Henry Kissinger: Divisive diplomat who shaped world affairs

COLD WARRIOR … Henry Kissinger with Princess Diana in 1996. Photo: BBC

Henry Kissinger – who has died, aged 100, at his Connecticut home – divided opinion.

He was both awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and roundly condemned as a war criminal.

As United States (US) national security adviser and secretary of state, he energetically pursued the policy of détente, which thawed relations with the Soviet Union and China.

His shuttle diplomacy helped end the 1973 Arab- Israeli conflict, and the ne- gotiation of the Paris Peace Accords pulled America out of its long nightmare in Vietnam.

But what his supporters described as ‘Realpolitik’ his critics condemned as immoral.

He was accused of tacit support for the bloody coup that overturned a leftist government in Chile, and of turning a blind eye to the Ar-gentinean military’s ‘dirty war’ against its people.

On hearing that Kissinger had been awarded the Nobel Prize, the comedian Tom Lehrer famously declared that “political satire is obsolete”.


Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Bavaria on 27 May 1923.

The family left it late to flee the Nazi persecution, but they joined the German- Jewish community in New York in 1938.

‘Henry’ was a naturally shy teenager, who planned to study account-ancy, but was drafted into the army.

Kissinger saw action at the Battle of the Bulge, and found himself running a captured German town – despite only holding the rank of private.

Towards the end of the war, he joined counterintelligence. The 23-year-old

was given a team to hunt down former Gestapo officers, with absolute power to arrest and detain suspects.


On his return to the US, Kissinger studied political science at Harvard and rose up the academic ladder.

In 1957, he published a book, ‘Nuclear War and Foreign Policy’, that said a limited atomic war was winnable.

He became an aide to New York governor and presidential hopeful Nelson Rockefeller.

And when Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968, Kissinger was offered a plum post: national security adviser.


Nixon and Kissinger set out to reduce tensions with the Soviet Union, reviving talks to scale down the size

of their respective nuclear arsenals.

Simultaneously, a dialogue was opened with the Chinese government, through premier Zhou Enlai.

This improved Sino-US relations, and put diplomatic pressure on the Soviet leadership, who feared their huge neighbour.

Kissinger’s efforts led directly to Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972, when he met both Zhou and Mao Zedong – and ended 23 years of diplomatic isolation and hostility.


Meanwhile, the US was endeavouring to extract itself from Vietnam.

‘Peace with honour’ was a key Nixon election pledge, and Kissinger had long concluded that any US military victories were meaningless, as they could not “achieve a political

reality that could survive our ultimate withdrawal”.

He entered negotiations with North Vietnam, but agreed with Nixon to clan- destine bombing raids on neutral Cambodia, in an effort to deprive the communists of troops and supplies.

Altogether, the US dropped more than two million tonnes of bombs across Cambodia.

More than 50 000 civilians were killed in the country.

The destabilisation helped give rise to the brutal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge movement, notorious for its ‘killing fields’.

During a tortuous series of negotiations with the Viet Cong in Paris, Kissinger negotiated American military withdrawal from South Vietnam.

It won him the Nobel Peace Prize – alongside North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho – a decision bitterly attacked by peace campaigners.

Kissinger accepted the award “with humility”, and donated the prize money to the children of American servicemen killed in the conflict.

Two years later, when communist forces overran South Vietnam, he tried to return it.


His shuttle diplomacy brought about a ceasefire following the 1973 Arab- Israeli war.

Nixon’s secret White House taping system captured Israel’s prime minister Golda Meir’s offering effusive thanks for the way he and Kissinger had treated her country.

But after she left, the tapes revealed a darker Realpolitik.

Neither Kissinger nor Nixon had any intention of putting pressure on the Soviet Union to allow Russian Jews to seek a new life in Israel.

The election of the Marxist Salvador Allende as president of Chile, however, did trouble the United States.

The new government was pro-Cuban and nationalised American companies.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carried out covert operations in Chile in an attempt to help op- position groups overthrow the new government.

Kissinger chaired the committee that authorised the action.

“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people,” he said.

Eventually, the military stepped in, and Allende died in a violent coup that saw general Pinochet seize power.

Many of his soldiers turned out to have been paid by the CIA.

In later years, Kissinger himself would be pursued by a number of courts investigating human rights abuses and the deaths of foreign nationals under the military regime.

A year later, Kissinger looked on as a tearful Richard Nixon left the White

House – overrun by the Watergate scandal.

His successor, Gerald Ford, retained him as secretary of state.

He put pressure on Rhodesia’s white minority government to give up power, but was accused of ignoring the Argentine junta’s “dis- appearances” of its critics.


Controversy followed Kissinger after he left office in 1977: the offer of a chair at Columbia University was withdrawn after protests by students.

He became a powerful critic of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton’s foreign policy.

After 9/11, then president George W Bush asked him to chair the investigation into the attacks on New York and Washington, but he was forced to stand down within weeks after refusing both to reveal his consultancy’s list of clients and to answer questions about conflicts of interest.

He held meetings with Bush and vice president Dick Cheney to advise them over policy in Iraq following the 2003 invasion.

“Victory over the insurgency,” he told them, “is the only exit strategy.”

Always influential, he briefed Donald Trump on foreign affairs after his election in 2017, suggesting, among other things, acceptance of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s occupation of Crimea.

Though, by the time he reached the age of 100 in 2023, he had changed his view on Ukraine.

After the Russian invasion, he argued that president Volodymyr Zelensky ’ s country should join the Nato military alliance after peace was secured.

Kissinger had a vast list of contacts and a ready wit. “Power”, he was fond of saying, “is the ultimate aphrodisiac”.
“A country that demands

moral perfection in its foreign policy”, he once declared, “will achieve neither perfection nor security”. – BBC

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