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Dinner with a War Criminal

Recalling Kissinger’s brutalities in the age of Trump

Here’s the story of the night I found myself dining with Henry Kissinger. This took place at a fine Cambridge restaurant in the Charles Hotel complex near Harvard Square. Our group had just taken seats at a table near the front of the restaurant. We were studying the menu when I looked up and saw the unmistakable schlumpy figure of Kissinger shuffling by. He was with his equally recognizable wife, Nancy. And he was led to a table near the back of the dining room by another well-known personage, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. There appeared to be a security agent or two lurking around. A few minutes later, I saw Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein, who is married to Power, rush in with a small piece of luggage, as if he’d just come in from the airport. He joined the Kissinger table.

What are you supposed to do when you encounter someone in a public place who you consider to be a war criminal? I was unprepared for the moment. As a journalist who is stuck, by training and temperament, in the role of the observer, I could only . . . observe. Of course it was a topic of conversation at our dinner table. One of the most notorious warmongers in the world was dining right over there. And with two of Harvard’s leading liberals, two intellectuals who served in the Obama administration. Power is the author of a book about America’s historical response to genocide, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. Sunstein published a book that same year entitled Why Societies Need Dissent.

But in this case, none of us in the restaurant registered any dissent or displeasure. The evening proceeded in civilized decorum. It was a celebrity sighting, of the sort that is not uncommon in an upper-crust restaurant. Everyone knows how to behave. And so, as we were lingering over our desserts an hour or so later, we were able to observe the old man and his entourage make their way quietly back into the Cambridge night. It was an evening in late May of last year, four days before Kissinger (b. May 27, 1923) would turn ninety-five.

What are you supposed to do when you encounter someone in a public place who you consider to be a war criminal?

About two weeks later, the internationally known chef Anthony Bourdain died, just short of his sixty-second birthday. If not for that, the Kissinger sighting might have receded into my memory bank; instead it has stayed with me like a year-long virus. Bourdain had a particular hatred for Henry Kissinger. And he had thought about that question “what should you do when a war criminal walks into a restaurant?” As Patrick Radden Keefe reported in a 2017 New Yorker profile:

[Bourdain] then launched into a tirade about how it sickens him, having travelled in Southeast Asia, to see Kissinger embraced by the power-lunch crowd. “Any journalist who has ever been polite to Henry Kissinger, you know, fuck that person,” he said, his indignation rising. “I’m a big believer in moral gray areas, but, when it comes to that guy, in my view he should not be able to eat at a restaurant in New York.”

When news broke of Bourdain’s death, Joshua Keating, in Slate, cited that comment, as well as a passage from Bourdain’s 2001 book, A Cook’s Tour:

Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia—the fruits of his genius for statesmanship—and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.

I have not been to Cambodia, and, like most Americans, I have the capacity for forgetting. I’d put the gruesome details of that era, and the specifics of Kissinger’s crimes, almost out of mind. But Bourdain’s fury jolted me. I felt a sudden obligation to review the sordid record of what Kissinger did, which means also confronting the question of why he is still so well treated by “the power-lunch crowd.” Before long, I realized there was something else I was after: a way to understand the current bleak political moment. Ever since the shock of seeing an erratic and unqualified real estate tycoon installed in the White House, those of us with a certain kind of media diet have wondered, usually several times a day, “how bad is it?” And, “how bad can it get?” We have seen more people than ever before—even in the chin-stroking centrist circles and in the leafy liberal enclaves—worry openly about fascism and declare themselves part of a #resistance movement.

Every day of the Trump era brings evidence of a new break with American traditions and norms. There’s no point in denying that—this president is more brazen than any other in our lifetimes about saying publicly whatever comes to his addled mind. “This is not normal,” has become the plaint of these times. Yet the more you think about Nixon and Kissinger, the more you have to face the fact that a certain kind of corruption and dishonesty and brutality have been, well, the norm in American politics and especially in foreign policy. If all you see now is the break with some ways of conducting presidential business you are at risk of missing the continuities, which are every bit as important. There’s a strong chance we’ll be able to get to work on reversing Trump’s legacy before we figure out how to get rid of Kissinger’s.

For anyone who wants the full indictment of Kissinger, there is, of course, Christopher Hitchens’s 2001 handbook, The Trial of Henry Kissinger. Hitchens starts with what he calls an “open secret” in Washington that is “too momentous and too awful to tell.”  That is, that Nixon and Kissinger deliberately sabotaged the Paris Peace Talks in the fall of 1968 (while still private citizens, i.e., illegally), suggesting to the South Vietnamese junta that better terms would come from a Republican administration. The result, of course, was that the Vietnam War was prolonged another four-plus years, which led to the relentless bombing of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and an additional twenty thousand American deaths and an uncountable number of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian deaths.

From there, Hitchens appraises the roles Kissinger played in wars, genocides, and coups, including in Bangladesh, Chile, Cyprus, and East Timor. He charges Kissinger with bearing “direct responsibility” for the kidnapping and murder of Chilean General René Schneider in 1970. None of the information on the record is exactly new, Hitchens notes at the end of his book. Yet in assembling it all in one prosecutorial brief (which was originally published in two parts by Harper’s magazine as “The Case Against Henry Kissinger” and then in book form by Verso) Hitchens probably did more than anyone else to permanently attach the term “war criminal” to Kissinger’s name.

Hitchens died in 2011, and one has to believe that Kissinger lifted a glass of sherry when he realized his tormentor was gone at age sixty-two. Hitchens was a heterodox thinker who swerved in many directions, and yet his assault on Kissinger at the very least gave the man a taste of what he deserves. And because Hitchens was so comfortable in the broadcast medium, his voice still echoes all over the internet. In a 2001 interview with the Canadian journalist Allan Gregg, for example, Hitchens sums up his view on his bête noir: “He’s a thug and a crook and a liar and a pseudo-intellectual and a murderer. O.K.? All of those things are factually verifiable. That he is an anti-communist is a speculation that he likes to encourage.”

The words “war criminal,” by contrast, appear just twice in Greg Grandin’s 2015 book, Kissinger’s Shadow, and both times are in reference to the Hitchens polemic. Yet Grandin’s book is, for me, more important: it masterfully connects the Kissinger legacy to what came after—in the Reagan and Bush years, as well as the Clinton and Obama administrations. It anticipates in several ways the perilous political moment that arrived in 2016—especially by detailing Kissinger’s disdain for “fact-men” and belief that the West requires men “able to create their own reality.” It’s obvious from the start that Grandin is up to something different than Hitchens was. He makes it explicit, almost in passing, in the acknowledgment pages at the end of his book: because Hitchens “focused obsessively on the morality of one man, his devil,” he missed the “big picture.”  That is, he saw Kissinger as “a ravager of American values,” not someone who intensified American militarism and had “an outsized role” in “creating the world we live in today, which accepts endless war as a matter of course.” 

It’s endlessly galling that Kissinger is still considered a font of deep wisdom and “realpolitik” in foreign policy circles.

Though Grandin recounts the wide range of Kissinger skullduggeries—for example, his wink-and-nod in 1975 to Indonesian dictator Suharto just before Suharto’s invasion of East Timor, resulting in “at least 102,800 Timorese . . . killed in the invasion and during the twenty-four-year Indonesian occupation”—it’s the material about Cambodia and Laos that still brings the shock and awe. “The bombing of Cambodia was illegal in its conception, deceitful in its implementation, and genocidal in its effect,” Grandin writes. Nixon and Kissinger managed to keep the extension of the war into Cambodia—a neutral country—secret for months, with Kissinger setting up an elaborate bureaucratic falsification system so that even top officials in the Pentagon wouldn’t know about it. (The first covert bombing runs were called “Operation Breakfast.” The campaign later was called “Operation Menu.”) When Nixon publicly announced his plan to invade Cambodia on April 30, 1970, it led to widespread protest, and shortly afterward the National Guard shootings at Kent State.  The bombings continued for three more years. Grandin:

That Kissinger, along with Nixon, presided over the bombing of Cambodia, and had done so since March of 1969, is now well known. Less so is that the worst of his bombing started in February of 1973, a month after Washington, Hanoi, and Saigon signed the Paris Peace Accords. In 1972, the United States dropped, in total, 53,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia. Between February 8 and August 15, 1973, that number increased nearly fivefold and targeted not just Vietnamese “sanctuaries” in the country’s east but most of the entire country.

It was even more extreme in Laos, which Voice of America has described as “the most heavily bombed country in history.” And in both Cambodia and Laos, it’s important to note, as Grandin writes, “These are ongoing crimes.”  “As many as about 30 percent of the bombs dropped by the United States, the vast majority under Kissinger’s tenure, did not detonate. In Laos there exist an estimated 80 million unexploded cluster bombs, hidden below a thin layer of soil and packed with ball bearings.” Even now, hundreds are killed each year, resulting in as many as twenty thousand deaths as of 2009. Twenty-three percent of the victims are children, according to the authors of the 2013 book Eternal Harvest. As an aid worker described it, “when you are in the villages now, you still see evidence of that. You still see the bomb craters. You still see the unbelievable amount of metal and wreckage and unexploded ordnance just lying around in villages and it’s still injuring and killing people today.” 

The zeal with which Nixon and Kissinger pursued this carnage was psychopathic. In the Nixon presidential materials kept at the National Archives is a memorandum that records Kissinger commenting on the escalation of the Cambodia bombing in 1973: “We would rather err on the side of doing too much.” A few days later Nixon told Kissinger by telephone, “I see no reason not to really whack the hell out of them in Cambodia.” 

Crucially, it failed in its supposed purpose. It did not achieve the stated objectives of Kissinger’s policy: to get North Vietnam to withdraw troops from South Vietnam, nor did it impede their operations in a significant way. In fact, Grandin maintains, Kissinger probably didn’t believe the objectives were realistic anyway, “since he had concluded by 1965 that the war was hopeless.” All of Kissinger’s many rationalizations amounted to the essential fallacy behind the Vietnam War, summed up by Grandin as “we have to escalate in order to prove we aren’t impotent, and the more impotent we prove to be, the more we have to escalate.”

It’s endlessly galling that Kissinger is still considered a font of deep wisdom and “realpolitik” in foreign policy circles. As Hitchens once noted, “Most of Henry Kissinger’s policies actually issue in calamity.” 

“The bombing of Cambodia,” Grandin writes, “is distinct from Kissinger’s other transgressions, and not just because of the magnitude of cruelty or its body count.” It was the direct opposite of shrewd, realistic thinking because it achieved worse than nothing: it paved the way to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide that followed. In his own memoirs, Kissinger has strenuously denied any guilt or responsibility for the disaster in Cambodia. Grandin turns to Yale historian Ben Kiernan, founding director of the Genocide Studies Program. Kiernan is careful about cause and effect, telling Grandin that “the cause of the genocide was the decision of Pol Pot’s leadership to conduct it.” But he also rejected Kissinger’s attempts at deflection, stating that the extremist faction of the Khmer Rouge “would not have come to power without the US bombing.”

Some time after I witnessed Kissinger dining with Samantha Power in Cambridge, I wondered, of course, what the author of a 610-page study of genocide, A Problem from Hell, had said about Nixon and Kissinger’s trail of destruction in Southeast Asia. In her chapter on Cambodia, she focuses mostly on events after the Khmer Rouge seized power and how difficult it was for the rest of the world to discover what had happened. But she spends a few pages discussing what came before, noting that “British journalist William Shawcross and others have argued that the Khmer Rouge ranks swelled primarily because of the U.S. intervention.” Soon after the United States closed its embassy and left the country to the Khmer Rouge, President Gerald Ford and Kissinger issued belated warnings about the new rulers. “But the administration had little credibility,” Power writes. “Kissinger had bloodied Cambodia and blackened his own reputation with past U.S. policy.” Her discussion of Kissinger’s role in Cambodia is slight, yet she includes this judgment: “American intervention in Cambodia did tremendous damage in its own right, but it also indirectly helped give rise to a monstrous regime.”

“Kissingerism”—the rationalized brutality tolerated and even widely expected of our imperial presidents—is likely to endure.

Having joined the Obama administration’s National Security Council in 2009 and then having served as UN ambassador from 2013 to 2017, Power surely believes she has a more “realistic” view of world affairs than when she was merely an author. In June of 2016, she traveled to Germany to accept the “Henry A. Kissinger Prize,” given by the American Academy in Berlin in recognition of “outstanding services to the transatlantic relationship.” Of course, she raised eyebrows in April of 2014 when she tweeted out a photo of her attending a Yankees baseball game with Kissinger. After spending time with Power, Kissinger was quoted by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker observing, “she knew the difference between being a professor and being a policymaker, so, when she analyzed contemporary problems, she and I didn’t differ all that much.”

And what of Power’s husband, Cass Sunstein? A few weeks after his dinner with Kissinger, he discussed, in the New York Review of Books, under the title “It Can Happen Here,” two books about the rise of the Nazis in Germany. The lurking question was about whether liberal democracy in the United States will survive Trump. Sunstein wrote:

If the president of the United States is constantly lying, complaining that the independent press is responsible for fake news, calling for the withdrawal of licenses from television networks, publicly demanding jail sentences for political opponents, undermining the authority of the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, magnifying social divisions, delegitimizing critics as “crooked” or “failing,” and even refusing, in violation of the law, to protect young children against the risks associated with lead paint—well, it’s not fascism, but the United States has not seen anything like it before.

One can quibble about the details, but one can also argue that we have seen much of that before—and worse. One can draw lines from Kissinger’s crimes to the wars that came after. Not secret wars, as Grandin says, but wars that turned “shock and awe” into televised spectacle. Brutal policies that led to countless civilian deaths not just under the Bush-Cheney war machine, but under Clinton and Obama, too. Grandin recalls for our attention the moment Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked by Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes about the estimated half a million children in Iraq who had died because of economic sanctions in the 1990s. “I mean,” said Stahl, “that’s more children than died in Hiroshima.” Albright’s response was perfectly Kissingerian: “We think the price is worth it.” 

Trump’s current carnage is not nearly as bloody, yet, as Kissinger’s was. Distant civilians are being killed today in Yemen and elsewhere. Trump brought in B-Team Kissingerites like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, who may yet succeed in igniting a war with Iran. Children are being kidnapped and traumatized along our southern border by a president who revels in what any decent person would consider human rights violations. Kissinger, so memorably described by Joseph Heller as “an odious schlump who made war gladly” will, soon enough, be carried out in his casket. But, as Grandin writes in his epilogue, “Kissingerism”—the rationalized brutality tolerated and even widely expected of our imperial presidents—is likely to endure.

On the bright side, Samantha Power will soon publish a memoir; the working title is The Education of an Idealist.