Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger died on Wednesday at the age of 100. His legacy left a lasting mark on America’s foreign relations. He received a Nobel Peace Prize. He was also accused of war crimes. His name sparks debate even today.
Who was this controversial figure?
Kissinger’s story begins in Germany. He was born into a Jewish family in 1923 as Heinz Alfred Kissinger. When Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party took power, his family fled to the United States. There, he changed his name to Henry.
In 1973, Kissinger became Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon. But Nixon’s presidency soon spiraled into scandal. Journalists discovered that Nixon had abused his power and concealed crimes. As Nixon’s power shrank, Kissinger’s grew. Kissinger became a sort of “co-president.” He continued to direct foreign affairs during Gerald Ford’s presidency.
As Secretary of State, Kissinger eased tensions between the United States and China. He sought arms agreements with the Soviet Union that took some frigidity out of the Cold War. He also initiated the Paris negotiations that led to the end of the Vietnam War. For this, he received the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.
But he also garnered controversy.
Kissinger practiced a political approach known as realpolitik. Realpolitik puts practical goals before morals and ideals. In other words, “the ends justify the means.” Among his questionable actions was the wiretapping of the telephones of news reporters.
Most controversially, Kissinger directed the carpet bombing of Cambodia. “Carpet bombing” means dropping a massive number of bombs over a wide area, instead of aiming for a specific target. Kissinger ordered this to cut supply lines to communist forces in Vietnam. But the bombs killed tens of thousands of Cambodian civilians. For that, some consider Kissinger a war criminal.
In his later years, Kissinger still played a part in global affairs. When relations between the United States and China reached a low point in July, he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He provided political advice to both Republicans and Democrats. He also ran a global political consulting firm.
Kissinger’s life and actions raise serious questions. How far should a nation go to achieve an end to conflict? And if “peace” comes through violence and suffering—is it really peace?
It can be tempting to break seemingly small commands to achieve a greater good. But only God knows how the future plays out. He takes care of the ends. We can live faithfully in the here and now.
What does that look like for an individual? In what circumstances, if any, might it look different for a nation?