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Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger leaves behind a complicated legacy


What do we make of Henry Kissinger? He's died at the age of 100. Kissinger was an American national security adviser who oversaw an escalation of the Vietnam War and its end. As secretary of state, also, he oversaw President Richard Nixon's visit to Communist China. And for decades afterward, he advised all of Nixon's successors up to now. Jeremi Suri wrote a book called "Henry Kissinger And The American Century," and he's on the line. Good morning, sir.

JEREMI SURI: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. Not long ago, you told our friends at the podcast Throughline that Kissinger is a polarizing figure. Everyone either admires him or despises him. Everybody you meet is in one camp or the other. So which side are you on?

SURI: Well, I have to say that even though I disagree with many of his policies, I admire his ability to make a difference in the world. I admire his commitment to the pursuit of international order, as he defined it. And I admire his ability to get things done. We all know, Steve, how hard it is to get anything done in the policy world today.

INSKEEP: Well, let's figure that out, because this is a guy who was seen as a Democrat, ended up being an adviser to a Republican president, then another Republican president, held an important job, and then two of the most important jobs at once, and then remained influential. What was the style that he used to gain power and to maintain influence?

SURI: Kissinger, in the end, was a pragmatist. And what he did was he managed to find a way to establish relations with powerful people across societies and to make those relationships useful for other powerful people. So Hillary Clinton valued him as someone who could help connect her and advise her on China, just as Richard Nixon and George W. Bush and Dick Cheney admired and respected him for those reasons. He cut through partisanship by providing value and an ability to build - who were interested in achieving policy aims. That's what he defined as statesmanship.

INSKEEP: Was there something hazardous about this? I mean, he's trying to give good advice to powerful people, but in a way, he's also catering to powerful people and making sure they like him.

SURI: Yes. This is one of the points I made in my book that his, shall we say, kissing up to power meant that he was able to get a lot done, but it also meant that he was willing to neglect, and in some cases, even allow mistreatment of large numbers of people who were not powerful. So if you look at his record, he's much better at achieving things that serve the interests of, shall we say, first-world countries and the leaders of those first-world countries. And his record in what we would call the Global South is much poorer, because those are relationships that mattered less to him.

INSKEEP: What is one example of that that you would call out?

SURI: Well, I would call out the relationship with Chile while he was president and thereafter. Chile had a very well established democracy with civilian control over the military. And after the election of a socialist president who Kissinger found distasteful and potentially threatening, he worked with Nixon to encourage a coup in Chile, which led to more than a decade of suffering in that country and many other parts of South America.

INSKEEP: Now, you said while he was president. Of course, you met while he was secretary of state. And I don't mean to call you out on that, that little error. But is that actually revealing to show the immense power he did have in the area of foreign policy?

SURI: Absolutely. I mean, it was the kind of slip that's hard to avoid when you've spent a lot of time in these records because particularly by the early 1970s, in the period of Watergate, Henry Kissinger really was the dominant figure in American foreign policy, often more influential on a day-to-day basis than the president. And this often became true under Gerald Ford's presidency as well.

INSKEEP: Jeremi Suri, professor of public affairs and history at the University of Texas at Austin. Thanks so much.

SURI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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