Henry A. Kissinger was a Secretary of State and respected American scholar who helped create the post-World War II world order and led the U.S. through some of its most complicated foreign policy challenges.

With his distinct German accent, sharp wit, voluminous writings and belief in the peacemaking power of realpolitik, Kissinger was one of the most influential foreign policy and national security practitioners of the post-World War II era.

Dr. Kissinger stayed active in national security for more than 70 years—from the age of 20 when he joined the U.S. Army to nearly his death, when he continued to travel to Washington to offer testimony on U.S. national security strategy on Capitol Hill.

Serving as National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State during the Nixon and Ford Administrations, Kissinger was the author of some of those administrations’ most important, and sometimes controversial, policies.

He was instrumental to opening China to the Western world and was the primary voice of détente with the Soviet Union that lowered tensions during the Cold War—a reflection of his belief in the balance of power as a tenet of global order.

Before serving in government, Kissinger served on the faculty at Harvard University, where he ran the International Seminar.

Dr. Kissinger is the recipient of a number of awards and recognitions. In 1945, he received the Bronze Star from the U.S. Army for meritorious service. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973—the same year a Gallup poll of Americans listed him as the most admired person in the world. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, and the Medal of Liberty in 1986.

As the architect of a lasting era of peace, stability, prosperity and global order, he made a substantial impact on generations of citizens, from the U.S. to Europe and China.

Early Life

Henry A. Kissinger was born to a schoolteacher and a homemaker in Furth, Germany, in 1923, just as nationalism was beginning to sweep Germany. As Jews, the Kissinger family found many activities were off-limits—including attending public soccer matches, a sport that Kissinger loved, even if he did not excel in it. What he may have lacked in athletic talent, however, he made up for in academics. As a child, he was bookish and introverted, yet also competitive.

In 1935, the Nuremburg Laws were enacted, and Kissinger’s father, Louis, became a casualty of the rules, losing his job as a schoolteacher. Henry’s mother recognized that leaving Germany was the family’s best hope for their future. In 1938, three months before Kristallnacht, Henry Kissinger, his younger brother Walter and their parents fled Nazi Germany and settled in New York City.

Many of his extended family were not able to escape, and 13 of them perished in the Holocaust. Well into his 80s, he remarked that people managed to survive the Holocaust through “singleness of purpose,” a trait that defined him throughout his career.

New Beginnings in America

Kissinger’s experience of fleeing a country where he once had to cross the street to avoid being beaten by non-Jewish boys, and coming to a country where such persecution did not exist for him, was a transformative one. Upon arriving in America he was keen to be considered an American. As he later reflected in his farewell speech as Secretary of State, “When I came here in 1938, I was asked to write an essay at George Washington High School about what it meant to be an American. I wrote that…this was a country where one could walk across the street with one’s head erect.”

In America, Kissinger plunged into his studies at George Washington High. He eventually transitioned to night school so that he could maintain a job at a shaving brush company by day. Good grades coupled with a steady work ethic made it easy for Kissinger to get into City College of New York, where he enjoyed a free education. His goal was to become an accountant, but time in the Army would set his life on a different path.

A lifetime of service.

Service to Country

In 1943—the year he became a U.S. citizen—Kissinger was drafted into the U.S. Army, where his intellect and fluency in German would make him a perfect candidate for military intelligence. His intelligence earned him a placement in the Army Specialized Training Program, an opportunity that sent him from combat training to college instead. Kissinger was sent to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, where he studied engineering, read books on history in his spare time, and tutored other students.

In 1944, however, the Army canceled the program, and Kissinger was returned to Camp Claiborne in Louisiana. From Camp Claiborne, Kissinger was assigned to the 84th Infantry Division, which set sail for Europe from New York in September 1944 as part of the pursuit phase of the war. When he arrived back in his homeland of Germany, Kissinger was quickly selected to become a German translator for General Alexander Bolling. Later, in the Battle of the Bulge, when most of the division was forced to withdraw, Kissinger volunteered to stay behind to be part of hazardous counter-intelligence duties, making good use of his German.

When the 84th Division later captured the German town of Krefeld on the Rhine River, Kissinger became the town’s administrator—relying on his language skills and his understanding of the German culture to command authority. He succeeded in restoring order and building a civilian government in the town in little more than a week, a success that enabled him to transfer to the Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC). The mission was to identify Nazis and members of the Gestapo in areas that the Allies had captured. His work here would earn him a Bronze Star.

Kissinger’s work in the CIC would continue even after the war had ended, as he was called upon to provide order and detect Nazis in Hesse. And yet, he kept any feelings of anger or resentment toward the Germans—who had forced his family to flee less than a decade earlier—beneath the surface. Kissinger operated with remarkable restraint.

In 1946, he was discharged from the Army, having obtained the rank of sergeant. As he would later reflect, his military service would become for him the highlight of his career, and also one that affirmed his American identity and gave him confidence.

Academia

Following his service in the Army, and a brief stint teaching military officers in Germany, Kissinger returned to academics, earning his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Legend has it that his doctoral dissertation was, and remains, the longest dissertation ever submitted at Harvard University.

As the son of an educator, Kissinger wavered early on between a life in academia and a life shaping foreign policy on the front lines. Before entering government, he held a variety of academic and think-tank posts: at his alma mater Harvard University, where he was a professor of government; at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; at the Counsel on Foreign Relations; and at many others.

At Harvard, perhaps his most passionate pursuit—and a formative precursor to his career as an international diplomat—was the International Seminar that he founded and ran. The seminar brought together about 40 foreign dignitaries every summer for classes, lectures and, most importantly, networking sessions. Through the seminar, Kissinger built a wide base of foreign contacts with whom he could conduct direct diplomacy, including contacts in China, Europe and Latin America.

It was also during his time in academia that Kissinger refined his belief in the stabilizing power of realpolitik, with its focus on balance of power, linkage and triangular diplomacy. This would become the driving philosophy of his time as Secretary of State. His dissertation, Peace, Legitimacy, and the Equilibrium: A Study of the Statesmanship of Castlereagh and Metternich, argued that peace and stability do not come from the pursuit of peace per se. Rather, he looked at the diplomatic successes of Klemens von Metternich and Congress of Europe and concluded that peace comes from “an international agreement about the nature of workable arrangements and the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy. It implies the acceptance of the framework of international order by all major powers.” While Kissinger’s approach to peace through rules, power and stability was controversial, it also led to his greatest accomplishments.

Global Statesman

Though successful in academia, Kissinger longed to have a direct impact on policy. He entered the political arena in 1960, serving as a senior foreign policy advisor to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaigns in 1960, 1964 and 1968. When Rockefeller lost the Republican nomination in 1968, Kissinger—reluctantly at first—joined the campaign of the party nominee, Richard Nixon.

Following Nixon’s victory, Kissinger was named Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and then National Security Advisor. In this capacity, and eventually as Secretary of State, Kissinger deftly guided the U.S. through many of the most difficult national security issues the nation would face.

He led the Administration’s historic efforts to open relations with China—ultimately opening the door to greater stability between the nations, greater prosperity for the citizens within, and normalized relations between the two countries for the first time in decades. Specifically, in 1971 Kissinger made two secret trips to China, laying the groundwork for Nixon’s visit to the Republic the following year.

Kissinger believed in the power of triangulation as a tool for diplomacy, and this can be seen in his near-concurrent negotiations with China and the Soviet Union as well—connecting the world’s three superpowers at the time. Kissinger later reflected that the triangular relationship was “in itself a form of pressure on each of them, and we carefully maneuvered so we would try to be closer to each than they were to each other.”

“The triangular relationship between the U.S., Soviet Union and China was ‘in itself a form of pressure on each of them, and we carefully maneuvered so we would try to be closer to each than they were to each other.”

Ultimately, Kissinger was influential in achieving the historic détente between the United States and the Soviet Union through the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In doing so, he helped to ease tensions between the world’s two superpowers amidst the tension of the Cold War era—achieving a vision for a global order that would preserve peace.

Kissinger also worked to end America’s involvement in the Vietnam War through the Paris Peace Accords. Kissinger recognized that the conflict could not be won in conventional military terms, so he set about trying to secure peace through active diplomacy. Soon after the Nixon Administration took office in 1969, Kissinger began painstaking negotiations that lasted nearly four years. In 1973, Kissinger and the North Vietnamese negotiator struck a deal for a ceasefire that ended American involvement in the war. That same year, he received plaudits for limiting the damage of, and outside influence in, the Yom Kippur War between America’s ally Israel, and the Soviet Union’s ally Egypt—ultimately preventing the regional conflict from spiraling into a global conflict. It was this experience that helped coin the term “shuttle diplomacy,” for the number of short trips Kissinger took between Middle Eastern capitals, as he worked to contain the military activities and to address the fallout of the war.

In January 1974, over the course of 8 days, Kissinger worked to negotiate the first Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement, and later that spring he arranged a Syrian-Israeli disengagement. The following year, his shuttle diplomacy helped to arrange one final negotiation through a second Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement.

A force for international stability, Kissinger was also a steady hand at home when the Nixon Administration was caught in twin scandals that overwhelmed all other matters. As President Nixon was under siege from the Watergate investigation and Vice President Spiro Agnew was about to resign due to corruption allegations, Kissinger was critical to keeping the Administration afloat. Serving as a a credible face for foreign leaders when many other major players in the Nixon Administration were tainted by the Watergate scandal, Kissinger held the country together on the international stage.

While his choices were not without controversy, and his behavior—as he operated with single-minded intent to realize his vision—was sometimes maddening to colleagues, Kissinger was aware of who he was, and owned it. In his own words, “Accept everything about yourself—I mean everything. You are you and that is the beginning and the end—no apologies, no regrets.”

Enduring Influence

After Kissinger stepped down as Secretary of State in 1977, he remained an advisor and voice on matters of foreign policy. At the bequest of Ronald Reagan, Kissinger chaired the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, and would later serve on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

After leaving government, Kissinger remained a frequent commentator on national security issues, as well as a prolific writer and founder of the consulting firm Kissinger Associates. As such, he remained an informal, but frequent, advisor to presidents, and he welcomed and met with countless heads of state and dignitaries from nearly every country in the world.

He published 17 books, including 2014’s World Order, 1994’s Diplomacy and 2011’s On China, as well as memoirs covering his time in the White House and as Secretary of State.

With his sharp wit and encyclopedic knowledge of philosophy, history and current events, Kissinger was known as one of the most quotable men in Washington. His most famous witticisms include his observations that “nobody will ever win the battle of the sexes. There’s too much fraternizing with the enemy,” and that “there can’t be a crisis this week. My schedule is already full.” He could put a humorous angle on even the most difficult international challenges, once noting that “since Peter the Great, Russia has been expanding at the rate of one Belgium per year.”

He was also aware of his own reputation for having a healthy ego. As he once said during a speech, “I want to thank you for stopping the applause. It’s impossible for me to look humble for any period of time.”

And yet, it was an ego that was earned. International stateman, lifelong scholar, skilled negotiator and architect of a lasting era of peace, stability, prosperity and global order—Kissinger’s impact on generations of citizens, from the U.S. to China, cannot be minimized.

Kissinger is survived by his wife Nancy, his brother Walter, his two grown children and five grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers the family suggests considering donations to:

Animal Medical Center
Development Office
510 East 62nd Street
New York, NY 10065

Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs
Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies
1717 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036