WASHINGTON — All these years later, the scene still is almost too bizarre to imagine: a tearful president and his perplexed aide, neither very religious, kneeling in prayer on the floor of a White House bedroom in the waning hours of a shattered presidency.
Until the embittered end, Henry Kissinger was one of the trusted few of a distrusting Richard Nixon. That trust, combined with Kissinger’s intellectual heft and deft manipulation of power, made him a pivotal player in a tense period in American history, a giant of U.S. foreign policy and a fixture in international relations for decades to come.
The German-born diplomat who got the U.S. out of Vietnam after bloody, costly years of delay and into China in a sudden burst of secret diplomacy died Wednesday. He was 100.
With his brusque yet commanding public presence and behind-the-scenes maneuvers, Kissinger exerted extraordinary influence on global affairs under Presidents Nixon and Gerald Ford.
His power grew during the turmoil of Watergate, when the politically attuned diplomat took on a role akin to co-president to the discredited Nixon.
“No doubt my vanity was piqued,” Kissinger later wrote of his expanding influence during Watergate. “But the dominant emotion was a premonition of catastrophe.”
Ford, in awarding Kissinger the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, called him a brilliant negotiator who “wielded America’s great power with wisdom and compassion in the service of peace.”
A Jew who fled Nazi Germany with his family in his teens and never lost his accent, Kissinger in his later years cultivated the reputation of respected elder statesman, giving speeches, offering advice to Republican and Democratic presidents alike and managing a lucrative global consulting business as he traveled the world.
He turned up in Donald Trump’s White House on multiple occasions. Initially, he told “PBS NewsHour” last year, he had some sympathy with Trump’s views about America’s national interests. But he lost enthusiasm as Trump became “so centrally focused on one person” — himself — and turned issues into confrontations.
“At the end,” he said, “for an American president to challenge the constitutional system and to try to overthrow the constitutional system is a grave matter. And I find no excuse for that.”
Never without his detractors, Kissinger after he left government was dogged by critics who argued that he should be called to account for his policies on Southeast Asia and support of repressive regimes in Latin America. He had to think twice before traveling to certain countries to be sure that he would not be summoned by judges seeking to question him about Nixon-era actions.
For eight restless years — first as national security adviser, later as secretary of state, and for a time in the middle holding both titles — Kissinger ranged across the breadth of major foreign policy issues. He conducted the first “shuttle diplomacy” in the quest for Middle East peace. He used secret negotiations to restore ties between the United States and China, ending decades of isolation and mutual hostility.
He initiated the Paris talks that ultimately provided a face-saving means — a “decent interval,” he called it — to get the United States out of Vietnam. Two years later, Saigon fell to the communists, leaving a bitter taste among former U.S. allies who blamed Nixon, Kissinger and Congress for abandoning them.
And he pursued a policy of detente with the Soviet Union that led to arms control agreements and raised the possibility that the tensions of the Cold War and its nuclear threat did not have to last forever.
Historian Robert Dallek, in a 2011 interview, singled out as Kissinger’s signature achievement his work with Nixon to create “a culture of peace, a set of conditions that could reduce the prospect of nuclear war.”
His failings, added Dallek, were that he was “too egotistical, too convinced of his own brilliance.”
Kissinger was a practitioner of realpolitik — using diplomacy to achieve practical objectives rather than advance lofty ideals. Supporters said his pragmatic bent served U.S. interests; critics saw a Machiavellian approach that ran counter to democratic ideals.
He was faulted for authorizing telephone wiretaps of reporters and his own National Security Council staff to plug news leaks in Nixon’s White House. He was denounced on college campuses for the bombing and allied invasion of Cambodia in April 1970, intended to destroy North Vietnamese supply lines to communist forces in South Vietnam.
That “incursion,” as Nixon and Kissinger called it, was blamed by some for contributing to Cambodia’s fall into the hands of Khmer Rouge insurgents, who later slaughtered some 2 million Cambodians.
Nixon sent mixed messages about Kissinger’s influence.
Biographer Walter Isaacson wrote that Kissinger sputtered with rage after Nixon, in his 1977 interviews with David Frost, played down Kissinger’s role. But when Nixon heard of Kissinger’s displeasure, Isaacson wrote, the ex-president scrawled a conciliatory letter to Kissinger friend Susan Mary Alsop, saying that “without Henry’s creative ideas and diplomatic skill, we would never have succeeded with our China initiative, the Soviet SALT I agreement, the Vietnam Peace Agreement and the progress toward reducing tensions in the Middle East.”
Historian Stanley Kutler said in a 2011 interview that while Nixon ran his own foreign policy shop, “Henry Kissinger was always a willing accomplice and an enabler of the politicization of decisions in foreign policy. Certainly the decision on when and whether to end the war in Vietnam was done with a domestic political calculus in mind.”
Kissinger, for his part, made it his mission to debunk what he referred to in 2007 as a “prevalent myth” — that he and Nixon had settled in 1972 for peace terms that had been available in 1969 and thus had needlessly prolonged the war at the cost of tens of thousands of American lives.
He insisted that the only way to speed up the withdrawal of U.S. troops “was to overthrow the government” of South Vietnam.
“That we weren’t willing to do,” he said at a 2010 forum on Vietnam at the State Department. “Was that a mistake? I don’t think so.”
But historian Jeffrey Kimball, who wrote “The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy,” concluded that Kissinger’s record “is one of persisting in a deadlocked war for the sake of appearances — i.e. salvaging an elusive and false U.S. credibility.”
Kissinger was pudgy and messy but incongruously acquired a reputation as a ladies’ man in the staid Nixon administration. Kissinger, who divorced his first wife in 1964, called women “a diversion, a hobby.” Hollywood executives were eager to set him up with starlets, whom Kissinger squired to premieres and showy restaurants, according to Isaacson. Jill St. John was a frequent companion. Others he dated included Shirley MacLaine, Marlo Thomas, Candice Bergen and Liv Ullmann.
In a poll of Playboy Club Bunnies in 1972, the man whom Newsweek dubbed “Super-K” finished first as “the man I would most like to go out on a date with.”
Kissinger’s explanation: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
Nixon at first found Kissinger’s image as a swinger amusing, but later tired of it. Chief of staff H.R. Haldeman in 1971 issued a memo stating that “in seating at State Dinners, the President feels that Henry should not always be put next to the most glamorous woman. ... It’s starting to cause unfavorable talk that serves no useful purpose.”
It turned out that Kissinger’s real love interest was Nancy Maginnes, a tall, glamorous researcher for Nelson Rockefeller whom he dated for years before they married in 1974.
Gallup found he was the most admired man in America in 1972 and in 1973, the year he won the Nobel Prize with Le Duc Tho, North Vietnam’s chief negotiator, for the accord under which America pulled out of South Vietnam. (Tho declined the award.)
And yet Kissinger was reviled by many Americans for his conduct of wartime diplomacy. When Columbia University proposed to give Kissinger a teaching post after he left government in 1977, the idea drew such strong protest among students and faculty that the job never materialized. He was still a lightning rod decades later: In 2015, an appearance by the 91-year-old Kissinger before the Senate Armed Services Committee was disrupted by protesters demanding his arrest for war crimes and calling out his actions in Southeast Asia, Chile and beyond.
Kissinger was smart, self-deprecating, a master at cultivating the right people. He also was arrogant, hot-tempered and manipulative.
His brother, Walter, was said to have been asked why he had no accent when Henry did. “Sometimes I listened,” Walter replied.
Kissinger told colleagues at the White House he was the one person who kept Nixon, “that drunken lunatic,” from doing things that would “blow up the world,” according to Isaacson, who wrote the 1992 biography “Kissinger.”
The two men shared an ambivalent personal relationship, Kissinger writing in his memoirs that “deep down one could never be certain that what one found so disturbing in Nixon might not also be a reflection of some suppressed flaw within oneself.”
Ford, in a 2004 interview with The Washington Post published after his death in 2006, said Kissinger had “the thinnest skin of any public figure I ever knew.” He said Kissinger routinely would threaten to resign after receiving critical press coverage, and Ford would literally have to hold his hand and tell him, “Now, Henry, you’ve got the nation’s future in your hands and you can’t leave us now.”
“I often thought, maybe I should say: ‘Okay, Henry. Goodbye,‘” Ford said with a laugh.
“I think he was a super secretary of state,” Ford added, “but Henry in his mind never made a mistake, so whatever policies there were that he implemented, in retrospect he would defend.”
Kissinger wasn’t one to anguish over past decisions.
In 2002, as protesters in London staged a demonstration against his appearance at a business convention there, Kissinger told the audience that “no one can say that he served in an administration that did not make mistakes. The decisions made in high office are usually 51-49 decisions so it is quite possible that mistakes were made.”
At age 99, in the summer of 2022, he was still out on tour for his latest book on leadership. Asked in July by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos whether he wished he could take back any of his decisions, Kissinger demurred, saying: “I’ve been thinking about these problems all my life. It’s my hobby as well as my occupation. And so the recommendations I made were the best of which I was then capable.”
Even then, he had mixed thoughts on Nixon’s record, saying “his foreign policy has held up and he was quite effective in domestic policy” while allowing that the disgraced president had “permitted himself to be involved in a number of steps that were inappropriate for a president.”
Nixon-era tapes and documents lay bare the calculations of Kissinger and others within the suspicious and secretive Nixon White House.
In a taped 1973 conversation, Kissinger, the first Jewish secretary of state, is dismissive of pleas to push the Soviet Union to allow Jews to emigrate.
“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Kissinger tells Nixon. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
After the tape came out in December 2010, Kissinger released a statement saying his comments should be taken “in the context of the time,” when Jewish emigration was dealt with separately from foreign policy.
Other documents confirmed Kissinger’s and Nixon’s support for the 1973 coup that deposed Chile’s Marxist president and ushered in 17 years of dictatorship.
In one telephone exchange, Kissinger harrumphs that if the coup had happened “in the Eisenhower period we would be heroes.” Nixon responds, “Well, we didn’t — as you know — our hand doesn’t show on this one though.” Kissinger: “We didn’t do it. I mean, we helped them.”
In other declassified transcripts, Kissinger plays down concern over Chile’s human rights record, even as the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet was torturing and killing thousands of opponents. Meeting with Chile’s ambassador in September 1975, Kissinger joked that U.S. officials focusing on human rights violations had “a vocation for the ministry.” And in a June 1976 meeting with Pinochet himself, Kissinger gently encouraged the dictator to release more prisoners while stressing that “we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here.”
Peter Kornbluh, author of “The Pinochet File,” which summarized some of the more than 25,000 U.S. declassified documents, says the records related to Kissinger “paint a picture of a U.S. foreign policymaker for whom morality was not an issue.”
Asked to describe his approach to foreign policy, Kissinger told The New York Times in 2011, “I try to understand, without pessimism or optimism, the world in which I find myself.”
But he added: “When one has practiced diplomacy for much of one’s adult life, one always runs the danger that one doesn’t set the goals high enough. Others will have to judge that, but that’s how I would define myself without a specific label. But there are certainly lots of people who are defining me, so there is no shortage of adjectives and even of epithets.”
Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born in the Bavarian city of Fuerth on May 27, 1923, the son of a schoolteacher who lost his job because of anti-Jewish discrimination. Kissinger’s family left Nazi Germany in 1938 and settled in a Jewish neighborhood in upper Manhattan, where Heinz changed his name to Henry.
The young Kissinger studied accounting in night school and worked days in a cousin’s shaving brush factory, falling “under the spell of Joe DiMaggio” from the 55-cent bleacher seats at Yankee Stadium in his spare time. Drafted during World War II, he was assigned to Army counterintelligence and worked on reorganizing municipal governments in occupied Germany.
After his military service, Kissinger went to Harvard, where his doctoral thesis argued that the foremost objective of diplomacy was “stability based on an equilibrium of forces.”
His belief in the importance of stability above all other considerations would endure for a lifetime.
Early on, Kissinger’s 1957 book “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy” established his reputation as an expert on global diplomacy, and he was tapped to be a consultant to the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
In 1968, Kissinger offered himself as speechwriter and adviser to Nelson Rockefeller, who was competing for the Republican presidential nomination. When Nixon won the election, he invited Kissinger to be his national security adviser. Kissinger took the job, although he’d “spent 12 years of my life trying to keep him from becoming president,” he later recalled.
From the start, Kissinger and Nixon maneuvered to keep control over foreign policy in their hands — and away from Secretary of State William Rogers and the State Department career diplomats, whom they both scorned.
In plotting Vietnam strategy, they together, until the last hours, kept from Rogers and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird the decision to invade Cambodia.
Former defense official Townsend Hoopes later said of Kissinger: “In a more open and discursive administration, he would have been only one of several competing advisers with his influence correspondingly diluted. Under Nixon, he became the principal keeper of the keys — the adviser, spokesman and negotiator on all major foreign policies.”
During his 39 months as secretary of state between 1973 and 1977, Kissinger flew hundreds of thousands of miles, conferring with world leaders and trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The naturally serious Kissinger learned the value of humor and became skilled at deflating himself. He could easily be drawn into reminiscences of playing soccer as a boy in Germany, and he styled himself a “rabid fan” of baseball.
The onetime Manhattan schoolboy playfully, correctly and without hesitation once ticked off the New York Giants’ wartime lineup at a reporter’s request on the way to baseball’s All-Star game.
In 1972, asked how fame had changed his life, Kissinger replied, “Now, when I’m boring at a party, people think it’s their fault.”
A year earlier, armed with a hat and sunglasses in case he needed them, Kissinger feigned a stomach illness during a visit to Pakistan and vanished on a secret trip to Beijing that laid the groundwork for Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. Kissinger, in his memoirs, recalled his secret trip to China as “a truly extraordinary event, both novel and moving, both unusual and overwhelming,” that restored “the innocence of the years when each day was a precious adventure in defining the meaning of life.”
One of the strangest moments in Kissinger’s life occurred on Aug. 7, 1974, the night before Nixon gave up his fight to retain the presidency. Nixon summoned Kissinger to the family quarters in the White House, and they spent 90 minutes together.
As Kissinger was leaving, Nixon steered him into the Lincoln Bedroom and suggested they kneel in prayer. And so they did — the Quaker-born Nixon, the Jewish-born Kissinger, on the floor, Nixon in tears about the unfairness of his fate. Returning to his office, Kissinger told his closest aides, “He is truly a tragic figure,” Isaacson wrote.
After Democrat Jimmy Carter succeeded Ford, Kissinger served in government as an adviser, but he was viewed with suspicion by conservatives in Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
In his life after government, the ex-diplomat’s Kissinger Associates earned him millions as a statesman-for-hire who offered foreign policy advice and diplomatic introductions for private corporations that paid $200,000 or more a year for his services.
In 2002, President George W. Bush selected Kissinger to lead an independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 terror attacks, saying he would bring “broad experience, clear thinking, and careful judgment” to the job. But Kissinger soon stepped down from the position rather than reveal his clients.
Long after he left government service, Kissinger was sought out for his opinions, and didn’t hesitate to share them — in books, columns, speeches and media appearances.
In a 2010 speech, Kissinger said the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan set a pattern that he predicted would end “because, in the future, the American public will insist on clarity of objectives and unambiguous definitions of attainability. Wars will be risked only for specific outcomes, not for abstractions, like nation-building and exit strategy.”
Addressing the war in Iraq specifically, Kissinger told The New York Times a year later that Bush “wanted to turn Iraq into a showcase of the possibility of a democratic evolution inside the Arab world. That was a huge objective, and that argument was difficult to sustain.”
As for his own politics, Kissinger in 2011 described himself as “on the Republican side,” but not “right wing.” He said the philosophy of the current GOP wasn’t well-defined.
Although he had abandoned Jewish observances, Kissinger married Anneliese Fleischer in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony in 1949 to please his parents. He was 25, she 23, also a German refugee. They had two children, Elizabeth and David. They drifted apart, separated in 1962 and divorced two years later.
In September 2022, Kissinger made an appearance at the Nixon presidential library to accept an award and used the occasion to extol Nixon as “a president who combined vision and courage in an extraordinarily complex period.”
As for how he personally would like to be remembered, Kissinger told the audience great leaders instead focus on where their countries need to go, adding, “what I would feel America needs most importantly, it’s faith in a national future.”
The late AP Diplomatic writer Barry Schweid contributed to this report.