He Can Run, But He Can?t Hide

Why is Henry Kissinger so scared of universal jurisdiction? Christopher Hitchens counts the ways.


Recently The New York Times listed some ex-federal officials who became enormously wealthy as international influence peddlers by exploiting “contacts” they made in the years they were allegedly working for you and me. As you might easily guess, leading the list is Henry Kissinger, who, like some exotic skin rash, just won’t go away. His disastrous role as national security adviser and secretary of state for the Nixon/Ford administrations ended in 1976. Since then he has been paid millions of dollars each and every year to advise such outfits as Freeport MacMoRan, ExxonMobil, UPS, IBM, and Delta Airlines. To keep the record straight, I should mention that there are now “two separate entities” that “work in conjunction” with each other: “Kissinger Associates, Inc.,” based in New York, and the Washington, D.C.-based “Kissinger McClarty Associates.” (The second name in the title belongs to Thomas F. McClarty III, who was President Clinton’s chief of staff or senior adviser through most of his two terms. Of course, you were already aware that heart-warming bipartisanship is possible when big money is to be made.)

The success of Kissinger in this line of work goes to show that our biggest corporations are perfectly willing to hire alleged war criminals so long as they are slick enough to help their CEOs swing deals with the world’s rulers, here and abroad.

In an era of monstrously long books, The Trial of Henry Kissinger is mercifully short, but it is weighty with persuasive evidence that if there were an honest-to-god world court for the trial of war criminals (a court with far more authority than the current court in The Hague), Kissinger would surely be hauled before it and given the maximum punishment. In the absence of such a court, it is, of course, highly unlikely that justice will ever be done. But apparently knowing that his personal records of government service would prove his guilt, and wanting to take all precautions, Kissinger has given those records to the Library of Congress with the proviso that they be held secret until long after his natural death. The United States government has always opposed the creation of an authoritative international war crimes court, and the reason has been obvious for a generation. Thirty years ago, for example, General Telford Taylor, who was chief prosecutor for the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leaders after World War II, appraised the conduct of U.S. officials responsible for the design and conduct of the Vietnam war. In his book Nuremberg and Vietnam, General Taylor concluded that if the standards of justice that resulted in the execution of Japanese and German war criminals were applied to U.S. leaders who raped Vietnam and its neighbors, “there would be a very strong possibility that they would come to the same end.” And Hitchens makes sure we know what end that would be: “…hooded and blindfolded and dropped through a trapdoor on the end of a rope.”

With pleasant pipedreams of such vengeance egging us on, let us now turn to a brief survey of some of the war crimes this book hangs around Kissinger’s neck–war crimes which, admittedly, have been touched on in several books and summarized in numerous magazines, but which never lose their bloody impact from repetition.

VIETNAM: Kissinger was the mole who, while pretending to work for the Democrats, designed the scheme that destroyed the Paris peace talks of 1968, at which our diplomats were attempting to bring about a cease-fire in Vietnam. His sabotage guaranteed the election of Richard Nixon and–with Kissinger guiding Nixon–it also guaranteed the extension of the Vietnam disaster for another four years. By duplicating Lyndon Johnson’s insane war policy, the Nixon/Kissinger extension resulted in roughly half the United States battle deaths (47,393) and “other” deaths (10,800) suffered in that war, not to mention the uncountable millions of citizens of Indochina who were killed and injured.

But Kissinger added his own unique touch to the debacle. At the very beginning of the first term, Kissinger, as national security adviser, goaded Nixon into a secret, illegal, and uniquely brutal bombing assault on Vietnam’s neighbors, Laos and Cambodia. The United States was not formally at war with those countries and nobody in our government had publicly suggested we should be. Nevertheless, thousands of B-52 bombing raids were carried out, with the result that even by conservative estimates, 350,000 civilians in Laos and 600,000 in Cambodia lost their lives. Everything remotely resembling civilization in Cambodia was destroyed. “In addition, the widespread use of toxic chemical defoliants created a massive health crisis which naturally fell most heavily on children, nursing mothers, the aged and the already infirm, and which persists to this day.”

It is always comforting to be reminded that some of our federal officials are offended to the point of rebellion by the conduct of the murderers and thieves they work with. In this instance, several senior members of Kissinger’s staff resigned over the invasion of Cambodia and, Hitchens reminds us, “more than 200 State Department employees signed a protest addressed to Secretary of State William Rogers,” who himself opposed the bombing policy.

BANGLADESH. The scene now shifts to East Pakistan in 1970. When the political party opposed by the military overwhelmingly won a fair election in 1970–the first fair election in 10 years–a military junta led by General Yahya Khan tried to block the change of power. Using weapons that had been supplied by the United States, the junta temporarily achieved this end by mass murder, rape, and downright butchery. “The eventual civilian death toll has never been placed at less than half a million and has been put as high as three million.”

Pressure from the United States could probably have prevented this from happening. The month before the butchery began, Kissinger’s National Security Council urged sending a warning to General Khan, advising him to honor the election results. Kissinger refused. Instead, “at the very height of the mass murder, he sent a message to Khan, thanking him for his ‘delicacy and tact.'”

The absence of help from Washington so outraged the U.S. diplomatic team in Bangladesh that 20 members sent the State Department an unprecedented cable of reproof and rebellion, stating, “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities…. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy….”

When Kissinger became Secretary of State in 1973, he downgraded those rebellious employees.

As for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had legally won the 1970 election, Kissinger developed a strong dislike for him, and that brought action. Hitchens notes that shortly after Kissinger visited Bangladesh in 1974 “a faction at the U.S. embassy in Dacca began covertly meeting with a group of Bangladeshi officers who were planning a coup” against Rahman, and not long thereafter, he and “forty members of his family were murdered in a military takeover. His closest former political associates were bayoneted to death in their prison cells a few months after that.”

True, the evidence of Kissinger’s direct guilt in all this gore is circumstantial, but it is a believable piece that fits nicely into the overall jigsaw puzzle of his bloody rightwing diplomacy. For evidence of the same that is far stronger than circumstantial, we now move to–

CHILE. During the Cold War era, Hitchens tells us, Chile was “the most highly evolved pluralistic democracy in the southern hemisphere of the Americas,” with its electorate divided along these lines: one-third communist and socialist, one-third conservative, and one-third centrist. With the help of funds poured into the country by our CIA, the left-wingers were kept away from the controls. But in 1970, Surprise! Radicals put together enough alliances to elect D. Salvador Allende, a sort-of Marxist, to the presidency. That made the extreme right-wingers very unhappy, as it also did the CIA and U.S. corporations with branches in Chile, such as ITT, Pepsi-Cola, and the Chase Manhattan Bank. Kissinger would come to their rescue.

By long-established tradition, Chile’s military stayed out of politics. General Rene Schneider, chief of the Chilean General Staff, was a firm believer in that tradition. Since those who wanted to overthrow President Allende (and this definitely included Kissinger) needed the cooperation of the military, it was decided that Schneider had to be kidnapped and, if he resisted, murdered. This was done. The details of how it was done are too complicated to go into here. As to the degree of the CIA’s involvement and whether Kissinger is guilty of “direct collusion in the murder of a democratic officer in a democratic and peaceful country,” the evidence supplied by Hitchens is convincing.

In any event, Chile would not be democratic or peaceful much beyond the election of Allende. With the assistance of the CIA, a military junta headed by the fascist General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte assassinated Allende and seized power in September 1973, and for the next 15 years ruled Chile by terror. Thousands of Chilean moderates and liberals were “disappeared.” Some of Allende’s major supporters fled Chile for their lives, but “hit men” armed and subsidized by the CIA hunted them down and killed them. The most notorious example was the car-bombing assassination of the former Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier and his aide Ronni Moffitt as they rode through the streets of Washington, D.C.

The active complicity of Kissinger in some of these crimes and acquiescent awareness of all of these crimes as they unfolded is forcefully argued by Hitchens by the use of documents, once secret, that have been released in recent years. The complicity of Kissinger can also be assumed from his power over the CIA, which was the U.S. government’s chief agent of evil in Chile and elsewhere. Although the CIA often seemed to run completely wild, Hitchens tells us that actually during this period a semi-clandestine body called the Fory Committee (sounds like something out of the Stalin era, doesn’t it?) “maintained ultimate supervision over United States covert actions overseas (and, possibly, at home).” It reviewed every covert operation undertaken by the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

Between 1969 and 1976, Henry Kissinger was chairman of that committee.

EAST TIMOR. Kissinger does not mention East Timor in his memoirs, and one can see why. There is strong evidence that he gave the go-ahead for its destruction.

This small country in the Indonesian archipelago became an orphan when the Portuguese colonial empire melted in 1974. Struggling to stay alive, the East Timorese created a left-wing government, but its weakness tempted the giant next door. On December 7, 1975, Indonesia’s corrupt dictator General Suharto (later deposed and jailed by his own people) sent troops into East Timor to seize control. Timorese resisted with gallant stubbornness, and paid the price of at least 100,000 deaths (some put the death toll at 200,000)–one-sixth the entire population.

The invasion of East Timor was launched only a few hours after Kissinger and President Ford had stopped in Indonesia to meet with General Suharto and his military cadre. Before leaving Indonesia, Kissinger told the press that the United States would not recognize the new East Timor republic and “the United States understands Indonesia’s position on the question.” It was plain that Kissinger and Ford had given Suharto the go-ahead for the invasion, using arms that the United States had ostensibly supplied for “defense.” Years later, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was our ambassador to the United Nations at the time of the invasion of East Timor, wrote in his memoir that Kissinger “wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about.”

Hitchens is among the many who believe Kissinger profited from his diplomatic assistance to Indonesia’s old establishment, which opened the way for James Moffett’s Freeport MacMoRan to control one of the world’s largest gold-and-copper mining operations. “In 1989,” writes Hitchens, “Freeport MacMoRan paid Kissinger Associates a retainer of $200,000 and fees of $600,000, not to mention a promise of a two-percent commission on future earnings.” Kissinger also became a well-paid member of its board of directors. In 1991 Kissinger helped Moffett close “a deal for a thirty-year license to continue exploiting” the Indonesian mining operation.

At a large New York City gathering to promote one of his books in 1995, Kissinger was waylayed by questioners who insisted on raising the 20-year-old shame of the East Timor bloodbath. At first he tried to brush aside the issue, saying “to us, Timor, look at a map, it’s a little speck of an island. This was not a big thing on our radar screen.” But the questioners continued to pursue him. Journalist Allan Nairn confronted him with a State Department memo of December 18, 1975, proving that Kissinger and President Ford had given U.S. approval for the invasion. Furthermore, said Nairn, Ford had personally told him in an interview that they had given approval. Then Nairn hit him with the bombshell question: “Would you support the convening of an international war crimes tribunal under UN supervision on the subject of East Timor and would you agree to abide by its verdict in regard to your own conduct?”

Rattled and angry, Kissinger replied: “I mean, uh, really, this sort of comment is one of the reasons why the conduct of foreign policy is becoming nearly impossible under these conditions…. Let’s have some questions on some other subject.” More recently Kissinger has been ruminating on “The Pitfalls of Universal Jurisdiction,” the title of a foreign affairs essay adapted from his current book, Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century. “In less than a decade, an unprecedented movement has emerged to submit international politics to judicial procedures,” the essay begins. “It has spread with extraordinary speed and has not been subjected to systematic debate, partly because of the intimidating passion of its advocates.”

Who knows? It’s unlikely to happen soon, but someday he may be forced by an unfriendly tribunal somewhere in the world to answer questions about all his conduct. So far a French judge investigating the death of five French citizens in Chile has tried to subpoena the former Secretary of State, and a Chilean judge wants to question him about the death of U.S. filmmaker Charles Horman after the 1973 Pinochet coup. There are signs of change. Slobodan Milosevic has been extradited and is in the custody of the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. In June, four Rwandans, two of them Catholic nuns, were convicted in a Belgian court for collaborating with militia gangs who hacked and clubbed to death 7,000 refugees. “The trial,” wrote The New York Times, “has drawn attention from experts… because it represents a milestone in international law. It marks the first time that a jury of 12 ordinary citizens of one country is asked to judge people accused of war crimes committed in another country. Legal scholars say they are looking to the jury’s verdict… as an important precedent as worldwide interest in prosecuting human rights crimes mounts.”

It is a movement that is likely to restrict Kissinger’s travels abroad, since he knows courts in several countries may be waiting for him.

Robert Sherrill wrote “The Curious Career of Henry the K” in the January 21, 2000 issue of the Observer.