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Henry A. Kissinger, who dominated US foreign policy, dies at 100

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on Sept. 16, 1972, as seen in the "The Trials of Henry Kissinger," a film by Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecki.Associated Press

Henry A. Kissinger, the Harvard professor turned statesman who during his eight years in the Nixon and Ford administrations dominated US foreign policy as has perhaps no other individual in the nation’s history, died at his home in Connecticut Wednesday. He was 100.

His death was announced by his consulting firm, Kissinger Associates Inc.

Dr. Kissinger’s secret mission to Beijing in July 1971 paved the way for the greatest achievement of the Nixon presidency, the US opening to China. He was instrumental in the signing of the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, in Moscow, in 1972.

His negotiations with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho brought about the end of the Vietnam War, earning the two men the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize. Tho refused the award. North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam in 1975.

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Dr. Kissinger’s tireless “shuttle diplomacy” during 1973 and 1974 ushered in a new era in Arab-Israeli relations after the Yom Kippur War. And he presided over US participation in the 1975 conference that resulted in the Helsinki Accords, the first tentative step toward raising the Iron Curtain.

Yet for all of his accomplishments, Dr. Kissinger was one of the most controversial figures of the Cold War era and remained so into the 21st century. When President George W. Bush named him in 2002 to head a commission of inquiry into the 9/11 terrorist attacks, widespread criticism of the appointment quickly led to Dr. Kissinger’s withdrawal.

Even admirers had to concede his penchant for arrogance, ruthlessness, and duplicity. Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, once said of Dr. Kissinger, “If he were 10 percent less intelligent and 10 percent more honest, he would be a great man.”

The left reviled Dr. Kissinger for his inability to end the Vietnam War sooner. The right reviled him for his central role in detente, the easing of relations between Communist East and capitalist West, which was the defining accomplishment of Nixon-Ford foreign policy. The China opening, SALT I, and Helsinki were landmarks in detente.

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Along with detente, linkage was the other key element in Dr. Kissinger’s foreign policy. Simple in theory yet complex in practice, linkage held that the US response to specific actions by the Soviet Union must be “linked” to other Soviet actions. Thus US concessions on trade policy were to be tied to Soviet concessions on, say, arms control. The theoretical underpinning of detente, linkage had the additional merit of playing to Dr. Kissinger’s strengths as a global strategist: vision, energy, flexibility, pragmatism, and an improvisatory bent.

Dr. Kissinger, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, brought a unique blend of talents to the practice of statecraft: an Old World mastery of realpolitik, an intellectual’s knack for conceptualizing, a pyrotechnic intelligence, and a remarkable flair for the dramatic.

He also possessed a singular wit, which he used to make more palatable what he himself described as “my very demanding, somewhat unbalanced, nature.” A talent for comedy ran in the family. Though only a year younger, his brother, Walter, spoke unaccented English, in contrast to the famously Teutonic inflections of his sibling. “I am the Kissinger who listens,” Walter Kissinger explained.

Dr. Kissinger came to seem the very personification of diplomatic expertise, and it says something about his preeminence, as well as what he once ironically termed “my legendary humility and restraint,” that he could give one of his books the all-encompassing title “Diplomacy” (1994).

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Bearing out the claim of one biographer that Dr. Kissinger was “the most powerful and celebrated public servant in modern American history” is his having been one of only three persons to serve as both national security adviser and secretary of state (the others are Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice). For a time, Dr. Kissinger held the two posts simultaneously, from September 1973 until October 1975. During his 3½ years heading the State Department, he logged 667,732 miles of travel while visiting 59 countries.

Chinese Foreign Minister Chiao Kuan-Hua, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping during a dinner at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, April 14, 1974.JOHN SOTOMAYOR/NYT

It was as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser that Dr. Kissinger gained worldwide fame and met with his greatest success. The two men enjoyed one of the most extraordinary — and extraordinarily complicated — partnerships in presidential history. As Dr. Kissinger delicately put it, he was “the one associate about whom [Nixon] was the most ambivalent.” For all their mutual suspicion, jealousy, and condescension, they nonetheless forged an alliance that helped reconfigure the world stage.

There were countless reasons for the success of their relationship. Not least among them was the way each man let the other live vicariously: Dr. Kissinger had excellent press, intellectual credentials, an Ivy League background, a reputation for style, and wit; Nixon had power.

“The combination was unlikely,” Nixon wrote in his memoirs, “the grocer’s son from Whittier and the refugee from Hitler’s Germany, the politician and the academic. But our differences helped make the partnership work.” So, too, did their similarities: A pair of pessimistic outsiders, both men were insecure, conspiratorial, and consumed by ambition.

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The odd man out was Secretary of State William P. Rogers, and the rivalry between him and Dr. Kissinger went to often-ludicrous lengths. Asked in a 2001 Boston Globe interview what he was least proud of in his career, Dr. Kissinger cited his behavior toward Rogers.

It soon became apparent who held the upper hand. The nation’s chief maker of foreign policy in everything but name, Dr. Kissinger acquired the title as well when a reluctant Nixon named him to succeed Rogers.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visits the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston on Dec. 9, 1981.Ted Dully/Globe Staff

The move was a direct consequence of the Watergate scandal. As the president’s popularity plummeted, and his national security adviser’s soared, Watergate made Dr. Kissinger not just necessary to Nixon, but indispensable. Soon Newsweek was putting him on its cover in a Superman suit, and The New York Times was calling him “president for foreign affairs.”

Perhaps the most celebrated (or notorious) incident of the final days of Nixon’s presidency occurred two nights before his resignation, when he summoned Dr. Kissinger for a tearful soul-baring in the Lincoln Sitting Room that ended with the two men kneeling in prayer. “Just as there is no question but that I must go,” he told Dr. Kissinger, “there really is no question but that you must stay.”

If anything, the secretary of state would prove an even more dominant figure in the Ford Cabinet — as then-Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin later put it in his memoirs, Dr. Kissinger was “the incontestable captain of American diplomacy” — and in acknowledgment of his contributions to his administration Ford presented him with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1977.

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Dr. Kissinger may have escaped Watergate relatively unscathed, but his career had its darker side, including his role in the secret bombing of Cambodia, the destabilization of the Marxist regime of Chilean president Salvador Allende, and the wiretapping of journalists and subordinates. On none of these events was he notably forthcoming — “White House Years” (1979), the first volume of his memoirs, was dubbed “White Wash Years” in some quarters — and his occasionally cavalier treatment of the truth earned him the ire of many associates.

James Schlesinger, secretary of defense under Nixon and Ford, noted that, “Henry enjoys the complexity of deviousness. Other people when they lie look ashamed. Henry does it with style, as if it were an arabesque.”

What Schlesinger indicted as deviousness, Dr. Kissinger considered simple necessity. “This is not an honorable business conducted by honorable men in an honorable way,” he once told his National Security Council staff. “Don’t assume I’m that way and you shouldn’t be.”

“I may have kept things secret,” he once explained, “but that’s not the same as being deceitful.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is interviewed by Neil Cavuto on his "Cavuto Coast to Coast" program on the Fox Business Network, June 5, 2015, in New York. Richard Drew/Associated Press

Shortish, pudgy, bespectacled, Dr. Kissinger cut an unimpressive physical figure. Nor did his time in Washington improve his appearance. “When I negotiate I get nervous,” he once confessed. “When I get nervous I eat.” Between 1969 and 1977 he gained 60 pounds.

Yet one of Dr. Kissinger’s more celebrated quotes was that “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” and he found himself the world’s unlikeliest sex symbol. Soon enough he became “Henry the K,” “Super K,” “Super-Kissinger,” “Super Kraut,” “Prime Minister Kissinger,” and “Super-Secretary,” to cite some of the better known of the many nicknames that headline writers bestowed upon him. His penchant for secrecy and bold strokes further enhanced his unlikely glamour by adding a James Bond dimension to his image.

This tension between larger-than-life persona and humdrum appearance fueled public fascination with Dr. Kissinger. Contributing to his luster was a carefully cultivated image as a man about town. “Well, you couldn’t call me a swinger because of my job,” he famously confided to Sally Quinn of The Washington Post. “Why don’t you just assume I’m a secret swinger?”

Dr. Kissinger did his best to ensure his “swinging” didn’t stay very secret. Almost as pleasing to him as receiving a Harris survey approval rating of 85 percent in 1974 (the highest for a government official in the poll’s history), was his being voted “greatest person in the world today” by the contestants in the Miss Universe pageant.

“Cary Grant with a German accent” was how a friend, the Hollywood studio chief Robert Evans, described him, and Dr. Kissinger made a point of being seen with such actresses as Samantha Eggar, Shirley MacLaine, Marlo Thomas, Jill St. John, Candice Bergen, and Liv Ullmann. Only once did Dr. Kissinger’s career as a putative Casanova get in the way of his official role. Just as his appointment as secretary of state was about to be announced, Ullmann called him from Norway. “By the time I hung up the phone,” Dr. Kissinger recalled, “I had missed hearing myself named as the next secretary of state.”

His high-profile dating ended on March 30, 1974, when he married Nancy Maginnes. (To arrive at the ceremony on time, the groom had to interrupt a meeting with Moshe Dayan, the Israeli defense minister.) Dr. Kissinger’s first marriage, to Anneliese (Fleischer) Kissinger, had ended in divorce, in 1964.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, center, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, center right, and Representative Thomas "Tip" O'Neil of Mass., watch Game Two of the 1975 World Series between the Cincinnati Reds and Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston on Oct. 12, 1975.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe
Boston Red Sox player Carlton Fisk, right, shakes Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's hand as Commissioner of Major League Baseball Bowie Kuhn, center, looks on during Game Two of the 1975 World Series at Fenway Park in Boston on Oct. 12, 1975.Frank O'Brien/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Heinz Alfred Kissinger (he anglicized his name upon arriving in the United States) was born in Fuerth, Germany, on May 27, 1923, the son of Louis Kissinger, a schoolteacher, and Paula (Stern) Kissinger. The Kissingers were Jewish. Dr. Kissinger, his brother, and their parents managed to reach New York City in 1938. Thirteen of their relatives died in Nazi concentration camps.

Dr. Kissinger entered the City College of New York to study accounting and was working nights in a brush factory when he was drafted, in 1943, the year he became a naturalized citizen. He rose to the rank of sergeant in the Army and received a Bronze Star for his service as an administrator in Occupied Germany.

The Army had broadened Dr. Kissinger’s horizons and whetted his ambition. He entered Harvard in 1947 and graduated summa cum laude three years later. His 383-page thesis resulted in what came to be known as the “Kissinger rule,” which limited undergraduate dissertations to less than a third of that length. He then pursued graduate work at Harvard, earning his master’s in 1952, and a doctorate in 1954. Dr. Kissinger became an assistant professor of government there that year and a full professor in 1962.

His PhD thesis, “A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Restoration of Peace, 1812-22” (1957), became his second book, demonstrating a concern for the international balance of power that would profoundly shape his own diplomatic practices. His first book, “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy” (1957), caused a minor sensation with its advocacy of the use of tactical nuclear weapons and spent 14 weeks on the bestseller list. It earned Dr. Kissinger a national reputation, one solidified by two later books, “The Necessity for Choice: Prospects of American Foreign Policy” (1961) and “The Troubled Partnership: A Reappraisal of the Atlantic Alliance” (1965).

In 1956, Dr. Kissinger began working for future New York governor Nelson Rockefeller as a consultant and later served him as foreign policy adviser. One of the greater ironies of his career is that Dr. Kissinger should have spent more than a decade working for Nixon’s foremost Republican rival. In addition, he voted for Nixon’s opponent, John F. Kennedy, in the 1960 presidential election and later worked as a consultant in the Kennedy administration.

After Nixon defeated Rockefeller for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 (thus eliciting a declaration from Dr. Kissinger that his future boss was “unfit” to be president), he maintained ties to the camps of both Nixon and the Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. Humphrey later said that had he won the election Dr. Kissinger would have been his selection for national security adviser.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sits a press conference in Boston on Dec. 10, 1986, after addressing the World Trade Club.Keith Jenkins/Globe Staff

Within three weeks of assuming that office, Dr. Kissinger was on the cover of Time magazine. Yet he lacked a consistently high public profile until the announcement of his secret visit to Beijing in 1971.

Incredibly, in retrospect, the press conference on Oct. 26, 1972, during which he declared that “peace is at hand” in Vietnam, was only his second appearance on national television. “The White House public relations people,” he later wrote with more than a touch of sarcasm, “were convinced that my accent might disturb Middle America.”

That peace announcement came to haunt him, though, as the negotiations had already run afoul of South Vietnamese intransigence. The final peace accords would not be signed for another three months.

In the meantime, Dr. Kissinger met with another debacle — his one real setback at the hands of an otherwise-adulatory press — when he told an Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci, that the secret to his success was “I’ve always acted alone,” comparing himself to “the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead . . . with his horse and nothing else.” The remarks were widely ridiculed, and with overwhelming understatement Nixon characterized them as “debilitating to a negotiator.”

However ridiculous, however debilitating, Dr. Kissinger’s words served only to enhance his superstar status, something he retained after leaving office. He moved to New York and opened a highly successful consulting firm, Kissinger Associates. In 1983, President Reagan appointed him chairman of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, popularly known as the Kissinger Commission.

The first two volumes of his memoirs — the second, published in 1982, was “Years of Upheaval,” and a third, “Years of Renewal,” was published in 1999 — were bestsellers and received admiring (if sometimes disputatious) reviews. He also published two volumes of addresses and essays — “For the Record” (1981) and “Observations” (1985) — as well as “Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Toward a New Diplomacy for the 21st Century” (2001); “Crisis: The Anatomy of Two Foreign Policy Crises” (2003), about the Yom Kippur War and fall of Saigon; “On China” (2011); “World Order” (2014); and “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy” (2022). Demonstrating his intellectual range, he cowrote with Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher, “The Age of AI and Our Human Future” (2021).

For many years, Dr. Kissinger wrote commentaries for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and Newsweek. He also appeared as an analyst on NBC, then ABC. Dr. Kissinger became a fixture of Manhattan high society — “the bratty rich,” to use his term — and would often be interviewed on ABC’s “Nightline” wearing a tuxedo, having just returned from a formal dinner. In 2014, he shared the stage with the likes of Willie Nelson, James Franco, and Big Bird on the finale of “The Colbert Report.”

Dr. Kissinger remained controversial long after leaving government. Both Christopher Hitchens’s book “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” (2001) and a documentary film “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” (2002) argued that he should be tried for alleged crimes he committed as national security adviser and secretary of state. Ever aware of his reputation, Dr. Kissinger published “Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America’s Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War” (2003). “My purpose,” he wrote, “is not to settle the debate of a generation ago retroactively but to leave for a new generation . . . an opportunity to obtain as accurate an account as possible.”

In addition to his wife, Dr. Kissinger leaves a daughter, Elizabeth, a son, David, and five grandchildren.

Kissinger Associates said he will be buried in a private family service, but that a memorial service will be held at a later date in New York City.


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.