The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens. Verso, 160 pages, $22.00.
From the way that Christopher Hitchens tears into bloated reputations, it's
easy to imagine that in another age he would have spent many a predawn hour
happily preparing to duel. Now he has flung his challenge at Henry Kissinger, a
man who generally liked to use the B-52 for predawn confrontations, though he
might also send ground forces and, on special occasions, even an assassin.
Much of the story of Kissinger is already known (not that it's bad to be
reminded), so the question that arises apropos of The Trial of Henry
Kissinger, a book-length version of two articles Hitchens wrote for
Harper's last winter, is: Why now? What about this moment leads Hitchens to
train his considerable powers of detestation upon Kissinger? Some new facts have
come to light in the interim, but the case against Richard Nixon's secretary of
state stands much as it did in 1976, when a character in Joseph Heller's novel
Good as Gold characterized Kissinger "as an odious schlump who made
war gladly," a quote with which Hitchens opens his book.
And it's not as if time, celebrity, and innumerable $25,000-a-shot speaking
engagements have washed Kissinger clean. On the contrary, being tainted provides
the essential ingredient of his celebrity. As Hitchens notes, to have the likes
of Kissinger at your table is to enjoy the guilty pleasure of proximity to "raw
and unapologetic power." One of the unacknowledged merits of the International
Tribunal at The Hague, then, is that it prevents at least some war criminals from
being reborn as celebrities.
Because of the Hague tribunal--and efforts by Spanish courts to bring Chilean
General Augusto Pinochet to trial--Hitchens concludes that the time has come to
press charges in earnest against Henry Kissinger. Proceedings against Pinochet
and against Slobodan Milosevic show that leaders of governments are no longer
immune to prosecution for crimes against humanity. Hitchens wants the rules that
apply to Chile and Serbia to apply, also, to a superpower. "The United States,"
he writes, "believes that it alone pursues and indicts war criminals and
'international terrorists'; nothing in its political or journalistic culture yet
allows for the thought that it might be honoring and sheltering such a senior
one [as Kissinger]."
Justifiable as Hitchens's challenge to our political and journalistic culture
may be, his book has serious flaws. It is, among other things, force of
personality that carries Hitchens into battle with the likes of Kissinger; in
this book, however, the author's personality gets in the way. For example,
Hitchens describes the title of Kissinger's memoir Years of Renewal as
"unbearably dull and self-regarding." This sort of language in reference to a
mere title does nothing but testify to the richness of Hitchens's disdain while
it sews doubts about his trustworthiness. Also, the book has no endnotes--a
problem in a text meant to make a legal as opposed to a purely polemical
argument. In lieu of endnotes, which would have been the proper place for the
long block quotations he includes, Hitchens interposes them in the text, againand again interrupting the flow of narrative. Hitchens is usually a prose stylist
and a good read. The Trial of Henry Kissinger is a bad read. That does not
mean that it makes a bad case; it only suggests that if Hitchens wanted to reach
a wider readership with the book than he did with the magazine articles, this may
not be the book to do it.
Hitchens brings six charges against Kissinger. They range from "deliberate
collusion in mass murder, and later in assassination, in Bangladesh" to
"personal involvement in a plan to kidnap and murder a journalist living in
Washington, D.C." Though crimes directly pertaining to the war in Vietnam are
alleged in only the first charge--"the deliberate mass killing of civilian
populations in Indochina"--that war, in one way or another, set the stage for all
As Hitchens makes plain, the Watergate break-in and the overthrow of the duly
elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile--together with the assassination
of General Rene Schneider, the one Chilean leader who might have prevented the
Pinochet coup--were of a piece. So was the assassination of Elias P.
Demetracopoulos, a critic of the military junta ruling Greece, where Nixon and
Kissinger had many good friends, including some who could be counted on for
finances in a pinch. As for slaughter in East Timor, that, too, was related to
Vietnam. The Indonesian leader Suharto, after all, was an ally; to keep him
strong, and safe from contamination by falling-domino disease, Kissinger,
personally, had no compunctions about giving him a green light to invade the
newly independent nation of East Timor. Even events in distant Bangladesh
orbited around Vietnam, though more remotely. India, striving for neutrality in
the Cold War, refused to rally around the American cause in Indochina. Pakistan,
on the other hand, was ruled by just the kind of generals Kissinger liked to see
in high places: Ergo, they got a free hand in overturning the election in
Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan.
Hitchens shows that besides influencing American policy in the geopolitical
sense, the Vietnam War also altered policy by corrupting the American
leadership. The high stakes of escalating war encouraged Kissinger and Nixon to
believe that there were few laws they were bound to respect in bringing the
conflict to their kind of conclusion. What kind of conclusion would that be?
Whatever conclusion they chose to effect, the important thing was that at all
costs they must be the ones to effect it. "By any means necessary" was a slogan
once used and abused in certain sections of the antiwar movement. Reading The
Trial of Henry Kissinger establishes, once again, how well the excesses of the
peace movement mirrored, in miniature, the mentality of U.S. leaders.
Determined to prosecute the war in Vietnam by any means necessary, Nixon and
Kissinger applied the same logic to attaining and holding power. Hitchens
maintains that even before Watergate there was an illegal attempt by Republicans
to secure the presidency--this one successful (throw in George W. Bush's win in
2000 and it's hard not to detect a pattern). In 1968, Hitchens writes, Nixon and
"underlings"--chief among them, Henry Kissinger--convinced the South Vietnamese
leadership to withdraw from the Paris peace talks, thus weakening the position of
Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate for president, and contributing to
Nixon's victory. Nixon and Kissinger promised the Vietnamese a better deal than
they would have received from the Democrats. In the end, the South Vietnamese
got pretty much the same deal, only many avoidable horrors later.
Hitchens re-creates what he calls the "part-Mafioso and part-banana-republic
atmosphere" that prevailed in the White House in the early 1970s, a time when
hideous phrases like "body count" were still in vogue. Bob Kerrey has recently
stated that whatever he and his men did in the village of Thanh Phong in 1969
was nothing when compared with the kind of brutality the Viet Cong could inflict
on civilians. Perhaps Kerrey should read Hitchens's accounts of the massive
bombardments of Laos and Cambodia by B-52s, which "give no warning of approach
and are incapable of accuracy or discrimination because of their altitude and the
mass of their shells." How many Thanh Phong atrocities, how many My Lai massacres
fell on Indochina from the skies?
If nothing else, this book rekindles a desire for a full accounting of the
war. Let the trial of Henry Kissinger take place, just as Hitchens demands. It
would be exquisitely painful to be drawn back into that world of subterfuge and
destruction, but at least the right would find it difficult to go on pretending
that the war in Vietnam was a glorious lost cause. And the rest of us would be
spared surprise when nasty reminders of what the war really was like--such as the
story of Thanh Phong--burst into view. ?