Kissinger, Henry A.

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Henry A. Kissinger

Born May 27, 1923
Furth, Germany

U.S. national security advisor, 1969–75,
and secretary of state, 1973–77

Henry Kissinger was a major force behind American foreign policy for more than a decade. As U.S. national security advisor during the Vietnam War, he helped President Richard M. Nixon (see entry) develop U.S. strategy and acted as the lead American negotiator at the Paris Peace Talks. After several years of discussions, he and North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho (see entry) finally reached an agreement to end U.S. involvement in January 1973. Although this agreement ultimately failed to end the war, Kissinger had several other important achievements as U.S. Secretary of State under President Gerald Ford.

A German-born scholar

Heinz Alfred Kissinger, who later changed his first name to Henry, was born May 27, 1923, in Furth, Germany. His parents, Louis and Paula Kissinger, were Jewish. As Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany and began persecuting Jews, the Kissinger family fled the country. They settled in the United States in 1938, and Henry became a naturalized American citizen five years later.

Upon arriving in the United States, Kissinger lived in New York City. He worked in a factory by day to help support his family, and he studied accounting at the City College of New York at night. In 1943 he was drafted into the military to serve in World War II (1939–45). He spent most of the next three years in Germany, acting as an interpreter for an American general. After his discharge in 1946 he returned to the United States. Longing to continue his education, he entered Harvard University in 1946. Kissinger stayed at Harvard for his bachelor's and master's degrees, and he completed his education by earning a Ph.D. there in 1954.

After leaving Harvard, Kissinger took a job with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. He led a group of scholars who studied the politics of the Cold War—an intense rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union that developed in the late 1940s as both countries competed to spread their political philosophies and influence around the world. In 1957 Kissinger wrote a book called Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy outlining his opinions on how the United States should relate to the Soviet Union. Although Kissinger opposed communism, he believed that the threat of nuclear weapons made it impossible for either side to "win" the Cold War. Instead, he recommended that the two super-powers agree on a balance of power. Kissinger's book, which won several awards and became a surprise best-seller, brought him to national attention as a leading scholar on international relations.

Advises presidents on policies toward Vietnam

After the publication of his book, Kissinger began teaching classes on government at Harvard. He also served as a consultant and unofficial advisor to Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy (see entry), and Lyndon B. Johnson (see entry). One of the most pressing issues of foreign relations in the late 1950s and early 1960s was U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Vietnam had won its independence from France in 1954, but the Geneva Peace Accords had divided the nation into two sections—Communist-led North Vietnam, and U.S.supported South Vietnam. The peace agreement also provided for nationwide free elections to be held in 1956 to reunite the two parts of Vietnam under one government. But U.S. leaders worried that elections would give power to the Communists who had led the war for independence from France. They encouraged the government of South Vietnam to refuse to hold the elections.

A short time later, a new war began between the two parts of Vietnam. The U.S. government sent money, military equipment, and advisors to help South Vietnam defend itself against the Communists. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson sent U.S. combat troops to fight on the side of South Vietnam. But increasing U.S. involvement failed to defeat the Communists. Instead, the war settled into a bloody stalemate, and the American people became bitterly divided over the government's policies toward Vietnam.

Kissinger visited Vietnam several times beginning in 1965. In 1968 he participated in early negotiations with North Vietnam on behalf of the Johnson administration. Kissinger's initial position in the negotiations was that both American and Communist forces should be withdrawn from South Vietnam. Once this occurred, the two sides could discuss various plans for the country's political future. But his North Vietnamese counterpart, Le Duc Tho, refused to go along with this plan. Instead, he insisted that North Vietnam would continue fighting until the U.S. troops were withdrawn. He also demanded that the South Vietnamese government be replaced by a coalition government that included Communist representatives. With such a wide gap between the two sides, the negotiators made little progress and eventually broke off their talks.

National security advisor under President Nixon

When Richard Nixon became president of the United States in 1969, he promised the American people that he would bring them "peace with honor" in Vietnam. Toward this end, Nixon named Kissinger as his national security advisor. In this position Kissinger advised Nixon on all issues related to national security and foreign affairs. But his main responsibility was representing the United States in peace negotiations with North Vietnam when the talks resumed in Paris, France. Kissinger wanted to bring an end to the war, but he did not want it to seem like the United States had lost. He felt that the way in which the United States withdrew from the conflict would have a lasting effect on its future reputation in world affairs. Kissinger also believed in negotiating from a position of strength. As a result, he encouraged Nixon to use bombing raids and other shows of force to pressure North Vietnam into serious negotiations.

In August 1969 Kissinger and Le Duc Tho began meeting secretly in hopes of negotiating a settlement. Their talks continued off and on for more than two years. As the war dragged on, the American people grew increasingly frustrated, and antiwar demonstrations took place across the country. In the meantime, the Communist countries of China and the Soviet Union began to reduce their support for North Vietnam. These factors made both sides more willing to reach a compromise.

In October 1972 Kissinger and Tho reached a preliminary agreement. In fact, Kissinger announced that "peace is at hand." But the deal fell apart when South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu (see entry) objected to it. Determined to force the Communists' hand, Nixon then ordered the heaviest bombing raids of the war over North Vietnamese cities. These attacks, which took place in late December, became known as the "Christmas bombings." Kissinger supported the bombings as a way to draw North Vietnam back to the bargaining table.

The Paris Peace Accords

On January 25, 1973, Kissinger and Tho announced that they had reached a final agreement to end U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. It was signed by the governments of the United States, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam two days later. Under the terms of the agreement, the United States agreed to withdraw its troops from Vietnam within sixty days. Kissinger also agreed to allow some Communist forces to remain in the South. In exchange, North Vietnam agreed to let President Thieu remain in power. But the agreement also established a National Council of Reconciliation—which would include representatives from both North and South Vietnam—to organize elections and form a new government. Finally, the peace agreement provided for the return of all American soldiers held by North Vietnam as prisoners of war.

When the Paris Peace Accords were signed, both sides claimed that they had achieved their goals. But some observers pointed out that very little had changed between this agreement and the agreements that had been considered years earlier. In addition, some people criticized the agreement because it left the political future of South Vietnam uncertain. After all, that had been the main issue the two sides had been fighting to decide.

As many people expected, the peace in Vietnam did not last long. The last American troops withdrew from the country in early 1973. Almost immediately, the South Vietnamese forces under President Thieu began clashing with the Communist forces that remained in the countryside. Each side blamed the other for breaking the treaty. In June 1973 Kissinger and Tho met again and issued a joint statement urging both sides to comply with the terms of the peace agreement. But the fighting continued.

In September 1973 Nixon named Kissinger to the position of secretary of state. On October 16, 1973, Kissinger and Tho received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in ending the Vietnam War. The decision to give the award to the two negotiators created a great deal of controversy, especially since the agreement had not actually led to peace in Vietnam. In fact, some observers sarcastically called it the "Nobel War Prize." In recognition of the crisis that still gripped his country, Tho refused to accept his part of the honor.

Other achievements in foreign relations

In 1974 President Nixon resigned from office in disgrace over his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Vice President Gerald Ford took over the White House, and Kissinger remained secretary of state under Ford. In the meantime, the Communist forces continued to gain ground in the ongoing war in Vietnam. Kissinger tried to convince Ford and the U.S. Congress to send American troops back to Vietnam to enforce the peace agreements. "Despite the agony of this nation's experience in Indochina and the substantial reappraisal which has taken place concerning our proper role there, few would deny that we are still involved or that what we do—or fail to do—will still weigh heavily on the outcome," he told a Senate committee. "We cannot by our actions alone ensure the survival of South Vietnam. But we can, alone, by our inaction assure its demise [death]."

But U.S. lawmakers recognized how unpopular the war had become among the American people, and they refused to take action in support of South Vietnam. In 1975 North Vietnamese forces captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon to win the Vietnam War and reunite the country under a Communist government. Kissinger bitterly blamed Congress for the defeat.

Although the peace agreement he negotiated failed to end the Vietnam War, Kissinger registered several other successes as Secretary of State. He helped the United States and the Soviet Union reach an agreement, called the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), that placed limits on the number of nuclear weapons each side possessed. He also arranged for Nixon to make a historic visit to China in 1972, which reopened American diplomatic and trade relations with the Communist nation. In 1973 Kissinger worked to achieve peace in the Middle East during a war between Israel and the Arab nations.

Kissinger left office in 1977, when Democrat Jimmy Carter became president. He then opened his own consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, and began advising clients about the political climate for doing business in other countries. He also became a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., provided commentary for television news programs, published several books, and attracted high fees as a paid lecturer. He made a brief return to politics in the 1980s, when he advised President Ronald Reagan on U.S. policy in the Middle East.

In 1997 Kissinger came under heavy criticism for using his diplomatic ties with China to arrange deals for his business clients. His critics claimed that he stood to benefit personally from these deals, which grew out of the special access he had received as a public figure. Since leaving the government, Kissinger has lived in Kent, Connecticut, with his second wife, Nancy Maginnes. He has two grown children from an earlier marriage to Ann Fleisher.


Encyclopedia of World Biography. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 1999.

Goodman, Allan E. The Lost Peace: America's Search for a Negotiated Settlement of the Vietnam War. 1978.

Hersh, Seymour. The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House. Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Kissinger, Henry. White House Years. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.

Kissinger, Henry. Years of Upheaval. Boston: Little, Brown, 1982.

Kissinger, Henry. Years of Renewal. Boston: Little, Brown, 1999.

Porter, Gareth. A Peace Denied: The United States, Vietnam, and the Paris Agreement. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975.