Henry Alfred Kissinger, who served as Secretary of State under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, seemed to be the invisible president during those eight years. Foreign and domestic leaders sought him for guidance and advice or blamed him for the American policy failures.
Born on May 27, 1923, in the Bavarian city of Fuerth, he was the second son of Paula (Stern) and Louis Kissinger. The elder Kissinger was a school teacher, and after Hitler’s rise to power, the family immigrated to London in 1938. After a short stay, they moved to Washington Heights in New York City. Kissinger attended high school at night and worked in a shaving brush factory during the day. While attending City College of New York in 1943, he was drafted into the Army and became a German interpreter for the 970th Counterintelligence Corps. When Germany surrendered in May 1945, Kissinger held various positions in the military government.
After his discharge, he went to Harvard, where he earned his B.A. Degree SUMMA CUM LAUDE in 1950. He then went on to earn his M.A. and his Ph.D. by 1954. He used his doctoral thesis as a basis for his first book, A World Restored: Castlereagh, Metternich and the Problems of Peace (Boston, 1957), where he saw history as a struggle between revolutionary and conservative forces.
By 1962, he became a professor at Harvard University and associated himself with the Council on Foreign Relations and Governor Nelson Rockefeller. He wrote a book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (New York, 1957), in which he took the position that America’s survival and victory depended not only on its strength but also on its ability to recognize and fight aggression In all forms. The publication of this book established his reputation.
When Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, Kissinger was brought into the administration, later to become Secretary of State. During the presidencies of Nixon and Ford, he emerged as the most influential adviser. Kissinger initiated shuttle diplomacy and negotiated the disengagement agreements between Israel and Egypt and the Vietnam peace treaty. He initiated detente with the Russians and established relations with China. Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1973. He shared this award with Le Duc Tho, a North Vietnamese peace negotiator.
Anwar Sadat convinced President Ford and Kissinger to pursue a second agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1975. After Kissinger grew frustrated with Israeli reluctance to agree to withdraw from areas of the Sinai captured in the 1967 War, he persuaded Ford to conduct a “reassessment” of relations with Israel. Ford backtracked after 76 senators objected to blaming Israel for the suspension of the talks. Kissinger subsequently successfully mediated the Sinai II agreement.
Though he was well known for being Jewish, his identity did not inform his strategic vision. Thus, for example, he opposed the Jackson-Vanik legislation tying freedom of emigration to the Nixon Administration's efforts to provide the Soviet Union with Most-Favored-Nation trade status.
“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Kissinger said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
The legislation was nevertheless adopted.
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Kissinger was reluctant to resupply Israel with weapons but ultimately decided it would undermine American security and deterrence if Soviet-armed forces defeated Israel’s U.S.-armed military. He arranged an airlift of supplies – Operation Nickel Grass – but hoped to minimize visible involvement in the war to avoid upsetting Arab oil producers who had threatened and later imposed an oil embargo for assisting Israel.
Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., former Chief of Naval Operations, later claimed Kissinger delayed the airlift. “I do not mean to imply that he wanted Israel to lose the war, He simply did not want Israel to win decisively. He wanted Israel to bleed just enough to soften it up for the post war diplomacy he was planning.”
Kissinger, however, said it was the Pentagon that opposed the airlift and that the delays were purely logistical. “It took [time] to find out whether that civilian airlift [on El Al] was possible against the opposition of the… military.”
In 1982, he founded Kissinger Associates, a consulting firm advising major multinational corporations. He taught courses at universities and lectured around the world.
Kissinger has always been the target of criticism, for he dared to follow up on what he thought was the best course to take at the given time. Time will place Henry Alfred Kissinger in his proper place in American history.
President Ford awarded Kissinger the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S.’s highest civilian honor in 1977. In 1980, he won a National Book Award for the first volume of his memoirs, The White House Years. In 1995, he received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth. He was also the first to be named an honorary member of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.
Kissinger died at the age of 100 on November 29, 2023.
His wife, Nancy Maginnes, survives Kissinger, along with two children from his first marriage to Ann Fleischer, whom he divorced in 1964, and five grandchildren.
Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America: 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.
Drew Middleton, “Zumwalt, in Book, Says Kissinger Sees a Lack of U.S. Stamina,” New York Times, (
“Kissinger denies delaying weapons airlifts to Israel during 1973 Yom Kippur War,” Times of Israel, (May 30, 2023).
Ben Harris, “Henry Kissinger, influential first Jewish secretary of state, dies at 100,” JTA, (November 29, 2023).
Photo: U.S. Department of State from United States, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.