Henry A. Kissinger, the architect of U.S. foreign policy at the apex of the Cold War and a towering intellectual force in world affairs for more than half a century, has died at his Connecticut home.
Kissinger died Wednesday, according to his consulting firm, Kissinger Associates. He was 100.
As national security advisor and secretary of State in the administrations of Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, Kissinger dominated international relations from 1969 to 1977 with charisma, intellect and a wry cynicism.
Although his tenure in the Nixon and Ford administrations marked his only senior government position, he had an impact on policy both before and after his years in office. From 1956, when he was study director of an influential panel on nuclear policy, until well into the 21st century, Kissinger advised presidents of both parties.
“Any student of American foreign policy will need to be familiar with his philosophy of realism,” said Peter Rodman, the late Pentagon official and scholar who served as an aide to Kissinger. “He suggests there is a diplomatic approach to everything.”
In November 1968, when Nixon surprisingly picked Kissinger to be his national security advisor, the two men hardly knew each other — and what they knew, they did not much like. Nixon loathed the Eastern Establishment typified by Harvard men and protégés of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Kissinger’s first patron. The president-elect also exhibited a recurrent antisemitism, sometimes in Kissinger’s presence. And before taking the job, Kissinger made no secret of his suspicions of Nixon’s intellect.
But in their enigmatic relationship, Kissinger and Nixon shared an overarching objective to concentrate the government’s foreign policy power in the White House to an extent not seen before. Toward that end, they emasculated the authority of Secretary of State William P. Rogers and imposed an unusually heavy-handed supervision on the Pentagon, CIA and other foreign policy centers.
In 1973, Kissinger replaced Rogers as secretary of State and became the only person to hold the posts of national security advisor and head of the State Department simultaneously. Kissinger established the standard by which all subsequent foreign policy advisors have been judged. Ford, Nixon’s successor, eventually stripped Kissinger of the NSA role saying, years later, that it was a conflict of interest for him to hold both positions.
As the architect of U.S. foreign policy, Kissinger had a crowded agenda, much of it consumed by the Vietnam War.
He and North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for hammering out a plan intended to end the war, but the agreement, announced in January 1973, failed to stop the fighting and the war dragged on for more than two more years until Saigon finally fell. Kissinger accepted the honor, although he did not attend the ceremony, blaming the pressure of official duties. Tho refused the prize, explaining that he considered the negotiations to have been a failure.
In addition to Vietnam, Kissinger played a key role in reopening U.S. relations with China after more than 20 years of isolation. He was the author of a policy of détente toward the Soviet Union that eased Cold War tensions and opened the way for historic nuclear arms control agreements. And he generated a new approach to the Middle East that cast the United States as a broker between Arabs and Israelis, a role that subsequent administrations continued to play, while expanding Washington’s military assistance to Israel.
Kissinger established a delicate triangular diplomacy among the world’s three most dangerous nuclear forces: the United States, the Soviet Union and China. For Washington, it was a balancing act with the communist powers, in which, as Kissinger said later, “we attempted to be closer to each of them than they were to each other.”
To some, the three-way relationship was a bargain with the devil — in fact, two devils. At the time, China and the Soviet Union had appalling human rights records and neither had much in common with the United States.
“Human rights issues in China and the Soviet Union were not ignored, but they were shoved aside because of the strategic imperatives,” said Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a top aide to Kissinger at the State Department and National Security Council and, like Kissinger, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.
Kissinger once told an interviewer that the debate over the morality of U.S. foreign policy — secret bombings, wiretaps, covert intelligence operations and the like — had paralyzed the nation and kept it from pursuing the “most moral” goal of all: the pursuit of stability and peace.
His working philosophy was built around three points: realism, linkage and shuttle diplomacy.
Realism was a 20th century refinement of 19th century balance-of-power politics in which nations pursue specific national interests, regardless of abstract philosophical concerns, peacefully if possible or by the use of force if necessary.
Linkage was his way of joining seemingly unrelated issues such as making economic relations with Moscow contingent on the Soviet Union using its influence on North Vietnam for policy concessions in the Vietnam War.
And shuttle diplomacy was Kissinger’s signature technique of simulating negotiations between parties that refused to talk to each other, typically Israel and its neighboring Arab states, by meeting separately with each party and conveying the positions of one to the other after adding his own spin.
Realism and linkage had historical roots that far predated Kissinger. But shuttle diplomacy seemed to be his innovation, starting in early 1974 when he flew back and forth between Israel and Egypt to mediate a settlement of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Perhaps because his realism seemed to operate beyond the bounds of conventional morality and cut across philosophical distinctions, Kissinger was always a controversial figure, praised for towering pragmatic accomplishments but condemned by ideologues on both the right and the left. His most outspoken critics saw Kissinger as ruthless and accused him of “war crimes,” primarily for the expansion of the Vietnam conflict into Cambodia and the support Washington gave to brutal right-wing dictatorships in Chile and Argentina.
Kissinger’s first diplomatic coup was to end the frosty isolation between the United States and China. In July 1971, he eluded reporters and flew secretly to Beijing, where he quickly established a rapport with Premier Zhou Enlai. There, Kissinger and Zhou plotted Nixon’s ground-breaking trip to China, which took place in February 1972, a visit that Nixon called “a week that changed the world.”
At the time, China was still in the throes of the violent “cultural revolution,” cut off from the United States and with strained relations with most of the world. Its economy was isolated from international markets, consisting of little more than agriculture and handicrafts. Its weapons sector was generations behind the West and the Soviet Union. After Nixon’s trip and Kissinger’s follow-up diplomacy, China’s isolation gradually receded, ultimately allowing the country to evolve into a significant world economic and political power.
Shortly after Nixon’s trip to Beijing, Kissinger moved ahead on the second track of his diplomatic vision, arranging a U.S.-Soviet summit that took place in May 1972. The talks produced a number of agreements on scientific and cultural exchanges and eventually led to the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. A few weeks after the summit, the Soviets began to pressure North Vietnam to be more flexible in negotiations with the United States, a classic example of Kissinger’s “linkage” strategy.
Later in 1972, Kissinger sought to capitalize on the Soviet contacts with North Vietnam by opening talks with Hanoi’s negotiator, Tho, in a suburban Paris mansion. Although the meetings were supposed to be secret, Kissinger made no effort to hide the talks. Photographers clicked away from surrounding rooftops and reporters tracked leaks from inside the hall.
In October, less than a month before the 1972 election that gave Nixon a second term, Kissinger and Tho concluded a tentative peace package. Kissinger dramatically announced that “peace is at hand.”
When the North refused to accept the accord, Kissinger advised Nixon to increase the pressure on North Vietnam to sign the pact. The president ordered intensive bombing of North Vietnam in December 1972.
A month later the cease-fire was signed and Nixon proclaimed that “peace with honor” had been achieved. In the ensuing weeks, U.S. prisoners of war were released and the last American combat troops were sent home. But Kissinger failed to achieve stability in the region. With U.S. diplomats and other Americans clambering aboard helicopters on the embassy roof, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army in the early hours of April 30, 1975.
Declassified documents, made public by the University of Virginia Miller Center of Public Affairs in 2004, indicated that Nixon and Kissinger had extremely modest goals for Vietnam, hoping only for a “decent interval” between the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the ultimate victory of the North Vietnamese forces.
Still, for the rest of his life, Kissinger argued that his diplomatic work was sound and that a stable peace would have endured if not for the aggressions of the North Vietnamese and a failure of will on the part of the United States. Kissinger’s view of the outcome in Vietnam colored his attitude toward the war in Iraq some 30 years later.
In early 2007, President George W. Bush and other administration officials held a series of private meetings with Kissinger to discuss Iraq as the president prepared a policy shift that came to be known as the “surge.” Neither Kissinger nor Bush provided details of the meetings. If he disagreed with Bush’s war objectives or harbored doubts about the way the conflict was prosecuted, he kept those thoughts to himself.
But some of Kissinger’s closest friends said Bush’s policy — especially his refusal to negotiate with states like Iran and Syria and his overarching justification of the war as a way to spread democracy to the autocratic states of the Middle East — was the antithesis of the “realism” that Kissinger advocated.
Kissinger always knew whom he could bully and whom he could not. In the White House, he terrified his staff and he humiliated Rogers, the beleaguered secretary of State. Rogers was kept in the dark about initiatives, such as the secret diplomacy that set up Nixon’s trip to China, and was obliged to plead for information about programs that in most administrations were the purview of the State Department.
But Kissinger treated Nixon with extreme deference — at least in public and to his face in private. “Flattery was one of Kissinger’s principal tools in winning over Nixon, and a tool he employed shamelessly,” historian Robert Dallek wrote in a 2007 book about the two men. Still, Dallek wrote that in the latter stages of Watergate, Kissinger spoke privately to others with scorn about Nixon, describing him as a “madman” and a drunk.
Basing much of his account on transcripts of meetings and telephone conversations involving Nixon and Kissinger, declassified 30 years after Nixon resigned, Dallek describes a relationship in which both men were “allies but also rivals — paranoid and insecure, deceitful and manipulative, ruthless and strangely vulnerable.”
The U.S. response to the Arab-Israeli war in October 1973 illuminated the extent of Kissinger’s power, earlier shared with Nixon but by then almost untrammeled because of the president’s preoccupation with the deepening Watergate scandal, which forced his resignation in August 1974.
Kissinger overrode Pentagon objections and agreed that the United States would replace the weaponry Israel lost on the battlefield. It marked the beginning of large-scale U.S. military assistance to Israel.
At the same time, Kissinger was determined to prevent the humiliation of the Arab powers, particularly Egypt. The unfolding crisis proved to be an ideal stage for Kissinger’s brand of diplomacy — secret, personal and contemptuous of the professional foreign service.
On Oct. 22, just 16 days after the outbreak of the conflict, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 338, calling for a cease-fire. Egypt accepted the cease-fire but Israel, charging Egypt with violations of the truce, completed its encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army east of the Suez Canal, capturing the Egyptian’s only supply route.
The Soviet Union, then an ally of Egypt, angrily accused the United States of giving Israel a green light for encircling the Egyptian troops. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev called on Washington to join in enforcing the cease-fire, threatening that Moscow would act on its own if the United States balked. The U.S. government took the threat seriously, ordering the highest level of nuclear alert since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The furor ended peacefully, however, when a U.N. emergency force arrived to police the truce.
Kissinger then mediated a six-point agreement, signed separately by Israel and Egypt on Nov. 11, 1973, to shore up the temporary cease-fire and guarantee a free flow of supplies to the Egyptian Third Army.
In the early 1970s, Kissinger — at the behest of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran — secretly encouraged Kurdish separatists in Iraq to rebel against the government of Saddam Hussein, providing the insurgents with $16 million in military aid, according to a congressional investigation. But in 1975, after the shah and Hussein patched up a border dispute, Kissinger abruptly terminated U.S. support for the Kurds, an action the House Intelligence Committee called a “sellout.”
Justifying his decision, Kissinger told a committee staff member, “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”
The remark was pure Kissinger — witty, brash, egotistical and cynical — and comprised a nine-word summary of his version of realism.
The often controversial nature of Kissinger’s approach was also on display in U.S. relations with right-wing dictatorships in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s. In Chile, the United States was clearly implicated in a military coup that deposed Salvador Allende, an avowed Marxist who was elected president of that country in September 1970.
Although the CIA launched a series of coup attempts against Allende as soon as he took office, by September 1973 Allende was still in power in Santiago even as Nixon’s grip in Washington was eroding. But on Sept. 11, the Chilean military, led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, attacked the presidential palace. When the fighting ended, Allende was found at his desk, dead of a gunshot wound, possibly self-inflicted. Pinochet seized the presidency, holding it until 1990.
The CIA clearly supported Pinochet’s coup although its exact role is still in dispute. In his memoirs, Kissinger acknowledged following Nixon’s orders to organize a coup. But he said he ordered the operation to be shut down before the end of 1970, three years before Pinochet took power.
Regardless, Kissinger offered political and diplomatic backing to Pinochet’s government.
According to a declassified transcript of a staff meeting Oct. 1, 1973, just two weeks after Pinochet seized power, Kissinger said U.S. diplomats should not put themselves in the position of defending human rights violations by the Pinochet regime. But he added, “I think we should understand our policy — that however unpleasant they act, the [Pinochet] government is better for us than Allende was.”
Kissinger’s unique style of diplomacy, and the force of his personality, made him an international media star. A portly, middle-aged man with glasses and a remarkably persistent German accent became something of a celebrity, going out of the town with such Hollywood stars as Marlo Thomas, Candice Bergen and Jill St. John. But his favorite date was always Nancy Maginnes, an aide to onetime New York Gov. Rockefeller. They married on March 30, 1979. Kissinger’s first marriage, in 1949 to Ann Fleischer, ended in divorce in 1964.
Henry Alfred Kissinger, then known as Heinz, was born May 27, 1923, in Furth, Germany, the son of a religiously Orthodox, middle-class Jewish family. He spent the first 15 years of his life in Furth, a grimy industrial city in Bavaria, facing the increasing antisemitism of the Nazi party. In 1938, Kissinger’s family fled, going first to London and then to New York City, where Kissinger graduated from high school.
Still technically a German citizen, Kissinger was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. He became a U.S. citizen June 19, 1943, in a brief ceremony at an Army base in South Carolina under a military program that offered U.S. citizenship to foreign-born soldiers. He served as an interpreter and intelligence officer during the war. After the Nazi surrender, he played a significant post-war role, helping reorganize municipal governments in occupied Germany.
Demobilized in 1946, Kissinger breezed through Harvard on the GI Bill while also serving as a captain in the military intelligence reserve until 1949. He graduated summa cum laude in 1950 with a degree in government. He obtained a master’s degree in 1952 and a doctorate in 1954, also in government. After graduation, he joined the Harvard faculty, dividing his time between the department of government and the Center for International Affairs.
In 1956, Kissinger joined the staff of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, an organization established by the children of John D. Rockefeller Jr. to coordinate the family’s philanthropic endeavors. Nelson Rockefeller — later to become governor of New York, presidential candidate and vice president under Ford — was the prime sponsor of a Special Studies Project intended, according to its charter, “to define the major problems and opportunities” facing the United States in the late 1950s and “clarify national purposes and objectives.” Kissinger was selected to direct the day-to-day operations of the project.
Although Kissinger left the fund after the final report was issued, he and Rockefeller remained close. In 1964, Kissinger wrote a series of speeches for Rockefeller’s unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination against the conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater.
Later, Kissinger wrote a memo outlining a plan to end the war in Vietnam. It called for the gradual replacement of U.S. troops with South Vietnamese, eventually leading to the complete withdrawal of the U.S. military under the umbrella of an international peace-keeping force and internationally supervised elections. The plan quickly came to Nixon’s attention and became the basis of Nixon’s 1968 election promise of a secret plan to end the war.
Kissinger reached the apex of his powers in 1973 when Nixon appointed him secretary of State while retaining him as national security advisor.
With his hold on power crumbling, Nixon sought to capitalize on Kissinger’s foreign policy stature by emphasizing his role in the administration. At the time, Kissinger seemed to be almost the only top official of Nixon’s government who had not been touched by Watergate.
But Kissinger had to struggle to keep the scandal at bay. His penchant for secret diplomacy, which produced the opening to China and other diplomatic coups, began to take a toll. He was accused of wiretapping his own aides to find the source of White House leaks to reporters. Although he was never charged with a crime and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ultimately cleared him of any wrongdoing, the wiretap accusations dogged him for the rest of his life.
Although Kissinger retained his hold on foreign policy despite the scandal, his once-excellent relations with Congress — where he regularly courted lawmakers with secret briefings —eventually began to sour. One key incident occurred in 1974 when Kissinger argued that the United States should continue to supply arms to Turkey even though the Ankara government had violated U.S. law by using U.S.-supplied weapons in its invasion of Cyprus.
“There are times,” he told the lawmakers, “when the national interest is more important than the law.” An outraged Congress disagreed, and Kissinger suffered a series of humiliating defeats in the Senate and House over the next two years.
In the decades after he left public office, the governing philosophy of U.S. foreign relations moved away from the Kissinger paradigm. Still, Kissinger remained influential in Washington and abroad, giving his advice to presidents of both parties — even those who did not seem to agree with him. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Kissinger met with Hillary Clinton and future President Trump but declined to endorse either.
Kissinger also wrote a syndicated newspaper column and eight of his 12 major books after leaving office. And he established a successful consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, which advised a select, but largely secret, list of corporate and government clients on strategies for profiting from, or at least not losing as a result of, shifts in world politics.
Kissinger’s critics complained that the activities of the firm created a classic conflict of interest. Kissinger’s friends argued that he was able to keep his corporate clients separate from his role as an advisor to U.S. presidents. Because the activities of Kissinger Associates were largely secret, it was never possible to reconcile the issue.
Kempster is a former Times staff writer.