Politics

Henry Kissinger, the towering American diplomat, dies at age 100

Key Points
  • Henry Kissinger was the Harvard professor who became the archetypal U.S. diplomat, master political manipulator and pop culture icon — loved by admirers and loathed by detractors.
  • As President Richard Nixon's top foreign policy aide, Kissinger negotiated America's exit from the disastrous Vietnam War, winning a Nobel Peace Prize.
  • He also masterminded the détente policy that thawed the Cold War with the Soviet Union and helped break down the diplomatic great wall that surrounded Communist China for 2½-decades.
Henry Kissinger circa 1976 in New York City.
PL Gould | Archive Photos | Getty Images

Henry Kissinger, the Holocaust survivor and Harvard professor who became a towering U.S. diplomat, master political manipulator and pop culture icon — loved by admirers and loathed by detractors — has died. He was 100.

He died on Wednesday at his home in Connecticut, according to Kissinger Associates.

As President Richard Nixon's top foreign policy aide, Kissinger helped set out the nation's grand international strategy of extricating itself from an unpopular war and plotting its relations with two rival communist powers. In Nixon's second term, Kissinger had to navigate against the backdrop of the Watergate scandal that engulfed his commander in chief's attention and eventually forced the president out. All the while, he fiercely defended his own political turf.

President Richard Nixon with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1972.
Richard Corkery | New York Daily News | Getty Images

"My predominant concern during Watergate was not the investigations that formed the headlines of the day. It was to sustain the credibility of the United States as a major power," Kissinger wrote in his 1982 memoir "Years of Upheaval." "I became the focal point of a degree of support unprecedented for a nonelected official. It was as if the public and Congress felt the national peril instinctively, and created a surrogate center around which the national purpose could rally."

Kissinger negotiated America's exit from the disastrous Vietnam War, sharing the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize with North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho for a cease-fire agreement that year. Nearly two years later, Nixon's self-described "peace with honor" collapsed with the fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong during the administration of President Gerald Ford.

President Gerald Ford (left) and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger talk together in the Oval Office, February 19, 1975. Kissinger had just completed a 10-day trip to the Middle East.
Benjamin E. Forte | Archive Photos | Getty Images

Kissinger also crafted the détente policy that thawed the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and he played a pivotal role in breaking down the diplomatic great wall that surrounded Communist China for 2½ decades. Through his shuttle diplomacy, he wrung out agreements between Israel and Egypt and Syria in the wake of the Arab countries' surprise launch of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

And in his diplomatic chess game against the Soviets, he supported brutal regimes that were accused of human rights abuses, including in Chile and Pakistan.

Three months after the Watergate break-in on June 17, 1972, Nixon's national security advisor was confirmed as his secretary of State, becoming the first foreign-born head of that Cabinet department. He continued to serve as national security advisor until three months after Nixon's resignation in August 1974, and remained as secretary of State until Ford left office in 1977.

As President Richard Nixon watches, Henry Kissinger is sworn in as secretary of State by Chief Justice Warren Burger, September 1973. Kissinger's mother, Paula, holds the Bible.
Benjamin E. 'Gene' Forte | Archive Photos | Getty Images

In the 1983 book "The Price of Power," journalist Seymour M. Hersh bashed Kissinger as a double-dealing deceiver. Journalist Walter Isaacson's 1992 biography "Kissinger" portrayed the former secretary of State as a complicated pragmatist who mastered the art of nuance. In his 2001 book "The Trial of Henry Kissinger," social critic Christopher Hitchens called him a war criminal. In the 2015 book "Kissinger's Shadow," leftist historian Greg Grandin said never-ending wars show the U.S. was still paying the price of Kissinger's policies. But the same year, a massive biography by conservative historian Niall Ferguson portrayed Kissinger as an idealist who followed the vision of Kant rather than the realpolitik of Clausewitz or Bismarck.

To Barry Gewen, a New York Times Book Review editor, Kissinger's idealism was based on negativism and pessimism.

"The task for policymakers in his view is a modest, essentially negative one — namely, not to steer the world along some preordained path to universal justice but to pit power against power to rein in the assorted aggressions of human beings and to try, as best they can, to avert disaster," Gewen said in his 2020 book "The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World."

More recently, Kissinger was among the high-profile board members in Elizabeth Holmes' Theranos Inc. before the blood-screening company melted down in 2018 amid fraud charges. Another board member was Kissinger's fellow Nixon administration colleague George Shultz, whose grandson worked at Theranos and turned out to be a key whistleblower against Holmes.

And Kissinger kept up with geopolitics even late in his life. He drew criticism for suggesting in May 2022 that Ukraine should cede some land to Russia to achieve a peace deal. Those comments came about three months after Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Later, speaking via video link in January 2023 to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Kissinger said Russia must be given the opportunity to one day rejoin the international system following any peace deal in Ukraine and dialogue with the country must be ongoing.

"This may seem very hollow to nations that have been under Russian pressure for much of the Cold War period," he said. However, he added that it was important to avoid an escalation of conflict between Russia and the West as a result of it feeling the war had become "against Russia itself."

Flight from the Holocaust and back

Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born May 27, 1923, in Fuerth, Germany, an industrial suburb of the Bavarian city Nuremberg, into an Orthodox Jewish family. His father, Louis, was a school teacher and his mother, Paula, was a homemaker. The couple also had another son, Walter, who was born a year after the future American diplomat and died in May 2021 at age 96.

Five years after Hitler came to power, the Kissingers fled Nazi Germany in 1938 — just in time, first to London, then to New York. It was only 2½ months before Kristallnacht, when antisemitic mobs spread terror throughout Germany by burning and rampaging through synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses on Nov. 9-10, 1938. Kissinger was 15.

After graduating from George Washington High School in the New York, where he attended night classes while working at a shaving brush factory during the day, Kissinger enrolled in City College of New York, planning to become an accountant. Three years later, in 1943, he was drafted into the Army and soon became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He eventually returned to Germany to battle Hitler's murderous regime, whose victims included Kissinger's grandmother and 12 other members of his family.

He first served in the infantry. In April 1945, he and comrades in the 84th Infantry Division discovered a small concentration camp at Ahlem near Hanover, liberating the remaining 35 emaciated prisoners in an event he recalled six decades later as "the single-most horrifying experience I have ever had."

With help from another German émigré in the U.S. military, Fritz Kraemer, Pvt. Kissinger was assigned to military intelligence, put in charge of the denazification of the western German city of Krefeld. Later, as a sergeant, he led efforts to track down a sleeper cell of Gestapo officers in the Hanover region, earning a Bronze Star, and led denazification efforts in southern Hesse.

Harvard and academia

After the war, he turned to history and the nascent field of strategic studies, winning acceptance at Harvard in 1947 with financing enabled by the GI Bill. There, he found another mentor, historian William Yandell Elliott. Kissinger's senior thesis, "The meaning of history: reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant," was 388 pages, inspiring a 150-page limit for length of government studies papers — informally known as "The Kissinger Rule."

After graduating summa cum laude, he pursued his Ph.D. at Harvard, writing his dissertation on the aftermath of the French Revolution: "A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822." In 1951, he started Harvard's summer International Seminar and the following year, he began publishing the quarterly journal Confluence.

Presidential adviser Henry Kissinger at Harvard.
Alfred Eisenstaedt | The LIFE Picture Collection | Getty Images

He joined the faculty of the school of government in 1954, and gained wide attention for his 1957 book "Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy," in which he proposed that a policy based on the declared willingness to engage in limited nuclear war was a greater deterrent in a bipolar world than the Eisenhower administration's strategy of massive retaliation.

"Our current military policy is based on the doctrine of massive retaliation: that we threaten an all-out attack on the Soviet Union in case the Soviet Union engages in aggression anywhere. This means that, against almost any form of attack, we base our policy on the threat that will involve the destruction of all mankind; and this is too risky, and I think too expensive," the professor told Mike Wallace in a 1958 interview, speaking in his dry Germanic basso profundo voice.

"American strategy has to face the fact that it may be confronted with war, and that if Soviet aggression confronts us with war, and we are unwilling to resist, it will mean the end of our freedom. … It boils down, then, to a value choice. In these terms, yes, I think war must be made a usable instrument of policy."

In the Cold War battle over hearts and minds, Kissinger viewed American capitalism as a weapon against communism.

"A capitalist society, or, what is more interesting to me, a free society, is a more revolutionary phenomenon than 19th-century socialism," Kissinger told Wallace. "I think we should go on the spiritual offensive. We should identify ourselves with the revolution. We should say that freedom, if it is liberated, can achieve many of these things."

'Peace at hand'

Kissinger served in advisory roles in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and became a top advisor to billionaire moderate Republican Nelson Rockefeller before the 1968 presidential campaign.

Just ahead of the Republican National Convention that year, Kissinger said: "Richard Nixon is the most dangerous of all the men running to have as president." But after Nixon won the nomination over Rockefeller and Michigan Gov. George Romney and defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey in the election, he appointed Kissinger as national security advisor in 1969.

In an attempt to extricate itself from Vietnam during the first year of the Nixon administration, the U.S. conducted a secret bombing campaign against Cambodia to clear North Vietnamese and Viet Cong staging areas. In 1970, the United States conducted an "incursion" into Cambodia, provoking huge anti-war protests in the U.S.

Less than two weeks before the November 1972 U.S. presidential election, in which Nixon was challenged by Democratic Sen. George McGovern, Kissinger declared that "we believe that peace is at hand."

"It is inevitable that in a war of such complexity that there should be occasional difficulties in reaching a final solution," he added. "But we believe that by far the longest part of the road has been traversed and what stands in the way of an agreement now are issues that are relatively less important than those that have already been settled."

Nixon swept the election, with McGovern winning only in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu, however, objected to the draft of an agreement. To gain leverage in the Kissinger-led peace talks, Nixon sent in B-52s to carpet bomb North Vietnam days before Christmas 1972 and ordered the mining of North Vietnamese waterways, eventually including Haiphong harbor in 1973.

North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho (left) and US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger at the Paris peace talks, January 1973. They were jointly awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize later that year.
Reg Lancaster | Hulton Archive | Getty Images

Early in 1973, Kissinger and Tho agreed to the Paris Peace Accord, which enabled the U.S. to end its direct participation in the war. (The North Vietnamese diplomat refused to accept the Nobel prize for the agreement.) Fighting between the South, North and Viet Cong persisted, however, until Thieu resigned, nine days before the chaotic fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

Moving to Mao

One of the biggest triumphs of the Nixon-Kissinger policy was the ground-breaking opening to Mao Zedong's communist China. Washington had long supported the Chinese Nationalist government, which fled the mainland to Taiwan in 1949. Despite Mao's Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s, Nixon and Kissinger viewed Mao as ready for deal-making after China fought a border war with the Soviet Union in 1969.

Chairman Zedong of the People's Republic of China meets U. S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on Nov. 12, 1973.
Bettmann | Getty Images

A key country that aided the Washington-Beijing rapprochement was Pakistan, which fought Moscow-backed India in 1971 in a war in which East Pakistan seceded and became Bangladesh.

During the upheavals, Pakistani military strongman Gen. Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan was accused of killing at least 200,000 people starting in March 1971. Despite the genocide, Kissinger and Nixon tilted toward Pakistan, which along with Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu provided secret channels of communication with communist China. In fact, Kissinger in July 1971 made his first secret trip to Beijing, flying directly from Pakistan.

In February 1972, Nixon made his monumental trip to China, meeting with the ailing Mao and being wined and dined by Premier Zhou Enlai at the Great Hall of the People in what ushered in the normalization of relations between the two countries. In the Shanghai Communique, which Kissinger negotiated and ended the Nixon visit, the two sides agreed on a "One China" policy — that Taiwan and the mainland were part of China and not separate countries — and to open trade and other relations. Full U.S.-China diplomatic relations came seven years later.

Back in the USSR

The thaw with Beijing gave Kissinger leverage against the United States' main adversary, the Soviet Union. Three months after the Shanghai deal, Washington and Moscow signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement, the culmination of 2½ years of negotiations, and an Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty at a summit in Moscow between Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in May 1972.

President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev watch as US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko sign the SALT agreement May 26, 1972, in the Kremlin.
Dirck Halstead | Hulton Archive | Getty Images

Kissinger had hoped that because of the improved relations with Moscow and Beijing, the two communist powers could help extricate the U.S. from Vietnam.

So tenacious was Kissinger's focus on improving relations with Moscow that he strongly advised Nixon to disregard the persecution of Jews who sought to emigrate from the Soviet Union. At the time, Sen. Henry Jackson, D-Washington, and Rep. Charles Vanik, D-Ohio, worked to block the easing of trade with the Soviets unless they permitted Jews to leave. In a 1973 taped conversation with the president, released in 2010, Kissinger told Nixon: "The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy, and if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern."

Shuttle diplomacy — Kilometer 101

Despite the détente with Moscow, Brezhnev threatened to unilaterally send in Soviet troops to rescue the embattled Egyptian Third Army during a cease-fire violation in the 1973 war with Israel.

The confrontation came one month after Kissinger became secretary of State. It was also two weeks after Spiro Agnew pleaded no contest to tax evasion and resigned as Nixon's vice president and days after the "Saturday Night Massacre" in which top Justice Department officials resigned rather than fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. On Nixon's order, Cox was then fired by Solicitor General Robert Bork.

With Nixon preoccupied by those monumental problems, Kissinger, White House chief of staff Alexander Haig and other aides engineered the response to Moscow: raising the U.S. military alert to DefCon III — the highest state of readiness during peacetime. They also sent a conciliatory note and Moscow backed down.

But the U.S. also resupplied Israel's military, leading to the Saudi-led Arab oil embargo against the West and Japan.

Four days later, Egypt and Israel reached a temporary cease-fire, and in another week, Kissinger embarked on his shuttle diplomacy. Even before that diplomatic whirlwind, he visited at least 26 countries in his first 3½ months as secretary of State, from October to December 1973.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (R) talk during the Sinai II negotiations, which resulted in land being returned to Egypt in 1975 in Alexandria, Egypt.
David Hume Kennerly | Hulton Archive | Getty Images

During a trip to Cairo, Kissinger reached an agreement with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on Nov. 7, 1973, to restore diplomatic relations, which had been severed during Arab world's humiliating defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War. Four days after the U.S.-Egypt restoration of relations, Egyptian and Israeli military leaders signed a cease-fire accord at Kilometer 101 on the Cairo-Suez highway in the Sinai peninsula. That agreement laid the groundwork for Sadat's historic visit to Israel and eventual peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Further disengagement of forces agreements were reached in January 1974 between Egypt and Israel and in May 1974 between Syria and Israel.

Coup in Chile

In the Americas, Nixon and Kissinger were faced with the 1970 election of Marxist Salvador Allende Gossens as president of Chile. The election raised questions about an alliance between Santiago and Washington nemesis Fidel Castro's communist Cuba.

"I don't see why we have to stand by and watch a country go Communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people," Kissinger said at one point, according to Gewen's book.

View of pictures of late former US President Richard Nixon and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger displayed at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights during "Secrets of State: the Declassified History of the Chilean Dictatorship" exhibition in Santiago on October 24, 2017. The exhibition presents the history of the Chilean dictatorship through a series of declassified documents.
Martin Bernetti | AFP | Getty Images

In congressional testimony, Kissinger denied that the goal was to subvert Allende, saying the administration was concerned with a free election in 1976 in Chile. But declassified White House documents showed that Kissinger pressed for destabilizing Allende's government.

In a secret memo on Nov. 5, 1970, Kissinger warned that $1 billion in U.S. investments in Chile could be lost.

"The election of Allende as President of Chile poses for us one of the most serious challenges ever faced in this hemisphere," Kissinger wrote, underlining that sentence.

"What happens in Chile over the next six to twelve months will have ramifications that will go far beyond just US-Chilean relations," he added in the memo. "They will have an effect on what happens in the rest of Latin America and the developing world; on what our future position will be in the hemisphere; and on the larger world picture, including our relations with the USSR. They will even affect our own conception of what our role in the world is."

The memo continued: "Our failure to react to this situation risks being perceived in Latin America and in Europe as indifference or impotence in the face of clearly adverse developments in a region long considered our sphere of influence."

After Chile fully nationalized its copper industry in 1971, the U.S. cut off credits. Two years later, on Sept. 11, 1973, the military overthrew Allende days after the CIA was given advanced word about the coup plan. The plotters, led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, announced that Allende died by suicide. Pinochet remained in power until 1990.

'The ultimate aphrodisiac'

Kissinger married fellow German-Jewish émigré Ann Fleischer in 1949. The couple had two children, Elizabeth and David, before divorcing in 1964. The same year, he began dating Nancy Maginnes, a former Harvard student who was hired by Rockefeller at Kissinger's recommendation. Before they were married in 1974, Kissinger had the reputation as a swinging single. He was known as "the sex symbol of the Nixon administration" and "the playboy of the Western Wing," whose dates reportedly included the actresses Jill St. John, Candice Bergen, Shirley MacLaine and Liv Ullman and former Nixon aide-turned-newswoman Diane Sawyer.

​"Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," Kissinger boasted, paraphrasing Napoleon.

On a helicopter during the period of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, Henry Kissinger talks to his wife, Nancy.
David Rubinger | Corbis Historical | Getty Images

On the day he married Maginnes on March 30, 1974, he gave a midday news conference to talk about his discussions the previous day with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. At the ceremony performed at the judge's law office in northern Virginia, the nearly 6-foot-tall Maginnes towered over the 5-foot--9 Kissinger, who was 11 years her senior.

But it was Nixon and Kissinger who were the odd couple of Washington. The former traced his roots to an early English settler, grew up in a Southern California Quaker town and often spouted crude antisemitic slurs. Many of them were directed at Kissinger, whom he occasionally called his "Jew boy," according to a review of White House recordings by Robert Dallek, author of the 2007 book "Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power." Kissinger had his own insults for Nixon, referring to him privately as "that madman," "our drunken friend" and "the meatball mind," according to Dallek.

Nevertheless, as the two rivaled each other for power and attention, they also benefited in a symbiotic relationship that enabled each other to carry out policy. Two nights before Nixon's resignation on Aug. 9, 1974, the two tearfully embraced, kneeling and praying together in the Lincoln Sitting Room, according to "The Final Days" by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Two years earlier, with Nixon looking on, Paula Kissinger proudly held the Bible for her son as he was sworn in as secretary of State. On one subsequent trip back to Germany, when Kissinger was being honored by the government of his native country, she told a reporter: "They say, 'My son the doctor.' What should I say? My son the Aussenminister?'"'

Henry Kissinger speaks during a 2007 interview in Washington.
Brooks Kraft | Corbis Historical | Getty Images

Jenni Reid and Michele Luhn contributed to this report.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect the correct spelling for Elizabeth Holmes