How would Richelieu and Mazarin have coped?

R.W. Johnson

  • The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens
    Verso, 159 pp, £15.00, May 2001, ISBN 1 85984 631 9

In this short book, Christopher Hitchens sets down the main charges against Kissinger: murder, violation of human rights and complicity in mass atrocities on a scale equalled only by Eichmann, Heydrich and the like. As Hitchens admits, he isn’t the first: Joseph Heller in Good as Gold was as blunt about it all as it was possible to be. Anyone who has studied the 1968-76 period has long been aware that Kissinger could be a very rough customer indeed, and that his role in government gave him unparalleled opportunities for global realpolitik.

Hitchens alleges that Kissinger helped to sabotage the Vietnam peace talks in 1968, which led to seven more unnecessary years of slaughter; that he ordered the genocidal bombing of Cambodia and Vietnam with B-52s for paltry and self-interested reasons; that he certainly connived in and probably gave the green light to the assassination attempt on Archbishop Makarios, to the Indonesian genocide in East Timor, all manner of atrocities in Chile, including the assassinations of Orlando Letelier in Washington and General René Schneider in Chile, and further genocide in Bangladesh. All of this is tersely and convincingly argued with the help of documentation provided by the US Government, detailing its own secret service activities.

Conrad Black takes the view that there is no proof here, merely a circumstantial tissue of fabrication and half-truth, intended to defame a great statesman. Above all, what enrages Black is that Hitchens, in making these charges, puts himself on a level with Kissinger, so that, however briefly, they may have to be mentioned in the same breath. His anger alerts us to the least attractive aspect of this book. There is a moment when Hitchens explains how he took the idea to the editor of Harper’s who, before Hitchens could fully explain the project, said: ‘Done. Write it. High time. We’ll do it.’ Kissinger-haters were bound to give it rave reviews but, better still, Kissinger-admirers (like Conrad Black) were bound to denounce it. Everyone was bound to talk about it – although as it turns out, Kissinger won’t appear on radio or television without an assurance that the book won’t be mentioned.

It has been obvious for years that Henry Kissinger is a monster, a man with heaven knows how much blood on his hands walking round with a Nobel Peace Prize, a man with a reputation like Darth Vader’s and huge amounts of power, influence and wealth. Hitchens, in his eagerness to beat him to the ground, would also have it that Kissinger is a mediocre academic and intellectual. But part of what’s fascinating about him is that he is not only a clever and learned man: he also has a grasp of bureaucratic detail and realpolitik unique among academic political scientists, most of whom would make very poor politicians. If Hitchens is right, and overall I think he is, Kissinger played his cards with such skill in 1968 that he would have been a key foreign policy adviser whether Nixon or Humphrey won the election, and all the while kept in with the Rockefeller Republicans who stood at a distance from both candidates. How many politicos, let alone academics, could have managed that? Similarly, Kissinger effortlessly retained his pre-eminence in foreign policy from the start of Nixon’s first Administration, through his second and all the way to the end of Ford’s. Look at the long list of those discarded by Nixon or brought down by Watergate: very few came out of it all, as Kissinger did, with even more power and an undiminished reputation. There was nothing natural or easy about this: there weren’t many Kennedy appointees who lasted the distance with Johnson.

Kissinger, then, was an extraordinary bureaucratic warrior who, unlike anyone else, simultaneously held the positions of National Security Adviser, Secretary of State and chairman of the Forty Committee (overseeing covert operations). In these roles, despite never having been elected to anything in his life, he exercised enormous power – and a very great deal of subversion, torture and killing resulted. Hitchens’s charge sheet could easily have been longer. He doesn’t even mention Kissinger’s role in getting the forces of apartheid South Africa to invade Angola or, when exposure of their presence forced them to retreat in the first phase of ‘destabilisation’, his encouragement of mercenary forces to fill the vacancy. Even if Hitchens were wrong about half his charges (and the evidence, though circumstantial, is essentially on his side), Kissinger would still be guilty on several counts. And the question is indeed what is to be done about it?

Hitchens wants him to be treated like Eichmann – or at least like Pinochet – but such an outcome seems improbable. To put Kissinger on trial would be to put several years’ worth of US foreign policy on trial, and would mean that a good many subordinate officials as well as ex-President Ford should be put on trial, too. The US is, to say the least, unlikely to allow it. It was willing to impeach Nixon for the Watergate burglary, but not for secretly bombing and killing hundreds of thousands of Cambodians.

America is an imperial civilisation with clients, interests, armed forces and intelligence operatives all over the globe. The only real precedent in history is the British Empire. The US defence and foreign policy establishments resemble nothing so much as the British Foreign and Colonial Offices – and the Admiralty Board – from the age of Pitt to that of Asquith. A decision in Whitehall would set in motion whatever was necessary to bombard a Latin American capital into paying its debt, to install chiefs, sultans or maharajahs in Africa, Arabia or Asia, to depose kings, take and sell slaves, operate trade blockades, fight wars, pay mercenaries, prop up brutal but useful regimes and so on. Enjoying the advantage of a formal, open colonialism, the British could interfere far more directly than the US can today. If the US wants to get its way in, say, South Africa, it sends Colin Powell out to cajole Mbeki. Britain, in the same region, imposed its language and its mores, sent troops to dethrone King Cetewayo and to crush the Boers, and created the boundaries and identities of most of the area’s nation states.

The informal nature of the American empire means that a great deal more has to be done covertly and through intermediaries. On the other hand, the military technology at Kissinger’s disposal was more powerful by far than anything available to the British Empire. But the really revolutionary difference has to do with high-speed communication. When Pitt’s Admiralty Board sent its commodores and captains out it had to give them instructions which allowed considerable room for improvisation, and months would elapse before dispatches reached London from Tahiti or Buenos Aires. Colonial governors and Army generals had to be given a large measure of discretion. This also had the useful effect that men in the field carried the can. Inevitably, the realities of colonial power meant that these proconsular figures did all manner of things the authorities in London chose to overlook. Think of the terrible revenge exacted after the Indian Mutiny, or the thousands who died in Boer War concentration camps: it took years for the full facts to surface, let alone serious questioning of the ‘need’ for such atrocities. In any case, the London press was not only supportive but poorly informed, often entirely dependent on information from the Admiralty and the Colonial Office. When things went really badly wrong a scapegoat could always be found among the proconsuls – Warren Hastings or Admiral Byng, for example. The authorities in London were seldom blamed: everyone knew that when it came down to what actually happened in Bengal or on the high seas, their control was not just remote but entirely delegated.

Cut to 1981 in the Gulf of Syrte, where Libyan combat aircraft decide to harass the US Sixth Fleet and take on their F-14 Tomcats. The Top Guns flying the F-14s soon outmatch their opponents and radio down to their carrier that their Sidewinder missiles are locked on target: should they fire? Their message is passed on from the carrier to a communications satellite which relays it to another satellite over the Atlantic which beams it down to National Security Agency headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, from where it is sent to the national security operations room in the White House basement. The time the message takes to travel from the F-14 cockpit to the White House is less than fifty seconds, which means that the President can exercise battlefield control on the other side of the world. So, the Washington press corps asks, what did President Reagan do? Er, well, it was decided not to wake the President, the spokesman says. He likes a nap after lunch. But the Libyan planes were all destroyed.

With technology and communications like that there is no doubt that responsibility – culpability – now rests not with the proconsuls but in the White House. The President may be asleep, busy with re-election fund-raising or enjoying sexual encounters with interns but the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Adviser won’t be too busy. This is their meat and drink – they are far too vigilant to be off-station at such a moment. And Kissinger served under first a paranoid President who, as his Presidency unravelled, was increasingly close to a nervous breakdown, and then under a President who never dreamt he could come to power, was quite unsure of himself and famous for not being able to chew gum and walk at the same time. In other words, you might be able to lay what happened in My Lai on someone as low-level as Lieutenant Calley, but for larger scale atrocities it has to be the men in Washington who are to blame and, since the President is, for one reason or another, often off station, the buck stops with the foreign relations-defence-intelligence big shots – people like Henry Kissinger.

The importance of an intrusive Washington press corps and the Freedom of Information Act shouldn’t be overlooked. They are nothing like as effective as they’re cracked up to be – lots of secrets still remain secret – but at least they create an environment in which the big shots can be found out, if not completely and right away, then partly and still in their lifetime. It is difficult to imagine Castlereagh or the Lords of the Admiralty coping with that, let alone Richelieu and Mazarin. Yet the rationale behind Kissinger’s activities – raison d’état – is exactly the same as it was for those practitioners of realpolitik centuries ago: the technology has moved on but the doctrine hasn’t.

The traditional defence against the charges Hitchens brings is that they cannot even be entertained, for the simple reason that the honour and dignity of the empire are at stake. This defence has been gradually failing for a hundred years. How could you question the guilt of Dreyfus when, on the one hand, stood the honour of the French Army and, on the other, a single miserable Jew? The Second World War was followed by war crimes tribunals in which, however crudely and sometimes wrongly, individuals were held responsible, because ‘obeying orders’ – that’s to say, raison d’état – was no extenuation. When the Israelis kidnapped Eichmann and put him on trial in a jurisdiction under which he had never lived, let alone consented to, the world nonetheless accepted the justice of his trial and execution. He had abused human beings like few others in history: normal rules of jurisprudence collapsed in front of the natural justice which required that he answer for what he had done. The same dynamic has allowed Simon Wiesenthal one success after another and nearly triumphed in the case of Pinochet.

Kissinger may despise Hitchens as one more journo in search of a buck, one more ignoramus who will never appreciate the key role Henry played in winning the Cold War, a victory for all mankind, but his problem is that the ground is shifting: jurisprudence is changing, and more information keeps dribbling out. Hitchens depicts Kissinger as a man worried about what each new revelation about Chile or East Timor or Cambodia might turn up, a man uneasy in his sleep. In Hitchens’s view, the question has already become not whether Kissinger and his friends can prevent a fundamental downward revision of Kissinger’s stock, but whether they can stop it happening while he is still alive and justiciable. The irony is that Kissinger was sure he’d secured a comprehensive victory over the students who chanted as they marched: ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’ What the hell did they know? And in the end, after all, they helped to undermine the Democrats, helped to elect Nixon: just the opposite of what they wanted, that’s how stupid they were. Henry saw them off with ease and kicked sand in their faces. In a sense Hitchens speaks for those students, and he believes Kissinger has every reason to be worried. The argument of raison d’état is weakening all the time, and those crowds are becoming audible again, a ghostly chorus down the years, now chanting: ‘Hey, hey, Henry K., how many kids did you kill today?’

It’s a nice idea, but what it runs up against is the fact that the American empire is in some ways stronger than ever. At this point it still has a future. And while that remains true, no US Administration is going to allow America’s imperial warriors and statesmen to go on trial, for that would prejudice the role and the efficacy of that elite in the future. This is a truly bipartisan cause. The Reagan years saw Bill Casey run riot at the CIA, often with more than a hundred covert operations going on simultaneously around the world. Much of what occurred in those years was disgraceful, and only a fraction of it has come out. You might have thought Clinton would have enjoyed exposing the sins of his predecessors, especially since the Cold War was over. Not a bit of it. This is the consensus that really matters – and there is no sign that it is fraying. While it lasts, Hitchens is attempting a bridge too far.