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Henry Kissinger, controversial diplomat and foreign policy scholar, dies at 100

Henry Kissinger, one of the country's most important foreign policy thinkers for more than half a century, has died at the age of 100.

He died on Wednesday at his home in Connecticut, according a statement from his consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, Inc. A cause of death was not provided.

As a secretary of state and national security adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Kissinger played the major behind-the-scenes role in building the architecture that enabled more manageable relations with the Soviet Union, China, and major Arab nations. At the same time, he was closely associated with some of the most controversial U.S. foreign policy moves in recent decades, by promoting intensive bombing campaigns in Southeast Asia and repeatedly turning a blind eye to human rights abuses by governments perceived to be supportive of U.S. interests.

Though he never worked directly under a U.S. president again after Ford left office, Kissinger's achievements were long lasting. U.S. superpower relations to this day still bear his imprint, and he remained a sought-after voice on international affairs to the end of his life.

"Kissinger was the leading scholar-practitioner of the post-World War II era," said Richard Haass, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. "There were other great secretaries of state and a long list of impressive historians, but no one who combined the two pursuits as Kissinger did."

Having arrived as a teenage refugee from Nazi Germany, Kissinger never lost his thick German accent, and his pronouncements on foreign policy challenges, delivered in a gruff baritone voice, made him a global celebrity.

"I remember walking down the street in Manhattan with him, and he would attract a crowd like a movie star, a rock star," recalled David Rothkopf, who worked for a time as a managing director at Kissinger's consulting firm. "Everybody, regardless of what they thought of Henry, wanted to see Henry, wanted to be with Henry."

As a superstar ex-diplomat, Kissinger was feted around the world, including in Germany, the land from which he fled with his family in 1938.

Hitler at that point had been in power for five years, and during that time the Kissingers, like other Jews, suffered Nazi persecution. Kissinger once told an interviewer that, growing up in Germany, he would cross the street whenever he saw a group of boys coming his way, because he knew he was likely to be beaten up.

In America, the young Kissinger worked in a factory during the day and went to school at night, until he was drafted into the U.S. Army.

Sent to Germany, Pvt. Kissinger was among the American soldiers who liberated starving Jewish prisoners at a concentration camp in Ahlem. He met some of them again 60 years later, when he spoke at the screening of a documentary film about Ahlem, with many camp survivors present.

"There's nothing I'm more proud of than having been one of those who had the honor of liberating the Ahlem concentration camp," Kissinger said, in an uncharacteristically emotional speech.

President Nixon walks with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1972, during peace talks in Paris that were aimed at ending the Vietnam War. A year later, Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating the ceasefire.
Keystone / Getty Images
Getty Images
President Nixon walks with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1972, during peace talks in Paris that were aimed at ending the Vietnam War. A year later, Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating the ceasefire.

Noting how often he spoke to various groups, Kissinger told the Ahlem survivors there was no one who meant more to him than those who showed up for the event.

In that speech, Kissinger dismissed the notion that the harassment he faced as a teenager in Nazi Germany had traumatized him.

"That's nonsense," he said, "They were not yet killing people. A traumatic event was to see Ahlem. It was the single most shocking experience I have ever had."

His experience with the U.S. military in Germany made Kissinger a believer in the idea of peace through strength.

After getting out of the army, he attended Harvard. His 300-page undergraduate thesis was titled, "The Meaning of History." He went on to teach at Harvard, becoming known for his hawkish views.

Kissinger's writings brought him to the attention of Richard Nixon, who made Kissinger his national security adviser. Over the next few years, he directed one of the boldest periods of diplomacy in U.S. history. In 1971, Kissinger arranged Nixon's historic visit to China.

Thinking strategically, Nixon and Kissinger saw the opening to China as a way to challenge the Soviet Union, China's communist rival. Before that visit, no U.S. leader had dared make an overture to "Red China," as it was then called. After the visit, no U.S. leader dared to question the wisdom of the move.

In Kissinger's view, it made sense to meet with brutal dictators, if there were important issues to discuss. In a conversation at Harvard in 2012, he cited his dealings with Mao Tse Tung, Communist China's legendary but murderous leader.

"Chairman Mao caused unspeakable suffering," Kissinger acknowledged. "It's an indisputable fact. But it is also a fact that he was a considerable strategic thinker in foreign policy."

During the time of the opening to China, Kissinger was also meeting with Soviet leaders in Moscow. For more than 40 years, the spectre of a nuclear confrontation had hung over the two superpowers. Kissinger's diplomacy ushered in a new period of détente, dialog, and arms control agreements and helped defuse the persistent and dangerous tensions between Washington and Moscow.

And then there was Vietnam, where the limits of Kissinger's abilities became evident. Nixon sent Kissinger to Paris to negotiate a peace agreement. After three and a half years of on-again, off-again talks with his North Vietnamese counterpart, Le Duc Tho, Kissinger made a dramatic announcement in October 1972 that he would live to regret.

"We believe that peace is at hand," he said. "We believe that an agreement is in sight."

Kissinger and Le Duc Tho won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts, but their agreement did not end the war.

No foreign policy adviser to a U.S. president before or since had the power Kissinger had. He spoke to Nixon as much as a dozen times a day. Kissinger saw Nixon as an insecure man, and tapes of White House phone conversations show how he catered to Nixon's emotional needs.

"Mr. President," Kissinger told Nixon, following an April 1971 presidential address on the Vietnam War, "That was the best speech you've delivered since you've been in office." When Nixon demurred, Kissinger pressed his point. "It was a powerful speech,," he insisted, "really movingly delivered."

Kissinger traveled constantly, engaging directly with world leaders on matters of war and peace. His frenetic search for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gave rise to the term "shuttle diplomacy."

Though not possessed with movie star looks, Kissinger had a brilliant intellect and a razor sharp wit, and as a divorced man he dated glamorous women, leaving him exposed to Nixon's teasing.

"Henry? Where are you?" Nixon scolded him in one phone call. "Just let me say that as soon as you take care of the ladies, if you could work it into your schedule, I want you to get back here to the White House."

Before long, Nixon was mired in the Watergate scandal, preoccupied with political crises. He essentially let Kissinger take charge of foreign policymaking.

"That worked for Nixon," said Rothkopf, the Kissinger aide and later the author of a book on national security advisers. "Because Nixon didn't want to interact with people so much. He was a little paranoid. And then when he went into the crisis years, Kissinger essentially became deputy president for foreign policy."

In 1973, Nixon made Kissinger his secretary of state, while keeping him as his national security adviser. When Gerald Ford took over after Nixon's resignation in 1974, he retained Kissinger as secretary of state, though not as national security adviser.

In fact, Kissinger had already made his mark. The hard-nosed foreign policy approach he advocated was associated more with Kissinger himself than with the presidents under whom he served. Indeed, his promotion of détente with Moscow was later criticized by some conservatives in his own Republican Party.

Kissinger's guiding principle was that U.S. national interests take precedence over more idealistic aims, like the promotion of democracy and human rights.

"I used to say to my colleagues," Kissinger told an interviewer in 2007, "we're a country, not a foundation. We have to conduct foreign policy for America."

With that unwavering commitment, Kissinger advocated bombing campaigns in Vietnam and Cambodia to strengthen the U.S. negotiating position. He was comfortable with the U.S. giving a green light to the "dirty war" in Argentina and to Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, because those governments were U.S. allies. Likewise, the U.S. could welcome a coup against Salvador Allende, the elected socialist president in Chile.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Henry A. Kissinger  arrive for the award ceremony for the Henry A. Kissinger Prize 2020 at the Charlottenburg palace in Berlin on Jan. 21, 2020.
Michael Sohn / AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Henry A. Kissinger arrive for the award ceremony for the Henry A. Kissinger Prize 2020 at the Charlottenburg palace in Berlin on Jan. 21, 2020.

Kissinger's detractors said his identification with such policy decisions meant he was liable for war crimes. At public events, like his 2012 appearance at Harvard, accusations were inevitable.

"How do you justify receiving the Nobel Peace Prize when you were the architect of, with Richard Nixon, of killing four million southeast Asians during the Vietnam War?" one audience member asked, going on to highlight the deaths of East Timorese and the coup in Chile, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Chileans.

"Do you deny these war crimes?" the man said. "Basically, how do you sleep with yourself at night?"

Kissinger was accustomed to such questions and regularly encouraged his critics to consider "the big picture."

"Just study who did what, not people who live off proving their country is evil and their leaders are criminal," Kissinger told the Harvard questioner. "Start from the assumption that rational people were in government. What led to what decisions?" He urged his critic to go through the minutes of a national security meeting.

"You may not agree with it," he said, "but you won't throw around words like war criminal then."

Kissinger knew something about criminal leaders from his own experience in Nazi Germany, but it did not keep him from engaging with other governments that executed their opponents. It may have been that Kissinger's own life experience made it easier for him to be dispassionate about tough policy choices.

David Rothkopf, his one-time assistant, thinks Kissinger's view of the world was in part a result of his childhood experience in Germany and then his service as a young man in the U.S. Army.

"Those are the formative years," Rothkopf said. "I think to understand Kissinger, you have to understand a man who escaped the Holocaust, a man who went back to fight in this big grand war, a man who saw the United States as the champion against an almost absolute evil."

Having seen the United States as being on the side of good, Rothkopf suggests, Kissinger may have been more willing to justify questionable U.S. actions around the world.

"That helps to explain, if not to entirely forgive, some of the things that happened later," Rothkopf said.

Kissinger's approach to foreign policy put him "squarely in the realist tradition," said Haass, who served as director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department during the George W. Bush administration. In that regard, Kissinger emphasized the importance of "buttressing world order ... and shaping the foreign policies of great powers more than their internal political or economic behavior," Haass said.

Kissinger stayed active to the end of his life, writing books on international affairs and giving speeches and interviews.

Donald Trump's "America First" bravado initially impressed him. Interviewed on CBS's Face the Nation just after the 2016 election, Kissinger suggested that "something remarkable" might emerge from a Trump presidency.

"I'm not saying it will," Kissinger said. "I'm saying it's an extraordinary opportunity."

Nearly four years later, however, Kissinger said in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations that he was worried that if the Trump administration continued to withdraw from global alliances and international engagement, U.S. influence on world events would diminish.

"Over a period of time in which history is judged," he said, "we will be isolated and become, to some extent, irrelevant."

For a diplomat who always saw America as a pre-eminent player in the global power game, that was a virtually unthinkable prospect.

Kissinger is survived by his wife, Nancy Maginnes Kissinger, and two children from his first marriage, Elizabeth and David.

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Tom Gjelten
Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.