Condemned as a war criminal, the diplomatic mastermind and pioneer of détente was the epitome of ruthless political calculation
In the history of modern politics, few politicians have been as consequential and controversial as Henry Kissinger. On 29th November 2023, the man who had dominated international relations for decades passed away aged 100.
Kissinger’s eminence as a statesman transcended his staggering longevity. The only man to serve concurrently as US National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, he was one of the most senior aides to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and became arguably the most important engineer of US foreign policy during the Cold War.
He was the architect of détente, a new style of diplomacy under which the USA sought to ease hostilities with the USSR by fostering greater dialogue. Using realpolitik as a blueprint, Kissinger believed such dialogue should be dictated by given circumstances and factors, and that agreements reached should not strictly follow ideological, ethical, or humanitarian guidelines. To this end, he embarked on a covert scheme of careful negotiation. He opened communication channels to increase arms control and mediate proxy wars but ensured these were completely detached from the operations of the department he headed. By thus dissecting the Department of State’s authority, Kissinger could parley with his Soviet counterparts in utmost secrecy, and he did so with surgical precision. His sub rosa diplomacy was endorsed by Nixon, and the two formed a formidable if at times tempestuous partnership.
However, views on Kissinger’s conduct are profoundly divided. Many cite the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 which ended American involvement in the Vietnam War as his most prominent success, and for which he and his North Vietnamese counterpart Lê Đức Thọ were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His authorisation of the bombing of Cambodia and Laos; intervention in the 1973 Chile coup d’état; and endorsement of other troubling events abroad, on the other hand, have sullied his name in the court of public opinion. As the world now reflects upon his death, the reasons for this polarisation and the nature of his legacy are more important than ever to examine.
Born Heinz Alfred Kissinger, Kissinger’s early life in Germany was marred by a volatile political environment in a nation reeling from post-war crises. When Adolf Hitler’s election to Chancellor engendered a new Nazi regime in 1933, a nine-year-old Kissinger and his family fell under hardship and persecution for their German-Jewish ethnicity. Kissinger was physically brutalised by Hitler Youth members and prohibited from attending the local gymnasium, the German equivalent of an English grammar school, whilst his father was sacked from his job. After many years of chaos, the family escaped to New York in 1938. Years later still, in 1945, a young Kissinger would fight for the US army against the now crumbling Third Reich, seeing combat at the Battle of the Bulge. He helped to liberate the Hannover-Ahlem concentration camp, and in 1947 became a special agent in Hanover, receiving the Bronze Star for hunting down Gestapo officials.
Such formative years undoubtedly had a significant impact on Kissinger, and if nothing else they seemed to strengthen his drive and determination despite exceptional circumstances. Now a naturalised US citizen, he graduated with an outstanding degree in political science from the prestigious Harvard University in 1950 and completed his PhD in 1954. He enjoyed a prosperous academic career in the Harvard Department for Government, but it would not be long before the ambitious and erudite Kissinger set his sights on positions of greater influence. He became a national security consultant in 1955, serving under the presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. After assuming directorship of nuclear policy in the influential Council for Foreign Relations, he ascended to a unique position of power in Nixon’s 1969 administration.
Being in the Second World War had made Kissinger ‘feel like an American’ (Isaacson, 1992). His rigorous academic research had given him an arguably unrivalled knowledge of political theory and diplomacy. In part, his thesis had assembled the vital pieces of the realpolitik puzzle, giving him the basis to believe in its effectiveness. His formative years had above all imbued him with a devotion to America; to protecting at all costs its status as the ultimate hegemonic power and the paragon of liberty, order, and justice. He had witnessed the destruction of all such virtues under Nazi rule. Now in command of American foreign policy, Kissinger was a man motivated not only by intense political conviction but by implacable patriotism.
The first of Kissinger’s covert diplomatic missions regarded the People’s Republic of China, perhaps the most significant communist power after the Soviet Union. Initially disinterested in the prospect of conciliation, Kissinger gradually came to view China as a crucial part of his rapprochement policy. However, neutralising the threat of a Sino-Soviet alliance required, in his view, the withdrawal of vital support from Taiwan, a country governed by the exiled former Chinese government. Kissinger, desperate to repress the Eastern Bloc’s expansion, reneged on his guarantee that no compromises would be made with Chinese leader Mao Zedong and promised to remove US forces protecting the island. His efforts culminated in a 1972 summit which ended 23 years of aggression by establishing an anti-Soviet alliance between the two nations. Kissinger’s faith in such an exchange clearly stymied the Soviet’s sphere of influence, but today such concessions have profoundly exacerbated Taiwan’s vulnerability, leaving the island in danger of Chinese interference and even of future invasion.
The Vietnam War, however, lay bare a series of horrifying miscalculations that resulted in grievous loss of civilian life, and almost all were mandated by Kissinger. In a proactive attempt to suppress internecine conflict between the communist Khmer Rouge and the US-backed Cambodian government, Kissinger authorised numerous bombing campaigns in Cambodian territory. Operation Menu, although originally opposed by Kissinger, was launched by Nixon, and soon after Kissinger concurred with the approach, directing the subsequent Operation Freedom Deal. As a result, from 1969 to 1973, 250,000 tons of primarily highly explosive bombs were dropped on Cambodia, more than the 180,000 tons dropped on Japan during the Second World War. Between 50,000 and 150,000 Cambodians were killed, many of whom were innocent civilians. Concurrently, Operation Barrel Roll, which had begun under President Johnson in 1964, was allowed to continue under Kissinger. The campaign dropped 260 million bombs on Laos and again is estimated to have caused many civilian casualties. Both operations attempted to crush communist offensives which threatened to bolster North Vietnam’s military position, but had mutilated and terrorised countless communities. The bombings were the ultimate monument to Kissinger’s nationalistic zeal; in service of what he perceived to be Western interests, he had chosen geopolitical advantage over the preservation of human life.
Such atrocities contrasted starkly with the eventual signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. In fact, the daring extension of US military activity beyond Vietnam’s borders actively hindered negotiations. In his usual style, and unbeknownst to those in official peace talks, Kissinger had travelled to participate in secret discussions with the North Vietnamese. The secluded negotiations oscillated between decisive breakthroughs and frustrating setbacks, but the brutality of the Indochinese operations became a spectre which loomed over those complicit in their organisation. Indeed, the official records of the Cambodian bombings remained classified until 2000. Kissinger’s covert operations had engendered diplomatic resolutions, but their concealment was in many ways a cause for concern just as much as it was a potential strength. His assertion that the ‘haemorrhage of state secrets’ to the media made diplomacy unachievable (Karnow, 1983) emphasises this, and is one which America, as the beacon of free speech and democracy, ought to have found highly disconcerting.
Indochina was not the only region on which Kissinger asserted his influence. Upon being appointed as Secretary of State, he intervened in the Middle East during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. He employed ‘shuttle diplomacy’, a form of negotiation in which he travelled hastily between locations to coordinate an agreement with the belligerent parties. Speeding between Tel Aviv, Cairo, and Damascus, he would attend 28 separate meetings in Damascus alone. The strategy successfully seized upon the opportunity to convert a temporary armistice into permanent peace. Such an endeavour was a testament to Kissinger’s tireless industry and meticulous attention to detail, qualities which his contemporaries have lauded. He was known as an exigent taskmaster, and his demanding quotas invoked frustration as well as lasting admiration among his peers.
Shortly afterwards, the election of a socialist government in Chile sympathetic to communist Cuba influenced Nixon to incite a coup d’état in the country, and Kissinger became heavily involved in the plot. The coup installed a pro-American government in the country in 1973, and Operation Condor was thereafter initiated. The campaign was responsible for a long sequence of assassinations and protracted political repression in Chile, and Kissinger has been accused of involvement in the operation. Although documents have been declassified which some people contend are evidence that he colluded in the fatal kidnapping of the head of the Chilean army, such claims have been dismissed in the district courts.
The Watergate Scandal would bring Nixon’s presidency to an ignominious end, and Kissinger began to lose his authority under the new President Ford. However, despite having been accused of wrongdoing in resolving various crises, Kissinger continued to be involved in further foreign incidents. When Indonesia invaded East Timor, recently liberated from Portuguese colonialism, Kissinger and Ford adopted a policy of passivity. Desiring to maintain strong diplomatic ties, they continued to sell weapons to Indonesia as it annexed Timorese territory, inciting a genocide which killed almost a quarter of the Timorese population from 1975 to 1981.
Kissinger was forever governed by his loyalty to American interests, and in many ways, the peaceful intentions of détente were diametrically opposed to the abhorrent violence which realpolitik seemed to warrant. Just as the two main threads of his strategy conflict, so do assessments of his legacy, a fitting paradigm for a man split between openness and secrecy, for a man underpinned by polarity. In many situations, his responses had a disproportionate impact on innocent bystanders. In many ways, he pioneered a policy not of concordat, but of collateral damage.
The common thread that defined him, however, was a genuine and unyielding belief in the necessity and optimality of his actions. Even at the age of 100, Kissinger vehemently defended his decisions, retaining his distinctively shrewd, and occasionally bullish, style of diplomacy until the end. Many will assert that the defiant nature of his rebuttals is emblematic of a man unable to reconcile himself with the blood he has spilt. But his determination to defend himself against claims of criminality is suggestive in part of the impossibility of the diplomatic situation in which he operated. The task of subduing the Soviet menace and circumventing the nuclear apocalypse was a global endeavour, and, like all enormous efforts, would require enormous sacrifice. The realpolitik which predicated his policies had, for the most part, served its purpose from a geopolitical perspective. Without it, the expansion of Soviet influence may have become unmanageable for the West.
Moreover, the innovation of détente was groundbreaking, and for the first time made the prospect of nuclear annihilation less probable. The Berlin and Cuban Missile crises in previous years had brought the world terrifyingly close to nuclear annihilation and were symptomatic of a rash and jingoistic US approach to foreign policy. Whilst it is increasingly difficult for many to reconcile this with the great tragedies he caused, Kissinger’s transformational effect on US foreign policy has had an enduring positive impact, paving the way for decades of peaceful coexistence between East and West.
Perhaps, therefore, the most significant lesson to be learned from Kissinger’s mistakes is that conflicts as devastating as the Cold War should at all costs be stopped from happening in the first place so that no such misjudgements can ever be repeated. The removal of war removes, to a great extent, the potential for tragedy.
Kissinger ended his life as a stalwart of foreign relations, but the damage to human life that resulted from his policies leaves a legacy of important international intervention justifiably tarnished.
Isaacson, W., 1992. Kissinger: A Biography. New York City, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster.
Karnow, S., 1983. Vietnam: A History. New York City, N.Y.: Viking.