Kissinger, Henry Alfred


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Kissinger, Henry Alfred

As a scholar, adviser, and U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Alfred Kissinger was an important figure in international affairs in the late twentieth century. The German-born Kissinger became a U.S. citizen in the 1930s; emerged as a leading theorist at Harvard in the 1950s; advised presidents during the 1960s; and defined the course of U.S. foreign policy for much of the 1970s. He won great acclaim for his pragmatic vision of foreign policy as well as for his skills as a peace negotiator. In 1973, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in securing a cease-fire in the Vietnam War. However, criticism followed public revelations about his involvement in secret U.S. military and Espionage operations, and he left public office in 1976 with a controversial record.

Born May 27, 1923, in Fürth, Germany, and given the first name Heinz, Kissinger was the son of middle-class Jewish parents who fled Nazi persecution while he was a teenager. The family emigrated to the United States in 1938, and Kissinger became a U.S. citizen in 1943. Service in the U.S. Army took Kissinger back to Europe during World War II. Following combat and intelligence duty, he served in the post-war U.S. Military Government in Germany from 1945 to 1946. Decorated with honors and discharged from the service, he earned a bachelor of arts degree summa cum laude in government studies at Harvard College in 1950, then added a master's degree and, in 1956, a doctorate.

While teaching at Harvard in the 1950s, Kissinger came to national attention with his book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957). The book was a bold argument against narrow Cold War views of military strategy. It took aim at the reigning defense doctrine of the day, which was an all-or-nothing approach holding that the United States should retaliate massively with Nuclear Weapons against any aggressor. Kissinger proposed a different solution based on the approach of Realpolitik, the German concept of an intensely pragmatic, rather than idealistic, vision of international relations. The United States should deploy nuclear weapons strategically around the world as a deterrent, he argued, while relying on conventional, non-nuclear forces in the event of aggression against it. The idea gradually took hold over the next decade.

"A conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerilla army wins if it does not lose."
—Henry Kissinger

Rising to the top of his field, Kissinger became a driving force behind Harvard's efforts in the area of foreign policy. He took increasingly higher positions in the school's Center for International Affairs and directed its Defense Studies Program. Kissinger became much sought after by politicians, diplomats, and government defense specialists in the 1960s. He counseled Presidents john f. kennedy and lyndon b. johnson on foreign policy. In 1968, he advised Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, of New York, in Rockefeller's unsuccessful campaign for the Republican Party nomination for president. After the election, the new president, richard m. nixon, was quick to hire away his opponent's adviser.

The two terms of Nixon's presidency elevated Kissinger's power. Named first to the position of assistant for national security affairs, a high-level post, he soon eclipsed the president's secretary of state, William P. Rogers, in visibility and influence. Indeed, by the end of Nixon's first term, Kissinger was the acknowledged architect of U.S. foreign policy. His rise to preeminence was complete in 1973, when Nixon made him secretary of state.

Under Nixon, Kissinger had a string of historic successes. He arranged Nixon's breakthrough visit to China in 1972, which ended years of hostile relations between the two nations. Also in 1972, at the strategic arms limitations talks (SALT 1), he helped to broker the anti-ballistic-missile treaty, the landmark agreement to limit nuclear proliferation, signed by the United States and the Soviet Union. Traveling widely in what came to be known as "shuttle diplomacy," Kissinger conducted peace negotiations between the United States and Vietnam en route to the signing of a cease-fire in 1973. In recognition of his efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, with the chief North Vietnamese negotiator, Le Duc Tho. Kissinger also engineered cease-fires between Arab states and Israel after their 1973 war, and he persuaded Nixon to ready U.S. forces around the world in order to deter Soviet intervention.

In 1973, Kissinger also came under harsh attack. Throughout the Vietnam conflict, antiwar critics had targeted him. New public revelations about the White House's secret conduct of the war in Southeast Asia led to criticism. It was revealed that in 1969, Kissinger had won Nixon's approval to expand the war into Cambodia, a neutral country, with bombings and subsequent ground incursions by U.S. troops. Critics eventually blamed Kissinger and Nixon for the destruction of Cambodia after the country fell to Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, whose forces systematically murdered millions of Cambodians. On the political left, some commentators branded the president and his secretary of state war criminals.

When Nixon's 1974 resignation resulted in the succession of gerald r. ford as president, Ford kept Kissinger as both secretary of state and national security adviser. But Kissinger faced mounting criticism in the media and Congress. More revelations came to light: Kissinger had secretly authorized Central Intelligence Agency operations to overthrow the government of Chile and to support rebels in Angola. He was also attacked for having used wiretaps of federal employees in order to stop security leaks. Whereas Congress had listened attentively to Kissinger during the Nixon administration, the allure of his Realpolitik was fading in the more cautious, less interventionist post-Vietnam era. He left office in 1976 with his influence at an all-time low.

Kissinger was awarded the presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 and the Medal of Liberty in 1986. In private life, Kissinger continued to be active in international affairs. He taught, served as a consultant, and often commented in the media on foreign policy, while also writing two popular memoirs: White House Years (1980) and Years of Upheaval (1982). President ronald reagan briefly lured Kissinger back into public life in 1983, appointing him to head a commission to make policy recommendations on Latin America. In 1994, Kissinger published Diplomacy which analyzed modern foreign relations, including the strategies employed during the Vietnam War, and in 2003 he published Ending the Vietnam War: A Personal History of America's Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War.

Kissinger's record of public service continues to be the subject of scrutiny. In 2002, a film called The Trials of Henry Kissinger, based on a similarly-titled book by journalist Christopher Hitchens, used previously unpublished documents to make the argument that Kissinger should be tried as a war criminal for his involvement in the secret bombing of Cambodia by the United States, the overthrow of democratically elected President Salvador Allende in 1973, and the use of U.S.-supplied weapons in the Indonesian massacre of thousands of civilians in East Timor in 1975. In November 2002, Kissinger was appointed by President george w. bush to chair the commission that had been convened to investigate the September 11th Attacks. Two weeks later, Kissinger announced his resignation from the commission in order to avoid possible conflicts of interest with persons and organizations that employed his consulting firm, Kissinger Associates.

Further readings

Anderson, John. "Kissinger: Peacemaker or War Criminal?" 2002. Newsday (September 23).

Brigham, Robert K. "Siege Mentality." 2003. Washington Post (March 2).

Cross-references

Arms Control and Disarmament.