5 Key Causes of World War I

Illustration by Hugo Lin. ThoughtCo.

  • M.A., History, University of Florida
  • B.A., History, University of Florida

World War I, known as the "war to end all wars," occurred between July 1914 and November 11, 1918. By the end of the war, over 17 million people had been killed, including over 100,000 American troops. While the causes of the war are infinitely more complicated than a simple timeline of events, and are still debated and discussed to this day, the list below provides an overview of the most frequently-cited events that led to war. 

Watch Now: 5 Causes of World War I

Mutual defense alliances.

Countries throughout the world have always made mutual defense agreements with their neighbors, treaties that could pull them into battle. These treaties meant that if one country was attacked, the allied countries were bound to defend them. Before World War 1 began, the following alliances existed:

  • Russia and Serbia
  • Germany and Austria-Hungary
  • France and Russia
  • Britain and France and Belgium
  • Japan and Britain

When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia got involved to defend Serbia. Germany, seeing that Russia was mobilizing, declared war on Russia. France was then drawn in against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Germany attacked France by marching through Belgium pulling Britain into war. Then Japan entered the war to support its British allies. Later, Italy and the United States would enter on the side of the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, etc.).


Imperialism is when a country increases their power and wealth by bringing additional territories under their control, usually without outright colonizing or resettling them. Before World War I, several European countries had made competing imperialistic claims in Africa and parts of Asia, making them points of contention. Because of the raw materials these areas could provide, tensions around which country had the right to exploit these areas ran high. The increasing competition and desire for greater empires led to an increase in confrontation that helped push the world into World War I.

As the world entered the 20th century, an arms race had begun, primarily over the number of each country's warships, and the increasing size of their armies—countries began training more and more of their young men to be prepared for battle. The warships themselves increased in size, number of guns, speed, method of propulsion, and quality armor, beginning in 1906 with Britain's HMS Dreadnought . Dreadnought   was soon out-classed as the Royal Navy and Kaiserliche Marine quickly expanded their ranks with increasingly modern and powerful warships. 

By 1914, Germany had nearly 100 warships and two million trained soldiers. Great Britain and Germany both greatly increased their navies in this time period. Further, in Germany and Russia particularly, the military establishment began to have a greater influence on public policy. This increase in militarism helped push the countries involved into war.


Much of the origin of the war was based on the desire of the Slavic peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina to no longer be part of Austria-Hungary but instead be part of Serbia. This specific essentially nationalistic and ethnic revolt led directly to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand , which was the event that tipped the scales to war.

But more generally, nationalism in many of the countries throughout Europe contributed not only to the beginning but to the extension of the war across Europe and into Asia. As each country tried to prove their dominance and power, the war became more complicated and prolonged.

Immediate Cause: Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The immediate cause of World War I that made the aforementioned items come into play (alliances, imperialism, militarism, and nationalism) was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand  of Austria-Hungary. In June 1914, a Serbian-nationalist terrorist group called the Black Hand sent groups to assassinate the Archduke. Their first attempt failed when a driver avoided a grenade thrown at their car. However, later that day a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke and his wife while they were driving through Sarajevo, Bosnia which was part of Austria-Hungary. They died of their wounds.

The assassination was in protest to Austria-Hungary having control of this region: Serbia wanted to take over Bosnia and Herzegovina. The assassination of Ferdinand led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia. When Russia began to mobilize to defend its alliance with Serbia, Germany declared war on Russia. Thus began the expansion of the war to include all those involved in the mutual defense alliances.

The War to End All Wars

World War I saw a change in warfare, from the hand-to-hand style of older wars to the inclusion of weapons that used technology and removed the individual from close combat. The war had extremely high casualties over 15 million dead and 20 million injured. The face of warfare would never be the same again.

  • Causes of World War I and the Rise of Germany
  • The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 1914
  • Biography of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria
  • The Causes and War Aims of World War One
  • World War I Timeline: 1914, The War Begins
  • World War 1: A Short Timeline Pre-1914
  • The Major Alliances of World War I
  • World War I: Opening Campaigns
  • The First Battle of the Marne
  • The Fourteen Points of Woodrow Wilson's Plan for Peace
  • The 17 Best Books on World War I
  • The Black Hand: Serbian Terrorists Spark WWI
  • The Consequences of World War I
  • Causes of World War II
  • World War I's Mitteleuropa

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World War I

By: History.com Editors

Updated: August 11, 2023 | Original: October 29, 2009

"I Have a Rendevous with Death."FRANCE - CIRCA 1916: German troops advancing from their trenches. (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

World War I, also known as the Great War, started in 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. His murder catapulted into a war across Europe that lasted until 1918. During the four-year conflict, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire (the Central Powers) fought against Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Canada, Japan and the United States (the Allied Powers). Thanks to new military technologies and the horrors of trench warfare, World War I saw unprecedented levels of carnage and destruction. By the time the war was over and the Allied Powers had won, more than 16 million people—soldiers and civilians alike—were dead.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Tensions had been brewing throughout Europe—especially in the troubled Balkan region of southeast Europe—for years before World War I actually broke out.

A number of alliances involving European powers, the Ottoman Empire , Russia and other parties had existed for years, but political instability in the Balkans (particularly Bosnia, Serbia and Herzegovina) threatened to destroy these agreements.

The spark that ignited World War I was struck in Sarajevo, Bosnia, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand —heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire—was shot to death along with his wife, Sophie, by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914. Princip and other nationalists were struggling to end Austro-Hungarian rule over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand set off a rapidly escalating chain of events: Austria-Hungary , like many countries around the world, blamed the Serbian government for the attack and hoped to use the incident as justification for settling the question of Serbian nationalism once and for all.

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Because mighty Russia supported Serbia, Austria-Hungary waited to declare war until its leaders received assurance from German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II that Germany would support their cause. Austro-Hungarian leaders feared that a Russian intervention would involve Russia’s ally, France, and possibly Great Britain as well.

On July 5, Kaiser Wilhelm secretly pledged his support, giving Austria-Hungary a so-called carte blanche, or “blank check” assurance of Germany’s backing in the case of war. The Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary then sent an ultimatum to Serbia, with such harsh terms as to make it almost impossible to accept.

World War I Begins

Convinced that Austria-Hungary was readying for war, the Serbian government ordered the Serbian army to mobilize and appealed to Russia for assistance. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the tenuous peace between Europe’s great powers quickly collapsed.

Within a week, Russia, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Serbia had lined up against Austria-Hungary and Germany, and World War I had begun.

The Western Front

According to an aggressive military strategy known as the Schlieffen Plan (named for its mastermind, German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen ), Germany began fighting World War I on two fronts, invading France through neutral Belgium in the west and confronting Russia in the east.

On August 4, 1914, German troops crossed the border into Belgium. In the first battle of World War I, the Germans assaulted the heavily fortified city of Liege , using the most powerful weapons in their arsenal—enormous siege cannons—to capture the city by August 15. The Germans left death and destruction in their wake as they advanced through Belgium toward France, shooting civilians and executing a Belgian priest they had accused of inciting civilian resistance. 

First Battle of the Marne

In the First Battle of the Marne , fought from September 6-9, 1914, French and British forces confronted the invading German army, which had by then penetrated deep into northeastern France, within 30 miles of Paris. The Allied troops checked the German advance and mounted a successful counterattack, driving the Germans back to the north of the Aisne River.

The defeat meant the end of German plans for a quick victory in France. Both sides dug into trenches , and the Western Front was the setting for a hellish war of attrition that would last more than three years.

Particularly long and costly battles in this campaign were fought at Verdun (February-December 1916) and the Battle of the Somme (July-November 1916). German and French troops suffered close to a million casualties in the Battle of Verdun alone.

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World War I Books and Art

The bloodshed on the battlefields of the Western Front, and the difficulties its soldiers had for years after the fighting had ended, inspired such works of art as “ All Quiet on the Western Front ” by Erich Maria Remarque and “ In Flanders Fields ” by Canadian doctor Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae . In the latter poem, McCrae writes from the perspective of the fallen soldiers:

Published in 1915, the poem inspired the use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance.

Visual artists like Otto Dix of Germany and British painters Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash and David Bomberg used their firsthand experience as soldiers in World War I to create their art, capturing the anguish of trench warfare and exploring the themes of technology, violence and landscapes decimated by war.

The Eastern Front

On the Eastern Front of World War I, Russian forces invaded the German-held regions of East Prussia and Poland but were stopped short by German and Austrian forces at the Battle of Tannenberg in late August 1914.

Despite that victory, Russia’s assault forced Germany to move two corps from the Western Front to the Eastern, contributing to the German loss in the Battle of the Marne.

Combined with the fierce Allied resistance in France, the ability of Russia’s huge war machine to mobilize relatively quickly in the east ensured a longer, more grueling conflict instead of the quick victory Germany had hoped to win under the Schlieffen Plan .

Russian Revolution

From 1914 to 1916, Russia’s army mounted several offensives on World War I’s Eastern Front but was unable to break through German lines.

Defeat on the battlefield, combined with economic instability and the scarcity of food and other essentials, led to mounting discontent among the bulk of Russia’s population, especially the poverty-stricken workers and peasants. This increased hostility was directed toward the imperial regime of Czar Nicholas II and his unpopular German-born wife, Alexandra.

Russia’s simmering instability exploded in the Russian Revolution of 1917, spearheaded by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks , which ended czarist rule and brought a halt to Russian participation in World War I.

Russia reached an armistice with the Central Powers in early December 1917, freeing German troops to face the remaining Allies on the Western Front.

America Enters World War I

At the outbreak of fighting in 1914, the United States remained on the sidelines of World War I, adopting the policy of neutrality favored by President Woodrow Wilson while continuing to engage in commerce and shipping with European countries on both sides of the conflict.

Neutrality, however, it was increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of Germany’s unchecked submarine aggression against neutral ships, including those carrying passengers. In 1915, Germany declared the waters surrounding the British Isles to be a war zone, and German U-boats sunk several commercial and passenger vessels, including some U.S. ships.

Widespread protest over the sinking by U-boat of the British ocean liner Lusitania —traveling from New York to Liverpool, England with hundreds of American passengers onboard—in May 1915 helped turn the tide of American public opinion against Germany. In February 1917, Congress passed a $250 million arms appropriations bill intended to make the United States ready for war.

Germany sunk four more U.S. merchant ships the following month, and on April 2 Woodrow Wilson appeared before Congress and called for a declaration of war against Germany.

Gallipoli Campaign

With World War I having effectively settled into a stalemate in Europe, the Allies attempted to score a victory against the Ottoman Empire, which entered the conflict on the side of the Central Powers in late 1914.

After a failed attack on the Dardanelles (the strait linking the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean Sea), Allied forces led by Britain launched a large-scale land invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula in April 1915. The invasion also proved a dismal failure, and in January 1916 Allied forces staged a full retreat from the shores of the peninsula after suffering 250,000 casualties.

Did you know? The young Winston Churchill, then first lord of the British Admiralty, resigned his command after the failed Gallipoli campaign in 1916, accepting a commission with an infantry battalion in France.

British-led forces also combated the Ottoman Turks in Egypt and Mesopotamia , while in northern Italy, Austrian and Italian troops faced off in a series of 12 battles along the Isonzo River, located at the border between the two nations.

Battle of the Isonzo

The First Battle of the Isonzo took place in the late spring of 1915, soon after Italy’s entrance into the war on the Allied side. In the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, also known as the Battle of Caporetto (October 1917), German reinforcements helped Austria-Hungary win a decisive victory.

After Caporetto, Italy’s allies jumped in to offer increased assistance. British and French—and later, American—troops arrived in the region, and the Allies began to take back the Italian Front.

World War I at Sea

In the years before World War I, the superiority of Britain’s Royal Navy was unchallenged by any other nation’s fleet, but the Imperial German Navy had made substantial strides in closing the gap between the two naval powers. Germany’s strength on the high seas was also aided by its lethal fleet of U-boat submarines.

After the Battle of Dogger Bank in January 1915, in which the British mounted a surprise attack on German ships in the North Sea, the German navy chose not to confront Britain’s mighty Royal Navy in a major battle for more than a year, preferring to rest the bulk of its naval strategy on its U-boats.

The biggest naval engagement of World War I, the Battle of Jutland (May 1916) left British naval superiority on the North Sea intact, and Germany would make no further attempts to break an Allied naval blockade for the remainder of the war.

World War I Planes

World War I was the first major conflict to harness the power of planes. Though not as impactful as the British Royal Navy or Germany’s U-boats, the use of planes in World War I presaged their later, pivotal role in military conflicts around the globe.

At the dawn of World War I, aviation was a relatively new field; the Wright brothers took their first sustained flight just eleven years before, in 1903. Aircraft were initially used primarily for reconnaissance missions. During the First Battle of the Marne, information passed from pilots allowed the allies to exploit weak spots in the German lines, helping the Allies to push Germany out of France.

The first machine guns were successfully mounted on planes in June of 1912 in the United States, but were imperfect; if timed incorrectly, a bullet could easily destroy the propeller of the plane it came from. The Morane-Saulnier L, a French plane, provided a solution: The propeller was armored with deflector wedges that prevented bullets from hitting it. The Morane-Saulnier Type L was used by the French, the British Royal Flying Corps (part of the Army), the British Royal Navy Air Service and the Imperial Russian Air Service. The British Bristol Type 22 was another popular model used for both reconnaissance work and as a fighter plane.

Dutch inventor Anthony Fokker improved upon the French deflector system in 1915. His “interrupter” synchronized the firing of the guns with the plane’s propeller to avoid collisions. Though his most popular plane during WWI was the single-seat Fokker Eindecker, Fokker created over 40 kinds of airplanes for the Germans.

The Allies debuted the Handley-Page HP O/400, the first two-engine bomber, in 1915. As aerial technology progressed, long-range heavy bombers like Germany’s Gotha G.V. (first introduced in 1917) were used to strike cities like London. Their speed and maneuverability proved to be far deadlier than Germany’s earlier Zeppelin raids.

By the war’s end, the Allies were producing five times more aircraft than the Germans. On April 1, 1918, the British created the Royal Air Force, or RAF, the first air force to be a separate military branch independent from the navy or army. 

Second Battle of the Marne

With Germany able to build up its strength on the Western Front after the armistice with Russia, Allied troops struggled to hold off another German offensive until promised reinforcements from the United States were able to arrive.

On July 15, 1918, German troops launched what would become the last German offensive of the war, attacking French forces (joined by 85,000 American troops as well as some of the British Expeditionary Force) in the Second Battle of the Marne . The Allies successfully pushed back the German offensive and launched their own counteroffensive just three days later.

After suffering massive casualties, Germany was forced to call off a planned offensive further north, in the Flanders region stretching between France and Belgium, which was envisioned as Germany’s best hope of victory.

The Second Battle of the Marne turned the tide of war decisively towards the Allies, who were able to regain much of France and Belgium in the months that followed.

The Harlem Hellfighters and Other All-Black Regiments

By the time World War I began, there were four all-Black regiments in the U.S. military: the 24th and 25th Infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry. All four regiments comprised of celebrated soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War and American-Indian Wars , and served in the American territories. But they were not deployed for overseas combat in World War I. 

Blacks serving alongside white soldiers on the front lines in Europe was inconceivable to the U.S. military. Instead, the first African American troops sent overseas served in segregated labor battalions, restricted to menial roles in the Army and Navy, and shutout of the Marines, entirely. Their duties mostly included unloading ships, transporting materials from train depots, bases and ports, digging trenches, cooking and maintenance, removing barbed wire and inoperable equipment, and burying soldiers.

Facing criticism from the Black community and civil rights organizations for its quotas and treatment of African American soldiers in the war effort, the military formed two Black combat units in 1917, the 92nd and 93rd Divisions . Trained separately and inadequately in the United States, the divisions fared differently in the war. The 92nd faced criticism for their performance in the Meuse-Argonne campaign in September 1918. The 93rd Division, however, had more success. 

With dwindling armies, France asked America for reinforcements, and General John Pershing , commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, sent regiments in the 93 Division to over, since France had experience fighting alongside Black soldiers from their Senegalese French Colonial army. The 93 Division’s 369 regiment, nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters , fought so gallantly, with a total of 191 days on the front lines, longer than any AEF regiment, that France awarded them the Croix de Guerre for their heroism. More than 350,000 African American soldiers would serve in World War I in various capacities.

Toward Armistice

By the fall of 1918, the Central Powers were unraveling on all fronts.

Despite the Turkish victory at Gallipoli, later defeats by invading forces and an Arab revolt that destroyed the Ottoman economy and devastated its land, and the Turks signed a treaty with the Allies in late October 1918.

Austria-Hungary, dissolving from within due to growing nationalist movements among its diverse population, reached an armistice on November 4. Facing dwindling resources on the battlefield, discontent on the homefront and the surrender of its allies, Germany was finally forced to seek an armistice on November 11, 1918, ending World War I.

Treaty of Versailles

At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Allied leaders stated their desire to build a post-war world that would safeguard itself against future conflicts of such a devastating scale.

Some hopeful participants had even begun calling World War I “the War to End All Wars.” But the Treaty of Versailles , signed on June 28, 1919, would not achieve that lofty goal.

Saddled with war guilt, heavy reparations and denied entrance into the League of Nations , Germany felt tricked into signing the treaty, having believed any peace would be a “peace without victory,” as put forward by President Wilson in his famous Fourteen Points speech of January 1918.

As the years passed, hatred of the Versailles treaty and its authors settled into a smoldering resentment in Germany that would, two decades later, be counted among the causes of World War II .

World War I Casualties

World War I took the lives of more than 9 million soldiers; 21 million more were wounded. Civilian casualties numbered close to 10 million. The two nations most affected were Germany and France, each of which sent some 80 percent of their male populations between the ages of 15 and 49 into battle.

The political disruption surrounding World War I also contributed to the fall of four venerable imperial dynasties: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Turkey.

Legacy of World War I

World War I brought about massive social upheaval, as millions of women entered the workforce to replace men who went to war and those who never came back. The first global war also helped to spread one of the world’s deadliest global pandemics, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 20 to 50 million people.

World War I has also been referred to as “the first modern war.” Many of the technologies now associated with military conflict—machine guns, tanks , aerial combat and radio communications—were introduced on a massive scale during World War I.

The severe effects that chemical weapons such as mustard gas and phosgene had on soldiers and civilians during World War I galvanized public and military attitudes against their continued use. The Geneva Convention agreements, signed in 1925, restricted the use of chemical and biological agents in warfare and remain in effect today.

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World History Project - Origins to the Present

Course: world history project - origins to the present   >   unit 7, read: what caused the first world war.

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  • BEFORE YOU WATCH: How World War I Started
  • WATCH: How World War I Started
  • READ: The First World War as a Global War
  • READ: World War I — A Total War
  • READ: The Mexican Revolution
  • READ: The Power of One — The Russian Revolution
  • BEFORE YOU WATCH: Armenian Genocide
  • WATCH: Armenian Genocide
  • READ: Capitalism and World War I
  • World War 1

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Second read: key ideas and understanding content.

  • Who killed Franz Ferdinand? Why did they kill him?
  • How did the European alliance system help start the war?
  • How did imperialism help start the war?
  • Why does the author argue that industrialization made the war inevitable once preparations were started?
  • How might the First World War have happened on accident?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

  • This article gives several examples of how transformations in the nineteenth century led to the war. Things like nationalism (communities frame), industrialization (production and distribution frame), and outdated diplomatic technology (networks frame) are blamed for the war. Can you think of any transformations during the nineteenth century that might have helped prevent war?

What Caused the First World War?

World war why, one shot: the assassination of archduke franz ferdinand, deeper trends: help me help you help me, accidental war: missed the memo, hit the target, want to join the conversation.

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causes of first world war essay

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Causes of World War One

What caused world war one.

When Britain entered the war in August 1914 the government proclaimed that it needed to honour a long standing commitment to protect Belgium. In the short term, this was indeed one of the spurs for British involvement but the underlying reasons for war stretched back over many years.

Wars occur when the aims and ambitions or the interests of countries clash and they are unable to resolve them peacefully. Events in the summer of 1914 may have sparked off the conflict but the long term factors were what propelled the great European powers into conflict.

What alliances were formed in the lead up to World War One?

  • Triple Entente : As Germany grew more powerful, the balance of power between the nations of Europe became unstable. In 1907 Britain, France and Russia signed the Triple Entente, an alliance designed to hem in a powerful Germany.
  • Triple Alliance : Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy signed the Triple Alliance in 1882.

The intention of these alliances was to act as a deterrent towards aggression. A country knew that to start a war would invite a response from an entire alliance.

However, if this deterrent did not work, it also ran the risk of dragging all the countries into a war, even if they were not directly involved in the initial events.

Militarism is the idea that a nation should increase the size of their army and military capabilities in order to protect or promote its interests. The Anglo-German Naval Race before World War One is an example of militarism.

At the time, Britain had the world’s strongest navy. The ruler of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm, wanted to build a navy that was bigger and stronger than Britain’s.

This started a naval and arms manufacturing race and further increased the tensions between the two nations. Britain was determined that Germany would not replace it as the dominant power.


Imperialism is the claiming of another territory as one’s own. In the 19th century this was seen as an acceptable practice by the European powers. Britain had an empire that covered one quarter of the world map and France had significant territories in Africa and Asia. Empire could increase trade and wealth and it also brought great prestige.

Germany wanted to rival Britain and France and have an empire of its own. The German leader, Kaiser Wilhelm, called this policy Weltpolitik . By the start of the 20th century much of Africa had already been seized, so German attempts to claim land could cause problems with other nations. An example of this was the 1905 crisis in Morocco when Germany attempted to undermine French control of the country.

The Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the countdown to war

With all these hostilities, alliances and rivalries spanning previous decades, you can start to see that there were multiple reasons and causes for WW1. So why was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists the spark for war?

To answer, we need to look at the decline of Austria-Hungary over the 19th century :

  • Austria-Hungary suffered a number of military defeats and began to lose strength as an empire.
  • The Austrian empire contained twelve different nationalities and fifteen different languages. Many of these people wanted their independence and had nationalist movements.
  • Serbia, and its supporter Russia, challenged the empire, particularly in Bosnia.
  • After the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary decided to issue an ultimatum and threats to Serbia. Crucially Germany agreed to support Austria-Hungary in this move. On 28th July Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia. Russia looked set to intervene and protect the Serbs.
  • Germany - knowing that its chance of victory lay in winning a swift, decisive victory - declared war on Russia on the 1st August and on France two days later.
  • On August 4th Germany invaded Belgium en route to France. Britain declared war at 11pm that evening.
  • The countries of Europe found that the alliances they had formed did not prevent war - it dragged them into it.

Those politicians that had opposed war clung to the hope that the workers of Europe would be reluctant to fight against each other in the war.

In fact, the opposite was true and the outbreak of war was met with great enthusiasm. Cheering crowds, caught up in waves of patriotism and national pride , rushed to join up.

Some felt that their country was superior to their opponents, others that it was their responsibility to protect the national interests.

This was fuelled by government propaganda that sought to portray the war as a matter of duty and depicted their cause as an honourable one. At the same time, they painted the enemy as the aggressor and an evil that needed to be confronted and defeated.

Test yourself

Causes of World War 1 Essay

causes of first world war essay

World War 1 Causes

a significant event however; the writer would argue it was not the major cause of World War 1. The writer would suggest that the major powers had been ready to go to war long before the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand. This was the spark that ignited the war. The writer would argue the major causes of World War I were nationalism, militarism, leadership, imperialism, colonialism and alliances. Nationalism is extreme patriotic feelings and beliefs over one’s own nation that shows a feeling of superiority over other nations, nationalism in Europe goes as far back as 1789 with the French Revolution but was spread further from The Napoleonic Wars in the early nineteenth century. This is…

Causes Of World War 1

that would lead to World War I otherwise known as “The Great War”. The five events made an acronym known as MANIA: Militarism, Alliances, Nationalism, Imperialism, Assassination. Militarism was the creation of armies, was the biggest problem in Germany, and other countries followed to have the strongest military. Alliances were a problem, but the main problem about them was secret alliances. Nationalism was a pride in one’s country and people were willing to fight for their national pride.…

Who or what caused World War I has been greatly debated by many historians. However, one thing we can all agree upon is that one of the primary factors that triggered the Great War in July 1914, was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by the Black Hand, a Serbian nationalist secret society, which served as an excuse for Austria Hungary to declare war on Serbia. Serbians…

World War I was also known as the First World War and was a global conflict centered in Europe. It involved nearly all the biggest powers of the world. There were several factors that led to this war that was fought from 1914 until 1918. Tension over foreign policy between the countries had been building and one thing continued to lead to another. During this time Austria-Hungary occupied Bosnia but Bosnia wanted to be its own independent country. So while the Prince of Austria-Hungary was…

What Are The Causes Of World War 1

World war 1 is a war that started in 1914 and ended in 1918, it was a war fought in Europe by France, Great Britain, Russia, Germany, The United States, Italy and Austria-Hungary. It was a very violent war and one of the major wars of history. Many expected the war to be short but it lasted for four years and took the lives of millions of people. There are many different events and causes that led to World War 1, there was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the rise…

Causes Of World War 1 Essay

Faryal khan Professor Graham US History 31 October 2017 Events that led to WW1 World War one , also known as great war started in 1914. Several countries like United States, Germany, Great Britain experienced devastation and an estimated number of 9 million lives were lost in this first man made calamity of 1900’s. United States first idea of staying out of war changed especially, when Germans attacked Lusitania and killed 120 Americans .This war helped United States economically and lead to an…

Cause Of World War 1 Essay

The beginning of World War 1 had several causes; Nationalism, Imperialism, Militarism and Alliances. Identify which two causes had the most significant impact and which had the least impact in your opinion. Use supporting evidence and examples to your opinion. Warning! Be careful not to write in first person and use words such as (I) A few of the causes of the first world war like imperialism and nationalism had the most significant impact in the beginning of World War 1, and others like…

Analyze The Causes Of World War 1

In World War 1, the most important cause were alliances because the alliances felt threatened or feared that the other alliance were getting countries to join them. Alliances means countries could be able to work together with their allies to have a stronger group and come to their country to give a hand if the country was attacked. Before World War 1 started, there was two different alliances. One alliance was the Triple Alliance also called the central power. The Triple Alliance were Germany,…

What were causes world war 1? If you ask that question some people might tell you to remember the word “main” which stands for militarism,alliances,imperialism and nationalism, why do they say to remember main? Because World War One revolved around those four words and were some major causes of it. For a state to be powerful it had to have a powerful army that way it could protect its interests and policies. Strong armies and navies were needed so they could defend their home and to protect…

Essay On The Causes Of World War 1

World War 1 also known as the Great war, was a global war that took place in Europe from 1914-1918. The war was expected to be short by many people, but ended up lasting more than four long terrible years, that caused disputes with many countries that took many lives such as soldiers and civilians. There were four underlying causes of the war that goes under the acronym M.A.I.N. This stands for Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism, and Nationalism. Militarism was one of the four major causes of…

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Home — Essay Samples — Sociology — Connection — Unveiling the Causes and Consequences of World War I


Unveiling The Causes and Consequences of World War I

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causes of first world war essay

First World War Issues and Causes Essay

How and why did the events of the late spring and summer of 1914 ultimately move beyond the ability of government leaders to control.

As a matter of fact, the events of the late spring and summer of 1914 went down in the history books as some of the major issues that would contribute to the First World War. The events occurred when pro-Serbian terrorists murdered the heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. However, what irritated Austria-Hungary most as far as this particular event is concerned was that it took place in a Province within Serbia.

The event would lead to the revelation of a number of secret alliances that had been taking place between some European nations, and this was evident from the manner in which countries within the region had responded to the matter. The events of the late spring and summer of 1914, which included the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, would probe Austro-Hungary to dispatch military troops into Serbia.

On July 28, 2014, almost a month after the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne had been assassinated, Austria-Hungarian government officially declared war on Serbia. This move by Austria-Hungary saw some powers in the continent rise against Serbia by sending their troops in the region. Other several countries who were allies to the powers would also fall in the fray, either in support of or against Serbia.

The invasion, which involved countries such as Germany, Russia, France, Belgium, and Great Britain, happened so fast that it ultimately moved beyond the ability of government leaders to control it (Gillette 49). As a result, these events played a significant role in setting the platform for World War I that would begin shortly afterwards. In this regard, the system of interlocking treaties or alliances between Europe nations was highly criticized for the spread of a global conflict from a localized problem.

As a matter of fact, government leaders of the involved countries could have intervened to stop the impending conflict, but their capabilities as far as the issue was concerned were highly limited for they were influenced by the terms of the alliances bonding them.

Considering the possible causes and events, was World War I inevitable? Why or why not? If inevitable, from what date or from what event was there no turning back?

The First World War was inevitable, considering the nature of the various events that had contributed to its eruption. As it would be observed, territorial, imperial, and economic rivalries leading to the war between the Allies and the Central Powers were all inevitable causes.

For example, there were various unavoidable and uncontrollable events that would take place between June 28, 1914 when Archduke Francis Ferdinand was killed, and August 2, 1914. Some of these events include the issuing of a blank check by Germany in July 23, declaration of war against Serbia by Austria-Hungary in July 28, declaration of war on Russia by Germany on August 1, and the order by Germany to Belgium informing it to declare access to their troops.

Apart from the above causes, the inevitability of the First World War was also observed in the system of alliances which existed among several nations across Europe. One outstanding fact about these alliances is that they were made in secret between the parties involved, and for that reason, they resulted into distrust among the European nations.

This general suspicion and distrust would make it impossible for diplomats in the entire region of Europe to come up with a permanent solution to the many issues that preceded the Great War. As a matter of fact, the treaties were always established in times when wars were imminent. In this regard, the alliances played a significant task in increasing the conflict tension, thus contributing to an arms race among the participants.

Based on the above observations about the events preceding the First World War, there was no turning back starting from June 28, 1914, when the assassination of the heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire took place in Serbia. The assassination had attracted the attention of at least six European countries that came up to express their support, either in favor of Serbia or Austria-Hungary. Each of the six powers had allies who would come to their assistance if they went into a warring event. However, all these participants harbored economic, imperialistic, and territorial tensions that were building up among themselves, thus necessitating the Great War.

Some of the biggest developments that were observed as the First World War unfurled include the trench warfare and the role of women in the war effort.

Trench warfare

This refers to the kind of fighting techniques that were used in the course of the War. As the war advanced, soldiers aligned to the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance adopted the practice of digging trenches that would protect them from their enemies. Trenches for opposing sides were secured using barbed wire and landmines that were buried beneath the soil.

The trenches usually had a depth of 2 meters and their wall surroundings were reinforced using dirt. The trenches were usually laid out in a zig zag pattern to ensure that soldiers were protected from missiles targeting the holes. The area separating the trenches of two opposing sides in a battlefield was referred to as a no man’s region. This area was usually a dangerous ground to trend on, since it separated two conflicting sides.

Life in the trenches was a bit harsh for the soldiers, considering the many unfavorable conditions that were associated with the holes, especially during rainy seasons. Moreover, there were no latrine or waste disposal zones and this made life more miserable for the warriors.

All this conditions made fighting in the underground holes hardly pleasant work for the soldiers. Apart from making life unpleasant, the trenches facilitated the spread of deadly diseases such as dysentery, trench foot, measles, trench influenza, and typhus among the fighters and their families.

The Role of Women in the War

The Great War brought great changes to every aspect of human life, including to the roles that were played by women in the society. While some women would adopt a strong anti-war position, others, especially those who came from the warring zones, threw their patriotic weight behind their male counterparts.

As it would be observed, females made major contributions to the war effort in a number of ways (Braybon 75). For instance, they took over men’s roles in arsenals, firearm factories, and government dockyards where they assisted in ensuring that ammunition and other war materials were safely delivered to soldiers in various parts of the world. Based on these facts, the contribution of women to the war effort cannot be overestimated.

What finally brought this war to an end?

The First World War would go on for four consecutive years, before coming to an end in November 1918. Apart from causing unprecedented damage across the world, this global conflict also claimed more than 10 millions lives worldwide. The Great War was finally terminated when Germany and the Allied powers completed negotiations on the terms of peace by putting their signatures on the Treaty of Versailles.

The Germans had become weak in the war following the diminishing support of their ailing supporters and exhaustion of war resources, among other reasons. The Germans could not bear the circumstances any longer, and were therefore forced to seek armistice with the Allies in November, 1918.

Works Cited

Braybon, Gail. Women Workers in the First World War , United Kingdom: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Gillette, Aaron. “Why Did They Fight the Great War? A Multi-Level Class Analysis of the Causes of the First World War.” The History Teacher 40. 1 (2006): 45-58. Print.

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This essay will examine the causes of World War I. It will explore the complex web of political, military, and cultural factors that led to the outbreak of the war, including nationalism, militarism, alliances, and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. PapersOwl showcases more free essays that are examples of Conflicts.

  • Conflicts , Imperialism , Military , World War 1

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At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the world was seething with an explosive, hair-trigger force waiting to explode. Capitalism was undergoing a transition to imperialism. The world’s territory was divided among the world’s most powerful nations. Colonies were scattered throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The struggle between the new empires and the old ones was getting larger and larger.

Militarism is when a country develops strong military and advanced technological weapons to pursue its own interests aggressively. This tactic highlights the national status and is a means to protect, expand, and intervene in territorial disputes as needed. During this time, nations raced to create advanced-power weapons and get them into the hands of their soldiers, a competition referred to as an arms race. Nations were investing in the idea that a strong military indicated a strong country, and those with the most progressive technology and efficient troops were perceived as the most powerful adversaries.) Before World War I, the most drastic forced competition was between Great Britain and Germany, respectively, showing their supremacy in military powers. This embrace of militarism, while not unique to these countries, also meant other nations were prepared for warfare.

In the early 20th Century, Great Britain possessed the strongest naval forces of developed nations. The battle-hardened British Navy helped Great Britain conquer a quarter of the world’s landmass. In 1889, the British Parliament passed the “Naval Defense Act,” which effectively doubled the size of the established British navy and established its size as even larger than the next two competing nation’s navy’s combined, with 62 warships of over 5,000 tons possessed by the British Navy, while the Germans had only 12.

Britain saw Germany as a potential military threat and continued to intensify its efforts to develop its military, especially the Navy. This was largely due to Germany’s leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who believed that formidable military strength would bring Germany untold prestige and power, firmly planting it as a center of European power. Germany passed the First Fleet Act in 1898, authorizing it to divert time and energy toward the development of a strong, competitive Navy.

Technological advancements followed suit, and Britain acquired new steel battleships, significant upgrades from previous wooden ones. The most imposing style was the steel ship the Dreadnought, equipped with 12-inch guns. Countries immediately aspired to create this new type of fearsome sea weapon. In 1914, Britain was the global leader in naval personnel, with 209,000 soldiers and 29 Dreadnought battleships. Meanwhile, Germany took second place with 79,000 soldiers and 17 Dreadnought ships but ultimately grew to have 38 of the fearsome ships.

Germany set Britain as a military target and then attempted to catch up with it. Germany Kaiser Wilhelm II believed that formidable military strength will bring Germany prestige and power. Meanwhile, Germany will be received respect from other European nations. If Germany could not possess powerful troops and advanced weapons, there would be no place and no discourse power for Germany in many European countries. Wilhelm II’s call boosted the passing of The German First Naval Law in 1898. The law claimed to begin the process of building a powerful navy.

After that, the second law required double the size of the German Navy from 19 battleships to 38. Wilhelm II’s encouragement supported the improvement of naval forces: “Germany is a young and growing empire. She has worldwide commerce, which is rapidly expanding and to which the legitimate ambition of Patriotic Germans refuses to assign any bounds. Germany must have a powerful fleet to protect that commerce and her manifold interests in even the most distant seas. She expects those interests to go on growing, and she must be able to champion them manfully in any quarter of the globe”. Moreover, Germany had the most powerful army, the Prussian army, which defended itself against the French in 1871, and the victory made them the most dangerous and effective military force in Europe. (Cleary)

The national governments of many European nations constantly instilled militarism into people’s minds, regarding leaders as heroes, advocating officers, and glorifying and romanticizing militarism. The nations permeated this idea into every corner. A strong military force could bring them prestige, protection, expansion, and improvement of the economy. Fighting, then, rather than negotiations, seemed to be the most reasonable method for resolving international conflict.

Militarism cannot begin a war alone. In order to succeed, nations need to form alliances. An alliance is an agreement of two or more countries in regard to political, military, or economic cooperation. European countries had many alliances before World War I, though they were often short-lived. Some were due to the emergence of new leaders or the replacement of old alliances with new ones. Some were due to the collapse of the countries or the betrayals between nations. Europe, the melting pot of ethnic and territorial disputes, is a place where change was possible and was happening fast.

One example of these fluid alliances was in 1873 with the Three Emperors’ League. Germany, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Within five years, Russia pulled out of the league to attend to its own national conflicts, and the league officially collapsed in 1878. Germany and Austria-Hungary formed The Dual Alliance in 1879, eventually adding Italy and becoming the Triple Alliance in 1882, allowing all three nations to support one another. In response, the Franco-Russian Alliance emerged, partnering with France and Russia in 1894.

Military alliances usually require signatory nations to support each other when they have wars with other countries, showing up in battle or with financial support, aligning against shared common enemies. Britain, Russia, and France overcame cultural differences and historical tensions to form a new alliance, the Triple Entente, in 1907. Britain was hoping to achieve victory in their arms race against Germany, while France was attempting to recapture provinces that had been previously ceded to Germany, uniting the two nations.

Additionally, Russia was still fighting with Austria-Hungary for control of the Balkan territory. These intertwined conflicts and disputes divided Europe into two major alliances, which lit the fuse of the bomb of World War I that followed. “The alliances created an excessively rigid diplomatic framework, within which relatively small detonators could produce huge explosions,” said A. J. P. Taylor, an English historian who specialized in 19th- and 20th-century European diplomacy. (European History)

The third contributing factor to World War I is Imperialism, loosely defined as using military might and force to overtake or influence other nations.s. Usually, colonies were controlled by the imperial nation or governed by a local puppet government. Military troops stationed locally in aid of maintaining order and suppressing rebellions. Colonization allowed imperial nations to acquire abundant resources, cheap laborers, and advantages of trade or commerce.

Before World War I, Great Britain was the largest and wealthiest dominant imperial power in the world. It possessed a quarter of the global landmass and was called “the empire on which the sun never sets” due to its immense size. Britain had colonies on every continent except Antarctica. The British Empire’s imperialism focused on expanding and maintaining trade. It used the colonies as factories to provide its home country with raw materials and manufactured goods as well as cheap labor. France maintained colonies in what are modern-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, some islands in the Pacific and Caribbean, small territories in South America, and areas of West Africa and India. German colonies included one province in China, Shandong)New Guinea, Samoa, numerous Pacific islands, and several areas in central and southwest Africa.

Before World War I, as empires grew stronger and larger, the competition between them also became fierce as they clamored for land, power, and money Germany and Italy were two relative newcomers to empire-building. When they first joined this imperial group, they found out much of the world’s land was controlled by their European neighbors. As such, Germany plotted to invade and take control of large swaths of East Africa. Within six years of their imperial outset, Germany controlled much of the region and established the German East Africa Company. However, the British and French Empires reckoned that Germany had threatened their holdings in Eastern Africa, increasing European tensions and conflicts.

The scramble for empire in Africa caused diplomatic incidents. One such conflict happened in Morocco in North-West Africa. Although Morocco was not a colony of France, its location of Morocco led it to be influenced by France’s control. France was trying to expand its rule in Morocco, but the German Kaiser stirred up tensions between France and Morocco by giving a speech that encouraged Moroccan independence. This had angered the French government and sparked wrathful diplomatic actions. When France attempted to suppress a revolt in Morocco, the German troops attacked an armed vessel at the Moroccan port of Agadir. Germany’s provocation almost touched off the war. Another event that made the European situation become unstable and intense. The decline of the Ottoman Empire attracted tensions of other European nations. After several failed wars, the Ottoman Empire almost collapsed. Other empires were eager to gain territory and influence in this dying empire. Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France, and Britain all had colonial and trade interests in this region, leading to increased nationalism as they clamored to gain power.

Nationalism is when a country puts its own interests above all. It inspires citizens’ patriotism and a sense of national honor. Nationalism is the most significant contributor to World War I as it permeates militarism, alliances, and even imperialism. Nationalism is the base that triggers these three reasons. Countries pursued military strength and competed due to this nationalistic belief that they were superior to other neighboring nations. However, Nationalism is not relegated only to the matters of weapons.

Nationalism persuades people that their country is supreme in military, economic, and cultural aspects and is often displayed through music, visual arts, literature, and even theater. In a bid to convince people that their own countries are supreme, literature usually included libel or grand falsified statements to shed their opponents in a negative light.

Nationalism made countries excessively confident and gave them the illusion of military strength. Countries all believed their own military capacity was the best. The British were proud of the country’s naval power and developed economy. The French reckoned that they had solid defenses to block the attack of other nations. In Russia, the emperor believed he and his empire were under divine protection. They had the largest land force, which contained 1.5 million men, and their massive population made the country believe it would defeat other smaller countries easily. Germany’s advantages were shown in its developed advanced military weapons and increasing battleships and U-boats. The Germans believed their Schlieffen Plan would be effective and successful. (Nationalism)

The combination of the fuel of independence and nationalism was powerful, and the “Black Hand” group made a drastic decision that would change the direction of international relations forever – they assassinated the heir to the Austria-Hungary throne, Franz Ferdinand. The assassination of Archduke Frank Ferdinand by the Black Hand in Sarajevo directly led to the outbreak of World War I as nations scrambled to support their ally countries and vested interests abroad.

The essay on the causes of World War 1 highlighted that the four causes are closely related. A single reason is not enough to cause a Great War between several nations or between two alliances, though nationalism seems to be the most powerful. However, when these factors come together, they increase the possibility of war. Nationalism played the most important role in this because it led to military competition, land expansion, and cliques.

There were various factors that contributed to Germany’s decision to start WWI, including territorial ambitions, frustration with the Treaty of Versailles, and a belief in their own superiority. Germany sought to expand its empire and viewed itself as deserving of more power and land. Additionally, they presumed they could win the war quickly and simply, further fueling their desire to take action.

The primary causes of World War I were militarism, alliances, and imperialism. Militarism refers to the belief that a powerful military is crucial for a nation’s security. Alliances are pacts between nations to support each other in case of war. Imperialism denotes the desire to extend a nation’s authority and influence by acquiring additional territories.

To write about World War 1 in an essay, one must understand that it was a catastrophic global conflict that caused immense loss of life and lasted over four years. It commenced in 1914 following a chain of events that prompted various nations worldwide to mobilize their forces. Ultimately, the Allied Powers emerged triumphant over the Central Powers in 1918 to end the war.

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Henry Kissinger Is Dead at 100; Shaped the Nation’s Cold War History

The most powerful secretary of state of the postwar era, he was both celebrated and reviled. His complicated legacy still resonates in relations with China, Russia and the Middle East.

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A color portrait of Henry A. Kissinger in a dark suit jacket, white shirt and striped tie, his right hand pressed against his chin. A wall map of the world fills the space behind him.

By David E. Sanger

David E. Sanger covers the White House and national security. He interviewed Henry Kissinger many times and traveled to Europe, Asia and the Middle East to examine his upbringing and legacy.

Henry A. Kissinger, the scholar-turned-diplomat who engineered the United States’ opening to China, negotiated its exit from Vietnam, and used cunning, ambition and intellect to remake American power relationships with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, sometimes trampling on democratic values to do so, died on Wednesday at his home in Kent, Conn. He was 100.

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His death was announced in a statement by his consulting firm.

Few diplomats have been both celebrated and reviled with such passion as Mr. Kissinger. Considered the most powerful secretary of state in the post-World War II era, he was by turns hailed as an ultrarealist who reshaped diplomacy to reflect American interests and denounced as having abandoned American values, particularly in the arena of human rights, if he thought it served the nation’s purposes.

He advised 12 presidents — more than a quarter of those who have held the office — from John F. Kennedy to Joseph R. Biden Jr. With a scholar’s understanding of diplomatic history, a German-Jewish refugee’s drive to succeed in his adopted land, a deep well of insecurity and a lifelong Bavarian accent that sometimes added an indecipherable element to his pronouncements, he transformed almost every global relationship he touched.

At a critical moment in American history and diplomacy, he was second in power only to President Richard M. Nixon. He joined the Nixon White House in January 1969 as national security adviser and, after his appointment as secretary of state in 1973, kept both titles, a rarity. When Nixon resigned, he stayed on under President Gerald R. Ford.

Mr. Kissinger’s secret negotiations with what was then still called Red China led to Nixon’s most famous foreign policy accomplishment. Intended as a decisive Cold War move to isolate the Soviet Union, it carved a pathway for the most complex relationship on the globe, between countries that at Mr. Kissinger’s death were the world’s largest (the United States) and second-largest economies, completely intertwined and yet constantly at odds as a new Cold War loomed.

For decades he remained the country’s most important voice on managing China’s rise, and the economic, military and technological challenges it posed. He was the only American to deal with every Chinese leader from Mao to Xi Jinping. In July, at age 100, he met Mr. Xi and other Chinese leaders in Beijing, where he was treated like visiting royalty even as relations with Washington had turned adversarial.

He drew the Soviet Union into a dialogue that became known as détente, leading to the first major nuclear arms control treaties between the two nations. With his shuttle diplomacy, he edged Moscow out of its standing as a major power in the Middle East, but failed to broker a broader peace in that region.

Over years of meetings in Paris, he negotiated the peace accords that ended the American involvement in the Vietnam War, an achievement for which he shared the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize. He called it “peace with honor,” but the war proved far from over, and critics argued that he could have made the same deal years earlier, saving thousands of lives.

Within two years, North Vietnam had overrun the American-backed South. It was a humiliating end to a conflict that from the beginning Mr. Kissinger had doubted the United States could ever win.

To his detractors, the Communist victory was the inevitable conclusion of a cynical policy that had been intended to create some space between the American withdrawal from Vietnam and whatever came next. Indeed, in the margins of the notes for his secret trip to China in 1971, Mr. Kissinger scribbled, “We want a decent interval,” suggesting he simply sought to postpone the fall of Saigon.

But by the time that interval was over, Americans had given up on the Vietnam project, no longer convinced that the United States’ strategic interests were linked to that country’s fate.

As was the case with Vietnam, history has judged some of his Cold War realism in a harsher light than it was generally portrayed at the time. With an eye fixed on the great power rivalry, he was often willing to be crudely Machiavellian, especially when dealing with smaller nations that he often regarded as pawns in the greater battle.

He was the architect of the Nixon administration’s efforts to topple Chile’s democratically elected Socialist president, Salvador Allende.

He has been accused of breaking international law by authorizing the secret carpet-bombing of Cambodia in 1969-70, an undeclared war on an ostensibly neutral nation.

His objective was to root out the pro-Communist Vietcong forces that were operating from bases across the border in Cambodia, but the bombing was indiscriminate: Mr. Kissinger told the military to strike “anything that flies or anything that moves.” At least 50,000 civilians were killed.

When Pakistan’s U.S.-backed military was waging a genocidal war in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971, he and Nixon not only ignored pleas from the American consulate in East Pakistan to stop the massacre, but they approved weapons shipments to Pakistan, including the apparently illegal transfer of 10 fighter-bombers from Jordan.

Mr. Kissinger and Nixon had other priorities: supporting Pakistan’s president, who was serving as a conduit for Kissinger’s then-secret overtures to China. Again, the human cost was horrific: At least 300,000 people were killed in East Pakistan and 10 million refugees were driven into India.

In 1975, Mr. Kissinger and President Ford secretly approved the invasion of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor by Indonesia’s U.S.-backed military. After the loss of Vietnam, there were fears that East Timor’s leftist government could also go Communist.

Mr. Kissinger told Indonesia’s president that the operation needed to succeed quickly and that “it would be better if it were done after we returned” to the United States, according to declassified documents from Mr. Ford’s presidential library . More than 100,000 East Timorese were killed or starved to death.

Mr. Kissinger dismissed critics of these moves by saying that they did not face the world of bad choices he did. But his efforts to snuff out criticism with sarcastic one-liners only inflamed it.

“The illegal we do immediately,” he quipped more than once. “The unconstitutional takes a little longer.”

On at least one potentially catastrophic stance Mr. Kissinger later reversed himself.

Starting in the mid-1950s as a young Harvard professor, he argued for the concept of limited nuclear war — a nuclear exchange that could be contained to a specific region. In office, he worked extensively on nuclear deterrence — convincing an adversary, for instance, that there was no way to launch a nuclear strike without paying an unacceptably high price.

But he later conceded that it might be impossible to prevent a limited nuclear war from escalating. By the end of his life he had embraced, with reservations, a new effort to gradually eliminate all nuclear weapons and, at age 95, he began to warn of the instability posed by the rise of weapons driven by artificial intelligence .

“All I can do in the few years left of me is to raise these issues,” he said in 2018. “I don’t pretend to have the answers.”

Mr. Kissinger remained influential to the end. His latest writings on managing a rising China — including “On China” (2011), a 600-page book that mixed history with self-reverential anecdotes — could be found on the bookshelves of West Wing national security aides who followed him.

Relevant Into His 90s

Fifty years after he joined the Nixon administration, Republican candidates still sought Mr. Kissinger’s endorsement and presidents sought his approval. Even Donald J. Trump, after lambasting the Republican establishment, visited him during his 2016 campaign in the hope that the mere image of his seeking Mr. Kissinger’s advice would convey gravitas. (It yielded a New Yorker cartoon in which Mr. Kissinger is shown with a thought-bubble above his head reading, “I miss Nixon.”)

Mr. Kissinger laughed about the fact that Mr. Trump could not name, when New York Times reporters asked, a single new idea or initiative that he had taken away from the meeting. “He’s not the first person I’ve advised who either didn’t understand what I was saying or didn’t want to,” he said. Still, once in office, Mr. Trump used him as a back channel to the Chinese leadership.

President Barack Obama, who was 7 years old when Mr. Kissinger first took office, was less enamored of him. Mr. Obama noted toward the end of his presidency that he had spent much of his tenure trying to repair the world that Mr. Kissinger left. He saw Mr. Kissinger’s failures as a cautionary tale.

“We dropped more ordnance on Cambodia and Laos than on Europe in World War II,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with The Atlantic in 2016, “and yet, ultimately, Nixon withdrew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaughter and authoritarian governments that finally, over time, have emerged from that hell.”

Mr. Obama noted that while in office he was still trying to help countries “remove bombs that are still blowing off the legs of little kids.”

“In what way did that strategy promote our interests?” he said.

Few figures in modern American history remained so relevant for so long as Mr. Kissinger. Well into his 90s he kept speaking and writing, and charging astronomical fees to clients seeking his geopolitical analysis.

While the protesters at his talks dwindled, the very mention of his name could trigger bitter arguments. To his admirers, he was the brilliant architect of Pax Americana, the chess grandmaster who was willing to upend the board and inject a measure of unpredictability into American diplomacy.

To his detractors — and even some friends and former employees — he was vain, conspiratorial, arrogant and short-tempered, a man capable of praising a top aide as indispensable while ordering the F.B.I. to illegally tap his home phones to see if he was leaking to the press.

The irony was not lost on two generations of reporters, who knew that if they were looking for leaks — usually self-interested ones — Mr. Kissinger, a master of the art, was a ready source. “If anybody leaks in this administration, I will be the one to leak,” he said. And he did, prodigiously.

To read Mr. Kissinger’s laudatory 1957 book analyzing the world order created by Prince Klemens von Metternich of Austria, who led the Austrian empire in the post-Napoleonic era, is also to read something of a self-description, particularly when it came to the ability of a single leader to bend nations to his will.

“He excelled at manipulation, not construction,” Mr. Kissinger said of Metternich. “He preferred the subtle maneuver to the frontal attack.”

That style was demonstrated during the Nixon years as the Watergate scandal unfolded. Increasingly isolated, Nixon often turned to Mr. Kissinger, the undiminished star of his administration, for reassurance and a recitation of his greatest achievements.

He would oblige. The Watergate tapes revealed Mr. Kissinger spending humiliating hours listening to the president’s harangues, including antisemitic comments delivered to his Jewish secretary of state. Mr. Kissinger often responded with flattery. After returning to his office, he would roll his eyes as he told his closest colleagues about Nixon’s bizarre behavior.

Leaks and Paranoia

Mr. Kissinger was not involved in the Watergate affair. Yet the break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee by a White House team of burglars and the administration’s attempts to cover up the crime emerged from a culture of suspicion and secretiveness that many argue he helped foster.

In the spring of 1969, soon after taking office, he was so enraged by the leaks behind a Times report on the Cambodia bombing campaign that he ordered the F.B.I. to tap the phones of more than a dozen White House aides, including members of his own staff. The recordings never turned up a culprit.

He was similarly infuriated by the publication of the Pentagon Papers in The Times and The Washington Post in 1971. The classified documents chronicled the government’s war policies and planning in Vietnam, and leaking them, in his view, jeopardized his secret face-to-face diplomacy. His complaints helped inspire the creation of the White House burglary team, the leak-plugging Plumbers unit that would later break into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate building.

In August 1974, as Nixon reconciled himself to the choice between impeachment and resignation, he drew Mr. Kissinger into one of the most operatic moments in White House history. Having told Mr. Kissinger that he intended to resign, a distraught Nixon asked his secretary of state to kneel with him in silent prayer outside the Lincoln Sitting Room.

Yet, as Nixon sank deeper into Watergate, Mr. Kissinger attained a global prominence few of his successors have matched.

Aides described his insights as brilliant and his temper ferocious. They told stories of Mr. Kissinger throwing books across his office in towering rages, and of a manipulative streak that led even his most devoted associates to distrust him.

“In dealing with other people he would forge alliances and conspiratorial bonds by manipulating their antagonisms,” Walter Isaacson wrote in his comprehensive 1992 biography, “Kissinger,” a book its subject despised.

“Drawn to his adversaries with a compulsive attraction, he would seek their approval through flattery, cajolery and playing them off against others,” Mr. Isaacson observed. “He was particularly comfortable dealing with powerful men whose minds he could engage. As a child of the Holocaust and a scholar of Napoleonic-era statecraft, he sensed that great men as well as great forces were what shaped the world, and he knew that personality and policy could never be fully divorced. Secrecy came naturally to him as a tool of control. And he had an instinctive feel for power relationships and balances, both psychological and geostrategic.”

In old age, when the hard edges had been filed down and old rivalries had receded or been buried along with his former adversaries, Mr. Kissinger would sometimes talk about the comparative dangers of the global order he had shaped and a far more disorderly world facing his successors.

There was something fundamentally simple, if terrifying, in the superpower conflicts he navigated. He never had to deal with terrorist groups like Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, or a world in which nations use social media to manipulate public opinion and cyberattacks to undermine power grids and communications.

“The Cold War was more dangerous,” Mr. Kissinger said in a 2016 appearance at the New-York Historical Society. “Both sides were willing to go to general nuclear war.” But, he added, “today is more complex.”

The great-power conflict had changed dramatically from the cold peace he had tried to engineer. No longer ideological, it was purely about power. And what worried him most, he said, was the prospect of conflict with “the rising power” of China as it challenged the might of the United States.

Russia, in contrast, was “a diminished state,” and no longer “capable of achieving world domination,” he said in a 2016 Times interview in Kent, in northwest Connecticut, where he kept a second home. His primary residence was in Manhattan.

Yet he warned against underestimating Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian leader. Making reference to Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto, he said: “In order to understand Putin, one has to read Dostoyevsky, not ‘Mein Kampf.’ He believes Russia was cheated, that we keep taking advantage of it.”

Mr. Kissinger took some satisfaction in the fact that Russia was a lesser threat. After all, he had concluded the first strategic arms agreement with Moscow and steered the United States toward accepting the Helsinki Accords, the 1975 compact on European security that obtained some rights of expression for Soviet bloc dissidents. In retrospect, it was one of the droplets that turned into the river that swept away Soviet Communism.

Man About Town

At the height of his power, Mr. Kissinger cut a figure that no Washington diplomat has matched since. The pudgy, short Harvard professor with nerdy black glasses was seen in the Washington neighborhood of Georgetown and Paris with starlets on his arm, joking that “power is the greatest aphrodisiac.”

In New York restaurants with the actress Jill St. John, he would hold hands or run his fingers through her hair, giving gossip columnists a field day. In fact, as Ms. St. John told biographers, the relationship had been close but platonic.

So were others. One woman who dated him and returned to his small rented apartment on the edge of Rock Creek Park in Washington — with its single bed for sleeping and another that held a mass of laundry — reported that between the mess and the presence of aides, “you couldn’t do anything romantic in that place even if you were dying to.”

The joke in Washington was that Mr. Kissinger flaunted his private life to hide what he was doing at the office.

There was plenty to hide, notably the secret meetings in Beijing that carved out Nixon’s opening to China. When the turn toward China ultimately became public, it changed the strategic calculus of American diplomacy and shocked American allies.

“It’s almost impossible to imagine what the American relationship with the world’s most important rising power would look like today without Henry,” Graham Allison, a Harvard professor who once worked for Mr. Kissinger, said in an interview in 2016.

Other Kissinger efforts yielded mixed results. Through tireless shuttle diplomacy at the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Mr. Kissinger was able to persuade Egypt to begin direct talks with Israel, an opening wedge to the later peace agreement between the two nations.

But perhaps the most important diplomatic contribution Mr. Kissinger made was his sidelining of Moscow in the Middle East for four decades, until Mr. Putin ordered his air force to enter the Syrian civil war in 2015.

Mr. Kissinger’s greatest failures came in his seeming indifference to the democratic struggles of smaller nations. Oddly, a man driven from his country as a boy by the rise of the Nazis seemed unperturbed by human rights abuses by governments in Africa, Latin America, Indonesia and elsewhere. Nixon’s Oval Office tapes showed that Mr. Kissinger was more concerned with keeping allies in the anti-Communist camp than with how they treated their own people.

For decades he would battle, often unconvincingly, accusations that he had turned a blind eye to human rights abuses. Perhaps the most egregious episode came in the signals to Pakistan that it was free to deal with Bengalis in East Pakistan as it saw fit.

In “The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide” (2013), the Princeton scholar Gary J. Bass depicts Mr. Kissinger ignoring warnings of an impending genocide, including those from the American consul general in East Pakistan, Archer Blood, whom he punished as disloyal.

In the Oval Office tapes, “Kissinger sneered at people who ‘bleed’ for ‘the dying Bengalis,’” Professor Bass wrote.

Divorced in 1964 after a 15-year marriage to Ann Fleischer, Mr. Kissinger married Nancy Maginnes in 1974 and moved to her home in Manhattan. Ms. Maginnes was then working for Nelson A. Rockefeller, the former New York governor and a friend and ally of Mr. Kissinger’s.

Mr. Kissinger never resumed teaching after leaving government service. But he continued to write at a pace that embarrassed his former academic colleagues for their relative slowness.

He produced three volumes of memoirs filling 3,800 pages: “The White House Years,” which focused on Nixon’s first term, 1969-73; “Years of Upheaval,” which dealt with the next two years; and finally “Years of Renewal,” which covered the Ford presidency. “World Order,” published in 2014, was something of a valedictory assessment of geopolitics in the second decade of the 21st century. In it, he expressed worry about America’s capacity for leadership.

“After withdrawing from three wars in two generations — each begun with idealistic aspirations and widespread public support but ending in national trauma — America struggles to define the relationship between its power (still vast) and its principles,” he wrote.

He continued to wield influence in world affairs, and through his firm, Kissinger Associates, he advised corporations and executives on international trends and looming difficulties. When Disney sought to navigate the Chinese leadership to build a $5.5 billion park in Shanghai, Mr. Kissinger got the call.

“Henry is certainly one of the most complex characters in recent American history,” said David Rothkopf, a former managing director of Mr. Kissinger’s consulting firm. “And he is someone who has, I think, justifiably been in the spotlight both for extraordinary brilliance and competence and, at the same time, clear defects.”

Escape to America

Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born on May 27, 1923, in the Bavarian town of Fürth. A year later, his parents, Louis Kissinger , a high school teacher, and Paula (Stern) Kissinger , the daughter of a prosperous cattle trader, had another son, Walter.

By all accounts young Heinz was withdrawn and bookish but passionate about soccer — so much so that he risked confrontations with Nazi toughs to see games even after signs had gone up at one stadium declaring “Juden Verboten.”

His parents raised him to be a faithful member of the orthodox Fürth synagogue, though in writing to them as a young adult he virtually rejected all religious practice.

Louis lost his job when the Nuremberg Laws were adopted in 1935; as a Jew he was barred from teaching in a state school. For the next three years Paula Kissinger took the initiative in trying to get the family out of the country, writing to a cousin in New York about immigrating.

In the fall of 1938, with war still a year away, the Nazi authorities permitted them to leave Germany. With little furniture and a single trunk, the Kissingers embarked for New York aboard the French ocean liner Ile de France . Heinz was 15.

It was not a moment too soon: At least 13 of the family’s close relatives perished in the Nazi gas chambers or concentration camps. Paula Kissinger recalled years later, “In my heart, I knew they would have burned us with the others if we had stayed.”

Mr. Kissinger played down the impact of those years on his worldview. He told an interviewer in 1971: “I was not consciously unhappy. I was not acutely aware of what was going on.” But in a Times interview several years ago he did relate painful memories — of the intimidation he felt in stepping into the street to avoid the Hitler Youth, and of the sadness of having to say goodbye to relatives, particularly his grandfather, whom he knew he would never see again.

Many of Mr. Kissinger’s acquaintances said his experiences in Nazi Germany had influenced him more than he acknowledged, or perhaps even knew.

“For the formative years of his youth, he faced the horror of his world coming apart, of the father he loved being turned into a helpless mouse,” said Fritz Kraemer, a non-Jewish German immigrant who was to become Mr. Kissinger’s first intellectual mentor. “It made him seek order, and it led him to hunger for acceptance, even if it meant trying to please those he considered his intellectual inferiors.”

Some have argued that Mr. Kissinger’s rejection of a moralistic approach to diplomacy in favor of realpolitik arose because he had borne witness to a civilized Germany embracing Hitler. Mr. Kissinger often cited an aphorism of Goethe’s, saying that if he were given the choice of order or justice, he, like the novelist and poet, would prefer order.

The Kissingers settled in Upper Manhattan, in Washington Heights, then a haven for German-Jewish refugees. His dispirited father got a job as a bookkeeper, but fell into depression and never fully adjusted to his adopted land. Paula Kissinger kept the family together, catering small parties and receptions.

Heinz became Henry in high school. He switched to night school when he took a job at a company making shaving brushes. In 1940, he enrolled in City College — tuition was virtually free — and racked up A’s in almost all his courses. He seemed headed to becoming an accountant.

Then, in 1943, he was drafted into the Army and assigned to Camp Claiborne in Louisiana.

It was there that Mr. Kraemer , a patrician intellectual and Prussian refugee, arrived one day to give a talk about the “moral and political stakes of the war,” as Mr. Kissinger recalled. The private returned to his barracks and wrote Mr. Kraemer a note: “I heard you speak yesterday. This is how it should be done. Can I help you in any way?”

The letter changed the direction of his life. Taking him under his wing, Mr. Kraemer arranged for Private Kissinger to be reassigned to Germany to serve as a translator. As German cities and towns fell in the last months of the war, Mr. Kissinger was among the first on the scene, interrogating captured Gestapo officers and reading their mail.

In April 1945, with Allied victory in sight, he and his fellow soldiers led raids on the homes of Gestapo members who were suspected of planning sabotage campaigns against the approaching American forces. For his efforts he received a Bronze Star.

But before returning to the United States he visited Fürth, his hometown, and found that only 37 Jews remained. In a letter discovered by Niall Ferguson, his biographer, Mr. Kissinger wrote at 23 that his encounters with concentration camp survivors had taught him a key lesson about human nature.

“The intellectuals, the idealists, the men of high morals had no chance,” the letter said. The survivors he met “had learned that looking back meant sorrow, that sorrow was weakness, and weakness synonymous with death.”

Mr. Kissinger stayed in Germany after the war — fearful, he said later, that the United States would succumb to a democracy’s temptation to withdraw its weary forces too fast and lose the chance to cement victory.

He took a job as a civilian instructor teaching American officers how to uncover former Nazi officers, work that allowed him to crisscross the country. He became alarmed by what he saw as Communist subversion of Germany and warned that the United States needed to monitor German phone conversations and letters. It was his first taste of a Cold War that he would come to shape.

He returned to the United States in 1947, intent on resuming his college education, only to be rejected by a number of elite universities. Harvard was the exception.

‘A New World’ in Cambridge

Mr. Kissinger entered Harvard as a sophomore, a member of the class of 1950. It was the beginning of his two decades on the campus in Cambridge, Mass., where he would find fame as a professor before clashing with colleagues over Vietnam so sharply that he would vow never to return.

He arrived on campus with his cocker spaniel, Smoky, whom he was forever hiding from his proctors in Claverly Hall, where dogs were prohibited. Friends later said that Smoky’s presence in the dorm had been telling: Mr. Kissinger had felt like a friendless immigrant again. “Harvard was a new world to me then,” he wrote, looking back, “its mysteries hidden behind studied informality.”

But the outsider now had direction, and he found another mentor in William Yandell Elliott , who headed the government department. Professor Elliott guided Mr. Kissinger toward political theory, even as he wrote privately that his student’s mind “lacks grace and is Teutonic in its systematic thoroughness.”

Under Professor Elliott, Mr. Kissinger wrote a senior thesis, “The Meaning of History,” focusing on Immanuel Kant, Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. At a hefty 383 pages, it gave rise to what became informally known at Harvard as “the Kissinger rule,” which limits the length of a senior thesis.

Mr. Kissinger graduated, summa cum laude, in 1950. Days later, the Korean War broke out, with the newly created People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union backing North Korea’s Communist forces. He soon accepted some modest consulting work for the government that took him to Japan and South Korea.

Returning to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D., he and Professor Elliott started the Harvard International Seminar, a project that brought young foreign political figures, civil servants, journalists and an occasional poet to the university.

The seminar placed Mr. Kissinger at the center of a network that would produce a number of leaders in world affairs, among them Valéry Giscard d’Estaing , who would become president of France; Yasuhiro Nakasone , a future prime minister of Japan; Bulent Ecevit , later the longtime prime minister of Turkey; and Mahathir Mohamad , the future father of modern Malaysia.

With Ford Foundation support, the seminar kept his family eating as Mr. Kissinger worked on his dissertation on the diplomacy of Metternich of Austria and Robert Stewart Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, after the Napoleonic wars. The dissertation, which became his first book, both shaped and reflected his view of the modern world.

The book, “A World Restored,” can be read as a guide to Mr. Kissinger’s later fascination with the balancing of power among states and his suspicion of revolutions. Metternich and Mr. Castlereagh sought stability in Europe and largely achieved it by containing an aggressive revolutionary France through an equilibrium of forces.

Mr. Kissinger saw parallels in the great struggle of his time: containing Stalin’s Soviet Union.

“His was a quest for a realpolitik devoid of moral homilies,” Stanley Hoffmann , a Harvard colleague who later split with Mr. Kissinger, said in 2015.

Mr. Kissinger received his Ph.D. in 1954 but received no offer of an assistant professorship. Some on the Harvard faculty complained that he had not poured himself into his work as a teaching fellow. They regarded him as too engaged in worldly issues. In fact, he was simply ahead of his time: The Boston-to-Washington corridor would soon become jammed with academics consulting with the government or lobbyists.

‘Limited Nuclear War’

The Harvard rejection embittered Mr. Kissinger. The Nixon tapes later caught him telling the president that the problem with academia was that “you are entirely dependent on the personal recommendation of some egomaniac.”

With the help of McGeorge Bundy , a Harvard colleague, Mr. Kissinger was placed in an elite study group at the Council on Foreign Relations, at the time a stuffy, all-male enclave in New York. Its mission was to study the impact of nuclear weapons on foreign policy.

Mr. Kissinger arrived in New York with a lot of attitude. He thought that the Eisenhower administration was wrongly reluctant to rethink American strategic policy in light of Moscow’s imminent ability to strike the United States with overwhelming nuclear force.

“Henry managed to convey that no one had thought intelligently about nuclear weapons and foreign policy until he came along to do it himself,” Paul Nitze , perhaps the country’s leading nuclear strategist at the time, later told Strobe Talbott, who was deputy secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.

Mr. Kissinger seized on a question that Mr. Nitze had begun discussing: whether America’s threat to go to general nuclear war against the Soviet Union was no longer credible given the commonly held view that any such conflict would invite only “mutually assured destruction.” Mr. Nitze asked whether it would be wiser to develop weapons to conduct a limited, regional nuclear war.

Mr. Kissinger decided that “limited nuclear war represents our most effective strategy.”

What was supposed to be a council publication became instead a Kissinger book, and his first best seller: “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy.” Its timing, 1957, was perfect: It played into a national fear of growing Soviet power.

And its message fit the moment: If an American president was paralyzed by fear of escalation, Mr. Kissinger argued, the concept of nuclear deterrence would fail. If the United States could not credibly threaten to use small, tactical weapons, he said, it “would amount to giving the Soviet rulers a blank check.” In short, professing a willingness to conduct a small nuclear war was better than risking a big one.

To his critics, this was Mr. Kissinger at his Cold War worst, weaving an argument that a nuclear exchange could be won. Many scholars panned the book, believing its 34-year-old author had overestimated the nation’s ability to keep limited war limited. But to the public it was a breakthrough in nuclear thinking. To this day it is considered a seminal work, one that scholars now refer to in looking for lessons to apply to cyberwarfare.

The improbable success of the book led Mr. Kissinger back to Harvard as a lecturer. Two years later, Ann gave birth to their first child, Elizabeth; in 1961, their son, David, was born.

Coming to Power

Kissinger’s reputation had now been catapulted beyond academia; those who had never heard of Metternich wanted Mr. Kissinger involved in meeting the strategic threat of the era. He was called to a meeting organized by Mr. Rockefeller, then an assistant to President Dwight D. Eisenhower on international affairs. The patrician WASP and the Jewish immigrant formed an unlikely friendship, but one that gave Mr. Kissinger a patron with the resources of one of America’s greatest family fortunes, and gave Mr. Rockefeller someone to make him sound more credible on a global stage.

Mr. Kissinger said of Mr. Rockefeller, a future New York governor and vice president: “He has a second-rate mind but a first-rate intuition” about people and politics. “I have a first-rate mind but a third-rate intuition about people.”

Back at Harvard, his classes were popular, and the more Mr. Kissinger was interviewed on television, the bigger a star he became on campus. But he was soon immersed in the academic politics that he so despised, and his quest for tenure did not proceed smoothly. He and Zbigniew Brzezinski , who would become President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, were competitors, until Mr. Brzezinski left.

David Riesman , the sociologist and co-author of a seminal work on the American character, “The Lonely Crowd,” suggested that dinner with Mr. Kissinger was a chore. “He would not spend time chatting at the table,” Mr. Riesman said. “He presided.”

Leslie H. Gelb , then a doctoral student and later a Pentagon official and columnist for The Times, called him “devious with his peers, domineering with his subordinates, obsequious to his superiors.”

Tenure nonetheless arrived in 1959, an appointment announced by Mr. Bundy, who at 34 had become Harvard’s youngest dean of faculty. Mr. Kissinger later wrote that Mr. Bundy had treated him “with the combination of politeness and subconscious condescension that upper-class Bostonians reserve for people of, by New England standards, exotic backgrounds and excessively intense personal style.”

By 1961 Mr. Bundy was national security adviser to the newly elected president, John F. Kennedy, and Mr. Kissinger was swept up in the Harvard rush to the White House. But he was denied a senior job. He made end runs to see the president, but after a few sessions Kennedy himself cut them off. Mr. Kissinger said later, “I consumed my energies offering unwanted advice.”

At Harvard, he began organizing meetings on the emerging crisis of the day, Vietnam. He explored the link between military actions on the ground and the chances of success through diplomacy, seemingly convinced, even then, that the war could be ended only through negotiations.

After a long trip to Saigon and the front lines, he wrote that the American task was to “build a nation in a divided society in the middle of a civil war,” defining a problem that would haunt Washington not only in Southeast Asia but also in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He also renewed his relationship with Mr. Rockefeller, a moderate Republican who seemed like a good presidential prospect for 1968. And he met a tall, 30-year-old junior Rockefeller aide, Ms. Maginnes, whom he would marry years later.

Mr. Kissinger began writing speeches for Mr. Rockefeller and denouncing his most likely Republican rival for the White House, Richard M. Nixon, describing him as a disaster who could never be elected. But when Rockefeller’s star fell and Nixon won the nomination, he was invited to join Nixon’s foreign policy board. He kept his advisory role quiet, but it nonetheless led to one of the first big public disputes involving Mr. Kissinger and accusations of double-dealing.

With Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House engaged in peace talks with the North Vietnamese in Paris, Mr. Kissinger was said to have used his contacts on his own trips to Paris to funnel inside information back to Nixon. “Henry was the only person outside the government we were authorized to discuss the negotiation with,” Richard C. Holbrooke , who went on to key positions in the Clinton and Obama administrations, told Mr. Isaacson for his Kissinger biography. “We trusted him. It is not stretching the truth to say that the Nixon campaign had a secret source within the United States negotiating team.”

Nixon’s ‘Prized Possession’

Nixon himself referred in his memoirs to his “highly unusual channel” of information. To many who have since accepted that account, the back-channel tactic was evidence of Mr. Kissinger’s drive to obtain power if Nixon was elected. While there is no evidence that he supplied classified information to the Nixon campaign, there have long been allegations that Nixon used precisely that to give back-channel assurances to the South Vietnamese that they would get a better deal from him than from Johnson, and that they should agree to nothing until after the election.

Mr. Ferguson and other historians have rebutted that claim, though one of Nixon’s biographers found notes from H.R. Haldeman, one of Nixon’s closest aides, in which the presidential candidate ordered his staff to “monkey wrench” peace talks.

Whatever the truth, Mr. Kissinger was on Nixon’s radar. And after the election, a new president who had often expressed his disdain for Jews and Harvard academics chose, as his national security adviser, a man who was both.

Nixon directed Mr. Kissinger to run national security affairs covertly from the White House, cutting out the State Department and Nixon’s secretary of state, William P. Rogers . Nixon had found his man — a “prized possession,” he later called Mr. Kissinger.

While the post of national security adviser had grown in importance since Harry S. Truman established the role, Mr. Kissinger took it to new heights. He recruited bright young academics to his staff, which he nearly doubled. He effectively sidelined Mr. Rogers and battled the pugnacious defense secretary, Melvin R. Laird , moving more decision-making into the White House.

He met constantly with Nixon, often eschewing the practice of having staff members present when discussing their areas of expertise. He went in alone, unwilling to share either the glory or the intimacy of such occasions.

His rages were legendary. When he angrily stamps one foot, you’re OK, a former aide told Mr. Isaacson. When both feet leave the ground, the aide said, you’re in trouble. When Lawrence S. Eagleburger, a Kissinger personal aide and later briefly secretary of state, collapsed from overwork and was wheeled out to an ambulance, Mr. Kissinger emerged from his office shouting, “But I need him!”

Staff turnover was high, but many of those who stayed came to admire him for his intellect and his growing list of achievements. Still, they were stunned by his secretiveness. “He was able to give a conspiratorial air to even the most minor of things,” Mr. Eagleburger, who admired him, said before his death in 2011 .

Poking fun at himself in a way that some saw as disingenuous, he often told visiting diplomats that “I have not faced such a distinguished audience since dining alone in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.”

Nixon had built much of his campaign around the promise to end the war on honorable terms. It was Mr. Kissinger’s task to turn that promise into a reality, and he made clear in a Foreign Affairs article, published as Nixon was preparing to take office, that the United States would not win the war “within a period or with force levels politically acceptable to the American people.”

In the 2018 interview, he said the United States had misunderstood the struggle from the start as “an extension of the Cold War in Europe.”

“I made the same mistake,” he said. “The Cold War was really about saving democratic countries from invasion.” Vietnam was different, a civil war. “What we did not understand at the beginning of the war in Vietnam,” he went on, “is how hard it is to end these civil wars, and how hard it is to get a conclusive agreement in which everyone shares the objective.”

By the time that he and Nixon took office, he argued, it was too late to just leave. “If you come into government and find 550,000 of your troops involved in the battle, how do you end that?” he asked. He and Nixon needed a way out, he said, that did not discredit “the 50,000 dead” or “the people who had relied on America’s word.”

Mr. Kissinger’s pursuit of two goals that were seen as at odds with each other — winding down the war and maintaining American prestige — led him down roads that made him a hypocrite to some and a war criminal to others. He had come to office hoping for a fast breakthrough: “Give us six months,” he told a Quaker group, “and if we haven’t ended the war by then, you can come back and tear down the White House fence.”

But six months later, there were already signs that the strategy for ending the war would both expand and lengthen it. He was convinced that the North Vietnamese would enter serious negotiations only under military pressure. So while he restarted secret peace talks in Paris, he and Nixon escalated and widened the war.

“I can’t believe that a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point,” Mr. Kissinger told his staff.

‘War for Peace’

Mr. Kissinger called it “war for peace.” Yet the result was carnage. Mr. Kissinger had an opportunity to end the war in peace talks early in Nixon’s presidency on terms as good as those he ultimately settled for later. Yet he turned it down, and thousands of Americans died because he was convinced he could do better.

As Mr. Kissinger sat with his big yellow legal pads in his White House office, scribbling notes that have now been largely declassified, he designed a three-part plan. It consisted of a cease-fire that would also embrace Laos and Cambodia, which had been sucked into the fighting; simultaneous American and North Vietnamese withdrawals from South Vietnam; and a peace treaty that returned all prisoners of war.

His notes and taped conversations with Nixon are riddled with self-assured declarations that the next escalation of bombing, and a secret incursion into Cambodia, would break the North Vietnamese and force them into real negotiations. But he was also reacting, he later wrote, to a Vietcong and North Vietnamese offensive early in Nixon’s presidency that had killed almost 2,000 Americans and “humiliated the new president.”

Mr. Kissinger later constructed a narrative emphasizing the wisdom of the strategy, but the notes and phone conversations suggest that he had routinely overestimated his negotiating skills and underestimated his opponents’ capacity to wait the Americans out.

It was the bombing campaign in Cambodia — code-named “Operation Menu,” with phases named “Breakfast,” “Lunch” and “Dinner” — that outraged Mr. Kissinger’s critics and fueled books, documentaries and symposiums exploring whether the United States had violated international law by expanding the conflict into a country that was not party to the war. Mr. Kissinger’s rationale was that the North had created supply lines through Cambodia to fuel the war in the South.

Inevitably, reports of the bombing leaked out; it was simply too large an operation to hide. Nixon was certain that the leakers were liberals and Democrats whom Mr. Kissinger had recruited from academia. Thus began Mr. Kissinger’s relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, the powerful director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The two began reviewing conversations of Mr. Kissinger’s staff members.

As the internal wars raged in the White House, Le Duc Tho , the North Vietnamese negotiator, dug in. He rejected Mr. Kissinger’s call for a mutual withdrawal of forces; he insisted instead on a full American withdrawal and the formation of a “coalition” government in the South that the North would clearly dominate. Aware that Nixon was beginning to pull troops out, the North’s leadership saw little reason to give way.

It took until January 1973 for Mr. Kissinger to reach a deal, assuring the South Vietnamese that the United States would return if the North violated the accord and invaded. Privately, Mr. Kissinger was all but certain that the South could not hold up under the pressure. He told John D. Erlichman , a top White House aide, that “if they are lucky, they can hold out for a year and a half.”

That proved prescient: Saigon fell in April 1975, with the unconditional surrender of South Vietnam. Fifty-eight thousand Americans and more than three million North and South Vietnamese had died, and eight million tons of bombs had been dropped by the United States. But to Mr. Kissinger, getting it over with was the key to moving on to bigger, and more successful, ventures.

A Door Opens to China

When Mr. Kissinger was writing campaign speeches for Nelson Rockefeller in 1968, he included a passage in which he envisioned “a subtle triangle with Communist China and the Soviet Union.” The strategy, he wrote, would allow the United States to “improve our relations with each as we test the will for peace of both.”

He got a chance to test that thesis the next year. Chinese and Soviet forces had clashed in a border dispute, and in a meeting with Mr. Kissinger, Anatoly F. Dobrynin , the Soviet ambassador to Washington, spoke candidly of the importance of “containing” the Chinese. Nixon directed Mr. Kissinger to make an overture, secretly, to Beijing.

It was a remarkable shift for Nixon. A staunch anti-Communist, he had long had close ties to the so-called China lobby, which opposed the Communist government led by Mao Zedong in Beijing. He also believed that North Vietnam was acting largely as a Chinese satellite in its war against South Vietnam and its American allies.

Nixon and Mr. Kissinger secretly approached Pakistan’s leader, Yahya Khan , to act as a go-between. In December 1970, Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington delivered a message to Mr. Kissinger that had been carried from Islamabad by courier. It was from the Chinese prime minister, Zhou Enlai: A special envoy from President Nixon would be welcome in Beijing.

That led to what became known as Ping-Pong diplomacy. A young member of the American table tennis team playing in a championship tournament in Japan had befriended a Chinese competitor. The Chinese leadership apparently concluded that the American player’s gesture was another signal from Mr. Kissinger. The American team was invited to Beijing, where Mr. Zhou surprised the players by telling them, “You have opened a new chapter in the relations of the American and Chinese people.”

Over the next two months, messages were exchanged concerning a possible presidential visit. Then, on June 2, 1971, Mr. Kissinger received one more communication through the Pakistani connection, this one inviting him to Beijing to prepare for a Nixon visit. Mr. Kissinger pulled Nixon aside from a White House dinner to declare: “This is the most important communication that has come to an American president since the end of World War II.”

The president found a bottle of expensive brandy, and the men toasted their triumph in the same room where, three years later , they would kneel together in agony.

In July 1971, Mr. Kissinger left on what was described as an Asian fact-finding trip. In Pakistan, reporters were told that the secretary was not feeling well and that he would spend a few days at a mountain retreat to recover. A motorcade soon set off for the hills. But it was a decoy; Mr. Kissinger was actually flying to China with three aides.

In Beijing he made a presentation to Mr. Zhou, ending with the observation that as Americans “we find ourselves here in what to us is a land of mystery,” he recalled in a 2014 interview for the Harvard Secretaries of State project. Mr. Zhou interrupted. “There are 900 million of us,” he said, “and it’s not mysterious to us.”

It took three days to work out the details, and after Mr. Kissinger cabled the code word “eureka” to Nixon, the president, without any advance warning, appeared on television to announce what Mr. Kissinger had arranged. His enemies — the Soviets, the North Vietnamese, the Democrats, his liberal critics — were staggered. On Feb. 21, 1972, he became the first American president to visit mainland China.

The Chinese were a little stunned, too. Mao sidelined Mr. Zhou within a month. After that, no Chinese ever mentioned Zhou Enlai again, Mr. Kissinger told the Harvard project. He speculated that Mao had feared that his No. 2 “was getting personally too friendly with me.”

Years later, Mr. Kissinger was more restrained about the achievement.

“That China and the United States would find a way to come together was inevitable given the necessities of the time,” he wrote in “On China,” referring to domestic strife in both countries and a common interest in resisting Soviet advances. But he also insisted that he had not been seeking to isolate Russia as much as to conduct a grand experiment in balance-of-power politics. “Our view,” he wrote, “was that the existence of the triangular relations was in itself a form of pressure on each of them.”

Historians still debate whether that worked. But there is no debating that it made Mr. Kissinger an international celebrity. It also proved vital for reasons that never factored into Mr. Kissinger’s calculus five decades ago — that China would rise as the only true economic, technological and military competitor to the United States.

Nixon’s announcement that he would go to China startled Moscow. Days later, Mr. Dobrynin called on Mr. Kissinger and invited Nixon to meet the Soviet leader, Leonid I. Brezhnev, in the Kremlin. The date was set for May 1972, just three months after the China trip. “To have two Communist powers competing for good relations with us could only benefit the cause of peace,” Mr. Kissinger noted later. “It was the essence of triangular strategy.”

To prepare for the summit, he flew to Moscow, again in secret. Nixon had agreed to let him go on the condition that Mr. Kissinger spend most of his time insisting that the Soviets restrain their North Vietnamese allies, who were mounting an offensive.

By then, however, Mr. Kissinger had changed his mind about how much control the Soviets had over the North Vietnamese, writing to his deputy, Alexander M. Haig , “I do not believe that Moscow is in direct collusion with Hanoi.”

Instead, he sought to reinvigorate negotiations, which had been stumbling along since late 1969, with the aim of limiting the number of ground-based and submarine-launched nuclear missiles that the two countries were pointing at each other and curbing the development of antiballistic missile systems. Mr. Kissinger achieved a breakthrough, writing to Nixon, “You will be able to sign the most important arms control agreement ever concluded.”

That may have been overstatement, but Mr. Brezhnev and Nixon signed what became the SALT I treaty in May 1972. It opened decades of arms-control agreements — SALT, START, New START — that greatly reduced the number of nuclear weapons in the world. The era known as détente had begun. It unraveled only late in Mr. Kissinger’s life. While Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden renewed New START in 2021, once the war in Ukraine started the Russian leader suspended compliance with many parts of the treaty.

Intrigue in Chile

To Mr. Kissinger, there were superpowers and there was everything else, and it was the everything else that got him into trouble.

He never stopped facing questions about the overthrow and death of Mr. Allende in Chile in September 1973 and the rise of Augusto Pinochet , the general who had seized power.

Over the next three decades, as General Pinochet came to be accused — first in Europe, then in Chile — of abductions, murder and human rights violations, Mr. Kissinger was repeatedly linked to clandestine activities that had undermined Mr. Allende, a Marxist, and his democratically elected government. The revelations emerged in declassified documents, lawsuit depositions and journalistic indictments, like Christopher Hitchens ’s book “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” (2001), which was made into a documentary film.

The issues harked back to 1970, when Mr. Allende was running for Chile’s presidency. An Allende victory would represent the first by a Marxist in a democratic election, a prospect that concerned Mr. Kissinger.

Nixon, too, was alarmed, according to a White House tape that Peter Kornbluh, of the National Security Archive, cited in his book “The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability.” It quotes Nixon as ordering the U.S. ambassador in Santiago “to do anything short of a Dominican-type action” to keep Mr. Allende from winning the election. The reference was to the United States invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965.

Mr. Kissinger insisted, in a memoir and in testimony to Congress, that the United States “had nothing to do” with the military coup that overthrew Mr. Allende. However according to phone records that were declassified in 2004 , Mr. Kissinger bragged that “we helped them” by creating the conditions for the coup.

That help included backing a plot to kidnap the commander in chief of Chile’s army, Gen. René Schneider, who had refused C.I.A. entreaties to mount a coup. The general was killed in the attempt. His car was ambushed, and he was fatally shot at point-blank range.

Mr. Kissinger, as national security adviser, presided over the 40 Committee, a secretive body that included the director of Central Intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All covert actions were subject to the committee’s approval.

In 2001, General Schneider’s two sons filed a civil suit in the United States accusing Mr. Kissinger of helping to orchestrate covert activities in Chile that led to their father’s death. A U.S. federal court, without ruling on Mr. Kissinger’s culpability, dismissed the case, saying that foreign policy was up to the government, not the courts.

Mr. Kissinger, in his defense, said his actions had to be viewed within the context of the Cold War. “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its people,” he said, adding half-jokingly: “The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

Brutalities and ‘Stability’

Chile was hardly the only place Mr. Kissinger was accused of treating as a minor chess piece in his grand strategies. He and President Ford approved Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in December 1975, leading to a disastrous 24-year occupation by a U.S.-backed military.

Declassified documents released in 2001 by the National Security Archive indicate that Ford and Mr. Kissinger knew of the invasion plans months in advance and were aware that the use of American arms would violate U.S. law.

“I know what the law is,” Mr. Kissinger was quoted as telling a staff meeting when he got back to Washington. He then asked how it could be in “U.S. national interest” for Americans to “kick the Indonesians in the teeth?”

The columnist Anthony Lewis wrote in The Times, “That was Kissingerian realism: the view that the United States should overlook brutalities by friendly authoritarian regimes because they provided ‘stability.’”

It was a familiar complaint. In 1971, the slaughter in East Pakistan that Nixon and Mr. Kissinger had ignored in deference to Pakistan expanded into a war between Pakistan and India, a nation loathed by both China and the Nixon White House.

“At this point, the recklessness of Nixon and Kissinger only got worse,” Dexter Filkins, of The New Yorker, wrote in discussing Professor Bass’s account in The New York Times Book Review in 2013. “They dispatched ships from the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal, and even encouraged China to move troops to the Indian border, possibly for an attack — a maneuver that could have provoked the Soviet Union. Fortunately, the leaders of the two Communist countries proved more sober than those in the White House. The war ended quickly, when India crushed the Pakistani Army and East Pakistan declared independence,” becoming the new nation of Bangladesh.

After Washington

Such events led to protests whenever Mr. Kissinger ventured onto college campuses.

So did his consulting ties: When President George W. Bush appointed him to lead a commission to investigate the government’s failures to detect and prevent the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Kissinger discovered that the appointment required that he disclose his firm’s clients. Rather than comply, Mr. Kissinger abruptly withdrew, saying he could not serve if it meant revealing his clients.

While Mr. Kissinger worked hard to shape the history of his own decisions, he found himself in the odd position of living so long that his own memorandums were declassified while he was still on the world stage. In 2004, responding to Freedom of Information requests, the State Department released thousands of pages of transcripts of Mr. Kissinger’s telephone calls during the Nixon administration. Some revealed chummy conversations with Washington journalists; others showed a president who in the midst of Watergate was too drunk to talk to the British prime minister.

Still more declassified documents revealed how Mr. Kissinger had used his historic 1971 meeting with Mr. Zhou in China to lay out a radical shift in American policy toward Taiwan. Under the plan, the United States would have essentially abandoned its support for the anticommunist Nationalists in Taiwan in exchange for China’s help in ending the war in Vietnam. The account contradicted one he had included in his published memoirs.

The emerging material also revealed the price of an American-interests-first realism. In tapes released by the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in 2010, Mr. Kissinger is heard telling Nixon in 1973 that helping Soviet Jews emigrate and thus escape oppression by a totalitarian regime was “not an objective of American foreign policy.”

“And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union,” he added, “it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

The American Jewish Committee described the remarks as “truly chilling,” but suggested that antisemitism in the Nixon White House may have partly been to blame.

“Perhaps Kissinger felt that, as a Jew, he had to go the extra mile to prove to the president that there was no question as to where his loyalties lay,” David Harris, the committee’s former executive director, said.

Mr. Kissinger is survived by his wife, Ms. Maginnes, and his children with Ms. Fleischer, David and Elizabeth. His younger brother, Walter B. Kissinger, a former chairman of the multinational company the Allen Group, died in 2021 . Mr. Kissinger’s final book, “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy,” was published in 2022.

Mr. Kissinger was aware of his contentious place in American history, and he may have had his own standing in mind when, in 2006, he wrote about Dean Acheson , secretary of state under Truman, in The Times Book Review, calling him “perhaps the most vilified secretary of state in modern American history.”

“History has treated Acheson more kindly,” Mr. Kissinger wrote. “Accolades for him have become bipartisan.”

Thirty-five years after his death, he said, Acheson had “achieved iconic status.”

Mr. Kissinger clearly became an icon of a different kind. And he was acutely aware that the challenges facing the nation had changed. At age 96, he plunged into questions surrounding artificial intelligence, teaming up with Eric Schmidt, Google’s former chief executive, and the computer scientist Daniel Huttenlocher to write “The Age of AI: And Our Human Future” (2019) , in which he discussed how the development of weapons controlled by algorithms, rather than directly by humans, would change concepts of deterrence.

After donating his papers to Yale, Mr. Kissinger reconciled with Harvard — the institution where he had made his name — but he made clear that he had not been welcomed back after Vietnam.

Mr. Allison, the Harvard professor, and Drew Faust, the university’s president at the time, were determined to heal the wound. Mr. Kissinger was enticed to return for a talk in which he was interviewed by a graduate student; a dinner at the president’s house followed. “I would not have guessed I would be back inside these walls,” he said.

One student asked him about his legacy. “You know, when I was young, I used to think of people of my age as a different species,” he said to laughter. “And I thought my grandparents had been put into the world at the age at which I experienced them.”

“Now that I’ve reached beyond their age,” he added, “I’m not worried about my legacy. And I don’t give really any thought to it, because things are so changeable. You can only do the best you’re able to do, and that’s more what I judge myself by — whether I’ve lived up to my values, whatever their quality, and to my opportunities.”

Michael T. Kaufman, a former correspondent and editor for The Times who died in 2010, contributed reporting.

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a former chief executive of Google. He is Eric Schmidt, not Eric Schmitt.

How we handle corrections

David E. Sanger covers the Biden administration and national security. He has been a Times journalist for more than four decades and has authored several books on challenges to American national security. More about David E. Sanger

The Life and Death of Henry Kissinger

The most powerful u.s. secretary of state of the postwar era, who was both celebrated and reviled for his role in global politics, died at age 100..

A Lasting Influence: Henry Kissinger’s complicated legacy still resonates in America’s relations with China , Southeast Asia , Africa  and the Middle East .

Keeping Busy: Kissinger left the State Department five decades ago. But he never gave up his role as the ultimate back-channel diplomat .

Tending to His Image: Interviewing Kissinger for his obituary was like negotiating an arms control agreement — and utterly fascinating, David Sanger writes .

A Go-To Adviser:  In his decades in politics, the statesman advised many presidents. Here are some thoughts and stories from several of them , expressing awe, exasperation and sharp criticism.

Skewered by Comics: Kissinger appeared to be an irresistible target of comedians. Countless depictions cast light on his idiosyncrasies and vanities .

When He Became an Opera Character:  In 1987, “Nixon in China,” inspired by President Richard Nixon’s epoch-making 1972 trip to China, depicted Kissinger as a smooth diplomat with a brutal side .

His First American Home: When Kissinger, his parents and younger brother fled Nazi Germany, they landed in Washington Heights, in a two-bedroom rental  where the children slept in the living room.

The Harvard Gazette

Hope for progress survives terror and war, new study finds wide gap in sat/act test scores between wealthy, lower-income kids.

TPanelists Tarek Masoud (from left), Amaney Jamal, David Makovsky, Khalil Shikaki, and Shai Feldman at Klarman Hall.

National & World Affairs

Panelists Tarek Masoud (from left), Amaney Jamal, David Makovsky, Khalil Shikaki, and Shai Feldman at Klarman Hall.

Photos by Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer

Can the Israelis and Palestinians find peace? Scholars discuss — and debate — long history of conflict, prospects for a durable accord

By Christina Pazzanese Harvard Staff Writer

Date November 22, 2023 November 27, 2023

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Scholars revisited the long history of Israel-Palestine conflict leading up to the Oct. 7 terror attack by Hamas and weighed potential steps toward peace before hundreds of Harvard community members at a recent Klarman Hall event.

“We’re here because of dead civilians, Jewish and Arab,” said moderator Tarek Masoud, faculty chair of the Middle East Initiative and Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Governance at Harvard Kennedy School , which co-hosted the Nov. 20 discussion  with Harvard Business School .

The third such gathering convened by the Middle East Initiative in recent weeks, the event, which unfolded as Israel and Hamas negotiated a cease fire and hostage deal, was an attempt to share scholarly expertise with students so they can make better sense of the crisis and perhaps contribute to a solution, Masoud said. Srikant Datar, dean of the Business School, urged attendees to approach the talk “with open-mindedness and a commitment to empathy and learning.”

Amaney Jamal talking.

"If violence were going to solve this conflict, it would have already," said Amaney Jamal (center), dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

It’s important to separate the terror unleashed by Hamas from the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who served as senior adviser to the State Department’s Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations from 2013 to 2014.

“This was a deliberate decision by the Hamas leadership to do [these] atrocities,” he said. “The people of Gaza did not commit these atrocities.”

Hamas chose to attack at a moment when its leadership believed Israel had been weakened by internal strife over the overhaul of Israel’s judiciary by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Makovsky. Another key factor was the worry that a normalization pact between Saudi Arabia and Israel would be “game over” for the terror group, leaving Hamas isolated from the other Arab nations that had struck accords with Israel.

Panelists agreed that Hamas members are terrorists, not freedom fighters. They also agreed that Netanyahu has used Hamas in the past to help thwart peace efforts.

“The current Israeli government, led by Netanyahu, is the same government that has been trying for most of the last 16 years to create conditions, or to support conditions, that have essentially prevented any progress in that direction,” said Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah. “Hamas was very instrumental in providing that kind of environment.”

At times, Masoud politely refereed passionate disagreements among the scholars over who did what during the decades that precipitated this crisis, further underscoring the enormous challenge facing those who wish to engage in reasoned debate on the subject.

On what the way forward looks like, the panelists were uncertain.

For Netanyahu, success in the short term would be to eliminate Hamas’ fighting and governing capacity and to free the hostages held in Gaza, said Shai Feldman, a professor of Israeli politics and society at Brandeis University. But eventually, the Israeli people will force a “major reckoning” internally about the policies and strategies the prime minister and his allies adopted.

Asked what role the international community can play to facilitate peace, Feldman said that if Hamas is defeated, perhaps a regional coalition made up Egypt, Jordan, and/or Saudi Arabia could temporarily take control in Gaza and make an effort to rejuvenate the Palestinian Authority, which was pursuing a two-state solution with Israel before Hamas rose to power in 2006.

“If violence were going to solve this conflict, it would have already,” said Amaney Jamal, dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and a daughter of Palestinian immigrants. “I would rather see our policies and efforts and the Palestinian Authority … make the message of peace and reconciliation far more attractive than any other message.”

She added: “This starts with people seeing tangible changes on the ground, but also political leaders to step up and sanction their leaders when they’re espousing violence and vitriol and hatred and the dehumanization of the other. We have been victims of this conflict since we were born. We would love to turn the page and be able to live with peace and dignity as Israelis, as Palestinians.”

Test with pencil.


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  1. Why the first world war started. #history#war

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    Published: Mar 1, 2019. A war erupted between countries from 1914 to 1918 which is known as World War 1 which was between major powers of Europe. During the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th-century countries were in nonstop conflict. Tensions between the major powers and Germany were quickly advancing and always on an edge of a hill.

  21. First World War Issues and Causes

    The First World War was inevitable, considering the nature of the various events that had contributed to its eruption. As it would be observed, territorial, imperial, and economic rivalries leading to the war between the Allies and the Central Powers were all inevitable causes. For example, there were various unavoidable and uncontrollable ...

  22. Causes of World War 1

    This perfect combination of pressure led to the beginning of the First World War in July 1914. There were four main causes of WWI — militarism, alliance, imperialism, and nationalism — that escalated into a global conflict. This free essay about the causes of WWI will explore the interconnectedness of these four concepts.

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    In the fall of 1938, with war still a year away, the Nazi authorities permitted them to leave Germany. With little furniture and a single trunk, the Kissingers embarked for New York aboard the ...

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  25. Causes of World War 1 Essay

    Tension among the European countries had been increased due to militarism, nationalism, imperialism and mutual defence alliances which served as major causes that led to the War. Militarism is the trend towards developing military resources for both national defence and protection of colonial interest.