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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Kissinger

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 immunity.

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 René 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 are.

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.

THE TRIAL OF HENRY KISSINGER By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS | Verso 2001 | 159 pages | $22 hardcover


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