The Architect of US Hegemony: An Obituary of Henry Kissinger


The poster-boy of Realpolitik, Henry Kissinger’s work as an American statesman and diplomat has left a notable impact on the world. Now, at the age of 100, he has passed away, leaving behind a legacy of complex foreign policy.

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Image by Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum

By Tom Lindley

In 1973 there were to be two Nobel Peace Prize, for their efforts in negotiating a ceasefire in the Vietnam War. The first recipient, Le Duc Tho, refused to accept the award, stating that the Peace Prize Committee had put the aggressor and the victim of aggression on the same par. The second recipient was Henry Kissinger. The architect of US foreign policy at the height of the Cold War, Kissinger’s nomination caused great controversy, famously leading to two committee members resigning in protest.

As the news broke on 29 November 2023 that the German-American politician, had passed away in his Connecticut home at the age of 100, now seems a more fitting time than any to reflect on the complicated legacy of Henry Kissinger.

His life of great controversy and influence never seemed a likely outcome for the American diplomat. Born in Germany in 1923, the young Kissinger came from a Jewish family that ran a small business in Furth. What seemed like a typical lower-middle class upbringing was turned on its head in 1933, when Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor. Kissinger vividly remembered being harassed and beaten by the Hitler Youth as a child. Fearing for their wellbeing in Nazi Germany, the Kissinger family fled to America as Jewish refugees in 1938, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

At the age of twenty Kissinger was drafted into the US Army in 1943, where he began his service as an infantry soldier, but ultimately transferred into a military intelligence role due to his German language skills. During this time, he was naturalised as an American citizen.

His time in military intelligence undoubtedly influenced his diplomatic career. Following the war, he commenced studies at Harvard University with ambitions to work with the FBI. However, his academic career took off and he remained at Harvard, while also consulting several government agencies.

By 1969, his widening political reach had landed him the job of National Security Advisor. Initially supporting Nelson Rockefeller to become US President, he switched allegiance to Richard Nixon, despite having previously called him “the most dangerous of all the men running to be president.” Perhaps Kissinger was correct in his evaluation of Nixon. After all, the former President was responsible for elevating Kissinger into a position that has allowed him to be blamed for massacres on an industrial scale.

Known for his Machiavellian brand of Realpolitik, his modus operandi consisted predominantly of backchannels between himself and Nixon, the Soviets and the Chinese, thereby circumventing the State Department and Foreign Service, who he regarded as being responsible for sucking the “vigour and creativity” out of American diplomacy.

Despite initially having little interest in China towards the start of his career, Kissinger was eventually persuaded by President Nixon to engage in rapprochement with China. His pragmatism and dedication to creating tangible results significantly quelled ever-rising Sino-American tensions. After meeting the former Premier of China, Zhou Enlai, Kissinger focussed on mending relations by promising to remove two-thirds of US troops from Taiwan after the Vietnam War and committing to removing the remainder when relations improved further.

His anti-establishment process put him at the forefront of foreign affairs, which in turn allowed him to pin the two communist powerhouses – Russia and China – against one another. In an act of diplomatic manoeuvring on par with the statecraft of nineteenth century statesmen he wrote about as a student, Kissinger opened relations with the Soviets and China. His motivation was to pin them against each other until they became willing to work with America to bolster their own influence in the East.

In the pursuit of American expansionism, he had overseen the deaths of a countless people and the spilling of the Vietnam war into neighbouring Laos and Cambodia. Fearing communist influence would spread into these nations, his militarism led to what Nixon later claimed to be “the most successful military operation of the entire war.” Compared to the rest of the military operations in Vietnam, President Nixon was largely correct in his analysis. However, critics of the conflict have questioned the cost in which this triumph came at.

Most famously is the late travel writer and chef, Anthony Bourdain, who has stated his disdain for Kissinger on several occasions, notably saying, “Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to [Slobodan] Miloševic.”

Confrontation and protest over his actions was nothing new to Henry Kissinger. Anti-war protests throughout the 1970s captured the sentiment that was later expressed by Bourdain. His acceptance by the American political right never recovered from his stint in politics either. They saw his constant desire to be involved in foreign conflicts and willingness to engage with Russia and China as un-American. They kept a rigid sense of ideology that he failed to.

While his time in frontline politics only lasted for eight years, his overarching influence has felt near-eternal. His passing may signal the end of his life, but it will take much more than death to see the end of his legacy.