Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state and presidential adviser, dies at 100

Kissinger died Wednesday at home in Connecticut, his consulting firm confirmed.

November 30, 2023, 12:20 PM

Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state during the Nixon and Ford administrations who was said to be one of the most influential and controversial foreign policy framers in postwar United States, has died. He was 100.

The news was confirmed by Kissinger's consulting company on Wednesday night.

"Dr. Henry Kissinger, a respected American scholar and statesman, died today at his home in Connecticut," Kissinger Associates, Inc. said in a statement Wednesday.

Kissinger will be interred at a private family service and there will be a memorial service at a later date in New York City, the company said.

Kissinger remained active in politics in the decades since his time in office and had taken on a respected elder role for some Republicans and Democrats. He met with Alaska's then-Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008, and Mitt Romney reportedly spoke by phone with Kissinger during the 2012 campaign. Kissinger met with Donald Trump shortly after Trump won the 2016 presidential election and the two later met in the White House in 2017.

Hillary Clinton, who ran against Trump in 2016, previously called Kissinger "a friend" and said she "relied on his counsel" when she was secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.

PHOTO: FILE - President Donald Trump shakes hands with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, Oct.10, 2017.
President Donald Trump shakes hands with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, Oct.10, 2017.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

In a statement Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted Kissinger's "strategic acumen" and "intellect."

"Few people were better students of history – and even fewer people did more to shape history – than Henry Kissinger," Blinken said.

Early years

The former secretary of state was born Heinz Kissinger in Fuerth, Germany, on May 27, 1923. His parents, Louis and Paula Kissinger, fled Nazi Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1938, and it was in his newly adopted country that the son of a German Jewish schoolteacher excelled in his studies.

He enrolled in the U.S. Army in 1943 and while stationed in South Carolina at the age of 20, Kissinger became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Kissinger saw combat with the 84th infantry division and volunteered for intelligence duties during the Battle of the Bulge.

Kissinger later said of his time in the Army, "It was an Americanization process ... It was the first time I was not with the German Jewish people, I gained confidence in the Army."

He went on to receive his BA degree in political science from Harvard University in 1951 and his MA and PhD degrees from the university in the years following.

In 1955, Kissinger was recruited by the Council on Foreign Relations to head a study group examining the implications of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles's call for "massive retaliation" as the U.S. Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union. The strategy, which threatened nuclear destruction on Soviet cities for even minor infractions, was heavily criticized by Kissinger in his report published as "Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy" in 1957, a surprise best-seller.

Kissinger later served as a consultant to several government agencies and think tanks, including the Operations Research Office, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the State Department and the RAND Corporation, before he was appointed as Nixon's national security adviser in January 1969.

PHOTO: FILE - Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is pictured in France, Aug. 10, 1976.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is pictured in France, Aug. 10, 1976.
AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Key role in US foreign policy

As national security adviser from 1969 to 1975 and secretary of state from 1973 to 1977 under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Kissinger provided the conceptual framework through which such bold initiatives as détente (the easing of strained relations) with the Soviet Union and the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) were pursued.

SALT -- a series of bilateral conferences and international treaties between the United and the Soviet Union -- began in 1969 under Nixon. Two corresponding treaties -- signed by the two countries in 1972 and 1979 -- set limits on the number of long-range ballistic missiles that each side could possess and manufacture.

Kissinger also sought to open up diplomatic relations with China. In one of his greatest successes, Kissinger arranged a state visit between Nixon and Chinese leader Zhou Enlai in 1972. The efforts resulted in the Shanghai Communique, which provided guidelines on normalizing relations between the two countries.

Kissinger was also instrumental in effecting an end to the Vietnam War. However, one way in which he aimed to settle the conflict was through secret bombings of Cambodia and the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi and a ground invasion of Cambodia in 1970 in an apparent effort to pressure North Vietnamese forces operating between the two countries. This campaign brought controversy from those on the left who felt that flexing more military power was not key to ending the conflict, and believed that his policies extended the war and cost more lives.

However, after Kissinger and North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho met several times in secrecy in Paris, they negotiated a brief truce. This led to the two leaders receiving the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, although Tho declined the award.

A little over two years later, 30 North Vietnamese divisions conquered South Vietnam, effectively ending the conflict, according to the U.S. State Department.

According to a Pentagon report released in 1973, "Henry A. Kissinger approved each of the 3,875 Cambodia bombing raids in 1969 and 1970" as well as "the methods for keeping them out of the newspapers."

By the end of the bombing campaign, nicknamed "Operation Menu," the U.S. had dropped over 2 million tons' worth of bombs, killing between 150,000 and 500,000 civilians, according to U.S. Army data.

Critics of the Nixon administration and Kissinger, then and now, laid blame on the administration for the Khmer Rouge's invasion of Cambodia in 1975, arguing that U.S. policies in Cambodia had accelerated the ascension of the communist regime, according to historian Walter Isaacson in his biography "Kissinger." The Khmer Rouge went on to kill an estimated 3 million people in Cambodia, almost half of the country's population at the time, through agricultural policies, which created widespread famine, as well as the mass murder of Cambodian minorities and political dissidents.

In testimony to Congress when communist forces were completing their takeover of Cambodia in 1975, Kissinger conceded that the U.S. had callously disregarded Cambodia while trying to achieve its goals in Vietnam, according to Isaacson. Kissinger said, "Our guilty, responsibility, or whatever you may call it toward the Cambodians is that we conducted our operations in Cambodia primarily to serve our purposes related to Vietnam and that they have now been left in a very difficult circumstance."

However, Kissinger years later would remark to Time, "Without our incursion, the communists would have taken over Cambodia years earlier."

Legacy under scrutiny

Toward the end of his life, the call to have Kissinger testify or be made accountable for his decisions when he was in office grew louder.

In 2001, British journalist Christopher Hitchens published "The Trial of Henry Kissinger" in which he argued that Kissinger gave the go-ahead to brutal politicians allied to the United States to put thousands of innocent civilians to death. By 2002, Kissinger's past dealings in Latin America while in office seemed determined to haunt him, if not to ruin his reputation.

There were by then summonses out for Kissinger in five countries seeking information about his role in Operation Condor, an alleged conspiracy of murder, torture and kidnappings organized by Latin American dictators in the 1970s that extended across the borders of Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia and Uruguay. As President Nixon's national security advisor, Kissinger was strongly suspected of having had full knowledge of the operation.

The controversy was reignited in 2010 when a cable, dated Sept. 16, 1976, was declassified and released by news outlets. In the cable, Kissinger seemingly rejected delivering a proposed warning to the government of Uruguay about Condor operations and ordered that "no further action be taken on this matter" by the State Department, according to the Los Angeles Times.

PHOTO: FILE - Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger speaks in the Oval Office of the White House, Oct. 10, 2017, in Washington.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger speaks in the Oval Office of the White House, Oct. 10, 2017, in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP, FILE

But Kissinger said shortly after the cable's release that its meaning was "distorted" and it was intended only to disapprove a specific approach to the Uruguayan government, not to cancel the plan to issue warnings to other nations suspected of participating in the Condor network, the LA Times reported.

In an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos in July 2022, Kissinger commented on the controversy surrounding his time in office.

"Nixon and I, we had a tendency, we were not in favor of escalation. But we felt that if we had to escalate it, we should escalate to a point very close to what the other side would tolerate in order to prevent sliding into a nuclear war through a series of little steps. The last one which turns out to be nuclear."

Kissinger, when asked in the interview about any key policy decisions he would take back, said, "I have developed no great answer for it. Because I've been thinking about these problems all my life. It's my hobby ... it's my occupation. The recommendations I made were the best I was then capable of."

Life after government

After leaving government in 1977, Kissinger established a consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, and commanded large fees as a speaker. He was a member of different presidential commissions and continued to write newspaper columns and offer his opinions on television. In 1994, Kissinger was hired as a consultant to the boards of both MGM and Credit Lyonnais.

In addition to his Nobel Peace Prize, Kissinger was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service in 2006. In 1995, he was appointed an Honorary Knight Commander in the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George by Queen Elizabeth II.

Looking back on his life and career, Kissinger told Stephanopoulos, "When I was, say 15, in Germany, it never occurred to me that someday I might be secretary of state of the United States and in a position to do this. It's an amazing tribute to America that this is possible ... I was a member of a discriminated minority, so it did not lend itself to career thinking."

"It was an extraordinary fate -- and therefore obligation -- to do the best I was capable of doing," he added.

Kissinger is survived by his wife, Nancy Maginnes Kissinger, and his children, Elizabeth and David, from a previous marriage.

ABC News' Huma Khan contributed to this report.

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