A German Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Kissinger rose to prominence as a Harvard University professor of government in the 1950s and 1960s. He then became the most celebrated and controversial U.S. diplomat since the Second World War in the administrations of Richard M. Nixon and Gerald Ford. As Nixon’s national security adviser he concentrated power in the White House and rendered Secretary of State William Rogers and the professional foreign service almost irrelevant by conducting personal, secret negotiations with North Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and China. He negotiated the Paris agreements of 1973 ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, engineered a short-lived era of détente with the Soviet Union, and opened frozen relations with the People’s Republic of China. As secretary of state he shuttled among the capitals of Israel, Egypt, and Syria after the 1973 Middle East war.
A gregarious but manipulative man, Kissinger, seeking power and favorable publicity, cultivated prominent officials and influential reporters. For a while he achieved more popularity than any modern American diplomat. The Gallup poll listed him as the most admired man in America in 1972 and 1973. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his negotiations leading to the Paris peace accords that ended U.S. military action in Vietnam. Journalists lauded him as a “genius” and the “smartest guy around” after his secret trip to Beijing in July 1971 prepared the way for Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972. Egyptian politicians called him “the magician” for his disengagement agreements separating Israeli and Arab armies.
Kissinger’s reputation faded after 1973. During the Watergate scandal, congressional investigators discovered that he had ordered the fbi to tap the telephones of subordinates on the staff of the National Security Council, a charge he had denied earlier. Congress also learned that he had tried to block the accession to power of Chile’s President Salvador Allende Gossens in 1970 and had helped destabilize Allende’s Socialist party government thereafter.
Some of Kissinger’s foreign policy achievements crumbled in 1975 and 1976. The Communists’ victory in Vietnam and Cambodia destroyed the Paris peace accords, and détente with the Soviet Union never fulfilled the hopes Kissinger had aroused. By 1976 the United States and the Soviet Union had not moved beyond the 1972 Interim Agreement limiting strategic arms to conclude a full-fledged Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.
Kissinger became a liability for President Ford during the 1976 presidential election. Ronald Reagan, challenging Ford for the Republican nomination, and Democrat Jimmy Carter both assailed Kissinger’s policy of détente with the Soviet Union for ignoring Soviet abuses of human rights and Moscow’s greater assertiveness in international relations. Reagan complained that Kissinger’s program offered “the peace of the grave.” Carter accused him of conducting “lone ranger diplomacy” by excluding Congress and foreign affairs professionals from foreign policy matters.
Kissinger’s flair for dramatic diplomatic gestures brought him fame, and it encouraged diplomats in the Carter, Reagan, and George Bush administrations to try to emulate his accomplishments. He failed, however, to create the “structure of peace” he had promised. By 1977 he had lost control over American foreign policy, and no one after him ever dominated the process as he had from 1969 to 1974.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.