After 100 long years, Henry Kissinger is dead. “Washington’s Kingmaker” thoroughly shaped the modern world of geopolitics and international relations throughout his career, often in favor of the United States. His reputation preceded him, even bringing him to the halls of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, where his face still greets all who enter the foyer (despite only giving a single lecture). However, while he is often portrayed as a master diplomat and dedicated to a realpolitik approach to American foreign policy, in actuality his major talent lay in his networking.
Born in 1923 in Germany to Jewish parents, Kissinger fled to the United States with his family when he was only a teenager to escape Nazi persecution. After serving in the Second World War, he studied at Harvard University. During his studies, Kissinger would develop a reputation for brown-nosing, dubbed “Henry Ass-Kissinger” by his colleagues. Specializing in political theory and nuclear weapons, Kissinger quickly made a name for himself through his analytical capabilities. However academia would not be enough for Kissinger, as he eventually entered the political sphere through working in Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaigns throughout the 1960s. Kissinger used his socializing talents and his position as Rockefeller’s foreign policy advisor to network and fraternize with Washington’s elite. However, Kissinger’s thirst for authority would quickly show itself though, as he swiftly joined the competing Richard Nixon campaign in 1968.
Despite disliking each other, Kissinger overcame these feelings once it was clear that Nixon would be the Republican frontrunner in the 1968 election. Kissinger had even dubbed Nixon “the most dangerous man of all men running” prior to him joining the campaign. Ever the schmoozer, Kissinger cozied up to Nixon, not because of any ideological similarities, but to get closer to power. Once Nixon entered the Oval Office, Kissinger was appointed National Security Advisor, reaching the level he had so craved. Here, Kissinger would embark on projects which would mark him for life, notably those in Southeast Asia.
By the time Kissinger entered his coveted position in the Presidential Cabinet, the Vietnam War was already past the point of no return. The Tet Offensive, a massive counterattack from the North Vietnamese, had occurred the previous year and despite being a failure still signaled immense problems for the Americans. The Vietnamese had proven their unwavering resolve to drive the Americans from their homeland, a spirit which the US military leadership had heretofore underestimated. The war was clearly unwinnable for the Americans, a fact which Kissinger himself knew. In 1966, Kissinger visited Vietnam as a consultant to the American ambassador and remarked that “no one could really explain to me how, even on the most favorable assumptions about the war in Vietnam, the [war] was going to end.” Yet despite his knowledge of the unwinnable situation, Kissinger would align with Nixon’s desire to expand and further the war. Notably among his projects was Operation Menu, the carpet bombing of not only Vietnam, but also Cambodia and Laos, two neutral countries in the conflict. The bombing campaign would begin without Congressional approval, and Kissinger himself would personally determine and approve the 3,875 air raids that followed. This air campaign resulted in no strategic advantage for the Americans in the long run, instead resulting in senseless death and destruction. These bombs would kill an estimated 150,000 people in Cambodia alone and destabilize the country enough for the ultraviolent Khmer Rouge to take over, causing an estimated 1 million more deaths. Back in Vietnam, Kissinger rejected proposals for peace deals proposed by the North Vietnamese, claiming they would undermine US reputation and deprive the country of “peace with honor”, as Nixon said. Instead, Kissinger and Nixon opted to bomb the North into submission, allowing them to propose the Paris Peace Accords, which were accepted in 1973. Despite claiming an American diplomatic victory, the North would still capture Saigon in South Vietnam two years later, completely undoing any American efforts in the country.
Kissinger’s guidance and actions were not only limited to Indochina. Kissinger and Nixon supported Pakistan during the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh, supplying arms to the Pakistani military. In fact, American diplomats working in Pakistan sent a telegram decrying the lack of humanitarian action from Washington, meaning Kissinger was fully aware of the situation. Despite this, Kissinger and Nixon were openly unfazed by the events, even urging the Pakistani military to not hold back, due in part to their shared racism towards Indians (who supported Bangladesh during this time) calling them “a scavenging people”.
Elsewhere in Asia, Kissinger, along with President Ford, would give Indonesia the greenlight to invade East Timor, a small former Portuguese colony in the area. East Timor, much like many former colonies at the time, was home to a growing socialist movement. Viewing any socialist movement, no matter the size, as an existential threat to the American security apparatus, Kissinger and Ford aligned themselves with the staunch anti-communist Suntaro regime in Indonesia. The invasion and subsequent 24-year long occupation was supplied with American arms and resulted in the deaths of up to 230,000 East Timorese. On top of this, the occupation opened up the area for mining giant Freeport McMoRan to begin operating in the area. Important to note, Kissinger later would serve on the board of directors for the company, which still pollutes the region and has a dismal record of worker safety.
Kissinger was blatantly aware of his illicit actions and their impact and, rather brazenly, he would brag about that awareness. In a secret meeting, Kissinger would infamously say “the illegal we can do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer”. His disregard for legality and human life was thoroughly on display everywhere his projects were based. In this same period, the US under Kissinger’s guidance would aid, enable, and participate in right-wing coup d’etats across Latin America. These covert operations would put figures such as Augosto Pinochet, the brutal mass-murdering dictator, in power, as well as enable the subsequent massacres of dissidents, opposition forces, and many associated with the Left in neighboring countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, or Colombia.
Yet, Kissinger is still associated with bringing peace across the world. He is remembered for his role in pioneering detente, capitalizing on the Sino-Soviet split which led to normalized relations with the People’s Republic of China. Eventually, this would lead to Nixon visiting China, the first American president to do so post-Communist revolution. This policy would be another claim to fame for Kissinger as many would hail this as a landmark diplomatic development. As part of this, Kissinger claimed to help limit nuclear proliferation as well. However, the Soviet nuclear arsenal nearly doubled during his tenure, undermining any claims to his effectiveness. While the normalization of relations with China was certainly a milestone, whether or not it outweighs an increase in Soviet nuclear capabilities is up for debate.
In general, Kissinger was not wholly committed to peace, even out of office. In 2006, he told President Bush “victory was the only meaningful exit strategy” for the war in Iraq, despite the growing impression of the war’s infeasibility. In fact, it would not be entirely untrue to say Kissinger was not committed to anything but power for himself. Kissinger’s career is wrought with indifference to reality. His blatant disregard was on display in Southeast Asia, where he prolonged the inevitable, and with the Soviets, unable to sway them on nuclear disarmament. In the end, Kissinger entered office not to strategically maneuver the US but to gain authority.
Kissinger’s relentless pursuit of power led him to impressive heights. Serving as advisor and confidant to numerous presidents is quite the achievement, and he has been endowed with numerous honors to match. However, his ambitious career also directly contributed to the deaths of millions and numerous diplomatic failures. Despite his realpolitik veneer, Kissinger was ultimately working for his own lust for power and control, and to this day thousands of people across the world are paying the cost.
Written by Reed McIntire, Edited by Maryam Sindi
Photo credit: Getty Images