Henry Kissinger at 100: controversial policymaker and brilliant scholar

A particular aspect of the Kissinger personality has been the ruthlessness and arrogance with which he has treated subordinates

Syed Badrul AhsanSyed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 26 May 2023, 09:51 PM
Updated : 26 May 2023, 09:51 PM

Henry Kissinger is a hundred years old. Rare is that individual in our times, and least of all a public personality, who has turned into a centenarian with all his physical and mental faculties remaining intact. Kissinger, for all the century he has covered in life, remains in full possession of his abilities to understand and relate to the world, one which has certainly gone past him where his brand of geopolitics is concerned.

How does one assess Kissinger today? There is little debate about the insidious role he has played in his years in the corridors of power through his blatant, and often brazen, interventions in the politics of nations the United States has traditionally taken a keen selfish interest in. 

Then again, there has been the intellectual in him, as demonstrated in the many books he has written since his days as a young academic at Harvard. A World Restored was the work which brought him to the attention of policymakers in Washington and indeed was to propel him to the heights he would eventually scale in his career.


Those heights were of course the goal Kissinger had set for himself, especially when the Kennedy administration took office in 1961. He attached himself to the new set-up but was unable to make any great impression on the men who served as the core team around President Kennedy. Indeed, the President himself saw little, if any, role for the young Kissinger in the White House. 

But that phase in his life was certainly not the end of Kissinger’s monumental ambitions. By the mid-1960s, he had linked himself with Nelson Rockefeller, the influential Republican who wanted badly to be President. Kissinger was a significant part of Rockefeller’s foreign policy team, impressing the would-be president with his sweeping comprehension of global realities.

But Rockefeller never became President of the United States. By the time Richard Nixon was elected to the White House on his second try in 1968 --- the first was in 1960 when he narrowly lost to John F. Kennedy --- Kissinger’s ambitions had apparently ground to a halt and academia was the one place he could go back to. 

More tellingly, Kissinger had never been an admirer of Nixon, despite the fact that the President-elect had been focusing, in his years out of office, on projecting his vision of what American foreign policy could be through his write-ups in newspapers and prestigious journals. Kissinger did not at all expect an invitation from Nixon to join his team. But then the call came from Nixon and soon the Harvard scholar was on his way to achieving the influence and power he had sought over the years.

It was a mark of opportunism in Kissinger to accept Nixon’s offer to be his national security advisor. The opportunism was in the fact that Kissinger had never been at one with Nixon on policy, but when Nixon reached out to him, he felt no compunction in making his way out of the Rockefeller circle and moving on to his new circumstances. 


In very many ways, Kissinger’s demonstrations of ambition were ruthless. In 1971, obsessed with the forthcoming opening to China per courtesy of Pakistan, he was absolutely unwilling to acknowledge the genocide the Pakistan army was carrying out in Bangladesh. He had no wish to let anyone, including the conscientious Archer K. Blood (the US consul in Dhaka disturbed by the attitude of his government to the bloodletting), come in the way. Blood was to be turfed out.

Kissinger could have persuaded Nixon to condemn the Yahya Khan regime’s atrocities in what was yet Pakistan’s eastern province. Ironically, he succeeded in convincing the President that establishing links with Mao Zedong’s China was more important than saving Bengalis from the soldiers in that year of trauma for Bangladesh. Decades later, Kissinger would tell The Atlantic monthly, rather improbably, that the Nixon administration had persuaded the Yahya regime into agreeing to give independence to Bangladesh by March 1972. 

Never had Kissinger, at any period before that, made such a statement; and by the time he made that comment in 2016, all the players involved in the 1971 Bangladesh crisis had long been dead. Yahya Khan died in 1980; Bhutto was hanged in 1979; Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been assassinated in 1975; Indira Gandhi was murdered in 1984; and Nixon had died in 1994. 

It is remarkable that the March 1972 plan, if indeed there was such a plan, had not been passed on to Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad, whose government was busy waging a war against Pakistan in 1971. It was a new spin to history on Kissinger’s part. There was no way of corroborating his comments.


Henry Kissinger’s role in Vietnam remains questionable, given that the programme of Vietnamisation he undertook with President Nixon was not to succeed. Kissinger’s idea, shared with Nixon, that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese could be defeated through expanding the war into Cambodia and so disrupting their supply routes, was to be a blemish on the Kissinger character. 

Thousands of Cambodians perished in the process and neutral Cambodia, led by the mercurial Norodom Sihanouk, was soon to become a fertile ground for the vicious Khmer Rouge to explore and take over. Prior to that, Lon Nol, a Washington favourite, would worsen the situation. Nearby, Laos too would come under pressure.

A problem with, though not for, Kissinger was the celebrity status he enjoyed from the beginning of his association with the Nixon administration. His words and his movements around the world became a staple of journalistic comment and gossip and he enjoyed it all. 

When the Nobel Committee awarded him and North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho the peace prize in 1973, he knew all too well that peace was yet elusive in Vietnam despite the negotiations in Paris. In a demonstration of wisdom, Le Duc Tho declined to accept the prize, but Kissinger, ready to seize the moment, had his share of the award come to him.


And yet 1973 was also the year when he and Nixon together engineered the violent overthrow of the elected socialist government of Chilean President Salvador Allende in September. The two men remain notorious for their goal of making the Chilean economy scream as a way of forcing Allende from power and installing General Pinochet as their man in Santiago. 

Kissinger’s supposed role in the coup d’etat which led to the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the overthrow of his government in 1975 has had him pilloried by the late journalist Christopher Hitchens in his work, The Trial of Henry Kissinger. How much did Kissinger know about a coup that would rock Bangladesh’s foundations badly is a question Kissinger has never answered. 

The irony is that ten months before the coup, he visited Dhaka and met the Bangladesh leader as also Foreign Minister Kamal Hossain. It was not a ground-breaking trip.


In late 1975, Kissinger and President Gerald Ford, on a visit to Indonesia, knew of the plans President Suharto was about to put into implementation as a repressive measure against East Timor. They made no effort to dissuade the Indonesian dictator from taking such a step, for in that stage of the Cold War, they were unwilling to give any quarter to the Soviets or the Chinese to step into areas they saw as Washington’s preserve. 

It was the people of Timor who would pay the price for two decades-plus through occupation by Jakarta. Xanana Gusmao, the leader of East Timor, would suffer imprisonment at the hands of Indonesian forces.

In essence, Henry Kissinger has in his diplomatic career been a polarising personality. There have been the brief shining moments, as in his role of promoting détente between the United States and the Soviet Union. His shuttle diplomacy through the Middle East in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War of October 1973 is cited among his achievements by his admirers. 

His secret mission to Beijing in July 1971 remains a watershed moment in American diplomacy. That he and Richard Nixon brought about a tectonic shift in world politics through the China opening (Nixon would go to China in February 1972) is part of history and remains undeniable.


A particular aspect of the Kissinger personality has been the ruthlessness and arrogance with which he has treated subordinates. The arrogance was to extend to his dealings with Africa, a continent he ignored until 1976, his last year in office as Secretary of State. He travelled to apartheid South Africa ostensibly on a mission to promote the idea of majority rule in that country as well as in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. 

He ended up according respectability to the South African regime. In his forays to Africa, he had little time but much condescension for the leaders of the various nationalist movements. In simple terms, his efforts to promote US diplomacy in Africa were no more than half-hearted measures. Black Africa did not much draw his attention.


Saigon fell and Vietnam was reunified while Kissinger was still in office in April 1975. The Khmer Rouge stormed to power in Phnom Penh at around the same time. Kissinger’s ties with India, never comfortable given his animosity, along with that of Nixon, towards Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the course of the Bangladesh war, did not improve. 

In Pakistan, the beneficiary of the Nixon administration’s policy tilt in 1971, the nuclear programme undertaken by the Bhutto government aroused his ire, so much so that Pakistan’s leader publicly let it be known that Kissinger had threatened to make a horrible example of him should he go ahead with the programme.


Tomes have been written on Kissinger. Roger Morris, Niall Ferguson and Walter Isaacson are among writers who have extensively dissected the Kissinger personality. And while that has been done --- and one can be sure more analyses of Kissinger’s legacy will be forthcoming in the times ahead --- one is also made aware of the rich scholarship which has consistently underscored Kissinger’s own works over the decades. 

And therein comes the paradox that the man has always been. While his policies in the Nixon-Ford administrations have aroused indignation, sometimes contempt, around the world, his books have been testimony to his remarkable grasp of history. 

Détente, the balance of power and realpolitik are some of the themes Kissinger has regularly spelt out in such works as Diplomacy, World Order, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, Years of Upheaval, Leadership, On China andWhite House Years. As he approached his hundredth birthday, he went into ruminations over Artificial Intelligence, ending up writing a book on the subject (The Age of AI and Our Human Future) in collaboration with a couple of analysts.


Henry Kissinger was certainly loath to leave office when President Ford, with whom he stayed on following Nixon’s resignation over Watergate in 1974, lost the White House to Jimmy Carter in 1976. Never comfortable being away from the centre of the things he loved to shape and present to the world, he bided his time until 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected President. 

But his disappointment was considerable when Reagan did not offer him his old job at the State Department. It is a fact, though, that all Republican occupants of the White House since his departure from office have regularly consulted him on foreign policy. Foreign governments have regarded him with esteem. 

Newspaper and journal editors have sought his views on the evolution of global affairs. Think tanks around the world have drawn crowds whenever they have had Kissinger speak on the nuances of foreign policy and have solicited his opinions on conflicts around the world.

At age one hundred, the young Jewish boy who in his native Germany in the early Nazi years crossed over to the other side of the street every time he espied toughs approach from the other end remains relevant. His intellectual brilliance was to propel him to the peaks of power and influence in his adopted country, the United States. The brilliance has not faded.

Kissinger’s sinister role in such places as Chile has more than once led magistrates like Spain’s Baltasar Garzon into issuing warrants of arrest against him in places like London. He once had to take a flight out of Paris within moments of arriving there when he was informed that Garzon was about to issue a warrant of arrest against him.


Henry Kissinger has always been a complex figure. Again, his celebrity status has been unmatched. On a visit to Tehran in his heyday, he visited a night club and soon found himself bearing the weight on his lap of the belly dancer Nadia Parsa. Women have flocked to him, for he exuded power as well as wit in his conversations. 

His thick German accent in his English has been remarked on as an attractive appendage to his personality. Once, in a moment of effusiveness, with a number of crises popping up around the world, he told the media that he had his plate full, implying that he had little time to deal with all those new crises. Once in Salzburg, he turned emotional when he found himself a target for criticism by the media.

The Kissinger century, in all its dark and brilliant aspects, is one that will have researchers trying to fathom the nature of the policies the centenarian employed in changing the world. But then comes the question: did Kissinger change the world? 

More to the point, what have been Kissinger’s achievements, really? It was left to President Carter to bring Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin together. It was for President Clinton to have Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin share the stage in their search for peace.

All said and done, Henry Kissinger’s has been a formidable presence on the global stage. The world was his to shape once. It is the memories of that world one loses oneself in as America’s pre-eminent diplomat of the twentieth century celebrates a hundred years of his life on earth.