Henry Kissinger Essay - Critical Essays

Kissinger, Henry


Henry Kissinger 1923–-

(Born Heinz Alfred Kissinger) German-born American political theorist, essayist, and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Kissinger's career through 1999.

An influential and highly respected statesman, Henry Kissinger is distinguished for his diplomatic authority and his profound impact on American foreign policy before, during, and following his tenure in the White House as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State in the 1960s and 1970s. Kissinger's best-known writings, The White House Years (1979), Years of Upheaval (1982), and Years of Renewal (1994), chronicle his global policy planning and give detailed accounts of historical events and political figures. Also covered in his writings are Kissinger's strategies for international diplomacy and his opponents' views and counter strategies.

Biographical Information

Born Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Fuerth, Germany in 1923, Kissinger fled to New York City with his family when he was fifteen years old to escape Jewish discrimination in his native country. At the age of twenty, while serving in the military during World War II, Kissinger was given the duty of reorganizing municipal governments in subjugated Germany; a role that highlighted his talent for managing international affairs. After the war, Kissinger earned a scholarship to attend Harvard University. There he completed both undergraduate and doctorate level degrees in government. Kissinger eventually became a full professor at Harvard while serving as a consultant to various bureaus of U.S. government, including the Psychological Strategy Board of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During this period, he also composed several books, including A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812–1822 (1957), Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957), and The Troubled Partnership: A Reappraisal of the Atlantic Alliance (1965). In 1968, after working on the campaign of presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller as a speechwriter and advisor, Kissinger became President Richard Nixon's foreign policy advisor and director of the National Security Council. While in this office, Kissinger gained prominence and recognition for his initiation of arms-control negotiations with the Soviet Union, his opening of diplomatic relations with communist China, his peace negotiations with the Middle East, and his strategic efforts to end the Vietnam War; the latter earned him the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1973. In the same year, amid the turmoil of the Watergate scandal surrounding the Nixon presidency, Kissinger was appointed to the office of Secretary of State, a position that limited his authority in the realm of international negotiation. He remained Secretary of State until the end of the Gerald Ford administration in 1977. Near the end of his White House tenure, Kissinger published The White House Years, a detailed memoir of the first seven years of the Nixon administration, and Years of Upheaval, a chronicle of the last year of Nixon's administration. Since his retirement in 1977, Kissinger has served as a member of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and has been called upon to give counsel to more recent administrations on issues of foreign policy. He also completed his third volume of memoirs, Years of Renewal, a detailed account of the Ford administration, as well as other well-known writings, including Diplomacy (1994). Kissinger has also served as a political analyst, lecturer, business consultant, Georgetown University Professor of Diplomacy, and member of several associations and committees.

Major Works

Although Kissinger's work discusses a vast range of political issues from the seventeenth century to the 1970s, he explores several recurrent themes, including international coexistence, balance-of-power government, détente, and American attitudes toward political morality. In his first work, A World Restored, Kissinger reflects on the balance-of-power diplomacy practiced by Robert Stewart (known popularly as Viscount Castlereagh), who was the British foreign secretary, and Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar von Metternich, foreign minister of Austria, as they brought order to Europe in the post-Napoleonic era. Kissinger explores construction of international order based on legitimacy rather than conquest, and conservatism rather than imperialism, and he focuses on the idea that the most gifted statesmen have created policy rooted in historical, political, and cultural contexts. He continued to reject the imposition of American policy on foreign nations in The Troubled Partnership (1965), arguing that American foreign policy (especially in relation to the Soviet Union), devoid of balance-of power diplomacy and unity, would lead to the ultimate dissolution of the Atlantic Alliance. Kissinger's recurrent focus on balance and distribution of power was broadened in the three volumes of his memoirs: The White House Years, Years of Upheaval, and Years of Renewal. As his most widely read writings, these works chronicle Kissinger's eight-year incumbency as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. These narratives detail events, public attitudes, political figures, opposition movements, and outcomes encompassing Kissinger's term of office. The memoirs focus on themes of conflict resolution through mediation (détente), foreign policy based on realism, balance-of-power policy, and international coexistence. These are especially apparent in Kissinger's accounts of the strategic alliance with China, the negotiations to end the Vietnam War, the Middle East peace process, the initiation of Soviet arms control negotiations, and the promotion of a peaceful coexistence between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Diplomacy provides an overview of international balance-of-power politics from the seventeenth century to the current period in order to assert the importance of upholding a balance of power in the present worldwide political climate.

Critical Reception

Kissinger's writings are consistently praised for their attention to historical detail, clarity, depth of reasoning, fusion of theory to action, and insightful characterization of political figures. Kissinger is reproached by some critics, however, for his inconsistencies in policy and illogical proposals aimed at remedying foreign diplomacy gone awry. He has been accused of failing to recognize political idealism and for contradicting his own stance against Wilsonianism (a term used to describe Woodrow Wilson's ideas about American foreign policy). The most negative critics assert that Kissinger alters the explication of certain events retrospectively in order to combat negative assessment of his policies, especially in regard to the Vietnam War and in respect to U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. Critical evaluation of Kissinger's writing is often problematic due to his dual role as a statesman and author; critics often focus on his political contributions and failures rather than on his writings. Many commentators hold that through his work as an author, Kissinger recounts foreign policy of the past and present in order to shape international relations of the future.

Principal Works

Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (nonfiction) 1957

A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812–1822 (nonfiction) 1957

The Necessity for Choice: Prospects of American Foreign Policy (nonfiction) 1961

A World Restored: Europe After Napoleon (nonfiction) 1964

American Foreign Policy: Three Essays (essays) 1965

The Troubled Partnership: A Reappraisal of the Atlantic Alliance (nonfiction) 1965

The White House Years (memoir) 1979

For the Record: Selected Statements 1977–1980 (nonfiction) 1981

American Foreign Policy: A Global View (nonfiction) 1982

Years of Upheaval (memoir) 1982

Report of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America (nonfiction) 1984

Observations: Selected Speeches and Essays, 1982–1984 (essays and speeches) 1985

The Dimensions of Diplomacy [with McGeorge Bundy] (nonfiction) 1989

Diplomacy (nonfiction) 1994

Years of Renewal (memoir) 1994


Quincy Wright (review date July 1958)

SOURCE: A review of “A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812–1822,” in The American Historical Review, Vol. 68, No. 4, July, 1958, pp. 953–55.

[In the following review, Wright offers a positive assessment of A World Restored, concluding that Kissinger skillfully explores and interprets international relations in the post-Napoleonic period.]

This book [A World Restored] is less a history of Europe's defeat of, and reconstruction after, Napoleon than an interpretation of that history in universal terms. The author recognizes that history does not repeat itself exactly, but he insists that the problems of different periods, the methods of dealing with them, and the motivation of the actors may be similar. Consequently, “generalization” may be “abstracted from the uniqueness of individual experience.” He seldom makes explicit an analogy between the post-Napoleonic and post-Hitlerian periods, but the alert reader is continuously aware of an implicit analogy. The Russia of Tsar Alexander and that of Stalin were similar in manifesting “the indeterminacy of a [revolutionary] policy of absolute Moral claims.” The France of Napoleon and the Germany of Hitler were similar in manifesting “the [revolutionary] claims of power, as the France of Talleyrand and the Germany of Adenauer were similar in repudiating revolution and supporting moderation, restoration and unity. The Britain of Castlereagh and the United States of Roosevelt, each in its time on the periphery of world politics with a tradition of isolation, were similar in marrying the conception of equilibrium to that of collective security, maintained by recognition of the self-evident advantages of peace.” The Austria of Metternich and the Britain of Churchill, each in its time conservative and in the center of world...

(The entire section is 776 words.)

John W. Holmes (review date 1966)

SOURCE: “The Troubled Partnership. A Re-appraisal of the Atlantic Alliance,” in International Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2, 1966, pp. 222–23.

[In the following review of The Troubled Partnership: A Reappraisal of the Atlantic Alliance, Holmes tempers praise for Kissinger's analysis of divisions within the Atlantic alliance with skepticism for his proposed remedies.]

There is far more good sense in this book [The Troubled Partnership] than in all the many other examinations of the present state of the Atlantic alliance put together. Henry Kissinger has always had a better nose for political realities than his fellow gamesmen in the American academies, and...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Zvi Ganin (review date December 1980)

SOURCE: A review of White House Years, in American Jewish History, Vol. 70, No. 2, December, 1980, pp. 255–61.

[In the following essay discussing White House Years, Ganin focuses on Kissinger's analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict and his role in Middle East peace negotiations during his tenure as national security advisor to President Nixon.]

Since World War II few international disputes have elicited such acute interest and vast literature as the Arab-Israeli conflict. Obviously, the four Arab-Israeli wars have captured the greatest interest of journalists, those writers of “instant history” who rush their manuscripts to print before the public...

(The entire section is 2553 words.)

Colin Welch (review date 14 September 1985)

SOURCE: “Doctor at Large,” in The Spectator, Vol. 255, No. 8201, September 14, 1985, pp. 24–5.

[In the following review of Observations: Selected Speeches and Essays, 1982–1984, Welch favorably discusses Kissinger's insight into the relations between America and its European allies, yet negatively emphasizes the inconsistency in Kissinger's political theories.]

Thrown together as they are in order of emission, Dr Kissinger's Observations amount to no single coherent whole, with all perceptions and arguments directed to one massive conclusion. Yet a noble unifying leitmotiv does underlie all his peregrinations—the prosperity and survival...

(The entire section is 1472 words.)

Greg Russell (review date 1993)

SOURCE: “Kissinger's World Restored and Statesmanship in Search of World Order,” in The Political Science Reviewer, Vol. 22, 1993, pp. 293–326.

[In the following essay, Russell discusses Kissinger's philosophical exploration of statesmanship as defined by the political actions of Metternich and Castlereagh in the post-Napoleonic era.]

Philosophical thinking about statesmanship is indispensable for establishing the basis of legitimacy and order in world politics. Legal or moral choices in a state's external relations achieve meaning only within a normative framework where the claims of power and ethics are harmonized in national self-expression. This paper...

(The entire section is 11054 words.)

Michael Howard (review date May/June 1994)

SOURCE: “The World According to Henry. From Metternich to Me,” in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 73, No. 3, May/June, 1994, pp. 132–40.

[In the following review of Diplomacy, Howard discusses Kissinger's analysis of “power politics” in Europe and America from 1648 to the twentieth century as a medium through which political leaders have established an international balance of power. Howard concludes that Kissinger's model of conduct is outdated for modern society and remains mere nostalgia.]

Henry Kissinger has never written anything less than magna opera, but this 1,000-page blockbuster [Diplomacy] must certainly qualify as his maximum...

(The entire section is 3661 words.)

Charles Powell (review date 13 June 1994)

SOURCE: “No Diplomat,” in National Review, Vol. 46, No. 11, June 13, 1994, pp. 63–65.

[In the following review of Diplomacy, Powell positively assesses Kissinger's ability to connect the evolution of American foreign policy throughout modern history to America's future as a world power while questioning several of Kissinger's conclusions about the future of Europe.]

[Diplomacy] is a magnificent book. It makes one yearn for the days when the United States had a foreign policy in place of the present mixture of wishful thinking, woolly platitudes, and obsession with tomorrow's newspaper headlines.

Despite its title, the book is not...

(The entire section is 1915 words.)

Fred Halliday (review date 21 July 1994)

SOURCE: “Lying Abroad,” in The London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 14, July 21, 1994, pp. 7–8.

[In the following essay, Halliday offers a comparison between the treatment of international policy in Diplomacyby Kissinger, True Brits: Inside the Foreign Office by Ruth Dudley Edwards, and Mandarin: The Diaries of Nicholas Henderson by Nicholas Henderson.]

The conduct of foreign policy has of late fallen into disrepute. The confusions of the post-Cold War world have made diplomacy seem especially futile. Economic decline has turned attention to the cost of overseas display, and the disappearance of a single external object of confrontation has...

(The entire section is 3299 words.)

Frank J. Parker (review date 29 October 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Diplomacy, in America, Vol. 171, No. 13, October 29, 1994, p. 25.

[In the following review of Diplomacy, Parker offers a positive assessment of Kissinger's survey of international diplomacy and his treatment of European politics between World War I and World War II. Parker also negatively discusses Kissinger's lack of depth in analysis of events occurring after the Kennedy administration, concluding that Diplomacy is not a definitive source of political commentary.]

Henry Kissinger is popularly perceived, if not always in the minds of academics and fellow diplomatic practitioners, as the world's leading expert on diplomacy. In...

(The entire section is 727 words.)

Francis Fukuyama (review date September/October 1997)

SOURCE: A review of A World Restored: Europe After Napoleon, in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 76, No. 5, September/October, 1997, p. 216.

[In the following review, Fukuyama favorably discusses Kissinger's A World Restored: Europe After Napoleon, yet asserts that Kissinger fails to recognize the political idealism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.]

Alongside Hans Morgenthau's Politics among Nations (1948), the classic statement of political realism, [is Kissinger's A World Restored: Europe After Napoleon]. Although ostensibly a work about European history, Kissinger lays out the general principles of the balance-of-power diplomacy that would...

(The entire section is 244 words.)

David C. Hendrickson (review date September/October 1997)

SOURCE: A review of White House Years, in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 76, No. 5, September/October, 1997, p. 223.

[In the following essay discussing Kissinger's White House Years, Hendrickson refutes general negative criticism of Kissinger's methods during his tenure of office under Nixon, finding only minor fault with Kissinger's techniques and praising his approach to American foreign policy as well as his ability as a diplomat.]

Of all the memoirs written by American diplomats, the two volumes of Kissinger's [White House Years] are in a class by themselves. Kissinger, as was said of Alexander Hamilton, was “host within himself,” a virtuoso in...

(The entire section is 313 words.)

Richard Bernstein (review date 17 March 1999)

SOURCE: “An Architect of Diplomacy Seeks Détente with History,” in The New York Times, Vol. 148, March 17, 1999, p. 17.

[In the following review, Bernstein offers a positive assessment of Years of Renewal, praising Kissinger's use of historical detail, characterization, sense of purpose, and ability to combine theory and action. Bernstein emphasizes Kissinger's detailed accounts of events that transpired during the Ford administration.]

It should come as no surprise that the third volume of Henry A. Kissinger's ambitious, all-embracing memoir of public service, Years of Renewal, turns out to be a distinguished and important work. Mr. Kissinger had...

(The entire section is 1279 words.)

Ruth Walker (review date 25 March 1999)

SOURCE: “Recovery from Vietnam and Watergate,” in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 91, No. 82, March 25, 1999, p. 21.

[In the following review of Years of Renewal, Walker favorably discusses Kissinger's resistance to “Wilsonianism” and his detailed portrait of Gerald Ford as president.]

What is the appropriate role for the United States to play in the world? That question lies at the heart of the third volume of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's memoirs, covering the final days of the Nixon administration through the transition after the 1976 presidential election, when Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford and Dr. Kissinger said farewell to...

(The entire section is 590 words.)

Philip Zelikow (review date May 1999)

SOURCE: A review of Years of Renewal, in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 78, No. 3, May, 1999, p. 123.

[In the following review, Zelikow asserts that Kissinger paints a contradictory portrait of his own statesmanship concerning his opposition to Wilsonianism, his efforts in Indochina, and his emphasis on American moral obligation and honor. However, Zelikow applauds Kissinger's skill at finding purpose in dense amounts of historical fact, his ability to use intuition and empathy to adapt his policies, and his effort to persevere in policy-making during the tumultuous last year of his tenure as secretary of state.]

In 1979 Henry A. Kissinger published his memoir White...

(The entire section is 2575 words.)

Philip Zelikow (review date 15 May 1999)

SOURCE: “Right to the End,” in The Economist, Vol. 351, No. 8119, May 15, 1999, p. 4.

[In following review, Zelikow presents a positive review of Kissinger's Years of Renewal and discusses the memoir as a means by which Kissinger attempts to refute negative criticism of his foreign policy.]

Autobiographies are not biographies, which is one of the reasons why they can be so interesting. Henry Kissinger goes one step further. Like Winston Churchill, he sidesteps simple autobiography, choosing instead to impose his view of his role in history by acting as his own historian. Years of Renewal, which covers the 30 months of the Ford administration,...

(The entire section is 587 words.)

John O'Sullivan (review date 17 May 1999)

SOURCE: “What Makes God Laugh?,” in National Review, Vol. 51, No. 9, May 17, 1999, p. 56.

[In the following review of Years of Renewal, O'Sullivan discusses Kissinger's foreign policies, specifically focusing on alliance with China, the conclusion of the Vietnam War, peace negotiations with the Middle East, the Cyprus dispute, and the Soviet arms control in the wake of Watergate.]

Towards the end of his third volume of memoirs, Henry Kissinger indulges in some reflections on the changing nature of statesmanship. These are characteristically shrewd until he reaches the argument that information has largely removed the need for style as an instrument of...

(The entire section is 1372 words.)

Robert Kagan (review date 21 June 1999)

SOURCE: “The Revolutionist: How Henry Kissinger Won the Cold War, or So He Thinks,” in The New Republic, Vol. 220, No. 25, June 21, 1999, p. 38–48.

[In the following review of Years of Renewal, Kagan negatively discusses Kissinger's analysis of Soviet foreign relations in the Nixon-Ford era as a revisionist, distorted version of historical events, asserting that Kissinger retrospectively attributes the demise of the Soviet system and the Cold War to Nixon's, Ford's, and his own policies of détente.]


Of the handful of American diplomats who achieved any real fame, Henry Kissinger may be unique in having earned renown for...

(The entire section is 10313 words.)