This year Henry Kissinger turned 100 years old. It is quite a seminal milestone in a storied life operating at the highest echelons of the American government. He has become one of the most regarded individuals in U.S. foreign policy history, and depending on who one asks, one of the most infamous. There certainly is no contemporary equivalent to his stature not only as a diplomat, but as a scholar and strategist. The policies he helped formulate and the many books he has authored continue to be a backbone of international relations scholars and practitioners of statecraft. At 100, he is blind in one eye, has trouble hearing, and has had multiple heart surgeries—yet he remains remarkably busy. He still works 15-hour days, travels the world as speaker and an advisor, and is currently authoring his third book in five years.
Despite his global eminence, Kissinger had humble beginnings. Originally from Germany, he was nine years old when Hitler became Chancellor. He and his Jewish family fled to London, and then to America to escape persecution by the Nazis. Kissinger himself is said to have experienced beatings from Hitler Youth gangs. As new Americans, the family settled into the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan in New York City. In high school he attended night classes and spent his days working in a shaving brush factory. Kissinger was studying accounting at City College of New York when the U.S. Army drafted him in 1943 at the age of 20. That same year he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen.
In the military he was initially based for basic training at Camp Croft in South Carolina after which the Army sent him to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania to study engineering until the program’s cancelation and his reassignment to the 84th Infantry Division. There, his intellect and fluency in German lead him to be assigned to the division’s intelligence section where he would volunteer for intelligence service in the Battle of the Bulge. During the advance into Germany, and due to the lack of fluent German speakers on the intelligence staff, Kissinger, only a mere private, was put in charge of the administration of the town of Krefeld. In just over a week’s time, he had established a civilian administration in the town.
Kissinger was reassigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps where he became a CIC Special Agent which came with the promoted rank to sergeant. He was put in charge of a team that worked to track down Gestapo officers and saboteurs in Hanover. His work earned him a Bronze Star. It was while in Hanover that Kissinger personally witnessed one of the great horrors of World War II.
Niall Ferguson, author of Kissinger, Vol. 1, 1923-1968: The Idealist, writes, “On April 10 … Kissinger stared the Holocaust in the face when he and other members of the 84th Division stumbled upon the concentration camp at Ahlem. For many years, this was an event Kissinger did not talk about. Indeed, his presence only came to light because one of his fellow GIs, a radio operator named Vernon Tott, decided to publish the photographs he had taken on that day. Seeing Ahlem, Kissinger later acknowledged, was ‘one of the most horrifying experiences of my life.’” After the war, Kissinger would find that thirteen members of his family died in the holocaust, including his grandfather. He also lost many childhood friends.
After his success in tracking down Gestapo officers in Hanover, Kissinger was made commandant of the Bensheim metro CIC detachment, Bergstrasse district of Hesse, with responsibility for denazification of the district. He would serve in this role until he was reassigned to teach at the European Command Intelligence School at Camp King in Oberursel, Germany. He would go on to teach at Camp King even after his military service had ended.
At this point in Henry Kissinger’s life his only accomplishments had all been military, yet he desired to continue the path to higher education. He was also a man of little means. Fortunately, the U.S. government passed legislation that created the GI Bill of Rights that offered to pay the tuition of servicemen returning from military service. In April 1947 Kissinger applied to Harvard.
In his Harvard application letter he wrote, “I wish to enroll at your university for the fall-term under the ‘GI Bill of Rights’… I would like to major in English and Political Science.” It was with this straight forward letter Kissing was accepted and began his academic life at Harvard in the fall as a sophomore with the credits he had earned from his previous college. By 1950 he had earned his BA degree summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa in Political Science. His senior graduate thesis, titled The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant was over 400 pages long. The immensity of Kissinger’s thesis caused Harvard to change its rules to limit graduate theses to 35,000 words, a policy that is still in effect to this day.
It was clear that Kissinger had a passion for academic life. He continued his studies and received his MA in 1951, and then earned his PhD in 1954. His doctoral dissertation titled Peace, Legitimacy, and the Equilibrium (A Study of the Statesmanship of Castlereagh and Metternich) was nothing short of masterful and would later be published under the title, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-22.
The dissertation was a study of how European powers picked up the pieces after the Napoleonic Wars, and the principles and balance of power that fashioned a relative European peace for 100 years until the outbreak of the first world war. It was a period, according to Kissinger, that ended when the principles established at the Congress of Vienna were forgotten and no longer upheld. His thesis grandiloquently proclaims, “Those ages which in retrospect seem most peaceful were least in search of peace. Those whose quest for it seems unending appear least able to achieve tranquility. Whenever peace—conceived as the avoidance of war—has been the primary objective of a power or a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of the most ruthless member of the international community. Whenever the international order has acknowledged that certain principles could not be compromised even for the sake of peace, stability based on an equilibrium of forces was at least conceivable.”
During his studies, Kissinger became a faculty member in the Department of Government where he became the director of the Harvard International Seminar. That position paid little, and he wanted a professorship. Kissinger was scraping by on grant money from the Rockefeller Foundation and what little he earned from publishing parts of his thesis, though as brilliant as it was, was not written by someone who was a known quantity outside of academic circles at the time. However, in 1955 he had an encounter that would change the trajectory of his life.
A chance meeting with historian, friend, and Harvard Professor Arthur Schlesinger Jr. while walking across Harvard Yard led to Kissinger publishing his first article for Foreign Affairs, the well-respected magazine of the Council of Foreign Relations. The article, “Military Policy and Defense of the ‘Grey Areas,’” seemed to have nothing to do with Henry Kissinger’s background in diplomatic history but instead was a critique of American strategic thinking when it came to the use of nuclear weapons. The article specifically advocated the use of tactical nuclear weapons which diametrically went against the doctrine of mutually assured destruction followed by the Eisenhower Administration. The article created quite a stir among the military establishment, and it soon became required reading at various war colleges and the Pentagon.
The success of Kissinger’s article at stirring debate on strategies involving nuclear weapons, led the Council of Foreign Relations to ask him to head the study group, “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy” a year later. The result was Kissinger publishing a book by the same name as the study group in 1957 that quickly became a best-seller. He quickly found himself widely known as an expert on nuclear weapons policy and a star guest on television talk shows. When asked years later during an interview about the role the Council on Foreign Relations played in altering the course of his life, Kissinger replied, “The Council was a seminal shaping experience in my life. It introduced me to a world that seemed totally remote from me. Had I not wound up with the study group at the Council, I would have been a historian.”
Kissinger’s newfound attention allowed him to branch out to advise various government agencies and political campaigns. He had formed a close relationship with Nelson Rockefeller which would play a crucial role in the years ahead. Despite his closeness with Rockefeller, a Republican, John F. Kennedy’s campaign had been making overtures to to him as early as 1958. Kissinger was familiar with Kennedy and had met him at Harvard during various soirees. Once Kennedy arrived in the White House, Kissinger was brought in as a part-time advisor to the National Security Council and the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
Despite his role in the Kennedy White House, Kissinger would be most loyal to Rockefeller, supporting him in three failed bids to become president throughout the 1960’s. Kissinger, in his support of Rockefeller had been particularly harsh against one of their opponents, former vice president Richard Nixon. During the 1968 GOP primaries, Kissinger called Nixon, “the most dangerous of all the men running to have as president.” When Richard Nixon went on to win the nomination, Kissinger did an about face and sent Nixon word through a mutual contact that he was willing to help Nixon win the White House. When Nixon ultimately won the election, Kissinger did not believe the president-elect would hire him directly. If anything, Nixon would bring Rockefeller into his cabinet, and he would serve under Rockefeller. It was during a meeting Rockefeller was holding on how to respond if Nixon offered him a cabinet post, that the phone rang. It was from the Nixon transition team. Instead of asking for Rockefeller, the person on the other end asked for Kissinger. The rest, as they say, is history.