Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — one of the most consequential and controversial foreign policy figures in American history — has died at 100.
He died Wednesday at his home in Connecticut, his consulting firm said in a statement. No cause of death was given.
After fleeing Nazi Germany, Kissinger rose in academic and political circles to become an internationally respected and reviled diplomat, advising 12 administrations on foreign policy and serving as Secretary of State under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
He was instrumental in navigating much of the tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, taking steps that critics say valued political ideology and allegiances over human rights. Historians blame his relentless support of U.S.-backed regimes in places like Iran and Cambodia for political destabilization in those regions that fueled years of conflict. He won a Nobel Peace Prize for helping negotiate the end of the Vietnam War.
The “most powerful secretary of state of the postwar era,” Kissinger used ”cunning, ambition and intellect" to define U.S. foreign policy and the country’s relations with the Soviet Union, China, and the rest of the world at the height of the Cold War, David Sanger of The New York Times said. In a sign of his own longevity, as Semafor’s Ben Smith noted, even obituaries of him were penned by reporters who have retired or died: Sanger credited a colleague who died in 2010, while The Washington Post’s obituary was bylined by a journalist who retired in 1999.
While Kissinger was instrumental in reestablishing relations between the U.S. and China that undeniably benefited America’s economy, he was also a “field agent” of Chinese influence, China watcher Isaac Stone Fish wrote last year for The Spectator. Kissinger embodied the kind of statesman who “fit into the long-standing Chinese tradition of trading access for accommodation,” Stone Fish wrote, and he actively worked to soften criticism of the Communist Party within his vast influential network. Kissinger continued to visit Beijing in his final years at the height of U.S-China’s tense relations, meeting Xi Jinping in July. But his visit was merely “nostalgia at best” one China analyst said, adding that the current policy on U.S.-China relations had left Kissinger “way behind at the station.”
Kissinger’s bombing campaign in Cambodia left behind “a legacy of trauma,” writes academic Sophal Ear, who fled his country after the Khmer Rouge took power. For Kissinger, the goal of containing communism justified the means, despite the incredibly high cost of hundreds of thousands of Cambodian lives. “Kissinger’s bombs also served as a recruitment tool” for the Khmer Rouge, Ear writes, who capitalized on the anti-U.S. sentiment and exploited the country’s destabilization that resulted from Kissinger’s campaign. His critics routinely point to his failings in Cambodia, with the late chef Anthony Bourdain famously saying: “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.”
Kissinger’s belief that Palestinians should have a state was because he was a realist and not a moralist, and stemmed from his concern that Israel’s survival would be threatened by its military occupation of Palestine, Martin Indyk, Israel’s former ambassador and a friend of Kissinger told the New Yorker in 2021. While Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” in the Middle East lay the groundwork for a settlement between Egypt and Israel as laid out in the Camp David Accords, his “duplicity” in manipulating the negotiations undermined the Arab world’s trust in his strategy, Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow Salim Yaqub argued in 2008. While Kissinger was hopeful that that a future Israeli government’s territorial concessions to Palestine would lead to peace, he took on a more defensive approach during the ongoing Gaza war this year, saying that Hamas’ ultimate goal was “to mobilize the Arab world against Israel and to get off the track of peaceful negotiations.”