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Henry Kissinger, legendary diplomat and foreign policy scholar, dies at 100

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Henry Kissinger has died at his home in Connecticut. He was 100 years old. Kissinger arrived in the United States as a refugee from Nazi Germany and went on to wield unprecedented influence as a secretary of state and national security adviser to two presidents - Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. In his gruff, baritone voice, he went on pronouncing on foreign policy challenges right up to the end of his life. NPR's Tom Gjelten has this remembrance.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Henry Kissinger didn't work under a U.S. president after 1977, when Gerald Ford left office, but he remained a foreign policy celebrity for decades more. David Rothkopf was a managing director at Kissinger's consulting firm.

DAVID ROTHKOPF: Everybody, regardless of what they thought of Henry, wanted to see Henry, wanted to be with Henry. I remember walking down the street in Manhattan with him, and he would attract a crowd like a movie star or rock star.

GJELTEN: As the superstar ex-diplomat, Kissinger was feted around the world, including in Germany, the land from which he fled with his family in 1938. He went back five years later as a soldier in the U.S. Army and saw firsthand what had happened to his fellow Jews. The experience helped make him a believer in the idea of peace through strength. Those views brought him to the attention of Richard Nixon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: I sent Dr. Kissinger, my assistant for national security affairs, to Peking during his recent world tour for the purpose of having talks with Premier Zhou Enlai.

GJELTEN: Those talks paved the way for Nixon's historic visit to China. Kissinger and Nixon figured that reaching out to China made great strategic sense. It was a way to challenge China's communist rival, the Soviet Union. Before that, no U.S. leader had dared make an overture to Red China, as it was then called. Afterwards, no U.S. leader dared to question the wisdom of the move.

And then Vietnam - Kissinger went to Paris to negotiate an end to the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HENRY KISSINGER: We believe that peace is at hand. We believe that an agreement is within sight.

GJELTEN: Kissinger and his North Vietnamese counterpart were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for that effort, though it would end in failure.

No national security adviser before or since had Kissinger's power. He spoke to Nixon as much as a dozen times a day. Tapes of White House phone conversations show how he catered to Nixon's needs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KISSINGER: Mr. President?

NIXON: Yeah, hi, Henry.

KISSINGER: This was the best speech you've delivered since you've been in office.

NIXON: Yeah, I don't know. I think November 3 was better, but...

GJELTEN: Kissinger traveled constantly, engaging face-to-face with world leaders on matters of war and peace - thus the term shuttle diplomacy. He didn't have movie-star looks, but he had a brilliant intellect and a razor-sharp wit, and he dated glamorous women. Nixon liked to tease him about it when he could track him down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIXON: Hello, Henry?

KISSINGER: Hello, Mr. President.

NIXON: Where are you?

KISSINGER: I'm in the (inaudible).

NIXON: Well, Henry, just let me say that, as soon as you take care of the ladies, if you can work it into your schedule, I want you to get back here to the White House. I want to give you hell for 30 minutes.

GJELTEN: Before long, Nixon became mired in the Watergate scandal. He essentially let Kissinger take charge of foreign policymaking.

ROTHKOPF: That worked for Nixon.

GJELTEN: David Rothkopf, the Kissinger aide, later the author of a book on national security advisers.

ROTHKOPF: Because Nixon didn't want to interact with people so much. He was a little paranoid. And then when he went into the crisis years, Kissinger essentially became deputy president for foreign policy.

GJELTEN: His guiding principle? - the U.S. national interest takes precedence over more idealistic aims.

GJELTEN: With his commitment to the U.S. national interest, as he saw it, Kissinger advocated bombing campaigns in Vietnam and Cambodia, giving a greenlight to the Dirty War in Argentina and to Indonesia's invasion of East Timor and welcoming a coup against the socialist president of Chile. Those governments, after all, were U.S. allies. Kissinger's detractors said those actions made him a war criminal.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How do you justify receiving the Nobel Peace Prize when you're the architect, with Richard Nixon, of killing 4 million Southeast Asians during the Vietnam War, killing thousands of East Timorese and overthrowing the legally elected president of Chile...

GJELTEN: This was during a 2012 appearance at Harvard.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you deny these war crimes? Basically, how do you sleep with yourself at night?

GJELTEN: Kissinger was used to such questions. Look at the big picture, he would say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KISSINGER: Just study the record. Who did what? Start from the assumption that rational people were in government. What led to what decisions?

GJELTEN: What led to what decisions? Vintage Kissinger - see it in context; assume rationality, not emotion; read the minutes of a National Security Council meeting.

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KISSINGER: And you may not agree with it, but you won't throw around words like war criminal then.

GJELTEN: Kissinger knew something about criminal leaders from his own experience in Nazi Germany, but it did not keep him from engaging with governments that executed their opponents. It may have been that Kissinger's own life experience made it easier for him to be dispassionate about tough policy choices. David Rothkopf, his onetime assistant, thinks Kissinger's view of the world was in part a result of his childhood trauma in Germany and then his service as a young man in the U.S. Army.

ROTHKOPF: Those are the formative years. I think, to understand Kissinger, you have to understand a man who escaped the Holocaust, a man who went back to fight in this big, grand war, a man who saw the United States as the champion against an almost absolute evil.

GJELTEN: Henry Kissinger stayed active to the end of his life, writing books on international affairs and giving interviews. Donald Trump's America-first bravado initially impressed him. Interviewed on CBS's "Face The Nation" just after the 2016 election, Kissinger suggested that something remarkable might actually emerge from a Trump presidency.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

KISSINGER: I'm not saying it will. I'm saying it's an extraordinary opportunity.

GJELTEN: But that opportunity was missed, in Kissinger's view. Four years later, Kissinger said he worried that disregarding alliances, as President Trump was doing, meant the United States could become irrelevant - an unthinkable prospect to a diplomat who always saw America as a preeminent player in the global power game.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News. 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.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.