Henry Kissinger

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1047

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...

(This entire section contains 1047 words.)

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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 inThe 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