He was a brilliant politician, diplomat, and geopolitical consultant. He played a significant role in virtually every US foreign affairs policy and issue in the past 60+ years. Despite his humble beginnings he rose to become Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to two presidents and unofficial consultant to several others.
Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born on May 27,1923 in Bavaria, Germany. His father, Louis, was a teacher. His mother, Paula, was a homemaker. He had one younger brother. According to Wikipedia Henry’s great-great-grandfather chose the surname “Kissinger” in 1817 after a Bavarian town called “Bad Kissingen.” (As some of you know, until the late Middle Ages Jews did not generally have surnames, so many Jews chose surnames based on a town, an occupation or a physical characteristic.) As a youth Henry’s favorite sport was soccer both to play and to watch. He was proficient enough to play for the youth team of SpVgg Fürth, which was one of Germany’s best clubs at the time.
When Hitler came to power 1933 the Kissinger family’s situation, like that of all other Jews in Germany, took a severe turn for the worse. Henry’s father lost his teaching job. Henry was denied admission to the Gymnasium, which was the most prestigious and advanced of German secondary schools. The family was subjected to harassment, beatings and terrorizing by Hitler youth gangs and antisemites.
Young Henry liked to push the envelope. For example, he would often sneak into stadiums to watch soccer games, which, as a Jew, was forbidden. Sometimes he would be caught by security and beaten for that transgression.
By 1938 the family could see the handwriting on the wall. It emigrated a mere days before Kristallnacht. First, it fled to England and then later to the US to escape. In later years some historians, including his biographer, Walter Isaacson, postulated that his early experiences as a youth in Nazi-dominated Germany affected his politics. Henry disagreed, but its veracity remains a matter of opinion.
In the US the family settled in the Washington Heights section of NYC where Henry attended high school. Henry readily assimilated into American culture. He worked odd jobs, such as in a toothbrush factory, and spent his spare time learning English. Oddly, however, he never lost his heavy German accent. He attributed this anomaly to shyness as a youth, which made him reluctant to speak. Henry attended college at CCNY, and then in 1943 he joined the Army.
Henry liked his army experience. He always maintained that being in the army “made me feel like an American.“ He was stationed in Germany near his hometown. I can only imagine what it felt like for Henry to return as a conquering US soldier to the very area where he had been terrorized as a youth. The US Army had a paucity of soldiers who spoke German. Consequently, Henry’s proficiency in that language was very valuable and led to various key administration billets. For example, he was assigned to the Counterintelligence Corps where one of his responsibilities was to track down Gestapo officers and saboteurs. His success there earned him a Bronze Star.
Upon his discharge in 1946 he attended Harvard University from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1950. He went on to earn his master’s and doctorate also at Harvard in 1951 and 1954, respectively.
After graduation Henry wrote several books and worked at a series of consulting and “think tank” positions. In 1960 he entered politics as a foreign policy advisor to the presidential campaigns first of Nelson Rockefeller and then in 1968 Richard Nixon.
In 1968 following his election Nixon hired Kissinger as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Kissinger was the only presidential appointee in history who held both offices contemporaneously. After Nixon resigned and was replaced by Gerald Ford Henry continued as Secretary of State. Nixon, who was normally suspicious by nature, trusted Kissinger implicitly. They shared many of the same geopolitical philosophies and turned out to be a perfect fit. For example, they both preferred operating in secrecy and employing back channels, which ruffled some feathers in other areas of the government particularly at the State Department. They complimented each other perfectly. Kissinger was generally charming and worldly, which Nixon definitely was not. Furthermore, he provided the grace and intellectual-establishment respectability that Nixon lacked, disdained and aspired to.
Between 1969 and 1977 Henry played a prominent role in virtually every major aspect of US foreign policy. His objective was to seek to de-escalate tensions and mistrust between the US and adversaries such as Russia and China. For instance, he conceived and developed the policy of détente with Russia, enhanced international relations with China, pioneered what became known as shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East to end the Yom Kippur War, and negotiated the Paris Peace Accords, which ended US participation in the war in Vietnam and for which he received the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.
Kissinger’s legacy in diplomacy and geopolitics is somewhat controversial. Although scholars and historians consider him to have been an effective Secretary of State, and they give him credit for his major achievements as described above, some have criticized him for his penchant for operating in secrecy. I leave that debate to the historians. In 2014 a poll of international relations scholars conducted by the College of William and Mary voted Henry as the most effective Secretary of State in the last 50 years. I would concur. In retrospect I believe his pluses far outweighed his minuses.
After leaving government, he formed Kissinger Associates, an international geopolitical consulting firm. Additionally, he wrote several books on the subjects of diplomatic history and international relations. He was the recipient of countless awards and honorariums, too many to list here. During this time, he was often sought out by presidents and various power brokers who valued his advice as a consultant. He always said that “diplomacy was his favorite game.” He played the “game” successfully for over seven decades.
Henry loved America. Moreover, he loved the idea of America. He was quoted as saying “in what other country could a man with my background stand next to the President?” That says it all.
Henry remained prolific and sharp until the very end. In addition to his frequent consulting gigs he authored numerous books. For example, earlier this year he went on a tour to plug his latest book. In October in one of his last interviews he warned about the dangers of Hamas. He cautioned, in part, that the Israel-Hamas War could potentially “engulf the entire Arab World.”
In his personal life Henry was somewhat of a ladies’ man. He was married four times and was reputed to have had several affairs. He was often seen in the company of high profile and beautiful female celebrities. The Village Voice dubbed him a “secret square posing as a swinger.” In some circles he was known as the “playboy of the West Wing.” In a 1971 article Womens Wear Daily labeled him “Washington’s greatest swinger.” However, his closest friends opined that image was an exaggeration fostered by the media.
Henry passed away at his home in Connecticut on November 29, 2023, at the age of 100. He is survived by his wife, Nancy, two children, David and Elizabeth, and five grandchildren.
Following his death countless tributes have come pouring in, many from former adversaries, which I find very significant. For example, Vladimir Putin called him a “wise and farsightedness statesman.” The China News Service called him a “person [who] had a sharp vision and a thorough understanding of world affairs.“ Winston Lord, a former assistant at the NSC, called Kissinger “a tireless advocate for peace.” George W. Bush stated “America has lost one of the most dependable and distinctive voices on foreign affairs.“
Rest in peace Henry. Your contributions to America were varied and vast, and you will be missed.