On November 29, 2023, Henry Kissinger died at the age of 100. Perhaps no other name in US diplomacy is as recognizable as his. The high point of his long career was his tenure as secretary of state and national security advisor under US Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He was a towering figure who shaped the policy and outlook of the US for decades.
We interviewed Gary Grappo, who is himself a seasoned US diplomat. He served the US in the Middle East and was the ambassador to Oman. He is also a member of Fair Observer’s board of directors. So, we could think of no one better to look back on the legacy of the late Kissinger.
Kissinger left behind him a complicated legacy. To some, he is a godlike figure. To others, he is the Devil himself. Regular FO° contributor Mehdi Alavi all but condemned him to hellfire in October. For some, he is a warmonger. But the Nobel committee judged him worthy of the Peace Prize. For some, he was a diplomatic virtuoso of unsurpassed talent. For others, he was an overrated negotiator and a short-sighted strategist who ended up creating the US’ current China headache.
In a way, this was inevitable. No one stays at the top of US policymaking for as long as Kissenger did without making legions of enemies and friends. No American leaders, save perhaps George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, are universally loved. And even Washington and Lincoln had bitter critics in their own days.
Grappo considers Kissinger to have been one of the top five US secretaries of state since World War II, alongside George Mashall, Dean Acheson, George Shultz and James Baker. But as a foreign policy strategist, rather than a secretary of state, Kissinger belongs to a still more elite group together with his contemporaries Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski.
What really sets Kissinger apart is his prolific literary output. He wrote over a dozen books and scores more articles. Add to these his countless public speaking engagements. The imposing corpus, both by its breadth and its quality, ought to silence doubts about his intellect. You may call Kissinger unwise, but you cannot plausibly call him stupid.
Kissinger in Vietnam
So, what did Kissinger do to warrant so much hate and so much admiration?
Above all, Kissinger’s critics condemn him for the 1970–1973 US bombing of Cambodia, dubbed Operation Freedom Deal. Nixon was frustrated that North Vietnam was using Cambodia as a route to ferry men and supplies into the South. So, Kissinger relayed the order to stage “a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.” In doing so, he ignored the fact that the bombing would kill tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of civilians. What he could not have predicted, however, was that the destabilizing effect of the assault would eventually result in the Khmer Rouge takeover of the country. Their genocidal leader Pol Pot would go on to kill millions.
Alongside Operation Freedom Deal, Kissinger’s critics also cite Operation Linebacker II, or the “Christmas bombings.” In December 1972, US and North Vietnamese diplomats were negotiating an end to hostilities at the Paris Peace Accords. Nixon and Kissinger wanted to put pressure on the North Vietnamese delegation. From December 18–29, the US dropped 20,000 tons of ordnance on North Vietnam, killing 1,624 civilians. The attack had no military benefit. It did not achieve the desired political effect, either.
Other observers, however, praise Kissinger’s perspicacity. They argue that he was instrumental in recognizing that the American position in Vietnam has become untenable. Kissinger, therefore, was the prime mover behind America’s decision to sue for peace. He negotiated the American withdrawal and laid the groundwork for the necessary “decent interval” between withdrawal and the South’s collapse. For his role in the negotiations, Kissinger won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize alongside North Vietnamese diplomat Lê Đức Thọ. Thọ refused the prize, but Kissinger accepted it, although he donated the proceeds to charity. For many, Kissinger’s winning the prize seemed like a bitter joke.
The US–China rapprochement
The true high point of Kissinger’s career was not in Vietnam but in China. The 1970s were the height of the Cold War. The US was straining every sinew to combat the Communist alliance led by the Soviet Union. Mao Zedong’s China was formally a Communist state, but it had extremely tense relations with its northern neighbor. Soviet and Chinese troops even fired on each other at the border. So, Nixon, a shrewd foreign policy strategist, saw the opportunity to split the Communists apart by wooing China to the American side.
At first, Kissinger was opposed to the idea. But on Nixon’s orders, Kissinger secretly traveled to China in 1971. He caught the willing ear of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Convinced that the relationship could work, Kissinger enthusiastically pursued US–China friendship. He enticed China with arms sales and membership in various multilateral organizations. This paved the way for Nixon himself to visit China in 1972.
Kissinger was so exuberant about the relationship that he even remarked that China was the US’ best friend after the United Kingdom. He may well have been too accommodating to Beijing. Under Kissinger’s leadership, the United States recognized the People’s Republic as the legitimate government of all China, including, in principle, Taiwan. This was the beginning of the present-day ambiguity over Taiwan that has become such a headache for the US.
Still, the deal was a success for the US. Until 1972, the Soviet Union had been unwilling to work with the US diplomatically. But US–China rapprochement put enough pressure on the Soviet Union that they agreed to parley. Kissinger negotiated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (1972) and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (1973). A second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty came soon after (1979). These three revolutionary arms treaties set off the opening of relations between the Americans and Soviets. Kissinger and Nixon had achieved the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
Another of Kissinger’s achievements in arms de-escalation is almost forgotten. In 1969, Kissinger persuaded Nixon to unilaterally suspend the US’ biological weapons program. Nixon’s Statement on Chemical and Biological Defense Policies and Programs was unprecedented. When it became clear that Nixon had left biologically produced toxins (as opposed to the biological agents themselves) out of the ban, it was Kissinger who persuaded him to add them as well.
Kissinger’s moral failures in Pakistan and East Timor
The US wanted India to be part of its network of alliances against the Soviet Union. They saw India, a democracy, as a natural ally. But the Indians rebuffed American overtures. So, seeking an ally in South Asia, the US turned to the next best option: Pakistan.
The Pakistanis were all too enthusiastic about working with the Americans. Anxious about potential Indian aggression, they sought to build strategic depth and entered every alliance they could. Ishtiaq Ahmed, a political scientist and Fair Observer contributor, called Pakistan the “Garrison State.” In 1955, they were a founding member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), America’s Asian version of NATO.
Pakistan was eager to make friends with any rivals of India and the Soviet Union. It therefore also developed a relationship with China. In fact, it was Pakistan that facilitated Kissinger’s secret entry into China in 1971.
Pakistan was Kissinger’s worst failing. The alliance blew up in America’s face when Pakistan’s 1971 civil war in Bangladesh broke out. In an April 1971 telegram, Archer Blood, the US consul in Dhaka, warned Washington that Pakistan was committing genocide against its Bengali citizens. Blood and 20 of his colleagues strongly condemned the US position on Pakistan. Kissinger decided to ignore the message, calling Blood a “bleeding heart” softie. The US backed its ally with arms supplies. The fighting only stopped when India intervened and secured Bengali independence.
Nixon recalled Blood and punished him with an ignominious desk job. But in the end, Blood was right. Pakistan killed 300,000 to perhaps 3,000,000 Bengali civilians. For his courageous stance, Blood is now honored both in Bangladesh and in the State Department.
While Kissinger tried to deflect criticism, he could not hide the fact that the incident was a moral and strategic failure. The US had sided against democracy and human rights. It had also earned the resentment of newly independent Bangladesh and pushed India even farther away. That bad blood would endure for decades. To this day, Dhaka still views the US with distrust.
A similar story played out in East Timor. East Timor was a Portuguese colony that shared the island of Timor with Indonesia. In 1975, East Timor was navigating potential independence from Portugal. In December, not wanting an independent nation on its border, Indonesia invaded its tiny neighbor.
Indonesia was a US ally and notified the US prior to its action. Kissinger reportedly assured Indonesia that the United States would not intervene. In fact, the US continued to aid Indonesia and provided 90% of the weapons Indonesia used during the invasion. It turned a blind eye to the atrocities as Indonesia killed at least 100,000 East Timorese.
Kissinger’s triumph in the Middle East
If Kissinger is hated in South Asia, he is more admired in the Middle East. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Kissinger put his mighty abilities of negotiation and persuasion to use.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. On that day, Jews fast and abstain from work. But on the Yom Kippur of 1973, Israel’s neighbors Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack. The assault did serious damage to the underprepared Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and shook the Israeli psyche. Israelis thought that the IDF was invincible after it had won the 1967 Arab–Israeli war in just six days. 1973 was a rude awakening. If it had not been for Egyptian and Syrian blunders that gave Israel a much-needed advantage, the results could have been far more dire.
Eventually, the IDF managed to turn the tide. The US came to its ally’s aid and airlifted huge amounts of equipment to Israel with breathtaking speed. The Soviets had neither the will nor the ability to supply Egypt to match. General Ariel Sharon took the fight into Egypt and crossed the Suez Canal. This action cut off and encircled Egypt’s Third Army and trapped elite Egyptian units in Port Said. It also put Sharon within spitting distance of Cairo.
At this point, Kissinger flew to Moscow. His mission was to prevent the Soviet Union from entering the war on Egypt’s side. Kissinger convinced the Soviet leaders that Nixon was crazy enough to send US troops to fight Soviet troops in the Middle East, risking nuclear war between the two superpowers. The Soviets balked.
Kissinger then met with Israeli leaders. He sternly warned them not to advance the Egyptian capital. He kept the fact that the Soviets had already decided not to intervene secret from them. So, not wanting to risk Soviet entry into the war, the Israelis begrudgingly agreed to halt the advance. By the end of October, they were engaging in peace talks with the Egyptians.
Kissinger also spoke with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. He persuaded Sadat that the Soviets were poor allies, pointing out how much aid the US had given to Israel compared to the Soviet Union’s paltry support of Egypt. Already diffident about the Soviets, Sadat agreed. He listened to Kissinger’s siren song and began to reorient his country towards Washington.
So, the smooth-talking Kissinger had played all sides and brokered a solution favorable to US interests. Kissinger had subtracted the most populous Arab nation from the socialist alliance. Without Egypt, further the other Arab states could never hope to launch an effective invasion of Israel.
By acting alone to broker the truce, Kissinger had also completely shut Britain and France. So, with his perhaps dishonest but undeniably masterful Machiavellian tactics, Kissinger had achieved nothing less than establishing the US as the sole hegemonic power in the Middle East.
Kissinger undermines democracy in Chile
In the 1970s, socialism was spreading like wildfire in Latin America, all the way from El Salvador to Chile. In September 1970, the socialist Salvador Allende won Chile’s presidential election. The possibility of Chile aligning with Cuba and the Soviet Union nearly sent US leaders apoplectic.
So, on Kissinger’s direction, the CIA attempted to organize a coup d'état to overthrow Allende. The CIA plot failed, but the US got what it wanted anyway. The right-wing Augusto Pinochet, commander-in-chief of the Chilean armed forces, seized power. A despondent Allende committed suicide by gunshot on September 11, 1973.
Pinochet led fellow anti-communist leaders in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay to carry out Operation Condor, a systematic campaign of repression that killed tens of thousands of suspected leftists from 1975 to 1983. The US refused to criticize the operation, and in some cases even provided intelligence on targeted individuals.
The whole affair exposed the shortcomings of Kissinger’s realpolitik. The United States had once again sided against democracy and human rights.
For Kissinger, foreign policy was all about managing the balance of power in a way that protected American interests. This led him to ignore moral and psychological factors like the strength of nationalism or the power of resentment. When Kissinger intervened against the will of a people, his policies either failed or were successful only in the short term.
He allowed America to play the role of the villain and alienated nations from Chile to Bangladesh, Vietnam and East Timor. It gave ammunition to Soviet propaganda efforts. For their part, the Soviets did not underestimate the moral side of international relations. They presented themselves as anti-colonial crusaders and won hearts and minds among leaders in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Despite his failings, Kissinger was a genius. He was extremely skilled at what he did, both as secretary of state and national security adviser. But, like many virtuosos, he overestimated what his skill could accomplish. By over-using American hard power, Kissinger undermined US interests in many places.
Kissinger is both the standard to emulate and the example to avoid for any leaders. Whether admiringly or not, people will be writing about him for the next 100 years. They will be reading him for a long time, too. For the beginner, Grappo recommends Kissinger’s classic volume Diplomacy. In it, Kissinger looks at a number of epochs in world history through the lens of realpolitik. The art of diplomacy is ever-present in human affairs. Kissinger’s insight into how it works, in so many vastly different times and places, is invaluable.
The views expressed in this article/video are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.