The Trial of Henry Kissinger
by Christopher Hitchens (2001)
Christopher Hitchens’s 2001 book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, has become strangely relevant this month as Richard Nixon’s former Secretary of State finds himself in the news. Kissinger’s rediscovered relevancy began when Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton bragged that she “was very flattered when Henry Kissinger said I ran the State Department better than anybody had run it in a long time. So I have an idea about what it’s going to take to make our government work more efficiently.”
Clinton neglected to mention that the relationship between the Clintons and the Kissingers is personal as well as professional, as the two families have a history of vacationing together. In the presidential debate that followed, Bernie Sanders took the opportunity to use the endorsement against Clinton, noting “I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country,” adding “I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger.” Sanders’s initial claim is an understatement, as Kissinger can more accurately be described as a mass murderer and war criminal.
Kissinger’s crimes against humanity are well-documented and are the subject of Hitchens’s book as well as an accompanying documentary film by the same title. The book is a short, easy read (totaling just under 80 pages) and is an excellent introduction to one of the most infamous figures in US politics. It also succeeds in outlining the criminal mischief of the American state during the Cold War. Of interest to libertarians, the book is full of examples of the evil that the state is capable of. Left-libertarians in particular will take note of the examples of violent American intervention on behalf of American companies and third world elites.
The relevance to anti-interventionism may strike many as ironic due to Hitchens’s own opposition to certain libertarian ideas. Hitchens began his career as a self-proclaimed Socialist with Marxist leanings. He gradually split with the left, in part due to its embrace of Bill Clinton, whom he was highly critical of, often for good reason. He alienated friends and many readers by supporting the War on Terror, including the US invasion of Iraq. Some have speculated about the role his strong dislike of the Islamic faith contributed to this position. Hitchens would make a bigger name for himself in the years following the invasion as an outspoken atheist and critic of religion. All this before dying in a very public battle with cancer. He wrote on a wide variety of topics, always welcomed controversy and is a much remembered for his colorful personality as well as his heavy alcohol intake.
While Hitchens’s reputation precedes him, it plays only a minimal role in this book, which sticks to the subject at hand. Hitchens states that Kissinger should be tried “for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offenses against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture.” He confines his narrative to crimes that he believes Kissinger can be tried for under American or international law. Thus, he gives only a passing mention to incidents such as Kissinger’s encouragement of Iraqi Kurds in 1974 to take arms against Saddam Hussein, only to subsequently abandon the Kurds, which led to their extermination. Likewise, Hitchens gives little attention to Kissinger’s assistance to apartheid South Africa and the destabilization of Angola, as well as Kissinger’s whitewashing of Central American Death Squad activity in the 1980s.
While Hitchens finds all of this repugnant, he does not find it far enough outside the usual realm of realpolitik to make these affairs central parts of his book. Instead he focuses mostly on his works with the Nixon and Ford Administrations. Hitchens discusses how Nixon’s presidential campaign derailed the 1968 Paris piece talks with Vietnam by encouraging the South Vietnamese to pull out of the talks, with promise of more favorable terms after Nixon’s election as president. Kissinger was part of the peace talks and an important inside source of information for the Nixon camp regarding plans of the Johnson administration. This allowed Kissinger to play a key role in the sabotage which prolonged the Vietnam War by another four years. As a result, Hitchens notes, “some twenty thousand Americans and an uncalculated number of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians lost their lives.” The failed peace talks made it possible for Nixon to undermine the Humphrey camp’s “peace plank” and win the 1968 election. Ultimately the Vietnam war concluded on identical terms to those proposed in Paris in 1968.
Hitchens strongly implies that Kissinger’s involvement in the Vietnam sabotage is the reason Nixon made him his first appointee (as National Security Adviser). Kissinger also presided over the secretive “Forty Committee” which reviewed and approved all covert action carried out by the US government between 1969 and 1976. This presumably gave him full knowledge and responsibility over all covert activities, including Operation Speedy Express, which involved the killing of an estimated 5,000 unarmed civilians as well as the indiscriminate bombing to Laos and Cambodia. As a result of this operation, 300,000 thousand Laotians and 600,000 Cambodians died and a prolonged public health crisis. Hitchens argues that Kissinger lied about taking measures to minimize civilians casualties, and that he favored prolonging the war until after the 1972 election.
Next Hitchens goes on to cover Kissinger’s involvement in mass murder and assassination in Bangladesh. The country had freed itself from Pakistan which at the time was an American client state. With American-supplied weapons and implicit approval, Pakistan retaliated with an attack on the Bengali Capital of Dacca. Somewhere between half a million and three million were killed and a massive refugee crisis ensued. This was followed a few years later by a US backed coup which overthrew the democratically-elected government, installing a Kissinger-friendly regime.
The next chapter focuses on the Chilean Coup of 1973 in which the Nixon administration, with the help of the CIA’s economic sabotage, staged an assassination followed by a coup in Chile. Chile at the time was the most developed democracy in the American southern hemisphere, but it elected the socialist leaning Salvador Allende, who threatened to nationalize industries largely dominated by American firms such as ITT, Pepsi Cola and the Chase Manhattan Bank. Thus the CIA staged a coup and installed the repressive Augusto Pinochet regime. Hitchens gives accounts of the murder-kidnapping of a Chilean general who stood in Pinochet’s way, as well as the expansion of death squads and the resultant murder, torture and disappearance of thousands of Chileans.
A similar story is told in the following chapter in which a US-backed coup on the island of Cyprus leaves thousands of civilian deaths and 200,000 refugees. Hitchens follows this story with a report on the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which happens the day of a visit between the Indonesian dictator Suharto, President Gerald Ford and Kissinger himself. The invasion was approved by Ford and Kissinger and involved the deaths of 100,000 civilians killed with American-supplied weapons.
Hitchens also explores the curious case of Elias P. Demetracopoulos, an exiled Greek journalist who criticized the Nixon regime for its support of the Greek military dictatorship. Demetracopoulos uncovered that the Nixon 1968 presidential campaign received $549,000 from the Greek dictatorship through the ultra-conservative Greek businessman Thomas Pappas. Presidential campaign contributions from foreign governments are illegal in US elections. Furthermore, being that the Greek dictatorship was a recipient of CIA funds, it could mean that CIA money had been rerouted back to a presidential campaign. Hitchens argues that the Watergate burglary may have been an attempt to ascertain whether the Democrats had knowledge of the Pappas connection, among other things. Demetracoupoulos himself discovered a previously classified document that refers to his own death, which begins Hitchen’s exploration of a Kissinger-backed plot to kill him.
In each of these stories Hitchens thoroughly implicates Kissinger in the crime discussed, weather he planned it, assisted in carrying it out or merely approved it. He includes an appendix discussing Kissinger’s private consulting firm Kissinger Associates. “The Associates” help such client-firms as American Express, ITT Lockheed, Anheuser-Busch, the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, Coca-Cola, and Union Carbide deal with (usually repressive) governments, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. These dealings allowed Kissinger to personally profit from his political activities and connections.
Hitchens points out that many who have worked with Kissinger have done jail time or have resigned from government positions in disgrace, though some did go on to work in subsequent administrations. His book is an excellent indictment not only of a vicious political operative, but the political system that allowed Kissinger to thrive. It also does much to put to rest the notion of America as a benevolent hegemony, or even the possibility of benevolent foreign intervention. Furthermore, in the case of Hillary Clinton, it is an indictment of the current political establishment, being that its presidential front-runner openly brags of her association with this man.