolate Chairman Mao Zedong’s Communist regime. With Kissinger orchestrating events, Nixon, who had built his career by portraying himself as a staunch anti-communist, flawlessly played his new role.
As Kissinger saw it, he was repositioning Washington in the great power game, where the other key player was the Kremlin. “Excluding a country of the magnitude of China from America’s options meant that America was operating internationally with one hand behind its back,” he wrote. “We were convinced that increasing America’s foreign-policy options would soften, not harden, Moscow’s stance.”
Those calculations appeared to pay off when Kissinger negotiated the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and the Anti-Missile Defense Treaty with the Russians, leading to a new era dubbed détente. In the Middle East, he also helped broker the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and coaxed Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat into resuming diplomatic relations with the United States, undercutting the Kremlin’s influence in the region.
Ironically, though, it was Kissinger’s far more controversial handling of the final years of the long-running Vietnam War that won him the biggest honors. Nixon entered office, Kissinger pointed out, with the understanding “that a clear-cut victory was no longer possible, if it ever had been.” The new president, he continued, was faced with the thankless task of extricating the United States from this costly, unpopular war while negotiating “an honorable peace.” After another four years of a war that widened to Laos and Cambodia, Kissinger and the North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho signed a peace deal on Jan. 27, 1973. Both men were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year, although Tho turned his down.
The bad Kissinger, as his critics saw it, drew upon some of the same evidence to make their case. They accused him and Nixon of sabotaging Lyndon Johnson’s efforts at the end of his administration to negotiate a peace that might have helped Vice President Hubert Humphrey win the 1968 election. And even if Kissinger’s denials were believed, they pointed out, his admission that he and Nixon understood that the war could not be won at that point meant that the talk of an honorable peace disguised a dishonorable agenda: Instead of accepting defeat, the new team needlessly prolonged the war.
Christopher Hitchens, the British essayist who penned The Trial of Henry Kissinger and other scathing indictments, wrote that Kissinger “had to know that every additional casualty on either side was not just a death but an avoidable death.” Between 1969 and 1973, 21,000 Americans died in that conflict, along with countless Vietnamese victims. In addition, Kissinger and Nixon expanded the war to Cambodia, launching secret attacks there and massive bombing raids to disrupt North Vietnam’s supply routes to the Viet Cong and sanctuaries there and in Laos.
Kissinger argued those actions were needed to pressure the North Vietnamese to accept a peace deal. “Without challenging the North Vietnamese logistic bases, no conceivable American withdrawal strategy could have worked,” he wrote. But the subsequent devastation in Cambodia helped set the stage for the takeover by the Khmer Rouge, who launched their genocidal campaign against their own people. And the “honorable peace” disintegrated almost as soon as it was signed, leading to the frantic pullout of the last U.S. troops as South Vietnam collapsed altogether. American policy in all of Indochina ended in failure.
The litany of charges by Kissinger’s critics is far from limited to the conduct of the war in Southeast Asia. It includes the Nixon administration’s support for murderous right-wing regimes in Chile and Argentina, its alleged encouragement of mass killings in Bangladesh and East Timor, and a general willingness to let the calculus of big power politics eliminate any concern for human rights. When the famed Soviet dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was sent into exile in the United States in 1975, Kissinger advised President Gerald Ford not to meet with him, fearing such a meeting would be “disadvantageous” to its relations with the Kremlin.
Once he was out of office, the good Kissinger appeared to gain ground on the old Kissinger. Aside from launching a highly lucrative consulting business, the former chief diplomat was in constant demand on the conference and speaking circuit. Never having lost his pronounced German accent that only added to his professorial aura, he regularly charmed audiences across the globe. Even hardened skeptics had to admit that his knowledge of history and diplomacy infused his views with a sense of authority that his opponents often lacked, making it harder to shoot down his arguments.
The passage of time also softened old rivalries. When they were both in their prime, Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s Polish-born national security adviser who was also a formidable scholar, often resented each other. In 2012, a Washington Post story revealed that at a 1976 meeting of top Ford administration officials, Kissinger declared: “Brzezinski is a total whore. He’s been on every side of every argument.”
By then, the two men with such parallel careers had more than made up: They frequently appeared together at public events, still jabbing at each other occasionally, but expressing mutual admiration. When Brzezinski was asked to react to the Kissinger quote in the 2012 story, he replied: “Henry is a friend of mine—he must have meant ‘bore.’”
When Brzezinski died in 2017, Kissinger felt a deep sense of loss. “Zbig was almost unique in my generation,” he explained in an interview with the Financial Times. We both considered ideas about the world order to be the key problem of our time. How could we create it? We had somewhat different ideas. But for both of us, we were above all concerned to raise diplomacy to that level of influence.” Kissinger added that he was troubled by the fact that no such debates appear to be taking place now.
But the debates about the good versus the bad Kissinger have continued. Books like Robert Brigham’s Reckless: Henry Kissinger and the Tragedy of Vietnam regularly excoriate his record. And right up until his final years, Kissinger’s public appearances were often interrupted by protesters telling him to “rot in hell,” as they did during his talk at NYU’s Stern School of Business in late 2018.
No matter how much time passes, the controversy over Kissinger is unlikely to be settled to anyone’s satisfaction. But in some ways, that, too, is a measure of his impact—whether positive or negative—on his adopted country and the world order he sought to shape.