Chicago (Special to Informed Comment; Feature) – Amid media whitewashing of Henry Kissinger’s atrocities after his death at 100, we must not lose sight of who he really was. The genocidal policies that Kissinger enacted and enabled resulted in an estimated death toll of between three and four million, according to historian Greg Grandin, author of the biography Kissinger’s Shadow.
Kissinger prolonged the Vietnam War and expanded the carnage to Cambodia and Laos. During the eight years he served in the American government, Kissinger backed the invasion of Angola by South Africa’s apartheid regime, accelerating civil war; green-lit Pakistan’s ethnic cleansing in Bangladesh and Indonesia’s bloodshed in East Timor; and, supported military coups in Chile and Argentina.
There were “few people who have had a hand in as much death and destruction, as much human suffering, in so many places around the world as Henry Kissinger,” said veteran war crimes prosecutor Reed Brody.
Despite this history, various conservative media outlets lionized the war criminal. The Wall Street Journal credited Kissinger as the man who “Helped Forge U.S. Foreign Policy During Vietnam and Cold Wars.” The Daily Mail lauded him as a “Nobel Prize winner who stared down the Soviets.” Fox News hailed him as the pioneer of “the policy of détente with the Soviet Union” who “won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for negotiating the Paris Peace Accords to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam.”
Elsewhere, major publications glossed over Kissinger’s human rights abuses, framing him as a towering figure who drew controversy in his relentless pursuit of U.S. interests. NPR highlighted Kissinger’s “unwavering commitment” when urging “bombing campaigns in Vietnam and Cambodia to strengthen the U.S. negotiating position.” PBS labeled him “consequential” and “controversial,” while CNN said he was a “dominating and polarizing force.” The BBC called him a “Divisive diplomat who shaped world affairs.”
In fact, Kissinger’s diplomatic conniving facilitated massacres around the globe. It is an insult to history that Kissinger is not condemned for his many acts of treachery: secret bombings, coup-plotting, supporting loathsome dictators, and subverting democracy in defense of corporate profiteering. Closer to the truth, Rolling Stone headlined “Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved by America’s Ruling Class, Finally Dies.”
Before his time in office, Kissinger sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace Talks, where he was a consultant. Amidst the Vietnam war‘s bloodiest year — in which 16,899 Americans were killed including my best friend — then-President Johnson initiated peace talks between the North Vietnamese communists, and the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese puppet government. Kissinger conspired with Richard Nixon’s electoral campaign against democrat Hubert Humphrey by leaking information to it. Fearing that even a ceasefire might bring the Democrats electoral victory, Nixon told an aide to “monkey wrench” the peace talks. Using Kissinger’s disclosures to urge South Vietnamese negotiators to stonewall the proposed agreement, Nixon promised them a better deal.
Embed from Getty Images
President Nixon and his chief foreign affairs advisor, Dr. Henry Kissinger, arrive at the NBC-TV studios where Nixon is to make a speech to the nation on foreign policy (Via Getty Images).
A peace agreement would save American and Vietnamese lives, but it might undermine Nixon’s electoral hopes and Kissinger’s desire for power. The peace negotiations collapsed and Nixon was elected president, after which he appointed Kissinger — a man for whom power was a religion — national security adviser, a position he occupied until 1975. The war dragged on pointlessly for years.
Having claimed a secret plan to end the war, Nixon found himself without leverage with Hanoi. Hoping to manufacture leverage, Kissinger initiated the “madman strategy.” He perpetuated the idea to the North Vietnamese that Nixon was driven mad by communism, according to Seymour Hersh in The Price of Power: “We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button.”
Kissinger actually devised a plan to nuke North Vietnam in an attack called “Duck Hook,” a code-name borrowed from golf parlance. “It shall be the assignment of this group,” he explained, “to examine the option of a savage, decisive blow against North Vietnam.” In his 1957 best-selling book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, Kissinger argued that the U.S. should use tactical nuclear weapons in any confrontation with the Soviet Union. In the early 1960s, he advised the Kennedy White House to revamp U.S. nuclear policies, including a first-strike option and more funding for fallout shelters.”
Embed from Getty Images
Meeting between Le Duc Tho and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for negotiating an end to the war in Viêt Nam, 10 December 1972 at Gif-sur-Yvette. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images).
Kissinger was the sort of nuclear lunatic that Stanley Kubrick ferociously satirized in his 1964 film Dr. Strangelove. Peter Sellers denied that Kissinger was the model for his Strangelove character, who spoke with a German accent and whose poorly controlled mechanical arm sprang suddenly into “Sieg Heil” salutes. Nevertheless, Kissinger was the real Dr. Strangelove.
Duck Hook never became operational; however, to drive home the madman threat, Kissinger ordered a secret carpet-bombing campaign in Cambodia, through which the North Vietnamese supplied its South Vietnamese allies. The perversely named “Operation Breakfast” was Kissinger’s idea, reported history Professor Juan Cole. Having promised “an honorable end to the war,” Nixon wanted to appear to be in pursuit of peace — thus the secrecy — while still inflicting heavy damage and death to achieve concessions.
The bombing campaign ultimately killed between 150,000 and a half-million Cambodian civilians, hastened the rise of the murderous dictator Pol Pot, whose Khmer Rouge regime killed as many as 2 million Cambodians. A Pentagon report released in 1973 stated that “Henry A. Kissinger approved each of the 3,875 Cambodia bombing raids in 1969 and 1970 as well as the methods for keeping them out of the newspapers.” Despite its ferocity, the bombing campaign fell far short of its strategic aims.
Frustrated, Nixon announced, in May, 1970, an invasion of Cambodia to do what the secret bombing had failed to do. In the air or on the ground, Kissinger was unable to destroy the supply routes, only human beings. The campuses exploded in protests. Four days after Nixon’s speech, National Guardsmen opened fire at Kent State, killing four students and wounding nine who were demonstrating. Two weeks later, at Jackson State, police shot into a group of protesting African American students, killing two and wounding twelve.
At the same time, Kissinger implemented the so-called “Vietnamization” of the war, withdrawing ground troops while increasing the bombing. This reduced the number of Americans killed, increased the number of Asians killed, while providing a phony façade of “saving face” that successfully fooled the gullible public. Winning re-election in a landslide, Nixon made Kissinger secretary of state.
Buoyed by re-election, Nixon mandated the 1972 Christmas bombing of North Vietnam, the largest of the war. The North Vietnamese still refused to renegotiate. After more years of ratcheting up the bloodshed and many corpses later, Nixon and Kissinger burnished their “peacemaker” credentials by finally giving up. Kissinger “negotiated” essentially the same deal that he sabotaged in 1968. An aide to Kissinger John Negroponte, in a documentary, offered a horrific postmortem: “We bombed the North Vietnamese into accepting our concessions.”
Summing up the disaster, President Obama in 2016 said, “We dropped more ordnance on Cambodia and Laos than on Europe in World War II and yet, ultimately, Nixon withdrew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaughter, and authoritarian governments that finally, over time, have emerged from that hell.”
Yet, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kissinger and his North Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho “for jointly having negotiated a cease fire in Vietnam in 1973” — an award for an agreement to end a war Kissinger encouraged and extended. Tho refused the honor. He said that the U.S. had violated the treaty, while also casting the deal as an American capitulation. Kissinger was a Nobel Peace Prize-winning war criminal — a slap in the face for the many victims of his brutality.
In Southeast Asia, Kissinger laid waste to several countries. In Latin America, he subverted democracy. After socialist Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile in 1970, Kissinger began plotting the overthrow of his government. Allende’s program was more than redistributionist. He demanded reparations from U.S. corporations for exploiting its copper resources. Regarding this policy, Kissinger remarked, “I don’t see why we need to stand idly by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
Fearing the rise of an inspirational socialist country in Latin America, Kissinger supervised clandestine operations aimed at destabilizing Chile. He triggered a military coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who seized power, killed thousands of Chileans, tortured many more, and implemented a murderous dictatorship. As Chile instituted a capitalist agenda, Kissinger later explained to State Department officials that “no matter how unpleasant they act, the Pinochet government is better for us than Allende was.”
Kissinger’s crimes stretched beyond Southeast Asia and Latin America. He supported the brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide by the West Pakistan military government. It suppressed Bengali nationalists, who had won an election for independence in the former East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in the early 1970s.
Kissinger ignored a congressional prohibition against sending arms to Pakistan. Despite legal pressure and advocacy initiatives like George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, Kissinger approved shipments of weapons that perpetuated and turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s slaughter of 300,000 Bengalis. Kissinger, like his patron Nixon, showed nothing but contempt for public opinion or the rule of law and callousness for the most helpless people on earth.
Pakistan‘s military leader helped lay the ground work for Nixon’s opening to China, a cold war victory over the Soviet Union. “We saved the China option which we need for the bloody Russians,” Kissinger said to Nixon in 1972, “Why should we give a damn about Bangladesh?”
Remaining secretary of state under Gerald Ford, who assumed the presidency when the Watergate scandal forced the deranged Nixon to resign, Kissinger endorsed Indonesian dictator Suharto’s 1975 invasion of East Timor. He sparked a conflict that would, between 1976 and 1980, kill between nearly 200,000 people. Kissinger feared East Timor‘s independence effort could lead to an anti-colonialist government sympathetic to the Soviets. Kissinger believed these atrocities were worth it, to bolster American corporate interests by stopping the spread of communism.
While many of his White House colleagues had been imprisoned and disgraced by myriad Watergate crimes, Kissinger thrived. Through a combination of psychopathic narcissism, media manipulation, and an uncanny ability to obscure the truth, he transformed himself from a college professor and bureaucrat into the most celebrated American diplomat of the 20th century.
Yet in the streets of Vietnam, Cambodia or Bangladesh, Kissinger does not look like a foreign policy genius, but rather like an ugly, hubristic American who ignored the lives of people he shrugged at slaughtering.
Near the end of his time as secretary of state, Kissinger sanctioned Argentina’s neo-fascist military dictatorship that overthrew President Isabel Perón and launched what would be called the “Dirty War,” torturing, disappearing, and killing political opponents it branded as terrorists.
Kissinger’s unrepentant dishonesty and duplicity would reverberate throughout American history. The actions of the Reagan White House in the Iran-Contra scandal echo Kissinger in its attempt to deceive the public and circumvent Congress in order to exercise power unencumbered by laws. The same goes for the secret, illegal torture program pursued under President George W. Bush. The Kissinger code is a belief that the president can act unilaterally, anywhere in the world, without democratic deliberation or public accountability.
Kissinger served as an informal adviser to numerous presidents, secretaries of state and foreign policy heavyweights. He was acclaimed by leaders of both major political parties and large think tanks, and given prominent media platforms to offer his perspective on American military crusades.
In the wake of 9/11, Kissinger cheered on the war in Iraq. “The notion of justified pre-emption,” he wrote, “runs counter to modern international law,” but was nonetheless necessary because of the novelty of the “terrorist threat.” Less than three weeks later, Vice President Dick Cheney, laying out his case for an invasion of Iraq, quoted directly from Kissinger’s column: “As former Secretary of State Kissinger recently stated,” there is “an imperative for pre-emptive action.”
Kissinger advised Bush and Cheney throughout that war, in which over 200,000 Iraqi civilians died. Bush leaned on him as he rolled out his “shock and awe” strategy, deciding to carpet bomb Iraqi civilians. While not “singularly responsible for the evolution of the U.S. national security state into a monstrosity,” wrote Grandin, Henry Kissinger’s example of “bombing as an instrument of diplomacy has coursed through the decades.”
The Obama administration cited the Cambodia bombing as the legal justification for its drone wars. Kissinger later asserted that many of the arguments he made to justify the illegal and covert wars in Cambodia and Laos were now an unquestioned, public part of American policymaking — foundational pillars permitting four presidents to bomb Iraqis, Afghans, Yemenis, Somalis, Libyans, Syrians, and others. Trump’s assassination of the Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani conforms to a Kissinger- style war crime.
Even while living his last days, Kissinger could not stop himself from promoting war. Following the October 7 attack in Israel, Kissinger proclaimed full support for the brutal Israeli war on Gaza, saying: “You can’t make concessions to people who have declared and demonstrated by their actions that they cannot make peace.” As Juan Cole noted, “The Netanyahu government’s carpet-bombing of Gaza is a direct descendant of Kissinger’s Operation Breakfast.”
Kissinger lived to hear human rights advocates the world over demand his prosecution for war crimes. Christopher Hitchens, in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger, accused him of “crimes against humanity, and for offenses against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture” from Argentina, Bangladesh, Chile and East Timor to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. The accusations were never answered but the hideous policies they have identified represent Kissinger’s most infamous and influential legacy.
Kissinger never showed remorse for those misdeeds. Though his hands were drenched in blood, he remained a member in good standing of the Washington elite and never paid any real price for overseeing, overlooking, and perpetrating some of the most grotesque crimes America has ever committed.