Biography of Henry Kissinger

American Diplomat, Scholar and Public Intellectual

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is pictured in 1980.

 David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Henry A. Kissinger (born Heinz Alfred Kissinger) is a scholar, public intellectual and the world's foremost—and one of the more controversial—statesmen and diplomats. He served on the administrations of two U.S. presidents, most notably Richard M Nixon's, and advised several others, including John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush. Kissinger shared the 1973 Nobel Prize for Peace for his efforts to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War.

Fast Facts: Henry Kissinger

  • Also Known As: Heinz Alfred Kissinger
  • Known For: Secretary of the U.S. Department of State, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs 
  • Born: May 27, 1923, in Fuerth, Germany
  • Parents: Louis and Paula (Stern) Kissinger
  • Spouse: Ann Fleischer (divorced); Nancy Maginnes
  • Children: Elizabeth and David
  • Education: Harvard College, B.A.; Harvard University, M.A. and PhD
  • Published Works: "Diplomacy," "Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy," "The White House Years"
  • Key Accomplishments: Winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize for Peace for his efforts to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War, the 1977 Presidential Medal of Freedom and the 1986 Medal of Liberty
  • Famous Quote: “Corrupt politicians make the other ten percent look bad.” 
  • Fun Fact: Kissinger became an unlikely sex symbol and was known as a flirt, of sorts, in President Richard Nixon's administration; he once noted: "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac."

Fled Nazi German, Drafted by U.S. Military

Kissinger was born on May 27, 1923, to Louis and Paula (Stern) Kissinger, Jews living in Nazi Germany. The family fled the country in 1938 amid state sanctioned anti-Semitism, just before the burning of Jewish synagogues, homes, schools and businesses in a deadly event that became known as Kristallnacht. The Kissingers, now refugees, settled in New York. Heinz Kissinger, a teenager at the time, worked in a factory making shaving brushes to support his poor family while also attending George Washington High School at night. He changed his name to Henry and became a U.S. citizen five years later, in 1943.

He later enrolled in the City College of New York in hopes of becoming an accountant, but at age 19 he received a draft notice from the U.S. Army. He reported for basic training in February 1943 and eventually began work in counterintelligence with the Army Counter Intelligence Corps, where he served until 1946.

A year later, in 1947, Kissinger enrolled at Harvard College. He graduated with his B.A. in political science in 1950, and went on to earn a master's degree from Harvard University in 1952 and a Ph.D. in 1954. He accepted positions in the prestigious Ivy League university's Department of Government and its Center for International Affairs from 1954 to 1969.

Marriage and Personal Life

Kissinger's first marriage was to Ann Fleischer, whom he had dated in high school and remained in touch with while he was in the Army. The marriage took place on Feb. 6, 1949, while Kissinger was studying at Harvard College. The couple had two children, Elizabeth and David, and divorced in 1964.

A decade later, on March 30, 1974, Kissinger married Nancy Sharon Maginnes, a philanthropist and former foreign policy staffer to Nelson A. Rockefeller's Commission on Critical Choices for Americans.

Career in Politics

Kissinger's professional career in politics began with Rockefeller during the early part of the wealthy Republican's tenure as governor of New York in the 1960s. Kissinger served as Rockefeller's foreign policy adviser until he was tapped by Republican President Richard M. Nixon to be his national security adviser. Kissinger served in that capacity from January 1969 until early November 1975, simultaneously serving as secretary of the Department of State beginning in September 1973. Kissinger remained in the White House administration after Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal and Vice President Gerald Ford took over the presidency.

Master of Practical Politics

Kissinger's legacy is as a master practitioner of realpolitik, a term used to mean the practical "realities of politics," or a philosophy that is rooted in a nation's strength instead of morality and world opinion. This will also be his outsized influence on American foreign policy.

Among Kissinger's most important diplomatic victories are:

  • The easing of tensions between the nuclear superpowers Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the Soviet Union, and United States during the the Cold War in the 1960s and 1970s. The cooldown was known as “détente.” Kissinger and Nixon used the strategy to de-escalate the showdown between the countries, in turn winning arms reduction treaties. Kissinger is widely credited with easing Cold War tensions and preventing a third world war.
  • Ending more than two decades of diplomatic estrangement between the United States and China leading to a 1972 meeting of Nixon and Mao Zedong, the infamous founder of the communist People's Republic of China. Kissinger had begun secret negotiations with Mao's government in 1971 under the belief that the United States would benefit from a friendly relationship, further illustration of Kissinger's belief in realpolitik, or practical politics.
  • The Paris Peace Accords, signed in 1973 following secret negotiations between Kissinger and North Vietnamese politburo member Le Duc Tho. The accords were meant to end the Vietnam War and did, in fact, lead to a temporary ceasefire and the end of U.S. involvement. Le Duc Tho had become increasingly concerned that his nation could become isolated if Kissinger's and Nixon's policy of détente built relations between the United States and his allies, the Soviet Union and China. 
  • Kissinger's "shuttle diplomacy" in 1974 during the Yom Kippur war among Israel, Egypt, and Syria, which resulted disengagement agreements between the countries.

Criticism of Kissinger

Kissinger's methods, particularly his apparent support of military dictatorships in South America, were not without criticism, however. The late public intellectual Christopher Hitchens called for Kissinger’s prosecution "for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offenses against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture.” The allegations of war crimes are rooted in Kissinger's positioning of American foreign policy toward Argentina during its "Dirty War." the country's military forces secretly abducted, tortured and killed an estimated 30,000 people in the name of rooting out terrorism. Kissinger, the national security adviser and secretary of state, recommended the U.S. support the the military by sending the country tens of millions of dollars and selling it aircraft. Records declassified decades later show Kissinger approved of the "Dirty War," urging the Argentinian military to act swiftly less U.S. lawmakers get involved.

Washington, Kissinger said, would not cause the dictatorship "unnecessary difficulties."

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