Henry Kissinger: His life and legacy

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The life and legacy of Henry Kissinger: A reflection on human agency and divine sovereignty

November 30, 2023 -

FILE - Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is seen during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, June 6, 2006. Kissinger, the diplomat with the thick glasses and gravelly voice who dominated foreign policy as the United States extricated itself from Vietnam and broke down barriers with China, died Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. He was 100. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev, File)

FILE - Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is seen during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, June 6, 2006. Kissinger, the diplomat with the thick glasses and gravelly voice who dominated foreign policy as the United States extricated itself from Vietnam and broke down barriers with China, died Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. He was 100. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev, File)

FILE - Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is seen during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, June 6, 2006. Kissinger, the diplomat with the thick glasses and gravelly voice who dominated foreign policy as the United States extricated itself from Vietnam and broke down barriers with China, died Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. He was 100. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev, File)

Henry Kissinger, an American diplomat and Nobel laureate, died yesterday at the age of one hundred.

I will never forget the first time I heard him speak in person. Dr. Kissinger was an invited guest at a 2013 World Affairs Council event in Dallas, though the event generated few headlines beyond our area. Later that day, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was surprisingly elected the new pope, taking the papal name Pope Francis and garnering global attention.

The events of that day in March 2013 illustrate the point I’d like us to consider as we reflect on Dr. Kissinger’s life and legacy today.

From a shaving brush company to a Harvard PhD

Henry Kissinger was born in 1923 to a schoolteacher and a homemaker in Furth, Germany. Twelve years later, his father lost his job because he and his family were Jewish. Three years later, they fled Nazi Germany and settled in New York City. However, thirteen members of their extended family died in the Holocaust.

Kissinger worked at a shaving brush company while studying at night. In 1943, the year he became a US citizen, he was drafted into the US Army. His German language skills made him a valued translator and administrator in Europe, experiences that directed him toward a life of public service.

He earned a BA, MA, and PhD from Harvard University and then held a variety of academic and think-tank posts. His doctoral studies persuaded him that peace comes from “an international agreement about the nature of workable arrangements and the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy.” This approach to peace through rules, power, and stability would guide his later work in politics and diplomacy.

He advised Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaigns in 1960, 1964, and 1968; when Rockefeller lost the Republican nomination in 1968, he reluctantly joined the campaign of the party nominee, Richard Nixon.

Henry Kissinger was an advisor to twelve presidents

Kissinger’s decision to serve with Mr. Nixon led to decades of historic leadership on the global stage:

  • He led the administration’s efforts to open relations with China, making two secret trips to the country in 1971 and laying the groundwork for President Nixon’s trip to the country the following year.
  • He was influential in achieving the détente between the US and the Soviet Union through the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, helping ease Cold War tensions between the world’s two superpowers.
  • He worked to end America’s involvement in the Vietnam War through the Paris Peace Accords.
  • He helped resolve the 1973 Yom Kippur War, supporting Israel in its self-defense and preventing the regional battle from spiraling into a global conflict.
  • The next year, he negotiated the first Egyptian–Israeli disengagement.

In total, he advised twelve presidents—more than a quarter of those who have held the office—from John F. Kennedy to Joe Biden. As the New York Times notes, “He transformed almost every global relationship he touched.”

Kissinger received a Bronze Star from the US Army in 1945 for meritorious service and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. That same year, a Gallup poll of Americans listed him as the most admired person in the world. In 1977, he was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Medal of Liberty in 1986.

As one example of his intellectual genius, he co-authored a book in 2021 on artificial intelligence with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and MIT computer scientist Daniel Huttenlocher. I read the book and was impressed with the depth of Henry Kissinger’s insights.

He was ninety-eight years old at the time. According to Schmidt, Kissinger “knew nothing about the digital world” a few years earlier, but “he has mastered the digital world and artificial intelligence with the alacrity and speed of people who are just getting into it now. That’s unique to him. It’s a gift.”

Five tumultuous decades

Kissinger was named the 1973 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize “for jointly having negotiated a cease fire in Vietnam” along with his counterpart Le Duc Tho. The award recognized the January 1973 Paris Peace Accords under which the US completed its military withdrawal from South Vietnam.

That same month, Richard M. Nixon was officially declared the winner of the 1972 United States presidential election, carrying forty-nine states and winning 520 electoral votes to 17 for US Senator George McGovern. The Watergate trial was held that month, but there were no allegations that the president was involved in the affair.

In January 1973, thirty-year-old Joe Biden was sworn in as the junior US senator from Delaware. Leonid Brezhnev was the leader of the Soviet Union, a position he would continue to hold until his death in 1982.

Relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors had seemingly stabilized after the 1967 Six-Day War. As mentioned earlier, China and the US had taken steps toward normalizing relations, but they would not establish liaison offices in each other’s capital for another month. The Shah was in power in Iran and a solid ally of the US, a relationship strengthened by President Nixon’s visit the previous year.

That was then—this is now.

  • Richard Nixon would become the only US president to resign from office.
  • Joe Biden would become America’s forty-sixth president.
  • The Soviet Union would collapse in 1991.
  • The Yom Kippur War would ignite the same year Henry Kissinger received his Nobel prize, presaging the Israel–Hamas War fifty years later.
  • China would become America’s greatest competitor on the world stage.
  • The Shah would fall in 1979 as Iran became an Islamic republic and a state sponsor of terrorism against the West.

“Whatever one sows, that will he also reap”

Dr. Kissinger’s March 2013 remarks in Dallas and the election of Pope Francis later that day serve to illustrate this fact: human history cannot be dictated by humans. Even someone as brilliant as Henry Kissinger could not have predicted or controlled the surprising events of that day or of the last fifty years.

There is only one Ruler who transcends time and can declare “the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done” (Isaiah 46:10). He alone “rules over the nations” (Psalm 22:28; cf. Psalm 47:8). Scripture proclaims that God alone “makes nations great, and he destroys them; he enlarges nations, and leads them away” (Job 12:23).

The events of the five decades since Dr. Kissinger received his Nobel prize remind us that no nation’s future is guaranteed, including ours. The Lord warns us:

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the spirit reap eternal life (Galatians 6:7–8).

Is our secularized, post-Christian culture sowing to the Spirit or the flesh today?

One day, Paul’s declaration will be a universal fact: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever” (1 Timothy 1:17). In the meantime, this proclamation offers our only hope: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lᴏʀᴅ” (Psalm 33:12).

What will you do today to help America be a nation God can bless?

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