October 18, 2016
Henry Kissinger (now age 92) has been a prominent international figure since I was in high school when he became Nixon's National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State. He seemed to me to be an urbane realist then and an elder statesman now. By looking deeply at Kissinger's early writings and the record of his actions as filled out by declassified top secret documents from previous decades, historian Greg Grandin offers a very different picture in Kissinger's Shadow.
Kissinger's early work as a student at Harvard reveals someone who believed that morals, ethics and values in international affairs were secondary to the importance of using power to prove resolve and shake off the stagnation that came when an empire reached its peak. He also did not think history was a helpful guide to the future. It bogged leaders down in "what ifs." Action is what mattered.
As a result Kissinger advocated action heedless of consequences. And if there were consequences, that was not a problem either. Just take more action, usually with force. Thus among Nixon's advisors, he was (despite his well-groomed public persona) the most hawkish of hawks. He was the father and architect of the year-long secret bombing of Cambodia, a neutral country, and of later pounding the entire country with B-52s.
The consequences that Kissinger didn't care about? Tens of thousands killed, and a country that was precariously holding on to neutrality was thrown into chaos and civil war. The disintegration allowed the radical Kmer Rouge to gain thousands of followers who in turn killed between one and two million of their own countrymen.
Other Kissinger policies included supporting brutal Latin American dictators, giving the nod for Indonesia's Suharto to commit genocide in East Timor, betraying the Iraqi Kurds in the early 1970s, and helping derail the 1969 peace talks with Vietnam only to get credit as a peacemaker in 1973 for ending a war he had extended by four unnecessary years. Kissinger was not the moderate keeping arch conservatives at bay, as he portrayed himself. He himself, says Grandin, was the far right.
One hole is that Grandin doesn't spend much time discussing Kissinger's realist policies toward the Soviet Union. Perhaps that is because it doesn't fit Grandin's thesis.
The shadow Grandin refers to is Kissinger's influence on the United States' pattern of constant warfare from the unprovoked invasion of Iraq in 2003 to drone attacks in dozens of neutral countries today. Yet this perhaps gives Kissinger too much credit. The US had intervened militarily over fifty times in Latin America alone from 1846 to 1968 when Kissinger joined the Nixon White House. So Kissinger was also falling into a well-established tradition, though a tradition he extended and intensified.
With clarity and passion, Grandin lays the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands at Kissinger's feet. In doing so he shows the immense tragedy that arises when we disparage morals and ignore history.
Image: B-52; www.af.mil