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Updated: November 30, 2023, at 1:13 a.m.
Henry A. Kissinger ’50, a former Secretary of State and faculty member in the Government Department, died in his home in Connecticut at 100, according to a statement on his website Wednesday evening.
Kissinger, who served as Secretary of State under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, exerted a lasting influence on American foreign policy and was among the most controversial figures in American politics.
As a diplomat, Kissinger was instrumental in advocating for a policy of detente with the Soviet Union and China, helping organize Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, where he met with Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party Mao Zedong. The trip ended nearly a quarter-century of diplomatic isolation between the U.S. and China.
Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” during the 1973 Yom Kippur War — in which Egypt and Syria invaded Israel — led to disengagement agreements ending the conflict.
But Kissinger’s diplomatic legacy is mired in controversy. He was intimately involved in the bombing of Cambodia between 1969 and 1973, which resulted in the deaths of at least 50,000 civilians and contributed to the rise of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
He also faced criticism for supporting authoritarian regimes in Pakistan, Chile, Argentina, and Indonesia.
In 1973, Kissinger was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside North Vietnamese diplomat Lê Đức Thọ, for the negotiation of the Paris Peace Accords to end the Vietnam War — prompting two members of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to resign in protest.
Thọ turned down the Prize and accused the U.S. and South Vietnam of violating the agreement, leading to the continuation of the war in Vietnam until 1975.
Born into a Jewish family in Bavaria in 1923, Kissinger fled Nazi persecution as a teenager and arrived in New York in 1938. He served in the army toward the end of World War II and enrolled at Harvard in 1947 on the G.I. Bill.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1950, the former Adams House resident returned for his master’s degree in 1952 and a Ph.D. just two years later, in 1954. At Harvard, his undergraduate thesis ran for nearly 400 pages, resulting in the imposition of 150-page limit for future government theses.
Prior to his political career, Kissinger taught at his alma mater from 1954 to 1969 as a professor in the Government Department. There, he overlapped as a faculty member with Zbigniew K. Brzezinski, who would later serve as National Security Advisor under President Jimmy Carter, Samuel P. Huntington, a future Carter administration official who co-founded Foreign Policy magazine, and then-Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean McGeorge Bundy. Bundy was an architect of the Vietnam War who would himself leave Harvard in 1961 to serve as National Security Advisor to President John F. Kennedy ’40.
Peter L. Malkin ’55, who interacted with Kissinger as an undergraduate, said that he was “moved by the fact that he has been such a tremendous presence for so many years, and it seemed like he might go on forever.”
A Harvard regulation that restricted faculty leaves to two years prompted Kissinger to resign his professorship in 1971, but he arranged a deal with the Government Department before he left to reserve a space for him until the end of Nixon’s first term. In 1973, after months of deliberation, the department ended the arrangement. A deparment search for a successor to Kissinger was unsuccessful.
Four years later, the Government Department voted almost unanimously to offer Kissinger a professorship, which he did not accept.
Former Harvard Kennedy School Dean and professor Graham T. Allison Jr. ’62, a student of Kissinger’s at Harvard, said in an interview that Kissinger was a contender for “the greatest American statesman in the 20th century,” though he acknowledged the former diplomat “made a lot of mistakes.”
“He opened my eyes to bigger questions of geopolitics, statecraft, and even war and peace — or what he would call the world order,” Allison said.
“Overall, I think that he’s one of the few statesmen about whom I bet 100 years from now, the students at Harvard will still be reading and studying his statecraft,” Allison added.
—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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