Henry Kissinger: Statesman and Diplomatic Luminary | History Hit

Henry Kissinger: Statesman and Diplomatic Luminary

Amy Irvine

30 Nov 2023
Henry Kissinger, official portrait, c. 1973
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Department of State / Public Domain

Few figures in modern history have shaped international relations and global politics as profoundly as Henry Kissinger – a prominent American diplomat, political scientist, and statesman.

Kissinger’s pivotal role as US National Security Advisor and later as US Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford marked an era of intricate diplomatic engagements. His tenure as a key architect of US foreign policy during the tumultuous Vietnam War era, his groundbreaking diplomacy in détente with the Soviet Union, and his complex relations with China solidified his reputation as a shrewd and influential statesman.

However, his controversial realpolitik approach and prioritisation of national interests over ideological concerns, especially concerning US involvement in Vietnam and Chile, significantly influenced American foreign policy during some of the key events of the 20th century, igniting both acclaim and criticism.

Revered on the one hand and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Kissinger was also reviled, condemned by some as a war criminal. He continued to divide opinion and be the subject of debate until his death on 29 November 2023, aged 100Here we explore more about Kissinger’s early life, rise to prominence, his diplomatic triumphs and controversies, and his enduring impact on the world stage. 

Early life

Henry Kissinger was born on 27 May 1923, in Fürth, Germany, to a Jewish family. Witnessing the rise of Nazism, the Kissinger family fled to the United States in 1938 to escape persecution. Settling in New York City, young Henry adapted to American life while preserving his deep intellectual curiosity and multilingual abilities, becoming a US citizen in 1943. 

He went on to serve 3 years in the US Army (volunteering for hazardous intelligence duties during the Battle of the Bulge and running a captured German town despite only being a Private), and later in the Counter Intelligence Corps where he tracked down Gestapo officers and other saboteurs, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star.

Kissinger had excelled academically, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from Harvard University in 1950. He then pursued a master’s degree and later a PhD in government at Harvard, focusing on the elusive concept of ‘peace’ in Europe. His doctoral dissertation, titled A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822, reflected his keen interest in the interplay between power, diplomacy, and peace in shaping global affairs – an interest that would define his career.

A prominent American Diplomat, and influential American statesmen, Henry Kissinger is a name known around the world. Serving as National Security Advisor and later as Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford, he prioritised national interests over ideological concerns. Known for his involvement in significant diplomatic initiatives, including the opening of relations with China and the negotiation of the Paris Peace Accords, his influence was global. However, his actions and policies have also been subject to criticism, particularly regarding human rights abuses and covert operations during his tenure. So who was Henry Kissinger, and does he deserve the reputation he has? In this episode James welcomes Professor Thomas Schwartz from Vanderbilt University, to delve into the life and career of Henry Kissinger. Looking at his early childhood in Nazi Germany, his early political career and education, along with his involvement in the several global conflicts and peace agreements - is it possible to define who Henry Kissinger was, and what can we learn about his legacy?
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Rise to prominence

Kissinger became a respected lecturer in international relations at Harvard University, where his expertise in foreign policy drew attention, leading to advisory roles and eventually a position at the Council on Foreign Relations. His expertise and publications on nuclear strategy and Cold War geopolitics (including Nuclear War and Foreign Policy, 1957 that said a limited atomic war was winnable) attracted the notice of political figures, including Nelson Rockefeller, who appointed Kissinger as an advisor in his presidential campaign.

However, it was President Richard Nixon who recognised Kissinger’s potential and appointed him as National Security Advisor in 1969 – a position that would give Kissinger enormous influence and sway over US foreign policy. Nixon relied on his advice, at a time when the Cold War was at its peak, with nuclear war recently averted over Cuba, American troops in Vietnam and the recent Russian invasion of Prague.

Kissinger’s influence expanded further when Nixon later appointed him Secretary of State in 1973, allowing him to navigate the complex terrain of global diplomacy with unprecedented authority. This step into politics propelled Kissinger onto the global stage, where his strategies and negotiations would leave a lasting impact on world affairs.

Kissinger and President Richard Nixon discussing the Vietnam situation in Camp David, 1972 (with Alexander Haig)

Diplomatic triumphs

Kissinger’s significant diplomatic initiatives were instrumental in the era’s key geopolitical shifts. During this time, America negotiated the Paris Peace Accords which finally ended its involvement in the Vietnam War, and opened up relations with China through Premier Zhou Enlai (putting diplomatic pressure on the Soviet leadership), leading to Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, ending 23 years of diplomatic isolation and hostility.

America also paved the way for disengagement agreements which brought about a cessation of hostilities in the brief 1973 Yom Kippur War in the Middle East between Egypt and Syria on the one hand and Israel on the other, thanks to Kissinger’s ‘shuttle diplomacy’.

Furthermore, Kissinger’s efforts in détente – the easing of tensions – resulted in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) with the Soviet Union, marking a pivotal moment in Cold War relations.

Henry Kissinger and Chairman Mao, with Zhou Enlai behind them in Beijing, early 70s

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Oliver Atkins (Jiang ) / Public Domain

Diplomatic controversies

While praised for his diplomatic acumen and strategic thinking, Kissinger’s tenure was not without controversy, and he faced persistent criticism. His rivalry with the Soviet Union and policies were often perceived as prioritising realpolitik (a system of politics or principles based on practical considerations over moral or ideological considerations), drawing ire from human rights advocates.

Additionally, his policy of the US supporting repressive authoritarian regimes in Latin America, notably Augusto Pinochet’s brutal military coup in Chile with the aim of overthrowing the Marxist President Salvador Allende, sparked criticism and protests for alleged involvement in coup d’états and human rights abuses in pursuit of political goals. 

Chilean President Augusto Pinochet shaking hands with Kissinger in 1976

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Archivo General Histórico del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores / CC BY 2.0 cl

His role in the secret US bombing campaigns in neutral Cambodia during the Vietnam War to deprive the communists of troops and supplies, orchestrated under his guidance, also drew fierce condemnation and accusations of war crimes. The destabilisation this brought was a factor in giving rise to Pol Pot’s brutal regime and the Khmer Rouge movement.


Despite these controversies, Kissinger received numerous accolades for his diplomatic contributions. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his efforts in negotiating the Vietnam War ceasefire, although this accolade sparked controversy and two resignations from the Nobel Committee, and North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho refused to accept. Additionally, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, for his diplomatic endeavours.

Continued influence and legacy

Whilst Kissinger’s legacy remains deeply contested, his impact on US foreign policy was undoubtedly profound. Despite leaving office in 1977, he continued to be an influential figure in global affairs, founding Kissinger Associates, an international consulting firm. He remained a sought-after advisor, and was consulted by generations of leaders for decades afterward, from JFK to Biden, issuing his suggested diplomatic strategies and realpolitik approach (advocating for pragmatic, practical policies aligned with national interests).

Indeed after 9/11, then-president George W Bush asked Kissinger to chair the investigation into the attacks (though stood down shortly after) and advised over policy in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Whilst Kissinger had advised Trump to accept Putin’s occupation of Crimea, after the Russian invasion, he instead argued Zelensky should get Ukraine to join NATO after peace was secured. Kissinger remains the only American to have dealt directly with every Chinese leader from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping.

President Donald Trump with former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 10 May 2017

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / The White House / Public Domain

Kissinger also served on the board of various companies, and wrote 21 books including his memoirs, notably White House Years and Years of Upheaval, which offer insights into the inner workings of diplomacy during tumultuous times.

Even in his later years, Kissinger’s perspectives on global politics continued to attract attention. He remained active in public speaking engagements (meeting Chinese President Xo Jinping in July 2023, after he had turned 100), offering insights and analysis on contemporary international challenges and geopolitical shifts (particularly regarding US-China relations, cybersecurity, and the balance of power).

Following Kissinger’s death, former US President George W Bush claimed the US had “lost one of the most dependable and distinctive voices on foreign affairs”, with the former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair describing him as an artist of diplomacy, motivated by “a genuine love of the free world and the need to protect it”. Nevertheless, this influential diplomat who found himself at the centre of power during some of the key events of the 20th century, continues to divide opinion.

Amy Irvine