Home » In Memoriam » In Memoriam: Henry Kissinger

In Memoriam: Henry Kissinger

November 30, 2023


Few scholars and/or statesmen gain the notoriety and respect achieved by Henry Kissinger, who died yesterday at the age of 100. To understand how much of modern history through which personally he lived, remember that, in 1923, the Soviet Union was formed and the last U.S. troops were leaving Germany following the First World War. He witnessed the Great Depression and the rise of the Nazis, from whom his family fled. Famed journalist Thomas W. Lippman explains, “As a Jewish immigrant fleeing Nazi Germany, Dr. Kissinger spoke little English when he arrived in the United States as a teenager in 1938. But he harnessed a keen intellect, a mastery of history and his skill as a writer to rise quickly from Harvard undergraduate to Harvard faculty member before establishing himself in Washington.”[1]


As noted above, Dr. Kissinger was born and raised in Germany during the Interwar period in Europe (November 1918 – September 1939) between the First and Second World Wars. That period dominated by the cascading effects of the end of the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles — which drove rapid political, social, economic change, and witnessed the rise of authoritarianism and fascism in Europe. Just as importantly, it was a period marked by rapid advances in science, especially in quantum theory and mechanics, which would shortly thereafter lead the world into the nuclear age. Dr. Kissinger was undoubtedly influenced by this period of time and his family’s need to flee Germany for the United States. And his wartime experiences had a similarly profound effect on his early worldview and his pragmatic, realpolitik approach to international relations. When I was a student of International Affairs at the American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC, in the 1980s, we studied Dr. Kissinger’s works and his realpolitik approach. As you can imagine, international affairs near the end of the Cold War was a fertile ground for many exercised conversations with my colleagues.


Dr. Kissinger’s intellectual gifts were never challenged; however, his career was not without controversy. As journalist David E. Sanger explained, “[Dr. Kissinger] engineered the United States’ opening to China, negotiated its exit from Vietnam, and used cunning, ambition and intellect to remake American power relationships with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.”[2] He adds, “Sometimes trampling on democratic values to do so.” Dr. Kissinger was, above all, a realist. Sanger explains, “Considered the most powerful secretary of state in the post-World War II era, he was by turns hailed as an ultrarealist who reshaped diplomacy to reflect American interests and denounced as having abandoned American values, particularly in the arena of human rights, if he thought it served the nation’s purposes.” Whatever one might have thought about Dr. Kissinger, no one can doubt how much he loved his adopted country.


Drafted into the U.S. Army during the Second World War, he was sent back to fight in Germany. Correspondent Tom Gjelten reports, “Pvt. Kissinger was among the American soldiers who liberated starving Jewish prisoners at a concentration camp in Ahlem. He met some of them again 60 years later, when he spoke at the screening of a documentary film about Ahlem, with many camp survivors present. ‘There’s nothing I’m more proud of than having been one of those who had the honor of liberating the Ahlem concentration camp,’ Kissinger said, in an uncharacteristically emotional speech. Noting how often he spoke to various groups, Kissinger told the Ahlem survivors there was no one who meant more to him than those who showed up for the event. … His experience with the U.S. military in Germany made Kissinger a believer in the idea of peace through strength.”[3]


Upon learning of Dr. Kissinger’s passing, Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, stated, “Kissinger was the leading scholar-practitioner of the post-World War II era. There were other great secretaries of state and a long list of impressive historians, but no one who combined the two pursuits as Kissinger did.”[4] The two presidents with which he was most associated were Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Journalist Abinaya Vijayaraghavan observes, “Kissinger’s reign as the prime architect of U.S. foreign policy waned with Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Still, he continued to be a diplomatic force under President Gerald Ford and to offer strong opinions throughout the rest of his life.”[5] In fact, Dr. Kissinger advised He advised a dozen presidents — everyone from John F. Kennedy to Joseph R. Biden Jr.


It is impossible to sum up a person’s life — especially one who lived a century — in just a few words. Journalist David Cohen nevertheless tried. He wrote, “Henry Kissinger, a ruthless practitioner of the art of realpolitik who had an outsize impact on global events and who won a premature Nobel Peace Prize for ending a war that kept going, has died. A cunning, erudite strategist whose transformative diplomatic efforts helped to reshape the world.”[6] Such a description fails to capture the whole man. The Dr. Kissinger we all know is the public man, who, as Lippman notes was fond of the limelight. He writes, “With his German accent, incisive wit, owlish looks, and zest for socializing in Hollywood and dating movie stars, he was instantly recognized all over the world, in stark contrast to most of his understated predecessors.”


He was also a son, a father, and husband. He is survived by his second wife, Nancy Maginnes Kissinger, and two children from his first marriage, Elizabeth and David. They will miss him more deeply and fondly than most of us who only knew the public persona. We, the public, know that we have lost a giant of a man in field of foreign policy and statesmanship. He was a serious man; a deep thinker — not a thin-slicer. He was someone whose thoughts — whether you agreed with him or not — were based on reason and logic. He was a man who came of age during a time when serious thought and reason were the currency of influence in Washington and in capitals around the world. There is unlikely to be another scholar/statesman quite like him. Rest in peace.


[1] Thomas W. Lippman, “Henry Kissinger, who shaped world affairs under two presidents, dies at 100,” The Washington Post, 29 November 2023.
[2] David E. Sanger, “Henry Kissinger Is Dead at 100; Shaped Nation’s Cold War History,” The New York Times, 29 November 2023.
[3] Tom Gjelten, “Henry Kissinger, legendary diplomat and foreign policy scholar, dies at 100,” NPR, 29 November 2023.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Abinaya Vijayaraghavan, “Henry Kissinger, American diplomat and Nobel winner, dead at 100,” Reuters, 30 November 2023.
[6] David Cohen, “Henry Kissinger, America’s most famous diplomat, dies at 100,” Politico, 29 November 2023.

Related Posts:

In Memoriam: C. Gordon Bell

“The history of computers goes back over 200 years,” writes history journalist Timothy Williamson. “At first theorized by mathematicians and entrepreneurs, during the 19th century

Read More »

In Memoriam: Jim Simons

James Harris Simons, a math professor turned hedge fund founder who recently passed away, once stated, “Past performance is the best predictor of success.” Better

Read More »
Full Logo


One of our team members will reach out shortly and we will help make your business brilliant!