Henry Kissinger at 100: A contradictory legacy of peace and terror

If it’s true that only the good die young, what does that say about Henry Kissinger, who turns 100 this Saturday?

At the peak of his power in the early 1970s, public opinion surveys showed Kissinger to be the most admired man in America. He remains an icon, the ultimate foreign-policy wise man. Yet his name is forever stained by his support for violent campaigns in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that laid waste to nations and left hundreds of thousands of dead. Was he a brilliant statesman or a war criminal? Yes.

Kissinger guided US foreign policy from 1969 to 1977, first as President Nixon’s national security adviser and then as secretary of state. He skillfully managed alliances and daringly rearranged the world’s political cartography. His love of order, however, blinded him to what “order” means in many countries outside Europe. He never hesitated to support leaders who pledged loyalty to Washington, no matter how grotesque their excesses. By his own admission, he failed to understand the rising Third World nationalism that shaped his era.

“I am not interested in, nor do I know anything about, the southern portion of the world from the Pyrenees on down,” he acknowledged while attending a reception at a South American embassy in 1969. When a Chilean diplomat accused him of not understanding Chile, he replied, “No, and I don’t care. Nothing important can come from the south. The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington and then to Tokyo. What happens in the south is of no importance.”

This stark dichotomy — master of great-power diplomacy but clueless about much of the world — shapes Kissinger’s legacy. His great gift, much lacking in Washington today, was to see the world as it is, rather than through the lens of political platitudes. Even now, he remains far more insightful than any of our leaders on great matters like Russia-Ukraine, China-Taiwan, and the future of Europe.

Most lamentable about Kissinger was his failure to extend his realistic vision beyond what he called “the axis of history.” He considered protest movements to be threats to global stability. This led him to support campaigns of murderous repression in several countries. He rejected the idea that the United States should respect the choices of others. In 1973 he promoted a coup against President Salvador Allende of Chile with succinct reasoning: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.”

The case against Kissinger is weighty. Supporting the Chile coup, which imposed dictatorship on a country with one of the hemisphere’s oldest democracies, would be just one item. In 1971 Kissinger encouraged Pakistan to embark on a campaign against Hindu separatists that US diplomats told him at the time was genocide and “a reign of terror.” Two years later he helped President Nixon secretly bomb Cambodia. Then he gave Indonesia’s leader the go-ahead for a fierce campaign against separatists on the island of New Guinea.

These and other sins were vividly catalogued in a 2001 screed by the polemicist Christopher Hitchens called “The Trial of Henry Kissinger.” Hitchens marveled that although Kissinger was “a stupendous liar” with “wildly aberrant moral judgment,” he remained a social celebrity.

“The pudgy man standing in black tie at the Vogue party is not, surely, the man who ordered and sanctioned the destruction of civilian populations, the assassination of inconvenient politicians, the kidnapping and disappearance of soldiers and journalists and clerics who got in his way,” Hitchens mused. “Oh, but he is. It’s exactly the same man.”

Kissinger must find it maddening that some historians harp on his actions in countries he considers unimportant. He would much rather be judged by his key role in forging détente with the Soviet Union and engagement with China, which were among the greatest diplomatic triumphs of the Cold War. As for Vietnam, the verdict remains split. Some admire Kissinger’s dogged pursuit of “peace with honor,” including more than 60 negotiating sessions with his Vietnamese counterpart. Others say he prolonged and intensified the war, only to settle in 1973 for a deal that he might have had four years earlier.

By supporting dictators who were US allies, Kissinger soiled America’s image in much of the world. He insisted that he was doing nothing more or less than defending American interests. Debate over his role divided the country. Among his defenders was a character in Wallace Shawn’s 1985 play “Aunt Dan and Lemon.”

“Don’t you understand that you and I are only able to be nice because our governments are not nice?” she asks. “While we sit here in the sunshine and have our discussions about what we’ve read in the morning papers, there are certain other people, like Kissinger, who happen to have the very bad luck to be society’s leaders. And while we sit here chatting, they have to do what has to be done. . . . Worms! How dare they attack him for killing peasants? What decisions did they make today?”

Compassion was never Kissinger’s strong suit. His legacy is a tangled mix of peace and war. He combined deep knowledge about some parts of the world with willful ignorance about others. One of his own cryptic mottos sums up the best and worst of him: “If you don’t know where you are going, every road will get you nowhere.”

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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