Henry Kissinger: the elegant criminal turns one hundred years old

  • Today, Henry Kissinger turns one hundred years old, pursued by judges around the world and by the immorality of his actions while he was the most powerful man in the world.

Vicent Partal
27.05.2023 - 12:08

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It’s told that one night Henry Kissinger invited Raymond Aron, the brilliant and moderate French liberal journalist and intellectual, to dinner. While they were dining, an assistant placed a phone on the table that rang occasionally. Kissinger picked it up and took note of the deaths in the bombing of Cambodia, then continued dining. Aron, saddened by this scene, told him that he couldn’t eat while receiving these kinds of calls, and Kissinger’s response was characteristic of the man: “That’s why I’m Secretary of State, and not you.”

Heinz Alfred Kissinger – later changed his name to Henry – was born on May 27, 1923, in Fürth, in the Weimar Republic. He left Germany for the United States with his family in 1943, fleeing from persecution against Jews. He has been a brilliant intellectual with enormous influence around the world. He has held the most important positions in American foreign policy and has even defined the world we live in – for example, with the historic opening to China orchestrated for Richard Nixon. Amidst great controversy, he even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. He is also one of the greatest criminals in contemporary history. Always elegant, though.

There are few politicians and intellectuals who can present such a dissonant double face. Kissinger is admired and respected for his lessons in geopolitics – some of his books are fundamental to understanding the world we live in – and also for his ability to break myths while in power. Even for his longevity. Today he turns one hundred and is still working and writing books. The last two, one dedicated to artificial intelligence written in 2021 – which once again demonstrates his legendary capacity for anticipation – and one from last year in which he studies and analyzes the lives of six men who have shaped the way of leading. Kissinger, however, can barely leave the United States because courts around the world have been looking for him for decades.

His life completely changed in Paris on May 29, 2001. That day Kissinger was staying at the Ritz – his enjoyment of luxury is also legendary – when a brigade of the criminal police dramatically burst in to deliver him a notification from Judge Roger LeLoire. The court summoned him the next day to interrogate him in connection with the disappearance of five French citizens in Pinochet’s Chile. Kissinger immediately left Paris, refusing to appear before the judge, protected by a spectacular deployment of the United States embassy.

Not even a week passed and a second judge, Argentina’s Rodolfo Corral also prosecuted him for Operation Condor, the enormous clandestine network created by the American government that supported dictatorships and extrajudicial killings in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, and Ecuador. These were the first two lawsuits, but many more came. Today there are courts asking him to explain his role in countries as diverse as Iraq, East Timor, Cyprus, Laos, Cambodia, and Bangladesh.

The most powerful man in history?

Kissinger was the most powerful man in the United States, and therefore in the world, after the president – he couldn’t be president because he was not born there. And from this comes the pursuit by courts all over the world to judge him. Crimes were committed in dozens of countries, some of the most serious imaginable, with the acquiescence or even support of the United States government. And this support always went through his hands.

Kissinger’s appointment was the first that Richard Nixon made upon coming to power in 1968. The new Republican president appointed him as presidential advisor for national security affairs – essentially what today is the national security advisor. Later, he was also placed at the head of the so-called 40 Committee – a secret group that decided on all illegal operations that were carried out outside of the United States – and he even went on to be Secretary of State, equivalent to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. And, as if that wasn’t enough, he chaired six committees related to the NSC – the Senior Review Group (matters not related to crises or arms control), the Washington Special Actions Group (serious crises), the Verification Panel (arms control negotiations), the Intelligence Committee (policy for the intelligence community), and the Defense Program Review Committee (relating the defense budget to foreign policy objectives). 

Never, either before or after him, has one person been both the national security advisor and Secretary of State at the same time, nor has anyone held all the auxiliary positions that he had. This fact has given Henry Kissinger a power, between 1969 and 1977, that came to be defined as that of a head of state. And it was from this unique position that Kissinger made and unmade with an unlimited capacity to mobilize the immense resources of the United States administration, whether political, diplomatic, military, or clandestine. Never hesitating, never with a trembling hand. With an unprecedented hardness and lack of scruples.

About him, it has been said that he is the ultimate representative of realpolitik, that concept created by his admired Otto von Bismarck which affirms that politics and diplomacy must be based not on ideological notions or ethical and moral premises, but on the simple consideration of circumstances and self-interest. But it could also be said that Kissinger is the ultimate representative of immorality. Because he never hesitated to sell out whoever for the sake of preserving what has been the compass and guide of his life: the project to make the United States the great superpower of the world, no matter the cost. In an article published in The New Yorker in 2016, Jon Lee Anderson wondered if Kissinger had a conscience. And, comparing his attitude in the final years of his life with that of Robert McNamara, another of Washington’s great monsters, Anderson concluded that he did not. McNamara, in the last years of his life, tried to qualify, recognize and assume some of the most serious acts in which he had participated. Kissinger has never done this.

And it’s not that the list is short. He is responsible for the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. He was involved in Operation Condor in Latin America, helping Pinochet carry out the coup and giving the green light to the Argentine military junta for the practice of dirty war. He also authorized, dining with Suharto the night before, the criminal invasion of East Timor by the Indonesian army which would end up causing 300,000 deaths or the genocide committed by Pakistan in Bangladesh. In the context of the conflict between Iraq and Iran, Kissinger created an international coalition to support the Kurdish peshmerga until he decided that his ally was Iraq and sold them out, passing all the information he had to the Iraqi regime. He allowed the military junta in Greece to stage a coup in Cyprus that would end in war between Greeks and Turks. He also supported and encouraged Spain’s cession, negotiating personally with Franco, of Western Sahara to Morocco or gave unconditional support to the bloodthirsty dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, of Zaire. All this besides following the traditional policies of the American administration regarding the Soviet Union and the Eastern countries, Israel, or Cuba. Only the rise to power of Jimmy Carter liquidated his power and opened the way to a time when he dedicated himself to business and giving his opinion. Publicly, for example, stating that Deng Xiao Ping did what was necessary by massacring the students of Tiananmen, that George Bush had every right to invade Iraq or more recently that Ukraine should be like Finland during the Cold War, independent but ultimately controlled by Moscow.

Accused, but never tried

Despite everything, Henry Kissinger has never been brought before a court for his crimes. And it’s not for lack of will. In 1970, in the middle of the Vietnam War, he faced the first public accusation which, as far as we know, left a deep impression on him. It happened at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University when a group of students protested his presence. Visibly angry, Kissinger said he would not give the speech he had prepared and would go straight to the public’s questions. The first young man to rise went straight to the point: “Mr. Kissinger, do you consider yourself a war criminal”. The event ended at that moment. You could hear Kissinger saying “control these people you have here” as he left the premises. I said that, as far as we know, it left a deep impression on him. And that’s because Kissinger has never set foot in a school and a university that has had close ties with the American government and very specifically with defense affairs. In 2001, the school decided to invite Henry Kissinger to give a solemn lecture that they wanted to be a kind of homage and he flatly refused, recalling bitterly the episode of 1970.

It is clear that at a hundred years old, which he turns today, Henry Kissinger will never be brought before a court to investigate his decisions. Even criminals have rights and it would be an abuse to incriminate a centenarian. But there remains the verdict of history, and from this, he should not escape.

Kissinger has had to spend much of the last twenty years sheltered in his own country, unable to travel abroad for fear of being arrested at any airport in the world. Knowing his refined taste for travel and luxury hotels, for him this alone must have been a burden. But the United States, all the presidents, have bent over backwards to prevent him from having to be judged for what he did. The United States, in fact, has not signed the agreements that would bind them to the International Criminal Court precisely to prevent public officials like Kissinger from being questioned by a jurisdiction recognized by the United States. They are aware, as Bernie Sanders told Hillary Clinton in a famous debate, that “Kissinger is the most destructive Secretary of State in the modern history of this country.”

Finally, what would most resemble a trial is a book. The famous and important book that journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2001 based on two articles initially published in Harper’s Magazine. The volume is titled “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” and the final sentence, written by the journalist, is clear: Heinz Alfred Kissinger, the boy born in the Weimar Republic who rose to the top of power in the United States is guilty. Guilty “of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and multiple offenses against common or customary and international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnapping, and torture.” A guilty man, however, who today will turn a hundred years old, as elegant as ever, surrounded by his family and blowing out the candles on the cake.


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