Henry Kissinger at 100

The 20th century’s most celebrated diplomat provides guidance on mitigating the threat of the next world war. Photo credit: Bloomberg/Peter Foley


On May 27, Henry Kissinger turned 100 years old. Kissinger walks through history with Richard Nixon, not because of Watergate, but because Kissinger served as Nixon’s chief foreign policy advisor and Secretary of State, becoming the most celebrated American diplomat of the 20th century. 

Hated on the Left and resented on the Right, Kissinger often faced criticism from all directions, perhaps affirming the ideal that he sought to do what was best, regardless of the personal sacrifice to his reputation. On the other hand, a recently declassified dossier on Kissinger’s historical legacy reveals a darker side with the following summary headline: Archive Posts Revealing Records of Kissinger’s Role in Secret Bombing Campaigns in Cambodia, Illegal Domestic Spying, Support for Dictators and Dirty Wars Abroad.

The fact that Kissinger may be the most dominant American statesman since Benjamin Franklin adds to the importance of examining the record. Also, Kissinger tried to block the release of these documents, desiring to retain control or remove some of the information made public.

Born in Germany, Henry and his family fled the Nazi regime in 1938 when he was a mere teenager. As a Jewish German, Kissinger’s family had a long history in Bavaria. He played soccer as a boy, then progressed academically before World War Two interrupted his accountant program at the City University of New York in 1943. Among his wartime accomplishments, Kissinger served as a military intelligence officer, carried out dangerous spying duties during the Battle of the Bulge (fought around Christmas 1944 and the last major offensive German campaign of World War Two), and won the Bronze Star for tracking down Gestapo officers and other saboteurs. 

Kissinger’s brilliance led him to Harvard where he graduated summa cum laude in 1950 with a political science degree. By the late 1960s, he had aroused the interest of the incoming Nixon Administration. As National Security Advisor beginning in 1969, he gained Nixon’s ear and eventually his trust. 

On the issue of Vietnam, Kissinger’s role as negotiator and diplomat became crucial to what Nixon hoped to achieve in drawing the war down while setting himself up for re-election in 1972. As part of the effort to ensure Nixon won a second term, Kissinger supposedly developed a secret peace plan. While the peace he negotiated did not turn out to be nearly as successful as he had promised, it did bring the distraction of the war to an end allowing him to focus Nixon’s energy on two substantial initiatives he hoped to accomplish in a second term: detente with the Soviets and opening up China. 

Playing both Communist enemies against one another, Kissinger believed Nixon could secure concessions that would deter the Soviets from any reckless adventures and force change inside China that they would succumb to unwittingly as Western forces seeped into the authoritarian regime.

Sometimes Kissinger’s cleverness created problems he could not foresee. In addition, Nixon’s paranoia, unpredictable behaviour, and eventual consummation with Watergate interfered with the best of Kissinger’s intentions. Nonetheless, the German-born statesman holds a high ranking in diplomatic and government circles as one of the best American cabinet officials to have ever served the nation, though there are both flashes of greatness and strikes of darkness as part of his record.  

Beginning in his first post as National Security Advisor, Kissinger had been a secret advisor to Nixon during his 1968 campaign, keeping the Nixon team updated on President Johnson’s efforts to negotiate an end to the war, something Nixon feared would hamper his efforts to defeat Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. Leveraging this role, Kissinger moved into the post of National Security Advisor upon Nixon assuming office and quickly helped to oversee the secret bombings of Cambodia intended to force Ho Chi Minh back to the negotiating table on U.S. terms. 

When the New York Times and other newspapers began reporting on the bombings, Kissinger contacted J. Edgar Hoover to start wiretaps. This surveillance included journalists, NSC staff, and his aides. He wanted to squash leaks or find out who the leakers were. One aide, Morton Halperin, sued Kissinger. He later commented: “The illegal and rule-less government wiretaps not only violated the right to privacy but interfered with the political rights of those surveilled and those they talked to.” Kissinger has often been criticized for his ruthless efforts to shut down those who he felt did not understand the bigger picture. 

Foreign involvements like those in Chile after he had become Secretary of State in 1973 serve as warning signs about his role in American policy abroad. The declassification of materials shows Kissinger definitively served as the chief architect of the removal of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende because he believed the Allende government was going Communist. In encouraging General Augusto Pinochet to lead a coup, Kissinger later assessed the matter as one where the US government “created the conditions as great as possible,” for Allende’s overthrow. In subsequent meetings or conversations, he always indicated great satisfaction having overseen the ousting. 

After Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, Kissinger served out the remainder of Nixon’s second term as President Ford’s Secretary of State. Viewed suspiciously in the Reagan era, Kissinger nonetheless remained a person of significant influence regarding matters related to American foreign policy long after Reagan left the world stage. 

His longevity has left him as a voice from an era when politicians from both sides would talk, share a drink, and even occasionally have dinner together. The present partisan era makes diplomacy more challenging to advance. The veteran official still needs to weigh in on the issues of the day. 

In a recent lengthy interview with The Economist, Kissinger displayed a mind still sharp and offered some advice about avoiding World War Three. He has two books coming out soon, one on the dangers of artificial intelligence and the other on the nature of alliances. As he states about these matters, the balance of power and technological basis of warfare is so quickly changing that it leaves matters unsettled. “We’re in the classic pre-world War I situation,” he says, “where neither side has much margin of political concession and in which any disturbance of the equilibrium can lead to catastrophic consequences.”

Artificial intelligence serves as a source of great concern, probably leading to war on a global scale in the near future, unless some unexpected, hard-headed diplomacy is accomplished. As for relations between America and China, he has two pieces of advice regarding Taiwan: I) Lower the temperature and gradually build a working relationship where the aim rests on practicing restraint. If he were President Biden he would approach President Xi honestly, saying, “Mr. President, the two greatest dangers to peace right now are us two. In the sense that we can destroy humanity.” II) Define objectives that can enlist people. Find means, describable means, of achieving these objectives. Beyond Taiwan, the old professor also discussed areas like climate change and the economy where a balance between the two superpowers could be established. 

As for Ukraine, after much mulling, Kissinger encourages three measures. First, and perhaps most controversially, he now stands in favour of Ukrainian membership in NATO, because he believes it will both protect and restrain Ukraine. As the best-armed country in Europe, Kissinger has concerns about its inexperienced leadership. 

Secondly, he recommends Europe reestablish relations with Russia to recreate a stable eastern border. He links these worries with artificial intelligence (AI) and what it could unleash, including global pestilence or pandemics. Mr. Kissinger compares AI to the printing press in terms of impact. Negotiating safeguards will be key to keeping it from destroying the stability of global governmental interests. 

Finally, he endorses linking every international interest with domestic objectives. For America, specifically, he proposes renewing the political culture. He rejects the idea of human rights being the dominating factor in relating to other nations. 

Kissinger believes that the United States needs new leadership from people who see the world more realistically, probably the way he sees the world. Applying the moral imperatives of America on nations that do not share those values can become cumbersome and counterproductive. “I don’t think Biden can supply the inspiration and…I’m hoping that Republicans can come up with somebody better,” he says. “It’s not a great moment in history,” he laments, “but the alternative is total abdication.”

Yes, dealing with other countries can be tricky, but America has advantages that should be leveraged to bring about deals – the kind of deals that avert new wars, end existing conflicts, and ensure a pax Americana. 

Who will rise to fill the role that the former statesman once held? The fact we continue to look for his insights says something about the shortage of those who possess the skill to impose a vision, communicate an agenda, and advocate for timeless principles like national sovereignty, personal liberty, and peaceful co-existence. Kissinger may soon rest from his work, but until then, America will remain attentive to his thoughts and interested in his analysis.  

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