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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

‘Historian, More Than a Statesman’

Henry Kissinger, 1923–2023.

Henry_A._Kissinger,_U.S._Secretary_of_State,_1973-1977
Credit: U.S. Department of State

“The logic of war is power, and power has no inherent limit. The logic of peace is proportion, and proportion implies limitation,” wrote Henry Kissinger in a paragraph that defined the instincts that guided him in his most consequential decisions during and after his tenure as the most influential statesman and diplomat of the most powerful country in human history. Kissinger defied rhetorical hyperbole because his life itself could be one. 

Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born in Bavaria amid the smoldering wreckage of the foolish, fratricidal old world in 1923, after the collapse of four globe-spanning empires and the near-bankruptcy of a fifth. Filmographic media first incorporated sound in the same year. The first electric shaver was invented that year, and the first traffic light warning signals were patented. The Irish Free State joined the League of Nations, and Turkey formally became a republic. Lee Kuan Yew was born that year. The British Empire was at its territorial peak, and the Mandate for Palestine came into effect, officially as a protectorate of Palestine and the Emirate of Transjordan. Vladimir Lenin suffered his third stroke that year, rendering him bedridden and mute. Calvin Coolidge was the president of a young country, still recognizably functioning as a republic as designed. 

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Intellectual mediocrities and simpletons have since debated Kissinger’s legacy, and often have dubbed him a war criminal in their ideology-addled brains. It is often easy to judge from an armchair with the benefit of hindsight, without considering the trade-offs and the burden of decisions affecting the lives of potentially millions—to question whether it was prudent to bomb Cambodia to demonstrate “resolve,” whether it was prudent to ignore Pakistani barbarism in Bangladesh and not balance a Soviet client state in India, whether it was prudent to support the toppling of socialism in Chile. 

Kissinger’s legacy is, however, defined by three primary decisions of superhuman foresight that shaped the world we live in. A grandmaster of classical balance of power, he exploited the Sino–Soviet rift in 1972 by tacitly backing the (then) lesser of the two evils, China, to break away what was at the time an existential threat for the United States. The blame for the rise of China is often unduly levied on Kissinger, when it should be on lesser administrations that came after. It is they who wrecked the “peace dividend” by hollowing out America’s manufacturing base in the ’90s, afflicted with a bout of liberal idealism, and who lost sight of the importance of playing Russia and China against each other. 

In 1971, Kissinger began a series of secret meetings with his Vietnamese counterpart, Le Duc Tho, eventually leading to the Paris Peace Accords. The resulting ceasefire between North and South Vietnam led to the American withdrawal from an unnecessary war. 

Finally, in 1974, Kissinger helped negotiate the first Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement and the Syrian-Israeli disengagement within a month. Other American diplomats can only dream of such a record. 

“By freeing the Jews,” Alan John Percivale Taylor wrote, “Joseph II called into existence the most loyal of Austrians. The Jews alone were not troubled by the conflict between dynastic and national claims: they were Austrians without reserve.”

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More than foreign policy, it was Kissinger’s identity, or his perception of his own identity, that shaped his worldview. “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Kissinger said in the Nixon tapes, when confronted with the moral dilemma of humanitarian interventions. “It is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

Nixon agreed: “We can’t blow up the world because of it.” Kissinger was born in the ashes and chaos of the Weimar Republic, eventually observing the full horror of democracy and public passions with the rise of Adolf Hitler, in what was then, by every measure, the most polished, rational, educated, technologically advanced, secular, and civilized of all the states in Europe. 

His PhD thesis, perhaps the best book on the subject, therefore dealt with his hero Prince Metternich, who shaped the world in a Concert of great power equilibrium after the previous epoch of European (and global) chaos, the Napoleonic Wars. “A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security,” Kissinger eventually wrote. 

Not many people can truly move beyond the pulls of their religious identity or the place of their birth and dedicate themselves to the interest of the land where they live. Machiavelli was one, as was Metternich. Kissinger was not troubled by his religion, or his place of birth, or morality. Just as Habsburg imperial officers were Austrian above all, regardless of their faith or ethnicity, Kissinger was an American diplomat without reserve. 

His concerns about mass migration without assimilation remained until his last day. “It was a grave mistake to let in so many people of totally different culture and religion and concepts, because it creates a pressure group inside each country that does that,” he said in one of his last interviews. He rightly explained one of the most formative years of our lifetime, and, in his cryptic way, warned how cyclical disorder can be after structural forces and elite mismanagement ignite reactionary democratic passions. 

“I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretenses,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.”

A realist man, ideally suited for the royal courts of the nineteenth century, he helped shape the twentieth while warning against the belle epoque’s romanticism and idealism. “I think of myself as a historian more than as a statesman,” Kissinger once reflected. “As a historian, you have to be conscious of the fact that every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed. History is a tale of efforts that failed, of aspirations that weren't realized, of wishes that were fulfilled and then turned out to be different from what one expected. So, as a historian, one has to live with a sense of the inevitability of tragedy.”

Henry Kissinger died Wednesday at his home in Kent, Connecticut. He is survived by his wife Nancy, two children, and five grandchildren, and a new world that was born around the time he wrote his PhD thesis. He was 100 years old. His warnings remain cryptic, yet profound and prescient.  

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