Henry A. Kissinger

Henry A. Kissinger was born in Furth, Germany, on May 27, 1923, and his family emigrated to the United States in 1938, fleeing Nazi persecution of German Jews. He joined the army during World War II and spent time in occupied Germany after the war working in the military bureaucracy. Kissinger returned to the United States and pursued his education, ultimately receiving a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1954. Specializing in diplomacy, Kissinger wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Congress of Vienna (1815), exhibiting his appreciation for power politics and his contempt for the moralistic assumptions which, in his opinion, so often prevent long-term solutions to nationalistic rivalries. Kissinger taught at Harvard during the 1950s and early 1960s, and during those years he was an important figure in the rise of "nuclear strategy'' among intellectuals who considered thermonuclear weapons a reality which must be coordinated in any realistic defense policy. Kissinger's 1957 book Nuclear War and Foreign Policy argued that tactical nuclear weapons could be considered a highly useful tool in defense strategy. Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick used Kissinger as the model for the unhinged Dr. Strangelove in his 1964 movie of the same name. Kissinger served as a consultant to both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 1960s, and acquired a larger political profile between 1964 and 1968 as a foreign policy aide to Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, who was unsuccessfully pursuing the presidency. Before his inauguration in January 1969, President Richard M. Nixon appointed Kissinger special assistant for national security affairs.

From the very beginning, both Kissinger and Nixon took the middle road about Vietnam, realizing that military victory was impossible but refusing to employ a unilateral withdrawal. They wanted to turn the war over to the South Vietnamese while maintaining the international credibility of the United States. Vietnamization, the policy they proposed in June 1969, became the institutional reflection of their middle-of-the-road approach. Concurrently with a gradual, phased withdrawal of American troops, the United States would hand over war materiel to the South Vietnamese and continue to provide them naval and air support. Kissinger realized that the government of South Vietnam was scandalously corrupt and probably incapable of defeating the Vietcong and North Vietnamese, so he intended, through the threat of military escalation and the carrot stick of U.S. economic assistance, to convince North Vietnam to settle the conflict.

Between 1969 and 1973, Henry Kissinger was the principal figure in the diplomatic effort to restore peace in Southeast Asia. He held secret talks with officials from North Vietnam, the National Liberation Front (Vietcong), the Soviet Union, and the People's Republic of China between 1969 and 1973 while the official peace talks were going on in Paris. The negotiations were complicated by the inflexibility of both sides: the North Vietnamese insisted on a complete halt of American bombing of North Vietnam, total withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Vietnam, removal of Nguyen Van Thieu as president of South Vietnam, and participation of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in any new government in South Vietnam. The United States demanded a mutual withdrawal of American and North Vietnamese troops from South Vietnam, refused to abandon Nguyen Van Thieu, and insisted that the NLF be excluded from the political process in South Vietnam.

Progress in the peace talks did not really come until 1972. Skillful at power politics, Kissinger was intent on exploiting the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, and he secretly visited Beijing in July 1971 to prepare for Nixon's celebrated February 1972 trip there. Equally, Kissinger pursued a policy of detente with the Soviet Union, which Nixon followed up on with his summit meeting in Moscow in May 1972. By that time, pressure to end the war in Vietnam was becoming tremendous. Both Kissinger and Nixon realized the conflict in Southeast Asia was hindering their efforts to reach an accommodation with China and the Soviet Union; and the antiwar movement at home, especially after the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, was demanding an end to the conflict.

In the summer of 1972, the peace talks finally began to yield results, but only because of major modifications in the U.S. negotiating position. Kissinger was dealing head-to-head with Le Due Tho, North Vietnam's negotiator, and in October 1972 they reached an agreement. The United Stales agreed to halt the bombing of North Vietnam, allow the NLF to participate in the political process in South Vietnam, let North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops remain in place in South Vietnam, and withdraw all American troops. The North Vietnamese agreed to a prisoner-of-war exchange and dropped their demand that Nguyen Van Thieu be removed from office in South Vietnam. When the North Vietnamese appeared in November 1972 to be stepping back from their October agreement, Nixon ordered massive bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, as well as mining of Haiphong Harbor. In January 1973, Le Due Tho agreed to uphold the October 1972 settlement. The two nations signed a formal agreement on January 27, 1973.

In September 1973, Nixon named Kissinger the new secretary of state, but by that time the Watergate scandal had compromised the administration's ability to pursue either its domestic or foreign policy agenda. After Nixon's resignation in August 1974, Kissinger remained in office, serving as secretary of state under President Gerald Ford and engineering the misguided attack on Cambodia in 1975 after the Mayaguez incident. Kissinger left the State Department in January 1977 when President Jimmy Carter and the Democrats assumed the reins of power. Afterwards, Kissinger lectured and wrote extensively about American foreign policy.