We can rejoice that we no longer live in a world with Henry Kissinger. But we are still living with his blood-soaked legacy, which has turned the entire world into an endless battlefield.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a darling of the U.S. establishment, finally died on November 29. As one of the most powerful people in U.S. history, the odes and eulogizing from those on high will speak of him as a great statesman, an accomplished global strategist, a brilliant intellectual, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and America’s most famous diplomat.
But no. Henry Kissinger was an enemy of democracy, a war criminal, a man responsible for crimes against humanity, a man implicated in three genocides, and a butcher who orchestrated the murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians on four continents. In Latin America alone, the military dictatorships that Kissinger encouraged tortured and murdered tens of thousands of civilians. It is good that he is dead, and what is sad is not his passing but the disgusting fact that he sloughed off his mortal coil, completely unaccountable for the innumerable crimes for which he is directly responsible. While the sheer extent of his malfeasance fills whole books, a brief survey of his real legacy shows the darkness of the shadow he cast on the world.
ESMA and Argentina
The first thing I thought of after Kissinger passed was my trip to the Navy Petty-Officers School (ESMA) located in the middle of downtown Buenos Aires. During Argentina’s Dirty War, the military dictatorship disappeared up to thirty thousand “dissidents,” “subversives,” and anyone suspected of “subversive” activity. ESMA was Argentina’s largest detention center during the Dirty War.
From 1976-1983, ESMA operated as a secret detention center where the military dictatorship “disappeared,” tortured, and executed students, activists, artists, trade unionists, writers, and journalists.
ESMA has since been converted to a memorial museum to honor those who were “disappeared” during the Dirty War. On my tour, I saw the small dark rooms where the “disappeared” were housed and tortured, many of them held until they were drugged, blindfolded, forced onto military aircrafts, flown over the ocean, and pushed out to drown in the waters below. These “death flights” led to hundreds of bodies washing up on beaches south of Buenos Aires.
Over 4,800 prisoners were murdered at ESMA. Many were drowned, many others were electrocuted, many died from injuries sustained from the military’s brutal experimentation to see how well the human body could handle the removal of organs, the fluctuation of hot and cold temperatures, and the severance of limbs. Some were left in the middle of the jungle to die. Others were simply shot.
Women were subjected to sexual abuse and assault. Those whose abuse resulted in a pregnancy were often forced to give birth to the child in order to give the child away to associates of the regime. The women were then returned after they gave birth to ESMA without any knowledge of the child or even their whereabouts.
Kissinger was a strong supporter of the brutal military dictatorship in Argentina despite knowledge of these clandestine centers of detention, torture and execution. On June 10, 1976, Kissinger met with the Argentine Armed Forces shortly after the military coup that installed the dictatorship and advised the regime to destroy their opponents quickly before there was too much outcry over human rights abuses. Kissinger gave the same advice he would give to other brutal dictators, “if there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly.”
In other words, Kissinger gave military dictator Rafael Videla the green light for the kidnappings, disappearances, murder and torture so long as he could get it done “quickly” before public opinion turned against him. Kissinger reassured foreign minister Argentine Admiral César Augusto Guzzetti that he had U.S. backing in whatever he did and promised the regime that Washington would not cause any “unnecessary difficulties.” Near the end of this meeting, Kissinger requested to speak with Guzzeti privately, off the record, away from the note-taker. Kissinger subsequently wrote a request to grant $50,000 (over a quarter of a million dollars adjusted for inflation) in security assistance to the regime.
What was said in that four-minute conversation is unknown, but what we do know is the following day several deadly operations and assassinations were carried out including one operation where Argentine death squads abducted and tortured twenty-four Chilean and Uruguayan refugees living in Argentina.
The military junta stayed in power for seven more years after this meeting and one estimate of those murdered or disappeared numbered upwards of 22 thousand by July 1978. After these tens of thousands of Argentines were murdered or disappeared, and in the middle of the dictatorship’s brutal torture and extermination regime, Videla invited Kissinger to be his guest of honor for the 1978 FIFA World Cup. In what became his most visible meeting with Videla, Kissinger accepted the invitation and publicly participated in this attempt to use soccer to whitewash the concentration camps and torture chambers the regime was operating across the country.
No better words describe Kissinger’s aversion to democracy than the words of Kissinger himself. In the 1970s, Chile had a reputation for having one of the most developed pluralistic democracies in the southern hemisphere. In Chile’s 1970 free and democratic elections, socialist Salvador Allende was elected with a plurality of votes. A socialist president in Chile was unacceptable to the Chilean Right and to certain powerful U.S. corporations doing business in Chile (ITT, Pepsi Cola, Chase Manhattan Bank). Kissinger’s now famous response to the elections was clear: “I don’t know why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.” Even before the election, Kissinger’s position on Allende was made plain in a CIA cable that stated: “it is a firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup.”
In the days following Allende’s electoral victory, Kissinger met with President Nixon and the director of the CIA, Richard Helms, to devise a plan to instigate a coup to prevent the democratically elected Allende from coming to power. Kissinger pressed the CIA to foment a military coup. Project FUBELT (Track II) was the codename given to the secret CIA operation to prevent Allende from coming to power before his confirmation. When word of a possible military coup reached General René Schneider, head of the Chilean military, Schneider responded by saying that he would uphold the Chilean Constitution and respect the elections. Without knowledge or authorization from the U.S. Congress, Kissinger began a plan to remove this obstacle by getting rid of General Schneider.
The plan was to kidnap Schneider, replace him with a coup supporter, claim that the kidnapping was done by Allende supporters, declare martial law, wipe out Allende supporters, and declare the elections null. A sum of $50,000 was offered to any Chilean officer who would take on this task. Kissinger then authorized machine guns and tear gas grenades to several Chilean officers interested in kidnapping Scheider. One of them was General Roberto Viaux, who had ties to Patria y Libertad, a fascist paramilitary group. On October 22, General Viaux’s gang kidnapped and murdered General Scheider, and his $50,000 was promptly wired to his bank account. Viaux was later convicted on charges of kidnapping and conspiring to cause a coup, but Kissinger, who essentially created the plan and greenlit funding for the operation of the Schneider’s murder, was never held accountable.
Despite removing one of the key obstacles to overthrowing Allende, the initial attempts at a coup failed. Over the next three years, there were five more attempts to overthrow Allende. Finally, on September 11, 1973, Washington and the Chilean armed forces would be successful in overthrowing the democratically elected Chilean president.
After the coup, Kissinger supported the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. Under Pinochet, Chilean security forces killed, tortured, and disappeared thousands of Chileans. The regime turned Santiago’s soccer stadium into a concentration camp. On several occasions, Kissinger pushed back against Congress’s attempt to censure the regime for its human rights violations.1
It is worth mentioning that Kissinger was well-informed of the minute details of Pinochet’s atrocities. Kissinger met with Pinochet in Santiago, Chile on June 8, 1976, and told him that whatever mild criticism he may hear in his remarks to the Organization of American States (OAS) the following day should not be taken seriously. Kissinger let Pinochet know that he would have to make a few comments about human rights violations in Chile but he could safely ignore them because “the speech is not aimed at Chile.”
But for Pinochet, the torture, execution, and “disappearance” of domestic dissidents was not enough. Pinochet, along with other right-wing military dictatorships in South America (Stroessner’s Paraguay, Videla’s Argentina, Banzer’s Bolivia, and other regional dictatorships) organized an international death squad consortium whereby security forces carried out cross-border assassinations, torture, kidnappings, rape and intimidation on three continents. In effect, it was the internationalization of Pinochet’s domestic death squads. What came to be known as Operation Condor was established at a meeting in Santiago Chile on November 26, 1975. The meeting was attended by various South American military officers and heads of state.
Many prominent dissidents were murdered by this campaign including Chilean General Carlos Prats in Buenos Aires, Bolivian general Juan José Torres, and Chilean ex-Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and his aide Ronnie Moffit in Washington D.C. Letelier held a number of high-level positions in the Allende government and after the coup moved to the U.S. where he could lobby Congress to impose sanctions on Chile. For this crime, Letelier was murdered in broad daylight by a car bomb in downtown Washington D.C. Letelier, along with his U.S.co-worker Ronni Moffit, was killed and Moffit’s husband Michael Moffit who was also in the car was injured but survived.
The United States government’s cooperation and complicity has been uncovered at every level of Operation Condor. U.S. communication installations in Panama facilitated the communication and coordination of the South American heads of state regarding Operation Condor which allowed them to maintain the confidentiality of their communications. Kissinger was briefed frequently about Condor, he knew very well what type of operations Condor was conducting. It was not until after Kissinger met with Pinochet and Guzzetti that Operation Condor transitioned to what was called phase III operations, which was the carrying out of executions outside Latin America. It is fairly uncontroversial to assert that the expansion of the assassination campaign was a consequence of Kissinger’s explicit go-ahead as his behavior in prior coups in Argentina and Chile reflect.
Many of those involved in Operation Condor were held to some sort of account. Stroesner was overthrown, Videla was convicted of homicide, kidnapping and torture, and was sentenced to life in prison, Pinochet was arrested on charges of genocide and terrorism yet, once again, Kissinger escaped accountability.
Kissinger is probably best known for his role in the Vietnam War. But what is less known is that despite his continued public support for the war and his constant campaigning to build popular support for ongoing intervention, he knew from the beginning that the war was unwinnable. He often said in private conversations that “we couldn’t win” the war in Vietnam. Despite knowing it was unwinnable, Kissinger was one of the biggest proponents for the continuation of the war in Vietnam. Let us take a look at some of the consequences of his efforts to continue and expand the war in Southeast Asia. We will start with his role in the 1968 presidential elections.
In the 1968 election between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, the question of the war was the central issue of the election. Both candidates claimed they were the best chance for “peace.” At the time, the Johnson administration was engaged in the Paris peace negotiations on Vietnam.
Kissinger privately assured the South Vietnamese that an incoming Republican administration would offer them a better deal than the one the Johnson administration was offering them. The purpose of sabotaging the Paris peace negotiations was to both derail the talks themselves and the electoral strategy of Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey. The idea was that if Kissinger could undercut Johnson’s peace talks then a frustrated U.S. electorate would turn to the Republicans to end the war. But of course, ending the war was never Kissinger’s aim. Any progress in the talks between Washington and Hanoi that were happening at the time would have benefited Humphrey.
Kissinger used his contacts in the Johnson administration to acquire information about the negotiations, and then passed that information on to the Nixon campaign. Nixon then used the intelligence to forestall a possible truce. Kissinger’s tactics worked; the South Vietnamese withdrew from the talks on the eve of the elections, undercutting the “peace plank” that the Democrats were depending on. Humphrey’s momentum faded and Nixon won the election. Nixon rewarded Kissinger for his work by appointing him National Security Advisor.
The sabotaged negotiations that ended the Paris Peace Accords in Vietnam may have marked Kissinger’s ascent to power, but they were disastrous for the Vietnamese. Kissinger’s cynical subversion of the peace talks extended the war by five more years (seven if you count the two years of fighting between the 1973 peace accords and the 1975 fall of Saigon). The deal the Vietnamese signed five years later in 1973 was essentially the exact same as those that had been offered in the Paris peace talks in 1968.
In that five-year period, more than three million civilians were killed, injured, or rendered houseless. In that same four-year period, the U.S. dropped over four and a half million tons of high explosives on Indochina, which is more than twice as much tonnage dropped in the entirety of World War II. This doesn’t include the pesticides, chemical defoliants, and landmines that continue to detonate to this day.
The millions of deaths in these intervening years were completely avoidable, and were even more pointless than those killed prior to the Paris peace negotiations. Had the Paris negotiations not been sabotaged, tens of thousands of lives could have been spared. Kissinger knew the war was unwinnable. The only real winner of these four years of slaughter was Kissinger himself.
During the war, Kissinger, along with Nixon, carried out a number of devastating bombing campaigns on North Vietnam. Perhaps none more catastrophic than the Christmas Bombings. In December of 1972, the U.S. carried out one of the most concentrated bombing campaigns in history. In the campaign, 129 B52 bombers dropped forty thousand tons of bombs on Hanoi and Haiphong. This twelve-day campaign was the largest bomber strike launched by the U.S. since World War II. The attacks targeted civilian buildings, including hospitals and schools. Nixon said at the time that the bombs were designed to cause “the utmost civilian distress.” Over 1,600 Vietnamese civilians were killed in this campaign and that was precisely the goal as expressed by Kissinger and Nixon.
What makes this bombing particularly heinous is that it was not conducted for any military purposes. The bombings were carried out solely for political purposes. The first political purpose of the bombings was to make a show of strength. The second was to show the South Vietnamese government that the U.S. wouldn’t abandon them after the December 1972 peace talks collapsed. The Christmas bombings were their way of showing it. As Christopher Hitchens described it: “It was a public relations mass murder from the sky.”
Cambodia and Laos
In Cambodia, Kissinger conducted an illegal, secret bombing without congressional knowledge or approval on a neutral country that the U.S. was not officially at war with. Less than a month into Nixon’s term Kissinger began to plan an attack on North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Eastern Cambodia. Cambodia hoped to remain neutral in the Vietnam War, but Kissinger had other plans. Because bombing a neutral country is illegal, Kissinger had to carry out his attacks in secret. The planning of these secret bombings took place in a meeting between Kissinger, his aide Alexander Haig, and Air Force Colonel Ray Sitton in February 1969. The operation was named Operation Menu, with the names of the targets named after meals, Breakfast, Lunch, Snack, Dinner, and Dessert. Starting with Breakfast Kissinger approved a plan to conceal the Cambodian bombing missions from military retinas.
The plan was as follows. B-52 planes were given preassigned targets in South Vietnam, then in mid-flight they would be rerouted by ground radar stations and guided to secret targets in Cambodia. It is also important to note that B-52 bombers fly at an altitude too high to be observed from the ground, give no warning of approach, and are incapable of accuracy or discrimination. The pilots would bomb these targets in Cambodia, then upon their return would write up false “post-strike” reports indicating that their bombs had been dropped in South Vietnam.
Any documents that revealed the deception – maps, radar reports, computer printouts, etc, would be burned. Cambodia would never appear on the record. These forged documents and “phony target coordinates” would be sent to Congress and the Pentagon for accounting purposes, to continue receiving money for bombs, fuel, etc, while never having to disclose that Cambodia was the actual target of these bombings. Under Kissinger’s supervision, the U.S. flew over 3,800 secret missions over Cambodia in 14 months, dropping 110 thousand tons of bombs. Kissinger was intimately involved in the direction and timing of the bombing raids, and nobody knew more about them in intimate detail than he did.
Kissinger supervised every aspect of these bombings, including designing the missions, picking the specific targets to be bombed, the timing of the bombs, oftentimes even overruling and altering plans that generals and other military men had proposed. Kissinger enjoyed the roll of bombardier and was even reported to “express enthusiasm at the size of bomb craters.”2
The bombings in Cambodia were purposefully indiscriminate, with a majority of victims being civilians. Over a hundred thousand Cambodians were killed and over two million (one-quarter of the country’s population) were forced to flee their homes. Entire families were wiped out, whole villages were destroyed, and hundreds of acres of crops were scorched.
Shortly after the bombings, rumors of the operations began to leak in the press. Kissinger was determined to keep these bombings secret. He responded by contacting the FBI to request wiretaps to be used to find the source of the leaks. Journalists, associates, and aids in the Pentagon were subsequently wiretapped.
Operation Menu created a major crisis in Cambodia, which led to a coup in 1970 and the broadening of support for the Khmer Rouge as a resistance to the bombing. The coup provoked a U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970. Kissinger’s response to this crisis that was created by his own bombing was more bombing. This time the bombings were not limited to North Vietnamese sanctuaries but spread to cover nearly all of Cambodia. Kissinger’s bombing of Cambodia created the conditions for the rise and eventual triumph of the Khmer Rouge. U.S. bombs were a major recruitment tool for the Khmer Rouge. When Nixon and Kissinger began bombing Cambodia in 1969, the Khmer Rouge had a membership of just five thousand. By 1973, after four years of U.S. bombings, the Khmer Rouge grew to over two hundred thousand troops. The Khmer Rouge, as is widely known, carried out a genocide that killed two million people.
The worst of the bombings occurred after Washington, Hanoi, and Saigon signed the peace accords in 1973. Between February 8 and August 15, 1973, the U.S. dropped over 250 thousand tons of bombs, targeting most of the country.
The bombing of Cambodia and Laos was one of the most brutal military operations in U.S. history. According to one study, 790 thousand cluster bombs were dropped on Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam combined, releasing just under one trillion pieces of shrapnel.3 As Greg Grandin points out “more bombs were dropped separately on Cambodia and Laos than combined on Japan and Germany during WWII.”4 Grandin summarizes the bombings in his 2015 book Kissinger’s Shadow:
The bombing of Cambodia was illegal in its conception, deceitful in its implementation, and genocidal in its effect. It destroyed the fragile neutrality that Cambodia’s leaders had managed to maintain despite the war next door. It committed Washington to a program of escalation, including its 1970 invasion, which hastened the collapse of Cambodian society.
When the German Newspaper Die Ziet asked Kissinger in 1976 if he had any “pangs of conscience” about his role in Cambodia, he promptly replied “no.”6It is no wonder that chef and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain once said, “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger with your bare hands.”
But Cambodia and Vietnam were not the only countries in Southeast Asia that were bombed by Nixon on the advice of Kissinger. Though Lyndon Johnson began the bombing of Laos, it was Nixon and Kissinger who expanded and intensified them. And much like the initial bombing campaigns in Cambodia, at first, the bombings in Laos were done in secret. Between 1964-1973 the U.S. dropped 270 million bombs on Laos. Despite that, the two countries were never officially at war. During this period the U.S. carried out over 580 thousand bombing missions in Laos. In other words, U.S. pilots dropped a plane full of bombs on average every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, every day for nine straight years. That is the equivalent of a ton of explosives dropped for each and every Laotian for a total of 2.5 million tons in nearly 600 thousand runs, making Laos, per capita, the most heavily bombed country in history.
Over eighty million of these bombs never exploded and remain live, buried all over the country. So in addition to the thirty thousand Laotians that were killed in the initial bombings, almost a half a century after the bombing ceased, the bombs dropped by the U.S. are still killing and maiming hundreds of Laotians each year. Over twenty thousand Laotians were killed by these delayed explosions as of 2009. Forty percent of the victims are children and many more are scarred and maimed.7
In the end, as many as 350 thousand civilians in Laos and 600 thousand in Cambodia lost their lives as a result of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s expanded and intensified bombing campaigns.8 Not to mention the millions of refugees created by the bombings or the widespread health crisis that persists to this day (particularly for young children, nursing mothers, and the elderly) that resulted from the widespread use of toxic chemical defoliants.
East Timor and beyond
Just under three thousand miles southeast of Laos, Kissinger aided and abetted another genocide. On December 6, 1975, Kissinger and Nixon met with Indonesian dictator Suharto. In this meeting, Kissinger and Nixon gave Suharto the green light to invade East Timor. As he had advised Videla in Argentina, Kissinger told Suharto that “it is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly.” Kissinger also asked that Suharto not begin his invasion until after Nixon and Kissinger had returned to the United States. The day after they left Indonesia, Suharto invaded East Timor. According to a United Nations Truth Commission over one hundred thousandTimorese were killed in the invasion and occupation of East Timor, while some estimates are even higher. Given that East Timor had a population of under seven hundred thousand people, the genocide of East Timor killed more than one-seventh of the entire population. Suharto also forced hundreds of thousands of Timorese into concentration camps. Timorese civilians were forced into school buildings, which were then set on fire, and anyone who tried to escape was shot. Most people were burned alive. Throughout the genocide, the United States provided most of the weapons, armored cars, uniforms, aircraft, logistical support, ammunition, and other expendables the Indonesian military needed to conduct these atrocities.
East Timor was just one of many genocides supported by Kissinger. When West Pakistan (now Pakistan) invaded East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) Kissinger silently extended military aid to West Pakistan even after being debriefed by the U.S. consulate in Dhaka of what they termed “selective genocide” and brutality that was taking place. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped, millions were displaced and an estimated three million were killed. Even Nixon compared the slaughter to the Holocaust, but Kissinger convinced him to not worry about it.9 Kissinger wanted to appease China and Pakistan was an important ally in the Cold War so Bangladeshi civilians had to pay the price.
Kissingers’s crimes and the tens of thousands of people murdered as a result of his actions extend far beyond the examples described in this article. In addition to backing a brutal coup in Chile (where Pinochet slaughtered over forty thousand), backing murderous dictators in South America, from Videl (who murdered upwards of thirty thousand), in Argentina and beyond, extending the war in Vietnam (which resulted in three million civilians killed, injured, or rendered houseless), secretly bombing Cambodia (which took the life of six hundred thousand Cambodians),10 murdering civilians in Laos (as many as 350 thousand),11 participating in the organization an international death squad in Operation Condor that carried out assassinations against dissidents and foreign leaders, backing genocides in East Timor (where Indonesia killed a third of the Timorese population), Bangladesh (where upwards of three million were killed), Kissinger also strengthened ties with the white supremacist nations of Rhodesia and South Africa, backing the latter’s murderous invasion of Angola. Elsewhere in Africa he backed Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara and instigated counterinsurgency in Mozambique (which cost the lives of millions). He also supported Turkey’s assault on Cyprus (which resulted in the murder and dispossession of many thousands of noncombatant civilians).12 And even this list is incomplete.
With Kissinger’s death, his bloody legacy continues to play a role in creating the world we live in today. His endless open-ended wars set the precedent for today’s endless open-ended wars. Denying “safe havens for terrorists,” a common Kissinger justification for war or the idea of carrying out cross-border raids to destroy “enemy sanctuaries” as Kissinger did in Cambodia, was outside of international law in the 1970s.13 Today these justifications are all too common and largely unquestioned. It is a shared assumption held by both Democrats and Republicans that the U.S. has the right to use military force against ‘safe havens’ of terrorists or potential terrorists even if those ‘havens’ are found in sovereign countries that we are not at war with.
This was precisely the premise for the disastrous war in Afghanistan and for the expansion of the ‘war on terror’ to Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond. Kissinger played an outsized role in shifting those standards. Today the U.S. has used this logic to sanction U.S. involvement in over seventy global conflicts.14 According to journalist Nick Turse, by 2014, the U.S. forces were operating in over 130 countries. This aggressive militarism which blurs the lines and turns the whole world into a battlefield is Kissinger’s most lasting legacy, and this is how Kissinger should be remembered.
Despite the fact that near the end of his life it was reported that Kissinger could no longer travel to many countries in fear of getting arrested, Kissinger was never held accountable for his crimes or the tens of thousands of civilians across the world that would die as a result of his actions. So while we rejoice at his death and cast scorn against the solemn tributes given to him by the rulers, we mourn and rage against his escaping to the grave from justice for his bloody legacy.
Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.
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Anderson Bean is a North Carolina– based activist and author of the book Communes and the Venezuelan State: The Struggle for Participatory Democracy in a Time of Crisis from Lexington Books.