On the death of Kissinger: foreign policy expert, tough power broker
Henry Kissinger’s life is peppered with foreign policy successes. The former US minister is considered a kind of figure of the century. He felt comfortable on the international stage. But that’s only one side.
Some admired him, others despised him: Henry Kissinger was perhaps the most famous diplomat in US history. Even in his old age, the German-American commented on various international topics. He only celebrated his 100th birthday in May and received congratulations from all over the world.
But the former US Secretary of State was a controversial figure.
While some praised him as a brilliant real politician with negotiating skills, others saw him as an unscrupulous power broker – even a war criminal. Now Kissinger, who was born Heinz Alfred in Fürth, Central Franconia, died on Wednesday.
Mentally in top shape until the end
In his final years, Kissinger was hard of hearing and blind in one eye. He had to undergo several heart operations. But mentally he was in top shape until the end – even if he expressed his thoughts slowly and sometimes with difficulty. Whether it was the war in Ukraine or the tensions between Taiwan and China, he confidently intervened in debates about international politics. When asked by a TV journalist whether Chinese President Xi Jinping would pick up the phone if Kissinger called, he said shortly before his 100th birthday: “The chances are good that he will take my call.” He was right. A few months later, in July, the centenarian Kissinger actually flew to Beijing again and met Xi there.
Kissinger also recently traveled to Germany: in June he celebrated his 100th birthday in his Franconian hometown, with high-ranking guests from politics and diplomacy – and a children’s team from his favorite club, Spvgg Greuther Fürth.
A quiet boy
Kissinger was the son of a German-Jewish couple. In 1938 the family fled to the USA to escape the Nazis. Kissinger then grew up in New York – at first he couldn’t speak English. It is said that as a teenager he was so shy that he hardly spoke. This may explain why Kissinger had a strong German accent throughout his life. Unlike in Germany, he once said, he did not feel discriminated against as a Jew in the USA. Kissinger was drafted into military service after becoming US naturalized in 1943, fought in the Ardennes and then worked for US counterintelligence in Germany.
After his return, he studied political science at the elite Harvard University with the help of scholarships and received his doctorate in 1954. In the following years he taught at the university and made a name for himself as a specialist in international politics. In 1969, Republican President Richard Nixon brought him to the White House as security adviser. He later also became Secretary of State – and at least remained Secretary of State under Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford. Kissinger coined the so-called shuttle diplomacy – traveling back and forth between capitals and negotiating between conflicting parties. As foreign minister, he was something of a celebrity, known for his power-consciousness and womanizing.
Foreign policy genius or power politician without morals?
Kissinger has many successes. He sought détente with isolated China and the Soviet Union, brought about peace in the Middle East, and sought disarmament. In secret talks in what was then the USSR, he initiated the first agreement on strategic arms limitation (SALT I). On a secret trip to Beijing, he organized the first visit by a sitting US president to the People’s Republic. Nixon traveled to China in 1972 and met party leader Mao Zedong. In 1973/74, Kissinger also negotiated the end of the Yom Kippur War between Arab states against Israel. They are impressive achievements. For many, Kissinger is still considered a foreign policy genius – a figure of the century.
But that is only one side of the story. Critics see him as a power politician without morals who also supported dictatorships – as long as it only served his interests. According to the accusation, the end justified the means. At that time he was seen as increasingly autocratic and withdrawn. In a 1972 interview, he compared himself to a cowboy riding alone and leading the column.
Wars and crises
In addition to the foreign policy successes, there is a whole list of wars and crises in which Kissinger played at least a dubious role. On the one hand, there is the Vietnam War: Kissinger is said to have prevented an imminent peace agreement in 1968 in order to help Nixon win the election. In 1973, his years of secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho finally resulted in a peace treaty. Both were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – although the war continued until 1975. Kissinger accepted the prize, Le Duc Tho did not.
Kissinger was heavily criticized for his role in the secret bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. He is said to have approved the bombings and kept them secret from the public. The attacks are estimated to have killed at least 150,000 people. Opponents also accuse him of the consequences of his actions destabilizing the country and helping the Khmer Rouge gain power in the country in Southeast Asia.
Supporting Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975 is also a dark spot in Kissinger’s foreign policy career. Together with the US secret service CIA, Kissinger is also said to have been involved in General Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup against Chile’s elected socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973. Kissinger received subpoenas from courts in various countries but never appeared. He has always rejected the allegations against him – at least publicly he was not aware of any guilt. In a TV interview on his 100th birthday, he portrayed the younger generation that condemned him as ignorant.
After Nixon’s resignation, Kissinger remained Secretary of State – he then left the political stage after Democratic President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977. But for Kissinger, withdrawing from active politics did not mean withdrawing from the public eye. He founded a consulting firm, wrote several books and, despite his old age, was a sought-after speaker when it came to foreign policy assessments until his death.
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