Henry A. Kissinger, Secretary of State to both presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, is one of the most prominent and recognizable of the United States' modern Secretaries of State. Kissinger was instrumental in the diplomacy that ended the Vietnam War in 1973, and later that year he practiced the "shuttle diplomacy" that attempted to cool tensions between Israel and Egypt after the October Yom Kippur War. Kissinger has always elicited the extremes of admiration or controversy; nevertheless, he remains a respected elder statesmen of U.S. foreign policy.
Kissinger was born Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Germany in 1923. The Germany of Kissinger's youth was wracked by the punitive measures of the Versailles Peace Treaty that ended World War I. Under the tenets of Versailles, Germany could have only a defensive army, had to pay reparations to England and France, and faced a decimated economy with no rehabilitative help from the war's victors.
In the same year Kissinger was born, Adolf Hitler made his first attempt to take power in Germany. Hitler's beer hall putsch (coup) failed, however, and Hitler was jailed. In 1933, however, he legitimately ascended to power as President Paul Von Hindenburg's chancellor. When Hindenburg died, Hitler took full power and the Nazi Party became the government of Germany.
Hitler quickly formalized anti-semitism. Kissinger's family were Jewish, and they felt the effects of Nazi policies. In 1938, when Kissinger was 15, his family immigrated to the United States. After arriving, Kissinger changed his first name to Henry.
Kissinger learned English quickly, and he finished high school in the U.S. in 1940. He began working on an accounting degree, and he became a naturalized American citizen in 1943. The U.S. Army drafted him, and he deployed to the European theater of war as an infantryman and German interpreter. Later he served as an intelligence officer.
After the war, Kissinger entered Harvard, changing his studies to diplomatic and political history. He received both undergrad and graduate degrees from Harvard, earning his Ph.D. in 1954. He stayed on at Harvard as a faculty member in the Department of Government.
Rise to National Prominence
Kissinger began to gain notoriety in the late 1950s when he challenged the idea of "massive retaliation" as a way to win future wars. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, championed massive retaliation should the Soviet Union ever launch nuclear-tipped missiles at the United States. (In reality, Eisenhower didn't believe in the idea either, but he let Dulles act the part of foreign-policy wild dog to keep the Soviets off balance.)
Eisenhower's Vice President, Nixon, also took notice of Kissinger. When Nixon won the presidency in 1968, he tapped Kissinger to be his national security advisor.
Kissinger joined Nixon's administration upon the president's inauguration in January 1969. In truth, Kissinger acted as both Nixon's national security advisor and de facto secretary of state. Nixon made William P. Rogers his official secretary of state, but he rarely relied on him, turning to Kissinger instead.
Nixon's First Term: Vietnam
While Nixon is not generally seen as an "anti-war" president, he won election on a promise of getting the U.S. out of the Vietnam War. However, he pledged to do via something he and Kissinger called "peace with honor." That meant the U.S. would not just leave its South Vietnamese allies. Rather, Kissinger would seek a negotiated peace while Nixon kept up military pressure to show that the U.S. had not become weak and could live up to its global alliance obligations.
Nixon periodically drew down American troop numbers, fulfilling a promise to begin bringing American soldiers home. In turn, he insisted South Vietnamese troops effectively handle their own fight against North Vietnamese communism -- something he called Vietnamization.
Nixon and Kissinger both knew that South Vietnamese troops could never prevail without U.S help, but Vietnamization was a stopgap measure. In the meantime, Nixon more frequently called on American airpower to hold back communist forces.
In early 1970, Kissinger and Nixon approved the bombing of communist supply lines to South Vietnam that ran through neighboring Cambodia. The highly controversial measure not only escalated the war instead of de-escalating it, and it touched off a new wave of domestic anti-war protests. Those led to the tragic shooting of college students at Kent State University in Ohio.
The bombings also destabilized Cambodia, allowing the communist Khmer Rouge to take power. Later in the 1970s the Khmer Rouge perpetrated the mass murder of millions of Cambodians.
The peace-with-honor plan bore little fruit until late 1972. In 1971, Kissinger had secretly traveled to both Communist China, laying plans for Nixon to visit in 1972. He also helped plan Nixon's trip to the Soviet Union the same year. Nixon's trips were not only historic, they were strokes of master diplomacy. As Kissinger's work cracked open the normally politically mysterious China, it also set up the policy of detente with the Soviet Union. Better relations with the U.S. and cooling Cold War tensions meant that North Vietnam's communist backers were less willing to give continued support to the war in Vietnam.
Beginning to feel isolated, North Vietnam agreed to meet the United States at peace talks in Paris. Kissinger and his North Vietnamese counterpart, Le Duc Tho, crafted a treaty by October 1972 that would establish a cease fire, see the U.S. depart South Vietnam, repatriate American prisoners of war, allow South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to remain in power, and let North Vietnamese troops keep territory it occupied in the South.
When Thieu objected to the last part, North Vietnam withdrew from negotiations. Nixon ordered the so-called Christmas Bombing in December 1972 to force North Vietnam back to the peace talks.
The tactic worked. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho finalized the treaty in January 1973, and America's involvement in the Vietnam War was over. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were both named Nobel Peace Prize winners that year, however Le Duc Tho did not accept.
Nixon's Abbreviated Second Term: The Middle East
Kissinger's announcement in October 1972 that peace was eminent in Vietnam handed Nixon a landslide reelection in November. After his second inauguration, Nixon kept Kissinger as his national security advisor but also officially named him as secretary of state. Kissinger was the first to hold the dual role.
When the Yom Kippur War erupted between Israel and Arab states in October 1973, Kissinger was quickly in the midst of the second defining crisis of his Washington career. With Israel a chief ally of the United States and Egypt and Syria allies of the Soviet Union, the war threatened to undo detente escalate the Cold War.
Kissinger helped organize an American airlift of supplies to Israel. Then, after the United Nations achieved a cease fire, Kissinger began flying back and forth between the combatant countries to achieve military disengagement.
His trips quickly became known as "shuttle diplomacy." By May 1974, Kissinger had achieved agreements between all the combatants.
Nixon's second term was short-lived. The Watergate scandal which fully erupted in 1973 forced Nixon to resign the presidency in August 1974. Kissinger, however, survived politically to bridge Nixon's administration with that of his successor, Gerald R. Ford.
The Ford Administration
Kissinger continued for Ford in the dual roles of Secretary and National Security Advisor. When Cambodian Khmer Rouge troops captured Americans on the merchant ship Mayaguez off the Cambodian island of Ko Tang in May 1975, Kissinger backed Ford in ordering a Marine rescue operation.
After North Vietnam overran South Vietnam in April 1975, forcing the withdrawal of American embassy personnel and firmly fixing the idea that America had "lost" Vietnam, Ford wanted a way to prove the U.S. was still powerful and resolute. Kissinger and others in Ford's administration thought the Mayaguez incident was it.
The resulting raid was nearly disastrous, with Marines losing nearly one-third of their 200 combatants in killed or wounded. With the American captives unharmed and released before the U.S. operation began, many questioned its need.
Kissinger continued with Ford, negotiating further agreements between Israel and Egypt. However, the luster of his earlier achievements was gone. He left public office on January 20, 1977, when Ford's successor, Jimmy Carter, took office.