The ugliest truth about Henry Kissinger is that he isn’t a unique monster. (Adam Berry / Getty Images)
Originally published in Jacobin on May 27, 2023
It’s Henry Kissinger’s 100th birthday today. The fact that this monster is celebrated instead of in jail tells you that he’s part of a much bigger problem — and that problem is America’s global empire.
The late Anthony Bourdain wrote in 2001 that “once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.”
However many people might have wanted to do that over the decades, Kissinger remains with us. Today is his hundredth birthday. And he continues to be treated as a respected elder statesman. That should tell you everything you need to know about America’s global empire.
At Least He Likes Sports
Tributes have been flowing to Dr Kissinger all week. At CNN, foreign correspondent David Andelman enthuses that “at 100, Henry Kissinger is still teaching us the value of ‘Weltanschaüng.’” (Weltanschaüng roughly translates to “worldview,” and here it means something like “a comprehensive understanding of how the world works.”) On the website of the International Olympic Committee, IOC president Thomas Bach calls Kissinger a “great statesman” and “political genius” who is also a “great sports enthusiast” and has long been involved with the Olympics.
None cared to mention his various crimes.
As Richard Nixon’s national security advisor — and then secretary of state, a role he took on without giving up his original job — Kissinger personally oversaw a bombing campaign that killed 150,000 civilians in Cambodia. And among many other atrocities he abetted, he helped overthrow Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of Chile. Kissinger notoriously said that he didn’t see “why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.”
The evidence for these crimes has never been in doubt. It’s all a matter of public record. So why hasn’t “Dr K” ever seen the inside of a jail cell?
The ugliest truth about Kissinger is that he isn’t a unique monster. He is an unusually plainspoken representative of a monstrous system of US global hegemony.
Kissinger and Nixon
Nixon didn’t live to see his own hundredth birthday. He died at the age of eighty-one in 1994. But a posthumous centennial birthday celebration was held for the disgraced former president in 2013. Kissinger spoke at that event, ending his remarks by proposing a toast to Nixon as a “patriot, president, and, above all, peacemaker.”
It’s true that Nixon was willing to pursue pragmatic détentes with America’s superpower rivals, China and the Soviet Union. But when I watched the clip of Kissinger’s “peacemaker” toast, all I could think about was an infamous snippet from the 1970 conversation between Kissinger and his deputy Alexander Haig in which Kissinger relays Nixon’s instructions for the bombing of Cambodia. Kissinger knew some members of the administration might have qualms about extending the war to a neutral country, but he made it clear that the commander in chief didn’t want to hear it.
K: Two, he wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves. You got that?
H: (Couldn’t hear but sounded like Haig laughing.)
A few years later, Nixon and Kissinger would burnish their “peacemaker” credentials by finally throwing in the towel after several years of ratcheting up bloodshed in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Perhaps this is the achievement Kissinger was fondly remembering when he toasted his old boss’s memory.
If so, Kissinger was conveniently forgetting that he and Nixon had been spurning essentially the same deal the whole time they’d been escalating the war. In fact, even before Nixon arrived at the White House, he’d worked to sabotage his predecessor Lyndon Johnson’s Paris peace talks — encouraging the South Vietnamese delegation to stonewall in the hopes of getting a better deal when Nixon assumed office.
That much no one bothers to deny. There is some controversy about the extent of Dr Kissinger’s role. In his CNN tribute, David Andelman defends Kissinger by arguing that while “some have suggested that it was Kissinger who sought to slow the process toward peace during Nixon’s presidential campaign,” the evidence from the White House tapes points to H. R. Haldeman as Nixon’s primary accomplice in “monkey wrenching” the talks. But even Adelman allows that Dr Kissinger “may well have tipped off Nixon’s campaign team to Johnson’s thinking.”
A small point, maybe, to hold against an Important Statesman who throws around words like Weltanschaüng.
A Story of Continuity
When Congress brought articles of impeachment against Nixon for corruption and obstruction of justice, Michigan Democratic representative John Conyers proposed including an article on the illegal bombing of Cambodia — which had initially been kept secret from the US public. The proposal was defeated 26 to 12. As Conyers reflected in an article later that year, this may have been because raising the issue of war crimes in Southeast Asia would have impugned “previous administrations” and Congress’s own failure to constrain presidential war-making power.
When Nixon left office, Kissinger stayed on, continuing to serve his highly unusual dual role as national security advisor and secretary of state for Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford. And every single president between Ford and Joe Biden — Democrats and Republican alike — has at some point extended an invitation to Dr K to come to the White House to discuss matters of war and diplomacy.
Some of those visits may have even afforded Kissinger a chance to catch up with old friends. That ghoul softly laughing on the other end of the line as Kissinger relayed Nixon’s instructions for the indiscriminate mass murder of Cambodian civilians, Alexander Haig? He served as commander of US European Command and NATO supreme allied commander for most of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Ronald Reagan made him secretary of state.
Kissinger Isn’t the Only Kissinger
Oddly, Kissinger hasn’t been to the Biden White House, or at least not yet. I’d like to believe that the current president is disturbed by Kissinger’s long history of involvement in prosecutable crimes against humanity. But Biden’s history suggests otherwise.
Does it bother Biden that Kissinger killed lots of civilians in Cambodia? Senator Biden showed no such qualms about the “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq when he backed that war in 2003.
Does it bother Biden that Kissinger plotted coups against elected leftists in Latin America? Vice President Biden doesn’t seem to have uttered a peep of protest when President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton supported the coup against Honduran president Manuel Zelaya.
And while we’re on the subject of Hilary Clinton, it’s worth remembering that she touted her relationship with Henry Kissinger — whom she called a friend and trusted advisor — when she was running for president in 2016. When her primary challenger Bernie Sanders responded by bringing up Salvador Allende, the response from both Clinton and the moderator might as well have been, “Salvador who?”
Kissinger has never deigned to conceal his complicity in clear violations of US and international law that killed vast numbers of innocent people. The fact that he’s reached the age of one hundred as a free man isn’t an oversight; it’s a symptom of a much deeper pathology.
A willingness to bend the global rules — order an assassination here, massacre some villagers there, depose an elected leftist or two in countries that, come on, don’t really matter anyway — was integral to how the United States managed its spheres of influence around the world long before Henry Kissinger came on the scene.
It’s not like Dwight Eisenhower needed advice from Henry Kissinger, who was just about finishing up graduate school at the time, when he decided to protect the interests of the United Fruit Company by overthrowing the government of Guatemala in 1954. And Secretary Clinton may or may not have picked up a phone to consult with a very elderly Dr K about how to handle the crisis in Honduras.
I certainly won’t shed any tears when Dr Kissinger finally dies. And I’ll be ecstatic — if shocked — if he sees the inside of a courtroom before that happens. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that he’s unique. You don’t run a globe-spanning empire for this many decades, batting down geopolitical rivals, peasant revolutions, insurgencies in occupied countries, and inconvenient electorates in crucial client states, without a lot of people staffing your imperial apparatus who think like Henry Kissinger.
There may be something almost demonic in how unabashed Dr K is about his crimes. But when it comes to his basic willingness to disregard legal and moral obstacles to the United States working its will in the world?
It’s Kissingers all the way down.
Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Rutgers University, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.