Happy Birthday, Henry the K

by W.D. Ehrhart

Former U.S. Secretaries of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Henry Kissinger at the Atlantic Council Distinguished Leadership Awards ceremony, 2013. Photo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, recently celebrated his 100th birthday.  Marking the occasion, all sorts of public figures have been praising his long lifetime of accomplishments and contributions to our nation.

CNN’s David Andelman noted enthusiastically that Kissinger is “still teaching us the value of ‘Weltanschaung.’” Roughly translated, it means “how the world works,” also known as “realpolitik,” or “if you’ve got the power to do what you like, screw morality or justice or right and wrong; just freakin’ do it” (my translation).

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach called Kissinger “a great statesman” and “political genius” as well as a “great sports enthusiast” (tennis, anyone?).  The British Foreign Policy Office has called him “the wizard of the western world.”  Former New York Times editor Barry Gewen describes Kissinger as “a philosopher of international relations who [still] has much to teach us.”  Hillary Clinton calls him “a friend” whose counsel she often relied on.

I find myself wondering if these people are talking about the same Henry Kissinger I am.  The man who helped engineer the overthrow of the legally elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, arguing that the people of Chile had to be saved from their own irresponsibility, and ushering in mass murder and decades of iron dictatorship.

The man who supported the 1971 genocidal war Pakistan waged against Bangladesh that resulted in anywhere from 300,000 to 3 million deaths (no one knows for sure).  The man who green-lighted the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor that killed at least 100,000 civilians.  The man who backed the military coup in Argentina in 1976 that may have been more brutal and murderous than the one in Chile.

The man who willingly encouraged and supported the secret bombing of Cambodia that killed as many as 150,000 civilians and opened the door for the Khmer Rouge—a previously marginal and powerless organization—to take control of Cambodia, resulting in “the killing fields” of many thousands of additional innocent human beings.

The man who had the audacity and indecency to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in the wake of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords that supposedly ended the Vietnam War, but in fact ended nothing.  (His co-winner was North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho, the only person ever to decline a Nobel Peace Prize, recognizing that the award was meaningless, and the war would—and did—go on for another two plus years.)

The man who bragged that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

I’m tempted to argue that Henry the K is living proof that the good die young.  But that doesn’t really hold up because Daniel Ellsberg has made it at least to 92, and he’s certainly as good as they come.

Kissinger once—maybe more than once—described Ellsberg as “the most dangerous man in America.”  The magnitude of the irony of that assertion is beyond description.

But then, the irony that Kissinger not only remains unindicted, untried, and unconvicted as a war criminal, but is still widely respected and revered, is equally difficult to wrap one’s mind around.  (I rather imagine that those who respect and revere him fully embrace his “just try to stop us” approach to international relations along with an unshakable belief in American Exceptionalism.)

Not long ago, Ellsberg expressed to me some disappointment that Kissinger would outlive him.  I replied at the time that there was still time for Henry the K to go first.  And there is still time, at least as of this writing, but the prospects aren’t looking good.

I will be profoundly sad when Ellsberg finally shuffles off this mortal coil, as kind and decent and courageous a man as anyone I’ve ever known, a man who turned his back on power because he came to understand that such power was corrupt and dishonest and hypocritical and immoral, and he could no longer be a part of it.

Kissinger, on the other hand, embraced such power, reveled in it, basked in it, and still does to this day.  I will not be sad to see the last of Heinz Alfred Kissinger.


W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland & Co.

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