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Henry Kissinger: Remembering America’s Polarising Statesman


On November 29th, 2023, the both revered and reviled Cold War-era American statesman Henry Kissinger died at the age of 100 at his home in Kent, Connecticut.

 

In 1938, a young Kissinger and his family immigrated to the U.S. to escape the persecution of the Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany. Kissinger would become a major influence in shaping U.S. foreign policy from 1969 to 1976 under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, serving as both Secretary of State and National Security Advisor. His legend and legacy as a global statesman extended beyond his time in office, as he would go on to act as an informal advisor to many prominent officials in the U.S. foreign policy establishment for decades, including an array of U.S. Presidents all the way up to President Biden.


But what did he do during his life that garnered the titles "the Greatest Diplomat" and "War Criminal" in one lifetime?


Kissinger's direct and by proxy involvement in many controversial aspects of U.S. geopolitics has left many both mourning and cheering his death.

 

With respect to what many have referred to as the "titan of U.S. geopolitics", his policies and strategies -for better or worse- changed the course of American history. His significant diplomatic achievements involved China, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and the Middle East. He developed a policy of warmer U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, détente, which led to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in 1969 before ultimately helping negotiate the SALT I arms agreement signed with the Soviet Union in 1972. He established the pro-Pakistan policy in the India-Pakistan war of late 1971 as well as developed a rapprochement between the U.S. and the People's Republic of China in 1972, the first official U.S. contact with that nation since the Chinese Communists had come to power.


Notably, in 1973, he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam for their efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the bloody Vietnam War. Many of those who find Kissinger to be the pinnacle of U.S. diplomacy argue that his (perceived) transgressions, in fact, need to be weighed against these accomplishments. This is a tacit, although unremarkable, acknowledgement of many in the world who see Kissinger as a villain who never showed remorse for his alleged crimes or faced any sort of significant repercussions from the international community. The late British journalist Christopher Hitchens argued for decades that Kissinger deserved prosecution "for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offenses against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture."


So, what were these alleged crimes? As it turns out, there were many.

 

The list of accusations includes allegations that, at the direction of President Nixon, Kissinger sabotaged peace talks between the Johnson/Humphrey administration and North Vietnam in the run-up to the 1968 U.S. election.

Therefore, the conflict was extended by nearly three years. In that time, he convinced the South Vietnamese government to pull out of the peace negotiations at the last minute, promising they would get a better deal from the incoming Nixon administration. Many contribute this action directly led to the success of President Nixon's bid to defeat then Vice President Hubert Humphrey (a Democratic presidential nominee) for the White House. He also is said to have advised President Nixon to secretly expand the Vietnam War by bombing the non-combatant country of Cambodia. The nature of this bombing, the civilians slaughtered, and the families who still remember the chaos to this day have made Kissinger a deeply unpopular figure in southeast Asia.


Kissinger is also credited with pushing a clandestine anti-democratic activity by right-wing Latin American governments, including Operation Condor, in which several South American military governments—most notably those of Argentina and Augusto Pinochet in Chile—coordinated their efforts to systematically eliminate opponents in the 1970s and '80s. Operation Condor's activities included the assassination of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier in 1976 and the removal of democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende, whom Pinochet replaced. Moreover, critics allege that Kissinger's actions contributed to the atrocities committed by the Pakistani army in 1971 in what would become Bangladesh and to the depredations of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975.

 

The memory of Henry Kissinger will no doubt reflect that of public perception of the iconic statesman. A perception deeply divided between those who consider his brilliant contributions to U.S. foreign policy ironclad and those who consider him a man who lived much of his adult and later life with blood on his hands and whose policies were cold, calculating, and sinister.


Image: Getty Images

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