Home » Kissinger: The often misunderstood messenger

Kissinger: The often misunderstood messenger

by Gayan Abeykoon
December 1, 2023 1:30 am 0 comment

Henry Kissinger, who has died at the age of 100, was the most controversial US foreign policy practitioner of the last half-century, the architect of American detente with the Soviet Union, the orchestrator of Washington’s opening to communist China, the broker of the first peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, and the man who led the US team in the protracted talks with North Vietnam which resulted in US forces leaving Indo-china after America’s longest foreign war.

Feted for these accomplishments as National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State under Richard Nixon, Kissinger achieved global celebrity status and in 1973 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But it later emerged via leaked documents and tapes and former officials’ memoirs that behind his diplomatic skills and tireless energy as a negotiator there lurked an inordinate love of secrecy and manipulation and a ruthless desire to protect US national and corporate interests at any price.

His contempt for human rights prompted him to ask the FBI to tap his own staff’s telephones and, more seriously, to give the nod to Indonesia’s military dictator for the invasion of East Timor, to condone the actions of the apartheid regime in South Africa in invading Angola, and to use the CIA to help topple the elected Government of Chile.

A formidable academic before he worked for the Government, Kissinger reached greater heights of political influence than any previous immigrant to the US. To Kissinger himself, the fact that a man born outside the US, and a Jew to boot, could become its Secretary of State was a never-ending source of pride.

Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born to a comfortable, middle-class family in Fürth in Bavaria. As a boy, he was old enough to comprehend the collapse of their domestic stability when the Nazis came to power. His father lost his job. The family emigrated to New York in 1938.

His subsequent studies led him to become a specialist on nuclear weapons, who caught the eye of Nelson Rockefeller, the Governor of New York. Kissinger’s desire for influence on policy was already leading him to spend time in Washington, and he combined his academic work with consultancies for various Government departments, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council under Dwight Eisenhower.

Kissinger’s patron, Rockefeller, failed to make much headway in the Presidential campaigns of 1960 and 1964, but after Nixon won the Presidency for the Republicans in 1968, Kissinger was appointed National Security Adviser. His intellectual drive, as well as geographical closeness to the President, allowed him to turn what had previously been a backroom job into a high-profile, decision-making post.

Kissinger knew that access is power, and that the relationship goes both ways. When William Rogers eventually resigned a few months after the start of Nixon’s second term, Kissinger got the job he coveted most. Four years of private advice and back-channel negotiating were to be crowned by formal acceptance as Washington’s senior international representative and America’s major speechmaker on foreign affairs.

Kissinger had already scored the two biggest coups of his career, proving that he was more than just an academic consultant and bureaucratic in-fighter, but a cunning negotiator. He ran the secret diplomacy which culminated in July 1971 with the stunning announcement that Nixon was to go to China to meet Mao Zedong the following year. He also led the negotiations in Paris with Hanoi for the peace treaty that sealed the departure of American troops from Vietnam. For the second of these feats, he shared the Nobel peace prize with Le Duc Tho, the North Vietnamese negotiator, though the latter refused to accept it.

The award aroused a huge controversy since it coincided with revelations that Kissinger had supported Nixon’s decisions to mount a secret campaign of bombing Cambodia in 1969. The raids went on for 14 months, although officially the administration pretended the targets were all in South Vietnam. Initially, Kissinger did not even want the pilots to know they were striking Cambodia, but he was advised that they would soon find out and be more likely to leak the information unless sworn to secrecy ahead of the raids.

The bombing remained secret in Washington for an astonishing four years, becoming public only when a Military whistle-blower wrote to Senator William Proxmire, a prominent critic of the Vietnam war, and urged him to investigate. In Cambodia the campaign led to an estimated 700,000 deaths as well as 2 million people being forced to flee their homes.

The Paris peace talks on Vietnam also coincided with an escalation of US bombing in Vietnam itself. At the height of the negotiations at the end of 1972, Nixon and Kissinger took the war to new heights with the “Christmas bombing” campaign, comprising targets across North Vietnam.

Kissinger was aware that the Paris deal was flawed, and might well lead to Thieu’s replacement by a communist government. His goal was merely to win a “decent interval” between the pull-out of US troops and the inevitable collapse of the regime in Saigon so that the US could escape any perception of defeat. The phrase “decent interval” appeared in the briefing papers for Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing in 1971 that were later declassified. They show he told the Chinese that this was US strategy in Vietnam. A year later he informed China’s Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai: “If we can live with a communist government in China, we ought to be able to accept it in Indochina.”

When the North Vietnamese Army and its southern allies, the Vietcong, stormed into Saigon in April 1975, forcing the US ambassador into a humiliating helicopter escape, the image was clearly one of defeat, in spite of the two-year interval since the departure of most US troops.

Turning his skills to the Middle East, Kissinger gave birth to the concept of shuttle diplomacy, a term first used to the press by his close aide Joe Sisco. He flew between Jerusalem and Cairo during the October 1973 war to hammer out a ceasefire after the Israelis had sent their troops across the Suez canal and come close to the Egyptian capital. He later secured Israel’s withdrawal back across the canal, and shuttled to and from Damascus to make a deal with Syria for the Israelis to withdraw from a small part of the Golan Heights.

In the Middle East, Kissinger’s aim was to exclude the Russians, who had been longtime allies of Egypt and Syria. By extracting concessions from Israel and brokering a ceasefire in the 1973 war, Kissinger persuaded Cairo and Damascus that only the US could achieve movement from the Israelis, thanks to its unique influence.

Kissinger’s strategy of detente with the Soviet Union was also designed to reduce Moscow’s room for manoeuvre. Instead of going for ad hoc deals with the Kremlin, Kissinger was the first senior American to try to establish a complex of agreements with a range of penalties and rewards for bad and good behaviour.

The strategy failed to produce a new world order because Kissinger was not willing to abandon adventurism on the American side. In the developing world, in particular, Kissinger pursued policies of confrontation with Moscow, often based on faulty analysis of what the Russians were doing or exaggerated claims of the extent of their influence. The successful US effort to overthrow the elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, in 1973 fitted into the long US history of intervening in Latin America against leftwing governments that nationalised US corporations.

By 1974 Kissinger’s boss was being engulfed by the Watergate scandal. Although Kissinger was involved in secretly taping his own staff, he was not connected to Nixon’s decision to burgle the headquarters of the Democratic Party at the Watergate apartment complex in 1972 and then cover up the truth – the charges that brought the President down. In spite of the scandal – or perhaps because of it – Nixon’s relationship with Kissinger remained close, in large part because the beleaguered President saw Kissinger as his best ally in foreign policy, the area where Nixon felt that he had been most successful.

Although Kissinger was not charged over Watergate, his image nonetheless became tarnished. Damaged by revelations of the secret bombing of Cambodia, the favourable media bubble burst. If Nixon was a serial liar on the domestic stage, Kissinger was seen as a similar villain on the international one. Nevertheless the next president, Gerald Ford, who had limited foreign experience, kept Kissinger on as secretary of state as a symbol of continuity. But Kissinger’s star was in decline.

When the Republicans lost the White House to the Democrats under Jimmy Carter in 1976, Kissinger’s time was up. If ever there was an American super-patriot, it was Kissinger. The bedrock of his policies was fear of a resurgent, “unanchored” Germany, a firm desire to keep Western Europe closely tied to the US, and a fierce determination to outwit the Soviet Union and maintain American dominance, if necessary through the use of military might.

(Condensed from the Guardian).

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