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Henry Kissinger, diplomat of the century and controversial figure


Former US Secretary of State (1973-1977) and Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry A. Kissinger has died at the age of 100. Considered one of the greatest diplomats of all time, this realpolitik champion and conservative intellectual remains a controversial figure for his role in some of the darkest pages of the Cold War.

He was certainly the most famous and most listened to diplomat on the planet. The former American Secretary of State (1973-1977) and influential geopolitical advisor, Henry Kissinger, died on Wednesday November 29 at the age of 100 after having left his giant mark on the progress of the world.

Great architect of the historic rapprochement between the United States and communist China in the early 1970s, initiator of the policy of détente with the USSR, his name also remains associated with the Paris agreements which opened the way for the American withdrawal from Vietnam and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973.

But this prestigious record has never ceased to spark debate in the United States. On the occasion of the diplomat’s hundredth birthday in May 2023, the magazine The Nation, committed to the left, published a drawing of Henry Kissinger ready to enjoy a birthday cake covered in the blood of the victims of all the crises that marked his career.

Deadly bombings in Cambodia, hidden role in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, approval given to the brutal Indonesian invasion of East Timor, support for Operation Condor, a vast campaign of assassinations of opponents in six military dictatorships in Latin America in 1975… Henry Kissinger was regularly described as “war criminals” by his most virulent detractors but without losing any or almost nothing of his aura as a virtuoso of international relations.

An American dream

Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born in Germany in 1923 into a Jewish family from the Bavarian bourgeoisie. In 1938, he fled Nazi persecution with his parents to reach New York. Naturalized American, he joined military counterespionage where his mastery of German and his knowledge of the field proved to be valuable assets during the Second World War, then during the period of denazification.

Back in the United States, he continued his studies at Harvard. It was during this key period that he forged his vision of international relations inspired by the Austrian diplomat Metternich and the “European order” of the first half of the 19th century. Organized by the powers that defeated Napoleon, it aimed to eradicate the legacy of the French Revolution.

To maintain world order in the midst of a clash between East and West, Henry Kissinger, suspicious of major ideologies, advocates on the contrary a pragmatic foreign policy, cynical according to his critics, aiming for a balance of powers built around Washington , Moscow and Beijing.

Having become a professor in the Department of Government Studies at Harvard, Henry Kissinger made a name for himself after the publication in 1957 of “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy”, a treatise on the use of nuclear weapons in which he anticipated the doctrine of response graduated.

Read also“Tactical” nuclear power: the mirage of less devastating bombs

An intellectual of action, Doctor K began to be consulted by Republican leaders under the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower and John Fitzgerald Kennedy during the second Berlin crisis, marked by the construction of the wall in 1961.

Close to Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York State, Henry Kissinger supported him against Richard Nixon during the 1968 Republican primaries. During the campaign, he proposed a plan for American withdrawal from Vietnam. The initiative was ultimately adopted by Nixon once elected, who appointed him assistant for national security affairs and executive secretary of the National Security Council.

If William Rogers was then Secretary of the State Department, it was Henry Kissinger who led Washington’s foreign policy. He would have to wait until President Nixon’s second term in 1973 to officially access the position, thus becoming the first foreign-born head of American diplomacy.

“There is something extraordinary in the journey of this little German Jewish boy, who was born just a few kilometers from Nuremberg, grew up in the very heart of Nazi hell and became the greatest diplomat the United States had known”, writes Jérémie Gallon in his autobiography entitled “Henry Kissinger the European” published in 2021, seeing in this meteoric rise a concentrate of the American dream.

The superpowers of “Super K”

From the end of Richard Nixon’s first term, Henry Kissinger built his myth as an omnipotent and tireless diplomat: in the early 1970s, he negotiated secretly in Beijing and Moscow. In 1972, he notably contributed to the signing of the Salt I treaty which limited the strategic weapons deployed by the United States and the USSR.

The following year, the signing of the Paris Agreement on Vietnam earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, which will remain one of the most controversial in history. Many human rights defenders and historians actually blame him for needlessly prolonging the conflict and expanding it into Cambodia and Laos by carrying out massive and illegal bombing campaigns on Viet Cong positions.

After the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, he spent more than a month in the Middle East to find a way out of the crisis between Israel and the Arab coalition led by Egypt and Syria. He then initiated “shuttle diplomacy”, multiplying meetings with the opposing parties to achieve a compromise.

In January 1974, a first agreement decided on the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Suez Canal and their replacement by UN troops. Then, in May, Israel agreed to return the territory captured during the October 1973 conflict, but retained the Golan Heights.

Praised by the press, Henry Kissinger the seducer achieved unparalleled notoriety for a simple diplomat. He made the headlines of major media such as Newsweek which in 1974 portrayed him as “Super K”, the superhero of international relations.

The only downside in these prosperous years: the Watergate political espionage scandal in which Henry Kissinger was once suspected of having participated. The diplomat finally manages to escape the storm unscathed. Following the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974, he retained his position as Secretary of State under Gerald Ford but left that of National Security Advisor, putting an end to a combination of functions unprecedented in American diplomatic history.

Exceptional longevity

In 1977, the election of Democrat Jimmy Carter led him to leave a power that he would no longer exercise directly but from which he would never stay away, playing the role of éminence grise of the White House and remaining an influential figure in Washington associated with numerous political groups and commissions.

A brilliant columnist, “Doctor K” publishes numerous works inspired by his experience in the American government and in which he distils his lessons in geopolitics. In 1982, he also began consulting for large private firms through the Kissinger Associates firm, which allowed him to make his fortune.

Far from the spotlight, Henry Kissinger was however overtaken by his dark legend at the turn of the 2000s. While staying in France, the former diplomat, aged 78, was summoned in May 2001 as a witness by judge Roger Le Loire in the context of of an investigation for “crimes against humanity”, “genocide” and “sequestration” opened against the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The procedure was opened in France after the complaint of several families of Franco-Chileans who disappeared in the 1970s.

Read alsoChile announces national plan to search for those missing from the dictatorship

The magistrate relies on declassified documents showing that the CIA was aware of the assassination campaigns of opponents carried out in several dictatorships in Latin America. Henry Kissinger will never respond to the call of French justice.

After receiving a visit from the criminal squad at the Ritz where he was staying, “Super K” thought it best to rush off to the United States.

Despite increasingly rare public appearances and advanced age, Henry Kissinger continued to be a personality whose opinion counts. In July 2023, his visit to China in the midst of rising tensions with the United States made an impression. Described as a “legendary diplomat” by the Chinese media, the latter was received by President Xi Jinping in person in the government’s state villa in Beijing, where half a century earlier he had begun the thaw of relations with Mao Zedong’s China. Secret meetings that paved the way for Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972, the first by a President of the United States to the People’s Republic of China.

Read alsoChina – United States: a thaw? Anthony Blinken in Beijing to ease tensions

In recent years, the man who has never managed to completely erase his German accent has regularly shared his point of view on the major crises the world is going through during conferences or interviews. In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass, Henry Kissinger pleaded for kyiv’s neutrality towards Russia. He changes his mind during the Russian invasion in 2022 and defends military aid to Ukraine. In a lengthy 8-hour interview granted in May 2023 to The Economist, the former diplomat believed that “there was no other way out than to take Ukraine into NATO, to get Europe out of insecurity.”

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