The former secretary of state’s commitment to realism in foreign policy ensures debate over his legacy will remain bitterly divided.
In recent American history, a litany of different personalities have occupied the executive office at the Harry S Truman building at Foggy Bottom. War hawks, accommodationists, international diplomats and isolationists have entered and left the position of secretary of state — each making their distinct mark in the foreign visage of the United States. Few, however, draw as much energized debate and as many polarized opinions as that of the 56th Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.
On May 23, the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum — which is situated in the moored U.S.S. Intrepid at New York Harbor — will honor Kissinger and David Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries, Inc., at its 22nd annual “Salute to Freedom” dinner, during Fleet Week.
Kissinger will be receiving the Intrepid Freedom Award, which is presented to a national or international leader who “has distinguished himself in promoting and defending the values of freedom and democracy, the core beliefs of our nation.” Koch will receive the Salute Award in recognition of his business achievements and philanthropy.
“It is a great honor to be presented with this award from an institution which pays homage to our military men and women who protect our country every day,” Kissinger said. “Whether for young or old, this ship serves as a living classroom for the generations of Americans who come to see it, experience it and learn from it.”
Many find this to be the gravest of insults. As written in an email by Fred Branfman for RootsAction.org, published on Titanians.org,
“As someone who lived in Laos during much of the time, I interviewed more than 1,000 refugees from Kissinger’s and Nixon’s bombing in Laos. Every one reported seeing countless loved ones and neighbors being burned and buried alive, and that their village was totally destroyed.
A Laotian farmer on the Plain of Jars wrote: ‘Every day and every night the planes came to drop bombs on us. We lived in holes to protect our lives. I saw my cousin die in the field of death. My heart was most disturbed and my voice called out loudly as I ran to the houses. Thus, I saw life and death for the people on account of the war of many airplanes in the region of the Plain of Jars. Until there were no houses at all. And the cows and buffalo were dead. Until everything was leveled and you could see only the red, red ground.’”
The legacy of Henry Kissinger
Since Kissinger left office, there has been a population of Americans who have called for Kissinger to face the International Court of Justice for committing what they say are crimes against humanity. In his book, “The Trial of Henry Kissinger,” Christopher Hitchens presents a prosecutorial attack on Kissinger’s role as secretary of state.
Hitchens calls Kissinger “a stupendous liar with a remarkable memory,” a reference to Kissinger’s refusal to address the coup against the Greek government. Hitchens argues that this moral ambiguity, lack of adherence to the law and basic dishonesty all serve as benchmarks for the Kissinger tenure.
Another example of this was in Chile. In 1970, socialist Salvador Allende won the Chilean presidency. Allende, who was pro-Cuba, had Washington gravely concerned. Based on Kissinger’s suggestion, President Richard Nixon authorized the CIA to “encourage” a military coup that would deny Allende the presidency. The coup failed.
As fallout, relations between the United States and Chile froze over. American-held interests in Chile were nationalized, at severe losses to the United States. In response, the U.S. imposed economic sanctions against Chile, funded anti-government strikes in 1972 and 1973, and used the newspaper, El Mercurio, for a massive campaign of black — or maliciously false — propaganda.
In 1973, Allende was killed in a military coup launched by Chilean Army Commander-in-Chief Augusto Pinochet. The CIA actively supported the Pinochet junta and made many of Pinochet’s officers paid contacts of the CIA and the U.S. military.
Another example was in Southeast Asia. At the height of the Vietnam War, Nixon was elected on the promise of “peace with honor.” The Nixon administration engaged in “Vietnamization,” in which the United States worked to withdraw forces while the South Vietnamese Army would expand combat roles.
The South Vietnamese government was opposed simultaneously by the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam — a communist guerilla group aligned with the North — and the Vietnam People’s Army (PAVN), the regular army of North Vietnam. To complicate things further, the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) was attacking from Cambodia.
To gain some “breathing room,” Kissinger recommended the secret bombing of Cambodia to disrupt the PAVN and the Viet Cong from launching raids into South Vietnam and from using the Ho Chi Minh trail to resupply troops.
America’s bombing of Cambodia, which killed an estimated 40,000, served Pol Pot’s desire to stir up the Cambodian Civil War to the point that the U.S.-backed Lon Nol would no longer be able to secure international support and could be easily picked off, while bolstering Khmer Rouge recruitment numbers.
Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 alongside North Vietnamese Politburo member Le Duc Tho for negotiating the ceasefire between North and South Vietnam. Tho rejected the award, stating that peace has not truly been restored in South Vietnam. Two years later, North Vietnam would assume complete victory.
“I suspect that one’s approach to Kissinger might have a lot to do with how you see diplomacy, international affairs, and the concept of realpolitik,” said Jamie McKown, the Wiggins Chair of Government and Polity and the College of the Atlantic, who in a conversation with Mint Press News, pointed out that Kissinger is more a man of his times than just simply a monster. “One might ask, What is the purpose of the State Department, and more broadly, U.S. foreign policy in general? How should a state act in the international arena? Without question, no one represented that shrewd realpolitik approach more than Kissinger — to a fault at times.”
The case for Kissinger
It’s easy to dismiss Kissinger simply by the results of his policies. A fairer measure of Kissinger, however, would consider the reasons Kissinger suggested these actions.
“I wouldn’t say that he was concerned primarily with ‘promoting democracy’ unless that promotion also strengthened U.S. security interests and promoted U.S. influence abroad,” McKown argued. “That doesn’t mean that he didn’t care about democratic promotion as a goal. Certainly, the ‘image’ (realistic or otherwise) of the U.S. being a force for positive democratic values was an asset that he would have counted as strengthening U.S. influence abroad.“
“You might say that this calculation allowed Kissinger to turn a blind eye to very corrupt and distasteful governments,” McKown continued. “That would be a fair critique. However, you could also say that this calculus enabled Kissinger to navigate the diplomatic waters in such a way as to make previously unthinkable options — such as re-engagement with China — a possibility. On the other hand it also allowed for secret bombings in Cambodia and justified U.S. support of ruthless strongmen in various parts of the world.”
Kissinger was a realist and a pragmatist. He was a strong believer that the right thing one can do in a situation is not necessarily the best thing possible, but the correct thing for that particular moment. This makes looking at his actions outside of their proper context confusing and misleading. Kissinger can remain controversial — he predicted in 2012 that Israel would cease to exist by 2022 — and no doubt will split opinions for years to come.
“In this way, you could suggest that a person’s opinion of Kissinger reflects more about their worldview than it does Kissinger himself,” McKown concluded. “No wonder he can be such a polarizing figure.”