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Ted Koppel on the complicated legacy of Henry Kissinger

Ted Koppel on the complicated legacy of Henry Kissinger
Ted Koppel on the complicated legacy of Henry Kissinger 03:20

He was a commanding - and controversial - figure for our times: Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger died this week at the age of 100. But for "Sunday Morning" senior contributor Ted Koppel, Kissinger was a complicated diplomat who became a friend:

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President Richard Nixon with national security adviser Henry Kissinger, August 25, 1970. CBS via Getty Images

I've being covering Henry Kissinger for more than fifty years, since the early stages, when he held high office, wielding real power, crafting historic changes toward China, the Middle East, the Soviet Union.

In his 90s, Kissinger co-authored a book (was it his 20th or 21st?), this one on AI, which he considered the greatest challenge to human survival.

"With the advent of artificial intelligence, forms of warfare are conceivable that could be even more destructive than nuclear weapons," Kissinger said.

After he turned 100, he flew to China at the invitation of the Chinese government. This, at a time of chilly relations between Washington and Beijing.

Henry Kissinger went from the dizzying heights of public acclaim (he was the most admired American in the 1970s, co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize), to a much-maligned figure (bitterly condemned in some quarters for his record on human rights).

Former Secretary of States Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and Madeleine Albright testify at the Senate Armed Services Committee
The protest group Code Pink disrupts a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, carrying banners calling former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger a "war criminal," as he and fellow former Secretary of States George Shultz and Madeleine Albright were set to testify on U.S. national security on Capitol Hill, January 29, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Andrew Harnik for The Washington Post via Getty Images

During our last interview this spring, I reminded Kissinger of what Pope Urban VIII is credited with having said, of another gifted and controversial statesman, Cardinal Richelieu: "If there is a God," so the quote goes, "Richelieu will have much to answer for; and if not, well, he had a successful life."

I said, "When I saw that, I thought, it's the kind of thing they might say about you."

"Yup," Kissinger replied. "I don't feel, when you say, He had a lot to answer for, which means, It was of dubious moral quality."

"That's what it means, yes."

"That's not my conception of my life," Kissinger said. "Every difficult political decision has an element of ambiguity. Otherwise, it wouldn't be difficult."

Henry Kissinger at 100 11:02

On the ultimate question, Kissinger showed a moment of quiet reflection, even humility, when asked if he believes in an afterlife.

"I believe that we're living in a tiny part of the universe," he said. "So, I think it is possible that there are aspects to existence that transcend our own individual lives."

A question to which no one has yet provided a certain answer ... not even Henry Kissinger.

See also:

Story produced by Deirdre Cohen. Editor: Ed Givnish. 

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