Henry Kissinger’s Complicated Legacy Draws Admiration and Scorn from across the Globe

Jason Lee/Pool Photo via AP, File
China’s President Xi Jinping, right, listens to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who led the China-U.S Track Two Dialogue, during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Nov. 2, 2015.

TOKYO (AP) — The death of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger drew both admiration and scorn Thursday from political leaders around the world, highlighting the complicated legacy of Kissinger’s views about what it meant to serve America’s interests during the Cold War — and how the country should exert its influence.

Kissinger, who died Wednesday at 100, was one of America’s most powerful diplomats. During his years serving under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, he shaped the country’s foreign policy in ways that led to breakthroughs, including normalizing U.S.-China relations and advancing detente with the Soviet Union.

But during Kissinger’s tenure the U.S. also overlooked the rise of brutal regimes in other countries, and critics argue his approach ran counter to democratic ideals and left lasting damage throughout the world.

President Joe Biden, who was a U.S. senator when he first met Kissinger, said, “Throughout our careers, we often disagreed. And often strongly. But from that first briefing — his fierce intellect and profound strategic focus was evident.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was among those who sought out Kissinger’s counsel through the decades, said that “to serve as America’s chief diplomat today is to move through a world that bears Henry’s lasting imprint — from the relationships he forged, to the tools he pioneered, to the architecture he built.”

Blinken’s tone was echoed by others, including former President George W. Bush, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, China’s President Xi Jinping and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby called his passing a “huge loss.”

“This was a man — whether you agreed with him or not, whether you hold the same views or not — he served in World War II, bravely in uniform, and for decades afterward, which we can all be grateful for and appreciate, just the public service,” he said.

For some, that impact led to improved relations, such as when Kissinger’s diplomacy helped end the 1973 Mideast war where Israel fought off Egypt and Syria.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog praised Kissinger for laying “the cornerstone of the peace agreement, which (was) later signed with Egypt, and so many other processes around the world I admire.”

Many in China mourned Kissinger’s passing on social media. State broadcaster CCTV shared an old segment showing his first secret visit to China in 1971, when he broached the possibility of establishing U.S.-China relations and met then-Premier Zhou Enlai.

But across South America, Kissinger is remembered as a key figure who helped prop up bloody military dictatorships. Documents have shown Kissinger’s and Nixon’s support for the 1973 coup that deposed Chilean President Salvador Allende. That was followed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, which went on to violate human rights, murder opponents, cancel elections, restrict the media, suppress labor unions and disband political parties.

“A man has died whose historical brilliance never managed to conceal his profound moral misery,” Chile’s ambassador to the United States, Juan Gabriel Valdes, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. Chile’s leftist President Gabriel Boric reposted the message.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern posted a remembrance on X for “all the lives Henry Kissinger destroyed with terrible violence he unleashed in countries like Chile, Vietnam, Argentina, East Timor, Cambodia, and Bangladesh.” McGovern also wrote that he never understood why people revered Kissinger.

Kissinger also “heedlessly extended and expanded” the war in Vietnam and the bombing of Cambodia came to “symbolize his ruthless hypocrisy when claiming to support American democracy,” according to journalist Elizabeth Becker, who covered Cambodia before the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover and is the author of “When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution.”

“And to what end? Ultimately, no dominoes fell to communism. The only country communist Vietnam invaded was communist Cambodia to overthrow Pol Pot,” Becker said.

In Africa, Kissinger’s legacy will be forever linked for many to his official visit to apartheid-era South Africa in 1976, just months after the regime’s police killed more than 170 Black protesters, most of them schoolchildren, in the Soweto uprising.

At the time, the United States was allied with South Africa as a buffer against Soviet influence in Africa during the Cold War. Kissinger saw South Africa as “merely a gambit in the game of the Cold War,” said John Stremlau, a professor of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

For all his efforts to keep Soviet influence from expanding at the expense of the United States, among those lauding Kissinger’s legacy was Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin said in a message to Kissinger’s wife, Nancy, that he was “a wise and far-sighted statesman” and his name “is inextricably linked with a pragmatic foreign policy line, which at one time made it possible to achieve detente in international tensions and reach the most important Soviet-American agreements that contributed to the strengthening of global security.”

AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, left, talks with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen.