Bloody subverter of world peace, or its champion? Since his death on 29 November 2023, Henry Kissinger has been excoriated and praised in almost equal measure. His critics are more focused and vehement.
Kissinger’s extraordinary influence on American foreign policy originated from his roles as Secretary of State and National Security Adviser to both President Nixon and President Ford from 1969 to 1977. But it extended much beyond this time in his capacity as an unofficial but much sought-after adviser to later administrations.
Never out of the spotlight during the remainder of his life, Kissinger informally advised later presidents, including Reagan, Clinton, the two Bushes and Donald Trump, on many contentious foreign policy issues current at the time.
A notable exception to Kissinger’s influence in Washington was the Carter Administration, which was very critical of Kissinger’s support for the Pinochet regime in Chile, and the way Pinochet had ousted his democratically-elected predecessor Salvado Allende in a coup d’etat in 1970, backed by the CIA.
Kisssinger’s record as a warmonger is bloody indeed. It includes encouraging Indonesia’s President Suharto to kill up to 1.2 million alleged communists and progressives in anti-communist purges in Indonesia in 1965-66; advocating the illegal carpet bombing by B-52s in eastern Cambodia from March 1969 to May 1970 (the secret ‘Operation Menu’ series); advising Pakistan’s president Yahya Kahn to crush an aspiring political movement seeking autonomy for East Pakistan in 1970; encouraging Suharto to invade East Timor in 1975; giving the green light to a neo-fascist military junta to overthrow Argentine’s democratically-elected president Isabel Perōn in 1976; and scheming with a cabal of Latin American neo-fascist dictators to assassinate their political foes in ‘Operation Condor’, also in 1976.
And as a private foreign policy expert in 1998, he openly called for the removal of Saddam Hussein and the invasion of Iraq in 1998 during the Clinton administration’s bombing campaign of that year, and supported the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Untold misery and social disruption resulted from these actions. There is no authoritative account of the number of civilians who died. ‘Operation Condor’ alone caused the death or disappearance of 50-90,000 civilians in Latin America. The anti-communist purges in Indonesia took many thousands of lives. No official record exists of civilian bombing casualties in Cambodia, but conservative estimates run into the tens of thousands.
The American journalist and commentator Kiji Noh suggested that progressives in the United States wanted to label Kissinger as some criminal outlier, the better to dissociate US norms and ideals from America’s horrific omnicidal past. Noh suggests that Kissinger did not invent some new doctrine of foreign policy by atrocity. He was simply continuing business as usual.
The ‘family business’, Noh suggests, began following the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in the Philippines in 1898, after which untold thousands of locals were killed by American occupying troops rampaging through the provinces after ignoring an appeal by the Philippine patriot Jose Rizal for fraternisation and peace.
The killing continued in Korea from 1950 to 1953, when General Curtis LeMay’s bombing campaign flattened North Korea, and General Douglas MacArthur later told Congress that its members were sanctioning slaughter ‘such as I have never seen in the history of mankind’.
Kissinger carried on the tradition.
What of Kissinger’s ‘good’ side, his statesman-like moderation and concern for world peace? It has been reflected in accounts by many of his interlocutors, among them politicians, journalists and diplomats. An Australian who got a measure of the man was the leftist journalist Wilfred Burchett, who interviewed Kissinger at the White House in Washington in October 1971. Kissinger wanted to normalise relations with China. He expressed to Burchett his admiration for Chou En-lai, hinting at his forthcoming secret visit to Beijing to prepare for Nixon’s own visit the following year to mend Sino-American relations.
Burchett and Kissinger discussed Kissinger’s plans for withdrawal from Vietnam. Kissinger expressed his admiration for the Vietnamese as tough, disciplined, heroic and principled people. But, he said, ‘they are bad negotiators. They cannot tell a great power like the United States what it ‘must do’.
Another Australian admirer of Kissinger is former prime minister Paul Keating. Keating first met him at Harvard University in 1971 where Kissinger was advocating balance and restraint in foreign policy. In Keating’s view, Kissinger thought in original terms, rejecting derivative foreign policy thinking that is dominant today. Keating worked with Kissinger in the China Development Bank which underwrote new Chinese city plans, slum clearance, and construction of ports, highways, communications and fast trains, aged care and health. At the same time, Kissinger was negotiating a US withdrawal from Vietnam, and engaged in peace-keeping initiatives in the Middle East following the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
The American political analyst and former weapons inspector Scott Ritter suggested Kissinger’s trajectory broadly changed from genocidal warmonger to a supporter of détente in early 1988, when he became a mentor and godfather of US-USSR nuclear arms controls. Among other things, he helped negotiate START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) between President George W. Bush and Mikhael Gorbachev in 1991 that reduced by one third nuclear warheads held by both countries.
As pointed out by former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin, Kissinger was also sympathetic towards Russia’s perspective on Ukraine – that it becoming a member of NATO would compromise Russia’s security. Kissinger urged Washington to resolve the impasse between Russia and the West that developed as a result of the 2014 right-wing coup in Kyiv. In a speech in Moscow in 2016 he mourned the deterioration of relations between Moscow and the West, and virtually predicted a Russian invasion if things did not improve. The speech was reported extensively in Russia but virtually ignored in the West.
In sum, Henry Kissinger was a giant among his peers. No Secretary of State who followed close after him, including Cyrus Vance, Edmund Muskie, Alexander Haig or George Schultz, wielded the same influence. Nor did later successors, including Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.
Apart from Paul Keating, several Australians recall meeting Kissinger at one time or another. The Australian columnist Greg Sheridan recalls several encounters in which he claimed that consequential matters were discussed. John Menadue recalls sitting in on a discussion between Gough Whitlam and Kissinger in Washington in 1975, in which Kissinger expressed contempt for India and its non-alignment.
I also met Kissinger at a small dinner party in Sydney shortly after my term as Ambassador to Vietnam had expired in 1986. I found him avuncular, gracious and polite. He even admitted a few ‘mistakes’ Washington had made in prosecuting the war, and said he approved of Canberra’s efforts to re-build bridges with a united Vietnam. I was charmed at the time.