Henry Kissinger obituary: If there was an American superpatriot, it was the controversial, ruthless Kissinger

The German-born former US secretary of state would protect US interests at any price

Henry Kissinger, who has died at the age of 100, was the most controversial US foreign policy practitioner of the last half-century.

He was the architect of American detente with the Soviet Union, the orchestrator of Washington’s opening to communist China, the broker of the first peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, and the man who led the US team in the protracted talks with North Vietnam that eventually resulted in US forces leaving Indochina after America’s longest foreign war.

Feted for these accomplishments as national security adviser and later secretary of state under Richard Nixon, Kissinger achieved global celebrity status and in 1973 was awarded the Nobel peace prize.

But it later emerged via leaked documents and tapes and former officials’ memoirs that behind his diplomatic skills and tireless energy as a negotiator there lurked an inordinate love of secrecy and manipulation and a ruthless desire to protect US national and corporate interests at any price.

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His contempt for human rights prompted him to ask the FBI to tap his own staff’s telephones and, more seriously, to give the nod to Indonesia’s military dictator for the invasion of East Timor, to condone the actions of the apartheid regime in South Africa in invading Angola, and to use the CIA to help topple the elected government of Chile.

A formidable academic before he worked for the government, Kissinger reached greater heights of political influence than any previous immigrant to the US. His nasal German accent never left him, an eternal reminder to his adopted countrymen that he was a European by origin. To Kissinger himself, the fact that a man born outside the US, and a Jew to boot, could become its secretary of state was a never-ending source of pride.

Although Kissinger was often seen as a supreme believer in a world order based on realpolitik and a balance of power, at heart he was ultra-loyal to the individualistic American ideal. In love with his adopted country, he was infused with a missionary zeal to maintain American hegemony in a shifting world.

Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born to a comfortable, middle-class family in Fürth in Bavaria. His father, Louis, was a teacher, his mother, Paula (nee Stern), a housewife. As a boy, he was old enough to comprehend the collapse of their domestic stability when the Nazis came to power. He and his younger brother were beaten up on the way to school, and eventually expelled. His father lost his job. The family emigrated to New York in 1938.

Kissinger rarely discussed his refugee past, and once told an interviewer to reject any psychoanalytical link between his views and his childhood, but some observers argued that his personal experience of Nazism led to his horror of revolutionary changes as well as to the underlying pessimism of his analysis of world affairs.

After George Washington high school in Manhattan, his accountancy course at the City College of New York was interrupted in 1943 when he was conscripted. He was with the US army in Germany for the Nazi surrender and the first months of occupation. He won a bronze star for his role in capturing Gestapo officers and saboteurs in Hanover.

In 1946 he went to Harvard, where he stayed intermittently for the next quarter of a century. He received his PhD in 1954 with a study of the 19th-century European conservatives Metternich and Castlereagh, which he turned into a book entitled A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822 (1957).

His subsequent studies led him to become a specialist on nuclear weapons, which caught the eye of Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York and a bastion of east coast liberal Republicanism. Kissinger’s desire for influence on policy was already leading him to spend time in Washington, and he combined his academic work with consultancies for various government departments and agencies, including the Joint chiefs of staff and the national security council under Dwight Eisenhower.

Kissinger’s patron, Rockefeller, failed to make much headway in the presidential campaigns of 1960 and 1964, but after Nixon won the presidency for the Republicans in 1968, Kissinger was appointed national security adviser, with an office in the White House. His intellectual drive, as well as geographical closeness to the president, allowed him to turn what had previously been a backroom job into a high-profile, decision-making post.

Kissinger knew that access is power, and that the relationship goes both ways. Having the ear of the president gave him the ear of a competitive, news-hungry Washington press corps which admired his charm and brilliance and eagerly printed a generous amount of his on-the-record comments while finding ways to divulge unattributably the confidential titbits and insider gossip that he loved to drop.

A battle developed between Kissinger and the secretary of state, William Rogers, the nominal architect of US foreign policy, during Nixon’s first term. Kissinger won it easily. Rogers was excluded not only from the administration’s central concerns – Vietnam, the Soviet Union and China – but even the Middle East, the one area where he achieved some praise in 1970 with the so-called Rogers plan.

The plan was a US effort to impose a settlement between Egypt and Israel with the backing of the Soviet Union. Israel rejected it while Kissinger felt that the goal of US policy in the region, as indeed throughout the developing world, should be to reduce the Kremlin’s influence rather than give Moscow equal status.

When Rogers eventually resigned a few months after the start of Nixon’s second term, Kissinger got the job he coveted most. Four years of private advice and back-channel negotiating were to be crowned by formal acceptance as Washington’s senior international representative and the US’s major speechmaker on foreign affairs.

Kissinger had already scored the two biggest coups of his career, proving that he was more than just an academic consultant and bureaucratic infighter, but a cunning negotiator. He ran the secret diplomacy which culminated in July 1971 with the stunning announcement that Nixon was to go to China to meet Mao Zedong the following year.

He also led the negotiations in Paris with Hanoi for the peace treaty that sealed the departure of American troops from Vietnam. For the second of these feats, he shared the Nobel peace prize with Le Duc Tho, the North Vietnamese negotiator, though the latter refused to accept it.

The award aroused huge controversy since it coincided with revelations that Kissinger had supported Nixon’s decisions to mount a secret campaign of bombing Cambodia in 1969. Cambodia had long been used by North Vietnamese troops for bases and supply depots, but Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, resisted pleas from the joint chiefs of staff to bomb them. The country was officially neutral and its leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was desperately trying not to take sides.

But the Nixon administration wanted to send a strong message to North Vietnam that the new president would be tougher than Johnson. Tapes of White House conversations (the Watergate tapes) revealed that Nixon called it the “madman theory” – “I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war,” he told his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman. Kissinger endorsed the concept, though he preferred to put it in more academic language by arguing that US policy must always retain an element of unpredictability.

In March 1969, Nixon and Kissinger ignored the reluctance of Rogers and launched waves of B52s on carpet-bombing missions over Cambodia, as they had already done in Vietnam. The raids went on for 14 months, although officially the administration pretended the targets were all in South Vietnam. Initially, Kissinger did not even want the pilots to know they were striking Cambodia, but he was advised that they would soon find out and be more likely to leak the information unless sworn to secrecy ahead of the raids.

The bombing remained secret in Washington for an astonishing four years, becoming public only when a military whistleblower wrote to Senator William Proxmire, a prominent critic of the Vietnam War, and urged him to investigate.

In Cambodia the campaign led to an estimated 700,000 deaths as well as two million people being forced to flee their homes. It also led a pro-US army general, Lon Nol, to seize power from Sihanouk in 1970 and align the country with the US. The bombing and the coup fuelled popular unrest, added to the strength of Cambodia’s communist guerrillas, the Khmer Rouge, and paved their way to power in 1975.

The Paris peace talks on Vietnam also coincided with an escalation of US bombing in Vietnam itself. At the height of the negotiations at the end of 1972, Nixon and Kissinger took the war to new heights with the “Christmas bombing” campaign, comprising targets across North Vietnam. It enraged the US peace movement and provoked a huge wave of new protests and draft-card burning by conscripts.

Kissinger’s aim was not so much to intimidate Hanoi as to persuade Washington’s ally, South Vietnam’s president Nguyen Van Thieu, to accept the accords which the US was making with the North. The bombing was meant to assure him that if there were any North Vietnamese violations after the accords came into effect, they would be met with all-out American force.

Kissinger was aware that the Paris deal was flawed, and might well lead to Thieu’s replacement by a communist government. His goal was merely to win a “decent interval” between the pull-out of US troops and the inevitable collapse of the regime in Saigon so that the US could escape any perception of defeat.

The phrase “decent interval” appeared in the briefing papers for Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing in 1971 that were later declassified. They show he told the Chinese that this was US strategy in Vietnam. A year later he informed China’s prime minister, Zhou Enlai: “If we can live with a communist government in China, we ought to be able to accept it in Indochina”.

When the North Vietnamese army and its southern allies, the Vietcong, stormed into Saigon in April 1975, forcing the US ambassador into a humiliating helicopter escape, the image was clearly one of defeat, in spite of the two-year interval since the departure of most US troops.

But Kissinger blamed Congress, claiming it had undermined the peace deal by refusing to finance new arms shipments to Thieu. This was a favourite refrain. He continually attacked Congress for interfering in foreign policy, apparently never recognising the value of democratic checks on strong executive power.

Turning his skills to the Middle East, Kissinger gave birth to the concept of shuttle diplomacy, a term first used to the press by his close aide Joe Sisco. He flew between Jerusalem and Cairo during the October 1973 war to hammer out a ceasefire after the Israelis had sent their troops across the Suez Canal and come close to the Egyptian capital. He later secured Israel’s withdrawal back across the canal, and shuttled to and from Damascus to make a deal with Syria for the Israelis to withdraw from a small part of the Golan Heights.

Behind all three issues lay the American’s competition with the Soviet Union, then at the height of its international power. The US opening to China was designed to wrong-foot the Russians by turning what they thought was an evolving, bilateral relationship of parity and mutual respect with Washington into an unnerving triangle which seemed to ally China and the US against them.

Kissinger hoped to exploit the two communist powers’ rivalry to persuade both of them to abandon the Vietnamese, thus making it easier for the US to win the peace, if not the war. So he threatened Moscow and Peking (now Beijing) with the argument that they would lose the benefits of dialogue and trade with Washington if they did not stop their arms supplies to Hanoi.

In the Middle East, Kissinger’s aim was to exclude the Russians, who had been long-time allies of Egypt and Syria. By extracting concessions from Israel and brokering a ceasefire in the 1973 war, Kissinger persuaded Cairo and Damascus that only the US could achieve movement from the Israelis, thanks to its unique influence.

A year before the war, Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president, had shown his distrust of Moscow by asking thousands of Russian advisers to leave Egypt. The move was meant as a signal to Washington that Egypt preferred good relations with the US, provided Washington put pressure on Israel. Kissinger missed the signal and did nothing until Sadat, in desperation, launched his attack on Israel in October 1973.

Kissinger’s strategy of detente with the Soviet Union was also designed to reduce Moscow’s room for manoeuvre. Although rightwing Republicans criticised it as appeasement, he argued that Washington should not just contain the Soviet Union, as previous American administrations had sought to do. The US should tame it by giving it a stake in the status quo.

Instead of going for ad hoc deals with the Kremlin, Kissinger was the first senior American to try to establish a complex of agreements with a range of penalties and rewards for bad and good behaviour. This, he argued, would limit Soviet adventurism. Sometimes he called it a network, at other times a web, but in both cases the aim was to provide the Soviet Union with benefits from expanded trade, investment and political consultation with Washington.

The strategy failed to produce a new world order because Kissinger was not willing to abandon adventurism on the American side. In the developing world, in particular, Kissinger pursued policies of confrontation with Moscow, often based on faulty analysis of what the Russians were doing or exaggerated claims of the extent of their influence.

The successful US effort to overthrow the elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, in 1973 fitted into the long US history of intervening in Latin America against leftwing governments that nationalised US corporations (in this case, the big copper companies). But Kissinger also disliked Allende’s closeness to Moscow’s ally, Cuba.

“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people,” he commented.

By 1974 Kissinger’s boss was being engulfed by the Watergate scandal. Although Kissinger was involved in secretly taping his own staff, he was not connected to Nixon’s decision to burgle the headquarters of the Democratic Party at the Watergate apartment complex in 1972 and then cover up the truth – the charges that brought the president down.

In spite of the scandal – or perhaps because of it – Nixon’s relationship with Kissinger remained close, in large part because the beleaguered president saw Kissinger as his best ally in foreign policy, the area in which Nixon felt he had been most successful. He wanted Kissinger to be the man to preserve his legacy.

In his memoirs, Kissinger described how Nixon virtually clung to him during his last hours in the White House in August 1974. The disgraced president asked him to pray beside him in the Lincoln bedroom for half an hour.

“Nixon’s recollection is that he invited me to kneel with him and that I did so. My own recollection is less clear on whether I actually knelt. It is a trivial distinction. In whatever posture, I was filled with a deep sense of awe,” Kissinger wrote.

Although Kissinger was not charged over Watergate, his image nonetheless became tarnished. Damaged by revelations of the secret bombing of Cambodia, the favourable media bubble burst. Kissinger’s path from miracle worker to being perceived as a cynical trickster proved short. If Nixon was a serial liar on the domestic stage, Kissinger was seen as a similar villain on the international one.

Nevertheless the next president, Gerald Ford, who had limited foreign experience, kept Kissinger on as secretary of state as a symbol of continuity. But Kissinger’s star was in decline. He tried to change his focus by shifting his attention to Africa, which he had ignored until then.

His results were far from positive. He may well have set back the fall of apartheid by several years by approving the involvement of the CIA in the Angolan civil war and giving the nod to South Africa’s invasion in 1975 as the Portuguese withdrew from their erstwhile colony and granted it independence. The South African intervention prompted Cuba to send hundreds of troops to support the Angolan government, thereby launching one of the bloodiest “proxy wars” between the superpowers.

When the Republicans lost the White House to the Democrats under Jimmy Carter in 1976, Kissinger’s time was up. He spent the next decades as a consultant to multinational corporations, and speaking on the international lecture circuit. In 1982 he founded his own firm, Kissinger Associates.

Although he had brief hopes of a comeback when Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election, the new president and his men did not feel comfortable with Kissinger’s image or the strength of his personality. His public persona of pragmatism did not fit their crusading ideology of anti-communism and their constant claims of Soviet expansionism. They were from the school which felt his contacts with the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, during the period of detente, had smacked of appeasement.

The charge was absurd. It reflected the difference between subtlety and simplicity, as I discovered at one of the occasional deep-background “non-lunches” which Kissinger gave for representatives of European newspapers. Europe was never a high priority for Kissinger, in large part because it was not a region of US-Soviet competition. He favoured a strong and united western Europe so as to keep Germany in check, hence his one much-quoted comment: “If I want to call Europe, who do I call?”

But he seemed to like meeting European correspondents, flattering us with the sense that we asked deeper questions than our American colleagues. At one such lunch, I was staggered by Kissinger’s emotional outburst when someone delicately raised the appeasement charge that rightwing senators were making. “Do you really think a man who stopped Allende wouldn’t want to stop Brezhnev?” he retorted.

If ever there was an American super-patriot, it was Kissinger. As a European intellectual, he knew better than his adopted compatriots how to run an empire. The bedrock of his policies was fear of a resurgent, “unanchored” Germany, a firm desire to keep western Europe closely tied to the US, and a fierce determination to outwit the Soviet Union and maintain American dominance, if necessary through the use of military might. It was no surprise that in his 80s, long after the Soviet Union had collapsed, he became a close consultant of George W Bush, supporting his invasion of Iraq.

Kissinger’s private life was a tempestuous subject in the Washington gossip columns, at least in the interval between his two marriages, which happened to coincide with his years at the apex of power. His first, to Ann Fleischer, with whom he had two children, Elizabeth and David, ended in divorce in 1964. Ten years later, he married Nancy Maginnes, one of his former researchers. She and his children survive him. – Guardian