Hen­ry Kissinger was the Met­ter­nich of Amer­i­ca, devi­ous and con­spir­a­to­r­i­al, the archi­tect of the Unit­ed States’ détente with Chi­na, a back­stage deal­er with the Sovi­et Union on the SALT I strate­gic arms treaty, and nego­tia­tor of a peace agree­ment with Viet­nam that he would pri­vate­ly scorn.

Kissinger lived to be 100. He died this week, still writ­ing and try­ing to live down mem­os and remarks unveiled while he was still liv­ing – if not accountable.

He has been con­front­ed with such state­ments as say­ing of the South Viet­namese: “If they are lucky, they can hold out for a year and a half.”

An accu­rate pre­dic­tion. When the agree­ment with North Viet­nam was signed, Kissinger described it as “peace with honor.”

The for­mer Sec­re­tary of State, in the Nixon and Ford admin­is­tra­tions, was fet­ed in Chi­na as recent­ly as July and pho­tographed meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Xi.

Xi has recent­ly been fac­ing an eco­nom­ic down­town and is seek­ing to main­tain busi­ness ties with the Unit­ed States. Last month in Cal­i­for­nia, he held a four-hour dis­cus­sion with Pres­i­dent Biden and din­ners with U.S. busi­ness leaders.

It was Kissinger, in July of 1971, who took a secret trip to Bei­jing to clear a path for Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s trip the fol­low­ing February.

The U.S. pres­i­dent, a noto­ri­ous red-baiter, was pho­tographed in inti­mate con­ver­sa­tion with Mao Zedong, walk­ing in the For­bid­den City, and attend­ing an opera per­for­mance of “Red Detach­ment of Women.”

Kissinger was a Ger­man Jew­ish refuge from Nazi Ger­many, arriv­ing on our shores at the age of fif­teen. He would rise to become, for a time, the sec­ond most impor­tant per­son in the Unit­ed States government.

He would score diplo­mat­ic break­throughs while work­ing with a pres­i­dent noto­ri­ous for his anti­se­mit­ic remarks.

Leslie Gelb, a future New York Times colum­nist, knew Kissinger from days on the Har­vard fac­ul­ty and described him as “devi­ous with his peers, dom­i­neer­ing with his sub­or­di­nates and obse­quious to his superiors.”

It was so in his diplo­mat­ic maneu­vers. Kissinger came to fame with his 1957 book, “Nuclear Weapons and For­eign Pol­i­cy,” which sug­gest­ed that a tac­ti­cal nuclear strike could be con­tained. He briefly advised Pres­i­dent Kennedy in the ear­ly 1960s. The Har­vard pro­fes­sor found an endur­ing patron in New York Gov­er­nor (and future vice pres­i­dent) Nel­son Rock­e­feller. He was, to his sur­prise, asked by Pres­i­dent-elect Nixon to assume the role of nation­al secu­ri­ty adviser.

He would advise every suc­ceed­ing pres­i­dent. After meet­ing with Don­ald Trump, Kissinger observed: “He’s not the first pres­i­dent I’ve advised who either didn’t under­stand­ing what I was say­ing or didn’t want to.” The Kissinger ego was dis­played repeat­ed­ly over the years. Once, while speak­ing to diplo­mats in France, he praised the gath­er­ing as the great­est gath­er­ing of wis­dom since he looked at his reflec­tion while vis­it­ing the Hall of Mir­rors at Versailles.

Pres­i­dent Nixon kept pow­er close to the vest. He cut Sec­re­tary of State William Rogers out of the pic­ture and dealt almost exclu­sive­ly with Kissinger. Even­tu­al­ly, Dr. K would com­bine the posts of nation­al secu­ri­ty advis­er and Sec­re­tary of State. He would hang onto both dur­ing the admin­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford.

Trans­fixed with pow­er, Kissinger had lit­tle regard for small coun­tries or peo­ple per­ceived as get­ting in the way. Kissinger would-be a co-recip­i­ent (along with Lee Duc Tho of North Viet­nam) of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet, this is the same man who urged the car­pet bomb­ing of Cam­bo­dia and Laos, stag­ing areas for North Vietnam’s con­quest of South Viet­nam – we were to bomb “any­thing that flies and moves any­where,” Kissinger said pri­vate­ly — and a man who described U.S. sol­diers as “dumb stu­pid ani­mals to be used.”

When Pak­istani forces slaugh­tered 300,000 peo­ple in what is today Bangladesh but used to be called East Pak­istan, the Unit­ed States worked back­stage to sup­port Pak­istan. Pres­i­dent Yahya Khan had served as inter­me­di­ary and facil­i­ta­tor of the secret 1971 trip to Chi­na. East Pak­istan had had the nerve, in an elec­tion, to elect an Ben­gali government.

The U.S. stood by while Indone­sia invad­ed East Tim­or and slaugh­tered peo­ple. It had elect­ed a left­ist gov­ern­ment which the Unit­ed States dis­ap­proved. The small island was treat­ed as a pawn in great pow­er relations.

Of most inter­est, the Unit­ed States encour­aged, and the CIA played facil­i­ta­tor, in the 1973 coup that top­pled and assas­si­nat­ed Chile’s Marx­ist Pres­i­dent Sal­vador Allende. The U.S. could not per­mit anoth­er per­ceived Sovi­et ally in the West­ern Hemi­sphere. The result was a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry of mil­i­tary dictatorship.

Kissinger was quot­ed after­ward say­ing the Chilean pres­i­den­cy was too impor­tant a mat­ter to be decid­ed by the Chilean peo­ple. Glob­al pow­er was what mat­tered. Ear­ly in the Nixon admin­is­tra­tion, Kissinger declared (in pri­vate): “I can’t believe any fourth-rate pow­er like North Viet­nam doesn’t have a break­ing point.”

The man was even will­ing to stomp on his own ori­gins. Nego­ti­a­tions with the Sovi­et Union could not, would not, be dis­rupt­ed by appeals from Sovi­et Jews wish­ing to immi­grate to Israel. “And if they put Jews into gas cham­bers in the Sovi­et Union, it is not an Amer­i­can con­cern. Maybe a human­i­tar­i­an con­cern.” The remark was described as “tru­ly chill­ing” by the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Committee.

Such state­ments get attrib­uted to Kissinger’s near-con­sis­tent pan­der­ing to Nixon. The thir­ty-sev­enth pres­i­dent would seek him out to pray in the White House on the eve of his res­ig­na­tion, an episode exposed in the Wood­ward-Bern­stein book “The Final Days.” Kissinger would lat­er reflect of Nixon, what the man could have done “had he been loved.”

Kissinger lived more than four decades after Ford’s defeat in the 1976 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. He hung up his shin­gle as Hen­ry Kissinger Asso­ciates and con­sol­i­dat­ed with the high and mighty. Stu­dent protests made cam­pus appear­ances dan­ger­ous. But big busi­ness want­ed to hear from the big dog of the 1970s. Dis­ney con­sult­ed Kissinger when it want­ed to locate a mul­ti-bil­lion-dol­lar theme park in China.

Hen­ry Kissinger was a for­mi­da­ble boss. He hired the best and the bright­est to work at the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, but then ordered the FBI to spy on them. He was infu­ri­at­ed at such leaks as the Pen­ta­gon Papers, revealed by Daniel Ells­berg, which detailed America’s march to fol­ly in Vietnam.

If any leaks came out of the NSC, they would come “from me,” he told aides.

The Nixon-Kissinger col­lab­o­ra­tion brought home some for­eign pol­i­cy tri­umphs. The open­ing to Chi­na brought coop­er­a­tion and mas­sive trade between the two coun­tries, but threats of con­fronta­tion now that Chi­na has become the world’s sec­ond-rank­ing super­pow­er. The Viet­nam War came to an end after killing 58,000 Amer­i­cans and an esti­mat­ed three mil­lion Vietnamese.

The long­stand­ing U.S. con­fronta­tion with the Sovi­et Union was down­sized until the “evil empire” stag­gered and fell at the end of the 1980s.

Still, Kissinger tram­pled peo­ple and nations while big pow­ers maneu­vered for glob­al influ­ence. The death toll was exceed­ing­ly high and often felt hard­est in such places as East Tim­or, East Pak­istan and Chile, far from North Amer­i­can and Euro­pean cap­i­tals. When pressed, Kissinger would speak of a world in which Amer­i­can was con­front­ed with unsa­vory char­ac­ters and thank­less choices.

A New York Times obit­u­ary car­ries this quote: “The ille­gal we do imme­di­ate­ly. The uncon­sti­tu­tion­al takes a lit­tle longer.”

So did the Viet­nam War, at what human cost? Inter­viewed by The Atlantic in 2016, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma reflect­ed: “We dropped more ordi­nance on Cam­bo­dia and Laos than on Europe in World War II And yet, ulti­mate­ly, Nixon with­drew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaugh­ter and author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ments that final­ly, over time, have emerged from that hell.”

“In what way did that strat­e­gy pro­mote our inter­ests?” Oba­ma asked.

Joel Connelly

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Joel Connelly

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