' Skip To Content
Nixon's China Game | Article

Henry A. Kissinger

Henry Kissinger

An unlikely celebrity who drew fire from across the political spectrum, Henry Kissinger is widely recognized as one of the great American statesmen of the twentieth century. According to biographer Robert Schulzinger, "Kissinger seizes the imagination because he engineered the most significant turning point in United States foreign policy since the beginning of the cold war." 

Born in 1923 in Fürth, Germany, to devout Jewish middle-class parents, the young Kissinger was forced to flee Hitler’s anti-Semitic regime, settling with his family in New York City in 1938. After studying at City College, he joined the U.S. Army in 1943, serving as an interpreter and intelligence officer in Europe. Kissinger returned home in 1947 to a brilliant academic career at Harvard University, where he became a professor of government and international affairs in 1957.

A prominent interpreter of U.S. foreign policy, Kissinger chided Americans for their moralism, arguing for a more pragmatic approach to foreign affairs. Kissinger served as a part-time foreign policy adviser to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and was the main intellectual force behind JFK’s "flexible response" strategy, which advocated maintaining both conventional and nuclear forces to respond to Communist aggression, rather than resorting to threats of massive nuclear retaliation.

In 1968 president-elect Richard Nixon appointed Kissinger as his national security adviser, in what Time magazine described as an "improbable partnership" between a "secretive, aloof… old-fashioned politician, given over to over-simplified rhetoric" and "a Harvard professor of urbane intelligence." Working closely together, the two set out to re-shape the style and substance of U.S. foreign affairs. Kissinger rejected a moralistic approach to the Soviet Union based on anti-Communist ideology. A realist, he recognized Russia as a rival superpower, and sought to achieve a global balance of power by pursuing areas of cooperation with Moscow, a policy known as "détente." 

With Nixon’s approval, Kissinger concentrated foreign policy-making power within the White House under the National Security Council, circumventing the established foreign affairs bureaucracy and effectively curtailing the authority of Secretary of State William Rogers. Nixon and Kissinger both favored "back-channel" communications and used secret negotiations to lay the groundwork for détente with the Soviet Union and open a new dialogue with Communist China. Similarly, Kissinger began secret talks with North Vietnam in 1969 in the hopes of reaching a settlement to the Vietnam War. At the same time, though, he counseled Nixon to increase bombing of North Vietnam and to expand the war into Cambodia and Laos.

With the July 1971 announcement of his secret meetings with Chou En-lai, Kissinger emerged into the limelight, achieving unprecedented international celebrity. The formerly obscure presidential adviser was now everywhere: on the covers of Time and Newsweek, profiled on the network news shows, and featured on the front pages of newspapers across the country. "[A]t the height of a brilliant career," wrote Time, "he enjoys a global spotlight and an influence that most professors only read about in their libraries." 

In 1973 Kissinger shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Le Duc Tho for secretly negotiating an end to the Vietnam War. The same year, he replaced William Rogers as secretary of state, while remaining as national security adviser. Instrumental in brokering an end to hostilities in the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel, Egypt and Syria, Kissinger then embarked on an intensive "shuttle diplomacy" effort to help mediate the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict.

When Nixon resigned in August 1974 and Gerald Ford took office, Kissinger retained his position and his unprecedented influence on foreign affairs. While he continued to pursue détente with Russia, the policy grew increasingly unpopular. Conservatives charged that détente allowed the Soviet Union to build up its military arsenal at America’s expense, while liberals accused Kissinger of pursuing the policy while ignoring human rights within the Communist bloc. During his last years in government, Kissinger frequently came under attack from Congress, the media, and the Republican Party, and saw some of his greatest initiatives reversed, as détente ultimately failed, and South Vietnam fell to Communist forces in 1975.

Kissinger left office with the Ford Administration in 1977. He has since taught at Georgetown University and formed a highly successful international consulting group, Kissinger Associates, which represents companies that deal with China. He has appeared frequently as a media commentator on international affairs. 

Support Provided by: Learn More