Henry Kissinger

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Henry Kissinger (1923-2023), American statesman and exponent of detente and realism (foreign policy); he dominated foreign policy in the Nixon and Ford administrations as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, holding both positions for a time. He won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for the Paris Accords, the peace that ended the Vietnam War. In close collaboration with Richard Nixon, he created a détente policy that called for an end to the Cold War and for friendly relations with both the Soviet Union and China.


He was born in Fürth, Germany, on May 27, 1923. With his middle class Jewish family, Kissinger fled Nazi persecution, and arrived in New York in 1938. He attended public schools and the City University of New York (CUNY) before being drafted at age 19. He returned to Europe during World War II with the U.S. Army; he was in the infantry then intelligence and was discharged as a sergeant in 1946, then spent a year as an instructor in denazification at an Army school in Germany. In the army, Kissinger was informally tutored in depth by Fritz Kraemer, a fellow refugee with two PhD's. In 1950 Kissinger earned his B.A. summa cum laude at Harvard with a 377 page essay on "The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant."[1]

He finished his Ph.D. in 1956 at Harvard, with a dissertation on "A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-22," a study of how fellow "realists" built a stable and peaceful international system after the Napoleonic wars. The dissertation was later issued as a book, which, while fairly technical, became popular after Nixon's 1972 state visit to China, expounding on the ideas that stability involved balance of power and rough consensus.[2]

He married Ann Fleischer in 1949 and was divorced in 1964. There were two children, Elizabeth and David. In 1974 he married Nancy Maginnes.

Harvard professor

Kissinger became a full professor in Harvard's Department of Government in 1962. As the director of Harvard's University Summer International Seminar, 1952-69, he brought in nearly 700 young European and Asian scholars, many of whom became high officials in their own country. Kissinger met practically every intellectual in international relations at home and abroad. His teaching principles later became a textbook, Diplomacy;[3] it articulates on the differences in negotiating style among Western democracies, Communist governments, and countries with charismatic leaders whose power derived from symbolic defiance of the major powers and colonialism.

Kissinger was eager to serve on national commissions. He served as Study Director, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, for the Council on Foreign Relations from 1955 to 1956; Director of the Special Studies Project for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund from 1956 to 1958; and Director of the Harvard Defense Studies Program from 1958 to 1971. He resigned from Harvard in January 1971 when his two-year leave of absence expired.

In 1957 Kissinger published Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, which proposed a flexible defense posture, including provision for "limited warfare" and the more precise counterforce employment of nuclear weapons as an alternative to the doctrine of "massive retaliation", which dominated military thinking during the mid-1950's. The book brought Kissinger to national attention, and he became an adviser on security questions under presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson and foreign policy adviser during Nelson Rockefeller's 1968 quest for the Republican party nomination.

Kissinger was consultant to the Department of State (1965-68), United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (1961-68), RAND Corporation (1961-68), National Security Council (1961-62), Weapons Systems Evaluation Group of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1959-60), Operations Coordinating Board (1955), Director of the Psychological Strategy Board (1952), Operations Research Office (1951), and Chairman of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America (1983-84). In 2001 he was not appointed to head the commission studying the 9-11 Attack because he was too controversial.

National Security Adviser

In 1969 Nixon appointed him his top adviser on foreign affairs as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs in charge of the National Security Council staff, which he made his base of power. He and Nixon largely ignored the State Department in setting the main lines of foreign policy. In 1973, Kissinger gained the additional role as Secretary of State, the only person to serve simultaneously in both roles and an effective piece of bureaucratic maneuvering; the Assistant role was conceived as balancing the positions of the Departments of State, Defense, Central Intelligence Agency and other parts of U.S. foreign policy formulation. No longer needing the internal influence, in 1975 he and Nixon named Kissinger's NSC deputy, Brent Scowcroft, as National Security Adviser, bringing the position back to its coordinating role envisioned by the National Security Act of 1947.

Kissinger's approach to foreign policy was shaped by his vision of world peace achieved through a global balance of power; and accordingly Kissinger believed that effective U.S. diplomacy needed to be backed by force and guided by the pragmatism of Realpolitik rather than by high ideals and abstract causes. Other administrations were based on differing ideals, especially those of Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. The Dwight D. Eisenhower administration foreign policy was based in a firm containment policy, but that was seen more as pragmatic than strictly idealistic.

In practice his diplomacy, which mixed a highly visible, personal style with secret, behind-the-scenes maneuverings, was marked by bold, often controversial, initiatives and by frequent travel between world capitals in what came to be known as "shuttle diplomacy".

Nuclear strategy

On taking office Nixon and Kissinger were briefed on the US nuclear war plan, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). As Eisenhower and Kistiakowsky were appalled by the original Air Force-only scale of pre-SIOP nuclear planning, Nixon and Kissinger were appalled by the catastrophic scale of the SIOP. They sought military options that were more credible than massive nuclear strikes. Participants in the Air Force Nuclear Options project also supported more flexible nuclear war plans. Although Kissinger repeatedly asked Defense Department officials to construct limited options, they were skeptical that it would be possible to control nuclear escalation or to introduce greater flexibility without weakening the SIOP.

Interagency studies presented a mixed verdict about the desirability of limited options; nevertheless, continued White House pressure encouraged Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird to sponsor a major review of nuclear targeting. In 1972 a panel headed by John Foster Jr., Director of Defense Research and Engineering. developed concepts of limited, selective, and regional nuclear options that were responsive to Kissinger's interest in credible nuclear threats. The Foster panel's report led to the controversial "Schlesinger Doctrine" and further efforts to revise the SIOP, but serious questions endured about the whole concept of controlled nuclear warfare.[4]

Détente with Soviet Union and China

Kissinger's first priority in office was the achievement of détente with the Soviet Union and China, and playing them off against each other. Detente was a change from the containment policy, which expected to restrain and indeed weaken opposing power blocs through economic and psychological warfare. Detente, or the "lessening of tensions", assumed that the opponent could not be significantly weakened, but also accepted they would cooperate on matters of common concern. It is a subset of realism (foreign policy), which further recognizes that states can have reason to cooperate on external policies, but it often would be impractical to change their internal practices. Recognizing and accepting the Soviet Union as a superpower, Kissinger sought both to maintain U.S. military strength and to inaugurate peaceful economic, cultural, and scientific exchanges to engage the Soviet Union in the international system. This policy flourished under Kissinger's direction and led in 1972 to the signing of the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I). At the same time Kissinger successfully engineered a rapprochement with Communist China, leading to the astonishing news in 1971 that Nixon would visit China, which he and Kissinger did in 1972.[5]

Aware that China and the Soviet Union were no longer a single bloc, but rivals to be the true Communists, Kissinger used the "Soviet card" to win over China by playing up the Soviet threat to the Chinese as a way of promoting closer relations with China. He even hinted at a US-China alliance to oppose the Soviets, and, with Nixon's trips to Moscow, hinted that China had better come to terms lest the US form an alliance with Moscow. The tactics worked, resulting in a friendly relationship with both Beijing and Moscow. As part of the détente, both powers reduced or ended their aid to North Vietnam, thus allowing a settlement of the Vietnam War.[6]


Kissinger worked to achieve a disengagement of U.S. forces fighting in Vietnam. Balancing a policy of "Vietnamization," aimed at returning the burden of actual combat to the South Vietnamese, with repeated shows of U.S. air strength, notably in the bombings of Cambodia and North Vietnam, Kissinger met secretly with North Vietnamese leaders in Paris from 1969 on, finally concluding a cease-fire in January 1973, for which he and chief North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho were awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.

Secretary of State

In an unprecedented promotion, he remained Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, but, in 1973, was also named U.S. Secretary of State. He replaced William Rogers, of whom he was contemptuous, in the Cabinet post.

Middle East

One challenge to détente under Kissinger came with the outbreak of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Faced with a threat of Soviet intervention, Kissinger successfully urged that U.S. forces be placed on worldwide alert. He then employed shuttle diplomacy to secure cease-fires between Israel and the Arab states and to restore U.S. Egyptian diplomatic ties, broken since 1967.

Latin American policies

The Nixon administration sought to protect the economic and commercial interests of the United States during a period of heightened Latin American nationalism and expropriations, 1969-74. Though the administration initially adopted a flexible policy toward Latin American governments that nationalized American corporations' assets, the influence of Nixon's economic ideology, domestic political pressures, and the advice of his close adviser, Secretary of the Treasury John Connally, led to a more confrontational stance toward Latin American countries. As the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and Henry Kissinger had warned, however, Latin American countries took an even more anti-US stance and expropriated even more assets. Nixon's "get tough" stance, therefore, had a negative effect on US credibility and influence in the hemisphere.[7]

Kissinger and Nixon permitted covert operations by the CIA and military, operations designed to destabilize the anti-American Allende regime in Chile

South Asia

During the South Asian crisis in 1971, the White House, stood firmly behind Pakistani president Yahya Khan and demonstrated a disdain for India and particularly its leader, Indira Gandhi because of India's tilt toward the Soviet Union. Many analysts believed that Pakistan's role as a conduit of rapprochement with China and Kissinger's focus on geopolitical concerns greatly influenced the American policy decision in 1971.

These claims have now been confirmed by recently declassified documents. The US undertook at least three initiatives to dissipate the Bangladesh movement but which backfired and contributed to the bloodshed instead of bringing it to an end.[8]

Losing power

Despite his real accomplishments, however, Kissinger's tenure was marked by much controversy. Revelations of his responsibility for secret bombings in Cambodia in 1969 and for the U.S. ground invasion of Cambodia in 1970 stirred particularly strong opposition; as did later discoveries that he had authorized wiretaps aimed at stopping leaks of classified information. In 1975, President Gerald Ford replacing him as national security adviser with Brent Scowcroft, Kissinger's loyal deputy, but retaining him as U.S. Secretary of State.

In 1976 Ford was challenged by Ronald Reagan for the GOP nomination. Ford won, but the détente policy was the focus of Reagan's attacks, as the GOP moved to the right. Jimmy Carter continued the détente policy until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 destroyed that policy and reopened the Cold War at a more intense level.

Kissinger remained on as secretary of state until the end of the Ford term in January 1977, then became a highly visible corporate consultant on world affairs, and wrote his highly detailed and insightful memoirs.


A smooth-talking, charming bon vivant, Kissinger was an international celebrity in high society, with the opposite personality of Nixon, yet they made a remarkably effective team with surprisingly little friction. They thought alike, and both could conceptualize and make plans for the complex interactions of international affairs. Neither was interested in economics, and only Nixon mastered the details of politics and elections, while only Kissinger understood nuclear strategy.

Kissinger and Nixon were "realists" who deemphasized idealistic goals like anti-communism or democracy promotion. Instead of a Cold War they wanted peace, trade and cultural exchanges. They rejected "idealism" as impractical and too expensive; neither man showed much sensitivity to the plight of people living under Communism. Kissinger's realism fell out of fashion as idealism returned to American foreign policy with Carter's emphasis on human rights as a fundamental, and Reagan's rollback strategy aimed at destroying Communism.


  1. William Y. Elliott was his director but only read half of it; the Government Department thereupon ruled that future senior theses could not exceed 40,000 words.
  2. Henry Kissinger (1973), A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822, Mariner Books
  3. Henry Kissinger (1995), Diplomacy, Simon & Schuster
  4. William Burr, "The Nixon Administration, the 'Horror Strategy,' and the Search for Limited Nuclear Options, 1969-1972: Prelude to the Schlesinger Doctrine." Journal of Cold War Studies 2005 7(3): 34-78. Issn: 1520-3972 Fulltext: Project Muse; Aaron L. Friedberg, "A History of U.S. Strategic 'Doctrine'—1945 to 1980," Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 3, No. 4 (December 1980), pp. 37-71; Scott Sagan, Moving Targets: Nuclear Strategy and National Security (1989).
  5. Margaret Macmillan, Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World (2008)
  6. Evelyn Goh, "Nixon, Kissinger, and the 'Soviet Card' in the U.S. Opening to China, 1971-1974." Diplomatic History 2005 29(3): 475-502.
  7. Hal Brands, "Richard Nixon and Economic Nationalism in Latin America: the Problem of Expropriations, 1969-1974." Diplomacy & Statecraft 2007 18(1): 215-235. Issn: 0959-2296 Fulltext: Ebsco
  8. Ali Riaz, "Beyond the 'Tilt': US Initiatives to Dissipate Bangladesh Movement in 1971." History Compass 2006 4(1): 8-25. Issn: 1478-0542 Fulltext: Blackwell Synergy