Henry Kissinger
Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State and national security advisor for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, discusses the Vietnam War with LBJ Presidential Library director Mark Updegrove on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. Kissinger, who played a leading role in U.S. diplomatic and military policy during the Vietnam War, was the keynote evening speaker on the first day of the LBJ Presidential Library’s three-day Vietnam War Summit. (Photo: Marsha Miller, public domain)

Hen­ry Kissinger was the Met­ter­nich of Amer­i­ca, devi­ous and con­spir­a­to­r­i­al, the archi­tect of the Unit­ed States’ détente with Chi­na, a back­stage deal­er with the Sovi­et Union on the SALT I strate­gic arms treaty, and nego­tia­tor of a peace agree­ment with Viet­nam that he would pri­vate­ly scorn.

Kissinger lived to be 100. He died this week, still writ­ing and try­ing to live down mem­os and remarks unveiled while he was still liv­ing – if not accountable.

He has been con­front­ed with such state­ments as say­ing of the South Viet­namese: “If they are lucky, they can hold out for a year and a half.”

An accu­rate pre­dic­tion. When the agree­ment with North Viet­nam was signed, Kissinger described it as “peace with honor.”

The for­mer Sec­re­tary of State, in the Nixon and Ford admin­is­tra­tions, was fet­ed in Chi­na as recent­ly as July and pho­tographed meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Xi.

Xi has recent­ly been fac­ing an eco­nom­ic down­town and is seek­ing to main­tain busi­ness ties with the Unit­ed States. Last month in Cal­i­for­nia, he held a four-hour dis­cus­sion with Pres­i­dent Biden and din­ners with U.S. busi­ness leaders.

It was Kissinger, in July of 1971, who took a secret trip to Bei­jing to clear a path for Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s trip the fol­low­ing February.

The U.S. pres­i­dent, a noto­ri­ous red-baiter, was pho­tographed in inti­mate con­ver­sa­tion with Mao Zedong, walk­ing in the For­bid­den City, and attend­ing an opera per­for­mance of “Red Detach­ment of Women.”

Kissinger was a Ger­man Jew­ish refuge from Nazi Ger­many, arriv­ing on our shores at the age of fif­teen. He would rise to become, for a time, the sec­ond most impor­tant per­son in the Unit­ed States government.

He would score diplo­mat­ic break­throughs while work­ing with a pres­i­dent noto­ri­ous for his anti­se­mit­ic remarks.

Leslie Gelb, a future New York Times colum­nist, knew Kissinger from days on the Har­vard fac­ul­ty and described him as “devi­ous with his peers, dom­i­neer­ing with his sub­or­di­nates and obse­quious to his superiors.”

It was so in his diplo­mat­ic maneu­vers. Kissinger came to fame with his 1957 book, “Nuclear Weapons and For­eign Pol­i­cy,” which sug­gest­ed that a tac­ti­cal nuclear strike could be con­tained. He briefly advised Pres­i­dent Kennedy in the ear­ly 1960s. The Har­vard pro­fes­sor found an endur­ing patron in New York Gov­er­nor (and future vice pres­i­dent) Nel­son Rock­e­feller. He was, to his sur­prise, asked by Pres­i­dent-elect Nixon to assume the role of nation­al secu­ri­ty adviser.

He would advise every suc­ceed­ing pres­i­dent. After meet­ing with Don­ald Trump, Kissinger observed: “He’s not the first pres­i­dent I’ve advised who either didn’t under­stand­ing what I was say­ing or didn’t want to.” The Kissinger ego was dis­played repeat­ed­ly over the years. Once, while speak­ing to diplo­mats in France, he praised the gath­er­ing as the great­est gath­er­ing of wis­dom since he looked at his reflec­tion while vis­it­ing the Hall of Mir­rors at Versailles.

Pres­i­dent Nixon kept pow­er close to the vest. He cut Sec­re­tary of State William Rogers out of the pic­ture and dealt almost exclu­sive­ly with Kissinger. Even­tu­al­ly, Dr. K would com­bine the posts of nation­al secu­ri­ty advis­er and Sec­re­tary of State. He would hang onto both dur­ing the admin­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford.

Trans­fixed with pow­er, Kissinger had lit­tle regard for small coun­tries or peo­ple per­ceived as get­ting in the way. Kissinger would-be a co-recip­i­ent (along with Lee Duc Tho of North Viet­nam) of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet, this is the same man who urged the car­pet bomb­ing of Cam­bo­dia and Laos, stag­ing areas for North Vietnam’s con­quest of South Viet­nam – we were to bomb “any­thing that flies and moves any­where,” Kissinger said pri­vate­ly — and a man who described U.S. sol­diers as “dumb stu­pid ani­mals to be used.”

When Pak­istani forces slaugh­tered 300,000 peo­ple in what is today Bangladesh but used to be called East Pak­istan, the Unit­ed States worked back­stage to sup­port Pak­istan. Pres­i­dent Yahya Khan had served as inter­me­di­ary and facil­i­ta­tor of the secret 1971 trip to Chi­na. East Pak­istan had had the nerve, in an elec­tion, to elect an Ben­gali government.

The U.S. stood by while Indone­sia invad­ed East Tim­or and slaugh­tered peo­ple. It had elect­ed a left­ist gov­ern­ment which the Unit­ed States dis­ap­proved. The small island was treat­ed as a pawn in great pow­er relations.

Of most inter­est, the Unit­ed States encour­aged, and the CIA played facil­i­ta­tor, in the 1973 coup that top­pled and assas­si­nat­ed Chile’s Marx­ist Pres­i­dent Sal­vador Allende. The U.S. could not per­mit anoth­er per­ceived Sovi­et ally in the West­ern Hemi­sphere. The result was a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry of mil­i­tary dictatorship.

Kissinger was quot­ed after­ward say­ing the Chilean pres­i­den­cy was too impor­tant a mat­ter to be decid­ed by the Chilean peo­ple. Glob­al pow­er was what mat­tered. Ear­ly in the Nixon admin­is­tra­tion, Kissinger declared (in pri­vate): “I can’t believe any fourth-rate pow­er like North Viet­nam doesn’t have a break­ing point.”

The man was even will­ing to stomp on his own ori­gins. Nego­ti­a­tions with the Sovi­et Union could not, would not, be dis­rupt­ed by appeals from Sovi­et Jews wish­ing to immi­grate to Israel. “And if they put Jews into gas cham­bers in the Sovi­et Union, it is not an Amer­i­can con­cern. Maybe a human­i­tar­i­an con­cern.” The remark was described as “tru­ly chill­ing” by the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Committee.

Such state­ments get attrib­uted to Kissinger’s near-con­sis­tent pan­der­ing to Nixon. The thir­ty-sev­enth pres­i­dent would seek him out to pray in the White House on the eve of his res­ig­na­tion, an episode exposed in the Wood­ward-Bern­stein book “The Final Days.” Kissinger would lat­er reflect of Nixon, what the man could have done “had he been loved.”

Kissinger lived more than four decades after Ford’s defeat in the 1976 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. He hung up his shin­gle as Hen­ry Kissinger Asso­ciates and con­sol­i­dat­ed with the high and mighty. Stu­dent protests made cam­pus appear­ances dan­ger­ous. But big busi­ness want­ed to hear from the big dog of the 1970s. Dis­ney con­sult­ed Kissinger when it want­ed to locate a mul­ti-bil­lion-dol­lar theme park in China.

Hen­ry Kissinger was a for­mi­da­ble boss. He hired the best and the bright­est to work at the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, but then ordered the FBI to spy on them. He was infu­ri­at­ed at such leaks as the Pen­ta­gon Papers, revealed by Daniel Ells­berg, which detailed America’s march to fol­ly in Vietnam.

If any leaks came out of the NSC, they would come “from me,” he told aides.

The Nixon-Kissinger col­lab­o­ra­tion brought home some for­eign pol­i­cy tri­umphs. The open­ing to Chi­na brought coop­er­a­tion and mas­sive trade between the two coun­tries, but threats of con­fronta­tion now that Chi­na has become the world’s sec­ond-rank­ing super­pow­er. The Viet­nam War came to an end after killing 58,000 Amer­i­cans and an esti­mat­ed three mil­lion Vietnamese.

The long­stand­ing U.S. con­fronta­tion with the Sovi­et Union was down­sized until the “evil empire” stag­gered and fell at the end of the 1980s.

Still, Kissinger tram­pled peo­ple and nations while big pow­ers maneu­vered for glob­al influ­ence. The death toll was exceed­ing­ly high and often felt hard­est in such places as East Tim­or, East Pak­istan and Chile, far from North Amer­i­can and Euro­pean cap­i­tals. When pressed, Kissinger would speak of a world in which Amer­i­can was con­front­ed with unsa­vory char­ac­ters and thank­less choices.

A New York Times obit­u­ary car­ries this quote: “The ille­gal we do imme­di­ate­ly. The uncon­sti­tu­tion­al takes a lit­tle longer.”

So did the Viet­nam War, at what human cost? Inter­viewed by The Atlantic in 2016, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma reflect­ed: “We dropped more ordi­nance on Cam­bo­dia and Laos than on Europe in World War II And yet, ulti­mate­ly, Nixon with­drew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaugh­ter and author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ments that final­ly, over time, have emerged from that hell.”

“In what way did that strat­e­gy pro­mote our inter­ests?” Oba­ma asked.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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