POV: The Legacy of Henry Kissinger (Hon.’99)
No one more fully embodied America’s role in the world over the last 50 years—for better and for worse
“I came here as a refugee.”
That’s how former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, who died last week at 100, began a 2017 talk in Washington, D.C., to a roomful of Trump administration officials. Kissinger, who had fled Nazi Germany as a boy, was paying homage to his adopted country and its ideals. Present in the room that day, I could not help but feel he was also implicitly rebuking an administration which was dismantling the US refugee admissions program.
Kissinger was arguably the most consequential secretary of state since Dean Acheson. The outstanding feature of his legacy is the broad stamp he and the presidents he served put on post–World War II history through two critical and linked actions that had a profound and beneficial impact on the world we live in today.
First was the 1972 opening to China that provided a counterweight to the Soviet Union and enabled the reintroduction of China into the larger world. This initiative paved the way for normal relations between Washington and Beijing, ultimately facilitating the rise of China and the lifting of 700 million people out of poverty.
The second was the negotiation of détente—or a relaxation of tensions—between the United States and the Soviet Union. Conducted through a series of arms control agreements and broader understandings—including the Helsinki Accords—détente built trust that ultimately made possible the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire and with it freedom of many captive states.
Arguably, Kissinger helped manage a critical and sensitive evolution of the world order. The Bretton Woods Institutions and the United Nations framework had helped manage the tense competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, providing sufficient order to contain, if not abolish, war, and supported prosperity in far-flung parts of the globe.
Beginning with the diplomacy of Kissinger and Nixon 50 years ago, there was a new phase, which focused on balancing relations among the United States, China, and the Soviet Union (and later the Russian Federation). The decline of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union beginning in the 1970s had to be managed simultaneously with the rise of a newly ambitious China. The diplomacy Kissinger launched made it possible to handle this complex dynamic while keeping it from erupting into broader conflict. He achieved nothing short of avoiding what could have been catastrophically destructive wars.
Kissinger is also known for his work in the Middle East that led to the normalization of relations between Israel and Egypt.
The statesman also had an important, but less well known impact in Africa. In April 1976, he visited Lusaka, Zambia, where he worked with the late Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda—the first Balfour African President in Residence at Boston University—to reverse apartheid.
In his Lusaka speech, Kissinger called for majority rule in what was then white-ruled Rhodesia and a timetable for self-determination in Namibia. He made a follow-up trip to meet with South African officials in Pretoria, where Rhodesian President Ian Smith was also visiting. At the end of the trip, a tearful Smith announced his government’s acceptance of majority rule. The initiative came late in Kissinger’s tenure and needed more follow-through. But it pushed in the right direction to help end apartheid in southern Africa.
Kissinger had many detractors, especially for his support for autocratic regimes, for antidemocratic practices, and the use of American force.
Nowhere is this more poignant than in Southeast Asia, and especially Cambodia, where I spent two diplomatic tours.
He and Nixon mounted a secret massive bombing campaign and incursions into Cambodia that killed over 50,000 civilians. Some argue that this action helped instigate the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power, an allegation that my years of work in Cambodia never supported. The campaign was part of the US effort to end the Vietnam War. But the huge number of civilian deaths is an undeniable and heavy stain on Kissinger’s legacy.
Similarly, he has come in for deep criticism for his tilt toward Pakistan during the Bangladesh war of independence. He ignored pleading from his diplomats in the field about the mounting humanitarian toll, largely to protect the Pakistani channel that facilitated the opening to Beijing.
To understand how Kissinger may have seen himself, it is worth reflecting on his senior thesis at Harvard, modestly entitled The Meaning of History. Even as an undergraduate, the future diplomat grappled with the ways any human being could put their imprint on world affairs. His dissertation, later published as A World Restored, explicitly examined how diplomats can have an enduring impact on issues of world order.
Another clue comes from one of his many witticisms. Kissinger recounts in his memoirs how he responded to an invitation to go to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev’s dacha to hunt wild boar. Kissinger says he told his host that his moral principles would not permit him to kill wild animals…but he would be willing to go along as an advisor.
Today, 50 years after his burst of diplomatic activism, with the Middle East in conflict and Russia’s war in Ukraine still raging, the world would benefit from someone with Kissinger’s strategic vision and tactical skill.
Henry Kissinger. Refugee, academic, statesman, and, to some, criminal. He never lost, or, perhaps, never abandoned his German accent and always seemed a bit exotic in the United States.
Nevertheless, no one has more embodied America’s role in the world over the last 50 years for better and for worse than Henry Kissinger. For me, the balance comes down squarely on the better.
Mark C. Storella is a Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies professor of the practice of diplomacy and director of Pardee’s African Studies Center. He was a US Foreign Service officer for over three decades and US ambassador to Zambia from 2010 to 2013.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O’Rourke at firstname.lastname@example.org. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.