The life, times & morality of Henry A. Kissinger
Time has not been kind to Henry Kissinger. As he approaches his tenth decade, he appears healthy, is no doubt wealthy and retains his fierce intelligence. And yet, this high flying Nixon-era strategist today is a sombre character, alarmed about what people think of him after they’ve Googled his name and is concerned about his unravelling reputation. By MANDY DE WAAL.
The 89-year-old Heinz (Henry) Alfred Kissinger is in a lounge framed by television equipment. Behind him a black backdrop and spotlights turned to reflect off the wall so the room’s sympathetically lit, rather than exposed by a harsh glare.
Kissinger sits opposite an English historian-cum-TV presenter Niall Ferguson and a TV camera. Ferguson’s there because he’s got unprecedented access to Kissinger for an official biography he’s writing. A film – simply called Kissinger – is being produced by Ferguson’s media company for the National Geographic Channel.
Kissinger raises his hand and says: “I am a little bossered [bothered] about that last answer where you said: ‘Are you sorry… or what… should he have done anything differently’...”
Fergusson shifts in his chair and then Kissinger continues. “And I thought of... and I think… err… you know I’m going to learn the right answer to that someday. It will look sort of… uh… arrogant (Kissinger wheezes) and I would like to rephrase that same thought in a different way.”
Ferguson’s production company, Chimerica Media, informs iMaverick that negotiations for this biography and the Kissinger documentary were arduous and protracted – America’s most famous diplomat was told he’d be answering pointed questions, the type he too often circumvents, for this documentary. This doesn’t stop Kissinger from trying to direct the flow of the interview, however.
Watch the trailer for Kissinger on National Geographic:
“It was a constant process of negotiation and not dissimilar in a way to the way that David Frost interviewed Richard Nixon. You need a strategy for doing these interviews,” Kissinger director Adrian Pennink tells iMaverick on the phone from London.
Pennink says Nixon’s decision to grant “exclusive and unparalleled” access was a difficult one for the former Nixon Secretary of State to make. “One thing I want to make very clear that Kissinger wasn’t in control of this project, we were. He had no editorial control over it, we had the final cut so in a sense he trusted us to give him a fair shot on film. To provide a balanced account of his character and it certainly wasn’t his portrayal of himself, it was ours.”
The director of Kissinger goes to pains to stress the film’s credibility. “It was really important that we put to him, and that he answered for the first time, the contentious issues about the bombing of civilians in Cambodia or the role that the United States played in the military coup against Salvador Allende. It was very important that those (questions) were put and those were part of the negotiations beforehand so that we would be able to put any questions to him and that he would be prepared to answer them.”
Pennink says that during the negotiations Kissinger was charming, much like that diplomat of old when the camera was on him, but that he bristled in the interview when issues like the bombing of Cambodia and the death of Chilean President Salvador Allende was brought up.
“He did become quite guarded on the sensitive issues and there were several times during the making of the film when we had to have a little pause and collect our thoughts so as to work out a different approach to asking these questions. We had to have a discussion with him about the questions that he was prepared to answer. Obviously he’d have preferred to have control over it (the documentary) to ensure that everything in the film would be something that he loved, but clearly that would be a film that would have very little credibility with the public, so he accepted this argument.”
Photo: Kissinger with Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong (Wikimedia Commons)
In the film the grave timber of Kissinger’s voice is as baritone as ever as he posits a motive for his involvement in once secret interventions whose shameful secrets are now publicly exposed: “You have to understand you are presiding over a historical process of the magnitude that the world has never seen. I certainly would go that same direction again, painful as some of the aspects of it were.”
“At this period of my life I’m not running a popularity contest on Google. I have to stand on what I did and wrote and be somewhat fatalistic about it.” Kissinger’s very considered in his response. But then he pauses. It’s obvious he’s thinking, although his expression reveals little beyond brusqueness. Then he looks sternly into the camera and says: “Can we stop this for one second?” It’s a question but his hand is raised in a pause motion, and the request sounds a lot more like a command.
The cerebral politician-cum-business advisor is concerned about his reputation. “Kissinger fears how he will be remembered by people Googling him,” confesses Pennink.
Typing “Henry Kissinger” into Google elicits millions of responses, which after a Wikipedia entry and the official Henry A. Kissinger site is followed by a legion of entries that link Kissinger’s name with “war crimes”, “war criminals” and various permutations of articles, a book and documentary by Christopher Hitchens. “Kissinger’s concern is that he will be remembered more for the accusations – which obviously he considers to be false and egregious – about what happened in Chile and Cambodia,” says Pennink.
The biography and National Geographic documentary is the legacy of a man staring mortality in the face. A man who hopes the world will remember him for his encyclopaedic knowledge, strategic brilliance and doing what he believed was right for his country, but who’s pragmatic enough to realise Google’s power. The book, which has yet to be published, and the film, which has been completed, is the last significant effort from a man who wants the world to forget the messy matter of morality when it comes to judging the decisions he made in the name of the US.
“Kissinger felt that if people watched this film there would be a better balanced interpretation of this life than there would be from Googling his name. His objection to Google is, I think, that supposition and inaccurate innuendo is passed along like a virus through the Internet,” says Pennink.
Hitchens, Kissinger’s key adversary, says in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger that the former US Secretary of State should be held to account "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." The late polemicist and author, who for a long time lead the charge against Kissinger’s reputation, said in the documentary based on his book that Kissinger is nothing more than "a stupendous liar with a remarkable memory".
Ferguson and Pennink’s movie is by no means a trial or even remotely as critical as Hitch’s documentary. But then Kissinger attended Ferguson’s second wedding late last year and like the subject of his book, the historian is a Harvard man.
“Christopher Hitchens wrote a book and made a film called The Trials of Henry Kissinger, but this was meant to be a very different approach where we let Kissinger do all the talking, and hopefully let the viewer make up their own mind about what they felt about the man.”
The new Kissinger film has no narration; not that it needs it as Kissinger’s perspective dominates. This is interspersed with recordings of Nixon’s phone calls, archive material of Kissinger and footage the global events he helped manoeuvre. There’s also a peppering of indignant senators and damaging headlines to balance things out.
But the film is still Kissinger’s account of history. “Our decision was to just have his voice in the film, not to put anyone else in the film and to have him and contemporary archive from that time and that’s the reason why we decided to go that way,” Pennink justifies.
If the film confirms one thing it is that Kissinger has an acute mind. “He remembers every detail of what he did, what people said to him, and what was going on during the time he was operating as national security advisor and secretary of state,” says Pennink. “It really is an amazing thing to hear him speak and recall those things and makes these geo-political connections.”
“My impression is that he is startlingly intelligent and has an amazing memory, but he is also very guarded. He is very cautious, which comes across in the film too. Some people have said that he is a paranoid man. Kissinger saw this film as his epitaph in a way, so he was very careful about what he said because he wanted it to be the final word.”
Time has not been good to Kissinger. His political power peaked in a world of opaque democracy and diplomacy, but unlike Nixon who died in 1994, he survives in a connected universe where archives of secret documents and private phone calls are now open to all.
The son of German Jews, Kissinger was born in Fuerth, Bavaria in 1923 but fled Germany thanks to his mother. Kissinger says his father was paralysed in the face of evil that the Nazis presented, but that his pragmatic mother ensured they fled to the US.
For Kissinger, the loss of his friends had a profound toll and set up a theme of loss that would echo through many junctures of his life. In the early 40s he was conscripted into the US army and returned to Germany as an American soldier toward the war’s end.
“The Jews were in a state that you couldn’t describe as human… The immediate instinct was to feed them and I and my colleagues gave them our rations, and we killed some of them by giving them our food which they could no longer digest,” Kissinger says matter-of-factly in the Kissinger documentary. “It was a world of shocking incongruences. Many members of my family and about seventy per cent of the people with whom I went to school died in concentration camps, so that is something one cannot forget.”
After the war Kissinger studied at Harvard and obtained a Ph.D. in International Relations from Harvard University, where he stayed on as a faculty member in both the Department of Government and the Centre for International Affairs. He was also director of the Harvard International Seminar.
By Kissinger’s account, he met Nixon after writing his “best-selling” book entitled Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, which Nixon enjoyed. “After his election in 1968 Nixon invited me to visit him at his transition headquarters,” Kissinger says. “Nixon talked to me for about two hours about the international situation and I knew he wanted something, but I didn’t know what. About a week later, John Mitchell who was one of Nixon’s closest aids at the time called me up and said: “Well. Are you going to take the job or not?” I said: “What job?”
While Kissinger wants the world to believe that Nixon fell in love with his book and then with him (even though the President wasn’t partial to Jews), Hitchens’ book and documentary tell a different story. Here Kissinger is portrayed as a conspiratorial and manipulative character who was advising the Johnson administration on peace talks with Vietnam when he started cozying up to the Nixon campaign team.
“Nixon recognises talent when he sees it. He doesn’t like Jews, he doesn’t like intellectuals, but he loves Henry Kissinger because Kissinger knows what to do without being told,” Hitchens said in his documentary. “Nixon himself said he admired Kissinger for his ability to supply secret information.”
During the peace talks between the US and Vietnam in the sixties, Kissinger hedged his bets. He consulted to President Lyndon Johnson’s delegation, but started supplying information to Nixon’s campaign team because the soon to be president was also part of the talks.
Just before the US elections, president of South Vietnam Nguyen Van Thieu abandoned negotiations with President Johnson and Nixon won the election with a marginal lead. Later FBI surveillance would show Nixon had a back secret channel to Thieu and told him not to participate in the Peace Talks. “Hold On. We are gonna win”, the secret message from Nixon to Thieu read.
Kissinger would always maintain he’d never met Nixon before his appointment. In 2001 he’d tell the US National Press Club “I did not know Mr Nixon when he appointed me as national security advisor. In fact I had spent three presidential campaigns backing (Arkansas) Governor [Winthrop] Rockefeller against Nixon.”
In the Kissinger documentary the octogenarian tries to distance himself from his former commander-in-chief. “Nixon did not have close friends, nor was I one of them,” Kissinger says. “I have often thought the personality of Richard Nixon will require a Shakespeare to render, partly because there were so many different Nixons. He must have been seared by rejection at an early stage in his life.”
Kissinger sets up the crisis that leads to his first real moral dilemma – the bombing of Civilians in Cambodia. “In January 1969 the United States was in an extremely complicated situation. It was three years after total involvement in the Vietnam War. It was the first year in which the protest movement had turned absolutely ugly and violent. Internationally we had no contact whatsoever with China. Relations with the Soviet Union had been frozen, and the Soviet Union was building a submarine base with Cuba. So to think there was a communist problem in the world at that moment was not the paranoid imagination of a president.”
The Nixon administration took ownership of Johnson’s war strategy which was, as Kissinger puts it: “An extraordinary concept of warfare. Five hundred thousand American troops were committed without a definition of victory. The purpose of the strategy was to inflict so much pain on the North Vietnamese that they would enter negotiations. But it turned out that their level of pain toleration was much higher than had been estimated.”
The North Vietnamese were horribly underestimated by the Americans, and Kissinger’s solution was the withdrawal of US troops without compromising allies, South Vietnam.
But back to that documentary, because this is the point where Kissinger’s biographer starts throwing the curve balls. “It was the bombing of Cambodia that came to be the focus of this domestic opposition. Why was it, and why is it still today, so contentious?” Fergusson asks Kissinger in dulcet tones.
Marginally irritated, Kissinger responds: “The so called secret bombing of Cambodia is one of the most deliberately misrepresented episodes of that period. Let’s first understand clearly what happened.”
If you read the New York Times, it’s pretty simple to understand what happened. Nixon authorized secret B-52 bombing against Vietcong supply areas in Cambodia. The Nixon Tapes would reveal the US president commanded: “I want a plan where every goddamn thing that can fly goes into Cambodia and hits every target.” To this Kissinger responds: “Right.”
Kissinger justifies this by saying the North Vietnamese launched attacks against the US at the start of the Nixon presidency at a time the new administration staff in the White House “didn’t even know where the toilets were”. Intelligence determined that the attacks emanated from bases established on Cambodian soil and Kissinger laments it was a time when there’d be massive conflict in the states if the decision to bomb was made public.
“Nixon, faced with these dilemmas, decided to authorise er… attacks. He sought to minimise the danger of these demonstrations that had taken place erupting again by not announcing that these attacks were taking place,” Kissinger says in answer to Ferguson’s “contentious” question.
“What about the accusation that hundreds of thousands of defenceless civilians were killed,” Ferguson presses. “Hundreds of thousands is total rubbish. I am telling you about the so called secret bombing,” Kissinger responds with his eyes downcast. “There was almost no civilian population. Undoubtedly civilians were killed as a result of military operations but what I am saying applies only to the secret bombing.”
If you listen to the Nixon Tapes, it’s the same kind of spin strategy Nixon suggested years ago. Talking about civilian casualties in the Cambodian bombing Nixon said: “When they say we are killing civilians we will say there were not a lot of civilians killed.” To which Kissinger answers: “Right.”
Photo: Kissinger with General Pinochet. (Reuters)
Predictably, the revelation that the US bombed Cambodia saw protests explode across the States. In one such protest, four students of Kent University were shot dead by the Ohio National Guard. “For me the protest movement was personally extremely painful experience,” Kissinger says of that time. He also talks about the pain of his children being victimised at school by teachers who told them to write “the love of war must be driven from Nixon’s heart” on the classroom chalk board.
But the protests against the bombing of Cambodia appear to have brought Kissinger much more personal pain. “Almost all my friends were engulfed in the protest movement,” Kissinger says sadly. “All the people I had gone to school with.”
Harvard economics professor Tom Shelling was particularly close to Kissinger when they were together at the university, but that didn’t stop him from leading an academic delegation that went to the White House to tell the president’s advisor to end the war; the 12 academics severed their personal relationships with Kissinger.
However, Kissinger’s biggest shame must be the US involvement in the Chilean coup, which resulted in the death of that country’s newly elected president, communist Salvador Allende and didn’t have a clear political agenda. The first Marxist to be democratically elected in South America, Allende’s transgression was pushing a nationalisation agenda in a country with massive US business investments that included ITT Corporation and Pepsi-Cola.
Fergusson asks Kissinger whether it was a necessary evil for the US to deal with Pinochet. He’s not even asking about the coup, the executions of thousands of people and hasn’t breathed the word Hitchens, but Kissinger gets a vexed expression. The elderly former statesman looks directly into the camera, holds up his hand up in a pointing motion and says: “Can we stop this for one second.” He keeps his hand raised, signalling the camera to stop.
After the edit, a more collected Kissinger relays the fear that Allende was tied to the Soviet Union and close to Castro and Cuba. “We were concerned with seeing a communist government established in Santiago, and I believe that any fair student of the subject will recognise that Allende was, if anything, to the left of the Communist Party because he had no patience. This was the assessment of the Chilean issue, but I won’t go any deeper into the Chilean issue, incidentally.”
Fergusson gets bolder and asks Kissinger whether the US was involved in the coup. Kissinger answers without missing a beat: “We had nothing to do with the military coup and every investigation has found that.” But surely Nixon and Kissinger weren’t distressed that a coup happened in Chile, ending Allende’s Marxian dreams? When asked this question, Kissinger says: “Absolutely. Neither of us were sorry.”
Photo: Kissinger with President Ford (WIkimedia Commons)
Hitch will have us believe that as Allende died, firing squads killed civilians and Chile shook under the terror of Pinochet, Nixon's White House was celebrating. The classified documents released by the Clinton administration reveals the early coup plan years in the making called "Track II", as well as Operation Condor that sought to vanquish communism and socialism with the help of right wing dictators in parts of South America.
The Trial of Henry Kissinger reveals that Nixon wanted to make the Chilean economy “scream” and got the CIA to spread "black" propaganda after Allende took power. “Washington finally goaded the Chilean army into the coup of 1973,” Hitchens writes. The cruel Pinochet got to rule the country another 17 years thanks to the US and only abandoned power after arranging immunity for himself and his generals.
Thankfully, Hitchens strode waist deep into the Chilean issue, leaving a wake that activists, academics and Kissinger critics followed, demanding that the man be charged as a war criminal. Explaining how he first sniffed the rat, Hitchens said in his documentary: “If I ask myself why I began my investigation into Henry Kissinger, it will go back as far as when I realised he was a frightened man, because I became aware that he was personally frightened personally by the consequences of the arrest of General Pinochet.” Undoubtedly Kissinger feared he might be next.
Arrested in London, former dictator Augusto Pinochet was apprehended at the request of Spanish authorities on behalf of its citizens who were murdered while the tyrant was in power. This led to the US government under Clinton releasing masses of files of classified documents revealing the Nixon administration’s involvement in Pinochet’s bloody ousting of Allende, and the assignation, torture and kidnapping of thousands of Chileans.
Hitchens petitioned Kissinger for answers, but the former US Secretary of State ignored him. Hitchens would fly across the US to try to confront Kissinger at public meetings; somehow, Kissinger would always catch wind of Hitchens’ whereabouts and cancel his trips. “The statement that Henry Kissinger is a war criminal is a statement I have been making for many years. It is not a piece of rhetoric, it is not a metaphor, it is a job description,” the combative author said of the man he exposed.
Watch: The Trials of Henry Kissinger, based on Christopher Hitchens book:
Asked about Hitchens on MSNBC when the book came out in 2001, a grumpy Kissinger angrily interjects: “I am not going to deal with Christopher Hitchens, he’s a man who said that… uh… Mother Theresa, Jacqui Kennedy… he said the holocaust never existed and I am not going to do him the favour of getting into a debate with him.” Here the ever eloquent Kissinger is so rattled he barely makes sense.
But the best clue to what Kissinger really thinks of Hitchens, whom he labelled an anti-Semite and Nazi sympathiser, is the response from Alexander Haig, who served with Kissinger under Nixon: “I hadn’t read his (Hitchens’s) book. Frankly I was so disgusted by his magazine piece. Look at this guy’s background…” Interviewed for The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Haig leans in toward the camera, purses his lips and with angry eyes rants: “He’s a sewer pipe sucker. He sucks the sewer pipe.”
Allende (and thousands of Chileans) died because US monolith ITT Corporation (and Pepsi-Cola) lobbied for a political solution to a business problem. ITT were the moneymen behind Nixon’s presidential campaign and so there will was done.
Ironically ITT was one of the first businesses Hitler received in office after coming into power, according to Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler by Antony Sutton. The telephone and telegraph company, which grew into a global giant that now manufactures components and technology solutions for industrial markets in the energy infrastructure, electronics, aerospace and transportation sectors, is also said to have made payments to Himmler through subsidiaries. Further, ITT is said to have owned companies that produced components for the Wehrmacht.
The early footage of Kissinger in both Hitchens’ The Trials of Henry Kissinger and Ferguson’s Kissinger show an urbane, self-possessed, jocular man who in retrospect is obviously smug about the manner in which he crafted a career that would make him the “king of the world”. While Nixon met his fate with Watergate, Kissinger exited government in the late seventies, did a brief academic tour at a couple of universities and then started Kissinger Associates.
A fairly secretive business, Kissinger is the chairman and owner of this international advisory company whose staff and directors have included the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, a United States secretary of treasury, a CIA deputy director, a past governor of New Mexico, a former United States national security advisor, a Nato secretary general, a former Japanese foreign minister and many other former US diplomats.
Kissinger Associates doesn’t disclose clients, and clients are barred from revealing their association with the firm. After 9/11, George W Bush appointed Kissinger as chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. The Democrats insisted that Kissinger reveal his client base, Bush insisted this was unnecessary, but Kissinger chose not to take the job rather than reveal the details of his business dealings.
In a rare interview on Kissinger Associates with former New York Times diplomatic correspondent Leslie Gelb in 1986, it is revealed that companies like American Express and Lehman Brothers bought Kissinger’s time for a retainer of $420,000 per annum. The money afforded them speaker opportunities from the man himself, and periodic contact with top Kissinger Associates' management. Gelb adds that no written analysis was offered, just discussion and, of course, access to the basso toned voice that was able to get world leaders on the phone.
The money bought influence and Kissinger’s enduring and enviable rolodex of contacts, but when Kissinger calls now, who still listens to that basso voice?
“I think it is safe to say I have done the greater part of what I will be doing in this world. I came from a group of people in the academic world and then I then wound up with a man they despised as a president and conducted policies but with consequences they couldn’t face,” Kissinger speaks to the camera.
“The major themes of my life have been to create a structurally more peaceful world, to prevent a catastrophic war, and to help America edge toward a stabler direction. How that will be recognised is very difficult to say. For better or worse the main strategic decisions out there reflected my convictions and I certainly would go that same direction again, painful as some of the aspects of it were in Vietnam and… otherwise.”
Defiant to the end, the recipient of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize posits that moral delusion that the means to the end is everything in a world that has already set up an International Criminal Court and is moving toward universal jurisdiction. Hurtling towards 90, Kissinger is a dying breed of global diplomat who manoeuvred the world with impunity and was significantly advantaged for doing so.
It appears that the only price Kissinger will pay for Cambodia, Allende and Chile will be the loss of friendship, reputation and wondering whether his mortality will come before a tribunal or subpoena. Given the marriage between American politics and business, it’s more convenient for the US if Kissinger exits without an inconvenient courtroom confessional. Nevertheless, fascinating character he is. DM
- The Latest Kissinger Outrage - Why is a proven liar and wanted man in charge of the 9/11 investigation? By Christopher Hitchens in Slate;
- The Case Against Henry Kissinger - The making of a war criminal by Christopher Hitchens for Harper’s magazine;
- Show us the papers, Hitchens. Henry Kissinger has finally met his match in Christopher Hitchens. But do they deserve each other? In the New Statesman;
- Christopher Hitchens: Latest Nixon tape buries Kissinger’s reputation, in the National Post;
- Corporate Media Hearts Henry Kissinger, Oldest War Criminal, in Salon;
- America and China - No go. The Western politician who understands China best tries to explain it—but doesn’t quite succeed, in The Economist.
Main photo: Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger listens to questions during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 31, 2007. REUTERS/Jim Young