The Trial of Henry Kissinger
Reviewed by Bill Mithoefer
Wednesday, September 12 2001, 4:46 PM
As a record of the federal government's foreign policy in South East Asia during the Vietnam War, Christopher Hitchens' The Trial of Henry Kissinger is almost unparalleled. Hitchens skillfully weaves together classified documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, interviews with Kissinger himself and historical evidence to mount a convincing case against a high-ranking American official. With the recent indictments of Augusto Pinochet and Slobodan Milosevic, and the threat of similar indictments hanging over the heads of current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, The Trial is of striking contemporary relevance.
Hitchens begins with a transcription of a telephone conversation between Simon and Schuster head Michael Korda and Kissinger in which the former Secretary of State worriedly relates the extradition of Augusto Pinochet by a British court to a Spanish court because of his fear that he could easily meet the same end. Korda repeatedly jokes that Kissinger's phone number should be "1-800-CAMBODIA" or "1-800-BOMB-CAMBODIA.
Aside from such excellent anecdotal coups, The Trial makes a compelling case against Kissinger as someone who ought to be tried for crimes against humanity. Wondering what types of moral transgressions Kissinger might have made impel the reader forward through a slightly obtuse but astonishingly brief 150-page document. Unfortunately, Hitchens never really delivers the goods when it comes to providing specific charges that he thinks ought to be filed against the former Secretary of State. What we get instead is a very damning political biography of Kissinger that provides the kind of historical information necessary for such high-minded purposes.
The Trial introduces us to a man who will use any situation to advance his political power, regardless of the body count. According to Hitchens, Kissinger finessed the breakdown of the first peace talks with North Vietnam, extending the war another four years, which the author contends was a maneuver Kissinger craftily engineered so that he could win himself a position in Lyndon Johnson's cabinet. Hitchens also spends a lot of time going over the human costs of Kissinger's foreign policy. For example, between 1968 and 1972, Kissinger authorized over 3500 missions against the civilian populations of Laos and Cambodia using B-52 bombers. According to Pentagon figures, during that time 31, 205 American servicemen, 86,101 South Vietnamese regulars and 475,609 "enemy" troops were killed. During the same period "more than 3 million civilians were killed, injured or rendered homeless."
After his years in office, Hitchens recounts how Kissinger networked with his friends and associates amongst the dictators and despots of the world, amassing a small fortune with a consulting company helping to grease the wheels of international corporate growth. Perhaps most chilling are the vast clouds of confusion, subterfuge and deceit used by Kissinger to hide his activities. To that end, Hitchens points out evidence that Kissinger recognizes his misdeeds and worries about how the indictments of former dictators such as Pinochet may end up affecting himself. As Hitchens' research shows, such concerns are nothing new for statesmen like Kissinger. As far back as 1971, former Nuremburg trials chief prosecutor General Telford Taylor had argued that the same legal and moral logic used to try Nazi and Japanese war criminals could also apply to many of America's high-ranking government and military officials based on how they had been conducting the war in Vietnam.
In The Trial of Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State ultimately emerges as a narcissistic monster responsible for the deaths of millions, placing himself in the same league as twentieth century mass-murders cum heads of state such as Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. However, Hitchens never really "tries" Kissinger with specific charges laid out in a more legalistic fashion, even though at times he attempts to frame his highly moralistic biography of Kissinger in such a light. Because of that, my gut feeling is that the book would be more aptly titled, An Indictment of Henry Kissinger or Should Henry Kissinger Be Arrested?
The Trial of Henry Kissinger is available from Verso