September 6, 2023

Henry Kissinger’s Malevolent Influence Will Be With Us Long After He’s Gone

Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik was delusional, amoral, and ruthless—and it persists today.

Rebecca Gordon
Kissinger Merkel GMF

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger attend the conference of the German Marshall Fund of the United States on its 70th anniversary, June 21, 2017.

(Kay Nietfeld / dpa Picture-Alliance / AP Images)

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Henry Alfred Kissinger turned 100 on May 27 of this year. Once a teenage refugee from Nazi Germany, for many decades an adviser to presidents, and an avatar of American realpolitik, he’s managed to reach the century mark while still evidently retaining all his marbles. That those marbles remain hard and cold is no surprise.

A couple of months after that hundredth birthday, he traveled to China, as he had first done secretly in 1971 when he was still President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser. There—in contrast to the tepid reception recently given to US officials like Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry—Kissinger was welcomed with full honors by Chinese President Xi Jinping and other dignitaries.

“That ‘lovefest,’” as Daniel Drezner of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy wrote at Politico, “served the interests of both parties.” For China, it was a signal that the United States would be better off pursuing the warm-embrace policy initiated so long ago by Nixon at Kissinger’s behest, rather than the cold shoulder more recent administrations have offered. For Kissinger, as Drezner put it, “the visit represents an opportunity to do what he has been trying to do ever since he left public office: maintain his relevancy and influence.”

Even as a centenarian, his “relevancy” remains intact, and his influence, I’d argue, as malevolent as ever.

Rehab for Politicians

It’s hard for powerful political actors to give up the stage once their performances are over. Many crave an encore even as their audience begins to gaze at newer stars. Sometimes regaining relevance and influence is only possible after a political memory wipe, in which echoes of their terrible actions and even crimes, domestic or international, fade into silence.

This was certainly the case for Richard Nixon who, after resigning in disgrace to avoid impeachment in 1974, worked hard for decades to once again be seen as a wise man of international relations. He published his memoirs (for a cool $2 million), while raking in another $600,000 for interviews with David Frost (during which he infamously said that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal”). His diligence was rewarded in 1986 with a Newsweek cover story headlined, “He’s Back: The Rehabilitation of Richard Nixon.”

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Of course, for the mainstream media (and the House of Representatives debating his possible impeachment in 1974), Nixon’s high crimes and misdemeanors involved just the infamous Watergate break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters and his subsequent attempts to cover it up. Among members of the House, only 12, led by the Jesuit priest Robert Drinan, had the courage to suggest that Nixon be charged with the crime that led directly to the death of an estimated 150,000 civilians: the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

More recently, we’ve seen the rehabilitation of George W. Bush, under whose administration the United States committed repeated war crimes. Those included the launching of an illegal war against Iraq under the pretext of eliminating that country’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, attempting to legalize torture and unlawful detentions, and causing the death of almost half a million civilians. No matter. All it took for the mainstream media to welcome him back into the fold of “responsible” Republicans was to spend some years painting portraits of American military veterans and taking an oblique swipe or two at then-President Donald Trump.

A “Statesman” Needs No Rehabilitation

Unlike the president he served as national security adviser and secretary of state, and some of those for whom he acted as an informal counselor (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush), Kissinger’s reputation as a brilliant statesman never required rehabilitation. Having provided advice—formal or otherwise—to every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Donald Trump (though not, apparently, Joe Biden), he put his imprint on the foreign policies of both major parties. And in all those years, no “serious” American news outfit ever saw fit to remind the world of his long history of bloody crimes. Indeed, as his hundredth birthday approached, he was greeted with fawning interviews by, for example, PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff.

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His crimes did come up in the mainstream, only to be dismissed as evidence of his career’s “broad scope.” CNN ran a piece by David Andelman, a former New York Times foreign correspondent and one-time student of Kissinger’s at Harvard. He described watching “in wonder” as demonstrators gathered outside New York City’s 92nd Street YMCA to protest a 2011 talk by the great man himself. How, he asked himself, could they refer to Kissinger as a “renowned war criminal”? A few years later, Andelman added, he found himself wondering again, as a similar set of protesters at the same venue decried Kissinger’s “history concerning Timor-Leste (East Timor), West Papua, Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Cyprus, Bangladesh, Angola, and elsewhere.”

The “events they were protesting were decades in the past,” he observed, having happened at a time when most of the protesters “were only barely alive.” In effect, like so many others who seek to exonerate old war criminals, Andelman was implying that the crimes of the past hold no meaning, except perhaps in testifying “to the broad scope of people, places, and events that [Kissinger] has influenced in the course of a remarkable career.” (“Influenced” serves here as a remarkable euphemism for “devastated” or simply “killed.”)

Fortunately, other institutions have not been so deferential. In preparation for Kissinger’s 100th, the National Security Archive, a center of investigative journalism, assembled a dossier of some of its most important holdings on his legacy. They provide some insight into the places named by those protesters.

A Dispassionate Cold Warrior

If nothing else, Kissinger’s approach to international politics has been consistent for more than half a century. Only actions advancing the military and imperial might of the United States were to be pursued. To be avoided were those actions that might diminish its power in any way or—in the Cold War era—enhance the power of its great adversary, the Soviet Union. Under such a rubric, any indigenous current favoring independence—whether political or economic—or seeking more democratic governance elsewhere on Earth came to represent a threat to this country. Such movements and their adherents were to be eradicated—covertly, if possible; overtly, if necessary.

Richard Nixon’s presidency was, of course, the period of Kissinger’s greatest influence. Between 1969 and 1974, Kissinger served as the architect of US actions in key locales globally. Here are just a few of them.

Papua, East Timor, and Indonesia

In 1969, in an effort to keep Indonesia fully in the American Cold War camp, Kissinger put his imprimatur on a fake plebiscite in Papua, which had been seeking independence from Indonesia. He chose to be there in person during an “election” in which Indonesia counted only the ballots of 1,100 handpicked “representatives” of the Papuan population. Unsurprisingly, they voted unanimously to remain part of Indonesia.

Why did the United States care about the fate of half of a then–strategically unimportant island in the South China Sea? Because holding onto the loyalty of Indonesia’s autocratic anti-communist ruler Suharto was considered crucial to Washington’s Cold War foreign policy in Asia. Suharto himself had come to power on a wave of mass extermination, during which between 500,000 and 1.2 million supposed communists and their “sympathizers” were slaughtered.

In 1975, Kissinger also greenlighted Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, during which hundreds of thousands died. In contravention of US law, President Gerald Ford’s administration (in which Kissinger continued to serve as national security adviser and secretary of state after Nixon’s resignation) provided the Indonesian military with weapons and training. Kissinger waved off any legal concerns with a favorite aphorism: “The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer.”

Southeast Asia

Beginning in 1969, Kissinger was also the architect of Richard Nixon’s secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, an attempt to interdict the flow of supplies from North Vietnam to the revolutionary Viet Cong in South Vietnam. He believed it would force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table. In this, the great statesman was sadly mistaken. It’s fair to say, in fact, that Kissinger either initiated or at least supported just about every one of the ugly tactics the US military used in its ultimately losing war in Vietnam, from the carpet bombing of North Vietnam to the widespread use of napalm and the carcinogenic herbicide Agent Orange to the CIA’s Phoenix Program, which led to the torturing or killing of more than 20,000 people.

The Vietnam War might well have ended in 1968, rather than dragging on until 1975, had it not been for Henry Kissinger. He was acting as a conduit to North Vietnam for the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, which was working on a peace deal it hoped to announce before the 1968 presidential election. Believing Republican candidate Richard Nixon would be more likely to advance his version of US strategic interests in Vietnam than Democratic candidate and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Kissinger passed information about those negotiations with the North Vietnamese on to the Nixon campaign. Although Nixon had no clout in Hanoi, he had a channel to US ally and South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu and convinced him to pull out of the peace talks shortly before the election. Thanks to Kissinger, the war would follow its cruel course for another seven years of death and destruction.

Pakistan and Bangladesh

In 1971, in a famous “tilt” toward Pakistan, Kissinger gave tacit support to that country’s military dictator, Gen. Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan. In response to a surprise victory by an opposition party in Pakistan’s first democratic election, Yahya then loosed his military on the people of East Pakistan, that party’s geographical base. Three million people died in the ensuing genocidal conflict that eventually led to the creation of the state of Bangladesh. In addition, as many as 10 million members of Bengali ethnic groups fled to India, inflaming tensions between Pakistan and India, which eventually erupted in war. Although the US Congress had forbidden military support for either nation, Kissinger arranged for an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to travel to the Bay of Bengal and provide war matériel to Pakistan. (By then, contempt for congressional restrictions had become a habit for him.)

But why the tilt toward Pakistan? Because that country was helping Kissinger create his all-important opening to China and because he also viewed India as a “Soviet stooge.”

For all his supposedly “brilliant statesmanship,” Kissinger proved incapable of imagining any event as having a significant local or regional meaning. Only the actions or interests of the great powers could adequately explain events anywhere in the world.

Latin America

There was a time when September 11 called to mind not the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon but the violent 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende, Chile’s elected socialist president. That coup, which made Gen. Augusto Pinochet the country’s dictator, was the culmination of a multiyear US campaign of economic and political sabotage, orchestrated by Henry Kissinger.

Once again, a genuinely indigenous economic reform movement was (mis)interpreted as evidence of growing Soviet strength in South America. Within the first few days of the coup, 40,000 people would be imprisoned at the National Stadium in the capital, Santiago. Many of them would be tortured and murdered in the first stages of what became a regime characterized for decades by institutionalized torture.

Similarly, Kissinger and the presidents he advised supported Argentina’s “Dirty War” against dissidents and the larger Operation Condor, in which the CIA coordinated coups d’état, repression, torture, and the deaths of tens of thousands of socialists, students, and other activists across Latin America.

So, what should we give a hundred-year-old presidential adviser for his birthday? How about a summons to appear at the International Criminal Court to answer for the blood of millions staining his hands?

What’s Real About Realpolitik?

If you google images for “realpolitik,” the first thing you’ll see is a drawing of Henry Kissinger holding forth to a rapt Richard Nixon. As a political thinker who prides himself on never having been swayed by passion, Kissinger would seem the perfect exemplar of a realpolitik worldview.

He eschews the term, however, probably because, given his background, he recognizes its roots in the 19th-century German liberal tradition, where it served as a reminder not to be blinded by ideology or aspirational belief when taking in a political situation. Philosophically, realpolitik was a belief that a dispassionate examination of any situation, uninflected by ideology, was the most effective way to grasp the array of forces present in a particular historical moment.

Realpolitik has, however, come to mean something quite different in the United States, being associated not with “what is” (an epistemological stance) but with “what ought to be”—an ethical stance, one that privileges only this country’s imperial advantage. In the realpolitik world of Henry Kissinger, actions are good only when they sustain and advance American strategic power globally. Any concern for the well-being of human beings, or for the law and the Constitution, not to mention democratic values globally, is, by definition, illegitimate if not, in fact, a moral failing.

That is the realpolitik of Henry Alfred Kissinger, an ethical system that rejects ethics as unreal. It should not surprise anyone that such a worldview would engender in a man with his level of influence a history of crimes against law and humanity.

In fact, however, Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik is itself delusional. The idea that the only “realistic” choices for Washington’s leaders require privileging American global power over every other consideration has led this country to its current desperate state—a dying empire whose citizens live in ever-increasing insecurity. In fact, choosing America first (as Donald Trump would put it) is not the only choice, but one delusional option among many. Perhaps there is still time, before the planet burns us all to death, to make other, more realistic choices.

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Rebecca Gordon

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches in the philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes (Hot Books, April 2016). Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua.

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