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  1. The Weekend Essay
9 December 2023

The life and crimes of Henry K

How the strategist-turned-consultant ushered in a half-century of American darkness.

By Noah Kulwin

Now that he is dead, perhaps the record of Henry Kissinger will allow for a little honesty. Rather than a master strategist, Dr K was an improviser. His Weimar worldliness masked racist beliefs (“Indians are bastards”), and those around him observed how his sophisticated-sounding Old World accent only thickened over the years despite fleeing Nazi Germany as a teenager in 1938. Nor was Kissinger a cool, collected intellect, but a temperamental operator even by the standards of Richard Nixon’s White House.

“That poor fellow is an emotional fellow,” Nixon himself observed in 1971. “He’s the kind of fellow that could have an emotional collapse.” The president’s adviser John Ehrlichman replied, “We just have to get him some psychotherapy.” As the historian Barbara Keys has shown, “Kissinger’s temper tantrums, jealous rages, and depressions frequently frustrated and bewildered the president and his staff.”

But the greatest Kissinger illusion was his so-called political realism: rather than a practitioner of realpolitik, Herr Doctor’s preferred political reality was one prescribed by American military power. And having left public service in the 1970s, free to migrate from Washington to the New York City cocktail circuit, Davos, and the corporate board room, Kissinger had a 50-year head start on waxing his legacy, recasting impulsive displays of authority as somehow the genesis of a better-ordered world.

Remapping White House power

According to the historian Robert K Brigham, from his first day in the White House in 1969, when he was appointed national security adviser, “Kissinger plotted to overturn the bureaucracy and to control decision-making.”

That Kissinger had ended up in the Nixon White House at all was surprising, given the ex-Harvard academic’s position as foreign policy mandarin to Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican and Nixon’s opponent in the party’s 1968 presidential primary. In the days following Rockefeller’s defeat at the GOP convention, Kissinger stated publicly his “grave doubts” about Nixon who was a “disaster”.

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But only a month later, Kissinger began passing information on Lyndon Johnson’s negotiations with the North Vietnamese to the Nixon campaign. Although Kissinger’s intel wasn’t especially useful to Nixon, the Cold Warrior president appreciated Kissinger’s cloak-and-dagger style.

[See also: The complicated legacy of Henry Kissinger]

Receptive to further entreaties from Kissinger, who was angling for a White House appointment, Nixon made him national security adviser. Kissinger had until now been a college professor and political analyst, with little experience in government. Sizing up Nixon’s specific antipathy towards the State Department and general hatred of government bureaucracy, Kissinger successfully arrogated to himself and his National Security Council unparalleled decision-making power.

As Seymour Hersh documents in The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (1983), these new procedures consolidated Kissinger’s power in Washington. Far from providing options to a president who brooked no dissent, Kissinger would be in sole control of documents for Nixon to study. And since one of the most carefully kept secrets of the administration was how little independent consulting and study the president actually did, only a very few understood that Kissinger’s private advice was inevitably the one most relied upon by Nixon.

In addition to controlling the reporting that Nixon received on virtually every foreign policy subject of consequence, Kissinger was also made direct emissary for secret negotiations with North Vietnam, and, perhaps for lack of a better option in that White House, Hersh notes that Kissinger became Nixon’s “essential” conduit to a “liberal press” that distrusted the man in the Oval Office. It was a pole position that Kissinger would use and abuse repeatedly, advancing his career. 

Avoiding the Vietnam exit

The “price of power” to which Hersh refers in his book’s title was Kissinger’s passion for pleasing his boss, perhaps the deadliest act of submission in the annals of Washington. Over the years and around the world, the conflicts that Kissinger started or inflamed produced what some have estimated to be three million dead. But the specific price that Kissinger had to pay, upon assuming power in 1969, was the price of ending the Vietnam War.

The Tet Offensive that the North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong, launched in early 1968 shocked the Johnson administration. These Vietnamese forces and civilian populations couldn’t be bombed into defeat (Operation Rolling Thunder), nor pacified by 400,000-plus US soldiers. During that year, Johnson declined to run for re-election, opened diplomatic talks with North Vietnamese emissaries in Paris, and announced a halt to the bombing on enemy territory. In addition to reversing this decision, Johnson’s successors sought to widen the war to where they erroneously believed North Vietnamese strength was actually concentrated: next door, in Cambodia.

After all, both Nixon and Kissinger criticised Johnson for not bombing the impoverished country of rice farmers. So did the former US Air Force general Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay, who was the running mate of the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace in 1968. “The United States should ‘pursue and destroy’ enemy troops that have retreated from South Vietnam into Cambodia and Laos,” LeMay told an Iowa audience. Nixon, prone to conspiratorial thinking, went a step further and believed that the Vietnamese communist military headquarters were in Cambodia, and pressured his general, Creighton Abrams, into serving up a “menu” of target communist sanctuaries, the first of which was codenamed “Breakfast”. And what of the professor? Dr Kissinger pursued the secret execution of a policy – a clandestine bombing campaign, a disastrous 1970 US land invasion – that even LeMay, under more direct questioning, declined to support.

[See also: The case for an Atlantic Union]

Kissinger was instrumental here in two ways. First, like his president, Kissinger sought to use force to compel Hanoi’s hand at the negotiating table. “Since January 20, we have undertaken a basic shift in policy,” Kissinger wrote in a memo for Nixon, a few days before the president ordered the bombing of Cambodia in March 1969. “We have combined heavy military pressure with a deliberate pace in Paris… This policy was designed to avoid an impression of undo anxiety which might tempt Hanoi to draw out the negotiations in the belief that we could be outlasted and would later make concessions because of domestic political pressures.”

Robert K Brigham concludes that “Kissinger firmly believed that striking [North Vietnamese] sanctuaries inside Cambodia would hurt Hanoi’s ability to wage war in South Vietnam and that this in turn would have an impact on negotiations in Paris”. And unlike his rivals in Nixon’s cabinet, especially the defence secretary Melvin Laird and the secretary of state William Rogers, Kissinger endorsed his boss’s order to keep the war on Cambodia secret. In fact, Kissinger selected the bombing targets himself, with no consultation from the air force leadership. Colonel Ray “Mr B-52” Sitton, the officer tasked with carrying out these orders, later told an interviewer that “I don’t know what [method] he was using or his reason for varying them”.

Despite never having declared war against Cambodia or its people, the US dropped more bombs on that nation (2.8 million tonnes) than it did during the whole Second World War (just over 2 million tonnes). While the bombing had little effect on North Vietnamese forces, it did lead to the complete disorder of Cambodian society, the toppling of the government by a US-compliant military dictator, Lon Nol, and his fall in a subsequent civil war that would end with the victory of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge – génocidaires, and future US clients.

That the North Vietnamese forces were relatively undiminished should have been clear to Kissinger. Yet “despite all evidence to the contrary”, Brigham observes, “he and the president believed that the bombing had worked.”

“Little wars”

If bombing failed to secure American military success in the jungles of south-east Asia, it worked wonders for Kissinger’s career. Despite Nixon and his inner circle’s later misgivings, Kissinger was their man in an administration that became increasingly about pro-Nixon insiders and anti-Nixon insiders, a paranoid us vs them dynamic that is now the stuff of legend. Nixon and Kissinger appreciated one another’s ambition, and it is unlikely that détente with the Soviet Union in the 1970s or the opening to China with Nixon’s visit in 1972 would have taken place were it not for Kissinger’s diplomatic efforts. But where in one part of the world the Cold War cooled, elsewhere it became hot and bloody.

The historian Greg Grandin notes that as early as the 1950s, Kissinger had theorised the value in fighting “little wars” in the “grey areas” of the world, which Grandin describes as “those parts of the globe outside of the Eurasian heartland, which for Kissinger by the mid-1950s included Indochina, as the French had renamed Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam”.

In addition to Indochina, by the time Kissinger took the reins of American policymaking, the Cold War frontiers had meaningfully extended to Latin America, Africa and beyond. In Chile, Kissinger supported the 1973 military coup that felled the socialist president Salvador Allende and installed General Augusto Pinochet. When Angolan soldiers, supported by Fidel Castro’s Cuba, took up arms against white supremacist Rhodesia and South Africa it was Kissinger who first cultivated the mass murderer Jonas Savimbi as the face of “Angolan” resistance. And it was Kissinger who supported Suharto’s Indonesian genocide in East Timor (roughly one in six of the nation’s 600,000 people died in the 1975-80 period) in the name of overthrowing its left-wing government.

In Israel, Kissinger kept the rightist Menachem Begin government satisfied rather than press the issue on Palestine, believing that Jewish-Arab tension was productive for US hegemony. At the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Kissinger told the Soviet diplomat Anatoly Dobrynin that if either the Arab or Jewish side were to prevail in the conflict it would be a “nightmare”. Among the Gulf Arab kingdoms, Kissinger helped establish the oil-for-arms economic arrangement with the US, transforming those oil-rich family autocracies into the uber-wealthy and uber-violent minor military powers. In 1972, the shah of Iran was granted all the weapons he sought, which then fell into the hands of anti-American revolutionaries in 1979, after Kissinger had left office.

When anti-communist threats continued in South America, despite various CIA-supported coups, Kissinger helped put together the international anti-communist death squad known as Operation Condor, whose alumni would become lynchpins of the modern drug trade and commit acts of murder against American citizens in the US. And while neoconservatives were initially sceptical of Kissinger, owing to the “softness” of détente, they soon appreciated him as a champion of military action in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), Afghanistan (2001) and both wars in Iraq (1991 and 2003). In Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman (2015), Grandin makes explicit the link between Kissinger’s supposedly “realist” policies and those of the neoconservative idealists who succeeded him. “Just as his secret bombing so roiled Cambodia’s borders that, by early 1970, it made a major land invasion using US troops seem like a good idea,” Grandin writes, “Kissinger’s global post-Vietnam War diplomacy so inflamed the international order that it made the neocon’s radical vision of perpetual war look like a reasonable option for many of the world’s problems.”

[See also: Is Nikki Haley a real threat to Donald Trump?]

On American terms

One thing that distinguished Kissinger from his counterparts is that he did understand that the eagle on the State Department seal holds both arrows and an olive branch in its talons. Kissinger was mostly an advocate of military power when it could produce a political solution for which Henry Kissinger and, when he was out of office, the clients and associates of Kissinger, could claim lasting credit. The peace-making achievements of his career – normalising relations with China, Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (Salt) negotiations with the Soviet Union, and the exit of the US from Vietnam – were relatively pacific boons of the Watergate era, but with distinctly Kissinger-sized shortcomings.

In Competitive Arms Control: Nixon, Kissinger, and Salt, 1969-1972 (2022), John D Maurer shows how the Nixon White House’s public diplomatic backslapping contrasted with its private manoeuvring: “Rather than promoting cooperation, Nixon and his closest advisers saw Salt as an opportunity to continue the nuclear competition on American terms.”

But Nixon set about doing this in a paranoid and clandestine way. He deployed Kissinger once again to conduct private talks with the Soviets while side-lining both the Pentagon and State Department. “In the short term, Nixon’s discretion and secretive negotiations were successful, if only barely, in bringing Salt I to a successful conclusion,” Maurer writes. “Absent a clear explanation from Nixon or Kissinger about its larger purpose, however, Salt went down in history as a useful but flawed experiment in mitigating great-power competition, its competitive purpose effaced.”

Similarly, the price of Kissinger and Nixon’s opening to China in the early 1970s was paid in Third World blood. The key overture to China was made through Yahya Khan, president of West Pakistan (now Pakistan), who in March 1971 launched a war on East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) that became a genocide – and perhaps marking the darkest hour for the Nixon administration. Nixon and Kissinger’s imagined master enemy, in this case, was the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi and her government, whom they absurdly held responsible for Bengali unrest. Tape-recorded conversations of Nixon and Kissinger on India-Pakistan reveal astonishing racial prejudice against India (“I don’t like the Indians,” says Nixon. They’re “bastards”, said Kissinger).

The ugly language set the mood for the course of action they pursued.

“Kissinger, for all his brilliance, knew a lot more about Metternich’s Austria than he did about modern South Asia,” the scholar Gary Bass writes in The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (2013). On the eve of the atrocity, knowing full well Nixon’s affection for the murderous drunk Yahya Khan, Kissinger “seemed more influenced by warnings that many West Pakistanis suspected that the United States was plotting to split up the country” and thus “urged the president to do nothing”.

It was widely anticipated that Khan would attempt to hold together West Pakistan’s Bengali territories by force. But, as Kissinger also knew well, Nixon despised non-aligned India, so the White House sat on its hands at the national security adviser’s direction. “There was one consideration that, while voiced by other US officials, never made it into Kissinger’s note to the president: simply avoiding the loss of life,” Bass writes. “He was already covering up the fact that the Nixon administration had had many opportunities to make such requests to Yahya, and had expressly chosen silence.”

Two weeks into the genocide, in an April 1971 “dissent channel” cable filed to the State Department, the diplomat Archer Blood, who was in Pakistan, wrote what Bass credibly identifies as “the most blistering denunciation of US foreign policy ever sent by its own diplomats”. Blood concluded “our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy” as “unfortunately the overworked term genocide is applicable”.

Between 200,000 and 400,000 Bengalis were estimated to have died by December 1971, when a peace agreement was reached. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped and in a replay of the 1947 Indian partition crisis, tens of millions of refugees were displaced by the fighting, primarily Bengalis. But while the Bengali war to liberate Bangladesh from West Pakistan (with Indian support) succeeded, Pakistan did not collapse. Ruled by an American-armed Islamist military dictatorship, Pakistan and its security services built the mujahadin, whose story spanned the fall of Afghan government, the creation of the Taliban, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and beyond. While the 1971 crisis was ending, Nixon’s ambassador to the UN, George HW Bush, told Kissinger in a cable: “I want a transfer when this is over. I want a nice quiet place like Rwanda.”

[See also: Robert D Kaplan: The new world disorder]

End of tour

Kissinger has never been represented well in film, largely because he operated in the shadows. The Nixon and Gerald Ford White Houses afforded Kissinger the chance to build his career from scratch in the dark, having effectively made the jump from academia into office. The broad strokes of what people know are that Kissinger slept with models, conducted negotiations, had a thick accent, and a boss who was way more messed up than Henry K ever was.

And out of office? After leaving the State Department in 1977, Kissinger worked on his memoirs and taught diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington DC. In 1982, he started the consultancy Kissinger Associates, which was described in 1986 by the future Council on Foreign Relations president Les Gelb (then a reporter at the New York Times) as being on the cutting edge of an influence-peddling industry then ascendant in Washington DC. “The maximum amount of service seems to be four planning meetings a year between Kissinger Associates and the top management of a client, plus telephone calls,” Gelb writes.

Gelb reports that Kissinger billed another major client, American Express, for $420,000 annually. “Kissinger and his associates make a real contribution,” the CEO of HJ Heinz, another client, is reported as saying, “and we think they are particularly helpful in countries with more centrally planned economies, where the principal players and the dynamics among the principal players are of critical importance… This is particularly true in China, where he is a popular figure and is viewed with particular respect.”

Domestically, and even within his own party, Kissinger commanded less respect. The ultra-conservative North Carolina senator Jesse Helms famously held up the nomination of the Kissinger Associates official Lawrence Eagleburger to deputy secretary of state in 1989, demanding that Kissinger release his firm’s client list. The following year, the journalist Jack Anderson revealed that Helms had gone so far as to get Kissinger removed from a senior advisory post to the White House, on the grounds that his personal and national interests were conflicted.

Rather than stain Kissinger or signal a career slowdown, the good doctor receded to the realm of think tanks, dinner parties, gated communities, private cars, Ivy League universities and hotel suites. When, from the late 1980s, he emerged from hibernation, it was to speak in support of using American power in Panama, the first Gulf War, Balkan wars, Afghanistan and a second Gulf War. And when the world economy collapsed in 2008 and was only reinflated by rapid Chinese growth, Kissinger’s expertise was no doubt available for the right price.

When I interviewed the former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon in 2018, his room at the Ritz-Carlton was littered with books about China, including Kissinger’s On China. A story published that year in the New York Times showed that Bannon had visited Kissinger the previous summer, after which the former told the Times that Dr K vibed his analysis if not his conclusions. “Mr Kissinger confirmed this account,” reported the Times, “saying he told his visitor that the United States and China must strive for the ‘partial cooperation of countries that by normal standards might be considered enemies’.”

On 7 December this year, Axios reported that among the picks for a new Trump “loyalty-first cabinet” would be the return of “chief strategist” Bannon as White House chief of staff. Although he is known as one of the most punishing critics of Kissinger-style mixed relations with China, even Bannon understood the power of a bold policy cynically wielded to maximum effect. While the Joe Biden White House gave no public embrace of Kissinger at the news of his death, the Trump administration actively sought his counsel while it was in power. They may not have always liked his ends, but they respected his mercenary attitude and called it his wisdom.

After signing a trade agreement with China in 2020, Trump publicly singled out Kissinger for praise at the signing ceremony on 15 January: “Jared [Kushner] came in and said, ‘You know, Henry Kissinger told me, “How did the president ever pull this off?”’ I said, ‘Can I quote Henry on that?’ Because Henry is outstanding. And when Henry is impressed with something, then I’m impressed. And, Henry, we’re impressed with you.”

Much has been made of Kissinger’s immigrant story, a tale that he himself offered up as proof of American goodness. “There is no country in the world where it is conceivable that a man of my origin could be standing here next to the President of the United States,” Kissinger said at his 1973 swearing in as secretary of state. Perhaps there is nothing so American as Kissinger’s gleeful acknowledgement of his good fortune, and how he used it with little conscience and to endless personal benefit.

[See also: Henry Kissinger’s real triumph]

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