When I told friends and colleagues that I was writing a book about the legacy of Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy, many made mention of Christopher Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger. But I saw my purpose as antithetical to Hitchens’s polemic, which is a good example of what the great historian Charles Beard, in 1936, dismissed as the “devil theory of war”—placing the blame for militarism on a single, isolable cause: a “wicked man.” To really understand the sources of conflict, Beard argued, you had to look at the big picture, to consider the way “war is our own work,” emerging out of “the total military and economic situation.” In making the case that Kissinger should be tried—and convicted—for war crimes, Hitchens didn’t look at the big picture. Instead, he focused obsessively on the morality of one man, his devil: Henry Kissinger.
Aside from assembling the docket and gathering the accused’s wrongdoings in one place, The Trial of Henry Kissinger isn’t very useful and is actually counterproductive; righteous indignation doesn’t provide much room for understanding. Hitchens burrows deep into Kissinger’s dark heart: The statesman was implicated in horrors in Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, Vietnam, East Timor, Latin America, southern Africa, and Washington, DC (the assassination of Orlando Letelier), as well as against the Kurds. Readers are left waiting for Hitchens to come out and tell us what it all means (that is, besides the obvious: Kissinger is a criminal). But Hitchens never does. In the end, we learn more about the prosecutor than the would-be prosecuted; the book provides no insights into the “total situation” in which Kissinger operated, and makes no effort to explain the power of his ideas or how they tapped into the deeper intellectual currents of American history.
Most students of Kissinger find it hard to say anything about Kissinger that isn’t about the man himself. He is such an outsize figure that he eclipses his own context, leading his many biographers, critics, and admirers to focus nearly exclusively on the quirks of his personality or his moral failings. His “Holocaust upbringing” has made him extremely insecure, writes one biographer, and what many people mistake as “deceitfulness” is really just a desire to be accepted.
Seymour Hersh’s The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, published in 1983, did capture the secretive world of the national-security apparatus as it existed during the Vietnam War, and his study of Kissin- ger’s paranoia reads like a (somewhat innocent) prelude to the all-pervading surveillance and counterterrorism state we live under now. Hersh gave us the defining portrait of Kissinger as a preening paranoid, tacking between ruthlessness and sycophancy to advance his career, cursing his fate and letting fly the B-52s. Small in his vanities and shabby in his motives, Kissinger, in Hersh’s hands, is nonetheless Shakespearean, because his pettiness gets played out on a world stage, with epic consequences. But Hersh, writing in the early ’80s, couldn’t know the long-term effects not only of Kissinger’s specific policies, but also how his imperial existentialism set the stage for a later generation of militarists who, in the 1990s, took us—after a quick detour through Panama and elsewhere in Central America—deeper into the Middle East and then, after 9/11, into Afghanistan and Iraq. Kissinger’s shadow is long.