“If, as President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger rightly believed, it was in America’s interest to extract itself from the mess their predecessors had created in Vietnam, it was not necessary for them to keep fighting the war for so long.”
Model UN, had gotten high grades in Western and Eastern Civilization classes, and was becoming comfortable reading, writing, and speaking in French. Before my junior year of high school, I had visited seven foreign countries. That summer, I read former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s 2001 book n the summer of 2001, as I was turning 16, I fancied myself a budding global thinker. I had fared well in Does America Need a Foreign Policy? I remember reading part of it in the passenger seat of a car on the way to John F. Kennedy International Airport, while listening to U2’s 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The opening song, “Beautiful Day,” with the image it created in my mind of globalization’s wonders, helped me further flatter myself that I was destined to be a globe-traveling problem solver.
I do not remember gleaning any great insights from the book, but the mere fact that I was reading it at a young age helped me indulge the illusion that I was worldly and sophisticated beyond my years. I did not know nearly enough about the legacy of Secretary Kissinger, who died on November 29th at age 100, as National Security Advisor (1969-1975) and then Secretary of State from (1973-1977), and what he had done while serving as the right-hand man of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. If I had, I would have been much less likely to associate his writing with my dreams of future geopolitical influence.
Interest vs. Necessity
Among other things, I had not yet learned the distinction between realism, the school of foreign policy thought of which Secretary Kissinger was perhaps the ultimate embodiment, and alternative schools like liberal internationalism, neoconservatism, and isolationism, a distinction I would begin learning a couple of years later while studying political science in college. The core insight of realism is the importance of power in international affairs. Moral sentiments, like those expressed by Western liberals with cosmopolitan instincts, are all very well, but they are pointless without political power to back them up. While they are not politically homogenous, realists have much more faith in nation-states, rather than institutions like the United Nations, to keep order in a frequently disordered world. Far better for states to pursue their own interests and find ways in which their interests align with those of other states—security being the greatest concern of all—than to launch crusades in the service of ideological agendas.
However, a country doing what is in its interest is not the same as that country doing what is necessary to keep itself secure. Even when a nation-state can gain something from using its power in a particular way, it does not inexorably follow that it should or must use its power in that way. If the country in question can keep itself secure by wielding less of its power against other countries rather than more, it can produce humane, indeed liberal outcomes in the world while still acknowledging the realist insight about the centrality of power.
This is particular true when it comes to big and strong nations like the United States exercising their power over smaller and weaker nations. While American leaders throughout the Cold War wielded American power over smaller countries in a variety of ruthless ways, Secretary Kissinger and the presidents he served took this logic further than any of their predecessors or successors. Many of these exercises of power were unnecessary to American security and did great damage to the world.
Vietnam: The Original Sin
When President Nixon took office in January of 1969 and made Kissinger his National Security Advisor, the two men inherited a disastrous war in Southeast Asia. American efforts to prop up the government of South Vietnam against communist insurgents backed by North Vietnam began under President Dwight Eisenhower. President John F. Kennedy ramped up American involvement after feeling humiliated by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at their 1961 summit. President Lyndon Johnson was similarly fearful of looking weak and reacted to a minor skirmish in the Gulf of Tonkin with a vast buildup of American military forces in Vietnam, leading the country deeper into a quagmire in every year of his presidency.
Given that President Nixon had promised “an honorable end to the war in Vietnam” during his campaign, one might think he would have worked diligently to end the war and minimize American and Vietnamese casualties once in office. Instead, American bombing of North Vietnam continued throughout the Nixon presidency, in no small part to assist the President in his campaign for reelection in 1972. (In fact, President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger’s efforts to extend the Vietnam War for their own political benefit began during the 1968 election, when they helped sabotage President Johnson’s proposed peace talks.) Meanwhile, while more than 36,000 Americans had been killed in Vietnam by the end of 1968, there were more than 21,000 additional American deaths there during Nixon’s presidency. By the time the war ended in 1975 (after President Nixon had been forced to resign but by which point Kissinger was Secretary of State) an estimated two million Vietnamese civilians had been killed.
If, as President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger rightly believed, it was in America’s interest to extract itself from the mess their predecessors had created in Vietnam, it was not necessary for them to keep fighting the war for so long. Had they been the great statesmen some regard them as, they would have put the American national interest before their own political interest. Instead, they subordinated the saving of lives to the winning of domestic political contests.
Cambodia: From Bad to Worse
If one is trying to withdraw his troops from a country, why would he invade and bomb the country next door? Even if one’s enemy has been using the second country as a base, is it truly necessary for that second country to suffer greatly if the plan is to withdraw from the first? In particular, must the second country suffer because of what one’s predecessors did to the first country?
And why do you try to keep the bombing a secret from your own people? If the war your predecessors began has undermined your people’s trust in their government, and you came into power promising to end the war, why are you risking further damage to public confidence? Are you not making a bad situation worse?
This is what President Nixon and National Security Advisor Kissinger did to Cambodia beginning in 1970. With bombers and ground troops, they took a mistake that Johnson and his advisors had made and expanded its deadly reach. The civilian death toll resulting from American actions in Cambodia was between 150,000 and 500,000.
Not only was it not necessary to devastate Cambodia while (ostensibly) trying to withdraw from Vietnam, but the bombing damaged the credibility of the United States government, with further disastrous consequences. In 1975, when the communist Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia and began a vast murder of their opponents (two million would die during the KR’s four-year rule), Secretary Kissinger’s warnings about them were difficult for many good people throughout the world to believe. As Samantha Power, future United States Ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in her 2002 book, “A Problem From Hell”:
“Kissinger accused the KR of ‘atrocity of major proportions.’ President Ford again cited ‘very factual evidence of the bloodbath that is in the process of taking place…’ But the administration had little credibility. Kissinger had bloodied Cambodia and blackened his own reputation with past U.S. policy…The American public had learned to dismiss what it deemed official rumor-mongering and anti-Communist propaganda. It would be two years before most would acknowledge that this time the bloodbath reports were true.”
Bangladesh: Complicity in Genocide
Their diplomatic overture to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is often regarded as President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger’s most significant accomplishment. This action made perfect sense—not only was there no chance of the anti-communist government in Taiwan returning to power in Beijing, but the PRC and the Soviet Union were frequently at odds by this stage of the Cold War. Playing the two most powerful communist countries off each other was a very sensible thing for the United States to do.
However, the price the United States paid for opening up to the PRC—or rather, the price another nation paid—was extremely high. National Security Advisor Kissinger used Pakistan as a conduit for initial communications with the PRC, and the United States was a major provider of arms to the Pakistani military. Those supplies of weapons continued even when, in 1971, Pakistan responded to the Bengali independence movement in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by committing genocide. Archer Blood, an American diplomat in Dhaka, warned Washington about what Pakistan was doing, but President Nixon and National Security Advisor Kissinger were not concerned. Estimates of the death toll in Bangladesh range between 300,000 and three million.
It was not necessary for the United States to make itself complicit in genocide. It had the option of delaying its outreach to the PRC so as to not arm a country engaged in mass slaughter of part of its own population. Alternatively, it had the option of using other countries as conduits to Beijing—by the time President Nixon and National Security Advisor Kissinger came to power, more than 50 countries had diplomatic relations with the PRC, including American allies such as Denmark, France, and Norway. Even if attempts to reach out to the PRC through one or more of these countries had been unsuccessful, it would have been worth making the effort for the United States to not assist in murder on a massive scale.
Chile and Argentina: Dirty Wars
In his study of the Cold War, Strategies of Containment, historian John Lewis Gaddis notes the irony of Secretary Kissinger, who sought to treat the Soviet Union and the PRC as classical great power rivals rather than ideological enemies, being far less tolerant of militant leftism in smaller countries. He saw Soviet influence in forces as diverse as the communist regime in North Vietnam, Angolan Marxists fighting for independence from Portugal, and the freely elected left-wing government of Chile’s Salvador Allende:
“There is no evidence in retrospect that any of these movements had been instigated by the Kremlin, or that Soviet leaders could have counted on controlling them, had they all been successful. Still, the Nixon and Ford administrations worked with great zeal to oppose them, as if the success of any one of them could be decisive in altering the balance of power.”
By 1973, the United States had a history of covert action in Chile to undermine the country’s Left. All the while, though, it was one of the most consistently democratic nations in Latin America. Whatever qualms a person may have about interfering in another country’s democratic processes, surely taking sides in the country’s domestic political contests is better than quashing democracy through a coup.
When the socialist Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile in 1970, the United States feared he would align his country with the Soviet Union. It is unclear how great a role the United States had in the overthrow of President Allende’s government in 1973, and how much of it was the brainchild of the military junta led by General Augusto Pinochet. What is known, however, is that Secretary Kissinger helped General Pinochet consolidate power.
President Pinochet spearheaded Operation Condor, a campaign by South American dictatorships to eliminate left-wing opponents through extrajudicial means. Between 15,000 and 30,000 people were killed in this campaign, an effort supported and financed by the United States. One of its most prominent victims was Orlando Letelier, former Chilean diplomat and defense minister, who was assassinated by a car bomb in Washington, D.C., in 1976 on President Pinochet’s orders.
Secretary Kissinger also supported the Dirty War waged by the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976-1983. Shortly after the junta came to power, the United States Congress approved military assistance to the new regime, a request authored by Secretary Kissinger. Later, however, Congress considered sanctioning the regime, as its brutality became widely known. In an October, 1976 meeting, Secretary Kissinger told the Argentinian foreign minister, Admiral César Augusto Guzzetti, “We want a stable situation. We won’t cause you unnecessary difficulties. If you can finish before Congress gets back, the better.” The Dirty War would claim up to 30,000 victims by the time Argentina’s junta fell and democracy returned.
It was not necessary for the United States to help these regimes come to power. In his three years in office, President Allende mismanaged Chile’s economy, leading to soaring inflation and widespread strikes. President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger could simply have pointed to Chile’s fate and said, “this is what happens when a country goes socialist.” But they refused to give Chilean voters a chance to oust their own government in the next election, and Secretary Kissinger expanded upon this contempt for democracy when dealing with Argentina.
Israel: The Saving Grace
It is perhaps appropriate that, mere months before Secretary Kissinger’s death, a film premiered that showed what could be described as the most humane accomplishment. Golda depicts the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Israel’s very existence appeared threatened by an attack by Egypt and Syria. While it centers on Prime Minister Golda Meir rallying her country to defend itself and fight off its attackers, it also shows the role of Secretary Kissinger in rearming Israel with American weapons—albeit somewhat reluctantly, as he also wanted to give Egypt a way to save face. If anything, the film underplays how important the airlifting of American arms was to the Israel Defense Forces stopping Arab armies in their tracks.
As Israel retaliates against Hamas for its massacre of 1,200 Israelis on October 7th of this year—hopefully resulting in the complete elimination of the terrorist group—President Joe Biden has followed in Secretary Kissinger’s footsteps, arming Israel as it carries out a thoroughly justified military campaign. Among other things, this is a sign that there can be overlap between a realist conception of the national interest—Secretary Kissinger saw how poorly it would reflect on the United States if Arab countries armed by the Soviets conquered American ally Israel—can overlap with a liberal cause, like helping the Jewish state endure in the face of forces determined to destroy it.
The morning after Secretary Kissinger’s death, as I rode public transportation to work in Washington D.C., I read Gary Bass’ Atlantic article about the recently deceased statesman. While it focuses on his role in the Bangladesh genocide (the subject of Bass’ 2013 book The Blood Telegram), it is a reminder of how little most of humanity mattered to Secretary Kissinger. Although much of the political establishment came to accept the man’s portrayal of himself as a geopolitical maestro, Bass wondered, “How many of his eulogists will grapple with his full record in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, Chile, Argentina, East Timor, Cyprus, and elsewhere?”
As I read the article, I listened to another U2 album, The Joshua Tree. As I heard the final track, “Mothers of the Disappeared” (a tribute to Argentinian women who for decades have called for justice for the murders of their children by the military regime), I was struck by how much I had learned about Secretary Kissinger since that day 22 years earlier riding to the airport. I was further struck by the appropriate contrast between hearing an optimistic song when I was naïve about his record, and a much more melancholy song now that I knew much more. While much of official Washington praises Secretary Kissinger, among the most controversial recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, I hope that with every passing year, more Americans come to terms with—and condemn—his needlessly ruthless legacy.
Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He is a contributing editor to Merion West and has written for the Center for Maritime Strategy, Divergent Options, the Liberal Patriot, and Wisdom of Crowds, among many others.