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Hitchens v. Kissinger

05.14.2001 | BOOKS

The Trial of Henry Kissinger
by Christopher Hitchens
Verso, 2001

The Book

The dawn of the twenty-first century is a pregnant moment for international human rights law. Recent years have witnessed the near extradition of Augusto Pinochet to Spain, the capture and trial of men responsible for war crimes in Bosnia, as well as increasing consensus on the need for an international criminal court. Senior generals in France and ranking American senators are even being called to answer for almost forgotten human rights violations committed in the 1960s. The wall of impunity once offered by power and national sovereignty is showing cracks. More importantly, a growing number of activists and scholars are dedicated to seeing it totter and crumble in the years ahead.

But that remains a distant prospect. Even as the world becomes ever more aware of crimes against humanity, the ability and willingness to act on this knowledge remains selective at best. Nowhere among the democratic nations is this selective indignation more glaring, hypocritical and tragic than in the United States, where opposition to the creation of a global regime of international justice is a point of pride for a thick swath of the political class. Staunch refusal to cede an once of sovereignty to a world court is perhaps the crown jewel in a red-neck diplomacy that snubs efforts to ban land mines, stop nuclear testing or tackle the urgent threat of global warming, to name a few.

The difference between those who end up on the dock and those who are merely embarrassed by the sporadic and fleeting "outing" of their bloodied hands is, and has always been, a question of power. Abuses committed in the name of furthering a superpower's perceived national interests are tolerated while those done by more vulnerable enemies are outrages containing inestimable propaganda value. Such a double standard is apparent in the American treatments of Serbian bogeyman Slobodan Milosovic and jet-setting elder statesman Henry Kissinger. The former is reviled as a modern-day Hitler--and whose trial in the Hague remains a US foreign policy priority--while the latter is feted by the national power elite and offered regular space in the country's leading newspapers.

That most Americans do not recognize Henry Kissinger as a war criminal, but rather as a very smart if conniving former diplomat, is merely testimony to the extent to which the media has been complicit in the maintenance of this double-standard.

Christopher Hitchens is not so bold as to think that he can single-handedly effect the practice of this ageless routine. Indeed, he traces its heavy roots back to ancient times through the words of the Greek philosopher Anarchisis, for whom "laws were like cobwebs; strong enough to detain only the weak, and too weak to hold the strong." But nor does he allow the long and ignomious history of this double-standard to get in the way of the necessary business of imagining its demise. And should we continue to grant protection to any criminal with the power to purchase it, then at least men like Hitchens can sully the carefully managed reputations of men like Kissinger, and thus complicate their enjoyment of a comfortable life purchased and greased with blood.

Hitchens offers sound reasons for singling out Kissinger from all other possible targets. First, the list of crimes is a long one, and involve egregious violations of the Geneva accords, as well as of national and international civil law. Second, these violations are isolated from institutional and systemic forces that can be used to complicate the prosecution of individuals for war crimes. Third, Kissinger is not only alive, but continues to profit handsomely from these crimes. Fourth, almost all of Kissinger's former dictator friends have been duly disgraced or arrested, and thus his lone impunity calls out for a final reckoning, if only for the sake of a neat historical and moral symmetry.

Hitchens argues that any further development toward a global regime of justice will be hollow without the trial of Henry Kissinger. He lays out each charge in the form of a streamlined chapter; his trademark wit limited to the occasional rhetorical whip crack. The relevant evidence and witnesses are all present, and speak for themselves, as they would in a court of law. Will the defendant please rise.

The Secret of 1968. In the fall of 1968, the Johnson Administration was negotiating a settlement with the North Vietnamese in Paris. The Republican challenger Richard Nixon clandestinely established Henry Kissinger as a back-channel intermediary with the US-supported South Vietnamese client regime, promising them that if they walked out of the talks and subverted the Democratic "peace plank" in the election, then Nixon's Republican White House would offer them better terms. The South Vietnamese did just that, and the war dragged on, in some form or another, for seven more years. Nixon/Kissinger ended up settling on much the same terms as might have been finalized in 1968, but not before the war was expanded into Cambodia and Laos, and not before hundreds of thousands of people died horrible deaths. This story is borne out by admissions--some oblique, some explicit--in the memoirs of former Nixon cabinet members and even Nixon himself. It is also apparent in Nixon's decision to nominate Kissinger as his National Security Advisor as his first appointment, despite the fact that the two men had met only once, when Kissinger had been a Democrat. Hitchens argues that Kissinger should be tried for breach of The Logan Act, which prohibits American citizens from conducting private diplomacy with foreign governments.

Indochina. Once the election was won and the peace talks subverted, Kissinger dug in as Nixon's most hawkish advisor. In this role he pursued with relish what Hitchens' describes as "promiscuous violence abroad and flagrant illegality at home." But the domestic wire-taps made famous by the Watergate investigations merely continued the sad and relatively harmless policies of Kennedy and Johnson, to say nothing of J. Edgar Hoover's forty year reign at the FBI. No, it was the "violence abroad" part that was singular and unprecedented in its scope. After "artificially and undemocratically" prolonging the war, Kissinger ordered the carpet bombing of Laos and Cambodia with thousands of tons of defoliant and TNT. Napalm was used indiscriminately against the civilian populations of neutral countries under the ridiculous pretense of cutting off North Vietnamese supply routes. (The famous Ho Chi Minh trail was later found to run near major cities through Vietnam proper). In a last spasm of violence, Kissinger pressed Gerald Ford to drop a 15,000 pound bomb as part of a failed rescue attempt on the Cambodian island of Koh Tang, where an American ship was being held in 1975. Although the crew had been released hours before thanks to third-party negotiations, Kissinger believed yet another show of force was necessary to preserve American "credibility." Forty-one Americans and an unknown number of Cambodians were killed in the senseless attack. This cover of "credibility" was of course invoked repeatedly after 1968 to justify the continuing murder of civilians on a massive scale; unfortunately there is no stipulation for American "credibility" concerns in the Geneva Convention, and detailed US knowledge about the number of civilian casualties throughout the war puts American officials miles ahead of Radovan Karadicz and Slobodan Milosovic in the marathon of modern evil. If Hitchens' is even half-right, then this is true of no official more so than Dr. Henry Kissinger.

Chile. When the socialist candidate Salvadore Allende narrowly won a three way democratic election in Chile in 1970, the Nixon White House decided that the election results must be annulled in the name of hemispheric stability. It soon became clear that the only way to stop Allende's ascension to power was a military coup. When the conservative leader of the Chilean Army, General Rene Schneider, refused to assist in the subversion of his country's democracy--at the time the most developed in Latin America--Kissinger led a covert operation to have him assassinated by a goon squad of fascists led by General Roberto Viaux. Kissinger arranged for guns to be sent and was silent when Schneider was eventually killed, paving the way for the military coup of Augusto Pinochet, currently charged and being held for crimes against his own people.

East Timor. Kissinger was in Indonesia meeting with President Suharto the day before the Indonesian army marched into East Timor and "reclaimed" it, a process that ended up killing 200,000 people, mostly with US supplied weapons. At the meeting, Kissinger and President Ford gave their support to the invasion, and made sure the flow of American weapons continued unabated by Congressional or UN interference.

Elias P. Demetracopoulos. Kissinger made no secret of his coziness with the right-wing military junta in Greece; nor was he shy about expressed his hatred of a Greek émigré journalist in Washington named Elias P. Demetracopolous, whose writings were a sharp thorn in the side of the Athens regime. Kissinger assisted the Greek government's plans to lure Demetracopoulos back to Athens under the pretext of visiting his dying father, where they planned to kill him. Government documents have been released under the Freedom of Information Act that both confirm the Greek junta's plans for framing Demetracopoulos's "death" in Athens, as well as National Security Council--Kissinger's domain--knowledge of this plan.

These are not the only charges made in the book. Hitchens also offers instances where Kissinger aided and abetted coups in Cyprus and Bangladesh. All told, the charges range from kidnapping, assassination, mass slaughter and "two-track" diplomacy that brazenly subverted American democracy. The victims range from prominent American citizens to unknown peasants. And they are many.

The Debate

Not surprisingly, reaction to the book has split along political lines. Those who opposed Kissinger's policies when they were current need no new ammunition against the man, but have nonetheless welcomed this fresh and loud reminder. One also appreciates the depth and concision of Hitchens's account, even if much of the material is not new. For the global left, Henry Kissinger has been regarded as a war criminal for decades, and any successful attempt to project the charge into mainstream discussion is to be celebrated.

Those on the right, however, have shown little patience for Hitchens's moral and legal exercise. That Kissinger is anything but the pragmatic Cold Warrior that ended the Vietnam war with "honor" and initiated détente--this they find absurd. They see the book as an argument against the establishment of an international criminal court, proving that should such a court be founded, it would be open to "politically motivated" suits; which is to say, suits brought against the powerful by the powerless. What's more, politically motivated prosecutors such as Hitchens and Spanish Judge Baltazar Garazon are nothing but the "last breath of the Evil Empire" bitterly trying to turn the "winners" of the Cold War into the "losers" retroactively via the courts. Instead of seeking justice for actual crimes irrespective of politics, the left is merely trying to whitewash the crimes of the left. According to London Times columnist Michael Grove, "[b]y placing Dr. Kissinger in the dock, they collude in the attempt to let communism off the hook." But Hitchens isn't letting anyone "off the hook"--that is the whole point of the book. Both Pol Pot and American Secretaries of State are accountable for the actions, regardless of the wealth of their connections, the daily audience reach of their syndicated apologists or the geopolitical context in which the acted. It is Mr. Grove who is letting people off the hook, and who is re-writing history by burdening the dead Salvadore Allende with unplanned and uncommitted "crimes of communism" in Chile.

It is worth noting that neither Kissinger or his usual allies have agreed to take on the charges directly in debate or on television. Nor have they sued for libel, which would require opening up access to crucial documents currently under the weight of Dr. Kissinger's flatulent behind. The few that have actually engaged the detailed charges directly tend to be selective in their rebuttals. Ignoring the more well documented instances where Kissinger micromanaged assassinations, they have tended to focus on macro justifications for Kissinger's diplomacy. John O'Sullivan, the British former editor of the National Review and all purpose sycophant of American power, focused his defense on the righteousness of bombing Laos and Cambodia. Like other conservatives who have gone after Hitchens, he falls back on an "it was the Cold War, after all" argument that fails to even engage with the specific points of Kissinger's alleged crimes. Writing in Canada's National Post, George Jonas begins his defense of the bloody subversion of Chile's democratic government by blithely reminding readers that "between 1970 and 1973, the world was not a tranquil place." Accepting the death of General Schneider and the "disappearance" of thousands of leftists in the country as a tolerable and even expected price to pay, Mr. Jonas attempts to turn the tables on Hitchens by saying that "anyone with the slightest concern for human rights would have had to welcome the slowing of the spread of communism in the western hemisphere." If Allende were truly a modern day Stalin, one would be forced to entertain this possibility. But he was far from it, and imposing decades of military rule on the Chilean people cannot be defended without acts of moral contortionism that bend the purported values of anti-communism beyond all recognition.

Hitchens is willing to grant that the American presence in Indochina was one enormous war crime long before Kissinger was on the scene--with "strategic hamleting" and napalming villages going back to the early 60s--but his point is that even amidst this background of violence, acts of extreme and gratuitous murder can be isolated and traced back to Kissinger himself, the 1975 Koh Tang incident being merely the last tombstone in a long row. Nor does the Cold War argument stretch far when the subject Chile (a healthy democracy), or East Timor and Bangladesh (geopolitical flea specks), or a lone dissident Greek journalist. These were not instances when American security, even in the paranoid environment of the time, could be considered to have been threatened. Not even close.

Hitchens does not have airtight cases behind every one of his charges, it is true. He is occasionally forced to play archeologist in recreating Kissinger's exact role in these histories. There are points at which he relies upon connecting the dots, well-founded hearsay or supposition based on fragmented evidence. But in admitting this, two things must be kept in mind. First, one of the main reasons for the partial nature of the record is that Kissinger himself is sitting on thousands of documents that must be seen before full historical accounts can be made. Kissinger has deeded most of his papers to the Library of Congress, but with the stipulation that they not be opened until his death. He has refused to provide access to crucial minutes in the events detailed by Hitchens, most glaringly with regard to East Timor and the Demetracopoulos murder plot. Second, Hitchens need not be correct in every one of his charges for Kissinger to be dragged into court--if not as a full-on war-criminal, then at least as an accessory to the murder of General Schneider. A high-profile outing accompanied by legal action would not only put meat on the bones of American pieties about human rights, but would also remind Americans--and in our age of disappearing attention spans, frequent reminders are needed--of the dangers of unaccountable power and American lawlessness in international relations. As Hitchens notes, until a sort of Truth and Reconciliation committee is established on US soil, trials of men like Kissinger could serve a useful purpose in forcing the country to come to terms with its Cold War past.

For this is a past not nearly as heroic as the triumphalist chorus of the 1990s would have us believe. It was a period marked by crimes at least as great as the virtues we claimed to be fighting for: subversions, assassinations, and--call it what you will--the murder of millions of civilians in Indochina. Expiation for this history is not possible, but anything that mitigates the chance of its repetition should be welcomed. The capture and trial of Henry Kissinger would be as good a place to start as any. But let's not hold our breath. Even the former radical turned Labor Home Secretary Robin Cooke could not bring himself to expedite Augusto Pinochet to stand trial in Spain, and it is all but unimaginable that conservative political forces in the US would ever stand for the arrest or trial of such a high-ranking former official.

Until this situation changes, we must satisfy ourselves with the knowledge that at least truth is struggling to see the light of day in the public square. And until the US cedes some of its precious sovereignty, and power ceases to offer safe refuge to barbarism, it will have to be enough that writers like Hitchens--and the shoulders they stand on--are fighting to clog the American memory hole. That, and the wistful hope that in some alternate universe, Dr. Henry Kissinger is growing thin in a dank prison cell, absentmindedly fingering the blue cloth of his UN issued garb, reminiscing sweetly on his glory days in the dark company of rats and a thin, watery gruel.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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