Henry Alfred Kissinger was born in Bavaria in 1923, young, gifted, and Jewish; he fled Germany with his family upon Hitler’s rise to power, earned his way through City College working in a brush factory, won advanced degrees at Harvard, and was hardly 30, already something of a veteran policy mandarin, when he was catapulted to the establishment’s heavenly reaches as Republican Nelson Rockefeller’s chief foreign-affairs adviser. Rather opportunistic for a man who was then a Democrat; but then, that’s Henry.
By 1968, Kissinger had so insinuated himself within Lyndon Johnson’s foreign policy team that he was the only person outside of the government authorized to receive high-level intelligence on the Vietnam peace negotiations set for Paris. But by autumn—election time—voices beckoned from the other side of the fence. Kissinger relayed key South Vietnamese negotiating positions to the presidential campaign of Richard Nixon (whom he had always loathed); Nixon used them to broker a secret deal with South Vietnam in which he convinced them to hold out on settling the conflict until after the election, upon which he would get them a “better deal.” In the event, Henry Kissinger, astraddle the fence, secured himself the best deal of all in that close election: When the voters happened to go for Nixon, Kissinger found himself the national security adviser—Nixon’s very first appointment, bestowed on a man he hardly knew. (The consequences for the Vietnamese over the next year were not happy.)
And there the great Christopher Hitchens’s new book begins. This is the conceit. He is writing out a bill of indictment for criminal actions in which Kissinger is culpable—above and beyond the excesses of ordinary statecraft any secretary of state might indulge in—in order that Henry Kissinger might be arrested, tried, and put in jail. The charges include: (1) Indochina. Most conspicuously, defying the constitutional chain of military command in personally choosing the (civilian) targets for the illegal (invading other countries without telling Congress happens to be unconstitutional) bombings of Laos and Cambodia to “pursue” the enemy into its imaginary “lairs.” (2) Bangladesh. He chose as his diplomatic “back channel” to China a ruthless Pakistani dictator who soon rained genocide on the country later known as Bangladesh because he was given every indication he had Henry’s approval. (3) Indonesia in East Timor: which more or less resembled what happened in Bangladesh. (4) Greece in Cyprus: ditto (with a possible suborning of an inconvenient journalistic investigator’s assassination thrown in for good measure). And finally, as number five, Hitchens’s centerpiece, and a masterpiece: Chile.
The most useful thing Christopher Hitchens adds to the now familiar story of America’s crimes in Chile is the reminder that Chile was not a banana republic. From this, everything follows. Henry Kissinger knocked himself out to fulfill his boss’s monomaniacal fantasy of canceling a neighbor’s election because a leftist won it; the boss gave the order in part to fulfill the monomaniacal fantasy of Donald Kendall, CEO of Pepsicola, an important Nixon patron. He wouldn’t have needed to had it been easy to drum up a few patriotic right-wing generals to do the job. But Chile was a stable, pluralistic, constitutional republic; the country’s most die-hard advocate for a peaceful transfer was to be a patriotic right-wing general. So Henry Kissinger had him kidnapped, and later he was assassinated. “What we are reviewing,” concludes Hitchens, “is a ‘hit’—a piece of state-sponsored terrorism.”
Ladies and gentlemen of the American jury: The bananas are all yours. This chapter, as they all do, concludes with a scorpion bite: Chile’s citizens, in recent years, have forced on themselves an awful, honest reckoning with their nation’s criminal past. “We await the moment when the United States Congress will inaugurate a comparable process, and finally subpoena all the hidden documents that obscure the view of unpunished crimes committed in our names.”
Hitchens’s Kissinger lives on tenterhooks. Gallivanting with apparent blitheness between A-list soirees and $25,000 professional appearances, spraying bons mots all the while from “a quiver of borrowed and secondhand darts,” the man hides in plain sight, nervously fashioning himself as a walking embodiment of Goebbelsian big-lie propaganda. The world watches, and asks: How could a man so august, so respected, so manifestly desired, possibly be a criminal? The man gamely presses on, all the while brooding: Could the next midnight knock be reserved for me? Henry lives on tenterhooks because Henry left a paper trail. It may be Hitchens’s real agenda—dispatched without flaw, as far as I’m concerned—to merely (merely!) shame a nation into demanding that Kissinger unbale the reams of official government documents he has, with great ingenuity and awful cunning, arranged to have classified as “personal” and hidden from public view.
Even the most dull-witted of establishmentarians armed with a legal dictionary will be able to unravel much of Hitchens’s prosecutorial gambit as rhetoric rather than a firm legal case. But it is the rhetoric of a blessed steam shovel, and I love it. American legal authorities “can either persist in averting their gaze from the egregious impunity enjoyed by a notorious war criminal and law breaker, or they can become seized by the exalted standards to which they continually hold everyone else.” He tells us what citizens need to know to identify the history of evil in American foreign policy for themselves; he gives us what should be recited almost as liturgy, annually, so that our country might be redeemed.
But who knows? Perhaps Hitchens’s little book will actually inspire some brilliant and principled legal minds to array those hidden documents beneath Henry Kissinger’s dangling feet as his funeral pyre. Words have power. If not, why would Kissinger be hiding away so many of his?