Henry Kissinger: Polarising architect of Cold War era American foreign policy

Henry Kissinger, the divisive 56th US secretary of state and architect of American foreign policy during the Nixon and Ford administrations, died on 29 November at 100 years old.

Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, Kissinger leaves behind a complex legacy being hailed as a master of global politics while denounced as a war criminal by others.

The academic-turned diplomat has left an unusual and esteemed impact on the US’s approach to foreign policy having maintained close relationships with the White House through 11 different administrations.

Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born on 27 May 1923 in Furth, Bavaria to a Jewish school teacher, Louis Kissinger, and his wife, Paula.

Growing up in the Weimar Republic and then under the Nazis, Kissinger recalled the antisemitic abuse he and his family faced.

His family fled to New York City in August 1938, shortly before Kristallnacht. However, at least 13 of his close relatives were unable to join them and were eventually killed in the Third Reich’s concentration camps.

In Manhattan, Kissinger attended the George Washington High School and quickly acclimated to the culture, changing his name from Heinz to Henry. He was an accomplished student and showed early signs of diplomacy – having been known to counsel his friends on their love lives.

Kissinger became a naturalised US citizen in 1943 and joined the US Army to serve in World War II in the intelligence section of the 84th Infantry. Due to his fluency in German, Kissinger was reassigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps where he helped track down Nazis. He later won a Bronze Star for his work in counterintelligence.

In 1947, he returned from war and enrolled at Harvard University, he spent the next 20 years, earning a bachelor’s, master’s and PhD. He stayed at the university to join the faculty as a professor and associate director of the Department of Government and Center for International Affairs.

Henry Kissinger (left) with mentor Fritz Kraemer in Germany, 1945, during World War II


In 1949, Kissinger married his first wife, Ann Fleischer, whom he divorced in 1964. The two had two children, Elizabeth born in 1959 and David born in 1961.

He would remarry in 1974 to Nancy Maginnes, who he met while working for then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

But in his bachelor years, Kissinger enjoyed a reputation as an unlikely ladies’ man and social butterfly in Washington, according to a 1971 article from Women’s Wear Daily. He dated the actors Jill St John, Shirley MacLaine and Candice Bergen.

During his time at Harvard, Kissinger consulted several government agencies on national security issues including the Department of State and the National Security Council’s Operations Coordinating Board. He also was appointed an advisor on foreign affairs to then-President John F Kennedy.

US Special envoy Henry Kissinger (R) meets with China’s Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, July 1971 in Beijing.


Then in 1968, President-elect Richard Nixon tapped Kissinger to be his National Security Advisor.

When the duo took office in January 1969, the most immediately pressing problem they faced was the Vietnam War – the failures of which ultimately became synonymous with Kissinger.

Neither man, privately, believed the war could be won outright but Kissinger was of the opinion that the United States could not abandon South Vietnam without losing the trust of its international allies and further emboldening the Soviets.

Kissinger preferred to pursue an armistice with North Vietnam and gradually withdraw American troops from the South but his position was met with anxious opposition from South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu.

North Vietnamese Politburo Member Le Duc Tho (1911 – 1990, left) with US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger during peace talks on the Vietnam War, Paris, 24th January 1973


This prompted Kissinger to conduct secret negotiations with North Vietnam President Le Duc Tho instead. In exchange for the release of prisoners of war in North Vietnam, America would slowly pull out its forces.

Meanwhile, Kissinger continued embedding himself in covert operations, this time by supporting the US’s deadly bombing raids in Cambodia known as “Operation Menu” in 1969. The bombings were intended to ramp up pressure on North Vietnam by painting the US and Nixon as irrational and volatile.

Kissinger also advocated for the continued bombings in Cambodia that lasted for three years, known as Operation Freedom Deal. An estimated 150,000 to 500,000 innocent civilians were killed as a result and it arguably paved the way for the dictatorship of Pol Pot that would follow.

The bombings were kept a secret from US citizens until 1972.

Kissinger and his wife Nancy arrive at the White House for a state dinner April 24, 2018

(Getty Images)

By 1973, Kissinger’s secret negotiations with Le Duc Tho resulted in a ceasefire agreement known as the Paris Peace Accords, which, after much bitter haggling, was finally accepted by a reluctant Thieu under pressure from Nixon.

As a result, Kissinger and Tho were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that December, which Tho declined. Kissinger accepted it but following the Fall of Saigon in 1975, attempted to return it.

After Nixon secured a second term in 1972, he took the unprecedented step of making Kissinger his secretary of state (the first foreign-born American to hold that office) while retaining him as national security adviser.

During his tenure, Kissinger made a series of controversial decisions. He supported a failed covert operation to kidnap Chilean General René Schneider in the hopes of preventing President Salvador Allende’s inauguration.

US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, right, meets with Israel’s Defence Minister Moshe Dayan in Tel Aviv on 8 January, 1974

(AFP via Getty Images)

During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War (also known as the Yom Kippur War) Kissinger acted quickly to secure American aid to Israel – a pivotal intervention in the conflict but one that inspired the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries to boycott trade with the US in retaliation, creating an economic crisis at home.

Though the Watergate scandal forced Nixon’s resignation in 1974, Kissinger remained secretary of state under Gerald Ford.

The duo continued to pursue a detente with the USSR and China and the period brought the Helsinki Accord of August 1975.

When Kissinger left the White House in November 1976, he found himself surplus to requirements at the young age of 54, albeit with a Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck. Reinventing himself as a writer, public speaker and lecturer, he published further books, including the memoirs The White House Years (1979) and Years of Upheaval (1982) and founded the consultancy Kissinger Associates.

President Gerald Ford, Soviet General Secretary Lenoid Brezhnev, and Kissinger speaking informally at the conclusion of the Vladivostok Summit on the tarmac at Vozdvizhenka Airport

(Universal History Archive/Getty)

He continued to make himself available to every succeeding president.

Under the Reagan administration, he was appointed to the head a national commission on Central America in 1983 and served on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy.

During George W Bush’s presidency, Kissinger advised him on the aftermath of 9/11 and the Iraq War, supporting the 2003 invasion.

US President Donald Trump meets with Kissinger in the Oval Officein 2017


He offered advice to Donald Trump and George W Bush and helped maintain a relationship between China and the Biden administration.

He is survived by his two children Elizabeth and David, and his wife, Nancy.

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