Henry Kissinger at 100: a century of service

  • Themes: Geopolitics

Henry Kissinger has served his adopted nation for more than half a century and made a significant and positive contribution to America’s role in the world.

President Gerald Ford and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger conversing in the grounds of the White House in 1974.
President Gerald Ford and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger conversing in the grounds of the White House in 1974. Credit: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Fifty years ago this month, America’s media and political celebrities, including Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Katherine Graham, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller, gathered at the exclusive Colony Club in New York City to celebrate a lavish birthday party for then National Security Adviser and soon-to-be Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. They were honouring the man who had secretly travelled to China to pave the way for President Richard Nixon’s trip, hammered out the SALT I agreement with the Soviet Union on nuclear weapons, and negotiated the Paris Peace Treaty that ended America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and whom the Gallup Poll revealed was the most admired man in America. Despite revelations that month that wiretaps had been authorised on Kissinger’s National Security Council staff and some journalists, CBS News commentator, Eric Sevareid, proclaimed that Kissinger’s stature needed to be ‘protected’, for he ‘has to keep on doing what he has done almost alone among the Nixon entourage for four years, and that is keeping a foot in two cultures … the reigning political culture on one side and the intellectual-academic-press world on the other’. Sevareid’s description captures the unique position Kissinger found himself in – the favoured leader of the political-media Establishment in an administration that proclaimed its contempt for that very Establishment.

Over the next eighteen months, Kissinger’s fame would continue to soar. After his ‘shuttle diplomacy’ between Israel and Syria brought a disengagement agreement, Kissinger appeared on the cover of both national news magazines, Time and Newsweek, with the latter depicting him in a Superman costume as ‘Super-K‘. When Gerald Ford assumed the presidency in the wake of Nixon’s Watergate resignation, one of his first acts was to confirm that Kissinger would remain in charge of foreign affairs. In an October 1974 meeting in Moscow, Kissinger assured the Soviets that his high approval ratings – standing at above 80 per cent – meant that if they reached another SALT agreement he could handle critics like Senator Henry Jackson, with their insistence that treaties with the Soviet Union be tied to human rights and the emigration of Soviet Jews. When Leonid Brezhnev asked how the Soviets could help, Kissinger answered, ‘The best way is if you and I are on the same side and Jackson is on the other, then we’ll almost certainly win.

Pride goeth before a fall, and Henry Kissinger would experience this biblical lesson. Not only would he fail to reach another nuclear weapons treaty with the Soviets, but he would find the final two years of his time replete with controversies, until he himself became an issue in the 1976 Presidential election. Congressional investigations, such as the Church committee, highlighted Kissinger’s role in the secret bombing of Cambodia and the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende, while an increasing focus on human rights led to criticisms of the Secretary of State’s warm relationship with pro-American dictators, such as Chile’s Pinochet, the Shah of Iran, and the Argentinian junta. Although Kissinger remained an important and sought-after adviser on issues of foreign policy after he left office, consulted by Presidents, Prime Ministers, and other leaders, he would never again enjoy the universal acclaim of the early 1970s.

On May 27, 2023, Henry Kissinger, America’s most famous diplomat, turns one hundred years old. In my book, Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography, I chronicle Kissinger’s extraordinary life, from his origins in the backwater Bavarian town of Fürth, through his escape from Nazi Germany and return as a soldier in the US Army, to Harvard and then the White House. Although he was last in a meaningful government position almost fifty years ago, he continues to write and speak on world affairs, most recently on the Ukraine conflict, where his suggestion last year of a possible negotiated solution raised the ire of President Zelensky and revived memories of Kissinger’s own great power diplomacy and the compromises he was willing to strike to maintain peace and stability. More seriously for Kissinger is the charge that he is a ‘war criminal’, a standard part of the discussion on social media. The late British writer Christopher Hitchens popularised this in The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a book and subsequent BBC documentary. In a conversation just a few weeks ago with former Nightline journalist Ted Koppel, as part of his hundredth birthday, Koppel told him that some members of his staff objected to doing a story that dealt with the ‘criminality’ of Kissinger. ‘That is a reflection of their ignorance’, Kissinger angrily responded.

Kissinger has continued to be outspoken on significant public issues. One of his current interests is the challenge of Artificial Intelligence, the subject of both a recent book he wrote with Eric Schmidt of Google and Daniel Huttenlocher, The Age of AI And Our Human Future. The three men have continued their collaboration in a recent Wall Street Journal commentary entitled, ‘ChatGPT Heralds an Intellectual Revolution’. In this article they report that they asked ChatGPT to draft a short essay in the thought of Henry Kissinger about the role of artificial general intelligence in international arms control. They reported that the response posed a classically Kissingerian dilemma of whether AI would bring greater stability or danger to the ‘global balance of power’.

What would ChatGPT say about Henry Kissinger’s legacy? I posed this question, only to find that ChatGPT retreated into the safety of the ‘On the one hand or the other’ formulation, concluding ‘Overall Henry Kissinger’s legacy is complex and multifaceted. His contributions to diplomacy and global order cannot be denied, but his willingness to work with authoritarian regimes and his support for actions that resulted in human rights abuses remain contentious issues.’ Asking the prompt, again yielded, ‘In conclusion, Henry Kissinger’s legacy is a complex and controversial one. Whether one views Kissinger as a hero or a villain, his legacy is undeniable, and his impact will continue to be felt for generations to come.’ To be even more provocative, I decided to pose the question of Kissinger’s legacy from the perspective of the sainted Mother Teresa, and then from Vladimir Putin, whom I hoped would come from a vastly different perspective. Surprisingly enough, the results were not that different. Mother Teresa concluded, ‘Ultimately the legacy of Henry Kissinger is a testament to the power and complexity of human decision making. While he undoubtedly made mistakes and faced criticism, he also achieved significant accomplishments and helped shape the course of history.’  ChatGPT Putin sounded a similar note: ‘As a leader of a country often at odds with the United States, I believe that it is important to learn from the successes and failures of figures like Kissinger, in order to promote stability and prosperity in the world.’

Such mediocrity in AI made me doubt whether the Intellectual Revolution had truly arrived. But it also made me reflect once again on Kissinger’s legacy. I ended my book by writing that Kissinger ‘both exercised and symbolised twentieth-century American power, leaving a legacy that twenty-first century Americans are still seeking to understand’.  Kissinger’s exercise of power during his eight years in office rightly remains the subject of debate, as it frequently involved difficult choices between competing values and objectives. The bombing of Cambodia, for example, involved striking North Vietnamese bases that targeted Americans, but its destabilising effect on Cambodia contributed to the tragedy that afflicted that country under the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Henry Kissinger, however, largely because of his longevity, has become for many critics a symbol of American power in the world, and one they fiercely reject. That antagonism has largely muted a celebration of a man who served his adopted nation for more than a half-century and made a significant and positive contribution to America’s role in the world.


Thomas A. Schwartz