Analysis & Opinions - Politico

'My Mother Told Me Not to Speak Ill of the Dead': Political Experts on Henry Kissinger's Legacy

| Nov. 30, 2023

Historians, academics and political thinkers examine the life and legacy of the controversial statesman.

'Overall, the scorecard is not impressive.'


Kissinger's legacy is jumbled and contradictory. He and Nixon (whose own role should not be understated) achieved important results in relations with the Soviet Union, for example, and there can be no doubt that the opening to China — about which Kissinger was initially skeptical — stands as a high point of their diplomacy. Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy following the October 1973 war persuaded Egypt and Israel to commence direct negotiations and make genuine concessions. Underneath these efforts was a pronounced confidence on Kissinger's part about what vigorous and good-faith diplomacy can yield, even among and between staunch adversaries. On this he was surely correct; its a lesson today's policymakers should remember.

But there's also the darker side of Kissinger's years in power. His unshakable concentration on great-power politics and his predisposition to ignore smaller countries or to see them as inconsequential led him to pursue policies with often calamitous consequences — in all corners of the globe. On the war in Vietnam, there is room for disagreement about the options that he and Nixon had or did not have in 1969, about whether and when they adopted a "decent interval" strategy, and about whether the deal that resulted in the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 could have been had sooner. But overall, the scorecard is not impressive. Notwithstanding Kissinger's repeated claim that no responsible statesman would ever let domestic political concerns interfere with the conduct of foreign policy, the evidence (including from the White House tapes) makes clear that he and Nixon considered all Vietnam options through the lens of partisan politics and, later, the 1972 presidential election.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Logevall, Fredrik.“'My Mother Told Me Not to Speak Ill of the Dead': Political Experts on Henry Kissinger's Legacy.” Politico, November 30, 2023.

The Author