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The Verdict on Henry Kissinger

In the United States, one of the twentieth century’s most prolific butchers died as he lived — beloved by the rich and powerful, regardless of their partisan affiliation.


Henry Kissinger. (Brandon Downey / Flickr)


Henry Kissinger is dead. The media mill is already churning out fiery denouncements and warm remembrances in equal measure. Perhaps no other figure in twentieth-century American history is so polarizing, as vehemently reviled by some as he is revered by others.


Still, there’s one point on which we can all agree: Kissinger did not leave an exquisite corpse. The obituaries may describe him as avuncular, professorial, even charismatic. But surely no one, not even career sycophants like Niall Ferguson, will dare eulogize the fallen titan as sexy.

How times have changed.


Back when Kissinger was national security advisor, Women’s Wear Daily published a tittering profile of the young statesman, describing him as “the sex symbol of the Nixon administration.” In 1969, according to the profile, Kissinger attended a party full of Washington socialites with an envelope marked “Top Secret” tucked under his arm. The other party guests could hardly contain their curiosity, so Kissinger deflected their questions with a quip: the envelope contained his copy of the latest Playboy magazine. (Hugh Hefner apparently found this uproariously funny and thereafter ensured that the national security advisor was provided with a free subscription.)


What the envelope really contained was a draft copy of Nixon’s “silent majority” speech, a now-infamous address that aimed to draw a sharp line between the moral decadence of antiwar liberals and Nixon’s unflinching realpolitik.


During the 1970s — as he masterminded illegal bombings in Laos and Cambodia and enabled genocide in East Timor and East Pakistan — Kissinger was known amongst Beltway socialites as “the playboy of the western wing.” He liked to be photographed, and photographers obliged. He was a fixture on gossip pages, particularly when his dalliances with famous women spilled into public view — like when he and actress Jill St. John inadvertently set off the alarm at her Hollywood mansion late one night as they stole away to her pool. (“I was teaching her chess,” Kissinger explained later.)


While Kissinger gallivanted with Washington’s jet set, he and the president — a pair so firmly joined at the hip that Isaiah Berlin christened them “Nixonger” — were busy contriving a political brand rooted in their supposed disdain for the liberal elite, whose effete morality, they claimed, could lead only to paralysis. Kissinger certainly disdained the antiwar movement, disparaging demonstrators as “upper-middle-class college kids” and warning, “The very people who shout ‘Power to the People’ are not going to be the people who take over this country if it turns into a test of strength.” He also scorned women: “To me women are no more than a pastime, a hobby. Nobody devotes too much time to a hobby.” But it’s indisputable that Kissinger held a fondness for the gilded liberalism of high society, the exclusive parties and steak dinners and flashbulbs.


And lest we forget, high society loved him back. Gloria Steinem, an occasional dining companion, called Kissinger “the only interesting man in the Nixon administration.” Gossip columnist Joyce Haber described him as “worldly, humorous, sophisticated, and a cavalier with women.” The Hef considered him a friend, and once claimed in print that a poll of his models revealed Kissinger to be the man most widely desired for dates at the Playboy mansion.


This infatuation didn’t end with the 1970s. When Kissinger turned ninety in 2013, his red-carpet birthday celebration was attended by a bipartisan crowd that included Michael Bloomberg, Roger Ailes, Barbara Walters, even “veteran for peace” John Kerry, along with some 300 other A-listers. An article in Women’s Wear Daily — they continued their Kissinger coverage into the new millennium — reported that Bill Clinton and John McCain delivered the birthday toasts in a ballroom done up in chinoiserie, to please the night’s guest of honor. (McCain, who spent more than five years as a POW, described his “wonderful affection” for Kissinger, “because of the Vietnam War, which was something that was enormously impactful to both of our lives.”) The birthday boy himself then took the stage, where he “reminded guests about the rhythm of history” and seized the occasion to preach the gospel of his favorite cause: bipartisanship.


Kissinger’s capacity for bipartisanship was renowned. (Republicans Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld were in attendance early in the evening, and later in the night Democrat Hillary Clinton strode in through a freight entrance with open arms, asking, “Ready for round two?”) During the party, McCain gushed of Kissinger, “He has been a consultant and advisor to every president, Republican and Democrat, since Nixon.” Senator McCain likely spoke for everyone in the ballroom when he continued, “I know of no individual who is more respected in the world than Henry Kissinger.”


In fact, much of the world reviled Henry Kissinger. The former secretary of state even avoided visiting several countries out of fear that he would be apprehended and charged with war crimes. In 2002, for example, a Chilean court demanded he answer questions about his role in that country’s 1973 coup d’état. In 2001, a French judge sent police officers to Kissinger’s Paris hotel room to serve him a formal request for questioning about the same coup, during which several French citizens were disappeared. (Apparently unperturbed, the statesman-turned-private consultant referred the matter to the State Department and boarded a plane to Italy.) Around the same time, he cancelled a trip to Brazil after rumors began circling that he would be detained and compelled to answer questions about his role in Operation Condor, the 1970s scheme that united South American dictatorships in disappearing one another’s exiled opponents. An Argentine judge investigating the operation had already named Kissinger as one potential “defendant or suspect” in a future criminal indictment.


But in the United States, Kissinger was untouchable. There, one of the twentieth century’s most prolific butchers died as he lived — beloved by the rich and powerful, regardless of their partisan affiliation. 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.



It’s small wonder that the political establishment regarded Kissinger as an asset and not an aberration. He embodied what the two ruling parties share in common: a commitment to maintaining capitalism, and the resolve to ensure favorable conditions for American investors in as much of the world as possible. A stranger to shame and inhibition, Kissinger was able to guide the American empire through a treacherous period in world history, when the United States’ rise to global domination indeed sometimes seemed on the brink of collapse.


In an earlier period, the politics of capitalist preservation had been a relatively straightforward affair. Rivalries among the advanced capitalist powers led periodically to spectacular wars, which established hierarchies between capitalist nations but did relatively little to disrupt the forward march of capital throughout the world. (As an added bonus, because these conflagrations were so destructive, they offered regular opportunities for renewed investment — one way to delay the crises of overproduction endemic to capitalist development.)


It’s true that, as the capitalist metropoles asserted control over the territories they seized throughout the world, imperialism drew mass opposition from the oppressed. Anti-colonial movements emerged to challenge the terms of global development in every place colonialism was established, but, with some notable exceptions, these movements were unable to repel the aggressive imperial powers. Even when anti-colonial struggles were successful, shaking loose the chains of one imperial power often meant exposing yourself to the invasion of another — in the Americas, for example, the withdrawal of the Spanish from their overseas colonies meant that the United States assumed the role of new regional hegemon at the turn of the twentieth century, asserting its dominance over places that, like Puerto Rico, American leaders considered “foreign in a domestic sense.” Throughout this time, colonialism — like capitalism — often appeared largely unbreakable.


But after World War II, the axis of global politics shifted.

When the smoke finally dispersed over Europe, it revealed a world that was all but unrecognizable to elites. London lay in ruin. Germany sat in pieces, partitioned by two of its rivals. Japan was effectively annexed by the United States, to be remade in that nation’s image. The Soviet Union had generated an industrial economy with unrivaled speed, and now held real geopolitical clout. The United States, meanwhile, in just a few generations, had displaced Great Britain as a military and economic power without rival on the world stage.


But most importantly, World War II provided a definitive signal to people throughout the colonized world that colonialism was unsustainable. Europe’s dominance was in its death throes. A historical period characterized by wars among First World (or Global North) powers gave way to a period of sustained anti-colonial conflicts in the Third World (or Global South).


The United States, having emerged from World War II as the new world hegemon, would have been on the losing end of any global realignment that restricted the free movement of American investment capital. In this context, the country assumed a new geopolitical role. In the post–World War II period, the era of Kissinger, the United States became the guarantor of the global capitalist system.


But ensuring the health of the system as a whole wasn’t always the same as ensuring the dominance of American businesses. Rather, the American state needed to administrate a world order amenable to the development and flourishing of an international capitalist class. The United States became the lead architect of postwar Atlantic capitalism — a commercial regime that tied Western European and Japanese economic interests to American corporate strategies. In other words, to preserve a global capitalist order that foremost defended American business — not businesses — the United States needed to foster the successful capitalist development of its rivals. This meant generating new capitalist centers, like Japan, and facilitating the reestablishment of healthy European economies.


Yet, as we know, the European metropoles were fast becoming cleaved from their colonies. National liberation movements threatened the core interests the United States had pledged to protect, disrupting the unified world market the country wanted to coordinate. Promoting American interests therefore acquired a broader geopolitical dimension. The power elite in Washington committed itself to defeating challenges to capitalist hegemony wherever in the world they emerged. To that end, the American national security state deployed a variety of means: military support for reactionary regimes; economic sanctions; election meddling; coercion; trade manipulation; tactical arms trading; and, in some cases, direct military intervention.


Throughout his career, what worried Kissinger most was the lurking possibility that subordinate countries might move on their own to create an alternative sphere of influence and trade. The United States did not hesitate to put an end to such independent initiatives when they emerged. If a country resisted the path laid out for it by the conditions of global capitalist development, the Americans clubbed the challenger into submission. Defiance simply couldn’t be tolerated — not with so much wealth and political power at stake. During his lifetime, Kissinger was this policy. He understood its objectives and strategic requirements better than anyone among America’s ruling class.


The specific policies that Kissinger pursued, therefore, were less about promoting the profits of American corporations and more about securing healthy conditions for capital writ large. This is an important point, frequently neglected in simplistic studies of US empire. Too often, radicals assume a direct link between the interests of specific US corporations abroad and the actions of the American state. And in some cases, this assumption can be supported by history — such as the US military’s 1954 removal of Guatemalan social reformer Jacobo Árbenz, undertaken in part because of lobbying from the United Fruit Company.


But in other cases, particularly those we encounter in the thorny tangles of Kissinger’s career, this assumption obscures more than it reveals. After the coup against Chile’s Salvador Allende, for example, the Nixon administration did not press its allies in the right-wing junta to return previously nationalized mines to the American companies Kennecott and Anaconda. Returning confiscated properties to American corporations was small potatoes. Nixonger’s primary goal was accomplished the moment that Allende was removed from power: Chile’s democratic road to socialism no longer threatened to generate a systemic alternative to capitalism in the region.



Contrary to the conventional wisdom, checking Soviet expansionism was hardly an important factor shaping American foreign policy during the Cold War. American plans to underwrite international capitalism by force were decided as early as 1943, when it was not yet clear if the Soviets would even survive the war. And even at the outset of the Cold War, the Soviet Union lacked the will and the capacity to expand beyond its regional satellites. Stalin’s moves to stabilize “socialism in one country” emerged as a defensive strategy, and Russia committed to détente as the best bet for its continued existence, demanding only a ring of buffer states to protect it from Western invasions. For this reason, a generation of left militants in Latin America, Asia, and Europe (just ask the Greeks) interpret the so-called “Cold War” as a serial Moscow sellout of liberation movements throughout the world. Kissinger’s public histrionics in support of “Western market civilization” notwithstanding, the threat of Soviet expansion was only really used in American foreign policy as a rhetorical tool.


Understandably, then, the format of the world economy didn’t change all that dramatically after the Soviet Union fell. The neoliberalization of the 1990s represented an intensification of the global program the United States and its allies had pursued all along. And today, the American state continues in its role as the global guarantor of free market capitalism — even when Third World governments, fearful of geopolitical repercussions, perform political contortions to avoid confronting American capital head-on. For example, starting in 2002, Washington began backing efforts to topple Venezuela’s left-populist president, Hugo Chávez, even as American oil giants kept drilling in Maracaibo and Venezuelan crude continued flowing into Houston and New Jersey.


The Kissinger doctrine persists today: if sovereign countries refuse to be worked into broader US schemes, the American national security state will move swiftly to undercut their sovereignty. This is business as usual for the American empire, no matter which party’s avatar sits in the White House — and Kissinger, while he lived, was among the chief stewards of this status quo.


Henry Kissinger is finally dead. To say he was a bad man verges on cliche, but it is nonetheless a fact. And now, at long last, he’s gone.


Still, our collective relief shouldn’t divert us from a deeper appraisal. In the end, Kissinger must be rejected for more than just his uniquely forthcoming embrace of atrocity in the name of American power. As progressives and socialists, we must move beyond seeing Kissinger as a sordid prince of the imperialist shadows, a figure that can only be confronted litigiously, in the cold glare of an imaginary courtroom. His revolting coldness, and his casual dismissal of its often-genocidal results, should not prevent us from seeing him as he was — an embodiment of official US policies.


By showing Kissinger’s behavior to be part and parcel of American expansionism more generally, we hope to muster a political and moral critique of American foreign policy — a foreign policy that systematically subverts popular ambitions and undermines sovereignty in defense of elites, both foreign and domestic.


Kissinger’s death has rid the world of a homicidal manager of American power, and we intend to dance on his grave. We prepared a book for this occasion, a catalog of Kissinger’s dark accomplishments over the course of a long career in public carnage. In it, some of the finest radical historians in the world divide into digestible episodes the longer story of American ascension in the second half of the twentieth century.


At one point in our book, historian Gerald Horne tells a story about the time Kissinger nearly drowned while canoeing beneath the world’s largest waterfall. It’s an amusing tale, made all the more invigorating by our knowledge that time has finally accomplished what Victoria Falls failed to do so many decades ago. But lest we celebrate too soon, we must remember that the American national security state that produced him remains alive and well.


 

(c) 2023, Jacobin

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