When Henry Kissinger dies, he will doubtless be given a State funeral that by its very nature mocks the achievements of genuinely great women and men.
Five books have already been published proclaiming Kissinger’s notoriety as the original Despicable Me. Christopher Hitchens’s exposé in The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001) may be the best known, but there are distinctly unflattering portraits in Seymour Hersh’s The Price of Power (1984), Robert Dallek’s Nixon and Kissinger (2007), and Margaret MacMillan’s Nixon and Mao (2007). They can’t all be wrong. Then there is Kissinger’s Shadow (2015) by Greg Grandin, professor of history at New York University, which, according to its blurb, “moves beyond praise or condemnation to reveal Kissinger as the architect of America’s current imperial stance”.
Now, the first in a two-volume “official” biography has appeared written by Niall Ferguson, a historian once admired for his revisionist stance. When The Pity of War: Explaining World War One was published in 1998, it was acclaimed for its critical analysis of ten great political and economic myths that had tended to camouflage the events that led up to war.
Kissinger The Idealist, 1923-1968 – labelled “magisterial” and “definitive” and shedding “dazzling new light on an entire era” – smacks of hagiography: a whitewashing of perversity and unethical political machinations. In a startling review titled “Restoring Henry” and published in Washington Monthly (September/October 2015), the attorney and writer Michael O’Donnell sums up Ferguson’s approach as “horseshit”, saying that the historian has turned himself into “a hypocrite’s bullhorn”. Here is a taster of just one passage countering Ferguson’s apparent endorsement of Kissinger’s despotism:
“Kissinger and Nixon bombed Cambodia to pieces in a secret four-year campaign that annihilated some 100,000 civilians. ‘Anything that flies, on anything that moves,’ were the parameters Kissinger gave to Alexander Haig. He countered African liberation movements by embracing the white supremacists of Rhodesia and South Africa, a policy known as the ‘Tar Baby option.’ Kissinger facilitated the overthrow of the governments of Chile and Argentina by right-wing generals, and then worked tirelessly to deflect criticism of the new governments’ torture and murder. A declassified memorandum of his meeting with Augusto Pinochet in 1976 shows Kissinger in a particularly unflattering light: ‘We welcomed the overthrow of the Communist-inclined government here. We are not out to weaken your position.’ In 1975 Kissinger and President Ford met with Indonesian strongman Suharto and authorized him to invade East Timor, which he promptly did the following day; another 100,000 lost their lives. ‘It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly,’ Kissinger advised.”
Volume 2 is in the process of being written, yet who beyond other students of history will actually read what appears to be a glowing tribute to a political criminal? And what difference will its publication make? It’s no good saying that Realpolitik is a messy business in which the lives of millions of human beings are forfeit to politicians who have in mind “the greater good” – pawns in a game of self-aggrandizement and vanity. Are people simply fascinated by power and the way power corrupts? Do we secretly admire the despot, the person who vaingloriously tells himself (it is usually a man) that he is morally in the right? Are such biographies warnings to history or merely manuals for aspiring politicians?
Lyndon B. Johnson is reported to have said of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” In Kissinger’s case, it seems that he was outside the tent all the time.
In the words of Christopher Hitchens, who offers ample evidence, Kissinger deserves prosecution “for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offenses against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture.” But like other Western leaders whose actions have led to indiscriminate killing and mayhem, he will never be prosecuted.
All we can hope is that the court of higher judgement – posterity – recognizes him as the villain he all along determined to be.