Henry Kissinger (1923-2023) was born into a German Jewish family in 1923, fleeing to the United States to escape the Nazi threat in 1938. He served in the U.S. Army during the Second World War and attended Harvard University on his return, subsequently becoming a professor there.
Kissinger’s academic work on foreign policy led him to advise various policy groups and politicians. He finally attained office himself when President Nixon appointed him National Security Advisor and subsequently Secretary of State. He remained in charge of US foreign policy from 1969 until 1977.
This period saw the US take the lead in a range of foreign policy initiatives that were globally transformative, including rapprochement with China, the ending of the Vietnam War, and brokering peace in the Middle East in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. In 1973 he was controversially awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with the North Vietnamese leader, Le Duc Tho (who refused it), for his role in negotiating a cease-fire with the North Vietnamese. In the same year, the US was supportive of (even if not directly involved in) the coup by General Pinochet against the socialist leader of Chile, Salvador Allende. As a result of his controversial statesmanship of the 1970s, Kissinger has always remained a very divisive political figure.
Soon after he left office, Kissinger returned part-time to academia, took on a variety of commercial roles and founded Kissinger Associates, which has continued to advise governments and corporates on international affairs ever since.
Kissinger is a prolific writer, but it’s his book Diplomacy that stands out among our expert recommendations on Five Books. According to Michael Palliser, the late English diplomat, “Whatever view one takes of Kissinger’s conduct of American foreign policy under presidents Nixon and Ford, this book is a masterpiece. It confirms Kissinger’s standing as an intellectual and historian of exceptional quality.”
For books about Kissinger’s life, there are a number of options. Popular biographer Walter Isaacson published his biography of Henry Kissinger back in 1992. To get up to speed on criticisms of Kissinger, the best place to turn is Christopher Hitchens’s hatchet job: The Trial of Henry Kissinger. More scholarly options include Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography by historian Thomas Schwartz (recommended in this Five Books reader list) or a joint biography, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power by Robert Dallek.
Books by Henry Kissinger
Interviews where books by Henry Kissinger were recommended
Academic and author of textbooks on the field tells us that diplomacy can well do without rank amateurs “in the same way that medicine can do without snake-oil merchants”
The former chief of staff to Tony Blair, Jonathan Powell, tells us about his experience of negotiating in Northern Ireland, and explains why it’s important never to lose your temper except on purpose
Veteran diplomat Michael Palliser discusses his friend Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic skills and says his experiences in post-war Germany made him a committed European
The veteran British diplomat Jeremy Greenstock talks about the history and future of diplomacy. On Iraq: ‘The magnificent work that was done was largely wasted, and lives with it – both Iraqi and outsiders’