When U.S. forces bombed and then invaded Cambodia in 1970, many Americans were shocked, both at the mass slaughter of bystanders and at the fact that it was done without a declaration of war. Nowadays such actions have come to be regarded as normal.
Historian Greg Grandin, in his new book, KISSINGER’S SHADOW: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, says the normalization of military aggression and mass killing of civilians is due to the influence of Henry Kissinger, not just as national security adviser and secretary of state under the Nixon and Ford administrations, but as an influential public intellectual and elder statesman.
Kissinger’s bloody record includes the prolonging of the Vietnam conflict, the carpet bombing of Cambodia and Laos, support for Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor and massacres of minorities and dissidents, the overthrow of the democratically-elected Allende government in Chile, sponsorship of South American death squads through Operation Condor, support for white mercenaries fighting African liberation movements and much else.
But U.S. military interventions, covert actions and war crimes did not begin with Kissinger nor, for that matter, with the Cold War, nor are such things unique to the United States.
The real significance of Kissinger, according to Grandin, was that he, more than anyone else, was responsible for the overcoming of the “Vietnam syndrome” – the idea that U.S. use of force should be restrained by morality, law and prudence, and that so many Americans have come, without realizing it, to accept Kissinger’s philosophy of power.
Kissinger was an admirer of the German philosopher and historian Oswald Spengler, who believed that civilizations rise when they have powerful leaders whose understanding is based on sound instinct and intuition. Spengler believed they decline when leaders limit themselves to sterile reasoning and empirical fact.
While Spengler believed that Western civilization was in a state of irreversible decline, Kissinger thought that this could be reversed by statesmen with the strength of will to ignore the “fact men” and impose their vision on reality.
Kissinger, according to Grandin, believed that power was a dynamic process. The only way a nation could maintain power was to participate in the struggle for power. A nation whose leaders stayed on the sidelines would only become weak.
It is true that facts are not enough They do not interpret themselves. Kissinger’s opposite was Defense Secretary Robert M. McNamara, who believed in making decisions solely on the basis of measurable facts, such as the “body count”, while ignoring history and personalities. McNamara came too late to the understanding that his data did not provide a picture of reality.
But when Nixon and Kissinger took office in 1969, the only fact that mattered was that the United States had more sheer military power than North Vietnam.
In Kissinger’s view, all the United States had to do to prevail was the will to use that force, without moral qualms. He despised McNamara, not for his failure but for his regrets.
Under Nixon and Kissinger, more bombs were dropped on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos that were dropped in Germany and Japan during World War Two. Yet the North Vietnamese did not yield. It was they who had the indomitable will.
Kissinger later remarked to Bill Clinton that the bombing campaign was worthwhile because it demonstrated U.S. willingness to “break the back” of a small country if it defied the United States. “Whether we got it right or not is really secondary,” Kissinger said.
Kissinger’s attitude toward China and the USSR was very different. His great achievement as a statesman was opening the door to relations with China. He also deserves credit for pursuing negotiations with the USSR aimed at preventing mutual destruction in a nuclear war.
The difference is that he regarded Mao Zedong and Leonid Brezhnev, the rulers of great powers, as his peers. What was intolerable to him was that small nations, such as North Vietnam and Cuba, could defy Washington and get away with it.
The Reagan wing of the Republican Party attacked Kissinger for detente, but Ronald Reagan, once in office, adopted a Kissinger-like foreign policy—negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev, but supporting the Contras in Nicaragua and turning over CIA files on Nelson Mandela to the South African government.
Kissinger ingratiated himself with Reagan and his successors, as he once did with Nixon (he began as a Rockefeller Republican and privately held both Nixon and Reagan in contempt).
He wrote and spoke in defense of Reagan’s invasion of Grenada and George H.W. Bush’s invasion of Panama, even though or maybe just because they served no useful purpose, as a demonstration of the U.S. will to use force. He justified the war policies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and used those policies as a vindication of his own record.
I once read Kissinger’s A World Restored, published in 1957, about Prince Metternich and European international relations following the defeat of Napoleon. As I recall, Kissinger wrote there that true greatness as a statesman is possible only to a revolutionary, who establishes a new order, or to a conservative with complete freedom of action, who preserves an existing order.
By those standards, Henry Kissinger was not a great statesman. He neither created a new order nor preserved an existing order. Instead he spread disorder, as his successors continue to do.
He blamed the American democratic system, and especially liberals and protesters, for denying him complete freedom of action. But the American public, including most liberals, supported U.S. Cold War policies until the Vietnam intervention. If there is a “Vietnam syndrome,” Kissinger is one of its fathers.
Kissinger wrote about the use of power, but he and his successors neglected the sources of power—national unity, a productive economy, an effective government, an informed public, science and technology, and military training and morale. The United States is weaker, not stronger, as a result of this neglect.
But Kissinger’s ideas have prevailed. An adviser to George W. Bush – generally believed to be Karl Rove – told journalist Ron Suskind that the “reality-based community” is irrelevant because the United States is an empire and has the power to create new realities. That is Kissingerism, whether the speaker knew it or not.
The Pentagon, CIA and State Department have the secret and unaccountable power that Kissinger wanted them to have. Kissinger’s shadow, as Grandin wrote, is likely to outlive its creator.
The Kissinger Effect by Greg Grandin for The Nation.
How Henry Kissinger Helped Make Endless War an All-American Tradition by Greg Grandin for TomDispatch (via In These Times).
The Disastrous History of Henry Kissinger’s Policies in the Middle East by Greg Grandin for TomDispatch (via In These Times).
Henry Kissinger, Hillary Clinton’s Tutor in War and Peace by Greg Grandin for The Nation. [added 2/15/2016]
Henry Kissinger’s War Crimes Are Central to the Divide Between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders by Dan Froomkin for The Intercept. [added 2/15/2016]
The Statesman As Ubermensch: A Nietzschean Perspective on Kissinger by Greg Lawson for the Eurasian Review.