Henry Kissinger, the first Jewish secretary of state and an architect of American foreign policy in the 1970s, died last week at age 100. He was among the most influential and controversial Jewish figures of the 20th century.
Kissinger was born in Bavaria, Germany. His family fled the Nazis in 1938 and settled in New York City. Following his World War II military service, Kissinger was educated at Harvard University and ultimately joined the university’s government department faculty.
In 1969, Kissinger became President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser. In 1973, he was appointed secretary of state. Kissinger continued to hold both positions after Nixon’s resignation and Gerald Ford’s assumption of the presidency.
Kissinger is credited with pioneering the policy of détente, which diffused tensions with the Soviet Union and paved the way for the eventual normalization of relations with China. He was also helpful in ending the polarizing U.S. war in Vietnam.
Kissinger’s diplomatic achievements made him a hero to Americans who feared a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets or China and a villain to both America’s left, which held him responsible for brutalities committed abroad — particularly in Cambodia — and the right, which was uncomfortable with his pursuit of accommodation with communist regimes.
Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, which he shared with Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho, for pursuing secret diplomatic talks that led to the Paris Peace Accords, ending U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia. And even after his government service, Kissinger served as an adviser to numerous U.S. presidents over many decades.
Kissinger had a complex relationship with his own Jewishness, the Jewish community and the state of Israel. According to one of his biographers, Kissinger had little interest in his Jewish heritage, telling the biographer that Judaism “has no significance for me.” And after Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir lobbied President Nixon to address the plight of Soviet Jews, Kissinger advised Nixon (as reflected in Oval Office recordings): “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews in gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
Kissinger apologized for the gas chamber remark after it was made public many years later, claiming that the quote was taken out of context. And he claimed credit for the 100,000 Soviet Jews who emigrated thanks to Nixon’s “quiet diplomacy.”
Kissinger also had an uneven relationship with the state of Israel. Although he reportedly was helpful to Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 — when he pushed back against Pentagon reluctance to resupply Israel at the height of the conflict — he bristled a short time later at Israel’s reluctance to withdraw from portions of the Sinai captured during the 1967 war and urged President Ford to “reassess” relations with Israel.
The resulting divide between the U.S. and Israel was significant, but some historians point to those events as the tough love approach that eventually led to the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
After leaving government, Kissinger became more outspoken in support of Israel, going so far in one 1977 speech to declare: “The security of Israel is a moral imperative for all free peoples.”
Kissinger’s place in history is unsettled. But both his supporters and detractors agree that Henry Kissinger was one of a kind.