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An Unpunished War Criminal: The Trial of Henry Kissinger [Book Review]

By Asad Ismi

by Christopher Hitchens, Verso, 2001, $35

“Kissinger is a thug, a crook, a liar and a murderer.”
– Christopher Hitchens

The United States government is the most violent in the world and since 1945 has killed upwards of eight million people in the Third World. The Ribbentrop of the American Reich who arranged much of this genocide was Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser and Secretary of State in the Nixon and Ford Administrations. In this elegantly written and damningly accurate account, Hitchens charges Kissinger with war crimes, crimes against humanity and conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap and torture in the cases of Indochina, Bangladesh, Chile, East Timor and Cyprus.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. killed about 4.3 million people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. Kissinger and Nixon prolonged the war by four years (out of a total of eight) and expanded it to neutral Cambodia and Laos, destroying three countries “in a series of premeditated war crimes.” Hitchens explains that the U.S. deliberately targeted civilians for bombings and ground attacks “as a matter of policy” (a violation of the Nuremberg Principles and the Geneva Convention). One particularly bloody U.S. slaughter called Operation Speedy Express which took place in early 1969 claimed to have killed 10,899 “enemy” yet captured only 748 weapons (all the Vietcong were armed). Kevin Buckley, a Newsweek correspondent in Vietnam at the time, reported that this discrepancy could be explained by “the conclusion that many victims were unarmed innocent civilians.”

Not satisfied with killing civilians in Vietnam, Kissinger expanded the war into Cambodia and Laos where U.S. bombing and invasion resulted in up to one million and 350,000 deaths respectively. Although the U.S. military informed Kissinger that there would be substantial Cambodian civilian casualties, he told the Senate that Cambodian areas selected for bombing were “unpopulated,” a blatant lie. Secretary of State William Rogers and Secretary of Defence Melvin Laird were highly skeptical about widening the war but Kissinger actually lobbied for the invasion of Cambodia and usurped the chain of command to take personal charge of the bombing. He beamed when giving Nixon reports on the bombing of Cambodia and seemed to be having “fun” with it according to the President.

Given the fact that the Vietnam War was mainly a prolonged massacre of Indochinese civilians by Washington, General Telford Taylor, chief prosecuting counsel for the U.S. at the Nuremberg trials, stated in 1971 that if the American statesmen and bureaucrats who designed the war in Vietnam were held to the standards of Nuremberg and Manila [where Japanese war criminals were tried] then “there would be a very strong possibility that they would come to the same end that he [General Yamashita, Japan’s chief militarist in World War II] did.” As Hitchens puts it, “it is not every day that a senior American soldier and jurist delivers the opinion that a large portion of his country’s political class should probably be hooded and blindfolded and dropped through a trapdoor on the end of a rope.”

In Chile too, Kissinger was personally involved in murder. Hitchens presents evidence confirming that Kissinger has direct responsibility for the assassination of General Rene Schneider, head of the Chilean army in 1970. In that year Salvador Allende was elected Chile’s first Marxist President unleashing a U.S. strategy of destabilization and liquidation aimed at provoking a military coup. Allende was feared by U.S. corporations with investments in Chile including Anaconda and Kennecott, (two companies that controlled Chile’s rich copper mines), ITT, Pepsi Cola and Chase Manhattan Bank. Donald Kendall, head of Pepsi, complained to Nixon about Allende. Nixon was beholden to Kendall for giving him his first corporate account as a lawyer. A series of meetings between Kissinger, Kendall and David Rockefeller (head of Chase Manhattan) “settled the fate of Chilean democracy.” Nixon ordered that Allende (who had to be confirmed by the Chilean Congress before he could take office) was not to become President. However, General Schneider, a strict constitutionalist, strenuously opposed military coups so Kissinger and the CIA planned to have him kidnapped by fascist extremist officers in a way which would make it appear as if the Left had done this thereby panicking the Chilean Congress into denying Allende the Presidency. As Hitchens states, this was a “hit–a piece of state-supported terrorism.”

Generals Viaux and Valenzuela were given U.S.$120,000, machine guns and tear gas grenades by the CIA for the kidnapping of Schneider. The first two attempts failed but Kissinger insisted on a third which resulted in Schneider’s murder on October 22, 1970. Kissinger told the Senate in 1975 that he “turned off” the kidnapping on October 15 but a recently declassified CIA cable dated October 20 shows that he continued to press for Schneider’s elimination. In September 2001, General Schneider’s family filed a U.S.$3 million lawsuit in Washington accusing Kissinger and Richard Helms (Director of the CIA in 1970) of “orchestrating covert activities that led to [Schneider’s] assassination.” Kisssinger’s coup plans succeeded in 1973 when General Pinochet overthrew Allende and slaughtered about 130,000 Chileans during his 17-year reign of terror.

In Bangladesh also, Kissinger managed to combine genocide with a coup and an assassination (apparently his preferred foreign policy tools). With U.S. arms, training, military aid and encouragement the Pakistan army killed up to three million people in East Pakistan in 1971 which as a result became Bangladesh. The bloodshed took place because the Awami League, the main eastern political party, had the temerity to win a national election which gave the majority Bengali ethnic group(inhabitants of the eastern wing) political control of all of Pakistan. The Pakistan army and power structure which was dominated by the Punjabi ethnic group based in West Pakistan had no intention of handing power over to the Bengalis. The army arrested Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, and started to butcher Bengalis in March. This sparked the exodus of ten million refugees to neighbouring India, Pakistan’s rival. U.S. diplomats in East Pakistan implored Kissinger to stop the killing and rein in Pakistan which was Washington’s client. Instead, Kissinger sent a message to General Yahya Khan, the Pakistani military dictator, thanking him for his “delicacy and tact.” Nixon and Kissinger had set up a secret channel to China through Pakistan and did not want to disrupt this. They also disliked India for being non-aligned and wanted to prevent the emergence of an independent Bangladesh.

Kissinger’s policy failed when India invaded East Pakistan in December 1971 and defeated the Pakistan army in a week, taking 90,000 prisoners of war. East Pakistan became a sovereign Bangladesh incurring Kissinger’s resentment. The Secretary compared Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first President of Bangladesh, to Allende and prepared a similar fate for him. In an account which adds significant new information, Hitchens details a U.S.-sponsored military coup against Mujib in August 1975 which led to his murder and that of forty of his family members.

In December of the same year, Kissinger approved the Indonesian army’s invasion of East Timor which resulted in the deaths of 200,000 East Timorese (one-third of the population). In 1974, Kissinger colluded in the overthrow and attempted assassination of President Makarios (another democratically elected leader) of Cyprus by the Greek military junta which invaded the island provoking a Turkish invasion. Thousands of Cypriots were killed in the conflict and Cyprus became divided. Having done much of his murdering for corporations, Kissinger, after leaving office, profited from his bloody record. He set up the firm of Kissinger Associates whose clients include ITT, Lockheed, Coca Cola, Union Carbide, Revlon, Arco, American Express, Heinz and Fiat. Kissinger Associates facilitates contact between foreign governments and multinational corporations.

Yet for all his power and money, international law has caught up with Kissinger. The Pinochet decision in London, the Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzon’s courageous activism and the verdicts of the International Tribunal at the Hague have removed the shield of “reasons of state” that he could hide behind. Now Kissinger is being sued in the U.S., and can at any moment be found liable for terrorism under the Alien Tort Claims Act, be subject to an extradition request, be arrested in a foreign country or “be cited for crimes against humanity by a court in an allied nation.” France and Argentina have asked Kissinger to testify in cases involving state murders of their citizens. International law allows any country to sue Kissinger for crimes against humanity in Indochina and in addition to Chileans, Cambodian and Bangladeshi victims can also sue him in the U.S.

Undoubtedly Kissinger is guilty of the above crimes and more, but in a broader sense he was merely a functionary of a murderous state bent on crushing independent development in the Third World. The war crimes of this state predate Kissinger and continue to this day. Kissinger’s trial would have to be followed by that of all U.S. administrations at least since 1945 and U.S. foreign policy would have to be shut down. In this sense, the problem is one of a criminal state rather than only rogue administrators and Hitchens does not address this key issue. Hitchen’s contention that Kissinger’s career “debauched the American republic and American democracy” is unconvincing since this republic was born debauched being based on the genocide of natives and the slavery of blacks. The U.S. has spent the last 110 years spreading this genocide and slavery to the Third World. But the value of Hitchen’s book lies precisely in stimulating such responses. By detailing Kissinger’s misdeeds, Hitchens encourages us to recognize the full horror of the most vicious empire in history.


Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, December 2001/January 2002.

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor‘s international affairs correspondent. He has written extensively on U.S. foreign policy and is author of the book Informed Dissent: Three Generals and the Vietnam War (1991) which can be read here: