Kissing Kissinger: The American Love of Foreign Policy’s Most Dangerous Mind
It is negligent to engage in a discussion of contemporary foreign policy without mentioning former Secretary of State Henry M. Kissinger. Kissinger, a Jewish refugee, became a household name during the Cold War era when he served as President Nixon’s secretary of state. Kissinger is considered by many contemporary scholars and politicians to be a leading statesman and one of the most well-known faces in the sphere of foreign affairs. Indeed, Kissinger’s tenure as secretary of state had a global impact still visible in countless countries. However, while Kissinger was an influential thinker, it is critical not to overlook his policies in the global south and how quickly he condoned acts of violence within these regions.
Henry Kissinger first came to the United States as a Jewish refugee after escaping Nazi Germany with the rest of his family. From his humble immigrant roots, Kissinger quickly rose to the center of US politics, serving as secretary of state and national security advisor under the administrations of Nixon and Ford, respectively. In 1973, Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize for his involvement in negotiating the ceasefire to end the Vietnam War. However, Henry Kissinger is perhaps best known for his work in opening up relations with China, and establishing a friendly rapport with one of the world’s emerging powers. His’s legacy extends far beyond his career as secretary of state. Indeed, Kissinger established a formidable reputation as a dramatic diplomat, and influenced diplomats within the Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations. To this day, Kissinger is considered by many to be the leading voice in foreign policy analysis. While Kissinger’s influence has extended across continents and decades, not all of his actions resulted in the bettering of the world and the spread of so-called American ideals of freedom and justice. Although scholars excuse some of his more controversial policy decisions, saying that few policies stand the test of time, Kissinger’s policies and actions affected not just people in the past but also those very much in the present. To this end in addition to his impressive diplomatic career, Henry Kissinger also demonstrates how not to be a statesman.
Kissinger reached the height of his career during the Cold War - his reach far and widespread. In order to analyze the impact of his policies on a detailed level, it does not suffice to give a brief view of his involvement in different countries and regions. Rather, this analysis will focus on Kissinger’s impact within South America in order to give a more comprehensive explanation of who Kissinger and his beliefs really are. During the 1970s and 80s, fearing the spread of communism, the US government and the CIA helped back right-wing governments and organize military coups to oust leftist governments they felt posed a threat to U.S. interests.
In 1973, with funding and training from the CIA, Augusto Pinochet and Chilean military forces led a coup to overthrow the Salvador Allende, the first democratically-elected socialist leader. Throughout Pinochet’s bloody 17-year dictatorship, over 25,000 people were tortured and more than 3,000 were ‘forcibly disappeared.’ Kissinger, far from seeing Pinochet’s regime as a human rights concern, assured Pinochet that he “...did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.” In order to address the communist wave that was threatening to flood Latin America, Kissinger played a key role in green-lighting Operation Condor - a joint military operation with far-right dictatorships aimed at capturing and torturing political dissidents. Henry Kissinger did not play a observatory role within the dictatorships in Latin America, rather he was an active accessory to regimes that were responsible for murder, torture, and forced disappearances. In a memo from 1976, Kissinger urged Argentina’s military junta to act faster to establish government authority, “before U.S. opposition to its human rights violations gained momentum.” As secretary of state, Kissinger not only had the authority to approve US involvement in these coups, but to also further aid and encourage the individuals committing mass human rights atrocities.
Kissinger’s Latin American policy establishes him as de facto co-conspirator in the numerous coups d’etats and military dictatorships that quickly took root in Latin America. Immediately after the Argentine coup, Kissinger recommended increased security assistance. As a result, the US Congress approved 50 million dollars in security assistance to the junta, with an additional 30 million granted at the end of the 1967. Decades later, Kissinger refuses to cede culpability for the ramifications of his actions within the region. In a recent interview, Kissinger stated that “...when the charge of war criminal becomes an accepted form of discourse, the prospects of national cohesion disintegrate. Diplomacy loses its flexibility and strategy its force.” It is not always simple to rationalize past policies but in this example, Kissinger demonstrates that ethics and morality are desirable only as long as they don’t become a nuisance.
Latin America still faces the consequences of their dictatorships, visible in everything from social institutions to public policy. In Chile and Argentina, families still seeking justice for their murdered loved ones have been calling for decades for the prosecution of those at the top who allowed these atrocities to occur. Ali Beydoun, of the Washington College of Law, brought forth a lawsuit against Kissinger on behalf of Chilean victims seeking reparations for wrongful deaths. While many academics still study and promote Kissinger’s ideas, many members of the global community have become outspoken in their characterization of Kissinger as a war criminal. Most famously, Christopher Hitchens wrote a book and produced a documentary entitled “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” where he explained the case for Kissinger to be charged for international crimes, among which war crimes, crimes against humanity, and conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture. Hitchens also went as far as to argue that Kissinger himself was directly involved in the kidnapping and murder of Chilean general René Schneider, one of the actions leading up to the military coup. Schneider’s family also attempted to sue Kissinger for his murder, but were also unsuccessful.
The primary issue in any analysis of the legacy and global impact of Kissinger is howto weight the value of both the good and bad he his policies and advise contributed to across several presidential administrations. Many continue to praise the statesman for his “opening” of China to the West as well as his role in the end of the cold war. Meanwhile, Kissinger’s fingerprints are clearly imprinted on the landscapes of Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as in the shadows of the thousands of persons disappeared under the military dictatorships in South America. The evaluation of whether Kissinger is inherently good or evil lies involves asking some of the hardest questions in the heart of politics, ethics, and world affairs - what actors matter, whose lives have more worth, and to what extent is the West willing to justify the death of innocents as a just tradeoff for the winning of wars, the spread of democracy, and US global hegemony.