Henry Kissinger (1923-2023), the nation’s 56th secretary of state, played a key role in influencing U.S. foreign policy on a global stage. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his part in trying to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War, he gained global fame for his strong, pragmatic influence in international diplomacy. But Kissinger's tactics, often carried out under secrecy, were not without controversy.

Early Life and Career

Born Heinz Alfred Kissinger on May 27, 1923 in Fuerth, Germany, Kissinger and his family, who were Jewish, fled to America in 1938 to escape the Nazi regime. Settled in New York, he became a naturalized citizen during World War II in 1943, and joined the U.S. Army, serving as a German interpreter from 1943-1946. He was awarded a Bronze Star in 1945 for his role in counterintelligence.

Following his military service, Kissinger attended Harvard University, where graduated summa cum laude in 1950, earning master's and PhD degrees from the university in 1952 and 1954. He then joined the Harvard faculty, where he worked from 1954 to 1969, serving as a government professor and associate director of the Department of Government and Center for International Affairs. During this time, he also consulted with the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations on national security issues.

The Nixon Administration and Vietnam

Upon his election, President Richard Nixon tapped Kissinger as his national security advisor, a position held from January 20, 1969, to November 3, 1975. On September 23, 1973, Kissinger took on the dual role of secretary of state, making him the first person to hold both positions at once. He was also the first secretary of state born on foreign soil.

Kissinger quickly established himself as a diplomatic heavyweight, landing on magazine covers and making international headlines for his brand of "realpolitiks," based on practical, rather than moral, decisions. “The state is a fragile organization,” he wrote in 2015’s World Order, “and the statesman does not have the moral right to risk its survival on ethical restraint.”

Notably, his détente strategy to ease growing hostilities with the Soviet Union resulted in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in 1969, the SALT I arms agreement and the Anti-​Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Kissinger also engaged with China in 1972, setting the stage for Nixon’s pivotal visit to the communist nation to meet with Chairman Mao Zedong—the first time a sitting U.S. president had visited mainland China and seen as a Cold War turning point.

While visiting Middle East capitals to help enemies reach disengagement agreements in the 1970s, Kissinger spearheaded what came to be known as "shuttle diplomacy," which contributed to OPEC to lifting its U.S. oil embargo. Kissinger is also noted for helping negotiate a truce between Israel and Arab states following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, also known as the Yom Kippur War, and resuming diplomacy between America and Egypt.

According to the U.S. Department of State, while secretary of state, Kissinger made 213 foreign country visits, once traveling to 17 countries in 18 days, and spending 33 consecutive days in the Middle East in 1973, negotiating talks between Syria and Israel.

While Kissinger controversially hid the 1969 bombings of Cambodia and Laos from Congress that escalated the Vietnam War, 68 meetings with North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho, some of which were secret, eventually led to the Paris Peace accords. These accords ended direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were controversially awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for their roles in the negotiation, although only Kissinger accepted it. The accord's provisions were then subsequently broken by both North and South Vietnamese forces with no official response from the United States. According to the Washington Post, Kissinger tried to return his Nobel. 

Controversies Swirl During Ford Administration

In the Gallup Poll's annual list of men most admired by Americans, Kissinger ranked first in both 1973 and 1974, beating out both Nixon and President Gerald Ford, who took office August 9, 1974 following Nixon's resignation after the Watergate scandal. Ford kept Kissinger on as secretary of state, though he ended his role of national security adviser in 1975, and Kissinger focused much of his work again on the Middle East, negotiating the 1975 Sinai Accord between Egypt and Israel. But, coupled with controversies in Angola and Chile, an end to the Paris Peace accords and increasing tensions with the Soviets, his reputation was tarnished.

He served his final day as secretary of state on January 20, 1977, when Jimmy Carter took the presidential oath of office.

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Kissinger Post-White House

The author of more than a dozen books, as well as numerous articles and newspaper columns, Kissinger was recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, the nation’s highest civilian award. In 1986, he was awarded the prestigious Medal of Liberty, an award given to foreign-born leaders.

He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 to chair the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, a position he held until the organization was ended in 1985, and was a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 1984-1990. Other appointments included serving on the board of the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy of the National Security Council and Defense Department from 1986-1988, and on the Defense Policy Board from 2001 to 2016.

Kissinger married Ann Fleischer in 1949, and the couple had two children. They divorced in 1964 and he married Nancy Maginnes in 1974.

Kissinger died on November 29, 2023, at his home in Connecticut. He was 100.



Biographies of the Secretaries of State: Henry A. (Heinz Alfred) Kissinger,” U.S. Department of State.

Kissinger Becomes Secretary of State,” U.S. Department of State.

"Henry Kissinger and the Study of Global Affairs," Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs.