Henry Kissinger, the Holocaust survivor and Harvard professor who became a towering U.S. diplomat, master political manipulator and pop culture icon — loved by admirers and loathed by detractors — has died. He was 100.
He died on Wednesday at his home in Connecticut, according to Kissinger Associates.
As President Richard Nixon’s top foreign policy aide, Kissinger helped set out the nation’s grand international strategy of extricating itself from an unpopular war and plotting its relations with two rival communist powers. In Nixon’s second term, Kissinger had to navigate against the backdrop of the Watergate scandal that engulfed his commander in chief’s attention and eventually forced the president out. All the while, he fiercely defended his own political turf.
“My predominant concern during Watergate was not the investigations that formed the headlines of the day. It was to sustain the credibility of the United States as a major power,” Kissinger wrote in his 1982 memoir “Years of Upheaval.” “I became the focal point of a degree of support unprecedented for a nonelected official. It was as if the public and Congress felt the national peril instinctively, and created a surrogate center around which the national purpose could rally.”
Kissinger negotiated America’s exit from the disastrous Vietnam War, sharing the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho for a cease-fire agreement that year. Nearly two years later, Nixon’s self-described “peace with honor” collapsed with the fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong during the administration of President Gerald Ford.
Kissinger also crafted the détente policy that thawed the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and he played a pivotal role in breaking down the diplomatic great wall that surrounded Communist China for 2½ decades. Through his shuttle diplomacy, he wrung out agreements between Israel and Egypt and Syria in the wake of the Arab countries’ surprise launch of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
And in his diplomatic chess game against the Soviets, he supported brutal regimes that were accused of human rights abuses, including in Chile and Pakistan.
Three months after the Watergate break-in on June 17, 1972, Nixon’s national security advisor was confirmed as his secretary of State, becoming the first foreign-born head of that Cabinet department. He continued to serve as national security advisor until three months after Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, and remained as secretary of State until Ford left office in 1977.
In the 1983 book “The Price of Power,” journalist Seymour M. Hersh bashed Kissinger as a double-dealing deceiver. Journalist Walter Isaacson’s 1992 biography “Kissinger” portrayed the former secretary of State as a complicated pragmatist who mastered the art of nuance. In his 2001 book “The Trial of Henry Kissinger,” social critic Christopher Hitchens called him a war criminal. In the 2015 book “Kissinger’s Shadow,” leftist historian Greg Grandin said never-ending wars show the U.S. was still paying the price of Kissinger’s policies. But the same year, a massive biography by conservative historian Niall Ferguson portrayed Kissinger as an idealist who followed the vision of Kant rather than the realpolitik of Clausewitz or Bismarck.
To Barry Gewen, a New York Times Book Review editor, Kissinger’s idealism was based on negativism and pessimism.
“The task for policymakers in his view is a modest, essentially negative one — namely, not to steer the world along some preordained path to universal justice but to pit power against power to rein in the assorted aggressions of human beings and to try, as best they can, to avert disaster,” Gewen said in his 2020 book “The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World.“
More recently, Kissinger was among the high-profile board members in Elizabeth Holmes’ Theranos Inc. before the blood-screening company melted down in 2018 amid fraud charges. Another board member was Kissinger’s fellow Nixon administration colleague George Shultz, whose grandson worked at Theranos and turned out to be a key whistleblower against Holmes.
And Kissinger kept up with geopolitics even late in his life. He drew criticism for suggesting in May 2022 that Ukraine should cede some land to Russia to achieve a peace deal. Those comments came about three months after Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Later, speaking via video link in January 2023 to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Kissinger said Russia must be given the opportunity to one day rejoin the international system following any peace deal in Ukraine and dialogue with the country must be ongoing.
“This may seem very hollow to nations that have been under Russian pressure for much of the Cold War period,” he said. However, he added that it was important to avoid an escalation of conflict between Russia and the West as a result of it feeling the war had become “against Russia itself.”