Back in the day – Henry Kissinger’s and mine too – a folk singer named Tom Paxton penned a protest song entitled the ‘White Bones of Allende’. The year was 1977, and Dr K was at the height of his power. Paxton’s tune captured the darker side of the Kissinger myth, beyond the state dinners, shuttle diplomacy and clever repartee, to the human collateral damage the ‘great’ statesman believed was necessary to maintain the wealth of Corporate America.
Over his years as the strategic brains behind the American Empire, Kissinger made the cover of TIME Magazine no less than 15 times. In one profile the writer opined that Kissinger was ‘the world’s indispensable man’ – though one who stood accused by his critics of paying more ‘attention to principals than principles’.
Kissinger had left far behind his origins as a Jewish child fleeing Nazi persecution to become a central architect of a US foreign policy designed to create endless war, conflict and refugees. Arguably, he perfected the much-used US tactic of ‘regime change’ for those stubborn countries that stood up for themselves and resisted imperial power. He became a great practitioner of security and stability babble, so as to cloak base motives in pompous disinformation. The journalist Christopher Hitchens described conscience-free Dr K as ‘a stupendous liar with a remarkable memory’.
The old charmer saw himself as a sort of Metternich of the American Empire. As such, he was complicit in most of the crimes committed in the name of that empire (aka the Free World) over the last three decades of the 20th century, and beyond. Klemens von Metternich, the most influential statesman of the Austrian Empire – and arguably Europe – in the first half of the 19th century, had been key in rolling back the poisonous influences of the French revolution and re-establishing royal privilege.
Eventually, of course, feudalism and the divine right of hereditary monarchs did give way to the popular franchise and a somewhat fragile form of civil liberty and democratic rights. But arguably Metternich and his acolytes were able to stall progress for half a century or more. For Kissinger, the enemy was egalitarian socialism, and any concern for rights and social justice.
He regarded himself as a calculating practitioner of realpolitik, and in this at least he was correct. As Secretary of State under the Nixon and Ford presidencies, he was involved in the intensification of the Vietnam War and the brutal overthrow of the democratically elected socialist regime in Chile in 1973. His lack of concern for democratic niceties made him a natural for breaking the Cold War deadlock and negotiating a detente that eased tensions between the US and the USSR.
It was later crucial to establishing diplomatic relations with China. He became a great friend of the old guard Chinese leader Zhou Enlai, and developed backdoor business interests in China through his consulting firm Kissinger Associates. Always one to identify with the overlord rather than the underdog, he voiced support for the ruthless Tiananmen crackdown by Deng Xiaoping in 1989.
Kissinger won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in negotiating a truce in the Vietnam War. Two members of the Nobel Committee resigned in protest over this controversial choice. And the truce soon collapsed. His critics saw him more as a war criminal than a great statesman, and in 2001 Christopher Hitchens published The Trial of Henry Kissinger, where using the standards of proof developed against the Nazis at Nuremberg he built a case against Doctor K. The links were clear and numerous: war casualties in Vietnam, carpet bombing Cambodia, massacres in Bangladesh and Timor and assassinations in Chile and Cyprus.
He was even involved in the 1976 assassination of prominent Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier. The dissident and his young US assistant Ronnie Moffitt were murdered by the Chilean secret police using a car bomb on the streets of Washington, DC. Kissinger had apparently blocked a State Department communiqué to the Chilean government warning against the assassinations. Of course Hitchens’s charges were denied as laughable by Kissinger himself – and by the rest of the US political elite also complicit in these crimes of empire. Despite this, Kissinger was widely sought after as a witness and potential defendant in rights abuse cases by judges from France and Spain and several Latin American countries. In his later years, he only travelled outside the US with careful legal advice.
Kissinger left formal government in 1977, but he never strayed far from power. He was always lingering at the sidelines to pronounce and give eager advice to mostly Republican administrations – but occasionally Democrats as well. Hillary Clinton famously held a high profile meeting with Dr K to prove to corporate America that she was a safe pair of hands to steer the US Empire, during her ill-fated campaign for the 2016 presidency. While Kissinger, usually a Republican, didn’t give a 2016 endorsement, he has been fulsome in his praise for Donald Trump. He huddled with the former leader many times in and out of the Oval Office, and thought the Trumpster could offer ‘something remarkable’ to foreign policy, particularly keen on his North Korean diplomacy. While there were certainly stylistic differences between the crude and erratic Trump and the slick and devious Kissinger, they shared one fundamental goal: the global projection of US force as the dominant world power.
Kissinger died peacefully in his bed of impunity, unlike those murdered in East Timor, carpet bombed in Indochina, or tortured to death in the dungeons of Chile and Argentina. Dr K’s body count is in the tens of thousands – all victims of his callous disregard for human beings who stood in the way of his ruthless realpolitik. But don’t take my word. Tom Paxton tells it far more eloquently.