The Dark, Violent Legacy of Henry Kissinger

Interview with Greg Grandin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward professor of history at Yale University, and Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive, conducted by Scott Harris

Henry Kissinger, who served as secretary of state and national security advisor to both Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford between 1969 and 1977, died at age 100 at his home in Kent, Connecticut on Nov. 29. In most obituaries, Kissinger is lauded as one of America’s most powerful and influential diplomats who shaped U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. He’s credited with helping Nixon open relations with China, working to reduce tensions, with the Soviet Union and hands-on negotiations in the Middle East.

But Kissinger’s leading role in America’s foreign policy has a well-documented dark side. He was responsible for the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia and Laos; ignored Pakistan’s mass slaughter in East Pakistan later to become the independent nation of Bangladesh; green-lit Indonesia’s bloody invasion of East Timor; and backed a military coup in Chile that led to the deaths of Chilean President Salvador Allende and thousands of other Chileans.  All told, many historians believe, Kissinger was responsible for millions of deaths around the world.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with two of the nation’s leading primary researchers on the legacy of Henry Kissinger. Greg Grandin is Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward professor of history at Yale University, author of “The End of the Myth,” winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize and Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman” and Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive’s Cuba and Chile documentation projects and who’s author of “The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability.” Here, they take a critical look at Kissinger’s blood-stained diplomatic career.

GREG GRANDIN: The main thing to know about Kissinger’s public service is that he served during a very consequential moment in U.S. history. He came to office in 1969 with Richard Nixon and that was as the Vietnam War was going into a tailspin. And not just the Vietnam War, but pretty much the entire national security state that the U.S. had built after World War II to fight the Cold War.

The crisis of U.S. authority was collapsing largely as a result of Vietnam, but not just Vietnam. The civil rights movement, political polarization at home. And so Kissinger kind of spans these two periods. He comes into office as this security apparatus is collapsing, and he hastens its collapse with the secret bombing of Cambodia, which creates distrust and leads to Watergate.

But he’s also very much involved in reconstructing the national security state in the wake of that polarization, in the wake of that dissensus. So Kissinger is instrumental in the turn towards the Middle East after Vietnam, the recycling of petrodollars back into U.S. finance and U.S. defense industries to absorb the shock of defeat in Vietnam. He turns to Latin America. He turns to Africa.

But the other thing that’s important — just very quickly, I want you to get to be able to get to Peter — is that he’s only in office for eight years. He lived to be 100 and been a public figure for 6 decades, 7 decades for a good part of his life.

His greater influence was as the head of Kissinger Associates, a private consultancy that pretty much brokered the turn to neoliberalism and privatization, he was like the premier consulting firm for Russia’s billionaires, Mexico’s billionaires. The turn to the world that we live in. Kissinger was involved and little is known of that period. We know everything, not everything, but we have the whole litany of war crimes that he was involved in. But that other period is a period as a private actor is pretty much the dark side of the moon.

SCOTT HARRIS: Thank you for that, Greg. And Peter, I wanted to get your input here on some of Kissinger’s policy decisions that you’ve spent many years documenting that resulted in the overthrow of governments. Chile, for example. Gross human rights abuses and provoking dirty wars, ultimately resulting in obscene numbers of civilian deaths. It’s hard to capsulize that in this short conversation.

Peter, but do tell us maybe what our listeners really do need to know, who may not have been alive during Henry Kissinger’s time in office.

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, I like to think of Henry Kissinger as a modern day American Machiavelli. He was completely unscrupulous, completely immoral and basically unprincipled in his pursuit of foreign policy. U.S. foreign policy was not about principle, was not about democracy. It was not about the values of the American public. It was about the power, the superpower of the United States of America.

Kissinger was a classic “the ends justify the means,” “Might makes right,” “Realpolitik” practitioner of U.S. foreign policy because he really brought it to new levels. And you know when he had to deal with powerful countries like China and the Soviet Union, he certainly exercised his diplomacy to advance U.S. interests. But he had a tremendous disdain for the smaller countries of the world — in the Third World, countries in Africa, countries in Latin America — who he basically saw as little more than pawns on the strategic global Cold War chessboard in which he was the key player against the other superpowers of the world.

And a number of countries fell victim to that unprincipled approach of the assertion of U.S. power. Soft power, hard power, covert powers in the case of Chile. And it led to support for dictatorial rule. And during the Pinochet era after the coup in Argentina, it led to the United States government turning its back completely on the issue of violations of human rights and in fact supporting those human rights violations directly and indirectly.

You know, not only it was a stain that will never go away from Kissinger’s legacy, but it’s also about the legacy of U.S. foreign policy, which he became one of the most famous representatives.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Greg Grandin and Peter Kornbluh (27:48) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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