Politics & Policy

The Demonization of Henry Kissinger

The Left's campaign.

You have to excuse me being a little behind the curve here. I don’t always keep up as well as I should. You think it’s easy, persuading publishers to give you money to write books? Let me tell you, it’s not easy, it’s darned hard work. Plus I have a family to care for, and an old house that needs fixing, and magazine duties. I mean, sometimes I just don’t pay attention as well as I should, and then I find that there’s something everyone knows but me, something I ought to have known, if I’d been paying attention. This is one of those things, or at any rate I think it is. See, I have just woken up to the Left’s demonization of Henry Kissinger.

#ad#The precise moment of awakening occurred a few weeks ago. I was at an event in New York City with a bunch of political types–not conservatives especially, a mixed bunch, with some journalists from the New York Times and other papers, along with some State Department and NGO folk. “NGO” stands for “Non-Governmental Organization,” which is to say, a private body that sets out to do some good in the world. Amnesty International would be an example of an NGO, though they weren’t represented at this particular event. Most NGOs have a leftish, anti-American coloring, as one would expect from O’Sullivan’s Second Law*; which means, I suppose, that most of my readers would, like myself, have broad problems with the average NGO’s definition of “good.” I’ve met quite a lot of these people, though, in one way and another, and I have to say that I think some of them do do good, often under hardship conditions, at considerable risk to themselves, and for very little remuneration or thanks.

Well, anyway, I found myself sitting next to a lady from one of these NGOs, and we got talking. She asked me who I worked for, and I said National Review, and she went: “Oh, boy,” and rolled her eyes, so we knew pretty much where we were with each other right away. I am one charming son of a gun, though, hard to dislike on a personal acquaintance, and a very good listener. (Modest, too!) She got talking about the particular line of research she was involved in, and it was something I am interested in, too, so we got along very cordially for a while. Then the talk expanded, and my companion moved on to the International Criminal Court. She thought it was a great idea, and waxed enthusiastic: “Important step towards universal justice,” etc., etc.

So, I asked in genuine curiosity, what kind of person did she think should be arraigned before this court? “Well,” she said without pausing for thought, “Henry Kissinger, for a start.” I tried to get my NGO lady interested in some other candidates for the title of Major International Criminal**–Kim Jong Il, Robert Mugabe, whoever is currently in charge of Sudan. She was mildly agreeable, but it was clear her heart wasn’t really in it. What put the fire in her eyes was the thought of trying Dr. K. That was when I woke up to what has been happening recently. I dimly recalled a book that came out last year, and some magazine articles before that, and some controversy I hadn’t paid much attention to. Now it all came together: The Lefties are out to get this man!

Are they ever. Returning a rental video the other day, I happened to see a movie on the shelf titled The Trials of Henry Kissinger. Curious, I took it home and watched it. It’s in the form of a documentary, with a brief account of Kissinger’s early life, then detailed commentary on his “crimes.” The main points of the accusation were:

Determined to get a position with whoever won the 1968 presidential election, Kissinger played both sides, feeding information about the peace negotiations to the Nixon camp, and thereby, for the sake of his own personal ambition, causing the failure of those negotiations.

‐Kissinger was guilty of duplicity–lying to Congress–in the bombing of Cambodia. The bombing was illegal under U.S. law, and was also a war crime, leading as it did to the deaths of many innocent civilians.

‐He unnecessary prolonged the Vietnam War, the terms of the 1972 accord being substantially the same as those available three years earlier–three years, 20,000-plus U.S. combat deaths, and unknown numbers of dead Indo-Chinese.

‐He was complicit in the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Chile in 1973…

‐…and likewise in the Indonesian suppression of East Timor in 1975.

(There is actually less in this movie than in the corresponding book by Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, which also covers the 1971 civil war in Pakistan and the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus.)

The movie left me unconvinced on all points other than the vindictiveness of the Left and its tendency towards fanatical monomania. There’s not much doubt that Kissinger was duplicitous, and concealed stuff from Congress, and so on. Not much doubt, either, that he nursed a sardonic and disrespectful attitude towards the bureaucratic dimwits he found himself surrounded by, and towards both the presidents he worked for, and towards Congress. Those latter, though, are the normal reactions of a highly intelligent man with a well-developed sense of humor when confronted with those who perform in the Washington circus. As to the former: Well, the executive always practices as much duplicity as it thinks it can get away with, even at the best of times; and Kissinger came on board at the worst of times, when the Vietnam War was at its height.

The awfulness of that war comes back to you when you read or watch this stuff. I don’t mean its awfulness for the grunts on jungle patrol along mine-strewn trails, or for the peasants at the wrong end of a B-52 strike–all wars are awful in those ways–I mean the peculiar awfulness of this particular war for the American body politic and national psyche. I think every U.S. president from Kennedy on, quite possibly from Truman on, knew that we should never have got mixed up in Indo-China. None of them had any clue how to get out, though, or how to cope with the tarbaby at all, except by throwing in more men and equipment in the hope that if it all went pear-shaped, it would be on the next guy’s watch.***

What all these presidents desperately hoped for was an adviser clever enough to get them off the hook, by means fair or foul. Kissinger, who is a very clever man indeed, did it, by means no more than averagely foul in these kinds of circumstances, and my own inclination is to thank him for it. If he broke U.S. law along the way, the proper mechanism for discovering this would have been the U.S. Congress, and if the job was not done properly, the fault would be theirs. There were in fact at least two congressional investigations, neither of which pinned anything on Kissinger.

I can’t see what any of this has to do with foreigners. To be sure, a lot of foreigners died while we–and he–prosecuted the war, but that’s because it was a war. The number, in any case, is a bagatelle when set against the average Asian-Communist land-reform campaign, not to mention the average Maoist famine or Stalinist purge; and the people we were fighting were, after all, Asian Communists, Maoists, and Stalinists. (Note: The population of Vietnam doubled between 1960 and 1985.)

Kissinger’s meddling in the affairs of Chile, or Cyprus, or Indonesia, is even less impressive as material for criminal charges. Unless you hold the pure-paleocon view that the U.S. ought not meddle at all in other countries’ affairs–and I myself think that view untenable–none of this rises above the usual and acceptable Cold War level, and its effects were more often benign than not, certainly for the U.S., and most likely for the foreigners concerned, too. Chile, in particular, was saved from a Cuban-style dictatorship with all its miseries. The Chileans got a different kind of dictatorship, with some miseries of its own, but it was nothing like as malign, and nothing like as long-lasting, as Castro’s. More to the point, so far as Americans are concerned, it was not virulently pro-Soviet and anti-American. Again, my inclination here is to thank the good doctor for his services.

The concept of “war criminal” seems to me a very knotty one. War consists of killing the enemy and smashing up his assets until he hollers “‘Nuff!” Under modern circumstances a lot of harmless civilians are going to get killed in the process, and that is deplorable; but if wars are to be fought, it can’t be avoided. Deliberately targeting civilians for purposes of terror is doubly deplorable; but the broad Western public seems to accept even that, to judge from the lack of outrage about the terror bombings of enemy cities in WWII, so I don’t really see how even that can be considered a crime, except in an abstract moral sense, disconnected altogether from public feeling. And Kissinger is not even charged with that.

You can argue the “war-crime” concept until the cows come home, of course. (Please don’t send me the arguments–I am sufficiently familiar with them all.) What is really interesting is the anti-Kissinger passion you see on the Left, of which the movie I just saw, and the conversation I had with the NGO lady, are symptoms. What is the Left up to here? What do they hope for? Well, let one of them tell us. Here is Christopher Hitchens, speaking in that movie.

To hunt for those who will use force against civilians for short-term or fanatical aims of their own is now a hunt in which the whole world takes part, and there can’t be any exceptions.

That is, uncharacteristically for Hitchens–he is generally very skilful with words–only just barely coherent. What about a person who beats up on civilians for long-term or nonfanatical aims? I will try to take it, though, as a mission statement for this so-called “movement for universal justice.” What does it imply? If we are to act on it, how should we act?

Well, first of all we should draw up a list of people who, as part of their work for governments in various nations, have been responsible for atrocities against unarmed civilians for ends other than strictly and justifiably military. Then we should try to rank their names on the list, according to the cruelty and depravity of their actions.

For sure, it’s not hard to think of names for that list. I have mentioned a couple already. Half a dozen current or recent members of the Chinese political leadership certainly qualify–Jiang Zemin, for example, who was complicit in the 1989 massacres and the suppression of Falun Gong, or Hu Jintao, responsible for the torture and murder of numberless Tibetans, including Buddhist monks and nuns. Africa is also a rich target field, as of course are the Arab countries, Iran, and Pakistan. Then there is Vladimir Putin, up to his elbows in Chechen blood, and the retired secret policemen of the East European Communist satrapies, and Castro of course….

I am not even going to attempt a ranking. All I want to ask is this: Does the Left really think that Henry Kissinger belongs in this company? Even if they do think so, can they really argue that he stands head-and-shoulders above those other names in the magnitude of his crimes?

Plainly the answers are: Yes, they do, and Yes, they can. He’s the one they want. Kim Jong Il? Vladimir Putin? Jiang Zemin? Yeah, yeah, sure, whatever…but let’s get Kissinger first!

What does this tell us about the Left? Four things, I think. First, they have absolutely no sense of proportion, and only a feeble grasp of what’s been happening in the world these past 30 years. Second, their vindictiveness never dies, nor even dims. Their charges against Kissinger, after all, date back from 28 to 35 years. Whatever happened to the Clintonian mantra of “Let’s move on….”? Third, the Left are flabby, lazy, and cowardly. You’re not going to get hurt arresting Henry Kissinger. He’s old, stands about five-foot-zero, and–the one time I met him, anyway–does not travel with bodyguards. Try arresting Robert Mugabe. Now that would be difficult! The Left, however, is not into difficulty. Like the IRS–which will go after the proprietor of your local hardware store with thermonuclear weapons if he underreports by $300, but will ignore Jesse Jackson or the chairman of Enron when their returns are a million dollars out of whack–the Left likes an easy target.

Fourth, these people really, really, really hate America. I suppose the U.S. contingent among them might respond that, well, true patriotism consists in being harder on the sins of your own country. To which I would say: I am all for coming down hard on the malfeasance of our public officials, but I don’t want to see foreigners mixing in. What’s it got to do with them? These are our officials, and we are a free country under law–which is more than can be said about some of the nations signed up for the International Criminal Court. We’ll deal with our own, thanks very much. In any case, I think the Left response, as I have stated it, is dishonest. I feel patriotism as strongly as anyone, and the way I feel it is, that I am inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to my own countrymen, certainly when confronted with accusations from foreigners. Patriotism is in part fellow-feeling–the gut feeling that even an American criminal is closer to me in spirit and outlook than an Arab or Chinese criminal, by virtue of the fact that he and I are both American.

The international Left, and more especially the U.S. Left, should leave Henry Kissinger alone. Those of us on the Right should speak up more than–I think–we have been doing, in defense of a fine public servant and a great American. The hell with the International Criminal Court. When they have Kim, Arafat, Qaddafi, Castro, Mugabe, and Jiang indicted, arraigned, tried, sentenced, and locked up, then I’ll listen to what they have to say about Henry Kissinger’s “war crimes.” And I still won’t believe it.

* “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.”

**Here is Kissinger’s view of the ICC. Well worth reading.

*** There is a good Vietnam piece by Jonathan Mirsky in the October 9 New York Review of Books, taking pretty much the same view. I came to this view myself by a winding road, having started out as an antiwar student leftist in the Sixties, switched to a shoulda-nuked-Hanoi position when I went conservative, then drifted back some as reflective middle age set in.

NR Staff — Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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