The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002)

[10 October 2002]

By Elbert Ventura


If diplomacy is the art of conducting affairs between nations without hostilities, then Henry Kissinger was one of its most woeful practitioners. As National Security Adviser and, later, Secretary of State under the Nixon and Ford administrations, Kissinger is considered the architect of policies distinguished by their cynicism and disdain for the law. The merits of Kissingerian realism are, I concede, open for debate: Did it save the world from Soviet domination? Did it ensure U.S. survival during a difficult period? Not beyond argument, the answers to these questions shouldn’t obscure what’s indisputable. The numbers don’t lie: anywhere from 600,000 to three million civilians, depending on your source, lost their lives during Kissinger’s reign, victims of American bombs and statecraft. It seems an understatement to say that Kissingerian diplomacy, at the very least, was conspicuously undiplomatic.

That dismal record of human loss galvanized critics of U.S. policy back in the heady days of the New Left. A new movie, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, revives their spirit. A fast-moving, fluidly told tale, Eugene Jarecki’s documentary certainly will likely inflame Kissinger’s ardent cronies. And yet, as one-sided as its story is, the movie also manages a measured disposition. Jarecki and writer and co-producer Alex Gibney have constructed an impressive essay that may have Kissinger as its subject, but has larger goals in its sights: Should world leaders and public figures be held accountable for ruinous state policies? Is it hypocritical for the U.S. to not apply the same legal norms used against the Milosevics and the Pinochets of the world to its own leaders? Is a single moral standard for the entire world possible?

Jarecki and Gibney take as their departure point the book of nearly the same name by Christopher Hitchens. (Hitchens’ slim volume opts for the singular “Trial.”) Itself an expansion of a two-part series in Harper’s, the book claims to limit itself to “identifiable crimes that can and should be placed on a proper bill of indictment.” A longtime nemesis of Kissinger (an alternate title for his book could be “Henry and Me”), Hitchens eschews scholarly distance in his zealous crusade. His muckraking approach is at once the book’s strength and weakness: compulsively readable, it cries out for a more dispassionate, legalistic treatment. Despite its flaws, Hitchens’ work is indispensable, a convincing basis for a reconsideration of the Nobel laureate’s career.

Weaving together a vivid assemblage of stock footage, archival documents and talking-head spots, the movie winnows the book down to three of its more damning studies: the deliberate targeting and killing of civilian populations in Indochina; the approval and abetting of genocide in East Timor; and the plotting of a murder of a government official in a democratic nation—Chile—with which the U.S. was not at war. I’ll leave the meat of the charges to the movie and the book—suffice to say that I found them persuasive. In each instance, the same Kissingerian hallmarks can be discerned: duplicity, secrecy, manipulation, cunning, and disregard for legal strictures, much less moral standards.

Jarecki and Gibney may settle for an abridged retelling of Hitchens’ polemic, but in some ways, they expand the book’s scope. Hitchens’ outrage, though arresting, verges on monomaniacal contempt: the ad hominem attacks certainly bolster critics’ claims of tendentiousness. To their credit, the filmmakers aspire to a fuller picture of Kissinger. Although it smacks of dime-store psychology, the movie’s suggestion that the Holocaust had an indelible effect on Kissinger’s outlook provides a compelling context. A Jewish immigrant from Germany, Kissinger lost more than a dozen relatives during World War II. Returning to his homeland as a U.S. soldier, he saw firsthand the destruction that was wreaked on his hometown. Walter Isaacson, Kissinger’s biographer, posits that two possible worldviews could have emerged from that experience: staunch moralism or grave realism. For Kissinger, the latter won out.

Briefly touching on Kissinger’s early years, the movie shows that his genius was evident from the outset. As an academic at Harvard in the 1950s, Kissinger made a name for himself as a singular talent in international policy. News footage of a young Kissinger, circa 1957, sheds peculiar light on the coming career. Discussing his belief in the permissibility of limited nuclear warfare and the prudence of a bunker in every home, his thick German accent resonant and dour, Kissinger recalls another champion of realpolitik: Dr. Strangelove. Apparently, Peter Sellers denied that his iconic role was modeled after Kissinger, but the macabre parallels are so eerie that it’s hard to suppress the fantasy.

In later years, the severe accent would become identified not with Teutonic chilliness but with continental refinement. The movie charts not just Kissinger’s career rise (allegedly abetted by his secret dealings with the Nixon campaign during the 1968 peace talks, for which he was a U.S. delegate) but also his cultivation of a celebrity image. Younger viewers may be surprised—if not puzzled—to learn that Kissinger was a high society habitue in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, dating his share of starlets. One of the film’s more hysterical morsels features a self-satisfied Kissinger recounting an incident at a party where a young woman allegedly asked him if he was a swinger. (Only in private, he replies.)

At 80 minutes, the movie could certainly be longer and more detailed. While Kissinger’s refusal to grant an interview for the film is understandable, more intelligent and coherent defenders of Kissinger and U.S. Cold War policy certainly would have been welcome. (Alexander Haig, the primary talking head for that side, comes across as a barely sentient being.) Jarecki, during a post-screening Q&A, claimed that most Kissinger-ites refused to cooperate with him. A shame it is, since the most compelling moments come from the interviews. Haig at one point says Hitchens “sucks the sewer pipe”; Roger Morris, a National Security Council staffer under Kissinger, calls his 1973 Nobel Peace Prize a travesty. More than one former U.S. official calls Kissinger a liar for his pleas of ignorance and innocence.

One particular bon mot that was in the book is left out of the movie. The priceless scene recounted by Hitchens finds publishing magnate Michael Korda being interviewed by a TV news crew in his office. The tape shows Korda receiving a message to call Kissinger. Believing the cameras to be off, Korda asks his secretary to get the phone number, cracking that it “should be 1-800-CAMBODIA…1-800-BOMB-CAMBODIA.” Needless to say, the ensuing conversation with his prized author, which the movie shows, is far less sarcastic.

“Is there anything new here?” is the question asked repeatedly of Hitchens by Kissinger’s defenders—the twisted assumption being that the longevity of the charges is somehow a vindication of Kissinger. While Hitchens and the movie largely provide information already known and previously reported—the author graciously admits that his research is perched on the achievements of courageous forerunners—there is something new here. The context has changed. As the movie puts it, “a new climate of international justice” has rejuvenated the case against Kissinger. The filmmakers and Hitchens assert that the 1998 arrest of Pinochet in Britain, on a warrant issued by a Spanish magistrate, has suddenly made the idea of “one law for one world” a possibility. The prosecution of Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic and the establishment of an International Criminal Court, despite the U.S.‘s rejection, have only inflated their hopes.

Does Kissinger belong in the company of such monsters? Hitchens says, “Yes!” in no uncertain terms, but Jarecki and Gibney are less vociferous. (Jarecki even admits finding Kissinger a likable fellow.) In the end, neither the book nor the movie make a foolproof legal argument, rhetorically convincing though they are. As Hitchens himself has said, however, what is presented is not a case for the prosecution, but a case for the case for the prosecution. Despite the abundance of testimony and archival evidence, you’d be hard-pressed to find any establishment figures who would consider such introspection, much less entertain the idea of a fact-finding inquiry. Their peremptory dismissals, so typical and expected, underscore the moral hypocrisy that underpins American exceptionalism.

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