Authors: Henry A. Kissinger

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

German-born American statesman

Author Works


A World Restored: Castlereagh, Metternich, and the Restoration of Peace, 1812-1822, 1957

Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, 1957

The Necessity for Choice: Prospects for American Foreign Policy, 1961

The Troubled Partnership: A Reappraisal of the Atlantic Alliance, 1965

American Foreign Policy: Three Essays, 1969, revised 1974, 1977

White House Years, 1979

For the Record: Selected Statements, 1977-1980, 1981

Years of Upheaval, 1982

Observations: Selected Speeches and Essays, 1982-1984, 1985

Diplomacy, 1994

Years of Renewal, 1999

Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Toward a Diplomacy for the Twenty-first Century, 2001

Edited Text:

Problems of National Strategy: A Book of Readings, 1965


Henry Alfred Kissinger (originally Heinz Alfred Kissinger) became one of the most admired and most despised figures of the second half of the twentieth century. His brilliance, however, was almost universally respected. He was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Fürth, Bavaria, a city of about seventy thousand, of which about three thousand residents were Jewish. The Kissingers and the other Fürth Jews regarded themselves as Germans and were accepted as such. Henry’s father was a teacher who, under the Nazis, lost his position. Henry was soon banned from playing his beloved soccer and was badly treated by the Nazi youth. When his mother was banned from the public swimming pool, she realized that the future was less than bright and, with her family, left the country. The Kissingers were to lose thirteen relatives in the Holocaust.{$I[A]Kissinger, Henry A.}{$I[geo]GERMANY;Kissinger, Henry A.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Kissinger, Henry A.}{$I[tim]1923;Kissinger, Henry A.}

Henry Kissinger

(© The Nobel Foundation)

They settled in the Washington Heights section of New York City. Henry, an average student in Germany, began to excel in his studies. Economic difficulties forced him to work and complete his final two years of high school at night. In 1943, he was drafted. Military service was a turning point in Kissinger’s life. Back in Germany, he was ultimately assigned to the Counter-Intelligence Corps. Having been made the administrator of a city, he had a local government in place and functioning in about a week. He had a similar experience with a larger area. Demobilized in 1946, he remained in Germany as a civilian instructor at the European Command Intelligence School, where he lived quite ostentatiously. Power had its privileges, he learned. Around this time he met the man who would become his mentor, Fritz Kraemer. While only a private, he acted like an officer and got results. Kraemer, a wealthy and well-educated anti-Nazi Prussian American, introduced his protégé to the ideas of a number of thinkers, including political theorist Oswald Spengler, whose work contributed to Kissinger’s tragic view of history. Kraemer also convinced Kissinger to attend a prestigious university.

He entered Harvard University in 1947. To the surprise of other Jewish students, Kissinger was anti-Zionist and opposed the creation of Israel, seeing it as detrimental to American interests by offending the Arabs. Actually, he had been anti-Zionist since his youth, along with the other Jews of Fürth. It is notable that he would find Israel one of the most difficult nations to deal with in his diplomatic days.

Kissinger eventually decided to concentrate on government. His senior thesis was a monumental work of 383 pages, the longest ever at Harvard, bearing the title “The Meaning of History.” He tackled the theories of some of the most influential thinkers on the subject, such as Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, finding some fault with each. His attention, however, became directed toward the practitioners of statecraft, especially Klemens von Metternich, Austria’s nineteenth century master of international balance-of-power politics, and Kissinger’s real hero, Otto von Bismarck, the unifier of Germany. Their “realism,” as opposed to the traditional idealistic American approach to foreign policy, would later earn him both admiration and disdain.

Kissinger continued at Harvard for his graduate work; in 1951, the Harvard International Seminar was inaugurated, with Kissinger running it and choosing the participants. He invited famous people from around the world to participate and thereby became acquainted with numerous influential figures. These contacts would prove valuable in years to come. Similarly, he began a journal, Confluence; its list of contributors read like a “Who’s Who” of world leaders, many of whom also became Kissinger contacts for the future.

Kissinger’s doctoral dissertation, “A World Restored: Castlereagh, Metternich, and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822,” was a surprise. The most common topics chosen by the other doctoral students were related to nuclear weapons. Kissinger displayed his interest in balance-of-power diplomacy, with stability as the supreme goal, a lifelong concern since his world had fallen apart under Nazi rule. The basis was also laid for his first book, A World Restored.

Soon, Kissinger’s first article for Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations (composed of the foreign policy elite and selected politicians), appeared. He received a position with the council, leading a study group on the use of nuclear weapons. Then his best-selling book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, which made a case for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in a limited war, was published. Increasingly involved with the council, he became a part-time adviser to its head, David Rockefeller.

Shortly after his election as president in 1968, Richard M. Nixon offered Kissinger a position in the White House. He agreed with Nixon’s idea of running foreign policy from the White House, bypassing the State Department. They also agreed that their instrument would be the staff of the National Security Council (NSC), and Kissinger adopted the unofficial designation of national security adviser. He held that the threat of force must accompany diplomacy in order for diplomacy to be effective. This accounted for his four-year search for a negotiated settlement to the war in Vietnam; simply to withdraw would damage the United States’ credibility, which would continue to be one Kissinger’s major concerns.

Another major aspect of his policymaking was linking together all major policy matters throughout the world and interweaving them to the benefit of the United States’ national interests–thus, his opening to China and détente with the Soviet Union, which brought about a rivalry between the two Communist giants for the goodwill of the United States. Moreover, he held that the United States must not make its goodwill contingent upon internal policy changes of the nations it deals with, or there will be no progress. Crusading was not his style. In his view, history demonstrated that it only made matters worse.

Secrecy was one of his passions. Thus, he used back channels to exclude the State Department from policymaking. For example, he used Pakistan to arrange for his secret trip to China, which paved the way for Nixon’s 1972 visit. The Channel, as the backdoor link with the Soviet Union became known, was Soviet ambassador to the United States Anatolia Dobrynin, with whom he would deal personally. He thereby laid the foundation for Nixon’s visit to the Soviet Union and a summit conference there later that year. The most criticized features of the latter were the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the ensuing agreements, SALT I, which abandoned U.S. superiority in missiles to the Soviets, and the ABM (antiballistic missiles) treaty, by which the United States agreed not to build a missile system to protect itself against enemy missiles. Kissinger appeared to have concluded that the United States was declining and that the future belonged to the Soviet Union, leaving his country to get the best deal that it could to postpone the inevitable. His tragic view of history was the likely basis for such a belief.

Back in 1969, Nixon had made it clear that he and Kissinger alone would make foreign policy decisions. NSC meetings would be mere formalities, but the NSC staff was given more power. Seven committees were founded and chaired by Kissinger, thereby giving him power over the bureaucracy in foreign policy making, intelligence activities, and covert operations. Still, leaks were becoming common. Thus, wiretaps were put on the telephones of key government officials and selected newsmen, and the Plumbers Unit (later involved in the Watergate break-in) was established to plug the leaks. Kissinger, in turn, unknowingly lost some of his secrecy as a Navy yeoman, a member of his staff, began copying his papers and transmitting them to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Kissinger, in time, insisted that he be named secretary of state. Nixon obliged, and in September, 1973, Kissinger was sworn in, after being overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate. He continued to be the national security adviser as well. A month later he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his peace settlement in Vietnam, one that could not last but supplied a “decent interval” until South Vietnam would fall to the North.

Kissinger now directed much of his attention to the Middle East and engaged in shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Egypt. Befriending Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, he managed to work out a cease-fire between the two in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As usual, he was more successful in winning over adversaries than allies. The Israelis were harder to convince.

A key event involving Kissinger during the administration of President Gerald Ford was the summit meeting with the Soviets at Helsinki in 1975, where it was conceded that Eastern Europe was in the Soviet sphere of influence. Many saw this as a betrayal. Eastern Europeans, however, realized that the treaty signed by the Soviets also had human rights provisions. That led them to insist on more freedoms. Some hold that this ultimately led to the crumbling of the Soviet empire.

Significant was Kissinger’s call for majority rule in black Africa and his negotiated transferal of power in Rhodesia, the future Zimbabwe. Accordingly, black Africans came to look favorably on the United States, and Soviet advances in the area were checked.

With Ford’s defeat in the 1976 election, Kissinger went into the consulting business. Kissinger Associates soon had for its clients some of the world’s major firms. With his worldwide contacts and in-depth knowledge of world affairs, his high fees were considered worth the price. His public career was carried over into the private sphere.

BibliographyIsaacson, Walter. Kissinger: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. A thorough biography that is fair to the subject but should be read along with a more critical work to give balance. Well illustrated.Mazlish, Bruce. Kissinger: The European Mind in American Policy. New York: Basic Books, 1976. A psychological study, worth reading. Illustrated.Schlafly, Phyllis, and Chester Ward. Kissinger on the Couch. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1975. Offers strong criticism of Kissinger and his work. Long but very readable and well documented.
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