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Henry Kissinger's complicated legacy


Don't speak ill of the dead. That's a saying you sometimes hear right after a prominent person has died. And to be sure, there have been many words of praise for the former national security adviser, former secretary of state and diplomatic giant that Henry Kissinger was. He died at his home in Connecticut at 100 years old. And one of Kissinger's successors, Antony Blinken, joined those praising his accomplishments.


ANTONY BLINKEN: Secretary Kissinger really set the standard for everyone who followed in this job. Few people were better students of history. Even fewer people did more to shape history than Henry Kissinger.

CHANG: And yet, as soon as news of Kissinger's death broke, many were criticizing the very tactics that he used to shape history. For example, the headline on Rolling Stone's Kissinger obituary read "Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved By America's Ruling Class, Finally Dies." How can there be such divergent opinions about a single man who lived the majority of his life in the spotlight? Well, that's something we're going to talk about with Jeremi Suri. He's professor of public affairs and history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of "Henry Kissinger And The American Century." Welcome.

JEREMI SURI: Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: Let me ask you - what Kissinger viewed as his successes in the Cold War, like the thawing of relations between the U.S. and China, policy in Vietnam - much of that was predicated on a certain pragmatism that Kissinger operated on. Can you explain what that pragmatism was?

SURI: Yes. Henry Kissinger frequently referred to what he called the national interest. His belief was that the United States and its foreign policy leaders should place the national interest above all other things - above ideology, even above morality at times. And so his pragmatism was an ironclad commitment to doing whatever it took to help the United States' national interest - to make the United States more secure, to open markets for the United States, to make the United States more prosperous and, most of all, to combat American enemies in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

CHANG: Right. And what were the costs of this way of thinking - that America's interests were first and foremost? Like, can you walk us through a couple examples of how Kissinger's diplomatic goals meant that certain people in certain regions of the world paid a price?

SURI: Yes. I think it's, first of all, important to say that your view of Kissinger probably varies based on where you live. So if you are a citizen of Europe, particularly Germany, there are a lot of positive things he did. But as you imply in your question, if you're a citizen of some other regions of the world, you see things very differently. One example would, of course, be Chile, where the Nixon-Kissinger administration in the 1970s comes to the conclusion that a popularly elected left-leaning government is too close to our enemy, Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union, and that therefore the United States will undertake to undermine that government in sponsoring a coup, in fact. That coup will lead to more than 10 years of repressive authoritarian governance in Chile and in the entire region.

CHANG: Right.

SURI: And so for Chileans - and I think the Chilean foreign minister even put something up on Twitter about this today - Kissinger is not seen as a hero at all.

CHANG: Well, some have said that it is impossible to evaluate Kissinger, the diplomat, without understanding Kissinger, the man - that you need to take into account his own personal experience as a refugee from Nazi Germany. How might you connect his personal past with his foreign policy thinking?

SURI: Well, I'm glad you asked that question 'cause it's something I've spent a lot of time writing about in particular. I think you can never separate the individual from their experiences, especially their early experiences. And we don't have to get all Freudian to believe that early experiences shape a worldview. Henry Kissinger comes of age in the shadow of the Holocaust. He comes of age at a time of war, and he's forced to be a refugee and then make his way in a new society. He takes away some central lessons that he never loses. These become assumptions of life - that democracies without strong leadership are dangerous. That's what he saw in Weimar Germany - that the United States must be engaged in the world. Isolationism allowed Nazism to fester in Europe, so the United States has to be engaged in the world, Kissinger believed, using its power. And I think he came to fear, throughout his life, what an absence of power would mean for him and for people like him. And so to the very last days of his life, this was a man who craved power - who was obsessed with being connected and mattering. There's no retirement for you if you fear that retirement means death and destruction.

CHANG: Well, given all that's going on in the world right now - like the war in Ukraine, the war between Hamas and Israel, increased tensions with China, perhaps an emerging cold war with Russia - how much does all of that either validate or refute Kissinger's strategies?

SURI: I think this is the most important question, and it's so important for us to use this marker at the end of his life to reflect on this because it matters so much, and it's why I study history. We have to learn from the past, Ailsa.

I believe that Kissinger's career shows us, first of all, that American power is necessary in the world. It doesn't mean that we're the most important country in all cases. It doesn't mean we're always right. But it's hard to think about the problems in the world as we see them today or throughout Kissinger's life and imagine that they would be better if the United States were isolationist - if the United States didn't participate and didn't use its power and wealth to try to make a difference. I think we absolutely have to be involved in what's happening in Ukraine. We absolutely need to be involved in the Middle East. It won't be better if we just try to go home and leave it to everyone else.

That said, I think Kissinger's career also shows us that when using power, we have to perhaps be even more careful, even more discerning, and make sure we're bringing in even more voices than he did. The challenge of his policymaking was that it was very centered on a few people and a few countries that he valued most, and that led to many of the bad decisions that we've talked about in Chile, Bangladesh, Vietnam, East Timor, and the list goes on...

CHANG: Cambodia.

SURI: ...And on. These - Cambodia. These are places he knew little about, places he often cared little about. We shouldn't take his failures to mean that we should stay uninvolved - just the opposite. We need to be involved, but we need to be involved with our power in a more open way - open to the perspectives of more societies, more disciplined in how we use our power, and more discerning. And I think Kissinger's legacy should guide us in Ukraine and the Middle East today. We need to take those strictures in mind as we go forward and try to bring these conflicts to some kind of resolution.

CHANG: Jeremi Suri - he's professor of public affairs and history at the University of Texas at Austin. Thank you so much for joining us today.

SURI: My pleasure. Thank you. 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.

Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.