By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The case against Henry Kissinger—and why it still matters

Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger at the Atlantic Council Distinguished Leadership Awards 2013. Photo (cc) by the Atlantic Council.

Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger at the Atlantic Council Distinguished Leadership Awards in 2013. Photo (cc) by the Atlantic Council.

Henry Kissinger is back in the news thanks to Bernie Sanders, who went after Hillary Clinton at Thursday night’s debate for taking Kissinger’s advice. “I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend,” Sanders said, to which Clinton replied: “I listen to a wide variety of voices that have expertise in various areas.” (I am not doing the full exchange justice. Click here for the debate transcript and search for “Kissinger.”)

In following the debate on Twitter, I was surprised at the extent to which people seemed bemused that Sanders would bring up someone who hasn’t served in public office for 40 years. Yet Sanders’s critique certainly struck me as relevant. To this day, many observers refer to Kissinger as a war criminal for his actions as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state. And, frankly, the case against him is strong, particularly with regard to the Nixon administration’s secret war in Cambodia and its role in the overthrow and assassination of Chile’s elected socialist president, Salvador Allende.

In 2001 the late journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote a 40,000-word, two-part article for Harper’s that was later published as a book called The Trial of Henry Kissinger. I wrote about Hitchens’s polemic for The Boston Phoenix, summarizing Hitchens’s evidence in some detail and comparing it to what other Kissinger biographers had found. My conclusion: a bit simplistic but compelling nevertheless.

So how closely associated is Hillary Clinton with Henry Kissinger? Certainly there’s an element of guilt-by-association in Sanders’s accusation, which is his M.O. Count me as among those who are tired of Sanders’s constant insinuations that anyone who takes campaign contributions from Wall Street is by definition corrupt.

Still, this New York Times piece by Amy Chozick makes clear that Clinton didn’t just accidentally bump into Kissinger one night at Zumba class. Chozick points out that when Clinton reviewed Kissinger’s book World Order for The Washington Post, Clinton wrote: “Kissinger is a friend, and I relied on his counsel when I served as secretary of state.” Clinton continued: “He checked in with me regularly, sharing astute observations about foreign leaders and sending me written reports on his travels.”

I don’t think we have to worry that Clinton will be giving the 92-year-old Kissinger an office at the White House if she is elected president. Still, Sanders has identified not just a political problem for Clinton but a substantive one. She needs to address it.

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  1. Every Secretary of State relies on every previous living Secretary of State as a friend and counselor. It’s an unusual job, full of classified and confidential information and relationships, and institutional memory.

    The presidency is the same. Regardless of party affiliation or opinions on individual policies or wars, the living presidents counsel one another. Call it collegiality, or call it Stockholm Syndrome, but the pressures of the job and the tiny group of alum who’ve shared it get very tight.

    Sanders himself when he cosponsored the VA bill with John McCain last year praised the former GOP presidential candidate. He said he and McCain differed on “very, very many” policy positions. And then went on to effusively praise him and their work on the bill.

    Bernie understands. Honestly, as a speechwriter, myself, I expect since Iowa he is handing off his talking points to an earwire — a professional campaign handler and attack dog.

    This line of attack doesn’t ring true to the Sanders I know from growing up in Vermont and following Vermont politics my whole life. It sounds far more like a traditional campaign in the end stages.

    It had to happen, if he made it past New Hampshire. Expect more pandering BernieBros, and less Bernie, from here on.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Shava: Regardless of where you stand, John McCain is a great American. Kissinger?

      • Kissinger may be a war criminal, but he is a living repository of our institutional memory, and a savvy diplomat and politician. If we can profit from his knowledge, we should do so.

        It’s like any fantasy novel, Dan — you go unarmed and unarmored into the cave of the dragon, and ask it what it remembers of the history of ages past. You don’t trust it, but you are very very respectful.

        And yes, if you want to go back next time, you call it by the titles it prefers and call it friend, and praise its scales. Because you serve your people and your country.

        If you read it in heroic fantasy you’d think she was a hero — her without armor or lance, facing down the dragon who had killed millions and getting what she needed to without shedding a drop of blood.

        But your purity cult says, she went into the cave and came out alive — she must be a dragon worshiper. Stone her!

        This is why we can’t have nice things.

  2. “that anyone who takes campaign contributions from Wall Street is by definition corrupt.”

    Clinton answers the question with a similar sentiment in mind — she points out that Obama (who she mentions 10 times a debate, with good reason), Biden etc… all get donations from finance.

    I am sympathetic with Sander’s argument though. To me his point is the system, not the individuals are corrupt. Of course, in a heated primary things get more personal as things go on. If I were Sanders I would encourage every voter to look at the lack of donations Warren gets from Big finance. She gets none, and that will help his case (especially since Warren has 1) stayed neutral in public and 2) has critiqued Clinton in her books).

    And this brings me back to Clinton always attaching herself to Obama. The danger in this is that the 2008 campaign provides endless fodder for the Sander’s campaign to go though and point out her attacks on him. This has already been done with some success on the universal health care argument.

    Another dynamic is that you, I — and many of your readers, suspect — are news junkies and watch every debate. In this sense I get tired of almost every line, since things get quite redundant. But I suspect after NH, Sanders expects he has some new viewers who are just now taking notice. So I expect he will keep singing the song about donations. And, repetitive as it is, for the novice follower of politics, it may serve to educate them on where money goes and how it works.

  3. pauljbass

    I agree with Dan and Bernie about Henry Kissinger’s record; and Hillary’s hawkish tendencies are fair game — but I felt the attack misfired in the debate. Of course you should consult with your predecessors, especially one who, for all his crimes (Chile, Cambodia) made history in China and the Soviet Union. She was actually right about that. Bernie talks about how she’s “friends” with Kissinger and how he’s “friends” with Clinton; that’s a fake word in politics, meaningless. Meanwhile, most viewers younger than we are wouldn’t pick up on that back story or the CIA involvement in the Iran coup. While again I agree with Bernie on all that history, it felt like he didn’t have control of his presentation, that an old lefty wound was pricked and he got off message instead of communicating well with his audience. Meanwhile, it was notable to me by contrast how Bernie let loose on that issue but held back on the opening he’s been granted with Clinton’s refusal to release the transcripts of her $200,000-plus speeches to Wall Street. I respect that he doesn’t want to attack or otherwise hurt the Democrats in the general election, but that issue at least seems quite real and relevant to me (raising serious questions about her vow to be tough on Wall Street, let alone be transparent) and understandable to all voters, while the Kissinger attack, for its background merits, felt off.

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