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The legacy of Henry Kissinger


One of the world's most influential policymakers died this week. Henry Kissinger was a hundred years old. He served as national security adviser and secretary of state under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Kissinger never ran for elected office himself, but he was a mastermind foreign policymaker, Nobel Peace Prize winner and, in the eyes of some, a war criminal. Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei at NPR's history podcast Throughline looked back at how Henry Kissinger shaped and was shaped by the 20th century.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: Henry Kissinger immigrated to the United States in 1938 at the age of 15.

JEREMI SURI: He doesn't even speak English when he comes to the U.S., and within a decade, he's moving into powerful circles, and within a few decades, he's running the country in many respects.

ARABLOUEI: This is Jeremi Suri, author of the book "Henry Kissinger And The American Century."

SURI: So he's born in Furth, Germany, which is just outside of Nuremberg. And there's a large Jewish community there. So Kissinger grows up in a very modest home in a kind of Jewish ghetto. This world is disrupted in ways that most of us cannot imagine when he's in early adolescence because the Nazis come to power. Many of them were from Nuremberg, so he's in the suburb of, like, the home of Nazism. He sees this. And in 1935, his father, under the Nuremberg laws, is forced to give up his job. And he sees his world collapse, Henry does. And in 1938, right before Kristallnacht, the family comes to the United States. His maternal grandparents, who he was very close to, they don't leave, and they die at the hands of the Nazis. And so you just imagine him as a young boy growing up in a society that had antisemitism but seeing that antisemitism and separation turn to violent death within a few years.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: What are some of the formative moments as he enters adulthood that start to kind of set him on this path towards being, you know, what he would become?

SURI: The most important thing that happens in his life after the Holocaust and immigration is entry into the U.S. Army. It's the first time in his life, at age 19, that he is not living in a kosher home. He's sent to South Carolina. He's also made a citizen more quickly than he would have been otherwise, but he's channeled into a new direction.

ARABLOUEI: That new direction is doing counterintelligence for the U.S. in Germany.

SURI: The U.S. Army is desperate to have people who speak the language, who know the country. And so he's sent back to Germany. And he's responsible for working with some of the highest levels of the U.S. Army in managing the territory they move into, particularly after the Normandy landing. And so just think about that. The immigrant is back in a few years now setting the law, ruling over the area. It's quite an extraordinary transformation. It's what opens him to the world of policy and is what gives him his first connections to elite figures.

ARABLOUEI: How does he then use those connections? So he ends up at Harvard, right? How does he start to figure out how to climb the power ladder?

SURI: He has a number of patrons within the military, people who will literally write recommendations, open doors for him. He has experience that makes him interesting. And many universities, including Harvard, create special openings for veterans. So Harvard creates a special class in 1946, in the middle of the year, and Kissinger has money from the GI Bill. But when he goes to Harvard - just think about it - he's a freshman with all this experience. And so for faculty, he's an incredibly interesting and important student. And so he gets all this attention. And so he brings his talent and hard work and experience together. There's almost no one I've ever met who can sit down with a powerful business leader or a political figure, and in two or three paragraphs, explain what's happening and give you a coherent thing to do, right? Kissinger will say, here is the problem, and here's what you should do, and he'll put it together in a coherent, thoughtful way.

ABDELFATAH: I can see a danger in that, though - right? - in that sort of, like, hyper-simplicity of. Like. Consolidating and being, like, this is the problem, this is the solution. I'm going to make it very black-and-white for you. So walk me through how that approach of his, which is gaining him power, gaining him influence, you know, reflects pretty kind of like extreme and some would argue dangerous ideas about how to approach foreign policy?

SURI: Absolutely. I mean, the most, I think, important example of this is to oversimplify what communism and socialism and anti-capitalism are in other societies. Kissinger sees communism and related entities, related ideologies in the Cold War as versions of fascism, which he obviously hates from his experience. And many forms of communism are fascist-like, but many forms of socialist influence are not. But for Kissinger and many around him, the anti-communism, anti-fascism becomes a very simple way of trying to assess a regime and then justify the use of force against it.

ARABLOUEI: For example, Chile. In the 1970s, Kissinger was working as national security adviser and later secretary of state under Richard Nixon. And they supported a military coup against a leftist president, Salvador Allende. That led to years and years of internal violence and oppression in the region. Kissinger's role was also key in another Cold War conflict, Vietnam.

ABDELFATAH: The war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos lasted for nearly 20 years and resulted in the deaths of millions of people caught in the crossfire.

ARABLOUEI: American warplanes followed Kissinger's directives for a bombing campaign against, quote, "anything that flies, on anything that moves." Kissinger personally guided secret, indiscriminate bombing over Cambodia, which led to as many as 150,000 civilian deaths.

ABDELFATAH: I'm just trying to make sense of how did he rationalize this sort of, like, you know, he was calling out the violent acts of the world, and yet that was so much of his approach to handling issues. What do you make of that?

SURI: I think that's the irony that he himself sees - right? - and has actually written about this, that in a world of extreme violence, sometimes you have to use other violence to stop the worst violence. That's what he would say.

ARABLOUEI: It feels like his view of the world wins out in terms of the way America is going to approach foreign policy from there on out. And what I mean specifically by that is whatever principles we have to break, let's break them as long as we win.

SURI: Unfortunately, yes. I think that's a very astute observation, Ramtin. I think that we become accustomed to winning, and winning becomes an end in and of itself.

PARKS: That was Jeremi Suri, author of the book "Henry Kissinger And The American Century," speaking with Throughline hosts Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah. You can hear the whole episode by finding Throughline wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.