Henry Kissinger, a dominating and polarizing force in US foreign policy, dies at 100

By Paul LeBlanc and Kristin Wilson, CNN

CNN  —  Henry Kissinger, a former US secretary of state and national security adviser who escaped Nazi Germany in his youth to become one of the most influential and controversial foreign policy figures in American history, has died. He was 100.

Kissinger died Wednesday at his home in Connecticut, according to a statement from his consulting firm, Kissinger Associates. The firm did not provide a cause of death.

Kissinger was synonymous with US foreign policy in the 1970s. He received a Nobel Peace Prize for helping arrange the end of US military involvement in the Vietnam War and is credited with secret diplomacy that helped President Richard Nixon open communist China to the United States and the West, highlighted by Nixon’s visit to the country in 1972.

But he was also reviled by many over the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War that led to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime and for his support of a coup against a democratic government in Chile.

In the Middle East, Kissinger performed what came to be known as “shuttle diplomacy” to separate Israeli and Arab forces after the fallout of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. His “détente” approach to US-Soviet relations, which helped relax tensions and led to several arms control agreements, largely guided US posture until the Reagan era.

But many members of Congress objected to the secretiveness of the Nixon-Kissinger approach to foreign policy, and human rights activists assailed what they saw as Kissinger’s neglect of human rights in other countries. No issue complicated Kissinger’s legacy more than the Vietnam War. When Nixon took office in 1969 – after promising a “secret plan” to end the war – roughly 30,000 Americans had been killed in Vietnam.

Despite efforts to shift more combat responsibilities to the South Vietnam government, American involvement persisted throughout Nixon’s administration – critics accused Nixon and Kissinger of needlessly expanding the war – and US engagement ultimately ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975 and more than 58,000 American lives lost.

In a highly controversial decision, Kissinger shared the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize with his North Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho for that year’s Paris peace accords; citing the absence of actual peace in Vietnam, Tho declined to accept, and two members of the Nobel committee resigned in protest over the award.

Henry Kissinger and Vietnamese politician Le Duc Tho sign the Paris peace accords that ended the Vietnam War. Both men were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, though Le Duc Tho refused to accept it.

Domestic outrage in the US over the war centered on the bombings of Laos and Cambodia, where the brutal Khmer Rouge movement used the American bombings as a recruiting tool before coming into power and carrying out one of the worst genocides of the 20th century.

“For me, the tragedy of Vietnam was the divisions that occurred in the United States that made it, in the end, impossible to achieve an outcome that was compatible with the sacrifices that had been made,” Kissinger told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in 2005.

Though his era as a high-powered architect of US foreign policy waned with the decline of Nixon amid the Watergate scandal, Kissinger continued to be an independent mover and shaker whose musings on diplomacy always found an ear.

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“In order to negotiate, one has to understand the perception of the other side of the world. And they have to understand our perception. And there has to be a decision on both sides that they’re going to try to reconcile these differences,” he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in 2008.

Kissinger also commanded attention well beyond the realm of international diplomacy. He topped Gallup’s “Most Admired Man” survey three years in a row in the 1970s and his personal life, public appearances and nights in New York’s famed Studio 54 club once drew regular headlines.

“The nice thing about being a celebrity is that if you bore people, they think it’s their fault,” he once quipped.

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

Former President George W. Bush remembered Kissinger for “his wisdom, his charm, and his humor.”

“I have long admired the man who fled the Nazis as a young boy from a Jewish family, then fought them in the United States Army. When he later became Secretary of State, his appointment as a former refugee said as much about his greatness as it did America’s greatness,” he said in a statement. “He worked in the Administrations of two Presidents and counseled many more. I am grateful for that service and advice, but I am most grateful for his friendship.”

Holocaust experience shaped worldview

Born on May 27, 1923, in Furth, Germany, Kissinger, who was Jewish, fled Nazi persecution and came to the United States in 1938.

“About half of the people I went to school with and about 13 members of my own family died in concentration camps,” Kissinger once recalled.

Henry Kissinger is shown at age 11 with his brother Walter, 10.

He became a naturalized citizen in 1943 before serving in World War II and later earned his doctorate at Harvard University, where he would go on to teach. Yet the lure of public service brought him into government work.

Kissinger began consulting with the State Department and Pentagon on national security matters before serving as national security adviser and then secretary of state to Nixon.

At Kissinger’s swearing-in ceremony as secretary of state in 1973, Nixon called it “very significant in these days when we must think of America as part of the whole world community that for the first time in history a naturalized citizen is the secretary of state of the United States.”

The pair remained close as the Nixon administration navigated a near-constant stream of controversy at home and abroad.

By the end of Nixon’s presidency, Kissinger was the last original inner-circle adviser to the beleaguered president still standing after Watergate. Nixon’s resignation note was addressed to Kissinger, and the two prayed together on Nixon’s final night in the White House.

“The last night in office, he invited me to come to the Lincoln sitting room where he and I used to plan foreign policy together,” Kissinger recalled in a 2012 interview with CBS News.

“And here was a man who had spent his whole life making himself president, and he had thrown it all away by his own actions. And as I was leaving, he said, ‘Why don’t we pray together?’ And so it was a moving, and in a way appropriate moment, to a profound tragedy in a person’s life.”

President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger stand at an Oval Office window on February 10, 1971.

After Nixon’s resignation, Kissinger continued as secretary of state under President Gerald Ford, but his later years in government were marked by frustration. Conservatives within the Republican Party objected to his “détente” approach with the Soviet Union, and South Vietnam was overrun by the communist North Vietnam in 1975, despite the earlier peace accords.

“You want to leave your country better off than you found it. And there’s nothing in private life you can do that’s as interesting and as fulfilling,” Kissinger once said of his approach to government work.

A legacy that still reverberates in US politics

After leaving the State Department in 1977, Kissinger became a prolific globe-trotting author and international consultant.

He briefly returned to the federal government in 2002 when President George W. Bush named Kissinger to lead a commission investigating the events leading up to the September 11 terrorist attacks. But Kissinger resigned just a month later amid questions about potential conflicts of interest.

His writings and advice on geopolitics have remained required reading in the foreign policy community in the United States and overseas – even as his detractors have remained just as critical.

In 2016, for example, Kissinger’s name proved to be a lightning rod during a tense Democratic presidential debate exchange between the party’s two leading candidates at the time, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

“I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. Count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger,” Sanders said, a knock on Clinton, who had spoken of seeking Kissinger’s counsel when she was secretary of state.

The comments underscore Kissinger’s enduring divisiveness, even decades after leaving public office. But for a statesman who forged an unlikely path to diplomacy on his own terms, criticism always came with the territory.

“I’ve had an opportunity to do the things that I believe in. I have been able to express myself in many forums,” he told Zakaria in 2008. “And it would be unnatural, and probably would mean I haven’t done very much, if there were not other points of view that were expressed with some vehemence.”

Kissinger receives the "Bavarian Order of Maximilian for Science and the Arts" during a reception in Fuerth, Germany, June 20, 2023.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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