Rogers was a personal friend of Nixon, whom he assisted when the latter set up a legal practice in New York after his defeat in the California gubernatorial election of 1962. Although Rogers served briefly as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations (UN) in the early 1960s, he had little foreign policy background. His appointment as secretary of state reflected Nixon's desire to retain control of foreign policy. Rogers soon proved no match for the dominating, driven, and intellectually brilliant National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger, under whose direction the National Security Council within a few weeks wrested from the Department of State the crucial power to set the agenda for U.S. foreign policy discussions. Throughout his term as secretary of state, Rogers remained a marginal figure, entirely overshadowed by the publicity-hungry Kissinger. Nixon said of his two subordinates: "Henry thinks Bill isn't very deep, and Bill thinks Henry is power-crazy."
Nixon and Kissinger often left Rogers ignorant of major foreign policy initiatives, including arms control, secret negotiations to end the Vietnam War, and the opening of trade with China, of which he first learned through newspaper accounts of Kissinger's 1971 trip to Beijing. Rogers did, however, deal successfully with major issues involving Middle Eastern policy, Korea, and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and supervised routine State Department business adequately.
On Vietnam and Indochina, Rogers favored caution, conciliation, and negotiation over the generally more militant instincts of Nixon and Kissinger, who more often than not ignored his counsel against, for example, the resumption of bombings of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) in 1969, the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in April 1970, and further bombings and the mining of Haiphong Harbor in spring 1972. Unusually, Kissinger briefed the secretary in full on the final version of the Paris Peace Accords, which were signed in January 1973 and of which Rogers became a strong supporter. Equally unusual, Kissinger stayed at home while Rogers went to Paris to initial the accords.
In September 1973 Nixon asked for Rogers's resignation, replacing him with Kissinger. Rogers returned to the practice of law in Washington, D.C., leading the committee that investigated the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 but playing little role in foreign affairs. He died of heart failure at Bethesda, Maryland, on 2 January 2001.
Ambrose, Stephen E. Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973–1990. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.; Ambrose, Stephen E. Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1961–1972. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.; Hanhimäki, Jussi. The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.; Kissinger, Henry A. The White House Years. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.; Kissinger, Henry. Years of Upheaval. Boston: Little, Brown, 1982.; Nixon, Richard. RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1978.