Exeter, Devon UK • Feb 24, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Features The Controversial Life and Death of Henry Kissinger

The Controversial Life and Death of Henry Kissinger

In the wake of his death, Emily Elliot considers the divisive legacy of Henry Kissinger.
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Image: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy via Flickr

Henry (Heinz-Alfred) Kissinger, born in 1923, passed away on the 29th November 2023, aged 100, in his home in Kent, Connecticut. Kissinger served as a diplomat, politician, Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under the Nixon and Ford administrations. His life was one defined by controversy. Many have branded him with the heavy title of a ‘war criminal’, yet he remains one of just 111 people to have won a Nobel Peace Prize. As a result, to reflect on Kissinger’s life is to observe a vastly influential political career imbued with contradictions. 

Many have branded him with the heavy title of a ‘war criminal’, yet he remains one of just 111 people to have won a Nobel Peace Prize. As a result, to reflect on Kissinger’s life is to observe a vastly influential political career imbued with contradictions.

The trauma of Kissinger’s evacuation of Nazi Germany at just 15 likely shaped his defensive loyalty to his adopted home, the USA, where he migrated in 1938 to escape rising anti-Semitism. During World War II, Kissinger served as a German interpreter for the US Army. After this, he received his education at Harvard University, studying political science at undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D, where he then became a professor of government. His time spent teaching at Harvard was the start of his influential career, as it was during this time that he began serving as an advisor to the State Department. Whilst at Harvard, he also established his stance on nuclear weapons, which he quickly became known for, stating they ‘could be used in conventional wars’ – a highly ironic statement given the peace prize he would later receive. 

Kissinger’s ascension to the U.S Government was one that involved many roles, stemming from his reputation as a political science expert. He began as an advisor to aspiring politicians such as Nelson Rockefeller. By 1968, Kissinger had risen through the ranks, and had been appointed as assistant for national security affairs by President Nixon, later becoming National Security Advisor and Secretary of State to both Nixon and Ford.

The political interventions Kissinger played a part in over his lifetime display his realist ideologies towards foreign policy, views he had developed from his decades of studying political science at Harvard. A realist point of view is competitive and favours the state as having the most power when compared to organisations or individuals. A realist sees that the state as responsible for making decisions to strengthen their powers as well as relying solely on themselves due to international ‘anarchy’ (the understanding that other states will undoubtedly behave in ways to pursue self-interest, and the idea that no-one oversees the world). 

During his time under Nixon’s presidency, Kissinger’s political interventions began in places such as China, the Soviet Union and Vietnam, where his unwavering ability to both tear-apart and bring together has been immortalised in foreign relationships today. His decisions and impact on foreign policy during Nixon’s presidency is one that has been summed up brilliantly by President Xi Jinping (President of the People’s Republic of China) in his card to Kissinger on his one hundredth birthday, affectionately naming him a ‘trailblazer and icebreaker’.  

It was Kissinger who was almost solely responsible for America’s re-engagement with communist China, the Wall Street Journal naming him the ‘ultimate door-opener’. Kissinger’s secret visits to Beijing introduced the concept of shuttle-diplomacy and were in line with Nixon’s presidential aims to improve relationships. They helped to orchestrate Nixon’s eventual visits during the Cold War. This relationship, established after twenty years, had the aim to reduce the Chinese nuclear threat, and put a stop to the war in Vietnam. As well as this, it meant they could bond with China during the Sino-Soviet split which saw relationships deteriorate with the USSR. Furthermore, Kissinger contributed to the US policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’, in which the state-maintained vagueness on whether it would come to Taiwan’s rescue in the face of an attack, signing their loyalty to the idea that there is ‘but one China’, which Taiwan is part of and not independent. 

However, many look upon Kissinger’s legacy with anger. Most prominently, this is for his role in prolonging and exacerbating the Vietnam War, which America involved itself in to stop the spread of communism. It led to the deaths of between 200,000 and 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and 58,000 Americans. In an interview he stated that he couldn’t believe that “a little fourth rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.”

He played a major role in deeply controversial events during this war, such as the carpet bombing of Cambodia. US officials believed there were communist insurgents from South Vietnam and North Vietnamese soldiers hiding in this neighbouring country. These bombings came despite the president seeking ‘Vietnamisation’ which would involve withdrawing American troops and allowing the South Vietnamese to take over the war. The decision to drop those bombs on Cambodia undoubtedly made the conflict more extreme. In a Pentagon report, Kissinger was acknowledged to have approved over 3000 of these bombing raids in the years of 1969 and 1970, which resulted in between 50,000 and 150,000 civilian deaths.

In a Pentagon report, Kissinger was acknowledged to have approved over 3000 of these bombing raids in the years of 1969 and 1970, which resulted in between 50,000 and 150,000 civilian deaths.

Repulsively, the bombing campaign was known as ‘Operation Menu’, in which the deaths of civilians were reduced to stages such as ‘Breakfast’ and ‘Snack’, demonstrating a complete lack of care, and an approach to war so jovial it is almost satiric.

Another impact of Kissinger was that the bombing also led to Khmer Rouge’s takeover, leading to even more loss of life. Also demonstrative of his lack of moral compass is his drive to censor this humanitarian injustice, having ‘methods’ for ‘keeping them out of the newspapers’, as well as not telling Congress.

His Nobel Peace Prize came after his skilled negotiation in the Paris Peace Accords with the North Vietnamese representative, which led to a ceasefire. But, it is arguable that this final step for instating peace does not discount the bloody decisions he influenced that led to such a detrimental loss of life. Many argue this is another example of appearance versus reality with Kissinger, a man who repeatedly has come out on top and been praised for actions despite his prominent role in prolonging and exacerbating such conflicts such as the Vietnam war.

Brigham Young, an American politician, even stated that “Kissinger and Nixon wasted four years of negotiations with the Vietnamese communists, agreeing to virtually the same peace terms in 1973 that were on the table in 1969”. As a result, his role in the delayed decision to end the war could be seen as a product of his desire for the American’s to be seen as strong and not as a withdrawal, rather than yearning for peace. His decision to accept this Peace Prize should also be condemned, with his Vietnamese counterpart Luc De Tho declining it until he feels real peace is restored. 

“Kissinger and Nixon wasted four years of negotiations with the Vietnamese communists, agreeing to virtually the same peace terms in 1973 that were on the table in 1969”

Brigham Young

The reaction to the death of this huge political influence is expectedly mixed. Presidents and politicians working alongside Kissinger mourn the loss of a ‘dependable and distinctive voice’, (George Bush) who will be ‘remembered and missed by the Chinese people’ (Xi Jinping). Putin has stated he was a ‘wise’ man, who has shaped ‘Soviet-American agreements that contributed to the strengthening of global security’. Many, however, have taken the news as an opportunity to reinforce the label of ‘war criminal’, due to the atrocities mentioned in Cambodia as well as other horrors such as his role in the 1973 Chilean Coup. This has resulted in many on social media feeling little sympathy, and in many cases outwardly celebrating his death.

One could argue that whether or not leaders condemn or praise Kissinger depends largely on whether they believe they profited from his influence.

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