clock menu more-arrow no yes

The Obama administration is honoring Henry Kissinger today. It shouldn’t be.

Obama with Henry Kissinger in 2010.
(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday afternoon, at 4 pm Eastern, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter will host an awards ceremony at the Pentagon honoring one of the world's most notorious war criminals.

The criminal in question, Dr. Henry Kissinger, has never been charged. But the evidence that he aided and abetted war crimes during his time in the White House advising Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford is well-established and overwhelming.

While Kissinger deserves real credit for some of America's most important Cold War victories, including Nixon's diplomatic opening to China, he is also responsible for some of its worst atrocities. Carpet-bombing Cambodia, supporting Pakistan's genocide in Bangladesh, greenlighting the Argentinian dictatorship's murderous crackdown on dissidents — all of those were Kissinger initiatives, all pushed in the name of pursuing American national interests and fighting communism.

While the Obama administration might want to pretend that only the first half of his résumé exists, that doesn't change reality. The secretary of defense is handing an award to a man whose actions belie the values Obama administration claims to stand for. It's hardly alone in this: Kissinger has been treated as an elder statesman in polite Washington society for decades. But this is the most recent example, and one of the most high-profile, of polite Washington society rewriting Kissinger's legacy. Let's not forget what it really is.

The traditional view of Kissinger as American hero

Henry Kissinger And Charlie Rose Mark The 70th Anniversary Of VE Day
Bad man.
(Steve Mack/Getty Images)

It's not hard to understand why the Obama administration is honoring Kissinger. He served as national security adviser to Richard Nixon as well as secretary of state under Gerald Ford, and is, for better or worse, the most important foreign policy official in modern American history. Foreign policy under two American presidents directly reflected his vision of the world.

Before entering public service in 1968, Kissinger was a professor of international relations at Harvard. He developed a very clear worldview centered on the idea of realpolitik: that the United States should carefully pursue its own interests within the confines of what's politically possible. Moral and ideological considerations, for Kissinger, were less important than cold, hard evaluations of what could advance America's strategic position.

This led him to take a more pragmatic view of traditional American enemies, like the Soviet Union and China, than had many prior American leaders — a view that caught Richard Nixon's ear. Nixon appointed him national security adviser after his 1968 election, and Kissinger quickly became the key influence on Nixon's foreign policy.

Kissinger masterminded detente — an outreach to the Soviet Union aimed at lowering tensions between the two nuclear-armed superpowers. This approach bore fruit, helping produce two major arms control treaties, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Most famously, Kissinger planned the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and China. In 1970, he succeeded in opening backchannel talks between the two countries, ultimately visiting China in secret in 1971. The result — the 1972 establishment of formal diplomatic relations (and ultimately full diplomatic recognition in 1979) —restored ties between the two countries. It also drove a wedge between the world's two largest communist powers, complicating Soviet attempts to grow its influence in Asia.

For these accomplishments, Kissinger became one of the most revered foreign policy makers in Washington, widely seen as a strategic genius responsible for reshaping the direction of the Cold War.

"Kissinger seizes the imagination," biographer Robert Schulzinger writes, "because he engineered the most significant turning point in United States foreign policy since the beginning of the cold war."

Nonetheless, Henry Kissinger is a war criminal

Kissinger at the Paris peace negotiations that ended the Vietnam War.
(Central Press/Getty Images)

Here is the problem with this account of Kissinger: It ignores the fact that he shares responsibility for the deaths of enormous numbers of innocent people. For those who believe American policy should be about more than the naked pursuit of self-interest, the continuing veneration of Kissinger in Washington is appalling.

Most infamously, Kissinger masterminded a Nixon-era plan to carpet-bomb Cambodia. Nominally, the bombing — which indiscriminately hit targets in civilian-populated areas — was supposed to destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong bases. In reality, it was designed to improve America's strategic position before a negotiated withdrawal.

During the first stage of the bombing, from 1969 to 1970, Kissinger personally approved all 3,875 bombing raids, according to a contemporary Pentagon report.

"The degree of micro-management revealed in Kissinger's memoirs forbids the idea that anything of importance took place without his knowledge of permission," the late Christopher Hitchens wrote in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger. "Of nothing is this more true than his own individual involvement in the bombing ... of neutral Cambodia."

American bombs killed between 150,000 and 500,000 people in Cambodia. That created a swell of public support for Pol Pot and his communist Khmer Rouge rebels, who exploited popular anger at the bombings to seize control of the government in 1975. The Khmer Rouge then slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and starved even more, ultimately killing at least a million people, about one-seventh of the country's population.

Kissinger's crimes in Pakistan

Refugees from Pakistan's war in Bangladesh, which Kissinger supported.
(John Downing/Getty Images)

In 1971, Pakistani dictator Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan began slaughtering the residents of East Pakistan (what's now Bangladesh) in retaliation for electing a leader who demanded autonomy. Instead of intervening to stop Yahya, Kissinger sent him weapons — a policy that was, at the time, illegal under US law.

He pulled the US consul general in Dhaka, Archer Blood, from his post for questioning the policy, and blocked efforts to pressure Pakistan (a US ally) to end its slaughter. The killing only stopped after India intervened to stop it; estimates of the death toll range from 300,000 to 3 million.

"Kissinger joked about the massacre of Bengali Hindus, and, his voice dripping with contempt, sneered at Americans who 'bleed' for 'the dying Bengalis," Princeton professor Gary Bass writes in a Politico Magazine piece. Bass suggests that Kissinger's policy was meant to maintain the alliance with Pakistan, which was an anti-communist bulwark in the region.

Kissinger's crimes in Argentina

Argentina's junta takes power in 1973.
(AFP/Getty Images)

We're still learning about the full extent of Kissinger's responsibility for violence around the world.

In 2014, newly declassified documents suggested that in the 1970s, Kissinger signaled to Argentina's right-wing military leaders that the US would not object to its plans to launch a 1976 crackdown on dissent that became known as the Dirty War — which killed about 30,000 people.

The documents released in 2014 include an account, from then-US Ambassador to Argentina Robert Hill, of Kissinger's conversation with Argentine Foreign Minister César Augusto Guzzetti. Guzzetti, it seems, was afraid the crackdown would bring down pressure from the US on human rights — but Kissinger told him that no such pressure would come:

The Argentines were very worried that Kissinger would lecture to them on human rights. Guzzetti and Kissinger had a very long breakfast but the Secretary did not raise the subject. Finally Guzzetti did. Kissinger asked how long will it take you (the Argentines) to clean up the problem. Guzzetti replied that it would be done by the end of the year. Kissinger approved.

In other words, Ambassador Hill explained, Kissinger gave the Argentines the green light.

This is not an exhaustive list of Kissinger's crimes: It doesn't touch, among other things, his support for proxy wars in sub-Saharan Africa or his backing of the Indonesian dictator Suharto's killings in East Timor.

"A back-of-the-envelope count would attribute three, maybe four million deaths to Kissinger’s actions, but that number probably undercounts his victims," Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, writes at the Nation.

It's debatable how best to quantify the impact of Kissinger's actions, and difficult to determine how much of the blame to apportion to him versus other US officials and especially compared with the foreign leaders, whether in Argentina or Pakistan or elsewhere, who ultimately carried out many of these atrocities.

Nonetheless, under any accounting, it is a horrifying résumé.