An academic who became a celebrity, Kissinger was a Jewish teenager who fled the Nazis, a self-confessed “secret swinger” who dated pin-ups, a Machiavellian adviser to United States presidents who changed the course of history and a workaholic who remained active beyond his last birthday.
The ongoing debate regarding whether the former U.S. secretary of state was a sagacious adviser or an unyielding hawk is unlikely to be settled anytime soon. He held the position under two Republican presidents, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
While Kissinger’s contributions to the diplomatic opening between China and the U.S., pivotal U.S.-Soviet arms agreements, and peace negotiations between Israelis and Arabs are widely acknowledged, his involvement in the Vietnam War and backing of anti-communist dictatorships, particularly in Latin America, continue to be sources of contention.
“He perceived the world from a 30,000-foot perspective, advancing broad interests and long-term goals with an under-appreciation for the negative costs people would bear, especially those in societies different from the U.S.,” commented Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, to Al Jazeera.
In 2021, at the remarkable age of 98, Kissinger collaborated on a book about artificial intelligence with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and MIT computer scientist Daniel Huttenlocher.
“Henry Kissinger, at the age of 90, knew nothing about the digital world, although he had a lot of opinions about it,” remarked Schmidt to podcast host Tim Ferris upon the book’s publication.
“He has mastered the digital world and artificial intelligence with the alacrity and speed of people who are just getting into it now,” Schmidt said. “That’s unique to him. It’s a gift.”
Kissinger’s son, David Kissinger, also acknowledged his father’s extraordinary longevity ahead of his centenary birthday celebration, attended by the current U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Surviving beyond most of his peers, critics, and students, Kissinger has remained remarkably active into his 90s,” remarked the younger Kissinger in the Washington Post in May 2023.
When asked about Blinken’s presence at the party, State Department spokesman Vedant Patel acknowledged the policy “differences” between the two men. However, he added that Blinken had the “opportunity to engage” with the former top diplomat several times since taking office.
Kissinger’s life narrative mirrors the classic trajectory of U.S. immigration success. Born in 1923 in Furth, Germany, to devout Jewish middle-class parents, he and his family fled the escalating anti-Semitism of the Third Reich, finding refuge in New York in 1938.
Kissinger served in the US Army in Germany, experiencing combat during the pivotal Battle of the Bulge. Utilizing his native German fluency, he assumed roles in counter-intelligence, earning the Bronze Star for tracking down former Gestapo officers.
Returning to the US in 1947, Kissinger commenced a distinguished academic journey at Harvard University. This paved the way for part-time advisory positions in the White House under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, setting the trajectory for his life’s work.
A pragmatic realist who disapproved of moralizing during the Cold War era, Kissinger advocated for a “flexible response” to communist aggression, emphasizing the use of conventional and nuclear weapons as a deterrent instead of relying solely on the threat of all-out nuclear retaliation.
“He built his fame by presenting, and representing, himself as the quintessential European realist lent to an immature and naive America to teach her the harsh and immutable laws of international relations,” remarked Mario Del Pero, a historian at Sciences Po in Paris, to Al Jazeera.
In 1968, President-elect Richard Nixon appointed Kissinger as his national security adviser, initiating a transformation of Washington’s foreign policy apparatus. This involved sidelining the Department of State and consolidating power within the White House’s National Security Council.
“Kissinger created a model for operating the machinery of a complex democracy to make strategic choices that lacked public support but served the national interest. He was controversial, but his realpolitik has influenced two generations of policymakers,” remarked the University of Texas’s Suri.
His preferred method of “back-channel” talks played a crucial role in diplomatic openings with China and the establishment of détente, leading to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) with the Soviet Union. In the realm of foreign affairs, he famously wrote, “Washington had no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”
Kissinger faced a formidable challenge with the Vietnam War, which, by 1969, had become increasingly expensive, deadly, and unpopular. In pursuit of “peace with honor,” he initiated talks with North Vietnam while employing intensive bombing campaigns to strengthen his negotiating leverage.