The year was 1974, and in Washington DC Richard Nixon, crippled by scandal, was about to become the first U.S. president to resign. As the end approached, he called his vice president, Gerald Ford, to the Oval Office, to give him some last-minute advice.
At all costs, Nixon said, Ford must keep Henry Kissinger as his Secretary of State. ‘Henry is a genius,’ he said. ‘He’ll be very loyal, but you can’t let him have a totally free hand.’
Later, Nixon was more forthright. ‘Ford has just got to realise there are times when Henry has to be kicked in the nuts,’ he told an aide. ‘Because sometimes Henry starts to think he’s president. But at other times you have to pet Henry and treat him as a child.’
Genius, spoiled child, world statesman, alleged war criminal — such are the labels pinned to Henry Kissinger, who turns 100 today, an astonishing milestone at the end of a truly extraordinary political career. As with any centenarian, the sweep of Kissinger’s life is mind-boggling. Born only five years after the end of the Great War, he fled Hitler’s Germany and shook hands with China’s Mao Zedong and the Soviet Union’s Leonid Brezhnev.
That he’s still offering his opinions on world affairs, long after his sparring partners have become names in school textbooks, seems to defy credibility. But Kissinger has always made a habit of subverting expectations.
When Richard Nixon moved into the White House in January 1969, Henry Kissinger was merely his National Security Adviser but he eventually gave him control of U.S. foreign policy
At his peak, as U.S. National Security Adviser from 1969 to 1975 and Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977, he was probably the most influential man on earth. Even at 100, his record of presiding over detente with the Soviet Union and a historic rapprochement between the U.S. and China means that his views command immediate respect.
Yet on his 100th birthday, Kissinger is still the subject of intense controversy. The Left have never forgiven him for his handling of the final years of the Vietnam War, and accuse him of encouraging a Right-wing coup in Chile, an Indonesian invasion of East Timor and the ‘dirty war’ against dissidents in Argentina.
To his admirers, he remains the defining statesman of the age, combining extraordinary intellectual depth with unsparing, clear-sighted realism. But to his critics he carried cynicism to a callous extreme, treating nations as though they were pawns on his Cold War chessboard, and sacrificing the lives of thousands to his diplomatic schemes.
In fact, both images are caricatures. So is the persona Kissinger carefully presents to the world: a guttural intellectual with an eye for the ladies. Brooding and brilliant, self-mocking and self-promoting, impulsive and calculating, the true Kissinger is much more complicated. And although he’s one of the world’s most famous Americans, his world view has always been rooted in the traumatic experience of Nazi Germany.
Heinz Kissinger, as he was originally known, was born in the little town of Furth, Bavaria, in 1923, the son of a Jewish schoolteacher.
His first passion was not politics but football. But when the Nazis took power in 1933, new regulations meant that he could only play for a Jewish team against other Jewish teams.
At the age of 100, he remains a devoted follower of his local team, SpVgg Greuther Furth. Even during the talks to end the bloody war in Vietnam, he still asked the German embassy to send him their result every week. And whenever he visited Britain on some diplomatic enterprise, he tried to take in a match. Chelsea, Wolves, even Grimsby Town: Kissinger watched them all.
Kissinger became more than a statesman; he was a celebrity – as polls voted him the most admired man in America (Henry Kissinger pictured with Diana at a Gala party)
By the time Heinz entered his teens, his parents were becoming seriously worried about their future. And in 1938, with the Nazi noose tightening, they left Germany for good, heading first to London and then New York.
For Heinz, this was a deeply traumatic moment. In his authorised biography, historian Niall Ferguson describes how Heinz and his brother said a tearful farewell to their grandfather, who was dying of cancer and would never see his family again.
It was just as well that they did. In the next few years, hundreds of Kissinger’s neighbours were killed in the Nazi extermination camps. By 1945 the Jewish population in Furth had fallen from 1,990 to just 20.
Having settled in Manhattan, Heinz became Henry. He never lost his thick German accent. But when he saw boys in the street in New York, he no longer had to cross the road to avoid a beating. After Nazi Germany, he wrote later, America seemed ‘a dream, an incredible place where tolerance was natural and personal freedom unchallenged’.
Studying part-time while he spent his days working in a shaving brush factory, he dreamed of becoming an accountant. But then came the war.
Drafted into the U.S. army, he ended up in military counter-intelligence, rooting out men who had served in the Gestapo, and helping to liberate the Ahlem concentration camp. This, Kissinger said later, was the moment that truly shaped him.
He arranged to be photographed with beauties including Elizabeth Taylor (pictured), Lana Turner and Raquel Welch, and even enjoyed dates with starlets such as the Bond girl Jill St John
‘I had never seen people degraded to the level that people were in Ahlem,’ he said at a meeting of the survivors in 2007. ‘They barely looked human. They were skeletons. It was the single most shocking experience I have ever had, and that’s been impressed on my memory.’
When the war was over, Kissinger returned to the U.S. He studied at Harvard and writing a doctoral thesis about his great hero, the Austrian statesman Count Metternich, who had presided over the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
By now Kissinger had formed a very distinctive view of world affairs. Not surprisingly, given the traumas of his youth, he deeply distrusted enthusiasm and idealism, which he believed led to anarchy and chaos.
In his view, Metternich stood for order and stability. And although Kissinger admired America’s emphasis on democracy and freedom, he believed it was crucial to preserve the balance of power, lest the world fall again into darkness.
‘As a historian,’ he said, ‘you have to be conscious of the fact that every civilisation that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed.’
That was simply not the kind of thing most U.S. politicians said.
For 20 years, Kissinger flitted between Harvard and Washington, teaching international relations while working for a series of think tanks. Then, in 1968, the Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, asked him to serve as his foreign policy adviser in the last weeks of his campaign.
Although Kissinger admired America’s emphasis on democracy and freedom, he believed it was crucial to preserve the balance of power, lest the world fall again into darkness
So began one of the strangest relationships in U.S. history: Nixon the self-made man from California, brooding and vengeful; Kissinger the Jewish refugee from Germany, clever and boastful. Somehow they clicked, perhaps because they were both outsiders who felt snubbed by their well-heeled rivals. When Nixon moved into the White House in January 1969, Kissinger was merely his National Security Adviser. But he soon grew to eclipse the Secretary of State, William Rogers. Nixon got rid of Rogers and gave Kissinger control of U.S. foreign policy.
The chief priority was to end the Vietnam War, which had already cost tens of thousands of American lives. Kissinger knew the war was a drain on U.S. credibility. But he was deeply opposed to cutting and running. So for the next four years he followed a dual strategy.
On the one hand, he and Nixon intensified the war, hammering North Vietnam and Cambodia with more bombs than had been dropped in World War II by all the combatants combined.
Meanwhile, Kissinger pursued the meandering Paris peace talks with the North Vietnamese, desperate to find a deal that would allow America’s boys to come home with honour. At last, in January 1973, the deal was done. The U.S. troops came home, and the North Vietnamese promised to stop fighting — a promise they almost immediately broke, paving the way for their military takeover two years later.
For their efforts Kissinger and his opposite number, Le Duc Tho, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Tho turned it down.
Liberals saw Kissinger as a callous warmonger, while conservative Republicans thought he had given too much away to Moscow and Beijing (Pictured: Kissinger with Margaret Thatcher)
Kissinger accepted it, but gave the proceeds to the children of American casualties. By now, he was one of the world’s most celebrated political figures. Among his other achievements, he had helped to arrange a groundbreaking visit to Moscow, where Nixon shook hands with Leonid Brezhnev in the heart of the Kremlin.
His most spectacular coup, though, was the secret deal for the U.S. president to visit China in February 1972, a watershed in modern geopolitical history. A year earlier, Kissinger had smoothed the way by visiting in secret, but his aides were so excited they forgot to pack his shirts.
When Kissinger shook hands with the Chinese communist leaders, he was wearing a shirt far too big for him, the arms shortened with elastic bands and the label visibly reading Made in Taiwan. But the Chinese forgave him, and the result was the greatest diplomatic coup of the age.
Kissinger was now more than a statesman; he was a celebrity. Polls voted him the most admired man in America. The cover of Newsweek magazine depicted him as Super K, while Time magazine crowned him ‘the world’s indispensable man’. His personal life, too, was front-page news. An unhappy early marriage to Ann Fleischer, which produced two children, had ended in divorce.
Kissinger pushed for greater detente with the Soviet Union, striking an arms reduction deal during a snowbound summit in Vladivostok (Pictured: Kissinger shaking hands with Vladimir Putin in 2009)
Now Kissinger claimed to be a ‘secret swinger’. He arranged to be photographed with beauties including Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner and Raquel Welch, and even enjoyed dates with starlets such as the Bond girl Jill St John.
Infamously, Kissinger declared that ‘power is the ultimate aphrodisiac’. Perhaps it was. A poll of Playboy Bunnies found that he topped the list of men they ‘would most like to go out on a date with’, while in 1974 the Miss Universe contestants voted him ‘the greatest man in the world’. In March 1974 he married New York socialite Nancy Maginnes, who marked her 89th birthday a few weeks ago.
The end was nigh for his partnership with Nixon. Crippled by the Watergate scandal, the president resigned in August 1974 — though not before an excruciating late-night scene when he invited Kissinger over to the White House, asked him to pray with him and burst into tears.
Nixon begged Kissinger not to tell anybody about it. But with his insatiable thirst for gossip and publicity, the latter made sure the world knew all the details. Life with Nixon’s laidback successor, Gerald Ford, was rather calmer. Kissinger spent the next two years pushing for greater detente with the Soviet Union, striking an arms reduction deal during a snowbound summit in Vladivostok. By now he seemed the colossus of Western foreign policy.
Kissinger’s greatest political achievements were to end the Vietnam War and to bring China in from the cold
At Vladivostok, recalled one observer, even Leonid Brezhnev ‘took instruction from Kissinger almost as a student’.
Back home, though, Kissinger was coming under pressure from both Left and Right. Liberals saw him as a callous warmonger, while conservative Republicans thought he had given too much away to Moscow and Beijing. Under Kissinger, declared California’s governor Ronald Reagan, the U.S. had sunk to ‘number two in the world’.
If he ever became president, he added, his first priority would be to give Kissinger the boot.
When Ford lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, Kissinger was relieved to retreat to private life. He taught at Georgetown University, joined countless boards and gave innumerable lectures. He has since become immensely rich, thanks not least to his commercial links with China and worldwide consultancy work. But he remains intensely controversial, with liberal commentators routinely accusing him of being a war criminal.
Is this fair? It’s certainly true that during his time in office, pro-U.S. regimes were guilty of appalling atrocities, notably General Pinochet’s regime in Chile, the junta in Argentina and the dictatorship in Indonesia, to which he turned an obligingly blind eye.
On the other hand, similar things could be said of many other U.S. Secretaries of State. As his friends point out, it’s odd that only Kissinger is singled out for such ferocious criticism.
Partly this was his own fault, because his thirst for celebrity made him a target. But I think it’s very telling that many of his critics just happen to target the only Secretary of State with Jewish roots and a central European accent.
So as Kissinger marks his centenary, where does he stand in history? His greatest political achievements were to end the Vietnam War and to bring China in from the cold. But when his critics charge that he was sometimes too cynical, too calculating and too cavalier with other people’s lives, they aren’t entirely wrong.
His greatest intellectual accomplishment has been to make the case for hard-headed realism in world affairs. The enemy of stability, he insists, is an ‘excessively moralistic’ approach to foreign policy, which leads to ‘ineffectual posturing or adventuristic crusades’. There was a valuable lesson there for the likes of Tony Blair and George W. Bush — though they never chose to heed it.
Even at the age of 100 Kissinger remains an extraordinary man: a shy, stammering refugee who became one of the most powerful men in the world, dated some of Hollywood’s most beautiful women and seemed to hold the fate of nations in the palm of his hand.
For a short, round intellectual with thick glasses and an even thicker accent, that’s not bad going at all.