On Great Men and History

Henry Alfred Kissinger died on November 29th. On that, we can all agree.

Well, perhaps we’re being overly optimistic.

To be clear, we’re not saying we think that Henry the K is still alive somewhere, maintained in some quasi-lifelike state by a cabal of mad scientists.

We’re just saying that considering present circumstances, it’s possible—even probable—that someone in this great nation of ours is convinced that the original Doctor Strangelove is currently hooked up to a maze of tubes and cables and still breathing. Or burbling in a jar, “Futurama”-style.

If anyone actually does believe that scenario it’s ironic, since Kissinger did so much damage not just to the world—innumerable deaths, bomblets exploding to this day—but to our ability to accurately perceive the world.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy broke something in America, but our ship of state really foundered in Vietnam. And the damage extended well beyond the division between the hawks and the doves. American foreign policy at the time was dominated by the so-called domino theory: we must fight the Viet Cong in ’Nam’s Central Highlands, lest Charlie, in his pajamas and sandals, ambush us on the streets of San Diego.

The war did have a domino effect, just not the one we were warned about. The cost of the war blew up the budget. Bye bye to the uplift of Johnson’s Great Society, welcome to persistent wealth and income inequality. So long, 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement and the relatively stable global economy which it enabled, say hello to chaos.

Kissinger’s role was central in bringing this all about. His audacity and duplicity were such that even Shakespeare might not have dared to create him. Wikipedia has the receipts:

In August 1968, Kissinger wrote to Harriman, who was leading the American delegation at the Paris peace talks: “My dear Averell… I am through with Republican politics. The party is hopeless and unfit to govern.” On 17 September 1968, Kissinger arrived in Paris and served as an unofficial consultant to the American delegation. At the time, Kissinger spoke of his disgust with the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, saying: “Three days of the week I think I’ll vote for Hubert. The other days I think I won’t vote at all.” But at the same time, Kissinger was in contact with the Nixon campaign and began to share information about the progress of the peace talks. Kissinger began to call Richard Allen, Nixon’s foreign policy adviser, from a public telephone booth, offering information in exchange for which he wanted a senior position if Nixon won the election. On 12 October 1968, Kissinger told Allen that Harriman had “broken open the champagne” because he persuaded Johnson to order a bombing halt of North Vietnam. Allen called John Mitchell, Nixon’s campaign manager, who agreed that this was most important information. As a reward, Mitchell told Allen that Kissinger would receive the senior post he craved, with Allen saying the office of National Security Adviser would suit Kissinger the best. At the same time, Kissinger was in contact with the Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, lobbying for a senior post if Humphrey won the election.”

Historian Robert Dallek and CIA analyst William Bundy have argued that the failure of the Paris peace talks in 1968 could not be attributed to Kissinger alone. Perhaps that’s so, but not for lack of trying.

Kissinger certainly achieved his primary objective: a powerful job in the White House. Nixon, his boss, had campaigned on a “secret plan to end the war.” In practice, that plan was to keep killing as many Vietnamese as possible—and as many Americans as necessary in the process—until it was time to get re-elected. Then he could run as the man who had finally brought peace to whatever might be left of Vietnam.

None of this seemed to trouble his National Security Advisor/Secretary of State. In fact, hardly anything seems to have ever troubled Kissinger.

On April 6, 1971, as our allies in West Pakistan were slaughtering Bengalis in East Pakistan, the U.S. Consul General there cabled Washington: “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pak[istan] dominated government and to lessen any deservedly negative international public relations impact against them. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy… . Private Americans have expressed disgust. We, as professional civil servants, express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected in order to salvage our nation’s position as a moral leader of the free world.”

It’s been called “the most strongly worded expression of dissent in the history of the U.S. Foreign Service,” but it had no effect on Kissinger and Nixon. They were scheming to use West Pakistan in their rapprochement with China, so they did nothing to intervene. By year’s end between 300,000 and 3,000,000 Bengalis had been murdered.

A Sunday edition of the New York Times might be sufficient to catalog the myriad crimes of Henry Kissinger. We are not that newspaper. On the occasion of announcing his demise, the above must suffice.

We will only add this final irony: he lived to see his status as the Master of Lies surpassed—indeed, transcended—though his overinflated self-regard probably prevented him from seeing the resemblance.

Once again, Marx has been proven more or less right: the seemingly-interminable reign of Kissinger’s influence was tragic. The ongoing threat of Trump is tragic, too—but also a farce.

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