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Celebrated but controversial diplomat

Kissinger helped forge U.S. policy on Vietnam, China, Mideast

Henry Kissinger was a leading figure in U.S. foreign policy during the 1970s.
Henry Kissinger was a leading figure in U.S. foreign policy during the 1970s.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Few secretaries of state have been as prominent or controversial as Henry Kissinger, a German-born immigrant who dominated U.S. foreign policy during the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Kissinger, 79, was called back into public service Wednesday by President Bush, who appointed him chairman of an independent commission charged with investigating why the United States was not prepared for last year's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

"We will go where the facts lead us," Kissinger vowed, declaring that he would act in a nonpartisan fashion and not let "foreign policy considerations" impede the panel's investigation.

Michael Scardaville, a policy analyst for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, praised the selection of Kissinger to lead the 9/11 probe.

"He's an incredibly intelligent person," Scardaville said. "He's a great addition to look at how the pieces of the puzzle did or didn't come together, where the flaws were, and he'll do so without politicizing the commission."

Kissinger is no stranger to tough tasks. He was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Germany in 1923. Fifteen years later, the family fled the Nazis and settled in New York.

As national security adviser and later secretary of state under President Nixon, Kissinger focused on Vietnam, the Soviet Union, China and the Middle East.

The Nixon administration opened secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese but also increased the bombing of North Vietnam. Kissinger shared the Nobel Peace Prize with North Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho for the 1973 accords that ended the U.S. role in the Vietnam War.

Other successes including the "opening" of China, highlighted by Nixon's visit there in 1972, and his role in helping to negotiate a truce to the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the Middle East.

Henry Kissinger
Age: 79; born May 27, 1923, in Germany
Career highlights: U.S. secretary of state, 1973-1977; national security adviser, 1969-1975; shared the Nobel Peace Prize with North Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho; author, professor and Army veteran
Personal: As a child, fled Nazi Germany in 1938 with family to the United States; married to Nancy Marginnes; two adult children from previous marriage

After Nixon's resignation in 1974, Kissinger continued as secretary of state under President Ford, but his later years in government were marked by frustration.

Conservatives within the Republican Party objected to his "detente" approach with the Soviet Union, and South Vietnam was overrun by North Vietnam in 1975, despite the earlier peace accords.

His tenure as secretary of state was not without controversy. Many members of Congress objected to the secretiveness of the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy approach. And human rights activists assailed what they saw as Kissinger's neglect of human rights in other countries.

That criticism shadows him still. For example, on a trip to London in April, several hundred protesters denounced Kissinger as a war criminal because of his involvement in events in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Scardaville dismissed the criticism.

"Anytime you have a person of some stature, you're going to have people who don't like him for something or another," he said.

Since leaving government, Kissinger has advised business and international leaders through his company, Kissinger Associates, and has also hit the lecture circuit.

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