The Trial of Henry Kissinger, by Christopher Hitchens, Verso, 2001, 160 pages Cloth, price £15/US$22/CAN$32
One afternoon in 1971, I was asked to stay behind after school when all my classmates had left. My third-grade substitute teacher had some “concerns” she said, about the short story I’d handed in the day before. No, she didn’t mind that all the characters were talking animals. Her “concern” was that the forces of evil were represented by a smelly barnyard hog named “Kissinger”, and that this “Kissinger” kept talking about wanting to blow up the world.
“Where did you get this idea?” she demanded, as if eight-year-old boys aren’t supposed to know the names of world figures (or, at least, aren’t supposed to turn them into psychotic mass killers for their language arts assignments). Instead of congratulating my early discovery of satire, my hapless instructor–convinced that my little mind had been poisoned by the subversive ideas of Walter Cronkite–threatened to call in the child psychologist. To this day, I don’t know what bothered her more–my precociousness or my choice of enemy. Was Henry Kissinger not, after all, on “our” side?
This moment from my childhood came flooding back recently as I read Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger. After finishing the book, I couldn’t help wondering: what does it mean that an eight-year-old Canadian boy in 1971 had some inkling that the US national security adviser and later secretary of state was the scum of the earth, but the mainstream US media establishment wouldn’t know it–or, at least, would pretend not to–thirty years later? What does it mean that a man whose political maneuverings caused so much death and suffering in the Third World and who repeatedly violated the US Constitution to plot murders and overthrow democratically elected governments, can be rewarded with directorships on corporate boards, high demand in the $25,000-a-speech dinner circuit, a regular gig on ABC’s “Nightline”, and a bulging social calendar in Manhattan including parties thrown by former New Yorker editor Tina Brown?
Clearly, a lot of people have forgotten the Henry Kissinger who sabotaged the Vietnam peace process in 1968 to deliver the US election to Richard Nixon, only to be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1973 for accepting the same terms the Democrats were willing to accept five years-and several hundred thousand deaths-earlier. Or the Henry Kissinger who ignored generals’ warnings that some of the areas in Cambodia and Laos being bombed to smithereens were populated by thousands of unarmed civilians. Or the Henry Kissinger who plotted the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. Or the Henry Kissinger who promised American support for the Indonesian bloodbath in East Timor. Or the Henry Kissinger who…you get the idea. Christopher Hitchens hasn’t forgotten. And he’s chosen a most opportune moment in the global political zeitgeist–the age of human rights law and the war crimes tribunal–to remind us just how much of a cold-blooded, amoral, Machiavellian slimeball Kissinger really was, and likely still is.
Hitchens is one of the last of a dying breed of ink-stained wretches-a leftie curmudgeon and gadfly who, despite collecting pay-cheques from both The Nation and Vanity Fair, still believes in the importance of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. While it’s true that many of his sentences read like he’s still trying to show off for his Oxford dons–a lot of arch skepticism and juicy venom which, on occasion, stop just short of calumny-he’s usually right on target. His style is aggressively heterosexual, but the thumping chest of his prose can’t hide the peacock feathers of a bona fide drama queen, which makes him very funny most of the time. And unlike some tired, babyboom wankers who see their youthful idealism as misguided, Hitchens is motivated by the same principles that drove him as a student: a strong passion for justice and a flaming intolerance for pompous pretense and hypocrisy. Recently the Vatican invited him to answer questions about his book on Mother Theresa, which Rome is reportedly including in its evidence to decide whether the late Calcutta nun should be beatified. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when a senior Catholic official actually uttered the book’s title: The Missionary Position.
But since The Trial of Henry Kissingerwas published a few months ago, its Washington-based, British expat author has been skewered by most American reviewers. Last week in the New York Times, a former US ambassador to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia described Hitchens’ book as a “philippic, pure and simple”, a “propaganda screed”, a “travesty” and an “intemperate diatribe” whose conclusions are “devoid of balance” and “reek of double standards”. Other, less temperate critics have dismissed Hitchens as a meddling, Limey carpetbagger who ought to go back to his tea and crumpets.
They’re wrong. Hitchens has done America a great public service. Seymour Hersh and other investigative journalists may have uncovered most of the evidence to lend credence to the “war criminal” label. But until Hitchens came along, no one had synthesized the material to quite this extent, turning the former Nixon aide’s offences into a smorgasbord of criminal sleaze. If Kissinger doesn’t belong on the witness stand, you’re left thinking, who the hell does? Interestingly, Kissinger has yet to lift a litigious finger in reply to the book’s central charges: deliberate killing of civilian populations in Indochina; deliberate collusion in mass murders, and later in assassination, in Bangladesh; involvement in plans to murder a senior military officer in Chile and the head of state in Cyprus; the incitement and enabling of genocide in East Timor; and personal involvement in a plan to kidnap and murder a journalist living in Washington, DC.
Before examining the legal precedence or avenues available for prosecution, Hitchens first had to establish the parameters of Kissinger’s authority-the extent of his decision-making capacity without which it would have been impossible to accuse him of anything. Kissinger was the highest ranking public official in US history never to have been elected to public office. As Hitchens reminds us, he was plucked from his teaching post at Harvard to be Richard Nixon’s first appointment as president in 1969. As national security adviser, he consolidated his power through the Forty Committee, a shadowy watchdog group set up by the CIA in the post-war years to oversee all of America’s covert actions. During his chairmanship, from 1969 until 1976, a lot of shit went down.
Through his work on this committee, and other ex officio roles in the State Department, Kissinger is revealed as a maestro of cynical statecraft who employed the most innovative ways to circumvent the Constitution in pursuit of Nixon’s agenda. (No point going through the laundry list again, but sending US arms in “diplomatic pouches” to Santiago to support the kidnapping-which later became the murder-of a Chilean general loyal to Allende, seems a good enough example.) Since the authority he empowered himself with was on par with that of a military supreme commander, the notion that Kissinger answered to Nixon and was thus “just following orders” seems an especially lame defence for immunity.
Kissinger himself seems to know this. Despite all the documents he locked away in the Library of Congress before skipping Washington 25 years ago, he did leave enough of a paper trail to consume a small rainforest. Which is why, in 1998, he pressed the panic button when a Spanish judge prosecuted Augusto Pinochet while the former Chilean dictator was getting a new pacemaker in London. On December 1 of that year, the Clinton administration said it would release classified documents revealing US knowledge of killings and torture committed by Pinochet’s regime. The next day, after reading about it in the New York Times, Kissinger was on the phone with his publisher, expressing righteous outrage over a decision that might one day threaten the precious immunity that has kept him in such wealth over the years.
His instincts were right. On May 28 this year he was in his hotel room at the Ritz in Paris, relaxing from yet another grueling dinner engagement, when he was rudely interrupted by a knock on the door. It was a process server with a summons from Judge Roger Le Loire, inviting the distinguished American visitor to attend the Palace of Justice the following day. Justice Le Loire was investigating the fate of five missing French citizens in Chile during the Pinochet years, and he wanted Kissinger to tell the court what he knew about Operation Condor, a coordinated effort in the 1970s by the secret police forces of seven South American dictatorships.
Condor was what you might call a Regional Free Trade Massacre Agreement whereby the death squads of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador and Bolivia pooled their resources to hunt down, torture, kill and “disappear” each other’s dissidents. The judge had documents revealing that Kissinger, as a key member of the US State Department’s Interagency Committee on Chile and chairman of the “Forty Committee” that organized covert actions in Chile, might have had intimate knowledge of some of these events. So would he be so kind as to grace the court with his presence the next morning?
Kissinger left the Ritz in a huff, surrounded by bodyguards. Later, with the blessing of the US embassy in Paris and the State Department–now under a president whose father was a CIA director before himself becoming president–he announced he had no intention of answering questions about Condor. Then he got on a plane and left Paris. None of this was reported in the New York Times.
A few days earlier, an identical request was made of Kissinger by Argentine judge Rodolfo Canicoba, who was seeking to find out what happened to his country’s citizens during the Condor years. Then on June 4, Chilean judge Juan Guzman Tapia asked US authorities to question Kissinger about the disappearance of US citizen Charles Horman, who was murdered by Pinochet’s thugs in 1973 and later became the subject of the Costa-Gavras film “Missing”. As of this writing, Kissinger no longer feels at liberty to the leave the United States without consulting his lawyers.
Of all the legal avenues cited by Hitchens in The Trial–the Nuremberg Principles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among others–the law most likely to ensnare Kissinger is an American civil remedy known as the Alien Tort Claims Act. This domestic law grants US federal courts “subject matter jurisdiction” over a claim when a non-US citizen sues for a civil wrong committed in violation of a US treaty or other international law. Chilean relatives of the “disappeared” have recently expressed an interest in launching such a suit, and Hitchens was advised by the international lawyers he spoke to that “Henry Kissinger would indeed be liable under such proceedings.”
Throwing a septuagenarian elder statesman into the slammer long after the damage is done might not trigger the end of American hegemony as we know it. But it would at least drive a stake through the heart of two of America’s most egregious and unchallenged presumptions of itself: that it alone has the moral and political authority to define, pursue and indict “war criminals” and “international terrorists”, and that its own leaders are beyond reproach because any atrocities committed by the US are conducted according to the realpolitik goals of US “national security” and “global stability” (the latter being Yankee Doodle code for “communist-free rule”).
Apart from the nauseating spectacle of watching former sycophants and pushovers of the press scramble to put out their revisionist histories of the man, placing Kissinger at the mercy of the Hague might just be the clue the US needs to finally put its signature to an international war crimes convention. By doing so, its leaders would formally acknowledge that yes, the world’s most powerful nation must also be held accountable for human rights abuses before pointing its righteous, accusatory finger at others.
But hey–dream on. I suppose the eight-year-old boy in me would just be satisfied to have Kissinger’s lust for power–that “ultimate aphrodisiac”–revealed to the world at last, in big bold letters, as the bad pornography it really was.
August 21, 2001 (2000 words)