Henry Kissinger dies aged 100: a complicated legacy?

Top US diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner remembered as both foreign policy genius and war criminal

Illustration of Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, Salvador Allende and a scene from the US-Vietnam War
Kissinger plotted with president Nixon to thwart Chile's election of Salvadore Allende, triggering a bloody military coup
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

"Doctor Strangelove", "Nixon's Metternich", "Middle East Cyclone".

These nicknames "testified to the exceptional personality and immense power in world affairs" that was Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state and foreign policy giant, who has died at the age of 100, said Le Monde

A "ruthless practitioner of the art of realpolitik" and a "cunning, erudite strategist", Kissinger had an "outsize impact on global events" as the top diplomat and national security adviser under both the Nixon and Ford administrations, said Politico's senior editor David Cohen. 

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Kissinger's controversial position on the Ukraine war, advocating a ceasefire with Russia, is an example of both his enduring relevance and the "emphasis on realism and de-escalation of tensions between great world powers" he often proposed, said The New York Post

But his tenure was "defined by his contempt for human rights and efforts to protect US corporate interests at all costs", said The Guardian. His opponents cast him as a "war criminal", for his support of dictators in Chile, Indonesia and Pakistan, and for the unauthorised US bombing of Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s that killed between 150,000 and 500,000 civilians, and arguably led to the bloody dictatorship and genocide of Pol Pot.

'Diplomatic efforts helped to reshape world'

Kissinger's life and legacy his career "testified to the mobility of American society, where a German-Jewish emigrant with no resources managed to reach the heights of power", said Philippe Bernard and Henri Pierre in Le Monde. 

Although he was joint winner of "a premature Nobel Peace Prize for ending a war that kept going" in Vietnam, said Politico's Cohen, the scholar and military veteran shaped much of America's Cold War strategy and had a hand in US policies on Israel, Chile, China and the Soviet Union. His "transformative diplomatic efforts helped to reshape the world". 

But more significant in the long term was Kissinger's role in helping to normalise relations with the communist government in Beijing. He was so much "at the heart of the United States' rapprochement with China" in the 1970s that Chinese officials are mourning his death, said The Washington Post. The "outpouring of praise and nostalgia for Kissinger was a distinct change in tone for China's state-run news outlets, noted in recent years for their antipathy toward American administrations". The state broadcaster labelled Kissinger an "old friend of the Chinese people".

 Both his "triumphs" and his errors "stemmed from his embrace of a realist school of foreign policy", said The Washington Post editorial. However, "noting his errors is not to downplay Mr Kissinger’s significance, but to prove it."

'Foul deeds resulted in mayhem and death'

Nevertheless, the US failures in Vietnam "ultimately became synonymous with Kissinger", said US reporter Ariana Baio in The Independent.

His legacy includes "foul deeds that resulted in mayhem and death – thousands and thousands of deaths", said Mother Jones's Washington bureau chief David Corn. 

Kissinger's obituaries will be "filled with hosannas from the foreign policy establishment that hailed him as the wisest of wise men", but unfortunately, those who were "slaughtered in part due to his global gamesmanship are not able to comment".

Indeed, it is an "insult to history" that Kissinger was not equally known and regarded for his many acts of treachery – "secret bombings, coup-plotting, supporting military juntas" – as he was for his foreign policy achievements. 

Shortly after Nixon moved into the White House and inherited the Vietnam War, he, Kissinger and others "cooked up a plan to secretly bomb Cambodia" to ramp up pressure on north Vietnam. The US military dropped 540,000 tons of bombs – unauthorised by Congress – killing between 150,000 and 500,000 Cambodian civilians, and arguably leading to the brutal regime of Pol Pot. 

In 1970, Nixon and Kissinger "plotted to covertly thwart the democratic election" of Chilean President Salvador Allende, triggering a military coup. General Augusto Pinochet seized power, implemented a dictatorship and "killed thousands of Chileans" – all the while "backed to the hilt" by Kissinger, continued Corn.

It is an "honourable admonition" not to speak ill of the dead. "But what of the truth? When a person dies, should he be remembered accurately? That question is acutely posed by the demise of Henry Kissinger."

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