Kissinger at 100

Just as important as the lights in Kissinger’s career were his shadows. Although he helped to stabilize international relations, he disregarded ethical and moral considerations when necessary.

Henry Kissinger, one of the most controversial figures in recent U.S. history, celebrates his 100th birthday today. Despite being physically diminished, the mind of the “diplomat of the century” does not seem to show signs of deterioration.

He continues to give interviews to the world’s most reputable media and advise world-class leaders, as well as maintain his publishing prowess. Last year, he published “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy,” a book in which he reflects on the lives of six leaders he knew intimately. Like most of his publications, it is on almost every bestseller list.

The former secretary of state reaches his 100th birthday credited with being the longest living person to have been a member of a U.S. cabinet. Therefore, a discussion of his life is not limited to his own legacy, but instead gives living testimony to the legacy of an entire generation of diplomats of the most powerful nation in the world, who shaped the world order for decades with their decisions.

Kissinger was born on May 27, 1923, in Fürth, Germany, into a family of Jewish origin. He arrived in the United States as a refugee in 1938, fleeing Nazi Germany.

Once settled in the country that would be home for the rest of his life, Kissinger obtained a doctorate in political science at Harvard and began his academic career as a professor at the same prestigious institution. In 1969, he was appointed national security advisor by President Richard Nixon and subsequently became secretary of state in 1973, serving in both positions until 1977.

During his most influential years, Kissinger played a key role in U.S. foreign policy. He was one of the architects of the policy of détente with the Soviet Union and helped establish diplomatic relations with China, a move seen as bold at the time. In addition, he played a leading role in managing the Yom Kippur War crisis and in the Vietnam peace negotiations. In recognition of the latter work, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, one of the most controversial prizes the Swedish Academy has ever awarded; however, just as important as the lights in Kissinger’s career were his shadows.

The former diplomat has been harshly criticized for his role in the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, as well as for backing Pakistan in the war to liberate Bangladesh. His support for authoritarian regimes and human rights violations in countries such as Chile and Argentina have made him one of the great villains for many political movements in Latin America and other regions of the world. Journalist Nicholas Thompson once summed up his legacy: “Henry Kissinger is one of the worst people to ever be a force for good.”

That quotation sums up his role as a promoter of realpolitik during the 20th century, a diplomatic approach prioritizing strategic interests of the United States over ethical and moral considerations. With the priority of maintaining U.S. hegemony, it also managed to stabilize international relations in the rest of the world. In Kissinger’s own words, “The United States has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” This approach had a powerful impact on the stability of the world: for example, avoidance of direct confrontation, when nuclear threat loomed over the Cold War. However, can we justify the fact that it allowed abusive dictatorships from Chile to East Timor?

As a result of Kissinger’s incisive point of view and his irreducible pragmatism, the world did not become more democratic, but it did become more stable.

Today, when trade, technological and geopolitical tensions between China and the United States are escalating, when a threat of volatility similar to that experienced during the Cold War menaces the global landscape, dilemmas such as those exposed by Kissinger’s legacy will resurface within American foreign policy.

In a recent interview with The Economist, Kissinger said, “Well, the basic question is this: ‘Was it possible?’ Or ‘Is it possible for China and the United States to coexist without the threat of all-out war with each other?’ I thought and still think that it was, that the negative proof has not yet been given.”

While he surely doesn’t have another 100 years left in him, hopefully he will have time enough to see his prediction come true.

About this publication

About Patricia Simoni 184 Articles
I began contributing to Watching America in 2009 and continue to enjoy working with its dedicated translators and editors. Latin America, where I lived and worked for over four years, is of special interest to me. Presently a retiree, I live in Morgantown, West Virginia, where I enjoy the beauty of this rural state and traditional Appalachian fiddling with friends. Working toward the mission of WA, to help those in the U.S. see ourselves as others see us, gives me a sense of purpose.

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