5 Most Surprising Things About Henry Kissinger

Recently, Henry Kissinger died. His death came as a surprise to fans and haters around the world for several reasons. Among them was the fact that Kissinger lived to the ripe old age of 100, meaning that most of his biggest fans and most ardent critics expected him to die long ago.

In fact, Kissinger was old enough that many people are unaware of both the circumstances under which he rose to power and the cloud of controversy that surrounded him for half a century. Ready to learn more about one of the most complex figures in American political history? Keep reading to discover the most surprising things about Henry Kissinger!

He wore many hats when it came to foreign policy

Henry Kissinger’s death was such a big deal because, in life, Kissinger’s career was a very big deal. Most of it had to do with foreign policy, and in this field, he wore many different hats over the years.

For example, he first rose to prominence as a national security advisor. Later, he’d be secretary of state, and for a brief window, he was both advisor and secretary. In these roles, Kissinger played a chief role in some major international events. For example, he helped restore political ties between America and China by conducting secretive negotiations that most of the United States knew nothing about. He helped shepherd in some arms control agreements that arguably prevented all-out war between America and the USSR.

Perhaps most notably, Kissinger kicked off the Paris peace talks that eventually helped America pull out of Vietnam with its national reputation more or less intact. Of course, Kissinger’s critics would argue for years that he actually prolonged our time in Vietnam, making this achievement something of a hollow victory.

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Richard Nixon accidentally helped Kissinger become more powerful

While Henry Kissinger was already pretty damn powerful, he was strongest when President Richard M. Nixon was facing his own scandals. During Watergate, Nixon’s own political power was largely diminished. Meanwhile, Kissinger’s position and reputation meant that he had almost as much power as Nixon himself, causing some to dub the controversial diplomat a “copresident” while Nixon was in office.

Despite Nixon accidentally making Kissinger so powerful, Kissinger seemingly had no real love for Nixon. According to AP News, Kissinger biographer Walter Isaacson would later claim that the diplomat was the only person capable of keeping Richard Nixon–whom he referred to as a “drunken lunatic”–from his attempts to “blow up the world.”

Surprisingly, Kissinger was a ladies’ man

One of the most surprising things about Henry Kissinger’s life was that he was a consummate ladies’ man. We don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but Kissinger’s appearance as a chubby and schlubby diplomat wasn’t the kind of thing that normally gets ladies excited. To hear Kissinger talk about it, though, it wasn’t his physical appearance they were attracted to.

According to Kissinger himself, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” and he may very well have been correct. When he wasn’t busy being set up on dates with famous actresses by Hollywood executives, Kissinger could sit back and enjoy reading all about his way with women. For example, in a 1972 survey of Playboy Club Bunnies, Kissinger topped the list as “the man I would most like to go out on a date with.”

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Failure in Vietnam

Considering that Henry Kissinger was a wealthy and successful diplomat in his earlier years and he died beloved by many throughout the world, you might think his life was relatively free of mistakes or controversies. That wasn’t so, and according to some of the man’s critics, even his biggest accomplishments are tinged with stinging failure.

The biggest example of this is America’s withdrawal from Vietnam. Kissinger’s defenders argue that America might have stayed in Vietnam for many more years if not for Kissinger’s leadership and statecraft. However, the very peace terms that Nixon and Kissinger agreed to in 1972 are ones that were being offered as early as 1969. Therefore, many critics argue Kissinger needlessly kept America at war for years rather than pursuing the earlier peace opportunity. 

Bombing Cambodia

Henry Kissinger’s biggest failure (and many would argue his biggest crime) involved Cambodia. Certainly, his domestic antics were bad enough: he authorized the kind of wiretapping that would later bring down Nixon, and he weaponized this by tapping the phones of unsympathetic reporters and even wiretapping his National Security Council staff. But Kissinger wasn’t protested on college campuses around the country until he authorized the bombing of Cambodia in 1970.

His stated goal with this bombing was to cut off Vietnamese supply lines, but it led to untold devastation in the area, including the entire country falling into the hands of Khmer Rouge insurgents. As we noted before, Kissinger and Nixon could have agreed to the exact same peace terms they later settled for one year earlier, so many saw this bombing as a needless killing that led to families in the area suffering for many generations. Later, many of Kissinger’s harshest critics agreed with what the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain once said: as Huffington Post reports, Bourdain once claimed that once you visit present-day Cambodia, “you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.”