In Oliver Stone’s recreation of the 1972 Nixon-Mao summit, the Chinese leader turns to Henry Kissinger and asks: “I want to know your secret… How does a fat man get so many girls?” To which, America’s top diplomat, played in the film by Paul Sorvino, replies in his signature Teutonic monotone, “Power, Mr. Chairman, is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” The exchange may have been fictitious, but the quote was authentic, vintage Kissinger — and it captured the mystique that was uniquely his, arising from an unlikely mixture of intellectual heft, political influence, and celebrity glamour. Today America has lost not just a statesman but its last link to a lost age.
When Henry Kissinger bestrode the world stage in the Seventies, it was probably the final time in American history when a certain class of elite commanded the awe and fascination of the public; Kissinger’s career embodied both the climax and the collapse of the mid-century archetype of the diplomatic “Wise Man”, figures of the establishment, whose strategic vision and expertise forged the Cold War world; but after Kissinger, there was to be little (if any) faith left among Americans, in the abilities of an all-knowing cadre of foreign policy elders to steer the free world. Indeed, such a notion now seems like a laughable anachronism — thanks in no small part to the actions of Kissinger himself.
Born to German-Jewish parents in Fürth, Bavaria in 1923, Kissinger fled with his family to America in 1938 before returning in the midst of the Second World War as a US army translator. It was as a young non-commissioned officer that Kissinger began a habit of cultivating patrons who would aid his ascent: Fritz Kraemer in the Army, William Yandel Elliot at Harvard, and Nelson Rockefeller in national politics. With every step, Kissinger developed a mastery of the ways in which power was wielded in America’s institutions, carving out a niche as specialist advisor (on nuclear deterrence) and courtier to the nations’ rulers. While Kissinger came of age in the shadow of the original Wise Men, he was, by this point, on course to seize their mantle and outshine them in history.
His big break came in 1968, when he moved from the orbit of Rockefeller, scion of the establishment, to that of Nixon, its sworn enemy. Kissinger spent his career acquiring power; the Nixon administration would be his chance to use it — and use it he did, while joining Nixon in undermining the same establishment set he once admired. To one critic who resigned over the bombing of Cambodia, Kissinger famously said: “Your view represents the cowardice of the Eastern Establishment.”
Kissinger’s exploits as Nixon’s chief foreign policy advisor would be many and varied — and much of it, as many critics have noted, was drenched in blood. But his outsize contribution had been in realigning the balance of power in the Cold War by dividing the Communist world, negotiating an end to the Vietnam War (for which he and North Vietnam’s Lê Đức Thọ won the Nobel Peace Prize), and establishing a permanent opening to China. The last of these would be the most consequential: just as the original Wise Men envisioned a strategy of containment against Russia and set the terms of Cold War orthodoxy, Kissinger set the terms of the succeeding post-Cold War orthodoxy, forming the basis of bipartisan US foreign policy for a whole generation.
However, by the time of his death, Kissinger’s vision of Sino-American understanding lay in tatters. Both Republicans and Democrats are now rushing to distance themselves from Beijing while the spectre of war over Taiwan looms in the background. What’s more, the sheer level of passion and polarisation unleashed by Kissinger has ensured that the lofty figure of the Wise Man would never return again, dovetailing with a profound popular distrust of elite expertise and authority that has since become the norm. It is hard to imagine Kissinger’s successors — Mike Pompeo or Jake Sullivan for instance — occupying the same place at the nexus of America’s political and cultural imagination. As historian David Halbertsam pointed out, “Perhaps more than any other single person, Henry Kissinger augured the end of the gifted amateurs of the Old Establishment.”