A bill of indictment

Print edition : October 13, 2001

The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens; Verso, London and New York, 2001; pages xii + 159, &pound15.

WITH a substantial business fortune riding on the record of his years in government, Henry Kissinger is understandably nervous about any challenge to the legacy he has bequeathed in U.S. foreign policy. Christopher Hitchens began his dissection of this legacy in a two-part series of essays for Harper's Magazine early this year. This exercise was with a few additions and some supplemental information converted into this book, which comprehensively catalogues certifiable war crimes by Henry Kissinger during his years as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

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Hitchens' factual narration focusses on Kissinger's record in the wanton killing of innocent civilians in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and his complicity in like crimes in Bangladesh, Chile, East Timor and Cyprus. This is accompanied by an analysis of international covenants on war crimes - many of which the U.S. has only reluctantly acceded to in recent years. Hitchens believes that irrespective of the formal position in law, a trial of Henry Kissinger would be eminently feasible on the basis of the available evidence, since in areas of legal ambiguity, customary law should be expected to prevail.

Hitchens' interest was sparked by the dramatic initiative of a Spanish magistrate in 1998 which led to the arrest in London of former Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet on charges of murder. He was witness at one end to a rather agitated telephone call that a prominent New York publisher received from Kissinger, detailing how this exercise of extra-territorial jurisdiction was absolutely intolerable, and probably deeply corrosive of the autonomy of U.S. foreign policy. But it is precisely this event that emboldened Hitchens in his belief that Kissinger could be brought to justice for crimes against humanity. The U.S. record in this respect, he says, has been pitiful. Most countries that have recently emerged rather hesitantly into the daylight of democracy from long years spent under the thrall of U.S. sponsored dictatorships, have set about exorcising the ghosts of their bitter past. In many instances, commissions with broad-ranging powers of receiving testimony and granting amnesty have been at work, effecting the delicate task of reconciliation between those who were ranged on opposite sides during the years of dictatorial lawlessness and impunity. The U.S. is yet to begin this process. A half-hearted effort was undertaken following the Spanish magistracy's admirable initiative to come clean on the record in Chile. This was aborted just when it seemed likely to uncover the full range of the dirty tricks that had been undertaken by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as part of its campaign of destabilising the legitimately elected presidency of Salvador Allende.

These events take place outside the focus of Hitchens' book and it may be appropriate to touch upon one other important development that may have a bearing on Kissinger's fortunes, before taking up the substance of the indictment against him. Shortly after the U.S. presidential elections of 1976 served him his eviction notice from the U.S. Department of State, Kissinger reclassified most of his official papers as 'personal' and made them over to the Library of Congress through a gift deed. He was personally to enjoy assured access to these papers, but the public would have had to wait for 25 years after the gift deed was made out, or five years after Kissinger's death, whichever was later. This was an extraordinary measure taken by an individual who was acutely conscious of the damage potential of the tracks he had left while pursuing a brazenly destructive course of politics across the world.

Shortly afterwards, a federal district judge and a court of appeals both ruled that the papers transferred under the gift deed were government property that Kissinger had no right to decide on the disposal of. The matter went in appeal to the Supreme Court, which struck down the lower courts' findings not on merits but on the grounds that the plaintiffs had no locus standi. But concurrently with the arrest of Pinochet and the legal debates that accompanied that long overdue act of accountability, a non-governmental non-profit organisation in the U.S. - rather misleadingly named the National Security Archive - began to agitate for the retrieval of the Kissinger papers.

The battle soon focussed on the transcripts of telephone conversations that Kissinger had engaged in while holding government office. An uneasy compromise had been worked out in 1998, under which official historians of the U.S. State Department were assured access to specific documents that they could requisition. But the State Department soon discovered that documents were being released from the Library of Congress only after massive deletions, whose significance could not reasonably be assessed. This method of access to the Kissinger papers, the State Department concluded, was improper, leaving no alternative but for these documents to be transferred to the National Archives. Around the same time that Hitchens' book was published, Kissinger bowed to the inevitable and transferred his papers back to the State Department, which could now decide in accordance with the law on public disclosure and its own interests, when they can be declassified.

THESE developments, which are really quite peripheral to Hitchens' own well-documented campaign, indicate that the Kissingerian aura is beginning to fade. No longer is he in a position to dictate what aspects of his foreign policy legacy can be subject to scrutiny. There is of course the powerful institutional interest that the U.S. State Department has in concealing some of his more sordid actions. But if sufficient momentum builds up, there is a strong likelihood that the public could demand disclosure, laying bare the squalid record of a cynical bureaucrat who continues to strut the world stage in the garb of an elder statesman.

Hitchens' indictment commences with what he describes as an "open secret" within Washington's political circles, which is "too momentous and too awful to tell". In 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson ordered a bombing halt in Vietnam and offered a peace deal with North Vietnam, the Richard Nixon camp, using a parallel track of diplomacy that Kissinger was running, urged the South Vietnamese military regime to boycott the talks. The intention was clearly to make Johnson look silly and subvert the campaign of Vice-President Hubert Humphrey against whom Nixon was pitted in the presidential elections that year. A secret assurance was meanwhile held out that a Nixon administration would assure the South Vietnamese military dictatorship a much more favourable deal than Johnson was prepared to give.

The ploy worked. Nixon won an agonisingly close election and as President-elect his first major decision was to appoint Kissinger National Security Adviser. This was, says Hitchens, rather curious, since Kissinger had been more closely associated with the camp of Nelson Rockefeller, the billionaire politician on the liberal fringe of the Republican Party. He had in fact met Nixon only once and was known to have maintained connections with liberal sections that favoured an early initiation of peace talks. Obviously the propensity for low intrigue that the two shared was instrumental in forging the bond between them.

Kissinger's conduct would qualify as a high crime and misdemeanour against the U.S. government in any reckoning. But Hitchens is wrong in asserting that this open secret is too awful to tell. In an August 1998 article in The New York Review of Books, Tony Judt gave out much of the substance of the story. But he banished it to a footnote and chose not to elaborate upon it. This betrays an uncritical attitude and a certain indifference to the lives that were lost by prolonging the war. Hitchens suffers no such moral lapse. The main entries in his bill of indictment against Kissinger are constituted by the indiscriminate and promiscuous violence that was unleashed against Vietnam under the "accelerated pacification programme" of the Nixon presidency, and the widening of aerial bombardment to Cambodia and Laos, which were neutral countries that the U.S. was not at war with. The toll in human suffering was immense, and the military techniques used by the U.S., appalling in their sanitised cruelty.

When the U.S. did initiate peace negotiations with North Vietnam, it was with a cynical and calculated eye focussed on Nixon's reelection prospects in 1972. Hitchens establishes through a citation from the official record that this strategic ploy was inspired in the main by Kissinger. And the terms that the U.S. managed to impose were no better than what it might have secured in 1968. The inference is unambiguous: Kissinger and Nixon bear direct responsibility for all the lives lost in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1968 and 1973. And in destroying the structure of civil society in Cambodia by their secret war, they bear part of the blame for the emergence of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in that country.

READERS in India would find the section on the Bangladesh war of liberation especially interesting. In April 1971, a month into the Pakistan Army's brutal crackdown against Bangladeshi nationalists, the U.S. Consul-General in Dhaka dispatched a strongly worded demarche, urging the U.S. government to shed its ambivalence and do what was right in the circumstances. This telegram, which Hitchens refers to as the "Blood Telegram", after Archer Blood who was the top U.S. official in Dhaka, was signed by twenty other members of the diplomatic mission. Kissinger's response was a contemptuous dismissal. Later that month, he personally sent a message to the Pakistani military dictator General Yahya Khan, thanking him for his "delicacy and tact" in a difficult situation.

Kissinger's solicitous concern for the Pakistan dictatorship was occasioned by a very narrow consideration. He was then engaged in secret parleys with the Chinese Communist leadership and needed the intermediary services of Pakistan to accomplish his goals. Hitchens does not question the goal, but he does argue credibly that alternative channels existed, notably through the communist regime then in power in Romania. Nor, he argues, was the Chinese leadership very keen to maintain secrecy in developing the contacts - leaders such as Chou Enlai and Mao Zedong had little hesitation about conducting complex diplomatic bargains in public. Kissinger allowed his propensity for low intrigue, his obsessive desire to corner all the credit for any diplomatic breakthrough, to govern entirely his worldview at this juncture. In the process he developed an abiding animus towards the Bangladeshi nationalist leadership that was consummated in the murderous coup of August 1975. Hitchens does a competent job of marshalling all the evidence of Kissinger's complicity in the murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and virtually his entire family in that gruesome episode in the blood-stained history of one of the world's poorest countries.

Apart from Kissinger's patronage of General Pinochet's appalling crimes against humanity in Chile, Hitchens establishes that he was probably complicit in the murder of General Rene Schneider, a principled and professional army commander who refused to block Salvador Allende's accession to the presidency in 1972. In Cyprus, Kissinger plotted the overthrow of a popular Prime Minister, Archbishop Makarios, by a rabid Greek nationalist clique enjoying the unqualified support of the thuggish military regime then in power in Athens. But as the Greek junta began to crumble, he waved on the Turkish regime in its invasion of Cyprus, precipitating a division of the island into two halves at tremendous human cost. When queried by a Chinese diplomatic mission on his role in these events, Kissinger offered the astounding alibi that the Turkish regime had acted on instructions from the Soviet Union, making it the only case, as Hitchens ironically points out, of a member-state of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation using U.S. supplied arms to implement a Soviet strategic objective.

Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, which occurred literally hours after Kissinger and President Gerald Ford concluded a state visit to Jakarta, is another documented case of a crime against humanity. Hitchens' narration of this sordid record of geopolitical manoeuvring is accompanied by a detailed analysis of several cases of vindictive personal behaviour, of vendettas being pursued against political opponents in total disregard of the law, and even allegations of gross financial malfeasance. Despite his hallowed status in strategic circles, Kissinger has already been hard put in answering Hitchens' indictment. In the course of a television interview in June, he took recourse to the strategy of the smear. Loftily declining to dignify this book with a comment, Kissinger referred to Hitchens as a "holocaust-denier". In American liberal circles, where to deny that the Holocaust took place is almost akin to being party to it, this was the ultimate smear. Hitchens responded with a threat to sue, following which Kissinger sent out word that he had no intention of repeating his charge and would consider issuing a retraction if the evidence were to be brought before him. But clearly he had lost the first round in the ongoing sparring. And should the full record of his years in government emerge to public view, then it would appear that Kissinger has nowhere to go in public esteem, but downwards.

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