Henry: Portrait of a Serial Kissinger
Christopher Hitchens' indictment
of the former secretary of state
by Greg Goldin
www.laweekly.com/, May 3, 2001
In the Sistine Chapel, Gore Vidal once
came upon Henry Kissinger "gazing thoughtfully" at the
Hell section of Michelangelo's Last Judgment. "Look,"
said Vidal to a friend, "he's apartment hunting." There's
nothing quite so funny in Christopher Hitchens' new book, The
Trial of Henry Kissinger, a criminal indictment of the former
national security adviser. But Hitchens frames his brief with
characteristic wit: "Many if not most of Kissinger's partners
in crime are now in jail, or are awaiting trial, or have been
otherwise punished or discredited. His own lonely impunity is
rank; it smells to heaven. If it is allowed to persist then we
shall shamefully vindicate the ancient philosopher Anacharsis,
who maintained that laws were like cobwebs: strong enough to detain
only the weak, and too weak to hold the strong. In the name of
innumerable victims known and unknown, it is time for justice
to take a hand."
The great merit of The Trial of Henry
Kissinger, which was first published as a two-part article in
Harper's, is that it dismantles the Mount Rushmore image Kissinger
has assiduously carved for himself, and restores to the man his
well-deserved ignominy. Even when Hitchens' evidence is a stretch
- as sometimes it is - the skein of Kissinger's lawless intrigues,
cagey denials and outright lies leads inescapably to the conclusion
that Richard M. Nixon's and Gerald R. Ford's foreign-policy strategist
has a lot to hide; that, indeed, during his seven years as a "public
servant" he was responsible for numerous crimes. Following
the 1998 arrest of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, in England
at the behest of a Spanish judge, and his recent house arrest
in Chile, Kissinger is no longer apt to be shielded behind sovereign
Where Chile and Cyprus are concerned,
the evidence of Kissinger's involvement in murder, kidnapping
and attempted assassination has the power to repeatedly astonish
and appall. The more so because, in the case of Chile, his principal
co-conspirator, Pinochet, has been indicted while Kissinger himself
still roams the halls of power; collects $25,000 for one of his
dull, mechanical speeches; regularly appears as a paid consultant
on ABC News; writes brackish, if widely published, columns; and
freely whisks off to places like China (one among many of his
rogue clientele) "to smooth and facilitate contact between
multinational corporations and foreign governments." Not
only is the man on the loose, he profits handsomely from a reputation
built on the fell deeds he has massaged, over the subsequent two
and a half decades, into a reputation for "statecraft."
According to Hitchens - full disclosure:
I know him a bit - Kissinger's serial crimes began in the fall
of 1968 during the tight presidential race between Vice President
Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Richard
Nixon. At the Paris peace negotiations, the Johnson administration
was on the brink of a critical breakthrough to end the war in
Vietnam. Nixon set out to sabotage those talks by secretly offering
the South Vietnamese "more" than they would get from
the incumbent Democrats. He calculated that by thwarting the negotiations,
he might finish off Humphrey's "Peace Plank" campaign.
(Humphrey had distanced himself from "Johnson's war"
and had pulled to within just two points of Nixon in the polls.)
Seymour Hersh, in his 1983 Kissinger biography, The Price of Power,
wrote, "If word of a possible agreement leaked out, the [South
Vietnamese] government might be tempted by the Republicans to
stall the negotiations or find other ways to make it impossible
to reach agreement before the election." The leak arrived,
and Nixon put this secret and vital information to immediate use:
Through "back channels," he urged Saigon's ruling clique
to resist the settlement being negotiated at Paris. On November
1, Johnson ordered a bombing halt - a gesture that signaled the
breakthrough - but he had already been checkmated behind the scenes.
The South Vietnamese regime of Nguyen Van Thieu, Hitchens comments,
made Johnson "look a fool by boycotting the peace talks the
very next day." This may have tipped the election to Nixon.
Nixon's informant had been Henry Kissinger,
who, at the time, was considered a trusted ally of Johnson emissary
Averell Harriman, leader of the Paris talks. The result of his
treachery, Hitchens writes, was "four more years of an unwinnable
and undeclared and murderous war, which was to spread before it
burned out, and was to end on the same terms and conditions as
had been on the table in the fall of 1968."
Kissinger's betrayal of the Paris peace
talks is by now well-known, but it is Hitchens' accent on Kissinger's
perfidy as a necessary prologue to Nixon's extending and widening
of the war in Vietnam that kindles the appropriate response: indignation.
That word still had meaning, and political effect, back when Kissinger
wielded inordinate power under RMN's reign. At the time, many
thought of him as a usurper and a war criminal. The Trial of Henry
Kissinger, in recounting the horrors of the "secret"
and illegal carpet bombing of Laos and Cambodia, of the deliberate
massacres of tens of thousands of Vietnamese civilians, and of
the needless sacrifice of 32,000 additional American troops and
uncounted opposition guerrillas and North Vietnamese regulars,
might embolden us to think of him that way again. "He embarked
upon a second round of protracted warfare having knowingly helped
to destroy an alternative which he always understood was possible."
This is the gravamen of Hitchens' indictment.
On the exact point of war crimes, Hitchens'
case is not airtight. Take the deadly "Operation Speedy Express,"
for instance, carried out under Kissinger's watch. In the first
six months of 1969, U.S. troops "cleansed" the civilian
population of Kien Hoa, in the Mekong Delta. Perhaps 5,000 civilians
died - a death toll, Newsweek reported, that "made the My
Lai massacre look trifling by comparison." Although "Speedy
Express" had been hatched in the Johnson administration,
Hitchens argues, "We can be sure that the political leadership
in Washington was not unaware" of the atrocities. "Indeed,"
he goes on, "the degree of micro-management revealed in Kissinger's
memoirs quite forbids the idea that anything of importance took
place without his knowledge or permission." But this, as
lawyers say, is hardly dispositive.
Chile, by contrast, presents a much stronger
case. Incensed at the September 1970 election of Salvador Allende,
Nixon assigned Kissinger the job of denying Allende the presidency.
The plan was to make it appear as if the left were behind a kidnapping
of General RenÃ© Schneider, a staunch defender of
Chilean democracy. It was hoped that the kidnapping would rattle
centrists in the Chilean congress into refusing to seat Allende.
The United States furnished tear-gas grenades, machine guns and,
later, hush money to right-wing gangsters, who duly nabbed and
assassinated General Schneider. It was "a 'hit' - a piece
of state-supported terrorism," Hitchens writes, and of this
there can be little doubt. A string of formerly classified government
memos, reprinted here, underscore Hitchens' assertion that
Henry Kissinger wanted two things simultaneously.
He wanted the removal of General Schneider, by any means and employing
any proxy. (No instruction from Washington to leave Schneider
unharmed was ever given; deadly weapons were sent by diplomatic
pouch, and men of violence were carefully selected to receive
them.) And he wanted to be out of the picture in case such an
attempt might fail, or be uncovered. These are normal motives
for anyone who solicits or suborns murder . . . We can say with
safety that he is prima facie guilty of direct collusion in the
murder of a democratic officer in a democratic and peaceful country.
Hitchens adduces from the Kissinger oeuvre
more of the same: Kissinger's refusal, in 1971, to condemn Pakistan's
genocidal invasion of Bangladesh because the Pakistanis were a
conduit for Nixon's secret diplomacy with China; "his decision
to do nothing . . . therefore a direct decision to do something,
or to let something be done" when he learns of the 1974 plot
by the ruling fascist Greek generals to overthrow Archbishop Mihail
Makarios, the democratic leader of the "unarmed republic"
of Cyprus; his green-lighting of the Indonesian invasion of East
Timor in December 1975, in which one-sixth of the entire Timorese
population is eradicated "with weapons that [Kissinger] bent
American laws to furnish to the killers." Much of this, again,
is based on circumstantial evidence, but then, good cases often
If The Trial of Henry Kissinger is left
to make logical inferences where the record is incomplete, it
is partly so because Kissinger himself hid much of the public
docket. The man, plainly, is afraid of what the complete record
will reveal. And this is a serious theme that asserts itself throughout
Hitchens' book. Kissinger is a former scholar who rebuffs scholarly
access. He is a frequent commentator who routinely denies requests
for interviews. When in power, he ruthlessly invoked the requirements
of "American prestige." Out of power, he disowns the
consequences of his hegemonic swagger. What emerges is an indictment
not only of a criminal, but of a coward too.
Henry Kissinger page