The war on Kissinger

Posted: Oct 22, 2002 12:00 AM
The desire to do something about Henry Kissinger is, for many, a popular pursuit; for some, an obsession. He is the enemy, for reasons many of them obvious: He is a Harvard intellectual who served Richard Nixon intimately and survived. And of course he was at the right hand of the president for three years of the reviled war in Vietnam.

Resentment is certainly fostered by facial expressions seen as registering Shylockean self-satisfaction, and verbal adroitness that sometimes seems to be bent on squaring circles, a demeanor that enemies will liken to that of the Vicar of Bray, and advocating what they see as Johnnie Cochran explaining the innocence of O.J. Simpson.

The latest expeditionary force against the enemy was initiated by Christopher Hitchens, a learned and resourceful moralist of exhibitionist inclinations who picks his enemies with brio and, a few years ago, undertook a book to the effect that Mother Teresa was a mountebank. The Kissinger offensive was done in Harper's magazine and became a book. The call, no less, was to declare Henry Kissinger a war criminal and urge international courts to try him for, among other things, murder and kidnapping. That was a tall order of Hitchens, perhaps even outdoing the call to defrock Mother Teresa -- but the anti-Kissinger reserves were there, eager to serve.

What then happened was that the BBC thought the whole idea cinematic, which it is: "The Trials of Henry Kissinger" is playing in art movie houses. Movie clips of Kissinger and the company he has kept, and the public policy contentions in which he has figured, are abundant, and compliant in gathering together grand prosecutorial mosaics. The complaints are that Kissinger was culpable in illegal bombings of Cambodia, resulting in 3 million deaths; in the invasion of East Timor by the Indonesian military, resulting in 100,000 deaths; and in subverting 1968 peace talks which, if concluded, would have spared the 200,000-plus lives lost before the Vietnam War's end in 1975.

There isn't, of course, going to be any such war crimes trial of Henry Kissinger -- forget that, just to begin with. The man responsible for Vietnam and Cambodia was President Richard Nixon. The man responsible for East Timor is President Gerald Ford. Nixon is gone, but why isn't Hitchens calling for the trial of Gerald Ford as a war criminal? The answer is that Mr. Ford is not, so to speak, a photogenic war criminal, someone the sight of whom behind bars or swinging on a noose would give Jacobinical satisfaction. What is contemplated by the Hitchens offensive is, quite simply, denigration.

Henry Kissinger, in the Hitchens-BBC production, is called "the most conspicuous American statesman of the 20th century." That's true, as is also the adage that the bigger they come, the harder they fall. Kissinger's extraordinary ascendancy and his spectacular achievements rouse the iconoclastic spirits. In order to achieve the desired effects, the prosecution had to decry not only his policies, but his character. Thus it is said that he was ambitious -- which is certainly true, as also of Abraham Lincoln. That he was duplicitous, dishonest, deceptive and, strange to add, disloyal. If he was disloyal, why did he stick by Nixon until the end? And how to explain that as soon as Nixon was out of office, President Ford immediately renewed Kissinger's franchise? There are people around who know something about Kissinger's loyalty who were not invited to testify in the BBC production.

If the book and the movie had settled for charging that Kissinger was from time to time detected speaking out of both sides of his mouth, the reader and viewer might have nodded and said: Yes: That is what diplomats are often called upon to do. Other words for it are: They negotiate. People who refuse to do that meet the fate of Coriolanus. lists 935 entries under "Nixon," and the wars will rage 100 years from now on the great events in which his secretary of state figured. Was the bombing of Cambodia a legitimate exercise of military power, in a contest in which no declaration of war had been voted? Was the shipment of arms to the generals in Indonesia an endorsement of the genocidal policies to which they were put? Was the shipment of arms to Chilean dissidents a warrant for the execution of a Chilean general?

These questions can be explored usefully but not in phony theatrical arraignments done mostly for the satisfaction of people engaged in private wars against Henry Kissinger. A Canadian reviewer of the Kissinger film wrote wryly, "If one considers Dr. Kissinger's policies of accommodation with various communist powers, it would be easier to suggest he is a peace criminal." The historical view that will prevail is that he was the most consistent and resourceful anti-communist on the scene during a decade in which two presidents sought out his counsel, and the republic profited from it.

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