As President Nixon successfully campaigned for reelection in 1972, many of his goals for Vietnamization were being met, including a decrease in U.S. casualties, a drop in spending for the war, the quieting of domestic dissent, an increase in his popularity, and the provision of time to negotiate a settlement. Leading Nixon’s negotiating team was his influential national security advisor, Henry Kissinger.
He was born Heinz Alfred Kissinger to a comfortably middle class Jewish family on May 27, 1923 in Furth, Germany. Conditions for Jews in Germany dramatically worsened during Kissinger’s youth, particularly after Adolf Hitler rose to chancellor in 1933. Kissinger often risked–and endured–beatings by other boys for defying laws that prohibited Jews from public gatherings by attending soccer matches of his beloved local professional team or for simply walking the streets. Recognizing that the persecution of Jews in Germany was increasing, Kissinger’s mother prevailed upon his father to move the family to the United States in August 1938.
Kissinger excelled in his high school studies and greatly enjoyed his new life in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan in New York City, adopting the Americanized name of Henry. He attended City College of New York before serving as a German interpreter in the U.S. Army during World War II. He returned to America after the war and received his undergraduate and doctorate degrees from Harvard and he remained there to serve on the political science faculty.
Over the next ten years, Kissinger became a prominent analyst of international affairs as well as a respected voice among top Republican party figures, including Richard Nixon. Prior to and during his service in government, Kissinger was a noted proponent of realpolitik, which emphasizes diplomacy based on practical rather than ideological considerations. Critics claimed that adherence to a realpolitik approach led Kissinger to be an amoral and deceitful character, while his supporters praised its role in helping him find effective and pragmatic solutions to complex problems.
By 1972, Kissinger had emerged from power struggles within the Nixon administration to become the leading American foreign policy strategist, almost completely eclipsing the role of the Secretary of State (Kissinger would later serve as Secretary of State for Nixon and President Ford.) Evidence of his rise and significance was seen on October 26, 1972. Following years of secret negotiations in Paris with his North Vietnamese diplomatic counterpart Le Duc Tho, Kissinger announced in his often-imitated, monotone, German-accented voice, “We believe that peace is at hand”, adding, “what remains to be done can be settled in one more negotiating session with the North Vietnamese negotiators, lasting, I would think, no more than three or four days.”
Kissinger’s autumn proclamation proved excessively optimistic. Though Nixon boasted of the breakthrough in the anticipated end to the war during the last two weeks of the 1972 presidential campaign, talks broke down in December. Nixon then ordered what became known as the Christmas Bombing of North Vietnam, which resulted in over 100,000 bombs being dropped on Hanoi and other North Vietnamese towns, but failed to extract further concessions from North Vietnam. Talks were rekindled and on January 23, 1973, Kissinger and Le Duc Tho reached a final agreement providing a cease-fire, the release of American prisoners of war, an arrangement for U.S. withdrawal, and a vaguely planned and never-realized “council of national reconciliation” that ostensibly would resolve political issues through the supervision of elections. The accords were formally signed four days later.
For his wide-ranging and influential work, particularly relating to the negotiations to end the Vietnam War, Kissinger was named with Nixon as one of 1972’s “Men of the Year” by Time Magazine. The magazine’s profile of the men noted, “For the President, Kissinger has been a combination of professor-in-residence, secret agent, ultimate advance man and philosopher-prince. In an important sense, he is Nixon’s creation, using the power base of the presidency to roam the world and speak for Nixon, to set the stage for summits, to negotiate war and peace.”
President Nixon had described the treaty as “peace with honor” and Kissinger shared the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize with Le Duc Tho, who declined the award. But over the next two years, the fighting continued to rage in Vietnam while war-weary Americans turned their attention to the Watergate scandal, which claimed Nixon’s presidency when he resigned in August 1974. In early 1975, Communist forces mounted a final attack against the exhausted and demoralized South Vietnamese Army. From the rooftop of the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon, a fleet of marine helicopters shuttled Americans and Vietnamese out of the besieged city. The next day Saigon fell, the Vietnam War was over, and the United States emerged a chastened country.