Henry Kissinger, refugee from the Nazis who swept to power serving Nixon as US Secretary of State – obituary

Unlike Nixon he was gregarious, had abundant charm, and could mesmerise journalists even while taking the greatest care to hoodwink them

Kissinger: many relations died in the Holocaust, but his mother foresaw the Nazi menace
Kissinger: in an effort to bring about the end of the Vietnam War, he and Nixon did niot hesitate to resort to force Credit: Andrew Crowley

Henry Kissinger, who has died aged 100, enjoyed eight years, from 1969 until 1977, on the commanding heights of American foreign policy, and in that time achieved a réclame which a president of the United States might – and did – envy; yet, with the possible exception of Donald Trump (and for very different reasons), he remained the most polarising figure in US politics.

Never has an academic been so conclusively swept up into power and celebrity. Kissinger owed his elevation to the strange and fractious alliance he formed with President Richard Nixon, who appointed him Assistant for National Security in 1969. 

Nixon’s aim was to divert control of foreign policy from the State Department to the White House; and for that purpose he could not have chosen a better helpmeet.

‘Bill thinks Henry is power crazy’

Indeed, later in life Kissinger would express compunction for the dismissive manner in which he had treated Bill Rogers, the Secretary of State. Certainly, from 1969 to 1973 he lost no opportunity to deride Rogers. “Henry thinks that Bill isn’t very deep,” Nixon observed, “and Bill thinks that Henry is power crazy. And they’re both right.”

By 1973 Kissinger had established such a reputation that Nixon, deeply mired in the Watergate affair, was reluctantly obliged – in flat contradiction to his original plan – to appoint him Secretary of State. 

Kissinger would hold this post to the end of President Gerald Ford’s term of office in January 1977.

His extraordinary intellectual energy, grasp and resource made him indispensable. He possessed a remarkable ability to keep in mind the wider picture even while concentrating fierce attention on a particular part of the canvas – to see, for example, how the situation in Vietnam might be improved by negotiations with the Soviet Union or China.

Kissinger with President Nixon on board Air Force One in 1973 Credit: Bettmann/Corbis

Such skills were urgently required in 1969, when the international situation faced by the United States could hardly have been less promising. 

Half a million American troops were bogged down in Vietnam; relations with the Soviet Union were in the deep freeze after the invasion of Czechoslovakia; the Arab-Israeli conflict was smouldering after the Six-Day War of 1967; and China, embittered and isolated, appeared permanently estranged by Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

The primary task was to end the Vietnam War. Both Nixon and Kissinger accepted that the conflict could not be won militarily; the best they could hope for was to negotiate a settlement which left at least the temporary impression that the United States had not fought in vain.

But when Kissinger began to engage in secret negotiations in Paris in August 1969, the North Vietnamese would not offer the least fig-leaf with which to cover American defeat. 

‘We should have bombed the hell out of them’

His diplomatic clout, moreover, was undermined by Nixon’s determination to remove American troops from Vietnam; this process, begun in July 1969, continued at such a pace that by the summer of 1972 only 27,000 GIs were left.

The plan was to build up the forces of South Vietnam so that Saigon could defend itself without American help. But both Nixon and Kissinger realised that this policy, however necessary for home consumption, would never of itself bring the North Vietnamese to negotiate.

They therefore did not hesitate to resort to force, as with the secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969-70, and with the invasion of that country in 1970. 

Later, Kissinger would regret the inadequacy of these measures: “We should have bombed the hell out of them the moment we took office,” he thought.

Kissinger with the Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1974 Credit: Leonard Burt/Central Press/Getty Images

Instead he sought diplomatic leverage, which he achieved through his rapprochement with Moscow and Peking. As the North Vietnamese felt more isolated, so they became more willing to talk.

All the same, the settlement which Kissinger negotiated in October 1972 left much to be desired. There was no provision for North Vietnamese withdrawal from the South; really, the only concession made by Hanoi was that the government of President Thieu of South Vietnam might rest precariously in place.

President Thieu himself, whom Kissinger had excluded from the negotiations, was outraged when the terms were explained to him. “I wanted to hit Kissinger in the mouth,” he later admitted. 

Yet if the American sacrifice in the war was to appear justified, Thieu had to subscribe to the settlement. When he remained recalcitrant, Kissinger was outraged. “This is the greatest failure of my diplomatic career,” he told Thieu. “Why?” came the scornful reply. “Are you rushing to get the Nobel Peace Prize?”

Getting out of Vietnam

To convince South Vietnam that the Americans were still attached to their cause, Nixon ordered an intensified bombing of Hanoi in December 1972. For this he was pilloried, while Kissinger basked in the popularity of the peacemaker. 

In the event, the terms agreed early in 1973 hardly differed from those reached in 1972 – or indeed (as some thought) from those which had been available in 1969. 

In April 1975 the North Vietnamese swept into Saigon, and rapidly exposed the fiction that South Vietnam had been saved.

With the luxury of hindsight, it is possible to argue that Nixon and Kissinger might just as well have admitted defeat in 1969. Between then and 1973, 20,000 Americans – not to mention hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese – were killed. Moreover, the American attacks on Cambodia had destroyed much of that country, and paved the way for the murderous advance of the Khmer Rouge.

A meeting in the Oval Office: John Erlichman, far left, with Kissinger, HR Haldeman and President Nixon

But Kissinger could never have been party to a tame surrender. He and Nixon shared a hard-nosed view of international relations in which the importance of maintaining American “credibility” – that is, of not losing face – counted for far more than idealism or ideology.

They were certainly right in believing that there was no painless way to disengage from Vietnam, even if they might have been more ready to balance the loss in America’s moral standing inherent in the prolongation of the war against the damage inflicted by military defeat. There was, however, no cheap credit to be earned in Vietnam.

By contrast, in their dealings with the Soviet Union, Nixon and Kissinger were able to combine their determination to contain Russian expansion with a pragmatic willingness to embrace opportunities for détente. The policy brought important trade and arms control agreements.

A passion for Chinese food

But Nixon’s and Kissinger’s most dramatic initiative was their effort to transform the global balance of power with their initiative towards China. Both men had separately suggested such a policy before coming to power.

In practice, it was Nixon who insisted on opening negotiations with China, and Kissinger who, carefully avoiding State Department channels of communication, made a secret flight from Pakistan to Beijing in July 1971 and set up the President’s visit for the following February.

Kissinger’s enthusiasm for these talks was compounded by his love of Chinese food; during his 49 hours in China on that first trip he put on five pounds in weight.

Kissinger in 1987 with his second wife, Nancy, who had been a researcher for Nelson Rockefeller Credit: Harry Benson/Camera Press

The triumph in China suddenly conferred superstar status on Kissinger, which was not at all to Nixon’s liking. Previously the President had not allowed Kissinger to be seen on television, and had even discouraged his voice from being heard, ostensibly on the ground that the thick Germanic accent might disturb “the good citizens of Peoria”.

In Beijing, Nixon further demonstrated his concern that Kissinger might be stealing his thunder by refusing to allow his special envoy out of the aeroplane before he himself had shaken hands with Zhou Enlai. 

As he became deeply embroiled in the Watergate affair, he became darkly jealous of the plaudits which Kissinger enjoyed. But the more the press treated the President as a pariah, the more eager they were to give Kissinger credit for any success in foreign policy.

Power the great aphrodisiac

On his side, Kissinger did not improve the President’s mood by so obviously revelling in the limelight. Having discovered that power is the great aphrodisiac, he was constantly seen in the company of Hollywood starlets – even if he was keener on holding hands in public than in private. 

Nixon could laugh at “Henry’s girls”; he was less impressed by Kissinger’s eagerness to fraternise with “the Georgetown set” which he so detested.

Kissinger’s ego and paranoia matched the President’s. When crossed he would give way to wild rages, taking out his frustrations on subordinates. By contrast, he would grossly flatter the President to his face while losing no opportunity to belittle him behind his back.

Kissinger in 1973 with the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, before talks on the Middle East Credit: AP

Kissinger’s saving grace, though, was his ability to regard his own serpentine behaviour with humour, almost as though he was acting out a part in a play. “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea just because I was on my knees when I answered the phone,” he told a reporter who had heard him on the line to Nixon. 

Even his vast self-regard was subject to his wit – as when he arrived in Rome to hear that the Pope was to beatify two people that day. “Who’s the other one?” Kissinger demanded.

Unlike Nixon he was genuinely gregarious; he had abundant charm; he could seduce even his fiercest critics; he was capable of mesmerising journalists even while taking the greatest care to hoodwink them.

Feeding Nixon’s paranoia

For he was at one with Nixon in believing that it was impossible to run an effective foreign policy under the full glare of democracy. Indeed, Kissinger’s incandescence at leaks – of the secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969, of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 – fed Nixon’s own penchant for secrecy, and helped to set the President on the course of wiretapping and spying that led to his downfall.

On the other hand, Kissinger sometimes saved Nixon from the consequences of his bile. He understood which of the President’s orders should be taken seriously, and which dismissed as part of the macho image which Nixon liked to project. “Bomb the airport at Damascus,” Nixon rapped out in August 1969. 

Next day, however, he was relieved to discover that Kissinger had not acted on this imperative.

During his first term Nixon kept Kissinger out of Middle Eastern affairs, believing that his special adviser would be compromised by his Jewishness. But by the time of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 he was under such pressure domestically that Kissinger took virtual charge of all foreign policy.

Kissinger in 1975 during a working breakfast at Claridge's with the new leader of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher Credit: Central Press

Determined to prevent Soviet Union gaining influence in the Middle East, he reacted to a Soviet plan for a joint Soviet-American military presence to enforce the ceasefire by deciding that American forces should be put on nuclear alert. Despite this move, however, he was able to secure a truce in the Middle East without doing irreparable damage to the policy of détente with the Soviet Union.

Indeed, when the Soviet ambassador to the UN threatened to be difficult, Kissinger was dismissive: “Ask him if he’s ever been kissed on the mouth by Brezhnev. I have.”

In November 1973 the success of Kissinger’s meeting with Anwar Sadat, the President of Egypt made it possible for him to initiate a new phase in the Middle East, with the US actively leading the search for peace. 

‘Shuttle diplomacy’ and Nobel Peace Prize

Appreciating the impossibility of a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, he embarked on a process of “shuttle diplomacy”, whereby he flew from country to country in the Middle East in pursuit of a “step-by-step” approach to negotiation.

His talent for “constructive ambiguity” helped him to convince everyone that he was on their side – in Syria he would sarcastically refer to Golda Meir as “Miss Israel”, while in Israel he would make crude jokes about President Assad – and in May 1974 he was able to secure an agreement in the Golan Heights.

“The Miracle Worker Does It Again”, proclaimed the heading in Time. The year before, in 1973, he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in ending the Vietnam War. 

Tom Lehrer might declare that “satire died” when Kissinger won the Nobel peace prize, but polls pronounced him to be the most admired person in America. Kissinger had travelled a long way since 1938, when he had arrived in the United States as a refugee from Europe.

Kissinger with Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg in 1994 Credit:  John Parkin/AP

Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born on May 27 1923 at Fürth, near Nuremberg in Bavaria, the elder son of a schoolteacher, Louis. It was his mother, Paula, née Stern, who saw the Nazi menace most clearly and made the family emigrate to the United States. Thirteen relations who remained behind perished in the Holocaust.

At 15, Heinz (soon Americanised as Henry) was thrown into George Washington High School in New York. In his free time he found part-time work in a brush factory, devoured any book he laid hands on, and thought about a career in accountancy. 

But the Second World War intervened, and at 19 he was drafted into the Army. Only when he arrived at training camp in South Carolina did he become a citizen of the United States.

He ‘knows nothing but understands everything’

When his exceptional intelligence became evident he was taken out of basic training and sent to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Then, after a thwarted attempt to become a doctor, he joined 84th Infantry Division for the invasion of Europe. 

By the time he crossed the German-Belgian border under heavy fire in November 1944 he thought of himself as an American liberator rather than as a returning German.

After 84th Division took Krefeld, on the Rhine, Kissinger’s German earned him a position as the town’s administrator. Soon afterwards he was drafted into the Counter-intelligence Corps, with the rank of Sergeant. He remained with the forces occupying Germany until July 1947.

In 1944 Kissinger had attended a lecture on “Why We Are Fighting” given by Fritz Kraemer, a Prussian aristocrat who was also a political refugee in America. Impressed, Kissinger wrote a short fan letter, and was taken up by Kraemer. “This little Jewish refugee,” Kraemer told his superiors, “as yet knows nothing but understands everything.”

Kissinger in New York in 2007 after a meeting with a North Korean envoy Credit: Chip East/Reuters

Guided by Kraemer, Kissinger began to set his ambitions higher, and on his return to America gained admission to Harvard to study history and political philosophy. In 1950 he received his BA summa cum laude for his thesis on “The Meaning of History”, with copious reference to Kant, Spengler and Toynbee. 

For his doctorate, which he gained in 1954, he wrote a dissertation which became a book three years later, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822.

What appealed to Kissinger was not so much – as his liberal critics liked to believe – the reactionary politics of the leading figures at the Congress of Vienna of 1814, as their belief that stable international relations become impossible under the challenge of revolutionary ideology.

The feuds are so vicious because the stakes are so petty

The parallel between the danger posed by revolutionary France and that of Soviet Russia was clear, if unstated. As Kissinger’s academic career developed at Harvard in the 1950s, so did his attachment to an essentially pragmatic and conservative international foreign policy. 

His first important book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957), was a pioneering work in the field.

Though Kissinger was a popular lecturer, his career at Harvard was tempestuous, for his views ran counter to the prevailing intellectual fashion and gained him rivals – such as the young Zbigniew Brzezinski – as well as powerful patrons. He liked to quote an aphorism about academic life: “The feuds are so vicious because the stakes are so petty.”

In 1955 he met Nelson Rockefeller, the Governor of New York, and the next year became director of his Special Studies Project. 

Though Kissinger’s evident fascination with power made him unpopular with some academic colleagues, he helped run the Centre of International Affairs at Harvard, and in 1959 was given a “half-chair”. Three years later he was elevated to the rank of full professor.

Kissinger at No 10 Downing Street with the then Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, and the US Ambassador, Anne Armstrong Credit: Evening Standard

A registered Democrat in 1960, Kissinger flirted unproductively with the Kennedy administration, but then in 1964 and 1968 he acted as foreign policy adviser to Rockefeller as he attempted to gain the Republican nomination for the Presidency.

When Rockefeller dropped out of the race in 1968, Nixon expressed an interest in employing his adviser, an overture which Kissinger, who had always expressed a low opinion of Nixon, refused. At that time his advice was being sought by the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, who might well have appointed him National Security Adviser if he had gained the presidency.

There is, however, some evidence that, as the election approached, Kissinger provided Nixon with inside information on the progress of the Vietnam peace talks in Paris. “One factor that had most convinced me of Kissinger’s credibility,” Nixon later wrote, “was the length he went to protect his secrecy.”

The endless road

For all the reservations which Nixon came to have about Kissinger, he also saw him as the guarantor of his legacy in foreign affairs, and on his resignation in 1974 strongly recommended to his successor, Gerald Ford, that the Secretary of State should be retained in office.

Ford readily acceded. The fact that he had no pretensions to be Kissinger’s intellectual equal, and was more than content to leave him to his own devices and allow him credit, meant that his relations with the Secretary of State were more harmonious than Nixon’s had been.

The process of détente with the Soviet Union continued with the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which seemed to recognise the USSR’s domination of Eastern Europe by confirming the boundaries which had been established after the war. The Soviet Union, for its part, pledged to uphold human rights and the free movement of people and ideas across frontiers.

In the US, however, an unlikely coalition of anti-Communist conservatives and anti-Republican liberals – “a rare combination,” Kissinger called it, “like an eclipse of the sun” – was increasingly opposing détente. There were complaints that Kissinger’s realpolitik undermined the moral basis of American foreign policy.

It was said that his pragmatic approach sprang from a pessimism about human destiny which was profoundly un-American. “Our generation is the first to find that the road is endless,” Kissinger had observed in 1972, “that in travelling it we will not find Utopia, but only ourselves.”

Kissinger at the funeral of the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 2015 Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Kissinger encountered further opposition in 1975, when he insisted on supporting the anti-Communist faction in Angola. Not only did Congress refuse funds, so that these efforts failed, but members also questioned the sanity of a Secretary of State who saw a Soviet threat to the security of the United States in what seemed to them only an ancient tribal dispute over distant coffee fields.

Having lost credibility in Angola, Kissinger embarked on a new policy for Africa, in which the US appeared as the champion of emerging black nations and the foe of Ian Smith’s white minority regime in Rhodesia. Kissinger even began, contrary to his former approach, to speak of “the imperatives of our moral heritage”.

With the help of South Africa he was able to convince Ian Smith to commit himself to the introduction of majority rule. Yet the end result of this ethical policy, in 1980, was the election of Robert Mugabe as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe.

Jimmy Carter’s defeat of Gerald Ford in the presidential election of 1976 ended Kissinger’s eight years in office. 

His world, however, remained that of private jets, smart parties and ostentatious glamour. He spent $150,000 a year on private bodyguards. “I’m a world figure,” he told the Dean of Harvard, “I can’t just lead a normal professor’s life.”

Making a huge income

With his second wife Nancy, who provided the secure social background which he needed, he bought a flat in Manhattan and a farmhouse in Connecticut.

All this required a huge income, which Kissinger proved adept at generating. He produced three huge tomes of memoirs: White House Years (1979), Years of Upheaval (1982) and Years of Renewal (1999). He regularly appeared on television and wrote newspaper columns.

In 1982 he set up Kissinger Associates, a consultancy firm through which he gave advice and introductions to companies. By the 1990s it was bringing him more than $10 million a year. He became involved in a scheme to encourage American investment in China, and after the massacre of Tiananmen Square counselled against imposing sanctions on China. 

One cynic denied that these two facts could be related: “Dr Kissinger has always defended oppressive dictatorships whether or not he had a financial stake in them,” remarked ex-congressman Stephen Solarz.

Kissinger still dreamt of a return to power. In 1980 Gerald Ford made Kissinger’s appointment as Secretary of State the condition of his agreeing to serve as Ronald Reagan’s vice president. 

Reagan, who distrusted the subtleties of Kissinger’s mind, refused the bargain, and throughout his presidency remained indifferent to Kissinger’s efforts to ingratiate himself to the new conservatives. The only post Kissinger received was the chairmanship of the bipartisan committee on Central America in 1983.

Kissinger’s humour remained intact. “My physician says I need a triple bypass,” he told the press before a heart operation in 1982, “but I’m holding out for a quadruple – I want one more than Al Haig.” At least his predicament proved, he added, “that I do have a heart.”

He remained an influential voice in politics into the 21st (and into his second) century. In 2002 he served briefly as chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, established by President George W Bush, only to step down rather than reveal his business client list. 

In 2006 it was revealed that he had had regular meetings with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on the Iraq War, which he supported. In an interview in 2008, however, he criticised the administration for resting its case for war on Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, for invading with too few troops and for disbanding the Iraqi Army.

A hope for Trump 

As for President Donald Trump, with whom he “discussed world affairs” on two occasions at the White House, Kissinger joked in an interview in 2017 that he was hoping that the president would have “an Augustinian moment”.

He continued to press for détente with China. In 2011 he published On China, a history of Sino-American relations, in which he discussed the challenges to a partnership of “genuine strategic trust”. 

In 2020, during a period of worsening Sino-American relations, he warned that a potential war between China and the US would be “worse than the world wars that ruined European civilization” and called for Chinese President Xi Jinping and incoming US President-elect Joe Biden to take a less confrontational approach.

In May 2022, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kissinger urged a diplomatic solution that would restore the status quo ante bellum, effectively ceding Crimea and parts of Donbas to Russian control – a suggestion rejected by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The flow of books continued with World Order (2014), a panoramic history of international relations; The Age of AI: And Our Human Future (2021, with Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher), and Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, published in 2022 when Kissinger was 99. This was a treatise on political leadership based on a study of six exemplary individuals from the 20th century, the list including Richard Nixon and Margaret Thatcher.

In 2015 a survey of leading international relations scholars rated Kissinger as the most effective US secretary of state in the previous 50 years.

Away from politics, Kissinger was a devoted follower of football, and was credited with helping the development of the sport in the US, being named a chairman of the North American Soccer League in 1978. He remained a fan of his hometown team, SpVgg Greuther Fürth, and had a lifetime season ticket for the club.

Henry Kissinger married first, in 1949 Anne Fleischer; they had a son and a daughter but divorced in 1964. Ten years later he married Nancy Maggines, a former researcher for Nelson Rockefeller. She survives him, along with his two children. 

Henry Kissinger, born May 27 1923, died November 29 2023