Don't Rehabilitate Henry Kissinger
His life should teach us about the crimes of Empire
Henry Kissinger is dead. He died of natural causes at age 100. Within an hour of seeing the news I got a message from Chilean acquaintance Benjamin Alvarez saying “this is how he will be remembered in my country.” It was followed by a picture of Kissinger with notorious dictator Augusto Pinochet and a message. The message read, “Henry Kissinger pressed President Nixon to overthrow the democratically elected Allende government in Chile. In 1976, Kissinger told dictator Pinochet: ‘We want to help, not undermine you. You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.’" And the result was nightmarish. Pinochet killed at least 3,000 Chileans during his dictatoship, and tortured at least 40,000.
As most of you know, Kissinger’s support for this fascist regime in Chile is not the atrocity he’s best known for. In many minds he is synonymous with America’s countless war crimes in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Spencer Ackerman’s obituary sums up the sheer death that this one man had a massive, outsized role in, “The Yale University historian Greg Grandin, author of the biography Kissinger’s Shadow, estimates that Kissinger’s actions from 1969 through 1976, a period of eight brief years when Kissinger made Richard Nixon’s and then Gerald Ford’s foreign policy as national security adviser and secretary of state, meant the end of between three and four million people.” Maybe the most notorious killing spree of this period was a secret, illegal four-year bombing campaign in Cambodia that killed upwards of half a million civilians, despite the fact that Cambodia was a neutral country the United States was not at war with. Kissinger personally approved “each of the 3,875 Cambodia bombing raids” according to his unsparing HuffPost obituary. And all of this is, in some ways, just the tip of the iceberg. The effects of his decisions and his willingness to sacrifice civilians for U.S. interests are still felt in Argentina, Bangladesh, Palestine, and beyond.
However, I’m not here to go through every war crime he enabled and ordered. I’ll let those who know more spell that out for you, and the obituaries linked above do a painfully good job of that. What I am here to talk about, what I do know, is that how we respond to this death matters. There will surely be a number of back and forths about the horror of celebrating this man’s death, vs. those who celebrate and insist that the death of one who killed so many is a moment of joy. But all of that is primarily a distraction. What matters now is his legacy, or what we do with the story of such a life.
I think it is important to note, first, that Kissinger was wholly unrepentant. He was unwilling to acknowledge that his actions constituted war crimes, and even said, at age 90, that such accusations revealed more about the accusers than himself. Yet in the very same interview where he dismisses allegations of war crimes he claims that the parts of Cambodia whose bombing he oversaw “were essentially unpopulated.” In addition to the simple fact that this is a lie of the highest order, he’s on record telling his military assistant that Nixon, “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.” This order conveys a war crime. It is an order to not distinguish between civilians and military targets, not to mention that the U.S. was not at war with Cambodia. His refusal to admit to these heinous acts is paired with an utter lack of consequence. Kissinger was not once materially punished for facilitating the death of millions. Instead he was called controversial, decisive, and complicated while advising 12 different presidents. Twelve.
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But around the world, there is no such uncertainty. Every year, in the fields of Laos and Cambodia, a not insignificant number of unexploded ordinances proceed to explode. In other words, the bombs that Kissinger illegally ordered dropped around the world keep hurting people today, a perfect and deadly symbol of his legacy. The global South, the vast majority of the world, is clear on who Kissinger was, and what his legacy will be. But, in the U.S., what will we do with the life of this war criminal?
The New York Times is talking about how Kissinger was “both celebrated and reviled.” They discuss “his complicated legacy” of ordering U.S. bombs and intervention around the world. Over at CNN they call him “a dominating and polarizing force” before proceeding to say how his actions contributed directly “to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime” and “a coup against a democratic government in Chile.” But this is no surprise. The typical response to U.S. leaders who have committed atrocities is to rehabilitate them. We see how George Bush, after lying to us and to the world about Iraq, and causing a million civilian deaths, is now a grandfatherly painter of dogs who occasionally trots out to make a statement. Kissinger is more reviled, and harder to rehab, so instead we are told to consider the nuance and complexity of his war crimes by the media outlets that dominate the center of American media.
Yet, at the same time, there is something slightly different afoot here. While the largest outlets admit that there might be some complexity, other outlets are going after Kissinger in a way we rarely see in death. The Huffington Post headline reads, “Henry Kissinger, America’s Most Notorious War Criminal, Dies At 100” while over at Rolling Stone they’re saying “Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved by America’s Ruling Class, Finally Dies.”
Usually death is the great nullifier. Even for those whose life was wholly and unequivocally devoted to harming others, in particular when that harm was conducted systemically or behind a desk with a U.S. government seal, that person’s record is typically cleaned up considerably. Most often media and politicians on both sides of the aisle refuse to speak ill of the dead. And I doubt if, today, we’ll see Senators or Members of Congress speak of Kissinger as a war criminal, but he represents a crack in the dam. Major publications being so willing to overtly call him out, even in death, marks a change from the normal precedent.
Now what’s needed is an understanding that Kissinger does not stand alone. It’s easy to place the crimes of empire on the shoulder of one man, acknowledge that he was awful, and keep it moving. And we may now see an effort to do that. But again, he advised 12 presidents. More than 25% of U.S. presidents. And the source on that one is the New York Times. So what is needed, now, is to consider how Kissinger was acting out the interests of the United States, and how he embodied our government’s historic willingness to sacrifice innocent people around the globe to further American business and political interests. As Thomas Meaney wrote in his 2020 essay, The Myth of Henry Kissinger, “If all the sins of the U.S. security state can be loaded onto one man, all parties get what they need: Kissinger’s status as a world-historic figure is assured, and his critics can regard his foreign policy as the exception rather than the rule.”
So now we must understand the rule, and not just focus on the exception. We must examine the life of Henry Kissinger and see him as a thread, albeit a very prominent thread, in the long history of U.S. empire and foreign policy. If we pull, and pull at that thread we can begin to unravel the tapestry. And in this moment more and more people are willing to tug at this and other threads. People are ready to examine how we got to a point of hegemonic world power that claims the values of liberty and freedom and yet finances and arms fascist regimes around the globe. If we fail to pull at this thread, it will be woven back into the tapestry. Whether that means downplaying and excusing Kissinger’s crimes, or offloading the millions of deaths perpetrated by this nation onto the legacy of no man, neither option brings us collectively closer to the truth. We need to get closer, expose the truth, and use it to educate ourselves and one another about the harm of the current system. Then we can begin to build a better system where war criminals aren’t advising presidents for decades. That should be the barest minimum. And yet, it will take considerable work to get there. So, as always, let’s get to it.
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