Scathing on Thin Ice

September 1, 2001 Topics: Society Regions: RussiaEurasia Tags: AcademiaCold WarThe Clash Of CivilizationsTory

Scathing on Thin Ice

Mini Teaser: Christopher Hitchens' diatribe against Henry Kissinger should disappoint even the most credulous of the statesman's opponents. Effective polemic this is not.

by Author(s): George Jonas

Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (New York: Verso, 2001), 160 pp., $22.

On May 29, 2001, French officials appeared at the Ritz Hotel in Paris with a summons for former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. It was issued by an examining magistrate at the request of William Bourdon, a lawyer representing the families of several French nationals who allegedly disappeared in General Augusto Pinochet's Chile. Maître Bourdon wanted Dr. Kissinger to appear as a "witness" in the case.

Dr. Kissinger had no obligation, of course, to answer questions in the court of a crusading French magistrate. He flew on to Italy as scheduled, leaving it to the American embassy in France to explain to Judge Roger Le Loire that if he had any queries about U.S. government policy in Latin America during the Pinochet years, he should ask them of the State Department.

The Left was nevertheless jubilant. "When the names of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger popped up intertwined in the news last week, it was a magical moment for human rights activists worldwide", enthused Marc Cooper in the June 3 Los Angeles Times. A contributing editor of The Nation and a former translator for the late Chilean president, Salvador Allende, Cooper evidently felt that the most recent turn in the comedy that started with Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón's attempt to extradite General Pinochet from London, then continued this spring with the publication of Christopher Hitchens' The Trial of Henry Kissinger, was making the Left's guerrilla theater a smash hit worldwide.

The spirit behind Europe's grandstanding magistrates (and Mr. Hitchens' book) is manifested particularly in the Netherlands, where war crimes trials are becoming something of an industry. Last year student "jurists" of a moot court in the renowned Hague Academy of International Law invited the press while they questioned an actor in the prisoner's dock, wearing a cocked hat and a gold-studded coat.

"Are you Napoleon Bonaparte, born August 15, 1769, in Ajaccio, Corsica?"


"How do you plead?"

"Non coupable!"

On this particular day, the moot court failed to find enough evidence that Napoleon set fire to Moscow, and thus acquitted him of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The actor in the cocked hat looked relieved. However, as the Times of India pointed out, the mock trial "offered a flavour of what may be in store for tomorrow's leaders-and not only megalomaniac dictators."

Kissinger himself anticipated the use to which Pinochet-type precedents would be put by partisans of political causes, in courts both moot and real. "If generally applied", he wrote in the Los Angeles Times in December 2000, "[such doctrines] would legitimize ad hoc procedures and standards invented for the arrest of suspects, their extradition and eventual trials, and thus grant limitless license to ambitious national prosecutors or for the settling of political scores."

Kissinger was soon proved correct. In The Trial of Henry Kissinger, published this spring by Verso, the imprint of New Left Books, Hitchens sets out to settle political scores with gusto. He begins by offering the view that Kissinger's "manners are. . . rather gross" and that "his single greatest achievement has been to get almost everybody to call him 'Doctor.'" Not a flattering portrait, but it does follow an internal logic if one is attempting, as Hitchens is, to build a case against one of the most significant statesmen of the 20th century as a war criminal.

Suggesting that Kissinger-a scholar and administrator who, as former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State to Presidents Nixon and Ford, had been the chief architect of détente with the Soviet Union, disengagement in Vietnam, and rapprochement with China-is a war criminal is not easy. (Considering Kissinger's policies of accommodation with various communist powers, it would be easier to suggest that he is a peace criminal.) The accusation gets no less nonsensical as Hitchens proceeds to elaborate on his charges, accusing Kissinger of criminally actionable sins in South and Southeast Asia, Cyprus, East Timor, Greece and, of course, Chile. In every locale Hitchens is scathing, but he is everywhere scathing on thin ice.

Hitchens wastes no time in coming to the point. In the first chapter, he levels a key accusation against Kissinger: that to advance his own career, the future national security advisor played a pivotal role in 1968 Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon's efforts "to sabotage the Paris peace negotiations on Vietnam." The alleged method of sabotage was for Nixon to persuade South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu (or, as Hitchens puts it, "the South Vietnamese military rulers") to ditch the talks because he, Nixon, could get a better deal for Saigon than Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey. According to Hitchens, Kissinger acted as a mole for Nixon in this effort, which supposedly extended the war by four years, resulting in thousands of casualties on both sides.

Perhaps the most nonsensical thing about this accusation is that it is predicated on President Thieu having illusions about North Vietnam. Thieu hardly required instruction from American presidential candidates about Hanoi's faux peace negotiations. In any event, the negotiations were not scuttled by Thieu. The talks, deadlocked on procedural issues from November 1, started again during the Johnson Administration when Saigon accepted a Soviet compromise offer-on Nixon's urging and before his inauguration.

A better case could be made (and has been, in Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin's memoirs, among other places) for the proposition that the Democratic administration's peace initiative and bombing halt shortly before the 1968 elections was timed to get Hubert Humphrey elected. If any side was using Vietnam War tactics for domestic politics, it was the Democrats. Hitchens is aware of this argument, but counters that even "if the Johnson-Humphrey regime sought to time the talks for their own electoral purposes" they had not done so behind the scenes, but "in public view, and as the legally elected and constituted government of the United States." Presumably this makes timing bombing halts for electoral purposes all right.

Hitchens devotes special attention to Kissinger's allegedly sinister role in Chile. To properly understand this attention, however, requires some background.

The world was not a tranquil place between 1970 and 1973, and the times were not conducive to viewing with equanimity the rise of Dr. Salvador Allende Gossens, who (as Régis Debray tells us in The Chilean Revolution: Conversations with Allende) plainly stated that he aimed at establishing "total, scientific, Marxist socialism" in Chile. After Allende's death, left-wing legends of injured innocence painted him as a kind of social democratic reformer. He was nothing of the sort. As Kissinger puts it in White House Years: "One should not needlessly insult the integrity of a man who spent his life dedicated to revolution by claiming him to be something he always denied."

Hitchens implies that recently declassified documents throw new lights on events that have been reported and investigated many times. But Kissinger's view of Allende has never been a secret: it is plainly expressed in Kissinger's memoirs that he considered Allende and his policies inimical to U.S. interests as well as to the ideals of democracy. No doubt, Kissinger welcomed Allende's downfall (though, as he emphasizes, not his violent death). What Hitchens fails to provide is any evidence, new or old, that the U.S. administration or Kissinger had brought about either.

The evidence for covert U.S. involvement in Chile goes back to the fall of 1970, before Dr. Allende's inauguration. The majority (62.7 percent) of Chile's voters had cast their ballot against Allende, but since there were three candidates, Allende's 36.2 percent gave him a slim (about one percent) plurality of the votes. Constitutionally, in such a situation it was up to the Chilean Congress to choose the president.

The Nixon Administration wanted to prevent Allende from parleying his minuscule plurality into another foothold for Marxism in Latin America. First it tried to persuade the Chilean Congress to select another candidate. When this did not work, it attempted what Kissinger describes in Years of Upheaval as a "haphazard and amateurish exploration of a military coup", designed to force a run-off election between Allende and the top democratic candidate. This effort was eventually called off: "More precisely", as Kissinger notes, "the American part was called off, the Chilean component was bungled."

It is this bungled Chilean component to which Hitchens attempts to link Kissinger. As it happened, the Chilean Chief of Staff, General René Schneider, was opposed to military interference in politics. This being an obstacle to using the army to bring about a run-off election, some officers in the Chilean military, notably a group led by General Roberto Viaux, hatched a plot to kidnap General Schneider. The U.S. administration was aware of Viaux's plans and provided initial support, but when it became clear that the likelihood of a successful coup was very low, the U.S. coordinating committee-the 40 Committee-told the plotters to abandon their efforts. On October 15, 1970, Kissinger wrote to President Nixon: "This looks hopeless. I turned it off. Nothing would be worse than an abortive coup." Nonetheless, some of General Viaux's plotters, along with elements of another group and possibly aided by some rogue CIA assets in Chile, made two more unsuccessful attempts to kidnap General Schneider. Then, on October 22, Viaux's group made a third attempt, in the course of which General Schneider was murdered.

In his role as a moot court prosecutor, Hitchens charges that "Henry Kissinger bears direct responsibility for the Schneider murder." The problem for Hitchens' prosecution is that the evidence at his disposal has long since been examined, by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in 1975. Senator Frank Church's committee was not favorably disposed, to put it mildly, to the Nixon Administration, but concluded nevertheless that there was "no evidence of a plan to kill Schneider or that United States officials specifically anticipated that Schneider would be shot during the abduction." Hitchens seeks to dispose of this finding by calling Kissinger's instructions to stop the plotters "a paper-thin cover story", admitting with regret that "this sorry cover story has even found a refuge in the written record." The fact is, of course, that this is the record: the only thing supported by evidence as well as by the finding of a Senate committee. The record shows further that Kissinger wrote to President Nixon on October 18, 1970, that Allende's inauguration "now appeared certain." He would hardly have written this if a coup had still been an option, or if he had anticipated Viaux's October 22 kidnapping attempt.

Hitchens further charges that Dr. Kissinger cannot claim to have been "indifferent to, or unaware of, the true situation" of assassination, torture and other human rights abuses in the Southern Hemisphere. As evidence, he offers excerpts from a memorandum of a 1976 conversation (declassified in 1999) between Kissinger and General Augusto Pinochet. But, when read in its entirety, the document shows the opposite of what Hitchens suggests. Far from "advising a murderer and despot to disregard his upcoming remarks as a sop to Congress", which is the spin Hitchens puts on the conversation, Kissinger was advising Chile's president to take his remarks to heart. He was conveying a warning-diplomatically, but forcefully and unmistakably-that if Pinochet wished to preserve the support he needed from the United States, his government had to make genuine efforts to conform to Western democratic standards concerning the rule of law and civil rights.

When Pinochet responded that "we are slowly making progress" on the human rights front, and "we have freed more" of the last 400 detainees, Kissinger urged him to "have a bigger program of releases." There was even to be a quid pro quo: the Secretary knew some of the items that General Pinochet wanted from the United States-the embassy at Santiago had cabled him a list of matters "to provide encouragement and/or incentives to the GOC [Government of Chile] to respond to our concerns." These concerns, of course, were human rights: not just as a gesture, but as a reality. What arouses Hitchens' indignation is that in the memorandum Kissinger makes it equally clear to Pinochet that the U.S. administration is "not out to weaken your position" and that "we welcomed the overthrow of the Communist-inclined government here."

But why should any U.S. secretary of state not have held that view? Anyone with the slightest concern for human rights would have welcomed the weakening of communism in the Western Hemisphere. Communism was hardly a spent force in the 1970s. The system of "applied scientific Marxism" claimed (by low estimates) 70 million victims in the 20th century, and, still looking to extend itself in various parts of the globe, it was evidently searching for more. Although the United States did not engineer Allende's downfall in September 1973, it had every reason to welcome it. Even for this, it seems, the remaining denizens of the Left cannot find it in their hearts to forgive.

Essay Types: Book Review