The year was 1974, and in Washington DC, Richard Nixon – crippled by scandal – was about to become the first US president to resign. As the end approached, he called his vice president, Gerald Ford, to the Oval Office to give him some last-minute advice.
At all costs, Nixon said, Ford must keep Henry Kissinger as his Secretary of State. ‘Henry is a genius,’ he explained. ‘He’ll be very loyal, but you can’t let him have a totally free hand.’
Later, Nixon was more forthright. ‘Ford has just got to realise there are times when Henry has to be kicked in the nuts,’ he told an aide.
‘Because sometimes Henry starts to think he’s president. But at other times you have to pet Henry and treat him as a child.’
Genius, spoiled child, world statesman, alleged war criminal – such were the labels pinned to Henry Kissinger, who served as US National Security Adviser from 1969 to 1975 and Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977, and who died yesterday aged 100.
Henry Kissinger and British and American actress Elizabeth Taylor cozy up at an event
Kissinger smiles at American actress and model Raquel Welch in New York in 1970
The former Secretary of State even enjoyed dates with James Bond starlet Jill St John
At his peak, presiding over détente with the Soviet Union and a historic rapprochement between the US and China, Kissinger was probably the most influential man on earth. Yet for a time, he was also one of the most reviled.
Condemned by the Left for his handling of the final years of the Vietnam War, Kissinger was also accused of encouraging a Right-wing coup in Chile, an Indonesian invasion of East Timor and the ‘dirty war’ against dissidents in Argentina.
To his admirers, he was the defining statesman of the age, combining extraordinary intellectual depth with unsparing, clear-sighted realism. But to his critics he carried cynicism to a callous extreme, treating nations as though they were pawns on his Cold War chessboard, and sacrificing the lives of thousands to his diplomatic schemes.
In fact, both images were caricatures. So was the persona Kissinger carefully presented to the world: a guttural intellectual with an eye for the ladies.
Brooding and brilliant, self-mocking and self-promoting, impulsive and calculating, the true Kissinger was much more complicated. And although he became one of the world’s most famous Americans, his worldview was rooted in the traumatic experience of Nazi Germany.
Heinz Kissinger, as he was originally known, was born in the little town of Fürth, Bavaria, in 1923, and was the son of a Jewish schoolteacher. His first passion was not politics but football.
At first he played in goal, before a broken arm forced him to switch to the forward line. But when the Nazis took power in 1933, new regulations meant that he could only play for a Jewish team against other Jewish teams.
To the end of his life, he remained a devoted follower of his local team, SpVgg Greuther Fürth. Even when he was embroiled in the talks to end the bloody war in Vietnam, he still asked the German Embassy to send him their result every week.
And whenever he visited Britain on some diplomatic enterprise, he tried to take in a match. Chelsea, Wolves, even Grimsby Town – Kissinger watched them all.
By the time Heinz entered his teens, his parents were becoming seriously worried about their future. And in 1938, with the Nazi noose tightening, they left Germany for good, heading first to London and then New York.
For Heinz, this was a deeply traumatic moment. In his authorised biography, historian Niall Ferguson describes how Heinz and his brother said a tearful farewell to their grandfather, who was dying of cancer and would never see his family again.
It was just as well that they did. In the next few years, hundreds of Kissinger’s neighbours were killed in the Nazi extermination camps. By 1945, the Jewish population in Fürth had fallen from 1,990 to just 20.
Having settled in Manhattan, Heinz became Henry. He never lost his thick German accent. But when he saw boys in the street in New York, he no longer had to cross the road to avoid a beating.
After Nazi Germany, he wrote later, America seemed ‘a dream, an incredible place where tolerance was natural and personal freedom unchallenged’.
Studying part-time while he spent his days working in a shaving brush factory, the newly renamed Henry Kissinger dreamed of becoming an accountant. But then came the war.
Drafted into the US Army, he ended up in military counter-intelligence, rooting out men who had served in the Gestapo, and helping to liberate the Ahlem concentration camp. This, Kissinger said later, was the moment that truly shaped him.
‘I had never seen people degraded to the level that people were in Ahlem,’ he said at a meeting of the survivors in 2007.
‘They barely looked human. They were skeletons. It was the single most shocking experience I have ever had, and that’s been impressed on my memory.’
When the war was over, Kissinger returned to the US. There, like so many former servicemen, he devoted himself to education, studying at Harvard and writing a doctoral thesis about his great hero, the Austrian statesman Count Metternich, who had presided over the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
By now Kissinger had formed a very distinctive view of world affairs. Not surprisingly, given the traumas of his youth, he deeply distrusted enthusiasm and idealism which he believed led to anarchy and chaos.
In his view, Metternich stood for order and stability. And although Kissinger admired America’s emphasis on democracy and freedom, he believed it was also crucial to preserve the balance of power, lest the world fall again into darkness.
‘As a historian,’ he once remarked, ‘you have to be conscious of the fact that every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed.’ That was simply not the kind of thing most US politicians said.
For 20 years, Kissinger flitted between Harvard and Washington, teaching international relations while working for a series of think-tanks. Then, in 1968, the Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon asked him to serve as his foreign policy adviser in the last weeks of his campaign.
So began one of the strangest relationships in US history: Nixon the self-made man from California, brooding and vengeful; Kissinger the Jewish refugee from Germany, clever and boastful. Somehow they clicked, perhaps because they were both outsiders who felt snubbed by their well-heeled rivals.
When Nixon moved into the White House in January 1969, Kissinger was merely his National Security Adviser. But he soon grew to eclipse the Secretary of State, William Rogers. Eventually Nixon got rid of Rogers and gave Kissinger complete control of US foreign policy.
The chief priority was to end the Vietnam War, which had already cost tens of thousands of American lives. Kissinger knew the war was a drain on US credibility. But he was deeply opposed to simply cutting and running, which would shatter their allies’ confidence in America’s word.
So for the next four years Kissinger followed a dual strategy. On the one hand, he and Nixon intensified the war, hammering North Vietnam and Cambodia with more bombs than had been dropped in the entire Second World War by all the combatants combined.
Meanwhile Kissinger pursued the meandering Paris peace talks with the North Vietnamese, desperate to find a deal that would allow America’s boys to come home with honour.
At last, in January 1973, the deal was done. The US troops came home and the North Vietnamese promised to stop fighting – an agreement they almost immediately broke, paving the way for their military takeover two years later.
For their efforts, Kissinger and his opposite number, Le Duc Tho, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Tho turned it down. Kissinger accepted it, but gave the proceeds to the children of American casualties.
President Nixon toasting with Leonid Brezhnev and Kissinger during a seven-day summit conference with the USSR Communist Party in 1974
Kissinger divorced his first wife, Ann Fleischer, in 1964 before marrying Nancy Maginnes, pictured, in 1974
Henry Kissinger with his children Elizabeth, 14, and David, 12, in 1974 in Bonn, Germany
By now Kissinger was one of the world’s most celebrated political figures. Among his other achievements, he had helped to arrange a groundbreaking visit to Moscow, where Nixon shook hands with Leonid Brezhnev in the heart of the Kremlin.
His most spectacular coup, though, was the secret deal for the US president to visit China in February 1972, a watershed in modern geopolitical history. A year earlier, Kissinger had smoothed the way by visiting in secret, but his aides were so excited they forgot to pack his shirts.
When Kissinger shook hands with the Chinese Communist leaders, he was wearing a shirt far too big for him, the arms shortened with elastic bands and the label visibly reading ‘Made in Taiwan’. But the Chinese forgave him, and the result was the greatest diplomatic coup of the age.
Kissinger was now more than a statesman; he was a celebrity. Polls voted him the most admired man in America. The cover of Newsweek magazine depicted him as ‘Super-K’, while Time magazine crowned him ‘the world’s indispensable man’.
His personal life, too, was front-page news. An unhappy early marriage to Ann Fleischer, which produced two children, had ended in divorce.
Now Kissinger claimed to be a ‘secret swinger’. He arranged to be photographed with beauties like Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner and Raquel Welch, and even enjoyed dates with starlets such as the James Bond girl Jill St John.
Infamously, Kissinger declared that ‘power is the greatest aphrodisiac’. Perhaps it was. A poll of Playboy Bunnies found that he topped the list of men they ‘would most like to go out on a date with’, while in 1974 the Miss Universe contestants voted him ‘the greatest man in the world’.
His swinging days, however, were numbered. In March that same year he married a New York socialite, Nancy Maginnes, a union that lasted to the end of his days.
The end was nigh, too, for his partnership with Nixon. Crippled by the Watergate scandal, Nixon resigned in August 1974 – though not before an excruciating late-night scene when he invited Kissinger over to the White House, asked him to pray with him and burst into tears.
At the time, Nixon begged Kissinger not to tell anybody about it. But with his insatiable thirst for gossip and publicity, he soon made sure the world knew all the details.
Life with Nixon’s laid-back successor, Gerald Ford, was rather calmer. Kissinger spent the next two years pushing for greater détente with the Soviet Union, striking an arms reduction deal during a snowbound summit in Vladivostok.
By now he seemed the colossus of Western foreign policy. At Vladivostok, recalled one observer, even Leonid Brezhnev ‘took instruction from Kissinger almost as a student’.
Back home, though, the mood had shifted, and Kissinger was coming under pressure from both left and right. Liberals saw him as a callous warmonger, while conservative Republicans thought he had given too much away to Moscow and Beijing.
Under Kissinger, declared California’s Governor Ronald Reagan, the US had sunk to ‘number two in the world’. If he ever became president, he added, his first priority would be to give Kissinger the boot.
When Ford lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, Kissinger was relieved to retreat to private life. He taught at Georgetown University, joined countless boards, gave innumerable lectures and even found more time for his beloved football, lobbying hard to secure the World Cup for the US in 1994.
He became immensely rich, thanks not least to his commercial links with China and worldwide consultancy work. But he remained intensely controversial, with liberal commentators routinely accusing him of being a war criminal.
Was this fair? It’s certainly true that during Kissinger’s time in office, pro-US regimes were sometimes guilty of appalling atrocities, notably General Pinochet’s regime in Chile, the junta in Argentina and the dictatorship in Indonesia, to which he turned an obligingly blind eye
On the other hand, similar things could be said of many other US Secretaries of State, too. As his friends pointed out, it was odd that only Kissinger was singled out for such ferocious criticism.
Partly this was his own fault because his thirst for celebrity made him a target. But as his defenders observed, it was very telling that his critics just happened to target the only Secretary of State with Jewish roots and a Central European accent.
What, then, was Kissinger’s place in history? His greatest political achievements were surely to end the Vietnam War and to bring China in from the cold.
But when his critics charged that he was sometimes too cynical, too calculating and too cavalier with other people’s lives, they were not entirely wrong.
His greatest intellectual accomplishment was to make the case for hard-headed realism in world affairs. The enemy of stability, he wrote, was an ‘excessively moralistic’ approach to foreign policy, which always led to ‘ineffectual posturing or adventuristic crusades’.
There was a valuable lesson there for the likes of Tony Blair and George W. Bush – though they never chose to heed it.
Above all, though, Kissinger was simply an extraordinary man: a shy, stammering refugee who became one of the most powerful men in the world, dated some of Hollywood’s most beautiful women and seemed to hold the fate of nations in the palm of his hand.
For a short, round intellectual with thick glasses and an even thicker accent, that was not bad going at all.