The diplomat exercised an unparalleled control over U.S. international affairs and policymaking. He was also the target of relentless critics, who deemed him unprincipled and amoral.
November 29, 2023 at 8:45 p.m. EST
His death was announced in a statement by his consulting firm, which did not give a cause.
As a Jewish immigrant fleeing Nazi Germany, Dr. Kissinger spoke little English when he arrived in the United States as a teenager in 1938. But he harnessed a keen intellect, a mastery of history and his skill as a writer to rise quickly from Harvard undergraduate to Harvard faculty member before establishing himself in Washington.
As the only person ever to be White House national security adviser and secretary of state at the same time, he exercised a control over U.S. foreign policy that has rarely been equaled by anyone who was not president.
He and Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho shared the Nobel Peace Prize for the secret negotiations that produced the 1973 Paris agreement and ended U.S. military participation in the Vietnam War. His famous “shuttle diplomacy” after the 1973 Middle East war helped stabilize relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
As the impresario of Nixon’s historic opening to China and as the theoretician of détente with the Soviet Union, Dr. Kissinger earned much of the credit for seismic policy shifts that redirected the course of world affairs.
With his German accent, incisive wit, owlish looks and zest for socializing in Hollywood and dating movie stars, he was instantly recognized all over the world, in stark contrast to most of his understated predecessors. Shamelessly courting publicity, he was as much a star of the tabloids as he was of the heavy-duty quarterlies that ruminated over his ideas about geostrategy. When he was appointed secretary of state, a Gallup poll found him to be the most admired person in the country.
But he also became the target of relentless critics who deemed him unprincipled and amoral. He refrained from traveling to Oslo to accept the Nobel award for fear of hostile demonstrations — Tho rejected the prize outright — and in later years the animosity he inspired would intensify.
What he viewed as pragmatic, many writers and analysts regarded as unprincipled maneuvering, unguided by respect for human rights or even human life. Dr. Kissinger achieved power, fame and wealth beyond the dreams of most people in public life, yet he spent his final decades defending himself and his place in history, explaining that he did what he had to do.
Ronald Reagan and other conservatives blasted Dr. Kissinger’s quest for accommodation with Moscow as a sellout of countries then in the Warsaw Pact, and of American values. On the other hand, President George W. Bush called him “one of our nation’s most accomplished and respected public servants,” and senior officials of the Bush administration consulted him frequently about international affairs.
On the left, loud voices accused him of a coldblooded pragmatism that put strategic gains ahead of human rights. Some of his critics said the Paris agreement left a longtime ally, the government of South Vietnam, to a dark fate as the North Vietnamese seized control. Others accused him of letting the war continue for three years while he negotiated a deal that he could have had from the beginning.
Critics held Dr. Kissinger responsible for the 1969 “secret bombing” of neutral Cambodia and for the American ground invasion of that country the following year, which expanded the conflict in Southeast Asia and led to a takeover of the country by the murderous Khmer Rouge.
They said his policy of promoting the shah of Iran as the anchor of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf encouraged the shah to raise oil prices and fed the megalomania that led to the Iranian revolution. They accused him of conniving at the 1974 coup that overthrew the government of Cyprus, and of supporting Pakistan’s brutal campaign to quash a secessionist rebellion in what is now Bangladesh because Pakistan was his secret conduit to the Chinese.
And they said Dr. Kissinger was at least indirectly responsible for the CIA-inspired coup that overthrew the legally elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile — as well as the earlier murder of Gen. René Schneider, commander in chief of Chile’s armed forces, who staunchly opposed a coup.
Two of the most vociferous critics, Christopher Hitchens and William Shawcross, branded Dr. Kissinger a war criminal. Journalist Seymour M. Hersh, in “The Price of Power,” said Dr. Kissinger and Nixon were basically two of a kind: They “remained blind to the human costs of their actions. The dead and maimed in Vietnam and Cambodia — as in Chile, Bangladesh, Biafra and the Middle East — seemed not to count as the President and his national security adviser battled the Soviet Union, their misconceptions, their political enemies, and each other.”
At the very least, those who did not admire Dr. Kissinger felt that his focus on Cold War realities and his willingness to use force — openly or covertly — to advance U.S. objectives blinded him to humanitarian and human rights considerations.
As one example, they cited his opposition to the Jackson-Vanik amendment, legislation that conditioned normal trade relations with the Soviet Union on Moscow’s allowing Soviet Jews to emigrate. Dr. Kissinger, himself a Jewish refugee from persecution, considered the amendment a hindrance to his pursuit of détente.
His willingness to place strategic interest ahead of high-minded values was demonstrated in July 1975, when he persuaded Ford not to meet exiled Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn at the White House. Solzhenitsyn was a living symbol of courageous resistance to Soviet oppression, but Dr. Kissinger feared a negative impact on his policy of détente with Moscow.
He was operating, he said, “in a world where power remains the ultimate arbiter.” Reagan, then governor of California, made an issue of the Solzhenitsyn affair when he challenged Ford for the Republican presidential nomination the next year.
In his comprehensive biography of Dr. Kissinger, journalist Walter Isaacson came to the conclusion that he “had an instinctive feel for power and for creating a new global balance that could help America cope with its withdrawal syndrome after Vietnam. But it was not matched by a similar feel for the strength to be derived from the openness of America’s democratic system or for the moral values that are the true source of its global influence.”
Isaacson, who had full access to Dr. Kissinger and many of his friends, described him as “brilliant, conspiratorial, furtive, sensitive to linkages and nuances, prone to rivalries and power struggles, charming yet at times deceitful.”
Dr. Kissinger, responding to his critics, ascribed to realpolitik a moral imperative of its own.
“History presents unambiguous alternatives only in the rarest of circumstances,” he wrote in “Ending the Vietnam War,” published in 2003. “Most of the time, statesmen must strike a balance between their values and their necessities, or to put it another way, they are obliged to approach their goals not in one leap but in stages, each by definition imperfect by absolute standards. It is always possible to invoke that imperfection as an excuse to recoil before responsibilities, or as a pretext to indict one’s own society.”
Or as he put it more bluntly in another context, “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”
Thomas A. Schwartz of Vanderbilt University, who interviewed Dr. Kissinger late in life for his 2020 biography, found that even after decades of criticism, the former policymaker adhered to “his own philosophy of international relations, [which] held that in a tragic world, a statesman was not able to choose between good and evil but only among different forms of evil.”
Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born in Furth, Germany, on May 27, 1923. He became Henry after he moved with his family to the United States.
His parents, Louis and Paula, were respectable middle-class Jews of the type who thought of themselves as entirely German until Adolf Hitler taught them otherwise. Young Heinz loved soccer and excelled at his lessons, but throughout his school years he and his friends were bullied by Nazi gangs as the Jews of Furth were increasingly restricted and ostracized from German life.
He was 12 when the Nuremberg Laws stripped Germany’s Jews of their citizenship. His father lost his teaching job. Sponsored by a relative in New York, the Kissinger family packed the few things they were allowed to keep and left Germany for the United States in August 1938, three months before the rampage of Kristallnacht sealed the fate of most Jews who stayed.
Dr. Kissinger said later in life that this experience had left no permanent mark on his psyche, but friends and relatives interviewed by Isaacson said otherwise. “Dr. Kissinger is a strong man, but the Nazis were able to damage his soul,” said Fritz Kraemer, a Kissinger intimate quoted by Isaacson.
The humiliation of his father and the destruction of their community, Isaacson wrote, “made him seek order, and it led him to hunger for acceptance, even if it meant trying to please those he considered his intellectual inferiors.”
Those traits would surface years later in Dr. Kissinger’s relationship with Nixon. Many who knew him in the U.S. Army, academic life and government said his desire to please everyone and his craving for praise derived from an outcast’s desire for acceptance.
In New York, the Kissingers settled in Washington Heights on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a largely Jewish neighborhood. Dr. Kissinger enrolled in the local public high school, George Washington, where he quickly mastered English and excelled in other subjects. He worked in a shaving-brush factory to earn extra cash and enrolled in accounting classes at City College of New York.
Before he could get his degree, he was drafted into the Army in 1943, during World War II. He studied engineering before being assigned, just after D-Day in June 1944, to the 84th Infantry Division at swampy Camp Claiborne, La. He impressed another German-speaking soldier, Kraemer — later known as “the man who discovered Kissinger” — and through his influence was assigned to intelligence duties.
When the 84th deployed to Germany after the Battle of the Bulge, he found himself a conquering occupier of the people who had persecuted his family into exile just a few years earlier. He received the Bronze Star medal and was promoted to sergeant for his work in organizing a local government and ferreting out members of the Gestapo.
When he returned to civilian life in 1947, the nation’s colleges, even the most elite, were reaching out to young veterans. He joined Harvard’s class of 1950 as a 24-year-old sophomore, beginning the academic career that would propel him to the pinnacle of American life.
While still an undergraduate, he married his high school girlfriend, Anneliese “Ann” Fleischer, a fellow refugee who was working as a bookkeeper. They had two children, Elizabeth and David, before divorcing in 1964.
At Harvard, he avoided student social life, studied hard and sought the favor of powerhouse members of the Harvard faculty such as scientist George Kistiakowsky and historian William Yandell Elliott.
Through such connections, he was able as a graduate student to start a quarterly magazine of world affairs, Confluence, which attracted as contributors such luminaries as McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Paul Nitze. While young and still unknown, Kissinger was moving into the world of foreign policy heavyweights, a world he would come to dominate.
His PhD thesis was written as the United States was extricating itself from the Korean War and when the Cold War with the Soviet Union dominated policy discussion. Looking for applicable lessons, he analyzed how Austria’s Prince Metternich and Britain’s Viscount Castlereagh restored order in Europe after the Napoleonic wars.
Titled “A World Restored,” the thesis was soon published in book form. That and an article in Foreign Affairs — in which he challenged the value of a policy of massive retaliation in nuclear war — launched him on a path to academic stardom.
He took a leave from Harvard to accept a job at the Council on Foreign Relations as staff director of a study group examining the topic of nuclear weapons and foreign policy. In the group were such prominent people as banker David Rockefeller, Army Lt. Gen. James Gavin and Nitze, former policy planning director at the State Department.
In a maneuver that anticipated his style as a high-level government official, he converted this prestigious panel’s staff into a research team for a book that became his own. He was 31 when he produced a 450-page tome, “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,” that argued for a policy of limited use of nuclear weapons.
At about that time, Dr. Kissinger met David Rockefeller’s brother Nelson, who was then a foreign policy adviser to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and who would soon be elected governor of New York. Nelson Rockefeller, a backslapping optimist, became Dr. Kissinger’s patron and his mentor in the world of Republican politics, despite their very different personalities.
Dr. Kissinger continued to teach at Harvard and write, but by the time John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, he wanted to join the ranks of men who actually wielded power in international affairs, and the place to do that was Washington, not Cambridge. He became a part-time consultant to Kennedy and later to President Lyndon B. Johnson, but his political loyalties remained with Rockefeller.
After Nixon was elected in 1968, according to Dr. Kissinger, he received a call from a Nixon aide with a job offer. Nixon and Dr. Kissinger barely knew each other, but former senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.), who had been Nixon’s running mate in 1960 and became an influential U.S. ambassador in Vietnam and elsewhere, recommended Dr. Kissinger for national security adviser.
In Nixon’s White House, Dr. Kissinger was a complicated, ambitious, often devious man serving a complicated, erratic and often devious president. Their intimate but uneasy relationship was intensified by the magnitude of the history-making events that erupted in rapid succession during Nixon’s first term.
A single week in September 1970, for example, brought Syria’s invasion of Jordan, the discovery that the Soviet Union had sent a nuclear-armed submarine and other warships to Cuba, Nixon’s order to the CIA to block the installation of Allende as president of Chile, and the resumption of the secret Paris talks with the North Vietnamese after a five-month hiatus.
At such times Nixon would stay awake through most of the night, calling Dr. Kissinger and other senior officials at all hours to issue bizarre orders that they could not or would not carry out, and Dr. Kissinger would rage at staff members as tensions and voices rose.
In one extreme example, Dr. Kissinger was in Moscow trying to negotiate a cease-fire in the 1973 Middle East war when he received instructions from Nixon to hand Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev a letter saying that the United States wanted a long-term partnership with Moscow to establish peace in the region.
Dr. Kissinger — who had his hands full trying to achieve a cease-fire and who knew that Nixon was grappling with a crisis in the White House because of the Watergate scandal — not only refused to give the letter to Brezhnev, he also rejected the instructions as “unacceptable.”
He fired off a letter to his deputy, Brent Scowcroft, saying he was “shocked at the tone of the instructions, the poor judgment in the context of the Brezhnev letter and the failure to let me know in advance that a press statement would be issued.” Soviet influence was diminishing in the Middle East; the last thing Dr. Kissinger wanted was to bolster it with an arrangement such as Nixon was seeking.
Throughout those tense episodes, Dr. Kissinger found time for meals and long conversations with favored members of the news media, including Walter Cronkite of CBS, C.L. Sulzberger of the New York Times, Hugh Sidey of Time, his longtime friend and conservative author William F. Buckley Jr. and even the humor columnist Art Buchwald.
He won plaudits from the press even though his most important work was done in total secrecy — he often visited foreign capitals on critical missions without informing even the U.S. ambassadors there — and he manipulated journalists the way he manipulated everyone else.
In the peak years of his power, most of the coverage in the mainstream media was little short of adulatory. Asked by a reporter whether he preferred to be addressed as “Mr. Secretary” or “Dr. Kissinger,” he replied, “Excellency will do.”
The fame produced by saturation media coverage contributed to his power and to the wealth of his later years. But the quest for celebrity and popular adulation also led him into some embarrassing moments, in particular a 1972 interview with the Italian writer Oriana Fallaci. Fallaci asked if he thought of himself as a diplomatic chess player, but he offered a different analogy.
“Americans,” he said, “like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into the town, the village, with his horse and nothing else. This cowboy doesn’t have to be courageous. All he needs is to be alone, to show others that he rides into the town and does everything by himself.”
This “lone cowboy” image of the short, bespectacled, owlish, accented Dr. Kissinger provoked widespread ridicule. There was more of the same when The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn, at a Georgetown party, asked him if he was a “swinger.” “Well, you couldn’t call me a swinger because of my job,” he replied. “Why don’t you just assume I’m a secret swinger.” Like “lone cowboy,” his “secret swinger” description of himself immediately entered Kissinger lore.
As much as Dr. Kissinger courted the press, his boss Nixon loathed reporters and was infuriated when the media broke news stories that clearly came from individuals inside the administration — especially the Pentagon Papers, a history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam that detailed government deception spanning several administrations.
In an effort to stop the “leaks,” Nixon ordered the FBI to tap the telephones of certain reporters and their suspected sources. Dr. Kissinger, who flew into a rage exceeding even Nixon’s when the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, collaborated with this illegal program, giving the FBI names of people whose phones were to be wiretapped. The targets included journalists, State and Defense department officials, members of Kissinger’s staff and presidential speechwriter William Safire.
Dr. Kissinger did not deny afterward that he abetted the wiretapping but said in his memoirs that “I simply went along with what I had no reason to doubt was legal.” He also denounced “the immorality of those who, in their contempt for their trust, attempted to sabotage national policies and risked American lives.”
Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, said the wiretapping program “began with Henry’s anger” over media exposure of the secret bombing of Cambodia.
The airstrikes on neutral Cambodia and the subsequent ground invasion by U.S. troops stirred fury across the United States and prompted the resignations of some of Dr. Kissinger’s most accomplished staff members, including Anthony Lake, who later became national security adviser to President Bill Clinton.
But Dr. Kissinger was unapologetic. He argued that Cambodia’s neutrality was first violated by North Vietnam and that the United States had no obligation to allow Hanoi to use Cambodia as a sanctuary for attacks on Americans.
That U.S. actions made Cambodia a participant in a war for which it was woefully ill equipped, and opened the door to the takeover of the country by the murderous Khmer Rouge, may have been unfortunate, but to Dr. Kissinger it was not his problem.
In addition to the wiretaps, Nixon’s obsession with leaks led to creation of the White House unit assigned to stop them known as “the Plumbers.” Thus was planted the seed of Watergate political scandal and White House coverup that would destroy Nixon’s presidency. Because Dr. Kissinger did not order any illegal break-ins or participate in coverups, he — almost alone among Nixon’s senior advisers — emerged unscathed from Watergate to continue his government career.
Nixon was elected to end the unpopular war in Vietnam, but Dr. Kissinger convinced him that the United States would lose all credibility in world affairs if it simply walked away. Thus the war continued, and widened into Cambodia, throughout Nixon’s first term, even though the number of U.S. ground troops was steadily reduced.
As Nixon and Dr. Kissinger reduced tensions with China and the Soviet Union and a major North Vietnamese military offensive stalled in the spring of 1972, Hanoi became amenable at last to a negotiated settlement.
The deal Dr. Kissinger brokered allowed the South Vietnamese government of Nguyen Van Thieu to remain in place, but it also allowed the North Vietnamese troops inside the South to remain there — and thus ensured Saigon’s downfall two years later, the “decent interval” that Dr. Kissinger had hoped to achieve.
When Thieu balked at the terms, the White House had to decide what was worse: resuming the war or forcing a longtime ally to swallow a suicidal agreement. To reassure Thieu and perhaps win a few more minor concessions from Hanoi, Nixon ordered the “Christmas bombing” of the North Vietnamese capital, in which the U.S. B-52 fleet dropped bombs on civilian areas for nine days.
The bombings sparked worldwide outrage — especially when it became clear that the peace agreement to which Hanoi finally agreed contained nearly the same terms as those in the final accords that Hanoi had accepted before the nine-day aerial assault.
Unlike with the Paris agreement, there was no downside to what was probably Dr. Kissinger’s single greatest achievement: the secret diplomacy that led to Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, an event that reshaped the global balance of power. Nixon, who built his political career on opposition to communism, nevertheless had long wanted to go to China, and the Chinese were willing.
On a trip to Pakistan, Dr. Kissinger evaded the traveling press corps by feigning illness and flew secretly to Beijing to secure the presidential invitation, which astonished the world when it was announced.
The trip produced, among other things, the “Shanghai Communique,” in which the United States acknowledged that “Taiwan is a part of China.” The two countries also agreed that once this principle was established, they would not do anything to change Taiwan’s quasi-independent status. That is still the basis of U.S. and Chinese policy on this relentlessly discomforting issue.
Another of Dr. Kissinger’s achievements was the 1972 SALT I arms-control treaty with the Soviet Union, negotiated when the two nuclear superpowers were locked in Cold War belligerency and confronting each other in proxy wars around the globe.
The SALT agreements put limits on anti-ballistic-missile defense systems and on the deployment of offensive missiles and effectively committed the two countries to détente rather than confrontation.
The third of Dr. Kissinger’s great accomplishments was the “shuttle diplomacy” that followed the 1973 Middle East war. That conflict erupted two weeks after Dr. Kissinger was sworn in as secretary of state while retaining his White House position as national security adviser.
In most administrations, the president’s national security adviser has been more a coordinator than a policymaker, working with all international affairs agencies to deliver their best counsel and analysis to the commander in chief, including options for action. That was not Dr. Kissinger’s style.
A skillful and ruthless bureaucratic infighter, he cut the State Department and Secretary of State William P. Rogers out of the most critical decisions and policy initiatives during Nixon’s first term, and he opened secret channels to sub-Cabinet-level officials at State and the Pentagon to collect information without the knowledge of their chiefs.
Rogers, a gentleman diplomat of the old school, was not even told of the China initiative until the last minute. Then Dr. Kissinger excluded him from Nixon’s historic meeting with Chinese leader Mao Zedong. That was probably the worst of the repeated humiliations suffered by Rogers as secretary of state — at least until Nixon reluctantly decided to replace him with Dr. Kissinger after winning reelection in 1972.
The 16-day war that began on Oct. 6, 1973, with coordinated attacks on Israel by Egypt and Syria would confront Dr. Kissinger with perhaps the most severe tests of his career. It threatened the existence of Israel, set off a confrontation with the Soviet Union and inspired an oil embargo by Saudi Arabia and other Arab exporters that crippled the world’s flow of fuel.
Nixon had mostly kept Dr. Kissinger out of Middle East affairs because he was Jewish, but in his new job as secretary of state, his involvement in this crisis could not be avoided.
Meanwhile, Nixon was bogged down in Watergate, trying to fend off legal demands that he surrender the White House tapes. Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign in a corruption scandal. Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and then Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, resigned in the “Saturday Night Massacre,” just as Kissinger was en route to Moscow to seek a cease-fire.
For Dr. Kissinger, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger and Alexander Haig, a four-star Army general who was White House chief of staff, the goals at the start of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war included: ensure Israel’s survival, prevent another military humiliation of the Arabs if and when the war turned against them, limit opportunities for the Soviets to exploit the crisis, and do all that without appearing to further undermine what remained of Nixon’s authority.
They succeeded on all counts, but barely. Dr. Kissinger’s brazen defiance of the president enabled him to negotiate the outcome he sought.
Reeling from early battlefield setbacks, Israel pleaded for an emergency airlift of U.S. weapons and other equipment. Nixon was willing, but Dr. Kissinger feared that a visible U.S. rescue effort on behalf of Israel would shatter his hard-earned détente with the Soviets, who were resupplying the Arabs.
At the war’s crucial moment, when Moscow threatened to send troops to save Egypt’s Third Army from destruction by Israel, Dr. Kissinger and Haig ordered a worldwide alert of U.S. nuclear forces — without informing Nixon, who was distracted by a growing threat of impeachment.
In the end, the war’s outcomes were mostly positive. The fighting ended when Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat agreed to direct military talks with the Israelis. Israel survived, and Arab honor, shattered in 1967, was restored by Egypt’s initially successful attack across the Suez Canal.
Dr. Kissinger was able to preserve the essentials of détente while cutting the Soviets out of the ensuing peace negotiations. On the other hand, the Arab oil exporters, led by Saudi Arabia, caused economic chaos by keeping in place the embargo on shipments to the United States imposed because of the U.S. resupply to Israel. And the rival armies still confronted each other along perilous, unstable cease-fire lines.
To extend the fragile cease-fire and stabilize relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Dr. Kissinger undertook what became his signature mission. Beginning in January 1974, he went to the Middle East 11 times to promote military disengagement agreements that would facilitate a new era of peace negotiations.
The most celebrated of these “shuttle diplomacy” missions was a 34-day marathon that spring in which he visited Jerusalem 16 times and Damascus 15 times. He traveled to six countries as well.
These marathons did not produce any permanent peace agreements during Dr. Kissinger’s time in office, but they stabilized a volatile region and established the United States, to the exclusion of the Soviet Union, as the exclusive power broker.
Diplomatic relations between the United States and Egypt, ruptured in 1967, were restored, and when the Saudis agreed to end the oil embargo, the way was open for a celebratory last-hurrah visit to the region by the politically crippled Nixon, soon to be forced out of office by the Watergate crisis.
Dr. Kissinger had mixed feelings about Nixon’s downfall. Although he was the architect of Nixon’s greatest triumphs, owed Nixon his fame and served him through the last anguished hours of his doomed presidency, he never really liked Nixon, a solitary personality, suspicious of the Eastern intellectual elite personified by Dr. Kissinger. After leaving public life, he sought to distance himself from Nixon’s many failings.
Dr. Kissinger’s feelings about Nixon’s personality pervaded his final, bizarre meeting with the president before his resignation, as recounted in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book “The Final Days.” Sobbing, the president dropped to his knees to pray and demanded that Dr. Kissinger join him; he did, holding the distraught president uncomfortably in his arms.
Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, and his replacement, former vice president Ford, about a year later would install his own national security team. Ford had had enough of Defense Secretary Schlesinger, whose prickly personality and endless disputes with Dr. Kissinger rankled the amiable president. He cleaned house in late October 1975.
He fired Schlesinger, replacing him with his White House chief of staff, Donald H. Rumsfeld. He promoted Rumsfeld’s deputy, Dick Cheney, to chief of staff. At Dr. Kissinger’s urging, he ousted William Colby as director of the CIA and brought in George H.W. Bush, then chief U.S. liaison officer to China, to replace him. And he retained Dr. Kissinger as secretary of state but removed him as national security adviser, giving that job to Dr. Kissinger’s deputy, Scowcroft.
Under Ford, Dr. Kissinger’s success rate dwindled. He spent many hours in an unsuccessful effort to complete a second strategic arms agreement with Moscow. He also failed to make further progress on the Middle East peace front; every American interaction with Egypt and Israel became a domestic and foreign policy tinderbox.
Before Dr. Kissinger, the office of secretary of state was held exclusively by White male Christians. The country’s entire foreign policy, intelligence and defense establishment was nearly devoid of Jews until after World War II.
In the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, it turned out that Dr. Kissinger had opened the door for American Jews to work in an important country from which they had been barred: Saudi Arabia. Until that time, American companies and U.S. government agencies, including the military and the State Department, had complied with Saudi requests that no Jews be assigned there.
But the Saudis could hardly exclude a secretary of state, Jewish or not, and Dr. Kissinger went there, in 1974, accompanied by Jewish members of the press corps.
In his memoirs, Dr. Kissinger recalled that King Faisal — who loathed Jews and routinely gave important visitors a copy of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a notorious antisemitic forgery — received him with all the ceremony appropriate for such an important guest.
The welcome included a dinner at the royal palace, during which the king unloaded his standard speech about how Jews and communists were working together to destroy civilization.
Dr. Kissinger chose to be amused rather than offended, but either way he had broken a long-standing taboo that had clouded U.S.-Saudi relations for 40 years. After Faisal’s assassination the next year, Jews were allowed into Saudi Arabia in increasing numbers.
Unpleasantness with the Israelis over Dr. Kissinger’s efforts to induce them to withdraw from more of Sinai eventually blew over, and a new Sinai disengagement agreement was reached after another round of shuttle diplomacy late that summer. But by then the Ford administration had been tarnished by a much more serious defeat: the fall of Cambodia and South Vietnam to the communists.
April 1975 was an especially ignominious month in the history of U.S. foreign policy, and there was essentially nothing that Ford or Dr. Kissinger could do about it. No amount of pleading with Beijing or Moscow to use their influence with Hanoi, and no amount of railing at Congress over its refusal to put up more money for military aid to South Vietnam, could stave off what was by then inevitable.
Dr. Kissinger was already well known to foreign policy insiders and government watchers by the time he had been in the White House for two years. Then the China initiative propelled him into international celebrity seldom equaled by appointed officials — as if he were a combination movie star and war hero. The rumpled, bespectacled, divorced academic suddenly became what biographer Isaacson called “the world’s least likely sex symbol.”
Through many visits to the Rand Corp.’s think tank headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., he began to cultivate prominent personalities in the movie business, including actors Gregory Peck and Kirk Douglas and Paramount studio chief Robert Evans. He also dated young actresses. (“Nobody will ever win the battle of the sexes,” he once quipped. “There’s just too much fraternizing with the enemy.”)
His most prominent relationship was with Jill St. John, an actress known for her flaming red hair — through which he liked to run his fingers, even when they were at dinner with other people. Among his other dates were Shirley MacLaine, Marlo Thomas and Candice Bergen.
Naturally the press ate this up, but unbeknownst to reporters, Dr. Kissinger was seriously interested in only one woman, about whom most of them knew nothing. This was Nancy Maginnes, a foreign policy researcher on the staff of Nelson Rockefeller.
With a Social Register pedigree and a country-club social life, she was as different as could be from Dr. Kissinger. She lived in New York but was a discreet visitor to Washington on many weekends when he was in town. They married in 1974.
In addition to his wife, survivors include two children from his first marriage, David and Elizabeth; and five grandchildren.
Dr. Kissinger had met Maginnes at the 1964 Republican National Convention, which both had attended through their connections to Rockefeller. A Democrat as a young man, Dr. Kissinger became a nominal Republican when he entered public life. But his disdain for ideology as a foundation of foreign policy inevitably created tensions with GOP policymakers who believed that he had given up too much ground in pursuing détente with Moscow and peace in Indochina.
His later relations with both presidents Bush were at best ambivalent, as they were with Cheney and Rumsfeld, architects of the U.S.-led Iraq War invasion in 2003.
After leaving the government at the end of the Ford administration, Dr. Kissinger accepted lucrative consulting positions, but he spent most of the first few years working on the first two volumes of his massive memoirs — nearly 2,700 pages, written with the help of British editor Harold Evans. They were bestsellers. A third hefty volume appeared several years later.
Harvard and Columbia offered him professorships, but the Kissingers’ lifestyle — which reportedly included $150,000 a month for private security guards and a preference for private airplanes — was not sustainable on an academic salary.
He went into business advising blue-chip corporate clients on international policy. He used his name, his fame and his network to solve problems and make contacts around the world for banks, insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers and automakers.
The business made Dr. Kissinger wealthy, but it also truncated his last official position in government service.
President George W. Bush appointed him chairman of the commission to investigate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The selection ignited fierce criticism from members of Congress and victims’ relatives who demanded that Dr. Kissinger make public his client list to disclose possible conflicts of interest. He declined to do so, or to liquidate his firm, and resigned after a few weeks.
In addition to his consulting work, Dr. Kissinger wrote a syndicated column about international affairs and appeared frequently on “Nightline” and other television news programs.
Even in his final years, when age was slowing him down and reducing his travel schedule, he continued to write books and his personality and reputation made him a prized participant in conferences and a prized guest at parties. He wrote opinion pieces for newspapers well into his 90s. President Donald Trump consulted him, and he was a frequent guest on Stephen Colbert’s comedy show.
In July 2023, at the age of 100, Dr. Kissinger was in Beijing and received an effusive welcome from senior Chinese officials, who hailed him as the statesman unrivaled in the United States.
Throughout his life, Dr. Kissinger ruminated on power and strategy in philosophical and even existential terms, but he always described himself as a realist, able to see which risks were worth taking.
“Policy is the art of weighing probabilities; mastery of it lies in grasping the nuances of possibilities,” he wrote as a young man. “To attempt to conduct it as a science must lead to rigidity. For only the risks are certain; the opportunities are conjectural.”
Lippman is a former Washington Post reporter who covered Dr. Kissinger’s diplomatic activities in Vietnam and the Middle East.