“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands” –Anthony Bourdain
On November 29th, 2023, Henry Kissinger died at the age of 100. The internet rejoices. For years, Kissinger had been a living embodiment of evil that would just not die, in the realm of online discourse. But at last, the reaper finally got him.
Of course, all the celebration of this man’s death overlooks one obvious fact. By all measurable standards, Kissinger, a career war criminal and routine accessory to mass murder, won. He was able to live comfortably to an age decades older than average, as the last surviving member of Richard Nixon’s cabinet. He was constantly praised and esteemed by the American political class, far away from the countless deaths and destruction he oversaw.
In 2016, I reviewed Christopher Hitchens’ 2001 book The Trial of Henry Kissinger, which shares its title with an accompanying documentary. I want to take the occasion to revisit the topic. This was at a time in which Kissinger had a renewed relevance in the discourse, as the presumed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was a known associate of Kissinger, who vacationed with him and bragged about his approval of her job as secretary of state under Barack Obama. The election was ultimately won by Donald Trump, who met with Kissinger at the White House shortly afterward. Trump also described Kissinger as a longtime friend of his.
In one of the best moments of that horrid election cycle, Clinton’s rival Bernie Sanders contrasted himself, bragging that he would not be taking advice from Kissinger and stated “I’m proud to say Henry Kissinger is not my friend.”
Such a sentiment was largely unheard of by a politician anywhere near the mainstream political discourse. Indeed, to distance oneself from Kissinger is to distance oneself from the core assumptions of the political class, namely, that might makes right, that US hegemony and imperialism are excellent and necessary and must be promoted and defended at all costs.
In his book, Hitchens credits Kissinger with prolonging the Vietnam War by leaking inside information about Nixon’s campaign, thus enabling Nixon to sabotage the peace talks; as “some twenty thousand Americans and an uncalculated number of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians lost their lives.”
Other highlights of the man’s career include:
- Approval (and supply of weapons) for Pakistan’s attack on Bangladesh in 1971 in which 300,000 and 3 million Bengalis and raped hundreds of thousands of Bengali women. This was followed by a massive refugee crisis and a US-backed overthrow of a democratically elected administration in the same country.
- Illegal, unauthorized US bombing campaigns in Cambodia in the early 1970s, which killed as many as 600,000 Cambodians and as many as 300,000 Laocians. The bombings created a refugee crisis involving as many as 2 million people (25 percent of the population). The resulting instability led to the Khmer Rouge taking over the country and murdering 1.5 to 2 million people.
- Approval of the 1973 coup d’etat in Chile, with its accompanying campaigns of economic sabotage, mass murder, kidnappings, and torture by death squads. Around 3,000 people were murdered during the coup, and 28,000 were imprisoned and tortured, with another 40,000 tortured by the regime in the years to come.
- Enabling the 1974 coup by the Greek junta on the island of Cypress. The coup led directly to Turkey invading the island and 250,000 people becoming displaced.
- In his role as national security advisor, he became Nixon’s head of all covert actions; Kissinger took over oversight of Operation Speedy Express from the Johnson administration, which killed 5,000 to 7,000 civilians, according to Department of Defense Internal reports.
- Enabling Indonesia to invade East Timor and subsequently commit genocide in East Timor in 1975, creating another death toll of over 100,000, possibly as high as 200,000. He would go on, years later to serve as board member of Freeport-McMoRan, an international firm with extensive mining and milling interest in Indonesia. In 2000, he was made a political adviser to the president of that country.
- Involvement in a plan to murder Greek Journalist Elias P. Demetracopoulos.
- Enabling the Argentine junta’s “Dirty War,” in which the military and death squads murdered 22,000 to 30,000 dissidents. This was part of a broader involvement of Kissinger and the US intelligence community with Operation Condor, in which right-wing dictatorships across South America murdered thousands of people. Kissinger also undermined Jimmy Carter’s attempts to end the mass killings, by being the Argentine dictator’s personal guest at the 1978 FIFA World Cup.
For many of these acts, the exact number of deaths and related destruction is difficult to calculate, and these numbers are all estimates. Likewise, stating he approved or green-lit these atrocities likely understates his involvement, as a high ranking government official.
In his book, Hitchens argues that Kissinger should have been arrested “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.” And yet, this never happened. He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for a cease-fire in Vietnam that did not last. He did not attend the ceremony and attempted to return the prize medal. Throughout his life, he continued to be praised and admired in US political circles, even landing a position as Chair of the 9/11 Commission under George W. Bush. However, he stepped down from this position when asked to disclose the corporate clients of his consulting firm, citing having conflicts of interest.
Kissinger does pass the incredibly low threshold of having made some positive contributions in his time in office; his détente policy with Russia likely cooled Cold War tensions during the 1970s. He is also often credited with an important role in normalizing US relations with China and opening that country up to international trade. That said, he is known to have supported many of that country’s worst authoritarian excesses, including its use of military force against protesting students in the Tiananmen Square massacre, showing even an anti-communist can be a tanky.
On net, Henry Kissinger embodied the worst aspects of US foreign policy during the Cold War era. Specifically, his use of violent regime changes, secrecy, indiscriminate killing of civilians, willingness to engage in or turn a blind eye to mass murder, and the overthrow of democratically elected governments, and embrace authoritarian ones. While the US did all these things both before and after Kissinger, he is a standout practitioner with an especially disastrous record.
Kissingerism also became the standard approach for his successors. For example, Zbigniew Brzeziński, who was Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, pursued a comparably interventionist approach in that administration’s funding the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in proxy warfare against the USSR. These Mujahideen fighters would inevitably become the Taliban. Brzeziński would go on to declare the September 11th attacks (and by extension all other consequences of his Afghanistan policy) to be “worth it,” as they led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Ronald Reagan, it should be noted, escalated much of the Cold War era interventionism Kissinger pioneered during the 1970s. This includes supporting the Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt during the most intense stage of a genocide in that country, with Montt killing as many as 75,000 people. He likewise directly funded Hissène Habré of Chad who was known to have murdered at least 40,000 people. This is not to mention using arms illegally sold to Iran to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, who engaged in over 13,000 terror attacks, were widely known to routinely engage in human rights abuses, and smuggle drugs into the United States.
Kissingerist assumptions were also expressed by such figures as Madeline Albright, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, and Neera Tanden, who served multiple advisory roles in the Biden White house. Albright notably stated “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future…” Albright, famously declared the 1990’s era sanctions against Iraq, were “worth it” despite their having killed half a million children. To her credit, she would go on to apologize for the remark, and the half million number has been seriously called into doubt. Still, remarks like these to unexpected interview questions shed light on the willingness of people in power to use the deaths of regular people as leverage, in geopolitical power struggles.
Likewise Neera Tanden, notoriously suggested in a 2011 leaked email, that oil rich countries such as Libya, could “partially pay back” the US for intervening there. The bombing campaign and overthrow of Gaddafi, ultimately destabilized the region and led to the Libyan civil war. A similar sentiment was expressed when Donald Trump suggested during his successful 2016 presidential campaign, suggesting the US simply take oil from Iraq to pay for its warfare in that country saying “You know, it used to be to the victor belong the spoils.”
Of course the US invasion of Iraq and the broader neoconservative tendency within the Republican party was itself, fully in the spirit of Kissingerian interventionism. Kissinger himself met with George W. Bush administration members regularly to give advice on the Iraq war, and argued in the Washington Post that “ Victory over the insurgency is the only meaningful exit strategy.”
The point being here being that murderous US foreign intervention neither began or ended with Kissinger, but he took it to the next level and influenced everyone who came after. It was also bi-partisan (not to understate the difference between the parties on other important issues). For example, Joe Biden’s aiding and abetting of Israel, as it commits mass murder, is only a continuation of the policy of all his predecessors, and I would expect any of his republican rivals to be as bad or worse.
Kissinger met and associated with every president who came after his rise and numerous other world leaders as well. That he was able to spend his later life wealthy, celebrated, and respected by much of the American media and political establishment is a real tragedy. As noted above, he won, surviving to an old age, only ever having to face minimal consequences for his actions. But, this victory of Kissinger and those like him need not be eternal.
The fact that the evil of this man was so widely recognized at the time of his death and expressed so freely provides a glimmer of hope for the future. The mainstreaming of calling out war criminals is a welcome development. However, freeing ourselves from the legacy of such people and their followers in government will be a much longer process. Kissinger’s death is just one stop along the way.