The titan of American foreign policy was complicit in millions of deaths — and never showed remorse for his decisions.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger speaks to State Department employees on Sept. 28, 1973. Kissinger urged them to seize what he described as unparalleled opportunity to bring about a peaceful international structure. The speech came just two weeks after Kissinger and the U.S. backed a military coup in Chile that established a brutal dictatorship that is estimated to have left 3,000 people dead or tortured and 40,000 more missing.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger speaks to State Department employees on Sept. 28, 1973. Kissinger urged them to seize what he described as unparalleled opportunity to bring about a peaceful international structure. The speech came just two weeks after Kissinger and the U.S. backed a military coup in Chile that established a brutal dictatorship that is estimated to have left 3,000 people dead or tortured and 40,000 more missing.
via Associated Press

Henry Kissinger — who as a top American foreign policy official oversaw, overlooked and at times actively perpetrated some of the most grotesque war crimes the United States and its allies have committed — died on Wednesday at his home in Connecticut. He was 100 years old.

Kissinger’s death was announced by his consulting firm on Wednesday evening. No cause of death was immediately given.

Kissinger served as secretary of state and national security adviser under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, positions that allowed him to direct the Vietnam War and the broader Cold War with the Soviet Union, and to implement a stridently “realist” approach that prioritised U.S. interests and domestic political success over any potential atrocity that might occur.

The former led to perhaps the most infamous crime Kissinger committed: a secret four-year bombing campaign in Cambodia that killed an untold number of civilians, despite the fact that it was a neutral nation with which the United States was not at war.

During his time in charge of the American foreign policy machine, Kissinger also directed illegal arms sales to Pakistan as it carried out a brutal crackdown on its Bengali population in 1971. He supported the 1973 military coup that overthrew a democratically elected socialist government in Chile, gave the go-ahead to Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor, and backed Argentina’s repressive military dictatorship as it launched its “dirty war” against dissenters and leftists in 1976. His policies during the Ford administration also fuelled civil wars in Africa, most notably in Angola.

Even the most generous calculations suggest that the murderous regimes Kissinger supported and the conflicts they waged were responsible for millions of deaths and millions of other human rights abuses, during and after the eight years he served in the American government.

Kissinger never showed remorse for those misdeeds. He never paid any real price for them either. He maintained a mocking tone toward critics of his human rights record throughout his life, and remained a member in good standing of elite Washington political society until his death.

In May 2016, for instance, President Barack Obama came as close as the United States ever does to apologising for its role in a human rights atrocity during a visit to Argentina. The U.S. “has to examine its own policies as well, and its own past,” Obama said, in an expression of regret for the United States’ role in the “dirty war.” “We’ve been slow to speak out for human rights, and that was the case here.” He pledged to declassify thousands of documents related to the dictatorship’s reign of terror and U.S. support for it.

The examination must have been quick. Two months later, the Obama administration handed Kissinger, who those documents showed had cosied up to Argentine military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in the 1970s, the Distinguished Public Service Award, the highest honour the Pentagon offers civilians.

Kissinger’s acolytes argue that honou rs like these are more than deserved. His accomplishments, including an opening of relations with China and detente with the Soviet Union, outweigh any abuses that helped make them possible. At the very least, they posit, the abuses were part of a cold calculation that “ensuring a nation’s survival sometimes leaves tragically little room for private morality,” as Robert D. Kaplan argued in 2013. Kissinger’s defenders suggest that even more death may have occurred if the U.S. had pursued a more morally grounded foreign policy instead.

His critics have made persuasive cases in numerous books, documentaries and publications that Kissinger was not just a war criminal but responsible for the creation of an imperial foreign policy that eventually embroiled the U.S. in a state of perpetual war and led it to commit and overlook numerous abuses of human rights in the decades after he left power.

Kissinger (center) remained a member in good standing of the Washington political, press and societal elite throughout his life, even among leaders like President Barack Obama (left), who criticized the human rights abuses that took place on his watch.
Kissinger (center) remained a member in good standing of the Washington political, press and societal elite throughout his life, even among leaders like President Barack Obama (left), who criticized the human rights abuses that took place on his watch.
WHITE HOUSE POOL via Getty Images

Still others have argued that Kissinger was, in the words of New Yorker essayist Thomas Meaney, “a far less remarkable figure than his supporters, his critics — and he himself — believed.” Rather than an outlier, Meaney and others have suggested, Kissinger was a consummate political actor and a natural product of the American war machine, if one who had an outsize sense of self-importance even compared with many of the supposedly “great men” who’ve led the country before and after him.

Settling on an ultimate legacy for Kissinger is an enticing task — one historians, foreign policy experts and journalists have sought to perfect for decades. It is a pertinent endeavor, too, for determining if Kissinger’s war crimes made him a particularly evil figure, or if they reveal that it is simply impossible to steer an empire the size of the United States for so long without doing some heinous things. Maybe both can be true.

What is undeniable, on the occasion of his death, is that millions of Argentinians, Bangladeshis, Cambodians, Chileans, East Timorese and others cannot offer their opinion on Henry Kissinger’s legacy or the world he helped create, because they died at the hands of the tyrants Kissinger enabled.

***

Born Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Bavaria in 1923, Kissinger and his family immigrated to the United States in 1938 to flee Nazi persecution of German Jews.

Kissinger forever downplayed the effect that had on his life, but historians have argued differently: Kissinger’s experience as a child likely shaped his “legendary insecurity, paranoia and extreme sensitivity to criticism” and planted the seeds of his “emphasis on stability and equilibrium, and his fears about revolution and disorder,” Thomas A. Schwartz, a Vanderbilt University historian, wrote in his biography of Kissinger in 2020. That Kissinger’s father, a teacher who was fired for being Jewish, lost everything, Schwartz continued, “contributed to Kissinger’s own sense that not only do the meek not inherit the earth, but that power is the ultimate arbiter in both life and international relations.”

Or, as a longtime Kissinger colleague put it in another quote Schwartz relayed: “Kissinger’s philosophy of life was that ‘good will won’t help you defend yourself on the docks of Marseilles.’”

Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, Kissinger served in Germany during World War II and became an accomplished intelligence agent. He earned a Bronze Star in part for his success in hunting down members of the Gestapo, the Nazis’ secret police force, in the immediate aftermath of the war.

After returning to the U.S. and graduating from Harvard, he fast-tracked his way to foreign policy influence, initially gaining fame within the establishment by arguing that President Dwight D. Eisenhower needed to accept that “limited nuclear war” in Europe might be necessary to protect the U.S. and its allies from the emerging power of the Soviet Union.

President Richard Nixon (left) and Kissinger, as national security adviser, talk together in Washington on Nov. 25, 1972.
President Richard Nixon (left) and Kissinger, as national security adviser, talk together in Washington on Nov. 25, 1972.
White House via Consolidated News Pictures via Getty Images

Kissinger’s rapid ascent up the foreign policy ladder was also possible because he was such a skilled political operator, Schwartz argued. He offered diplomatic and foreign policy advice to both Eisenhower, a Republican, and to President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat.

He advised former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in three separate bids for the presidency. But when Rockefeller failed to win the GOP nomination in 1968, Kissinger maintained positive relations with both Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, and Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey throughout the general election. It was almost a given in Washington that Kissinger would assume a prominent role in the next administration, no matter the outcome.

Nixon prevailed and made Kissinger his first major foreign policy appointment, naming him White House national security adviser. Kissinger, like Nixon, was an ardent skeptic of bureaucrats he believed were too idealistic and moralistic in their approach to the Vietnam War and Soviet communism, and early in his tenure reshaped the White House National Security Council into its modern form in order to “tame the bureaucracy” and foster “a more centralized and secretive approach to foreign policy,” Schwartz wrote.

It would come in handy. Kissinger may have sought out the status he earned as a celebrity diplomat, and he sensed the importance of public opinion to an administration’s ability to exercise its foreign policy. But he preferred to do his dirtiest work in secret, away from the potentially scornful eyes of State Department diplomats, Congress, journalists or the public.

“Kissinger personally 'approved each of the 3,875 Cambodia bombing raids' that occurred between 1969 and 1970.”

In the spring of 1969, desperate to bring an end to the Vietnam War, Kissinger authorised one of its most horrific chapters: the secret carpet-bombing campaign in Cambodia. The theory was that it would force North Vietnam to accept improved U.S. conditions for ending the war, an early use of a “bombs as an instrument of diplomacy” approach, as Yale historian and fierce Kissinger critic Greg Grandin has described it, that has become a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy.

From 1969 to 1973, when a Congress that had been largely kept in the dark about the Cambodian campaign moved to halt it, the United States dropped a half-million tons of bombs on the neutral country. Kissinger personally “approved each of the 3,875 Cambodia bombing raids” that occurred between 1969 and 1970, according to a Pentagon report released later.

The bombing campaign ultimately killed between 150,000 and a half-million Cambodian civilians, various estimates suggest. It also helped unleash a civil war inside Cambodia that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, a dictator whose regime killed as many as 2 million Cambodians, according to modern appraisals.

The Cambodian landscape in 1968 shows the damage inflicted by B-52 bombing there.
The Cambodian landscape in 1968 shows the damage inflicted by B-52 bombing there.
Tim Page/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Kissinger and the U.S. negotiated the Paris Peace Accords with North Vietnam in 1973, paving the way for the war’s end. It earned Kissinger a Nobel Peace Prize. Two prize committee members resigned in response.

That was the second of his major accomplishments. The year prior, he had helped Nixon reestablish diplomatic relations with China, which both Kissinger and Nixon saw as crucial to deepening a divide between it and the Soviet Union, the world’s two largest communist powers.

The two episodes define Kissinger’s career and how it has been interpreted. They made him a superstar within the Nixon administration and the American foreign policy establishment. The accomplishments they paved the way for — including major arms limitation treaties with the Soviet Union and the full restoration of diplomatic recognition with China — are still cited as lasting Kissinger victories.

They also came at an incredible human cost that was a direct result of Kissinger’s desperation to achieve them. Much like the end of the Vietnam War had been, the opening of relations with China was directly preceded by an atrocity the United States broadly ignored: the 1971 Pakistani killings of at least 500,00 people in present-day Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan.

Focused on Beijing, Nixon and Kissinger did not merely look the other way when what was then known as West Pakistan launched an aggressive campaign against East Pakistan. Kissinger and Nixon saw West Pakistan as a crucial ally against the Soviets and a “gateway to open diplomatic relations with China.” In an effort to keep that door open, the Nixon administration largely refused to condemn West Pakistan’s efforts to repress Bengalis in the east, and even authorized potentially illegal arms shipments to West Pakistan.

Bengali forces, with support from India, eventually forced the Pakistanis to surrender, leading to the creation of independent Bangladesh — but not before Pakistani armed forces and other allied militant groups killed as many as 3 million people and raped some 400,000 women, according to modern estimates. The crisis forced millions of others to flee the country.

To Kissinger, it mattered little. In 1971, the Pakistanis helped shuttle him into China for a secret visit that helped pave the way for Nixon’s eventual trip to Shanghai.

“Not one has yet understood what we did in India-Pakistan and how we saved the China option which we need for the bloody Russians,” Kissinger said to Nixon in 1972, according to reports from the Press Trust of India based on memos that were declassified decades later. “Why should we give a damn about Bangladesh?”

***

Declassified memos and notes have made clear that Kissinger rarely missed a chance to take a similarly cavalier approach to human rights and democracy as his career progressed.

After Chileans elected socialist President Salvador Allende in 1970, Kissinger and Nixon almost immediately began plotting the overthrow of his government. The Chilean military carried out a coup in 1973, and General Augusto Pinochet established a murderous dictatorship that killed an estimated 3,000 supposed dissidents and tortured as many as 40,000 more, according to a national truth commission established after Chile’s return to democracy in 1990.

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, an Army general, took power in a U.S.-supported coup in 1973 and embarked on a brutal reign of tyranny. Kissinger knew of the abuses and murders that took place on Pinochet's watch but regarded him as a defense against communism even as his contemporaries in the State Department criticized his approach.
Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, an Army general, took power in a U.S.-supported coup in 1973 and embarked on a brutal reign of tyranny. Kissinger knew of the abuses and murders that took place on Pinochet's watch but regarded him as a defense against communism even as his contemporaries in the State Department criticized his approach.
Bettmann via Getty Images

Ever disdainful of what he saw as moralistic bureaucrats, Kissinger mocked the concerns State Department officials expressed about the dictatorship’s abuses.

“I read the briefing paper for this meeting and it was nothing but Human Rights,” he told a U.S. official about Chile in 1973, according to records obtained by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit library of public records and declassified documents. “The State Department is made up of people who have a vocation for the ministry. Because there are not enough churches for them, they went into the Department of State.”

Kissinger, who became secretary of state just a month after Pinochet’s coup, told State Department officials in October 1973 that the United States should not position itself as a defender of the military regime’s human rights abuses. But U.S. policy, he explained, was that “no matter how unpleasant they act, the [Pinochet] government is better for us than Allende was.”

Three years later, he told Pinochet in an official meeting that the Chilean dictatorship had become the victim of international propaganda efforts that had distorted its human rights record, according to declassified documents that notably were not shared with a U.S. Senate select committee that investigated covert American actions in the Chilean coup.

Top left: The Chilean presidential palace La Moneda under fire during the coup led by Pinochet in Santiago in 1973. Top right: Aides and others involved with the presidency of Salvador Allende are guarded by soldiers outside La Moneda. Bottom left: Chilean soldiers take cover behind a tank from fire by Allende's bodyguards during the ground attack. Bottom right: Soldiers supporting the coup take cover as bombs are dropped on the presidential palace.
Top left: The Chilean presidential palace La Moneda under fire during the coup led by Pinochet in Santiago in 1973. Top right: Aides and others involved with the presidency of Salvador Allende are guarded by soldiers outside La Moneda. Bottom left: Chilean soldiers take cover behind a tank from fire by Allende's bodyguards during the ground attack. Bottom right: Soldiers supporting the coup take cover as bombs are dropped on the presidential palace.
AP/Reuters

“My evaluation is that you are a victim of all left-wing groups around the world and that your greatest sin was that you overthrew a government that was going Communist,” he told the Chilean.

In December 1975, Kissinger and Ford flew to Indonesia to meet with Suharto, a military dictator who took control of the country after the overthrow of Sukarno, an Indonesian nationalist, in 1967. At the time, Suharto was considering an invasion of neighboring East Timor, which was seeking independence.The U.S. and Suharto feared the independence effort could lead to an anti-colonialist government sympathetic to the Soviets.

Suharto launched the invasion not long after Kissinger and Ford returned to the United States, and declassified memos have shown that he did so “knowing that he had the full approval of the White House.”

“It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly,” Kissinger told Suharto, according to declassified memos obtained by the National Security Archive. “It would be better,” he continued, “if it occurred” after he and Ford had returned to the United States.

Indonesian forces proceeded to carry out what some historians now regard as a genocide of East Timorese populations — some estimates suggest they murdered 2,000 people in the initial days of the invasion alone. A truth and reconciliation committee later suggested that between 100,000 and 200,000 East Timorese people died throughout the conflict and the resulting Indonesian occupation of the island, which lasted until 1999.

“Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities.”

- Arthur Blood, then-U.S. consul general to East Pakistan, in a 1971 memo

Near the end of his time as secretary of state, Kissinger relayed similar messages to Argentina’s military dictatorship, which overthrew its government in 1976. In a meeting that year, Kissinger told the country’s foreign minister to “get the terrorist problem” — by which he meant dissenters against the new dictatorship — “over as quickly as possible,” according to memos declassified in 2002 and obtained by the National Security Archive. The Argentine left the meeting convinced the U.S. had greenlighted its “dirty war” and that Kissinger considered the elimination of dissenters far more important than human rights.

The same year, Kissinger visited Brazil and showered praise on the country’s military dictatorship, which had come to power in a coup in 1964, before Kissinger entered government. By then, though, it was well known that the regime was in the midst of its most brutal period of repression. In 2014, the country’s national truth commission found that the dictatorship killed at least 434 political dissidents and tortureding thousands more.

Kissinger’s sympathy for tyrants continued after he left the government in 1977. Kissinger attended the 1978 World Cup in Argentina as a special guest of Videla, the dictator, and lauded the regime for its success in “wiping out” its opponents, documents declassified in 2016 showed.

At the time, a State Department official expressed concern that the Argentines “may use Kissinger’s laudatory statements as justification for hardening their human rights stance.” Indeed, the dictatorship, which was fond of throwing dissenters out of helicopters and into the sea, eventually disappeared as many as 30,000 people.

After serving as national security adviser under Nixon, Kissinger became secretary of state under President Gerald Ford.
After serving as national security adviser under Nixon, Kissinger became secretary of state under President Gerald Ford.
David Hume Kennerly via Getty Images

There is no doubt that Kissinger knew these many abuses were taking place throughout his career.

In 1971, Archer Blood, the U.S. consul general in East Pakistan, wrote a memo detailing Pakistani atrocities in Bangladesh, telling his superiors that Pakistan was “systematically eliminating” Bangladeshis “by seeking them out and shooting them down.” A month later, he authored another telegram accusing the U.S. of displaying “moral bankruptcy” for refusing to condemn or attempt to limit the violent crackdowns on East Pakistan. “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities,” the telegram said.

Not long after Blood sent the memo about Pakistan, Kissinger and Nixon reassigned him to a diplomatic post in Washington.

As Kissinger plotted an overthrow of Allende’s government in Chile, a National Security Council official warned that it was “patently a violation of our own principles and policy tenets.” But the warnings did nothing to stop Kissinger from fomenting coups and singing the praises of those who committed atrocities.

Kissinger believed these atrocities were worth it, both to stop the spread of Soviet communism and to bolster American interests and credibility in the world.

Former President George H.W. Bush, who served as ambassador to the United Nations under Nixon, described Kissinger as paranoid, according to Princeton historian and Kissinger critic Greg Bass, and this paranoia about communism appeared repeatedly during his career.

Kissinger saw Allende’s election in Chile as evidence of the unstoppable march of Marxism that might overtake the world if the U.S. didn’t act to stop it, and the Pinochet regime’s abuses as merely a necessary price to pay to stop it.

In 1973, he asked a top Latin America official at the State Department whether Pinochet’s human rights violations were “that much worse than in other countries in Latin America.” When the official told him they were, he said only that cutting off military aid would have “very serious” consequences.

Kissinger did not believe that American foreign policy could be successful if it let morality overtake pragmatism and self-interest. Moral outcomes, he argued, came from the advance of human freedom, and he believed his actions achieved that.

“A country that demands moral perfection of itself as a test of its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security,” Kissinger wrote in his 1994 book, “Diplomacy.”

He also despised armchair quarterbacks. Governing, he posited, is difficult, and doesn’t allow for the luxury of hindsight that academics and his critics enjoy.

“The analyst runs no risk. If his conclusions prove wrong, he can write another treatise,” he wrote in “Diplomacy.” “The statesman is permitted only one guess; his mistakes are irretrievable.”

Kissinger’s defenders argue that his critics now treat “the West’s victory” in the Cold War “as a foregone conclusion,” and that across the world, “revolutionary nihilists” were busy massacring people too. But these are convenient excuses for many of the atrocities Kissinger tolerated or authorized, and they ignore that many of Kissinger’s contemporaries often saw clear paranoia and fault in his actions well in advance.

“Is Allende a mortal threat to the U.S.?” Viron Vaky, the NSC official who criticised Kissinger’s efforts to foment a coup in Santiago, asked in a 1970 memo that was later obtained by the National Security Archive. “It is hard to argue this.”

***

In 2003, the film director Errol Morris released “The Fog of War,” a documentary featuring former U.S. Defence Secretary Robert McNamara, who oversaw much of the Vietnam War. The film centred McNamara detailing lessons he had learned from the experience as he sought to make peace with the “immense moral burden of his actions” in Vietnam, as The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson wrote in 2016.

Kissinger never engaged in any such reflection. Instead, he continued to peddle lies about his actions, including an absurd suggestion, in 2014, that U.S. drone warfare had resulted in more deaths than the Cambodian bombing campaign.

“Unlike Robert McNamara, Kissinger has shown little in the way of a conscience,” Anderson wrote. (Kissinger, as Anderson noted, in fact mocked McNamara for espousing regret in the film.) “And because of that, it seems highly likely, history will not easily absolve him.”

Washington, however, spent the final decades of Kissinger’s life doing exactly that.

Kissinger served as an informal adviser to numerous presidents, secretaries of state and foreign policy heavyweights even after he left the government. He was welcome at Washington’s swankiest dinner parties, feted by leaders of both major political parties and large think tanks, and given generous platforms to offer his advice and perspective on American military crusades in the pages of the country’s most prominent newspapers and on the airwaves of its biggest TV and radio networks.

Kissinger with President George W. Bush, who leaned on the former official as an informal adviser throughout the administration's global "war on terror." Kissinger was an ardent supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Kissinger with President George W. Bush, who leaned on the former official as an informal adviser throughout the administration's global "war on terror." Kissinger was an ardent supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

He used those platforms to, among other things, cheerlead for war in Iraq: In 2002, a year before the U.S. invaded, he called for regime change in Baghdad. Kissinger served as an “informal adviser,” as historian Grandin described it, to President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and top aide Karl Rove throughout that war, during which as many as 200,000 Iraqi civilians may have died, according to estimates, and the U.S. amassed a litany of new human rights abuses to add to its record.

Kissinger’s sense of bipartisanship never faltered. Hillary Clinton leaned on him for advice as secretary of state and called him a friend. Samantha Power, who served as Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, often criticized Kissinger and argued that human rights should play a much more prominent role in American foreign policy. Yet in 2014, she attended a Yankees-Red Sox game with Kissinger, and two years later accepted an award named for him. The Obama administration leaned on the bombing of Cambodia as the legal justification for its drone wars, including the targeted killings of American citizens abroad.

That his influence never waned makes it easy to see Kissinger’s fingerprints on every ill — or accomplishment, as his acolytes would frame them — that followed. There’s probably some truth, too, to the idea that Kissinger maintained that influence in large part to help ensure his place in history as America’s most significant foreign policy mind, no matter who wrote it.

The United States, after all, overthrew numerous democratically elected governments, waged secret bombing campaigns, and committed and permitted human rights abuses well before Kissinger came to power. And the U.S. government has carried out decades of endless war that have resulted in significant civilian death tolls, the expanded use of torture, indefinite detention, illegal rendition and extrajudicial murder since Kissinger left government.

Much like Kissinger, the architects of those disasters faced few, if any, meaningful repercussions. A country that so often predicates its concern for human rights on the specific humans in question, and in which elite accountability for even the most blatant crimes and abuses is so rare, seems to have made up its mind about morality’s place in politics and public policy without much need for Kissinger’s help. He was just happier than most to provide it.

Perhaps, then, Kissinger’s life was most remarkable for how brightly it illuminated a simple and ugly truth about the nation he served.

“If all the sins of the U.S. security state can be loaded onto one man, all parties get what they need: Kissinger’s status as a world-historic figure is assured, and his critics can regard his foreign policy as the exception rather than the rule,” Meaney, the essayist, posited for The New Yorker in 2020. “It would be comforting to believe that American liberals are capable of seeing that politics is more than a matter of personal style, and that the record will prevail, but the enduring cult of Kissinger points to a less palatable possibility: Kissinger is us.”

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