Was Henry Kissinger a war criminal? More than 20 years ago, Christopher Hitchens submitted his brief

Nixon and Kissinger in the Oval Office. 1973 photo by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Somehow Henry Kissinger made it to 100 without getting shipped off to The Hague. When word came down Wednesday evening that the Nixon-era secretary of state had died, many were predicting that the media would slobber all over him. I see little evidence of that today, with The New York Times and The Washington Post featuring Kissinger’s ugly side as well as his accomplishments. Rolling Stone headlined its Kissinger obit, written by Spencer Ackerman, “Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved By America’s Ruling Class, Finally Dies”— shades of the magazine’s classic Richard Nixon obit by Hunter S. Thompson, “He Was a Crook.”

More than 20 years ago, the late journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote a two-part essay for Harper’s that was later expanded into a book, “The Trial of Henry Kissinger.” Hitchens argued that the former secretary of state had committed war crimes in Cambodia, Chile and elsewhere and should be brought to trial. It wasn’t a novel argument even then, but Hitchens pulled together the strands in a compelling manner, even if he didn’t quite make the case that Kissinger should be arrested and sent to the Netherlands.

I wrote a lengthy overview of Hitchens’ case against Kissinger for The Boston Phoenix on March 8, 2001. If you’re looking for an antidote to the tributes coming Kissinger’s way, I hope you’ll find this worth your time.

Kissinger accused

Journalist Christopher Hitchens reminds us once again of the horrors that Henry wrought in Chile, Cambodia, Vietnam and elsewhere

By Dan Kennedy | The Boston Phoenix | March 8, 2001

Henry Kissinger may be the only living American who is casually described — at least in certain liberal and leftish circles — as a “war criminal.” In his heyday, during the Nixon and Ford years, Kissinger was a media superstar, the man behind the opening to China and détente with the Soviet Union. He even won a Nobel Peace Prize for helping to end the Vietnam War. But those triumphs have long since been supplanted in the public’s memory by a darker vision.

To the extent that Kissinger is thought of at all these days, it is for his leading role in the secret bombings of Cambodia during the Vietnam War and in the removal and subsequent murder of Chilean president Salvador Allende, a socialist who had the temerity to win a democratic election. Kissinger biographies, most notably Seymour Hersh’s “The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House” (Summit Books, 1983) and Walter Isaacson’s “Kissinger: A Biography” (Simon & Schuster, 1992), long ago laid bare most of the details of those and other foreign misadventures.

Now comes Christopher Hitchens with a new, devastating portrayal of Kissinger. There’s no insult in observing that Hitchens offers little new information. Hitchens’ journalistic specialties are synthesis and polemicism, not investigative reporting. In a two-part, 40,000-word essay published in the February and March issues of Harper’s, Hitchens makes his purpose clear: to examine Kissinger’s career anew, and thus to show that the now-elderly diplomat committed war crimes — that Kissinger, in Hitchens’ view, knew about and in some cases actively helped plan terrible acts of assassination and mass killings, for which he may yet be called to account.

Hitchens’ timing may seem odd. Who, after all, cares about Henry Kissinger anymore? It is no surprise that Hitchens’ Kissinger essay (which will be republished this spring as a Verso book titled “The Trial of Henry Kissinger”) has attracted only a smattering of attention in the mainstream media. But that’s the media’s fault, not Hitchens’. His essay is powerful, ugly and important. This is a time, Hitchens notes, when Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who came to power in the coup d’état that toppled Allende, is on trial in Chile for crimes against humanity, and when the international tribunal in The Hague waits in the hope that Slobodan Milosevic will be arrested and brought before it for judgment. If government officials are being held to account for their misdeeds in a way they never have before, then why shouldn’t Americans consider the misdeeds of their own current and former leaders?

Then, too, we have just emerged from an extraordinary eight-year inquisition of a president whose many faults pale when compared to the evil policies of Richard Nixon, policies in which Kissinger was intimately involved. Two years after Bill Clinton was nearly removed from office for lying under oath about oral sex, Hitchens offers a useful reminder of what White House criminality really looks like.

Is Kissinger really a war criminal? That must be left to experts on international law. Certainly there are those who think Hitchens has no case. For instance, Douglass Cassel, director of the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern University’s School of Law, wrote recently in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin that “Hitchens’ tendentious analysis is sloppy to the point of being unfair and irresponsible,” and that he thus “stain[s] the cause of accountability for atrocities.”

Yet Jeremy Rabkin, an expert on international law at Cornell University, wrote in a recent essay distributed by United Press International that, because of the Pinochet precedent, “it is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that Kissinger could be arrested and put on trial.” And Rabkin, it should be pointed out, is a conservative who is repulsed rather than elated by that prospect.

Hitchens suggests that the best judge of whether Kissinger could be prosecuted is Kissinger himself. Near the beginning of his essay, Hitchens reports that Kissinger was deeply upset in 1998 when the U.S. government “decided,” in the words of a New York Times account, “to declassify some secret documents on the killings and torture committed during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile.” Those documents — which Hitchens strongly suspects contain a few smoking guns with Kissinger’s fingerprints on them — had been sought by the Chilean courts in order to advance their case against Pinochet.

Writes Hitchens: “One must credit Kissinger with grasping what so many other people did not: that if the Pinochet precedent became established, then he himself was in some danger.”


Hitchens, an Oxford-educated British expatriate, is a columnist for the leftist-liberal Nation and the glitzy Vanity Fair. A writer of immense learning and prodigious output, he is something of a polymath.

Just the titles of some of his books suggest his wide-ranging interests, among them “Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice” (Verso, 1995; an exposé of the Calcutta nun’s less saintly side); “The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be Returned?” (Verso, 1998; a book about priceless Greek ruins that were carted off to Britain in 1801); and “No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family” (an anti-Clinton rant published by Verso in 1999 and updated in 2000). His latest — “Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere” (Verso, 2001) — is a collection of his literary criticism.

It was the Lewinsky scandal that turned Hitchens into a minor celebrity. His shtick — the disheveled lefty with the sophisticated accent who hated Clinton just as much as Ken Starr and Henry Hyde did — played well amid the cavalcade of talking heads on cable television.

But Hitchens’ fame turned to infamy in early 1999 when he betrayed his friend (make that former friend) Sidney Blumenthal, the journalist turned Clinton defender. Blumenthal had just testified before the Senate, under oath, that he was not the source of negative stories about Monica Lewinsky — and had issued a challenge to anyone who would say otherwise. Hitchens immediately swore out an affidavit claiming that Blumenthal had told him over lunch the previous year that Bill Clinton had described Lewinsky as a “stalker.” Hitchens was excoriated by liberals generally and by his colleagues at The Nation specifically. Hitchens himself expressed no regrets, although he did tell The New York Times that he was appalled at his own lack of courage in not tipping off Blumenthal beforehand, saying it “still makes me whimper when I think about it.”

Having helped in his own little way to feed the Clinton-scandal machine, Hitchens is now trying to change the subject at a time when said machine is cranking away yet again. In Washington, the talk is of Clinton the serial pardoner handing out free passes to international sleazeballs such as Marc Rich. It’s loathsome behavior, of course, but it’s loathsome in the Southern tradition of small-time corruption. Clinton is Edwin Edwards with an Oxford education. Henry Kissinger, by contrast, is — well, a war criminal, or at least someone who was deeply involved in terrible acts. Hitchens may not have intended it this way, but his Kissinger essay is a useful reminder of a time when the White House was the source of far more frightening behavior than the alleged sale of undeserved pardons.

How much worse were Kissinger and his patron, Richard Nixon, than Clinton and company? Consider this short version of Hitchens’ richly detailed bill of particulars.

  • During the 1968 presidential campaign, Kissinger, a Democrat, was working as a low-level functionary for the Johnson White House, assisting with peace talks with the North Vietnamese in Paris. Kissinger leaked word to the Nixon campaign that Lyndon Johnson was considering a last-minute bombing halt to help the presidential campaign of Hubert Humphrey. Nixon’s minions, in turn, made use of that intelligence to pass messages to the South Vietnamese to hang tough, telling them they would get a better deal from Nixon than they would from Humphrey. Sadly, it worked — and, as Hitchens writes, “four years later the Nixon Administration tried to conclude the war on the same terms that had been offered in Paris. … [I]n those intervening years some 20,000 Americans and an uncalculated number of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians lost their lives. Lost them, that is to say, even more pointlessly than had those slain up to that point.”
  • In the fall of 1970, Salvador Allende won a plurality of votes in the Chilean presidential election, making him the all-but-certain victor in a runoff vote to be held within the Chilean Congress. Nixon was determined that Allende never take the oath of office — and Kissinger was determined to do Nixon’s bidding. The chief obstacle, as the White House saw it, was Gen. René Schneider, head of the Chilean army, a conservative who nevertheless was refusing to interfere with Allende’s ascension. “Sterile” — that is, untraceable — machine guns were sent from Washington to coup plotters in a diplomatic pouch, and Schneider, following several failed attempts, was kidnapped and murdered (though not, as it turned out, with the American-provided guns). Hitchens points to documentary evidence (including statements from Kissinger himself) and to Kissinger’s position as chairman of the so-called 40 Committee, which was charged with directing all covert actions, as proof that Kissinger had to have been heavily involved in the Schneider affair.
  • The overthrow of Allende was finally accomplished in 1973. And the Chilean junta, headed by Pinochet, embarked on a campaign of assassination against its enemies, supported and encouraged by the Nixon White House and by Kissinger. One consequence was the rise of Operation Condor, a terrorist network that brought together the military dictatorships of Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and other right-wing regimes. Another consequence was the 1976 assassination — in Washington — of a prominent Chilean exile, Orlando Letelier, and his American aide Ronni Moffitt. “The internationalization of the death-squad principle was understood and approved by American intelligence and its political masters across two administrations,” Hitchens writes. “The senior person concerned in both administrations was Henry Kissinger.”
  • Kissinger either encouraged or failed to discourage the violent partition of Cyprus between Greece and Turkey and a Pakistani rampage against its easternmost province, which later broke away and became Bangladesh. He also did nothing to stop the Indonesian government from forcibly taking possession of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, and demonstrably lied about his knowledge of the situation.
  • In what is the essay’s only completely new and perhaps most dubious charge, Hitchens writes that Kissinger was involved in the attempted assassination of a Greek journalist named Elias Demetracopoulos, a Washington-based foe of the military junta that ruled Greece in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The documentary evidence is intriguing (the Greek government had apparently prepared a statement saying Demetracopoulos had died in an Athens prison, should he have been so foolish as to have returned home), but on this count, at least, Kissinger seems to be in the clear — or, to use a phrase forever linked to his sleazy boss, to have “plausible deniability.” [Note: In 2020, I interviewed James H. Barron for GBH News about his book “The Greek Connection: The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and the Untold Story of Watergate.”]


In assessing Hitchens’ piece, two questions must be answered: Is it true? And, if so, does the behavior he describes constitute war crimes?

The answer to the first question would appear to be a qualified “yes.” As I noted earlier, Seymour Hersh, Walter Isaacson and others long ago documented many of the misdeeds described by Hitchens; if anything, Hitchens makes a stronger case, since he was able to consult some declassified documents that weren’t available to his predecessors. Hitchens shows there is what lawyers call “probable cause” to believe that Kissinger may be guilty, and that if Kissinger were compelled to produce the personal papers that Hitchens claims he has so assiduously kept private over the years, the questions could be answered once and for all.

In a defense of Kissinger published in National Review, John O’Sullivan doesn’t even take on such well-documented matters as the assassinations of Gen. Schneider and Orlando Letelier, but instead defends the Nixon administration’s decision to expand the Vietnam War into Cambodia and Laos. O’Sullivan repeats the old canard — as if it mattered — that “the Cambodians invited the U.S. to evict the North Vietnamese” (as Hitchens notes in his essay, such invitations may not be accepted without the knowledge of Congress), and adds that “it would not justify placing on Kissinger the entire blame for decisions taken by a democratically elected government.” But given the details offered by Hitchens on events O’Sullivan chooses not even to address, O’Sullivan’s defense comes across as ineffective and halfhearted.

It’s also interesting to note that praise for Hitchens comes from an unlikely source: Michael Kelly, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, last seen poking fun at a notion advanced by Harper’s publisher John MacArthur that the Hitchens piece was “too controversial” for The Atlantic. Kelly told the Times that “for a magazine with a smaller readership and a largely liberal audience to run a piece on a 30-year-old notion and say that that is somehow out there on the cutting edge is pretty funny,” and noted that The Atlantic had run a lengthy two-parter that grew into the Hersh book way back in 1982. But when I asked Kelly about those remarks, he said he felt bad that it looked as if he were denigrating Hitchens’ essay. “I thought it was a masterfully presented argument and a serious piece of work — a serious arguing of that case,” Kelly told me.

That brings me to the second question: is Kissinger guilty of war crimes — or, at the very least, is there enough evidence that he should be tried for war crimes?

In a sense it doesn’t matter. It is highly unlikely that Kissinger is going to be whisked away to The Hague and put on trial for events that took place a generation ago. Hitchens, like his predecessors, has documented monstrous behavior on Kissinger’s part, and that should be enough. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Hitchens does not make as strong a case for war-crimes prosecution as he does for the sheer immorality of Kissinger’s conduct.

Take, for instance, Seymour Hersh’s own two-part, 40,000-word article that was published in The Atlantic in 1982, and that later grew into “The Price of Power.” In reading Hersh’s Atlantic essays, I couldn’t help being struck by how much more populated the White House seemed than it does in Hitchens’ telling. Hersh describes a White House in which Kissinger is constantly scheming for power (among other things, he is seen jockeying with his own deputy, Al Haig, for face time and influence with the president); in which figures such as then-CIA director Richard Helms were perfectly capable of carrying out their own plots and assassinations; and in which, above all, the figure of Richard Nixon — never more than an abstraction to Hitchens — is a living, breathing, malign presence. The same point is made in Kennedy-Johnson official William Bundy’s “A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency” (Hill and Wang, 1998). Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, writing in The New York Times Book Review, says Bundy found that Kissinger’s role had been “exaggerated,” and that Haig, in particular, had pushed Nixon to bomb Cambodia and Laos. None of this necessarily makes Kissinger look any better; but it does place him in a fuller context.

Or take Walter Isaacson, now editorial director of Time Inc. In a 1992 review of his Kissinger biography, Jacob Heilbrunn, writing in The New Republic, recounted the poisonous environment that greeted Kissinger, a Jew working for a blatantly antisemitic president who referred to Kissinger as “my Jewboy.” As a Democrat who’d served in minor roles in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and who was close to one of Nixon’s chief Republican enemies, Nelson Rockefeller, Kissinger was always suspect, always having to prove himself. And whereas Hitchens portrays Kissinger’s machinations during the 1968 campaign as essentially treasonous, Isaacson, according to Heilbrunn, has a more benign take: “In the end, Kissinger proved to be a tease, and the tidbits that he provided (he had no more) led Nixon to wonder where his true loyalties lay. Of course they lay with Kissinger.”

Given that Hitchens says he relied quite a bit on Isaacson’s book (though he has also described it as “overly lenient”), it’s relevant to note that Isaacson himself has reportedly dismissed the war-crimes charge. According to a piece in the webzine Feed, Isaacson recently told an audience at the Columbia Journalism School, “You know everyone loves Hitchens, but he’s a little extreme. He takes things too far.”


Kissinger may well have committed war crimes. Hitchens’ explication of the Nuremberg precedent, and of the legal responsibility established for high government officials who preside over misdeeds, is particularly impressive and disturbing. But what Hitchens fails to deal with adequately is that Kissinger wasn’t even close to being alone in his illegal foreign intrigues. John F. Kennedy’s White House attempted to assassinate Fidel Castro and mounted a successful coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, who, quite predictably, was killed. Lyndon Johnson used a trumped-up naval incident to trick Congress into passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, thus greatly expanding the war. The Nixon White House, of course, was a thoroughgoing criminal organization of which Kissinger was a key part — but, in the end, just a part.

In a dialogue on The Atlantic Monthly’s website, staff writer James Fallows challenges Hitchens, asking, “Do you mean to say that policies in Cambodia, Timor, Greece, and elsewhere should be considered Kissinger’s failures, not America’s, and that we can purge ourselves by putting him in the dock?” Hitchens’ response: though Nixon was certainly a war criminal too, that’s no reason not to prosecute Kissinger, who is, after all, still at large. “We have the man in our sights, we have the evidence and the record, and you want to ask whether — oh, I don’t know — all Australians should be burned at the stake for what once happened to the aborigines,” Hitchens writes.

But argument by analogy is often the refuge of someone who doesn’t want to answer the question. In fact, as Fallows suggests, even if Henry Kissinger could somehow be brought to justice, that wouldn’t purge us of responsibility for letting Nixon, Kissinger et al. commit terrible crimes in our name.

Nor does much seem to have changed. Ronald Reagan, who is honored in ways that Nixon will never be, illegally funded wars marked by human-rights abuses against the people of Nicaragua and El Salvador. Clinton used the military for humanitarian purposes — and was ripped by conservatives for “nation-building,” a dirty phrase to the right. Donald Rumsfeld, who feuded with Kissinger during the Ford years because he thought Kissinger was soft on the Soviets, is back in power, pushing an unworkable missile defense on our uneasy allies. Kissinger himself prospers, consulting for the very regimes he helped bring into being.

Hitchens is right to stress Kissinger’s personal responsibility. But as Fallows suggests, the fault lies not just in Kissinger, but also in ourselves.

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3 thoughts on “Was Henry Kissinger a war criminal? More than 20 years ago, Christopher Hitchens submitted his brief”

  1. Officials in the US and some other notable countries are never held accountable for war crimes. Very good pieces by you and Hitch.

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