Henry Kissinger, the dominant U.S. diplomat of the Cold War era who helped Washington open up to China, forge arms control deals with the Soviet Union, and end the Vietnam War, has died at the age of 100.
Kissinger, a German-born Jewish refugee whose career took him from academia to diplomacy and who remained an active voice in foreign policy into his later years, died at his home in Connecticut on Wednesday, his geopolitical consulting firm, Kissinger Associates Inc., said.
Kissinger was at the height of his powers during the 1970s in the midst of the Cold War when he served as national security adviser and secretary of state under Republican President Richard Nixon.
After Nixon’s resignation in 1974 amid the Watergate scandal, he remained a diplomatic force as secretary of state under Nixon’s successor, President Gerald Ford.
He was the architect of the U.S. diplomatic opening with China, landmark U.S.-Soviet arms control talks, expanded ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and the Paris Peace Accords with North Vietnam.
While many hailed Kissinger for his brilliance and statesmanship, others branded him a war criminal for his support for anti-communist dictatorships, especially in Latin America. In his latter years, his travels were circumscribed by efforts by some nations to arrest or question him about past U.S. foreign policy.
He won the 1973 Peace Prize for ending U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War but it was one of the most controversial ever. Two members of the Nobel committee resigned over the selection as questions arose about the secret U.S. bombing of Cambodia. North Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho, selected to share the award, declined it.
As tributes poured in from around the world, Beijing called him a “good old friend of the Chinese people” who made historic contributions to normalizing relations between the two countries.
Russian president Vladimir Putin praised Kissinger as a “wise and farsighted statesman” while Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his meetings with Kissinger provided “a masterclass in statesmanship.”
With his distinctive German-accented voice, Kissinger was never shy to offer his opinion. Ford called him a “super secretary of state” but also noted his prickliness and self-assurance, saying “Henry in his mind never made a mistake.”
“He had the thinnest skin of any public figure I ever knew,” Ford told an interviewer shortly before his death in 2006.
Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born in Fuerth, Germany, on May 27, 1923, and moved to the United States with his family in 1938 before the Nazi campaign to exterminate European Jewry.
Anglicizing his name to Henry, Kissinger became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1943, served in the Army in Europe in World War Two, and attended Harvard University on a scholarship, where he earned a doctorate in 1954 and stayed on faculty for the next 17 years.
During much of that time, Kissinger served as a consultant to government agencies, including in 1967 when he acted as an intermediary for the State Department in Vietnam. He used his connections with President Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic administration to pass on information about peace negotiations to the Nixon camp.
When Nixon’s pledge to end the Vietnam War helped him win the 1968 presidential election, he brought in Kissinger as national security adviser.
But the process of “Vietnamization”—shifting the burden of the war from U.S. forces to the South Vietnamese—was long and bloody, punctuated by massive U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, the mining of the North’s harbors, and the bombing of Cambodia.
Kissinger declared in 1972 that “peace is at hand” in Vietnam, but the Paris Peace Accords signed in January 1973 were little more than a prelude to the final Communist takeover of the South two years later.
In 1973, in addition to his role as national security adviser, Kissinger was named secretary of state—giving him unchallenged authority in foreign affairs.
An intensifying Arab-Israeli conflict launched Kissinger on his first “shuttle” mission, a brand of highly personal, high-pressure diplomacy for which he became famous.
Thirty-two days of shuttling between Jerusalem and Damascus helped Kissinger forge a long-lasting disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
In an effort to diminish Soviet influence, Kissinger reached out to its chief communist rival, China, and made two trips there, including a secret one to meet with Premier Zhou Enlai. The result was Nixon’s historic summit in Beijing with Chairman Mao Zedong and the eventual formalization of relations between the two countries.
Former U.S. ambassador to China Winston Lord, who served as Kissinger‘s special assistant, called his former boss as a “tireless advocate for peace,” telling Reuters, “America has lost a towering champion for the national interest.”
Strategic arms accord
As secretary of state, Kissinger went with Ford in 1974 to Vladivostok in the Soviet Union, where the president met Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and agreed to a basic framework for a strategic arms pact. The agreement capped Kissinger‘s pioneering efforts at détente that led to an easing of U.S.-Soviet tensions.
But Kissinger‘s diplomatic skills had their limits. In 1975, he was blamed for failing to persuade Israel and Egypt to agree to a second-stage disengagement in the Sinai.
And in the India-Pakistan War of 1971, Nixon and Kissinger drew heavy criticism for tilting toward Pakistan. Kissinger was heard calling the Indians “bastards”—a remark he later said he regretted.
Like Nixon, he feared the spread of left-wing ideas in the Western hemisphere, and his actions in response led to deep distrust of Washington by many Latin Americans for years to come.
When Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, in 1976, Kissinger‘s days in government power were largely over. The next Republican in the White House, Ronald Reagan, distanced himself from Kissinger, viewing him as out of step with his conservative constituency.
After leaving government, Kissinger set up a high-priced, high-powered consulting firm in New York, which offered advice to the world’s corporate elite. He served on company boards and various foreign policy and security forums, wrote books, and became a regular media commentator on international affairs.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President George W. Bush picked Kissinger to head an investigative committee. But outcry from Democrats who saw a conflict of interest with many of his consulting firm’s clients forced Kissinger to step down.
He remained active late in life, attending meetings in the White House, publishing a book on leadership, and testifying before a Senate committee about North Korea’s nuclear threat. In July 2023, he made a surprise visit to Beijing to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping.
Divorced from his first wife, Ann Fleischer, in 1964, he married Nancy Maginnes, an aide to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, in 1974. He had two children by his first wife.
Kissinger Associates Inc. said in the statement announcing his death that Kissinger would be interred at a private family service, to be followed at a later date by a public memorial service in New York City.
(Reporting by Steve Holland in Washington and Arshad Mohammed in Saint Paul, Minnesota; additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Long Beach, California; editing by Bill Trott, Diane Craft, Rosalba O’Brien, Tomasz Janowski, and Frances Kerry)