Dr Henry Kissinger, the brilliant scholar, statesman, political activist, author and professor at Harvard, died on 29 November 2023 at the age 0f 100. Even at the age when most people retire from work or even from life he remained physically and mentally active and alert. He is one who handcrafted the shape of world history in the 1960s and 1970s from the Vietnam War to the Arab Israel conflict, recognition of communist China and India-Pakistan relations during 1971-2. He has been loved and hated for his role in world politics, but love him or hate him, we just cannot ignore or deny his monumental role as the grand master of the diplomatic chess board of the 20th century.
Henry Kissinger’s controversial legacy in the US foreign policy has a global impact and will continue to influence politics in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. For his admirers he was a master super diplomat and a genius in diplomatic negotiations who enabled the United States to ensure the success of regimes helpful to maintaining its hegemony in the world order, and cutting the influence of the Soviet Union in the period of the cold war. To his detractors, he was a war criminal who organised or facilitated the death of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians – often under the cover of secrecy. No matter what is the truth of his monumental role in world politics and history, he remains the most significant diplomat and statesman in modern world history.
Kissinger’s one great contribution to world peace is his role in pushing the policy of détente that shaped US relations with the USSR in the 1970s. During the decade of the 1970s, he along with Richard Nixon negotiated the SALT arms control treaty that aimed at reducing the total number of nuclear weapons in the world and his great belief was that international relations are driven by competition between the great powers. During his tenure as a professor at Harvard University, he published a book that established the case for “little” or tactical nuclear weapons that would allow atomic powers to deploy their warheads without triggering a world-ending conflict. The policy of de-escalation with the Soviet Union, although somewhat reversed under the later Republican administration of Ronald Reagan, began a gradual reduction in the number of nuclear weapons held by both powers.
He was the architect of the American policy on China. Singlehandedly, he managed to bring the US and China closer, resulting in the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. In 1971, as National Security Advisor to Richard Nixon he made his secretive dash to Beijing from Islamabad and met Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. This secret summit, described by the National Committee on US-China relations as “The Trip that Changed the World,” laid the groundwork for Nixon himself to travel there the following year – the first time a US president had done so. Diplomatic relations with China were fully established by 1979, and the US used its friendship with China to increase leverage over the Soviet Union, amid a gradual breakdown in relations between Beijing and Moscow.
Kissinger’s most controversial and greatly debated legacy is his role in the Vietnam war and his policy advice to the US government about South East Asia: that is, the expansion of the US role in the Vietnam War and the secret bombing campaign in Cambodia in 1969/70, as well as US support for the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975. He has been accused of war crimes and blamed for casualties on both sides of the Vietnam War between 1969 to its conclusion in 1975. Kissinger was responsible for a policy of “Vietnamisation”, in which South Vietnamese troops were asked to shoulder the burden of conflict with the North, as US troops withdrew. The strategy ultimately resulted in a drawn-out end to the conflict, reduced public support in the US and the fall of Saigon in 1973. In 1975, Henry Kissinger along with the North Vietnamese negotiator Lee Duc Tho, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his role in ending the Vietnam War.
Another enduring legacy that Kissinger has left behind is the invention of ‘shuttle diplomacy’ – during which he travelled back and forth endlessly during the 1970s. After the Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli war of 1973, he dashed from one country to another, and managed to bring about peace between the warring factions that resulted in ceasefire agreements in 1974-75 between Israel, Egypt and Syria. Kissinger was himself a German-Jewish citizen of the USA and was a great supporter of Israel and its territorial conquests in the 1967 war, but was very keen to reduce the influence of the USSR in the Middle East. His policy on the Middle East reflected his wider view of the world as an arena of great superpower competition, in which the US relationship with the USSR and China was more important than smaller conflicts between medium-sized states.
In 1970, Kissinger and Nixon planned the overthrow of the elected President of Chile Salvador Allende with a secretive operation. This resulted in a military coup and brought in the dictator general Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Declassified papers in 2013 revealed that Kissinger told General Pinochet in 1976: “We want to help, not undermine you. You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.”
In Argentina, Kissinger is believed to have sanctioned the ‘Dirty War’ which led to the death of up to 30,000 people. Following a coup in March 1976, he told the new Argentine military regime’s foreign minister in October: “The quicker you succeed the better. The human rights problem is a growing one...we want a stable situation.”
Dr Henry Kissinger celebrated his 100th birthday before calling it a day, and now, in the aftermath of a tempestuous and controversial public career, it is yet to be determined what his own legacy is to be.
He can now rest assured that his steadfast and unflinching support for the US role as a superpower, irrespective of the cost in human lives, will be a major part of that legacy. Kissinger has shown little in the way of a moral conscience – and because of that, history will not absolve him lightly.