Henry Kissinger, the Holocaust survivor and Harvard professor who became a towering U.S. diplomat, master political manipulator and pop culture icon — loved by admirers and loathed by detractors — has died. He was 100.
He died on Wednesday at his home in Connecticut, according to Kissinger Associates.
As President Richard Nixon’s top foreign policy aide, Kissinger helped set out the nation’s grand international strategy of extricating itself from an unpopular war and plotting its relations with two rival communist powers. In Nixon’s second term, Kissinger had to navigate against the backdrop of the Watergate scandal that engulfed his commander in chief’s attention and eventually forced the president out. All the while, he fiercely defended his own political turf.
“My predominant concern during Watergate was not the investigations that formed the headlines of the day. It was to sustain the credibility of the United States as a major power,” Kissinger wrote in his 1982 memoir “Years of Upheaval.” “I became the focal point of a degree of support unprecedented for a nonelected official. It was as if the public and Congress felt the national peril instinctively, and created a surrogate center around which the national purpose could rally.”
Kissinger negotiated America’s exit from the disastrous Vietnam War, sharing the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho for a cease-fire agreement that year. Nearly two years later, Nixon’s self-described “peace with honor” collapsed with the fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong during the administration of President Gerald Ford.
Kissinger also crafted the détente policy that thawed the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and he played a pivotal role in breaking down the diplomatic great wall that surrounded Communist China for 2½ decades. Through his shuttle diplomacy, he wrung out agreements between Israel and Egypt and Syria in the wake of the Arab countries’ surprise launch of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
And in his diplomatic chess game against the Soviets, he supported brutal regimes that were accused of human rights abuses, including in Chile and Pakistan.
Three months after the Watergate break-in on June 17, 1972, Nixon’s national security advisor was confirmed as his secretary of State, becoming the first foreign-born head of that Cabinet department. He continued to serve as national security advisor until three months after Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, and remained as secretary of State until Ford left office in 1977.
In the 1983 book “The Price of Power,” journalist Seymour M. Hersh bashed Kissinger as a double-dealing deceiver. Journalist Walter Isaacson’s 1992 biography “Kissinger” portrayed the former secretary of State as a complicated pragmatist who mastered the art of nuance. In his 2001 book “The Trial of Henry Kissinger,” social critic Christopher Hitchens called him a war criminal. In the 2015 book “Kissinger’s Shadow,” leftist historian Greg Grandin said never-ending wars show the U.S. was still paying the price of Kissinger’s policies. But the same year, a massive biography by conservative historian Niall Ferguson portrayed Kissinger as an idealist who followed the vision of Kant rather than the realpolitik of Clausewitz or Bismarck.
To Barry Gewen, a New York Times Book Review editor, Kissinger’s idealism was based on negativism and pessimism.
“The task for policymakers in his view is a modest, essentially negative one — namely, not to steer the world along some preordained path to universal justice but to pit power against power to rein in the assorted aggressions of human beings and to try, as best they can, to avert disaster,” Gewen said in his 2020 book “The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World.”
More recently, Kissinger was among the high-profile board members in Elizabeth Holmes’ Theranos Inc. before the blood-screening company melted down in 2018 amid fraud charges. Another board member was Kissinger’s fellow Nixon administration colleague George Shultz, whose grandson worked at Theranos and turned out to be a key whistleblower against Holmes.
And Kissinger kept up with geopolitics even late in his life. He drew criticism for suggesting in May 2022 that Ukraine should cede some land to Russia to achieve a peace deal. Those comments came about three months after Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Later, speaking via video link in January 2023 to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Kissinger said Russia must be given the opportunity to one day rejoin the international system following any peace deal in Ukraine and dialogue with the country must be ongoing.
“This may seem very hollow to nations that have been under Russian pressure for much of the Cold War period,” he said. However, he added that it was important to avoid an escalation of conflict between Russia and the West as a result of it feeling the war had become “against Russia itself.”
Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born May 27, 1923, in Fuerth, Germany, an industrial suburb of the Bavarian city Nuremberg, into an Orthodox Jewish family. His father, Louis, was a school teacher and his mother, Paula, was a homemaker. The couple also had another son, Walter, who was born a year after the future American diplomat and died in May 2021 at age 96.
Five years after Hitler came to power, the Kissingers fled Nazi Germany in 1938 — just in time, first to London, then to New York. It was only 2½ months before Kristallnacht, when antisemitic mobs spread terror throughout Germany by burning and rampaging through synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses on Nov. 9-10, 1938. Kissinger was 15.
After graduating from George Washington High School in the New York, where he attended night classes while working at a shaving brush factory during the day, Kissinger enrolled in City College of New York, planning to become an accountant. Three years later, in 1943, he was drafted into the Army and soon became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He eventually returned to Germany to battle Hitler’s murderous regime, whose victims included Kissinger’s grandmother and 12 other members of his family.
He first served in the infantry. In April 1945, he and comrades in the 84th Infantry Division discovered a small concentration camp at Ahlem near Hanover, liberating the remaining 35 emaciated prisoners in an event he recalled six decades later as “the single-most horrifying experience I have ever had.”
With help from another German émigré in the U.S. military, Fritz Kraemer, Pvt. Kissinger was assigned to military intelligence, put in charge of the denazification of the western German city of Krefeld. Later, as a sergeant, he led efforts to track down a sleeper cell of Gestapo officers in the Hanover region, earning a Bronze Star, and led denazification efforts in southern Hesse.
After the war, he turned to history and the nascent field of strategic studies, winning acceptance at Harvard in 1947 with financing enabled by the GI Bill. There, he found another mentor, historian William Yandell Elliott. Kissinger’s senior thesis, “The meaning of history: reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant,” was 388 pages, inspiring a 150-page limit for length of government studies papers — informally known as “The Kissinger Rule.”
After graduating summa cum laude, he pursued his Ph.D. at Harvard, writing his dissertation on the aftermath of the French Revolution: “A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822.” In 1951, he started Harvard’s summer International Seminar and the following year, he began publishing the quarterly journal Confluence.
He joined the faculty of the school of government in 1954, and gained wide attention for his 1957 book “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,” in which he proposed that a policy based on the declared willingness to engage in limited nuclear war was a greater deterrent in a bipolar world than the Eisenhower administration’s strategy of massive retaliation.
“Our current military policy is based on the doctrine of massive retaliation: that we threaten an all-out attack on the Soviet Union in case the Soviet Union engages in aggression anywhere. This means that, against almost any form of attack, we base our policy on the threat that will involve the destruction of all mankind; and this is too risky, and I think too expensive,” the professor told Mike Wallace in a 1958 interview, speaking in his dry Germanic basso profundo voice.
“American strategy has to face the fact that it may be confronted with war, and that if Soviet aggression confronts us with war, and we are unwilling to resist, it will mean the end of our freedom. … It boils down, then, to a value choice. In these terms, yes, I think war must be made a usable instrument of policy.”
In the Cold War battle over hearts and minds, Kissinger viewed American capitalism as a weapon against communism.
“A capitalist society, or, what is more interesting to me, a free society, is a more revolutionary phenomenon than 19th-century socialism,” Kissinger told Wallace. “I think we should go on the spiritual offensive. We should identify ourselves with the revolution. We should say that freedom, if it is liberated, can achieve many of these things.”