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  1. International
30 November 2023

The complicated legacy of Henry Kissinger

America’s most powerful secretary of state has died at 100. Let’s not airbrush his history.

By Katie Stallard

In July 1971 the then US national security adviser Henry Kissinger travelled to Pakistan, where his aides told reporters he had fallen ill during a state banquet and would spend two days recuperating at a private villa. His motorcade duly set off, with a secret service agent in a hat playing the part of Kissinger, while the diplomat himself left for China on board the president of Pakistan’s plane.

Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing was intended to prepare the groundwork for the US president Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China at a time when the two countries had no formal diplomatic relations. After 48 hours of meetings with Chinese officials, Kissinger returned to Pakistan and cabled Nixon with the code word they had agreed to signal success: “Eureka.” Seven months later, Kissinger returned to China with Nixon on board Air Force One, where they met Mao Zedong and laid the foundations for the modern US-China relationship in what has been called the “week that changed the world”

For Kissinger’s defenders, his role in negotiating the opening to China was a classic example of his singularity as a diplomat: his willingness to buck convention, to undertake a daring personal mission, and court a socialist adversary to outmanoeuvre the US’s greater rival – the Soviet Union – in the Cold War. In this version of history, Kissinger is a visionary geopolitical chess grandmaster, always thinking two steps ahead of his opponents. He is credited with helping to draw Beijing away from Moscow, initiating a dialogue with the Soviet Union that eventually led to major arms controls agreements between the two powers, and negotiating an end to the Vietnam War, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with his North Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho in 1973. (The honour led the American musician Tom Lehrer to declare that political satire had become “obsolete”.)

At best, this is a partial history, and one which gives Kissinger far too much credit. To be sure, he played a crucial role in each of these negotiations and will be remembered as America’s most powerful diplomat – a man who advised 12 presidents from John F Kennedy to Joe Biden and the only official to serve as national security adviser and secretary of state at the same time. But Kissinger’s mythmaking overlooks those who were on the other side of the negotiating table. By the time Mao met Nixon in 1972, Sino-Soviet relations had been deteriorating for a decade. The two socialist powers had fought a brief border conflict three years earlier, and the Chinese leader was consumed by fears that the Soviet Union was preparing a wider attack. The US-China rapprochement was shaped as much by officials in Beijing as it was by Kissinger and his team in Washington.

Similarly, while Kissinger deserves acknowledgement for his intensive diplomacy and “back channel” meetings with the Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that helped to establish a period of détente between the US and the Soviet Union and crucial treaties on arms control, Moscow was equally interested in lessening the financial drain of their arms race and securing access to Western technology.

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[See also: Henry Kissinger’s real triumph]

Then there is his role in the Vietnam War, which ended not with the “peace with honour” he declared at the time, but after a staggering toll of Vietnamese and American lives, and with the swift defeat of the US-backed South Vietnamese government shortly afterwards. Kissinger’s critics accuse him of unnecessarily prolonging the end of the war, at the cost of thousands of lives, for domestic political reasons, and authorising the indiscriminate bombing of neighbouring Cambodia, where he urged the US military to target “anything that flies or anything that moves”.

Barack Obama later condemned the strategy, noting in a 2016 interview that the US had “dropped more ordnance on Cambodia and Laos than on Europe in World War II… and all we left behind was chaos, slaughter and authoritarian governments that finally, over time, have emerged from that hell”.

Kissinger was also accused of standing to one side as the Pakistani military massacred Bengalis in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971, as part of a crackdown that killed an estimated 200,000 people and forced ten million Bengalis into refugee camps in India. Recordings from the Oval Office at the time documented Kissinger sneering at those who “bleed” for the “dying Bengalis”, according to Gary J Bass, the author of The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide.  

[See also: Is Nikki Haley a real threat to Donald Trump?]

Similarly, Kissinger was accused of tacitly supporting the 1973 coup against Chile’s Marxist president Salvador Allende, which ushered in 17 years of brutal military rule by Augusto Pinochet. As Kissinger told his senior aides at the time, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” Two years later, in 1975, he approved Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of East Timor, in which at least 100,000 people died.

Kissinger’s lingering influence on US foreign policy did not end with his time in office. Decades after leaving his last presidential administration in 1977, the former secretary of state was still offering his counsel at the White House, meeting George W Bush and Donald Trump. He also offered his services to private clients via a lucrative global consulting firm, Kissinger Associates. As he turned 100 earlier this year, he was still writing and speaking about contemporary geopolitics, from the dangers of artificial intelligence to the great power rivalry between the US and China. Perhaps fittingly, his final overseas trip was to Beijing in July, more than half a century after that first secret visit, where he was welcomed by Xi Jinping as a “friend of China”.

Xie Feng, China’s ambassador to Washington, said on 30 November that he was “shocked and saddened” to learn of Kissinger’s death, and that he would “always remain alive in the hearts of the Chinese people as a most valued old friend”. Others were less complimentary. As Rolling Stone announced the news of his death, in a sentiment that was shared by many on social media: “Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved by America’s Ruling Class, Finally Dies.”

Kissinger will be remembered by his admirers as a visionary diplomat who altered the trajectory of the Cold War, and by his critics as a ruthless practitioner of realpolitik who demonstrated little regard for the human toll of his policies and was never held to account. But he will be remembered. Many will now be tempted to memorialise Kissinger by focusing on his stature and his accomplishments, but this would be to rewrite the complicated history of a man who changed the world for better and for worse.

[See also: Nixon in China: The complicated legacy of a week that changed the world]

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