The Infamous, Blood-Soaked Legacy of Henry Kissinger

Jonah Walters gives a rundown of Kissinger's career, explaining what makes him an important figure.

The day Henry Kissinger died, Jacobin magazine released a book, which they had completed years before, called The Good Die Young: The Verdict on Henry Kissinger. In the book, edited by René Rojas, Bhaskar Sunkara, and Jonah Walters, a group of foreign policy experts trace Kissinger's career from continent to continent, showing the human consequences of his Machiavellian choices. But The Good Die Young doesn't just treat Kissinger as a uniquely malevolent figure. It shows how he fits into broader schemes of U.S. global dominance after the Second World War. Co-editor Jonah Walters joined us to give a rundown of Kissinger's career, to explain what makes him an important figure, and to assess what his legacy will be.

Nathan J. Robinson 

Henry Kissinger—Dr. Kissinger, as he preferred to be known—died last year at the age of 100. Hailed by some as the “great statesmen of our age,” he had many friends in Washington on both the Right and among liberals. His fans include Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton. Of course, Henry Kissinger is also one of the most controversial statesmen of the 20th century. Some might consider him to be one of the worst butchers of the second half of the century, with a great deal of blood dripping from his hands. It’s pretty clear where the contributors to The Good Die Young stand. This book was released by Jacobin magazine as soon as his death was announced, which suggests that it had been in preparation for some time. So, let me start by asking you, why did you and Jacobin magazine think Henry Kissinger was so important and so necessary of commentary that you had a secret book prepared on him and ready for release at the moment of his death?

Jonah Walters 

That's a great question. It's a very fair question. We began working on the book all the way back in 2015 in the final days of the Obama administration and then continued working on it throughout most of the Trump administration. We had the manuscript basically locked around 2018-2019. The reason that we thought that Kissinger warranted this kind of attention and analysis is because, first of all, he exerted such a high level of influence over American foreign policy for such a long period of time, and also, the period of time during which he exerted this influence was really crucial for the larger story of American ascendancy in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Kissinger offered a really convenient personality to examine and a really convenient career to trace. I think we also understood that it was quite likely that whenever Kissinger did die, which of course happened last year, there would be a lot of people in this country and around the world who would be really eager for a new kind of conversation about the legacy of American foreign policy in the 20th century and would be looking to understand Kissinger, not only as an especially offensive personality, or some sort of aberration that haunted the halls of Washington for decades, but instead as an embodiment of official American policies. They'd begin to ask questions about what those policies were and what kinds of consequences they've had for the world we lived in.


I think that's critically important. I really liked that the book gets past Kissinger as a uniquely malevolent character. You put him in his context and ask what his life and career tell us about U.S. foreign policy more broadly. Let's go back to the basics. There are young people in the world who might know Kissinger as a cartoon villain. Who was this man?


Henry Kissinger was, first of all, an intellectual. He was someone who came out of a cohort of foreign policy intellectuals that was especially based at Harvard but had a presence throughout American academia in the 1960s. He's often thought of as a Cold War intellectual, as a defense intellectual. He really was somebody who saw himself as an intellectual inheritor of this tradition of European statecraft that was all about the preservation of great powers and about influencing the economic and political development of the world over the longue durée, over very long periods of time. That was certainly the story that he told about himself, that he was this uniquely well-educated person who understood the way that history moves and could be influenced.

He arrives on the scene in Washington in the late 1960s, early 1970s, initially as President Nixon's National Security Adviser. While in the Nixon administration, he managed to create a uniquely close relationship between himself as an unelected adviser and the president, who actually had his finger on the lever of American power during this period. He managed to isolate many other people who were around the president—he completely isolated the elements in the Defense Department during the Vietnam War that were perhaps warning about the unfeasibility of winning that war. He contributed to Nixon's quite ferocious war-making policies during that period. And then, even after the spectacular end of the Nixon administration, Kissinger emerged relatively unscathed.

He proceeds to stick around the halls of Washington for decades after that and serves not only as National Security Adviser to other presidential administrations but eventually becomes Secretary of State as well. Even into the 1980s, during the Reagan Revolution, he was tapped at some key moments to validate what the Reagan administration was up to in Central America. He once again crops up after 9/11 as a member of the congressional commission to investigate 9/11. Interestingly, he ends up resigning that post because he, at this point in his career, had established a very influential consultancy that, as we put it in the book, sold its world-breaking capacities to all kinds of power brokers and businessmen around the world. He was ordered by Congress to divulge the list of his clients in order to serve on the 9/11 committee, and he refused to do that.

But the point is that he begins his life as a Cold War intellectual, as a defense intellectual, and he establishes an extremely close relationship with Nixon. Then he rides the prestige that he generated during the Nixon administration for the remainder of the century, and indeed, into the end of the 21st century. 


Before we get to what he did with power, and more on how he viewed the world, what you said there suggests that this is a guy who had a real knack for figuring out self-advancement in the halls of power. A notable fact about him is that he was very good at branding himself an intellectual and selling himself. There's an interview in the book in which it's pointed out that he wrote books that are tomes, grand treatises on world order. In fact, World Order is the title of one of them. Actually, they're pretty unoriginal. But he managed to sell himself as this great deep mind of foreign policy. He also attracted an extraordinary amount of media attention. Early in the book, you have all the attention that was put on him in the early 1970s where he was known as the Playboy of the West Wing and Women's Wear Daily, as you point out, was writing profiles of this man.


Yes, it's absolutely true. He was, throughout his entire career, an exceptionally capable self-mythologizer. And so, at various moments in his career, he's able to brand himself, as you say, in slightly different ways, depending on the historical moment or the cultural moment that he's occupying in the U.S. In the preface to the book that I wrote with my co-editors, we have some great fun describing the 1960s and 1970s version of Kissinger, when, as you say, he was something of a sex symbol. He was being celebrated on the pages of Playboy magazine. He was appearing regularly in the columns of New York City-based gossip columnists. He was famously being discovered in the Hollywood pools and mansions of famous actresses.

And then as his career develops, he, of course, transforms his public image into various versions of an avuncular elder statesman. “The only adult in the room” was another brand that he was able to secure for himself, particularly as he got older and some of his previous actions were called into question. And it's really significant to me that it was really only with his 100th birthday, shortly before he died, that I began to see some really serious dings to his reputation in the mainstream media.

I remember when we were first beginning to work on this book in 2015, it was really unusual to see Kissinger criticized, much less to see someone entertaining the idea that Kissinger may, in fact, be a war criminal or criticizing him in a severe way like that. Instead, what was much more common was that you would see these completely celebratory and uncritical accounts of his career as both a statesman and an intellectual. As we worked on the book, we were expecting that it would be released into a cultural atmosphere that was uncritically celebratory of the man and his legacy. That's obviously not what happened. The book came out last year during a moment when people from all sides of the political spectrum—in particular, progressives and liberals—were really reevaluating Kissinger, and it was much easier to criticize him than it was to praise him.


When Kissinger died, this was a headline from Reuters: "Biden praised Kissinger in life, offers measured reaction on his death." It says that Biden actually kept his distance a little bit from Kissinger's legacy when he died. I think it was the case that every president had him come to the White House at one point. He was very close with Democrats. Maybe Bernie Sanders had something to do with this because he famously said when he was running against Hillary Clinton that he was proud not to have Kissinger as a friend and pointed out what a lot of people knew but did not say until that point.


I think that was a really significant moment. And as you remember, Bernie took some heat for that statement in the mainstream press. It was presented as an incautious and irresponsible thing to say about this great American statesman. But I think it's clear now that Bernie has gotten the last laugh on that issue, at least. 


To what extent is Kissinger's importance overstated? As we've mentioned, you've done a whole book paying attention to him. So obviously, you consider him a deeply significant and important figure. But you also mentioned that he is a self-mythologizer, a self-aggrandizer, and a person who wants to inflate his own reputation for being the guy making the policy. So, to what extent is he an architect of U.S. policy versus a symbol or representative of it? 


That's a great question, and I don't think that's necessarily one that we can answer right now. I think that there's still a lot of historical work that's going to be done in the decades to come evaluating exactly how much influence Kissinger had at various moments. In fact, one of the contributors to the book, Carolyn Eisenberg, just released a book last year about Kissinger and Nixon and was able to consult numerous documents that hadn't been previously available to get a picture of what they were really up to, each of them as personalities, during the Vietnam War. And I think we're going to see a lot more of that work.

In broad strokes, though, to answer your question, there were moments when I think Kissinger was extremely influential and really was an architect of American foreign policy. Some of those moments include some of the most cynical and destructive decisions that were taken by American leaders in the 20th century. I'm thinking especially of the illegal and massively disruptive bombing of Cambodia, which, in many ways, really was Kissinger's project. He and Nixon were joined at the hip on many things, including the Cambodia bombing campaign. But it's really shocking to think about that moment in history. What was happening was that Kissinger, who was an unelected Ivy League elite, who had no electoral mandate to be making decisions of any kind related to American foreign policy, was personally selecting bombing targets in a country with which the United States was not at war. And not only was he personally selecting bombing targets, but he had also developed this quite sophisticated system for masking those bombing targets by literally destroying flight records. So, that's clearly a moment where Kissinger was acting as an architect of U.S. policy, and the decisions he was taking in that role had really severe consequences for millions of people.

There are other moments, though, where he certainly was playing much more of a symbolic role and I think had tried to overstate his significance to some other moments in 20th century diplomatic history. And so, it's really challenging to parse out when exactly he's exerting control and when he's taking credit.


I want to dwell on what you said about the consequences for people. This man was an unelected official who secretly determined what the most powerful military in the world was going to do to countries in using violent force against them. The ultimate result of the Cambodia bombing was not only the hideous loss of life for the people directly impacted by the bombing. The United States also deserves a fair deal of blame for the subsequent rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which was responsible for one of the worst genocides of the 20th century, which was in part a direct result of the U.S. bombing campaign. So, it's bad enough when you just look at one man making decisions to use violent force illegally. But when you actually look at what happened as a result of Kissinger's choices, it really is difficult to even wrap your mind around the immense amount of human suffering. 


That's absolutely true. There's a great contribution in the book from the journalist Brett Morris about Cambodia, which goes into exactly what you're describing. He also points out that people in Cambodia continue to live with the material consequences of that bombing campaign in the form of unexploded ordnance. There remain thousands of unexploded bombs buried beneath layers of soil in Cambodia, which can and still do explode and kill and maim people to this day.


Now, I want to quote from the introduction of your book: "The reason for Kissinger's bipartisan appeal is straightforward. He was a top strategist of America's empire of capital at a critical moment in that empire's development.” And you elaborate that “the power elite in Washington committed itself to defeating challenges to capitalist hegemony, wherever in the world they emerged, and to that extent, the American national security state deployed everything from support from reactionary regimes to economic sanctions to election meddling.” Could you elaborate on what you mean? I want to get down to what Kissinger's worldview and his function was. Can you elaborate on what it means to be a top strategist of America's empire of capital? 


It's really important to place Kissinger at this moment in the larger historical context, as I've been saying. So, what we argue in that introduction is that coming out of World War II, the world was significantly transformed, and the United States took on a new geopolitical role in this significantly transformed world. The United States had become a capitalist power without rival on the world stage extremely quickly. It replaced Great Britain in particular as having the most powerful military in the world and assumed the role of the geopolitical guarantor of global market society. It's important to be careful about what that means. That doesn't mean simply checking the Soviets; it doesn't mean defeating International Communism in the way the cold warriors like Kissinger were very often describing it. Instead, what it means is using the power and influence of the United States, not only its military, but also its Federal Reserve, for example, to prevent nations that Kissinger saw as subordinate from acting on their own to create an independent sphere of influence and trade that could threaten not only global market society but also the United States' place as the hegemon over that global market society. And so, that's really the function that Kissinger is playing.

And it's not just him—the official objective of American foreign policy in the second half of the 20th century was to preserve a global market system under American hegemony. I think what makes Kissinger so significant and useful to look at and to think about is that he understood that policy perhaps better than any of his peers in the American foreign policy establishment. During the time that he was alive and influential, he really embodied that will to act that the architects of American foreign policy saw as America's duty and prerogative in the world.


There's a certain appeal to his honesty. Obviously, he was a very dishonest man. He lied to Congress multiple times. The official biography of him is called The Idealist, but he had statements like, “covert action isn't missionary work.” He has some pretty vicious stuff on the record, where he abandoned a lot of the usual fluff about our deep commitment to the uplift of peoples around the world. It's pointed out that in the entire record of the transcripts of conversations around Vietnam, there's not one instance of Kissinger showing any compunction about the deaths of human beings—not the slightest hesitation, whether it's about U.S. troops or Vietnamese civilians. The idea that individual human lives are important to the decision-making just didn’t enter his mind. And when he was asked about Cambodia, Do you have any regrets?, he said, I fail to see what the moral issue is. Not even that he disagreed with the moral conclusion, but that he couldn't even grasp why anyone was raising a moral question about the bombing of Cambodia.


It's true. And he was, throughout his career, uniquely forthcoming about his embrace of atrocity, and I think that's also part of why he makes such a convenient figure for mustering a political and moral critique of American foreign policy. You're exactly right that Kissinger seemed quite allergic to the kind of humanistic language that is often wrapped around American military intervention. He didn't see the point in justifying his actions to the American public, to the global public, or to anyone. And so, you do get these quite revealing statements.

Another thing that's worth saying about Kissinger is, as part of his lifelong campaign to self-mythologize, the origin story that he very often told about himself had to do with his beginnings as a young Jewish boy in Germany. His family was facing persecution from the Nazis and, in fact, fled the Nazis and came to New York City when he was just a child. And he attends school in the United States, even briefly begins his studies at Harvard, and then he's drafted into the U.S. military at the end of the Second World War and returns to Germany. And in Germany, he participates in the denazification efforts around the particular town where he's based. His origin story is very much about observing firsthand the excesses of the kind of military posturing that took place in the first part of the 20th century and that resulted in calamity in Europe and displacement for his own family. And so, he did attempt throughout his career to present himself as a check on that kind of excess, as I said, as one of the adults in the room who could prevent the particularly destructive and cruel outcomes that he knew instinctively were possible. The great irony, of course, is that he was able to present himself like that successfully for so long, even as he himself personally had a great deal of responsibility for some of the most cynical political decisions that were taken during his lifetime.


I just remembered another one of my favorite honest Kissinger moments, which is when he was asked, in 2005, why he supported the Iraq War. He replied, because Afghanistan wasn't enough in the conflict with radical Islam; they want to humiliate us, and we need to humiliate them. Never mind bringing democracy to the people of Iraq.


You mentioned that you wanted to get to Kissinger's worldview. I think it's debatable to what extent we can even identify a coherent worldview, but exactly that attitude that you're describing crops up throughout his career. It's not just on the matter of Afghanistan and Iraq. He also was quite explicit about the fact that he wanted to exert American military power in Angola during the 1970s because he felt that America had been humiliated in Vietnam and that there was the need for a new conflict, a successful conflict, to catalyze American will and American spirit on the world stage. He was quite open about his feelings about war and violence as being forces that create national identity and therefore were positives.


I wonder if we could go a little deeper into how the task that you elaborated for us, of how maintaining U.S. dominance and a certain kind of global economic system drove specific policies. I'm thinking of Chile here. Explain how it all fits together. One of Kissinger's most infamous acts was his participation and encouragement of the essentially successful elimination of Chilean democracy in 1973. A Marxist Social Democratic president, Salvador Allende, came to power. The Nixon administration was scandalized and horrified and immediately tried to put the squeeze on and organize a coup against Allende, which succeeded a couple of years later. However, if we look at it neutrally, we might wonder, why did they care so much? What happens to the Chilean economy doesn't really affect U.S. business very much. What was the motivation there? How does that fit in? What explains this kind of pathological need to make sure that Chile does not have a Marxist Social Democratic president?


It's a great question. It really gets at the heart of what Kissinger was up to during that period and throughout his life. So, I think the first thing to say is it's important to emphasize that ensuring the health of American business is different from ensuring the health of American businesses. Often there's this reflexive urge, particularly for those of us on the Left, to make very direct schematic connections between the actions of the American state, especially overseas, and the particular short or midterm interests of specific U.S. companies. Sometimes this is the case. There's been a lot that's been written about the 1954 coup in Guatemala, for instance, which the United States supported in response to and largely because of lobbying from the United Fruit Company, which stood to benefit a great deal from that upheaval. But particularly in the kinds of diplomatic and military episodes we encounter in Kissinger's career, there's much less of a direct connection.

So, Chile is actually a fantastic example because there's no question that Allende did pose a certain kind of threat to some specific American corporations, particularly mining corporations that were operating in Chile. Allende very famously continued a policy that had begun before him to nationalize the copper mines. Copper is extremely important in Chile. Chile, in some ways, is similar to a petrostate, but just with copper; it's a very important part of the national economy. Notably, after Allende is removed from power, Kissinger and Nixon don't insist to their friends in the new Pinochet regime that those properties be returned to American and Canadian mining companies. In fact, Pinochet maintained state control over those mining companies and used them to fund his government. So, the first thing I'll say is that we need to be careful to distinguish between the health of American business writ large and American businesses as specific businesses.

So, then, what is so threatening about Allende and his Chilean road to socialism from the point of view of Kissinger and Nixon? I think that really what was going on in Chile, and the reason that Chile was such a preoccupation for people like Nixon and Kissinger, was that Allende threatened to cohere a new regional sphere of trade and influence. There was a real possibility that Allende's democratic road to socialism not only could inspire imitators elsewhere in the region in the world but also could exert some real geopolitical clout and begin to reformat geopolitics and trade in such a way that would allow for the advancement of independent initiatives on the global stage that were brought by, as I said, what Kissinger called subordinate countries. That was really threatening to the geostrategic project the United States had taken on during this period. The possibility that Allende could cohere around himself and around his coalition a new kind of politics in what is now known as the Global South, then known as the Third World, was really threatening. And in fact, that's a theme that went through all of Kissinger's actions on the world stage throughout his career: there existed a cohort of countries that previously had been quite constrained in the possibilities that were available to them, largely because of the strength of the European colonial powers, that were attempting to move on their own and create a new kind of political and economic commonsense for the world, or at least for their parts of the world, and Kissinger and his allies, and the American security state, moved swiftly to undercut those initiatives whenever they emerged.


Could you give us another example from somewhere else in the world where that same kind of philosophy was in action? Your book essentially ranges across the whole world. The structure of the book is geographical. The first section is about the Americas and includes Chile, Argentina, and Central America. Then it covers Europe, the Middle East, and Africa and concludes with Asia, including East Timor, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, and Bangladesh. Talk about some examples that stand out and that people don't know about.


Sure. I think that one really important event that took place during the Nixon administration that gets overlooked quite often is the end of fascism in Portugal and the Portuguese state relinquishing control of its overseas colonies. So, this includes colonies in Africa, famously Angola and Mozambique, but it also includes other places where the Portuguese had exerted a great deal of influence in the years prior, including East Timor. So, I think that this serves as another great example where there was a European power that was fast becoming cleaved from its colonies.

Portugal, interestingly, was a rather tenacious European colonial power and held on to its holdings longer than some of its peers in Europe. But by the mid-1970s, the Portuguese colonial control over territories in Africa and Southeast Asia was unfeasible. And so, they released them and relinquished control over them. Almost immediately, the United States stepped in to guarantee that the kinds of regimes that emerged in those places would not be threatening to American or to larger capitalist global interests.

In Angola, the United States throws its support behind a famously corrupt national liberation movement that was not supported by the majority of the Angolan people but, crucially, was not a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary organization and, in fact, opposed the existing Marxist-Leninist revolutionary organizations in Angola. And this results in just an absolute military fiasco for the United States, frankly.

The United States, through its clients in South Africa, encouraged South African intervention in Angola, which was then met by a Cuban intervention on behalf of Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries in Angola, which completely pushed the South Africans out, humiliated them militarily, and in many ways, sets the stage for the end of white minority rule in Southern Africa, writ large.

Another big consequence of this historical moment culminated in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which, of course, had been a Portuguese colony and briefly somewhat of an independent self-governing polity. Indonesia was extremely important for the American foreign policy establishment during this time, and throughout this period, the threat of communism in Indonesia was one of the largest anxieties that circulated in Washington. There's been some attention recently on the very infamous 1965 massacre of the Indonesian Communist Party. About a decade after that, there was a threat to the very United States-friendly government that had been installed in Indonesia coming from revolutionaries in East Timor, and the United States provided arms. In fact, Kissinger personally guaranteed the shipment of arms to Indonesia to assist them in absolutely crushing this movement for self-determination in that part of the world.


We're going to conclude here with the subject of your last chapter by contributor Christy Thornton, which is, “From the War Room to Wall Street,” about Kissinger’s post-government career and consulting firm, Kissinger Associates. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how his business activities after leaving government illuminate the workings of the global capitalist system. If you look at his business career, what does it tell us about how this system really works?


This chapter is one of the most unique contributions to our book. There's been a startling little attention paid to Kissinger's work as a private consultant. So, just to set the scene a little bit, Kissinger founded this company called Kissinger Associates, which was very quickly tremendously lucrative for him personally and also provided a destination for people leaving government jobs or cycling between government and private sector jobs, which elevates the firm's popularity and its prominence not only in the United States but around the world. And what that firm does is provide personalized feedback and advice on key geopolitical issues to the leaders of multinational companies that are operating in multiple parts of the world simultaneously. And, as Christy points out in her great chapter, the “scourge” of the international investor is uncertainty. International investors, particularly very large, high-powered international investors that are operating at a very high level of influence, want to eliminate uncertainty as best they can. Kissinger obviously was in a position to assist them in eliminating that uncertainty by, for example, providing twice annual briefings that were always done in person and orally, so as to never leave a paper trail, by assembling dossiers on particular world leaders or particular world regions, and helping to reassure the managers of these large multinational companies that the messy business of politics wouldn't interfere with their profits.

Part of the reason that we really wanted to have this contribution in the book and to really turn our gaze towards Kissinger's work as a private consultant in the final pages of the book is that looking at this history really emphasizes that global capitalism, such as it is, is not a system that emerged and metastasized of its own freewill, so to speak. It's a system that has been constructed and that is continually reconstructed and maintained by powerful actors. And Kissinger, while he was alive, was among one of the most powerful actors that was, each year, each day, reiterating this global capitalist system, not only by providing advice to those who were benefiting the most from this capitalist system—these multinational companies—but also by moving to quell any challengers to that system as well. 


Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

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