THE TRIAL OF HENRY KISSINGER by Christopher Hitchens. Pub: Verso, New York, USA, 2001. Pp. 159. Hbk. US$22.00.
In 1998, former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in Britain at the request of a Spanish judge who wanted him to be extradited to Madrid to face charges of crimes against humanity during his notoriously bloody rule. Pinochet was eventually ruled unfit to stand trial, and allowed to return to Chile, where he is senator-for-life. The episode, however, raised the possibility of other political criminals being made to face justice for their actions; numerous other former dictators are suddenly reluctant to travel to European countries.
Christopher Hitchens, a prolific British left-wing commentator, convincingly argues the case against a rather bigger fish – former US secretary of state and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. Much of the information presented is not new; indeed, Kissinger was condemned by political opponents as a war criminal for his conduct of the Vietnam war even while he was in office, and since leaving office has become one of the most revieled men in the world. At the same time, he is a hero to America’s Right, a respected and admired commentator on foreign affairs, charging $25,000 for a single lecture, and is a foreign policy consultant to ABC news and numerous corporate clients.
For Hitchens, this position is unconscionable:
Many if not most of Kissinger’s partners in crime are now in jail, or are awaiting trial, or have otherwise been punished or discredited. His own lonely impunity is rank; it smells to heaven. If it is allowed to persist then we shall shamefully vindicate the ancient philosopher Anacharsis, who maintained that laws were like cobwebs: strong enough to detain only the weak, and too weak to hold the strong. In the name of numerous victims known and unknown, it is time for justice to take a hand.
His object is not to present a comprehensive history of Kissinger’s years in office – during the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford – or to undertake a major new investigation; rather it is to argue the case against Kissinger. Working largely from previously published sources, he has produced a short polemic – expanded from two essays originally published in Harpers Magazine – that is entirely compelling. His argument is straightforward: that on at least one occasion, Kissinger conspired to commit murder, and on numerous other occasions he was the moving force behind acts and policies which were either illegal under US law or resulted in countless deaths and suffering or both, and which could plausibly be considered war crimes.
The murder case against Kissinger is incontravertable. Its victim was Chilean commander-in-chief General Rene Schneider, known for his commitment to democracy and constitutionalism at a time – after the the election of the socialist Salvador Allende to Chile’s presidency in September 1970 – that right-wing military officers were considering a coup. Using the minutes of the “40 Committee”, the secret body chaired by Kissinger that oversaw US covert operations, other State Department and White House documents and CIA records, Hitchens details Kissinger’s role in realizing Nixon’s determination to remove Allende from the post to which he had been elected by Chile’s people.
The US’s instrument for this object was a junta of right-wing military officers, current and former; Schneider was their main obstacle and so had to be removed. The documents clearly show Kissinger’s role in ordering the kidnapping and murder of Schneider, which was set up in such a way as to discredit Chile’s left. The US also provided the junta with weapons, funds and advice; on September 22, 1970, Schneider was assassinated.
Hitchens summarises the situation as follows:
Here one must pause for a recapitulation. An unelected official in the United States is meeting with others, without the knowledge or authorization of Congress, to plan the kidnapping of a constitution-minded senior officer in a democratic government with which the United States is not at war, and with which it maintains cordial diplomatic relations. The minutes of the meetings may have an official look to them... but what we are reviewing is a ‘hit’ – a bit of state-sponsored terrorism.
The main case that Hitchens makes against Kissinger for war crimes is based on the US’s illegal bombings of Laos and Cambodia, bordering with Vietnam, again during Nixon’s presidency. Again Hitchens uses documentary evidence from the State Department and the White House to demonstrate the well-established point that the US – or Kissinger, acting without legal authority – ordered extensive secret carpet-bombing of vast areas of the Laos and Cambodian countryside by B-52 Stratofortresses, killing untold tens of thousands of people.
Hitchens uses the work of General Telford Taylor, a senior prosecutor at the Nuremburg Tribunal that tried Nazis after the second world war, to highlight the illegality of these actions. In the first instance, the bombings – a military attack across the borders of a country with which you are not at war – constitute “an act of aggressive war” contrary to international law. The nature of the bombings, moreover, are clearly war crimes in themselves.
The murder of Schneider and war crimes in Indo-China are by no means the limit of Hitchens’ case against Kissinger. Other incidents he cites include the campaigns of terror and assassination launched by the Chilean junta after it finally succeeded in overthrowing Allende in 1973, in particular the operations of a right-wing network called Operation Condor, jointly run by Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and other right-wing regimes allied to the US. Hitchens writes: “The internationalization of the death-squad principle was understood and approved by American intelligence and politicians across two administrations... The senior person concerned in both administrations was Henry Kissinger.”
Hitchens also examines Kissinger’s role in encouraging and supporting the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, the violent partition of Cyprus between Turkey and Greece and the US’s role in the division of Pakistan in 1971.
Kissinger’s offences, however, began rather earlier than any of these American foreign policy coups. Rather, Hitchens dates it to an act of treacherous political opportunism that launched Kissinger’s political career. In late 1968, peace negotiations in Paris were taking place at the same time as a close presidential contest between Lyndon Johnson’s Demo-cratic vice-president Hubert Humphrey and the Republican challenger, Richard Nixon. At the time, Kissinger was a trusted ally of the US’s senior official at the Paris talks, Averell Harriman. At a time when Johnson was considering halting the bombings and trying to persuade the South Vietnamese to accept a negotiated settlement, Kissinger leaked information to the Nixon camp, which used it to persuade the South Vietnamese to reject Johnson’s approach on the promise of better terms if Nixon were elected. Hitchen writes:
Four years later the Nixon administration tried to conclude the war on the same terms that had been offered in Paris... In those intervening years some 20,000 Americans and an uncalculated number of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians lost their lives. Lost them, that is to say, even more pointlessly than had those slain up to that point.
Such is the sheer weight of the evidence that Hitchens’ stacks against Kissinger that it loses its ability to shock after a few pages. Even more remarkable is that nothing in this book is new; all has been published before, and similar conclusions drawn by previous writers, albeit perhaps not with the same power as Hitchens.
If there is a weakness in this book, it is Hitchens’ determination to hang everything on Kissinger. The scale and blatantness of the offences, and the fact that the evidence of them is so easily found in American records which were carefully concealed for many years, indicates that he was not solely responsible. Indeed, he was merely an official working under the authority of two presidents and in co-operation with numerous other officials and agencies who could have taken steps to question his actions had they felt that they were unacceptable. Responsibility, therefore cannot be restricted to Kissinger alone; his contemporaries in Washington at the time included Alexander Haig, his deputy, and CIA director Richard Helms, neither of whom was a saint by any stretch of the imagination.
Nor, for that matter, despite Hitchens’ attempts to portray Kissinger’s actions as particularly repulsive, were they out of synch with either previous or subsequent American practice. Under John F. Kennedy, the US attempted to assassinate Fidel Castro and masterminded the overthrow and assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. Lyndon Johnson manufactured the Gulf of Tonkin incident to justify expanding the war. Later, Ronald Reagan funded right-wing groups in Nicaragua and El-Savador, against popular left-wing groups, with appalling human-rights consequences.
By focusing so sharply on Kissinger personally, to the exclusion of many of those around him, the effect of Hitchens’ book is to whitewash others who are frankly as guilty as he is, as well as the US state and government collectively. Taken in this wider context, Hitchens’ book ought to be read as telling us more about the USA and its real role in the world than it does about Kissinger as an individual, monstruous as he undoubtedly was. Suddenly, Kissinger’s enduring respectability is not really such a mystery after all.