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Henry Kissinger’s ties to Harvard date back to the 1940s when he was a star student, then a young professor

Henry Kissinger, professor of government at Harvard University, in December 1968.Anonymous/Associated Press

Before his storied run as a diplomat and presidential adviser, Henry Kissinger, who died Wednesday at the age of 100, was a student and professor at Harvard University, earning widespread acclaim for his undergraduate thesis and later teaching government courses at his alma mater, which over the ensuing decades had a complicated relationship with the polarizing statesman.

Kissinger entered Harvard in 1947 and graduated summa cum laude three years later. His 383-page thesis, “The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee, and Kant,” gave rise to what became known as the “Kissinger rule,” which limited undergraduate dissertations to less than a third of that length.

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Kissinger’s work “provides great insight into the foundations of his worldview and his extraordinary career as the nation’s preeminent scholar-practitioner of foreign policy and world order,” according to the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

The dissertation examines the “political philosophies and intellectual perspectives that three scholars — Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and Immanuel Kant — respectively took towards the role of the individual in shaping the course of history,” the center said.

Kissinger also pursued graduate work at Harvard, earning his master’s degree in 1952 and a doctorate in 1954. He joined the faculty the same year, becoming an assistant professor of government and a full professor in 1962.

His doctoral thesis, “A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Restoration of Peace, 1812-22,″ became his second book, demonstrating a concern for the international balance of power that would profoundly shape his brand of diplomacy.

In January 1959, the US Junior Chamber of Commerce named the young Harvard professor one of the nation’s “10 most outstanding young men” of the previous year, the Globe reported at the time.

“The Chamber lifted one of its requirements for the award: that the nominee be present at the banquet to receive it — because Prof. Kissinger is in West Germany on an important Government mission,” the Globe reported.

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A decade later, his graduate students recalled him foisting a 16-page reading list on them at the start of an academic term, the Globe reported.

“At Harvard he learned to study power as a principle of order and a means to his own advancement,” according to a separate Globe profile in 1971.

His accolades notwithstanding, Kissinger did not always enjoy a harmonious relationship with Harvard.

After he left in 1969 to become President Nixon’s national security adviser, faculty and students issued such scathing criticisms of his policies in Vietnam and Cambodia that he turned down every opportunity to return to the school, including his 50th reunion.

“The blood of dead and homeless Indochinese is on Kissinger’s hands,” read an editorial in the Harvard Crimson in 1973, on the eve of his appointment as secretary of state.

But when he returned to campus in 2012 for a talk, the students in attendance welcomed Kissinger with rock-star treatment, rushing the stage to shake his hand, take his photo, and get his autograph. Only one protester — who appeared to be about 60 years old — was escorted by police from Kissinger’s talk, the Globe editorial board wrote at the time.

In his remarks, Kissinger said every US war since World War II had been waged with great enthusiasm until people discover their objectives can’t be met. Then the preoccupation becomes how to manage a withdrawal, as seen in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, he said. Kissinger predicted that if the United States acts cooperatively with other nations, especially China, many future conflicts could be avoided.

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He had been invited back to campus by Drew Faust, then Harvard’s president, as part of the university’s 375th birthday celebration.

“Henry Kissinger has played a central role in some of the most consequential US foreign policy matters of the past half-century,” Faust said at the time, according to the Harvard Gazette. “He continues to be a highly influential figure in thinking about global affairs, and he has ties to Harvard that extend back more than 65 years. His visit will provide an important opportunity for a Harvard audience to hear a figure of historic significance reflect on some of the most profound challenges facing the United States and the world.”

On Thursday, Larry Summers, another former Harvard president, praised Kissinger and said he’ll be missed.

“He was always extraordinarily generous towards me — an undiplomatic economist,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “His combination of intellectual brilliance, intense curiosity and human shrewdness is not something I expect to ever again encounter.”

Kissinger remained relevant long after his White House tenure, Summers said.

“For 47 years after leaving office Henry Kissinger stayed at the center of global events,” Summers wrote. “That must be a record. In my last conversation with him a few weeks ago he was totally engaged around the many threats facing Israel, and also very worried about the many threats to global order. RIP my friend.”

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US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, also a Harvard graduate, described Kissinger as a “lifelong student” who “anticipated and understood the forces changing our world, and helped us grapple with their implications.”

“Even in his tenth decade, he was as determined to look to the future as he was to the past,” Blinken said in a statement. “Few people were better students of history —and even fewer people did more to shape history — than Henry Kissinger.”

And Graham Allison, a former student of Kissinger’s who also served as dean of the Harvard Kennedy School from 1977 to 1989, told the Harvard Crimson that Kissinger could vie for the title of “greatest American statesman in the 20th century,” though he acknowledged Kissinger “made a lot of mistakes.”

“He opened my eyes to bigger questions of geopolitics, statecraft, and even war and peace — or what he would call the world order,” Allison told the Crimson.

Many denounced Kissinger for his role in the secret bombing of Cambodia and American interventions in other countries.

“Remembering all the lives Henry Kissinger destroyed with the terrible violence he unleashed in countries like Chile, Vietnam, Argentina, East Timor, Cambodia, and Bangladesh,” Congressman Jim McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, wrote on X. “I never understood why people revered him. I will never forgive or forget.”

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Jeremiah Manion and John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.