Henry Kissinger, 1st Jewish secretary of state, iconic Cold War diplomat, dies at 100

Having fled Nazi Germany at 15, Kissinger went to great lengths to distance himself from his Jewish background while conducting foreign policy on Nixon’s behalf

Henry Kissinger tells a White House news conference that "peace is at hand in Vietnam," on Oct. 26, 1972. (AP Photo, File)
Henry Kissinger tells a White House news conference that "peace is at hand in Vietnam," on Oct. 26, 1972. (AP Photo, File)

Henry Kissinger, the controversial diplomat responsible for some of the United States’ most pivotal foreign policy decisions during the Cold War, died Wednesday at his home in Connecticut. He was 100 years old.

A mainstay in the presidential administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Kissinger served Nixon as national security adviser, and later secretary of state. He played a central role in Nixon’s diplomatic agenda, and led the way on American rapprochement with China and the relaxation of tensions with the Soviet Union in a major break from the conventional wisdom of containment that held sway at the time.

Due to his cold, calculating style of diplomacy, which prioritized national interests over humanitarian ones, Kissinger’s name has become almost synonymous with realpolitik.

As the United States’ first Jewish Secretary of State, Kissinger made an effort to distance himself from his background. He was an opponent of the Soviet Jewry movement, and occasionally waded into antisemitic tropes when discussing organized Jewish life in America.

In the face of American Jewish lobbying to increase pressure on the Soviet Union, he complained to another White House official in 1972, asking him if there existed a more “self-serving group of people” than the Jewish community.

On the issue of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, Kissinger brushed it off to Nixon as “not an objective of American foreign policy.” He went further, adding, “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

US president Richard Nixon seated in the Oval Office with Israeli prime minister Golda Meir and Henry Kissinger, March 1, 1973. (Karl Schumacher/The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum/ National Archives and Records Administration)

Nazi Germany to New York

Born into a middle-class German-Jewish family in Fürth, Bavaria, in 1923, the young Heinz Kissinger grew up amid the Nazi rise to power. He was nine years old when Hitler was named chancellor of Germany, and twelve when the Nuremberg Laws were implemented. Many of Kissinger’s biographers speculate that his adolescence under totalitarianism and state-enforced segregation had a significant impact on his foreign policy worldview.

“The Nazi experience could have instilled in Kissinger either of two approaches to foreign policy,” wrote Walter Isaacson, author of “Kissinger: A Biography.” “An idealistic, moralistic approach dedicated to protecting human rights; or a realistic, realpolitik approach that sought to preserve order through balances of power and a willingness to use force as a tool of diplomacy. Kissinger would follow the latter route.”

At the age of 15, Kissinger fled Nazi Germany with his family and arrived in New York in 1938. The family relocated to Washington Heights, a German-Jewish neighborhood of upper Manhattan. Only two months later, the Nazis would devastate Jewish society in the Kristallnacht pogrom, and many of his family members would later perish in the Holocaust.

Averse to talking about his youth in Nazi Germany, he only once voluntarily made reference to it, following a statement from the West German government ahead of one of his visits. After Bonn announced that Kissinger might meet with some of his relatives during his trip there, he said to his aides: “What the hell are they putting out? My relatives are soap.”

While attending high school and college, Kissinger worked at a shaving brush factory. He pursued accounting while at City College of New York; however, his studies were cut short when he was drafted to fight in World War II.

Kissinger’s fluency in German helped him rise through the army’s ranks, out of the infantry, eventually landing him in military intelligence. The Jewish refugee was thus put in charge of tracking down Gestapo officers, and later of overseeing the denazification of parts of Germany.

Former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, right, with Bruno Kreisky before the start of talks between US and Soviet foreign secretaries in Vienna, May 19, 1975. (AP Photo/Endlicher)

After leaving the army, Kissinger enrolled at Harvard University and began to refine his political thought. He became active in politics as a foreign policy adviser to Nelson Rockefeller, an affluent, liberal Republican from New York. After Rockefeller lost the 1968 Republican primary to Nixon, Kissinger jumped ship and began working for the soon-to-be president.

Nixon’s ‘Jew boy’; Yom Kippur weapons

As Nixon’s right-hand man, Kissinger often bore the brunt of the president’s antisemitic remarks. The president would publicly embarrass Kissinger by referring to him as his “Jew boy,” including during a meeting with Egyptian foreign minister Ismail Fahmi.

Nixon was quick to pin a charge of dual loyalty onto Kissinger, and kept him away from Middle East policy during his first term. In cabinet meetings, after Kissinger gave his opinion on something Middle East-related, the president would often retort: “Now, can we get an American point of view?”

With Nixon embroiled in his Watergate scandal, it was Kissinger who took the helm when the Yom Kippur War broke out in October 1973. Amid the chaos of Nixon’s descent and the resignation of vice president Spiro Agnew, Kissinger mulled over Israel’s plea for a new supply of weapons with the National Security Council.

Henry Kissinger (left) negotiates with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in the garden of his summer villa at Mamoura, Alexandria, on August 25, 1975. (David Hume Kennerly White House Photographs/Kissinger Papers at Yale University)

Although the Nixon administration eventually approved the resupply of weapons to Israel, it was only under an Israeli threat to escalate with nuclear warheads aimed at Egypt and Syrian targets.

Many have accused Kissinger of intentionally dragging his feet airlifting weapons to Israel, out of fear that a decisive Israeli win would make the nation less willing to cooperate with the US. While negotiating a ceasefire with the Soviet ambassador, he said that his “nightmare is a victory for either side.”

He responded testily to claims of an intentional delay in an interview with Channel 12, to mark his 100th birthday: “To make the airlift of a country available to a war-making country that is in the middle of a war is not something that is normally done. Has in fact never been done,” he said. “It was also the week in which vice president [Spiro] Agnew resigned, so it takes a special Israeli attitude to even ask that question, if you forgive me.”

Scrutinized by rights groups, consulted by presidents

A recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for having negotiated the 1973 Vietnam ceasefire, Kissinger’s track record has been subjected to close scrutiny by human rights organizations, journalists and activists, who allege that his oversight of bombing raids in Southeast Asia implicate him in crimes against humanity.

As national security adviser, Kissinger supervised the discreet carpet-bombing of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, and signed off on air raids that killed hundreds of thousands. On his watch, the US dropped around half a million tons of munitions on the region, sometimes without an intended target.

File: Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger attends a luncheon at the US State Department in Washington, DC, on December 1, 2022. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP)

Kissinger was also crucial in the American-backed coup d’etat that toppled democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende in Chile and replaced him with military dictator Augusto Pinochet.

“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people,” Kissinger said in 1970 to a government covert operations committee he led. Pinochet’s regime was infamous for forcibly disappearing thousands of political dissidents, and detaining and torturing tens of thousands.

Since his departure from the White House, Kissinger had become something of a diplomacy guru for American presidents. With the exception of Joe Biden, every president has made a point of meeting with Kissinger publicly at least once for his counsel on foreign policy.

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