Hero or villain?

Debate over the legacy of Henry Kissinger—who speaks in Sacramento this week—raises questions that illuminate our current national crisis

How should we view Henry Kissinger?

How should we view Henry Kissinger?

Illustration By Dack Thompson

Henry Kissinger’s Sacramento speech this week comes at a pivotal moment in American history. Long lauded by many as the country’s most illustrious elder statesman, Kissinger’s legacy has been increasingly called into question by those who say his Machiavellian approach to international affairs amounts to a series of war crimes.

It is a debate that has come to a head this year with the unsealing of once-classified documents, the publication of books on the subject and the attempted prosecution of Kissinger-supported former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for crimes against humanity.

And it is a debate that closely parallels the discussions that Americans have engaged in since the September 11 attacks on our country. As we decide how to respond to the terrorists responsible for this atrocity and the countries that abet them, the moral questions raised by Kissinger’s legacy have never been more pertinent.

Recent events will change the topic of Kissinger’s September 21 speech at the Sacramento Convention Center, say his hosts at the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce. They will also be the lens through which attendees watch our country’s premier practitioner of realpolitik.

During the height of his power, former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was renowned as an effective diplomat, visionary thinker and provocative ladies man all rolled into one. He was then-President Richard Nixon’s right-hand man, and his work on the 1973 Vietnam peace accord—the “peace with honor” as he and Nixon dubbed it—earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. And since then, he has been a much-sought-after adviser by political leaders the world over.

Yet some now question whether he deserves such an exalted place in modern America’s pantheon of leaders. As more and more previously classified documents concerning the Vietnam debacle and Kissinger’s role in political hot zones around the globe become available, his tactics are being scrutinized.

While he received the lion’s share of credit for brokering the deal that eventually ended the Vietnam War, it now appears that Kissinger and Nixon actually perpetuated the war for political reasons. Secret meetings that Kissinger held with the North Vietnamese before Nixon’s 1968 presidential election victory might have prevented the war from ending at that time, costing thousands more American lives, and tens or even hundreds of thousands more Vietnamese.

Later, once the war dragged into the 1970s, Kissinger played a central role in escalating and expanding the conflict with massive bombing raids over both North Vietnam and Cambodia. And his critics say Kissinger’s “end justifies the means” approach to fighting communism led to the commission of war crimes in Chile, Guatemala, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Greece and elsewhere—with the full knowledge and support of Kissinger.

But his defenders say such second-guessing is inappropriate and out-of-context. They would rather focus on results. Undeniably, Kissinger’s tactics and leadership was a big reason why the United States won the Cold War. So the question then becomes: Just how willing are we as a society to use whatever means we deem necessary—even those contrary to international law and our own pro-democracy rhetoric—to achieve our political aims?

Are those who crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center worse than the murderous regimes we supported in Chile, Vietnam, Timor, Bangladesh and Cambodia? Is it any less wrong to openly work to install and support murderous dictators like Pinochet than it is to harbor a known homicidal terrorist like Osama bin Laden?

Are men like Henry Kissinger a benefit or a detriment to our way of life?

While Nixon and the rest of the Vietnam menagerie have been pilloried for more than 20 years for their roles in that whole mess, the anger that befell Nixon seems to have almost completely missed his most trusted adviser. This is both a mystery and an irritation to people like University of California at Davis Professor Larry Berman.

“The American public should feel a tremendous sense of outrage at Kissinger’s lack of accountability for his actions as National Security Adviser,” said Berman, author of No Peace, No Honor—Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal In Vietnam. Berman is one of several authors who have openly questioned Kissinger’s role in the war and the ensuing peace deal he engineered.

“In my book I called the agreement on ending the war the ‘Jabberwocky agreement,’ ” Berman said. “ ‘The Jabberwocky’ is an odd nonsense poem from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, a poem that Alice laments is ‘very pretty but hard to understand.’ I call it that because while we called it ‘peace with honor,’ not one moment of peace ever came to Vietnam from that accord.”

That aside, there is virtually no doubt that Kissinger’s political acumen is as good as it gets. He has lived a life dedicated to carefully cultivating a certain image, and has reaped the benefits of that image. There is also little doubt that during his time at the forefront of the Nixon regime, the United States negotiated arms agreements with the Soviet Union, opened diplomatic relations with China, and did manage to finally get American troops out of Vietnam. Those facts are undeniable.

But so are facts that don’t make Kissinger look so good. Based entirely on documents that for years have been classified material, Berman offers up an image of Kissinger as a man so bent on a political agenda that he created a sham peace accord that was sure to be rejected by the North and South Vietnamese alike, thus prolonging our involvement in the Vietnam War indefinitely.

Christopher Hitchens, author of “The Case Against Henry Kissinger” (Harper’s Magazine, February and March 2001), is even more pointed in his criticism of Kissinger. Hitchens’ research shows Kissinger not only acted with callous disregard for the basic tenets of the U.S. Constitution, but that he also planned and ordered assassinations of political leaders who were opposed by the Nixon administration.

Hitchens concludes that Kissinger is a war criminal who, in his zeal to see the anti-communist Pinochet assume power in Chile, orchestrated the 1973 political murders of Chile’s Marxist president, Salvador Allende, and apolitical chief of staff, General Rene Schneider, as well as the attempted murder of Cyprus’s president, Archbishop Makarios, that same year.

He also cites evidence that Kissinger was part of a group that illegally negotiated with the North Vietnamese to sabotage the 1968 Paris peace talks, promising in essence a better deal for them if they were able to deal with Nixon’s regime and not that of a Democrat’s. Hitchens’ views were echoed during an examination of Kissinger’s Chilean role on the CBS news program 60 Minutes just last week.

A quick scan of the Internet will reveal Web sites galore that proclaim Kissinger and his political maneuverings to be responsible for the deaths of thousands the world over. Some call him the greatest mass murderer since Cambodia’s infamous Pol Pot.

Sacramento activists planning to protest his speech issued a press release trumpeting Kissinger as “the number one war criminal in the world today.”

Yet such views of Kissinger are not the dominant ones. Kissinger continues to draw huge honorariums to give speeches ($30,000 to $45,000), his business interests remain global in scope and he is constantly sought after to offer his views on everything political by such respected journalists as Ted Koppel and Jim Lehrer.

This was particularly evident during the days following last week’s attacks, when Kissinger was called upon by several networks to weigh in on who was responsible and how we as a nation should respond. Not surprisingly, Kissinger was the ultimate hawk, urging quick and massive retaliation.

To his defenders, attacks on Kissinger amount to blasphemy. On the official Richard Nixon Library Web site, columnist Conrad Black refers to Hitchens’ article as “a vicious polemic” not worthy of being taken seriously. Black accuses Hitchens and others of his ilk of being communist sympathizers who “regret the Western victory in the Cold War and especially the emergence of the U.S. as an overwhelmingly pre-eminent power in the world.” Conservative figures from Bill Bennett to Rush Limbaugh have all weighed in with support of Kissinger.

For his part, Kissinger has avoided entering the fray. He has routinely declined interview requests to answer these questions, instead publishing his own book on foreign policy. And he has closely guarded documents related to his reign from the usual public scrutiny.

In a controversial deal that irked both his critics and those who tried to prosecute Pinochet for war crimes, Kissinger sealed his personal papers with the Library of Congress, thus preventing their release under the Freedom of Information Act until five years after his death.

“The fact is that most of the key documents are still locked away in government vaults,” said Berman. “Why is that? This is being treated almost like the Kennedy assassination. Why won’t Kissinger release his National Security papers? Why won’t the Kissinger and Nixon meeting notes be released?”

Why indeed? If he has nothing to hide, then why does he act like he does? This is particularly grating now that it appears there is enough other evidence to bring Pinochet to trial, forcing the FBI and would-be prosecutors from other countries to negotiate with Kissinger’s attorneys to have access to those same papers.

Surely a man as undeniably brilliant as Kissinger must know that his very refusal to answer to these charges lends an unmistakable aura of guilt, at least on some level. And yet for all of the visible damage that secrecy usually visits on political careers—see Gary Condit—the sheen is still firmly in place on Kissinger’s apple. The question is still: why?

“It may take another 20 years to get all of this information made public,” said Berman, “but I think it will happen. Still, the most galling thing to me is that there is no contemporary accountability for these historical events by the actors who shaped them.”

Whether his personal papers offer the smoking gun to the case against Henry Kissinger, he is clearly a man who was willing to expend innocent human lives in the name of what he saw as our national interest. And he is a man whose insights and legacy offer valuable lessons—now more than ever.