Harvard University

11/30/2023 | News release | Distributed by Public on 11/30/2023 18:58

A towering scholar-turned-diplomat, public intellectual

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whose towering 70-year career as a diplomat, adviser to U.S. presidents, and public intellectual found its roots at Harvard, died Wednesday at age 100.

Born Heinz Alfred Kissinger in 1923 in Bavaria, he and his family fled Nazi Germany in 1938, settling in New York City, where 15-year-old Heinz became Henry. Kissinger finished high school and attended the City College of New York part-time before entering the U.S. Army and serving in Europe during World War II.

Kissinger completed his undergraduate education at Harvard College, where he lived at Adams House. He graduated summa cum laude in 1950 with a bachelor's degree in political science, then earned a master's in 1951 and a Ph.D. in 1954. In 1951, Kissinger joined the Government Department faculty, where he remained for two decades.

In that period Kissinger began to assume what would become a decades-long role as an adviser to the State Department, think tanks, defense contractors, and a string of politicians and diplomats from Republican Nelson Rockefeller to Democrat Hillary Clinton. He became known as a foreign-policy "realist" - an approach that would leave him with a complicated legacy - and for his robust support for U.S. military interventions and anti-communist movements in Latin America and elsewhere.

Kissinger emerged as an unlikely celebrity during the Nixon and Ford administrations, in which he served as national security adviser and secretary of state. He helped open up U.S. relations with China, achieved détente with the Soviet Union, and negotiated an end to the Vietnam War. Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his work in Vietnam, but critics pointed to his authorization of the secret carpet bombing of Cambodia and argued he potentially could have ended the war sooner.

Kissinger, who had taken a leave of absence from the University beginning in 1967 to serve in government, resigned in 1971. After his career in government he would go on to launch a consultancy in Washington, D.C., and write numerous books on China, diplomacy, nuclear weapons, and even artificial intelligence.

Harvard faculty, including some who knew Kissinger, shared their thoughts on his legacy with the Gazette. Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Graham Allison

Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard Kennedy School
Assistant Secretary of Defense during Clinton administration, founding dean of HKS

I enrolled in his class at Harvard 58 years ago - Gov 180. It was a legendary course on the principles of international relations. It had been a storied course at Harvard taught (before Henry began teaching it) by McGeorge Bundy, who was dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and who, in 1961, left for Washington and became Kennedy's National Security Adviser. For Henry, this was like a great promotion to wear Bundy's mantle. That was part of what raised his horizons to the notion that, "Heck, maybe I could become national security adviser."

Henry, as he was often quite proud to say, basically became the person he was at Harvard. Even though he had a complicated history with Harvard, he never forgot the fact that Harvard was where he grew up to be somebody who could think about the world. Harvard opened his mind and excited his curiosity and created all the opportunities he elicited and enjoyed. This was the most formative chapter in his intellectual odyssey.

He was complicated, demanding. I became his course assistant for that course and then for the graduate course, and then, sometimes his research assistant. When he went to Washington in '69, I had just become an assistant professor, and so I declined to go because I was hoping to become a professor. But I agreed to consult with him and another faculty member who worked for him directly, Morton Halperin, whom I was friendly with.

After that, he and I had the good fortune to collaborate on a series of joint activities, including this piece he and I published in Foreign Affairs last month on the road to AI arms control. One of the amazing things about him was, here's a guy, when he was 95 or 96, AI dawned on him. He said, "Graham, this is the most exciting intellectual and challenging thing I've ever seen!"

He would bring to a problem a large strategic point of view grounded in a lengthy historical perspective. I wrote a piece in The Atlantic five or six years ago on Kissinger as an applied historian or Kissinger as the model of statecraft as applied history.