Five ways Henry Kissinger shaped the modern world

From Asia to the Middle East, Mr Kissinger was a titanic figure in US foreign policy

Kissinger with Chairman Mao in 1973
Mr Kissinger with Chairman Mao in 1973 Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Henry Kissinger’s controversial legacy in American foreign policy spans the globe and continues to shape politics in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South America.

To his supporters, the 1970s Secretary of State was a master diplomat and negotiator, securing the success of regimes favourable to the US in an attempt to maintain world order and reduce the power of the USSR.

To his detractors, he was a war criminal, who organised or facilitated the death of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians – often under the cover of secrecy.

Much of his legacy has only become clear in recent decades, with the release of unclassified documents, new accounts from East Asia and interviews with officials involved in operations he masterminded. 

He remains the most significant diplomat in modern American history.


Mr Kissinger is widely credited with pushing the policy of detente that shaped the United States’ approach to relations with the USSR in the 1970s.

Through negotiations with the Soviet Union, he and Richard Nixon, then president, established the SALT arms control treaty that aimed to reduce the total number of nuclear weapons on earth.

A realist, Mr Kissinger believed international relations are driven by competition between great superpowers.

Mr Kissinger with Putin in 2001 Credit: AFP

In his early years as a Harvard academic, he published a book that established the case for “little”, or tactical, nuclear weapons that would allow atomic powers to deploy their warheads without triggering a world-ending conflict.

The policy of de-escalation with the Soviet Union, although somewhat reversed under the later Republican administration of Ronald Reagan, began a gradual reduction in the number of nuclear weapons held by both powers.

In 1989, Mr Kissinger helped establish a secret communication line between George HW Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. He later said he was surprised at the full destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991, believing only “the satellite empire” would collapse.

In later life, Mr Kissinger changed his stance on Ukraine’s membership of Nato, first arguing that allowing Kyiv to join the group would further enrage Russia, then calling for its admission in May 2023.


Mr Kissinger, who visited China just four months before he died, is remembered there largely for his role in establishing diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington in the 1970s.

In 1971, as Mr Nixon’s national security adviser, Mr Kissinger travelled to China to begin the normalisation of relations, meeting both Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai after a visit to Pakistan.

Mr Kissinger shakes hands with Mao Tse-Tung Credit: Reuters

The secret summit, described by the National Committee on US-China relations as “The Trip that Changed the World”, laid the groundwork for Mr Nixon himself to travel there the following year – the first time a US president had done so.

Diplomatic relations with China were fully established by 1979, and the US used its friendship to increase leverage over the Soviet Union, amid a gradual breakdown in relations between Beijing and Moscow.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mr Kissinger in 2015 Credit: Reuters

In later life, Mr Kissinger was an advocate of continued Sino-American relations and alarmed by the prospect of greater military and economic competition between the two countries.

On news of his death on Wednesday, Chinese state media described the diplomat as an “old friend of the Chinese people”.

South East Asia

Mr Kissinger’s most controversial legacy relates to his policy in South East Asia, including the continuation and expansion of the Vietnam War, the US’s decision to conduct a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia in 1969 and 1970, and the government’s support for the Indonesian invasion of Timor-Leste in 1975.

Mr Kissinger has been widely accused of war crimes and blamed for the deaths of troops on both sides of the Vietnam War between 1969 and its conclusion in 1975.

There, Mr Kissinger was responsible for a policy of “Vietnamisation”, in which South Vietnamese troops were asked to shoulder the burden of conflict with the North as American troops withdrew. The strategy ultimately resulted in a drawn-out end to the conflict, reduced public support in the US and the fall of Saigon in 1973.

Two years earlier, he was jointly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating a ceasefire. After the truce collapsed, Mr Kissinger offered to return his medal.

Mr Kissinger shakes hands with Le Duc Tho after the signing of a ceasefire agreement for the Vietnam War Credit: AFP

In later life, the diplomat would defend his decision to run a bombing campaign against Cambodia, designed to target Vietnamese Communist hideouts there.

The campaign resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and laid the groundwork for the success of the totalitarian Khmer Rouge regime, which was in turn responsible for a genocide against civilians.

In Timor-Leste, then East Timor, Mr Kissinger supported an Indonesian invasion effort that overthrew the Fretilin regime and resulted in a 24-year occupation and the deaths of up to 180,000 people.

Although he initially denied explicitly supporting the invasion, documents later revealed Mr Kissinger and Gerald Ford had discussed it with Suharto, the Indonesian president, the day before it took place.

Middle East

The invention of “shuttle diplomacy,” in which Mr Kissinger would travel backwards and forwards between warring states in the Middle East in the 1970s, has become one of his most enduring legacies.

Following the Yom Kippur War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states in 1973, Mr Kissinger met leaders personally to establish a peace process that resulted in various ceasefires in 1974 and 1975 between Israel, Egypt and Syria.

Originally a German-Jewish refugee, Mr Kissinger was supportive of the state of Israel itself and the territorial gains it made during the Six-Day War in 1967, but was keen to reduce the influence of the Soviet Union in the region.

His policy on the Middle East reflected his wider view of the world as an arena of great superpower competition, in which the US’s relationship with Russia and China was more important than smaller conflicts between medium-sized states.

Israeli prime minister Golda Meir (left) with Richard Nixon and Mr Kissinger in 1973 Credit: PhotoQuest

The Secretary’s statements to different leaders often conflicted, in an attempt to force compromise. On May 6, 1974, he told Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister, that “the Israelis should not be asked to give up Golan… that will not be a contentious issue between Israel and the United States”.

Three days later, he told the Saudi King Faisal: “The United States supports no claim by Israel to the Golan Heights.”

South America

Mr Kissinger’s legacy in South America was partially obscured until the 20th century when newly declassified CIA documents revealed the extent of American involvement in “Operation Condor”, a continent-wide mission to destabilise and eliminate Communist groups and Left-wing governments.

In 1970, Mr Nixon and his Secretary of State planned to undermine the election of Salvador Allende of Chile, through clandestine operations that triggered a military coup and the establishment of Augusto Pinochet as leader in 1973.

Declassified papers in 2013 revealed Mr Kissinger told Mr Pinochet in 1976: “We want to help, not undermine you. You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.”

Mr Kissinger and Richard Nixon in the White House in 1973 Credit: AP

Elsewhere, Condor saw collaboration between intelligence and security services in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia, with the intention of removing socialists from power and torturing and killing Left-wing civilians.

In Argentina, Mr Kissinger is believed to have sanctioned the “Dirty War”, which led to the death of up to 30,000 people.

Following a coup in March 1976, he told the new Argentine military regime’s foreign minister in October: “The quicker you succeed the better. The human rights problem is a growing one...we want a stable situation.” 

The following period of state terrorism saw the government hunt down Left-wing dissidents, journalists and trade unionists.