Saint Henry — war criminal or chess master?

It’s important to understand why the man towers over the world stage, while leaking blood over so much of it.
Published December 1, 2023

Centuries from now, when aliens are picking through our sizzled planet, they’ll come across the scrolls of saint Henry A. Kissinger, and wonder at just how endless his list of virtuous murders was.

Because the former secretary of state, dead at last at 100, was less a man and more a coping mechanism — the idea that empire, amoral though it always is, can make even its most destructive and self-defeating crimes a public virtue. “Kissinger,” sighs the hero in Joseph Heller’s novel Good as Gold, “How he loved and hated that hissing name.”

This fake duality lies at the core of the Kissinger myth — that though he was a war criminal (and he was), he may also have been some sort of chess master at the same time; an expert at moving pawns across the Cold War’s frozen peaks. Sure, he was rotten, but wasn’t he required?

Or so the spin goes: that though the crowds may boo him, Saint Henry — the most influential American to have never held elective or judicial office — served the national interest. And if that interest meant taking on those dead-eyed Russians, then Kissinger’s combo of brute strength and high theory surely carry the day. Hence ‘realpolitik’ and its cynical success.

As for the millions of people that died along the way, well, so what? As his biographer Niall Ferguson writes, “Arguments that focus on loss of life in strategically marginal countries — and there is no other way of describing Argentina, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile, Cyprus, and East Timor — must be tested against this question: how, in each case, would an alternative decision have affected US relations with strategically important countries …?”

It’s a good defence, even if ‘strategically marginal countries’ (code for ‘not quite white’) have nowhere to run — if all the world is a chessboard, then making mass graves out of them is just another move.

The man, the myth

But before getting to the merits of Kissinger’s case, it’s important to understand why the man towers over the world stage while leaking blood over so much of it.

Born Heinz Kissinger in Bavaria, he was doubtless exceptional — a kid who made it to America via the wreckage of the Second World War with little more than a German accent, the GI Bill, and a lifelong suspicion towards democracy for having rewarded fascists.

Little wonder, then, that he wrote his first book on Metternich, another secretive, hardnosed diplomat from Western Europe trying to rebalance the world after a megalomaniac ran through it; in Metternich’s case, Napoleon. (Of course, by the time Kissinger had established himself in his own right, such parallels irritated him. “There can be nothing in common between me and Metternich,” he told an interviewer.

But his ideas remained the same from his days as a young professor, and only grew louder as he neared the brass ring: that inaction meant death, that history was the memory of states, that moral quibbles were to be shunned, that technocrats were to be sneered at, and that power was best served by poets, writers, and philosopher-kings willing to rush in and break things. “Those statesmen who have achieved final greatness did not do so through resignation …” Kissinger wrote in one of his many plodding tomes, “It was given to them … to have the strength to contemplate chaos, there to find material for fresh creation.”

There’s a reason this sounds less like realism and more like the Mao he went on to shake hands with: when read closely, the high priest of realpolitik was often the opposite — a well-read butcher hopped up on madman theory. But ‘unpredictability’, a proposal that pops up in his writing again and again, was always a means without an end: what great balance of power could be won from dropping bomb after bomb on Asian rice farmers?

Kissinger the scholar never needed to answer that question, even as his thesis (‘limited nuclear war’) grew more deranged. An uneasy ascent followed: though he flirted at first with right-leaning liberals like Kennedy and left-leaning conservatives like Rockefeller, establishment princes proved a bad fit for his ambitions. It would take a fellow outsider, in the form of Richard Nixon, to appoint the first migrant his secretary of state.

The swearing-in was emotional: “There is no country in the world,” said Kissinger, “where it is conceivable that a man of my origin could be standing here next to the President of the United States.” He was right, but not about much else.

Because for starters, such an obvious moral deficit made it hard for his statements to age well. “If it were not for the accident of my birth, I would be antisemitic,” he’d say. “Any people who has been persecuted for two thousand years must be doing something wrong.”

Elsewhere: “…If they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” He even urged the younger Bush not to withdraw troops from Iraq, likening such a policy to ‘salted peanuts’ the public would keep in high demand.

To the fans, however, Kissinger could hardly be blamed for understanding the global hegemon’s priorities; America’s addiction to war both preceded him and will now outlast him. And yet the same people never extended that cop-out to his achievements: by that logic, the relentless Nixon always had his heart set on opening China and calming down the Russians, with Kissinger as little more than a support beam. The ex-secretary is either responsible for all of his advice, or none of it.

It’s also around here where the debate over Saint Henry misses the point: states may well be heartless actors — for Henry, anything less than industrial-scale slaughter was another Wednesday (“There are only 90,000 people out there,” he said of seizing the Marshall Islands, long plagued by nuclear testing. “Who gives a damn?”).

But even when mass murder is conceded — as a sad hazard of empire — the fact remains that Henry Kissinger was a failure by his own amoral metrics. He wanted “peace with honour” in Vietnam, a war meant to arrest the communist menace. And yet no number of flaming jungles prevented North Vietnamese tanks crashing through the gates of the presidential palace in the spring of ’75, as Saigon went red overnight.

Second, Kissinger wanted to attempt the same for Cambodia, personally signing off on sites to carpet-bomb. (“Much less,” he said at age 90, than Obama drone-bombing Pakistan, but which was equally “justified”.) Here again he met with failure: the carnage of Operation Menu wrecked the government, enraged the locals, and gave way to the wild, skull-sorting mania of the Khmer Rouge — quite apart from Anthony Bourdain challenging anyone to visit Cambodia and not come away wanting to beat Henry to death with his bare hands.

Third, Kissinger wanted to stop Pakistan from tearing itself apart, if for aims rooted entirely in the Cold War (“Here we have Indian-Soviet collusion, raping a friend of ours”). Kissinger knew precious little about South Asia — “I would not recognise Pashtun agitation if it hit me in the face” — and achieved as much. Yet it would be glib to put the burden of 1971 at his door, seeing as there was next to no acceptance of their sickening crimes against Bengalis by the principals themselves: the ruling junta, described by its junior partner Zulfi Bhutto as “Yahya Khan and his gang of illiterate psychopaths.” (An amnesia that also helped liberals glorify Mujib amid the mass killings of Biharis).

Fourth and finally, Kissinger wanted to restrain the Russian bear with a series of ropes, ribbons, and disarmament talks; all of this would come to nothing when the supposedly slow and goofy Ronald Reagan took the same bear head-on, laughed that he could win any arms race, and then prodded the Soviet Union to collapse in on itself. It was no coincidence that Reagan’s entire presidential campaign had been, per one sympathetic columnist, “running against Kissingerism”.

Nor was it a coincidence that Kissinger, who had survived Vietnam and sidestepped Watergate, was felled by the same DC bureaucracy he thought he had harnessed — more specifically, by the only two paper-pushers more overtly repulsive than he: Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, as they tugged President Ford to the right in 1975; the result was Kissinger thrown out of the National Security Council. It didn’t work: the Reagan wave would eventually sweep away all of Nixon/Ford’s mumbling neurotics, and usher in a free-market frenzy.

This helped Saint Henry land on his feet yet again — this time in the private sector, as an oracle of global capital — and enrich himself many times over. A gifted social mountaineer, he spent his retirement as a regular on the black-tie circuit; as a public intellectual, he supported every war, from Iraq to Libya, waged by a new generation of neocons, even as many of them spat on his name. Unlike the accusation — levelled by lesser gasbags that long craved his kind of relevance — that Kissinger was an unoriginal thinker (first, who is, and second, who cares?), Washington grew around Kissinger, and not the other way round.

A classic example of this was his fellow DC resident, the essayist and wobbly leftie Christopher Hitchens, said to be Kissinger’s most tireless critic. “He’s a thug, and a crook, and a liar, and a pseudo-intellectual and a murderer,” went one of Hitchens’s salvos. “All those things are factually verifiable. That he’s an anti-communist is a speculation that he likes to encourage.”

And yet even as Kissinger stayed the same as he always had, it was Hitchens that got sucked into Saint Henry’s politics (i.e., proximity to power), finishing out his career as one of the viler supporters of the Iraq war — a classic Kissingerian bloodbath that as usual was premised on a lie, upended the entire region, massacred civilians in excess, weakened the United States, and came as a gift to its enemies; in this case, Iran and its militias.

Not that Henry cared; the torch was now in the hands of the same dreary war criminals that had him manoeuvred out of his job three decades prior — all he could do was cheer on their violence. He spent the rest of his time writing books and attending summits; when he died yesterday, it was as a world authority on everything from China to artificial intelligence. Hailed erroneously as the new world order’s elder statesman (that award goes to the relatively dizzy Ronald Reagan), that same order now finds itself in mid-collapse. And yet Kissinger will continue to be thought its brains and heart, for as long as the latest line of monsters carries on killing people without the luxury of having studied Metternich, Castlereagh, or Kant.

Ironically, the fact of his failure didn’t require the passage of time: as early as 1979, author William Pfaff wrote of the freshly retired secretary of state, “There were no balancing successes. There were curiously few successes at all… The problem is simply that his policies did not work…the actual Kissinger policy, to abandon South Vietnam to its enemies, could have been carried out four years earlier, with Cambodia still intact, and with perhaps a million people alive, including 20,000 Americans, who were dead when Mr Kissinger and Mr Nixon left office.”

But that hardly sounds like realpolitik. Because, when shaved of all theory, Henry A. Kissinger’s realism was what he did some time ago, for the benefit of an interviewer who had told him he had recently met Robert McNamara, LBJ’s guilt-ridden Vietnam warlord:

“I told [Kissinger] I had just interviewed Robert McNamara in Washington. That got his attention. He stopped badgering me, and then he did an extraordinary thing. He began to cry. But no, not real tears. Before my eyes, Henry Kissinger was acting. ‘Boohoo, boohoo,’ Kissinger said, pretending to cry and rub his eyes. ‘He’s still beating his breast, right? Still feeling guilty.’ He spoke in a mocking singsong voice and patted his heart for emphasis.”

Farewell, Saint Henry. What the world could yet have been without you.