“Those were crucial moments in my life,” he told The Post. “I came from a situation in which I was part of a persecuted minority that had no civil rights that was obliged to live in isolation into a country where no matter where you were obliged to start, you had the vision of a better future and you were free to express yourself.”
“I wrote an essay when I first came here,” he continued. “I wrote that, of course, I missed the family and friends I was obliged to leave behind, but when I thought that I could walk across American streets with my head erect and without fear, and with the ability to have my own future, I was very happy to … join such a society.”
During our hour-long interview, Kissinger’s legendary eagerness to speak bluntly on any subject is clear with every sentence. It is an attribute that has earned him both admiration and infamy in the turbulent world of politics.
At 99, he hasn’t lost his step intellectually, not even remotely. He even has a new book out this month, “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy,” profiling six leaders who helped shape the turbulent post-WWII era. His voice is still gravely and carries thick traces of his German childhood, and his charm and humor are ever present.
Aside from living in America, Kissinger said his other great honor is being invited by every sitting president of the United States since Richard Nixon to meet in the White House “for conversations and discussions of foreign policy” — including Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump.
Neither Obama or Trump entered the presidency with much experience in geopolitical affairs, so both had to learn the process while in office, with each man bringing their personal traits to the table when dealing with a crisis, Kissinger said.
Of Obama, Kissinger said, “He brought to international affairs a concern about the developing world, and a high degree of personal intelligence, which were very effective traits.”
Of Obama’s successor, he said, “President Trump conveyed a characteristic of great decisiveness and very personal vibrancy. He was a unique phenomenon in American foreign policy.”
But his 50-year presidential meeting streak could yet be broken. So far, Joe Biden hasn’t sent him an invite.
“I knew Biden when he was a senator, but I have had no contact with him since he has been president,” Kissinger said matter of factly.
“I don’t think a president is required to ask me for my counsel,” he added. But if Biden ever did, Kissinger would want the president to find “a common definition of our dangers and of our purposes… Ending the Ukrainian War should be a major task.”
In May, Kissinger ruffled international feathers at the World Economic Forum in Davos when he argued that Ukraine should cede territory to make peace with Russia. Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess grandmaster and political activist, blasted Kissinger’s comments on Twitter, saying that, “Kissinger’s position is not merely immoral — if you care about such things — it’s been proved wrong over and over.”
Though Kissinger said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine violated key principles of international order, he is also concerned that an embarrassing defeat for Vladimir Putin would worsen Europe’s long-term stability.
He said he supports Biden in his efforts to prove that Russian aggression will ultimately fail. “I would, however, also say that thought should be given to what the world will look like after the war. [We should] not be in a position where the conflict becomes its own end.”
Kissinger is also critical about Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last August. The unilateral decision to hastily pull out after decades of occupying the country — leading to the deaths of 13 American service members — didn’t make sense because there wasn’t “significant pressure at the time” and it “undermined the American capacity to resist aggression around the world.”
Kissinger has been advising presidents since he was hired as a part-time consultant to John F. Kennedy’s National Security Council where his cultural knowledge of Germany and language skills were valued as a key asset in the early days of the Cold War.
As he heads into his 100th year, Kissinger still has a lot to say about the state of the world. For his book, he chose his six subjects with whom he had many personal interactions in his role as a national security advisor, including Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon and Maggie Thatcher.
Even after Nixon resigned from office in disgrace, Kissinger said he and the former president stayed very close. “We remained friends and saw each other frequently. When either of us took a foreign trip, we would meet and analyze what we had learned and compare it with the views of the other,” he said.
For a man of such lofty heights, who won the Nobel Prize for helping end the Vietnam War, Kissinger’s beginnings were beyond humble. Born in Bavaria in a Jewish home — the son of a homemaker and a school teacher — Kissinger and his family immigrated to the United States in September of 1938. By 1943 he was serving in the US Army. During his military service, he became a US citizen.
“I came here as a refugee and I worked from the age of 16 until I was drafted,” he said. “When I came back, I went to university and studied mostly history and philanthropy because I wanted to understand what contribution needed to be made, or I might make, to overcome the divisions that had characterized the world in which I grew up.”
Kissinger has been lucky enough to outlive almost everyone he once advised. He calls his longevity “wondrous” and gives credit to two people: “I chose my parents very well,” he said with a deep laugh.
His mother Paula — who never left the same Washington Heights apartment she moved to when she first arrived in America — passed away at the age of 97. His dad Louis was 95 at the time of his death. His younger brother Walter, who died last year, lived to the age of 96.
Kissinger and his second wife — Nancy Maginnes — have been married since 1974; he has two children with his first wife and five grandchildren.
His longevity certainly isn’t thanks to leading a stress-free life, he added.
“I had a lot of stress, but I believe when you live in stressful situations, it also gives you an opportunity to try to achieve something positive. And therefore, boredom was never part of my business. And I consider myself lucky to have been able to live the various lives that I’ve lived, and to meet the people that I did, and for me to live in this remarkable country.”
Even so, Kissinger said he is deeply worried about the state of the United States as well as the rest of the western world.
“In many of the democracies, the leaders are so obsessed and consumed by domestic politics that they have to put their effort on managing the day-to-day events without being able to shape them in the direction of a more peaceful and better world,” he said.
“When I was in office, there were only three major news channels on television. Today, there’s an unlimited number on the internet. Leaders have to spend a lot of their efforts dealing mechanically with the various means of communication that now exist, and which also tend to shape various opinions.”
He said he also worries that potentially great leaders won’t ever make it to the national stage because of today’s toxic environment, and if they do, they will be halted from ever forming a consensus on anything because of our divided environment.
Our current divisions are dangerous and very different than the rifts of the ’60s and ’70s, he said.
“In the divisions of the ’70s, people disagreed about the policy, but they didn’t challenge the nature of the country. Today the debate is about the worthiness of the country,” he said, on the same day that a bust of Abraham Lincoln and a plaque of the Gettysburg Address were removed from a Cornell University library following a complaint.
“For a society to meet the varied challenges that now present themselves, it is important that they have some confidence in each other,” he said. “They should not believe they’re in mortal conflict all the time with a significant element of the society.