Kissinger is known as either the epitome of a statesman or the most hated man on the planet due to the atrocities committed under his leadership or advisement. However, the weight of these acts cannot be laid only at the feet of Kissinger – he was merely a team MVP executing tactics in the US Empire’s playbook.
Correcting the memory of the obsequious butler of US empire.
Henry Kissinger straddled US foreign policy like a narcissistic cowboy across two presidencies from 1969-1977 as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. He is considered to have influenced the policy decisions of 12 presidents, affecting the course of global history.
What is notable in the current moment, in the moralizing obituary circuit, is the framing that Kissinger was somehow uniquely evil and murderous--a moral cancer on the US body politic--and that he personally shifted US policy in this direction.
The Wickedest Man Alive
This “exceptional war criminal" framing is especially promoted by the Imperial Liberal Press, in particular the Overton window gatekeepers such as The Nation, DemocracyNow!, the NY Times, and the Washington Post.
These sources draw liberally from the Bishop of Bombast, Christopher Hitchens, who described Kissinger as a "one-man rolling crime wave", and his actions as "the wickedest thing ever done in American political history", a moral crisis and stain on American politics. But is this characterization correct?
Kissinger had his fingerprints all over Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, East Timor, Chile, Argentina, Bangladesh, Cyprus, implementing or greenlighting horrific, genocidal-politicidal atrocities. But these actions were not sui generis nor were they uniquely Kissingerian. They had already been templated, foreshadowed, and rehearsed for by previous US policies, long before the realpolitiking Kissinger had laid his felonious fingers on the reins of foreign policy. Korea (1948-1953), Indonesia (1965-66), and the Phillipines (1899-1902) are some key exemplars.
Gaza Covered With Snow
In the case of Korea, one fifth of the population were killed, according to General Curtis LeMay, who designed and conducted the bombing campaign. What had been done tactically to individual cities--Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima--was concretized as continuous strategy for Korea: 635,000 tons of bombs, more than the entire Pacific bombing campaign, dropped in endless sorties of high explosives, cluster bombs, and napalm over an entire country.
To get a contemporary image of this, take the worst bombing of Northern Gaza—already unimaginable and unthinkable in its sheer, atrocious barbarity—imagine, for example, the devastation of the Jabaliya refugee camp--and then double the intensity of that bombing, and then magnify the theater of bombing 800 fold. Add in endless napalm and time-delayed cluster bombs--to kill anyone who tried to rescue survivors--then you have a small sense of what Korea went through. Then add snow: Korea borders Siberia, and temperatures can drop to -25 degrees Celsius. If you were bombed and somehow survived the shredding of your flesh by cluster bomb shrapnel, or its incineration by napalm, there's a good chance you would die from exposure to cold under an open sky, as the US rolled out massive air strikes in the month of November, 73 years ago. And still, if you survived all this, and had dug yourself into subterranean shelter, you could have been drowned later when irrigation and hydroelectric dams were attacked, and entire valleys inundated with flooding, while subjected to threats of biological and chemical weapons.
Tibor Meray, a Hungarian journalist, described traveling in North Korea as akin to traveling on the surface of the moon. The devastation of Korea was so extreme that General Douglas MacArthur, no stranger to bloodshed, said to Congress regarding Korea, "You are perpetuating a slaughter such as I have never heard of in the history of mankind".
Those scholars who critique Kissinger’s genocidal bombing of Cambodia as sui generis would do well to take a short, brief glance in the rearview mirror to Korea and a much longer look at themselves. Kissinger was not a criminal outlier inventing wicked new tools of US foreign policy while corrupting its institutions, he was the enforcer of its standard operating procedure, simply reapplying well-rehearsed cold war practices and policies.
Jakarta in Brasilia and Buenos Aires
Likewise, those who lament Kissinger’s “unprecedented” genocidal dirty wars in the Southern cone, need only to take a quick glance back at Indonesia to understand that Kissinger was simply following an pre-existing playbook.
From 1965 to 1966, the US-quisling Suharto dictatorship, under the guidance and direction of the CIA, rounded up and murdered suspected communists in Indonesia, which had, at the time, the third largest Communist party in the world. Conservative estimates count 500,000 to 1.2 million communists and progressives killed during the politicide, with millions tortured and imprisoned. Higher estimates place the death toll at 2-3 million. Australian embassy telegrams of the time report “1500 assassinations per day” and the CIA evaluated it as “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century”.
In fact, "Operation Condor", the continent-wide purge of leftists in Latin America that Kissinger is associated with and implicated in, was the logical export and transplantation of Indonesia's "Jakarta Method" to South America, as Vincent Bevins has pointed out. Operation Condor resulted in the extrajudicial murder or disappearance of 50,000 to 90,000 individuals across South America and the Southern cone.
Argentina's military governor of Buenos Aires summarized the policy concisely, when he stated: “First we will kill all the subversives; then we will kill their collaborators; then their sympathizers. Then those who remain indifferent; and finally we will kill the timid”. But this policy was prefigured and prepared in Indonesia, whose leadership had said, “All of their [Communist Party of Indonesia’s] followers and sympathizers should be eliminated” and urged the extinction of the party “down to its very roots”, which the US abetted with training, indoctrination, intelligence, logistics, and of course, weapons.
The Largest Mass Grave on the Planet:
But even Indonesia’s massacres had a precursor: they were templated and rehearsed by the Bodo League massacres in South Korea, in which the Korean military, under the guidance of the US military, genocided hundreds of thousands of leftists within weeks in the summer of 1950.
The lowest casualty estimates (30,000-60,000) are based on the number of actual political prisoners held in prison who were directly executed in the first weeks, but the Bodo League, "the league of guidance and education" was not simply a group of incarcerated prisoners, but a mass public registry where everyone who was suspected of leftist sympathies was encouraged to register in exchange for amnesty and rations. In actuality, the vast majority of members were simply forced to register simply to fill local registration quotas.
The edict from the US-puppet president Syngman Rhee on June 27, 1950 was to kill everyone on the list. This was then aided and abetted by the US, to whom the president turned over total control of South Korea's military and military police. Similar to Indonesia, unsuspecting innocents showed up to an innocuous summons from the US-trained Korean police, only to be tied up in rows and trucked off for immediate mass slaughter.
At the time of the massacres, the total number of Bodo League registrants was 300,000. In addition, orders were also given to kill everyone who was a member of the South Korean Worker's Party, another 360,000 people. When the killings commenced, children, wives, and families were also rounded up and killed, so estimates of hundreds of thousands slaughtered are highly plausible.
It’s hard to fathom such an extreme, extensive, and rapid massacre, but one indicator of the scale of the slaughter was that the Japanese filed an official complaint against the South Korean government, complaining about the murdered corpses washing up and littering its beaches, five hundred miles away across the ocean.
At the current moment, there are over 150 identified mass graves, each estimated to have 100’s-1000's of unexcavated dead. A single mass grave identified in Daejon is over 10 football fields long.
Henry Kissinger's atrocities, barbarous as they were, all fall solidly within the behavioral norm for US policy in light of the above history. Chest-beating liberal types love to scapegoat Kissinger, the better to pretend that he was some criminal outlier to US norms and ideals, the better to dissociate themselves and the US from this horrific past. Scholars like Grandin suggest that Kissinger degraded American Foreign policy from a consensus-based rational policy characterized by “elite planning, bipartisan consensus, and public support” into something narcissistic, impulsive, and idiosyncratically monstrous; the nihilistic downstream effects of which are still being felt.
But Kissinger did not invent some novel doctrine of foreign-policy-by-barbarous-atrocity, he simply continued the family tradition with business as usual: coups, terror, torture; rolling genocides and politicides; mass slaughter of civilians, women, children; all combined with his signature deft Machiavellian balancing and triangulation for "realist" considerations: preventing the expansion of national liberation movements, destroying nascent socialisms, and neutralizing third world non-alignment to ensure the continued ruthless domination of US capital over the planet.
A Side of Genocide, Rare:
Famed travel and cooking celebrity Anthony Bourdain, once said:
“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.”
This is an emotionally justifiable and understandable response for someone discovering the violence of US foreign policy for the first time. Still, it reveals a sheltered, incomplete view of US cold war policy and history--and the International Criminal Court.
Kissinger was not uniquely evil, not sui generis, as noted above, but simply an exemplar and executor of the war-criminal class that had bred him, trained him, and licensed him with the commission of crimes against humanity in the service of the Empire. If Kissinger had a license to kill, and used it liberally in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and elsewhere, it was because he had been issued one as part of his job description.
It's both titillating and comforting to imagine him as a Pennsylvania Avenue Sweeney Todd, concocting perverse new recipes of Asian or Latin American blood pudding, but a more accurate depiction would understand him as a journeyman commis delivering orders out of a well-worn, murderous Moosewood cookbook: "The illegal we can do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little time", he once said, preparing the Turkish order of Cypriot mass-mac-murder.
This mindset of orderly obeisance and discernment as he fulfilled his assigned duties show him as the Butler of Empire, rather than its puppet master. Kissinger did not write the cookbook of anti-communist genocide; he merely followed its well-worn recipes and “polished them off”. He was the Empire’s “glorified messenger boy”, not the author.
Believing 36 impossible things before breakfast:
The NYT also states:
Mr. Kissinger’s greatest failures came in his seeming indifference to the democratic struggles of smaller nations. Oddly, a man driven from his country as a boy by the rise of the Nazis seemed unperturbed by human rights abuses by governments in Africa, Latin America, Indonesia and elsewhere. Nixon’s Oval Office tapes showed that Mr. Kissinger was more concerned with keeping allies in the anti-Communist camp than how they treated their own people.
Welcome to the crunchy liberal la-la-land of condescension, where you are expected to believe 36 absurdities before breakfast.
Putting aside the well-known genocides, the following are 36 dictators, psychopaths, butchers and despots the US supported--often enabled with coups, money, weapons, training and routine politicide before and after Kissinger, that the NY Times would have you believe the US had little truck with:
General Sani Abacha (Nigeria); Idi Amin (Uganda); Colonel Hugo Banzer (Bolivia); Fulgencio Batista (Cuba); Sir Hassanal Bolkiah (Brunei); P.W. Botha (South Africa); General Humberto Branco (Brazil); Raoul Cedras (Haiti); Vinicio Cerezo (Guatemala); Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek (Taiwan); Roberto Suazo Cordova (Honduras); Alfredo Cristiani (El Salvador); Ngo Dihn Diem (Vietnam); General Samuel Doe, (Liberia); Francois & Jean Claude Duvalier (Haiti); King Fahd bin'Abdul-'Aziz (Saudi Arabia); General Francisco Franco (Spain); Hussan II (Morocco); Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines); General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez (El Salvador); Sese Seko Mobutu (Zaire); General Manuel Noriega (Panama); Turgut Ozal (Turkey); Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi (Iran); George Papadopoulos (Greece); Park Chung Hee, Chun Doo Hwan (South Korea), Pol Pot (Cambodia); General Sitiveni Rabuka (Fiji), General Efrain Rios Montt (Guatemala), Halie Selassie (Ethiopia), Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, (Portugal), Anastasio Jr. & Sr Somoza (Nicaragua); Ian Smith (Rhodesia); Alfredo Stroessner (Paraguay); General Suharto (Indonesia); Rafael Leonidas Trujillo (Dominican Republic)
All of these were world-class fascists and dictators that the US supported against national and people’s liberation. There was nothing particularly exceptional or broad about Kissinger's support of brutal dictators in comparison to his predecessors or successors. Kissinger was simply one of the many deep state types--sycophantic toadies and cunning psychopaths--who cultivated military dictators to ensure the ends of Empire. This includes the Sainted Obama, who cultivated despots while waging seven wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan), instigated scores of covert conflicts, ordered drone strikes like takeout, and who began the deadly death pivot against China, all in a short 8 years. If anything, Corporate Frontman Barack Obama's accrued death toll approaches that of Kissinger's.
Mr. Obama noted that while in office he was still trying to help countries “remove bombs that are still blowing off the legs of little kids.”. “In what way did that strategy promote our interests…We dropped more ordnance on Cambodia and Laos than on Europe in World War II…and yet, ultimately, Nixon withdrew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaughter and authoritarian governments that finally, over time, have emerged from that hell.”
Questions that could just as easily be posed back to the irreflexive Obama: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Uganda. Pot, Kettle, Black.
Likewise, Matt Duss, the former foreign policy advisor to Bernie Sanders, claimed:
“A big part of Henry Kissinger’s legacy is the corruption of American foreign policymaking…it is blurring the line, if not outright erasing the line, between the making of foreign policy and corporate interests.”
Absurdly, it seems Duss has never heard of the Dulles brothers and United Fruit company (Guatemala, 1954), the US/British oil interests (Iran, 1953), the business interests that colonized Hawaii and Congo, to name only the most obvious. This machinery of corporate domination had been codified long before Kissinger entered the halls of power.
Kill Anything that Moves:
The censorious NYT and DemocracyNow also misquote the well-known quip by Kissinger:
Mr. Kissinger told the military to strike “anything that flies or anything that moves.”
The correct quote is "anything that flies on anything that moves".
In other words, carpet bomb everything and everyone. This came out of frustration with the slow pace of genocidal subjugation in Cambodia. Kill anything that moves with anything that flies, i.e, a free-fire zone. This is what Israel has been essentially doing in Gaza, despite a fiction of “targeted” attacks. This is how the west was won and also how the west won.
Kissinger was a creature of the capitalist-imperial-militarist-think-tank-academia swamp that breeds, cultivates, and rewards such extraordinary killers. Its latest eruption, Stuart Seldowitz, is miasmatic indigestion from its racist, genocidal policy against Palestine, evidence of its ubiquity.
Scholars have pointed out that the West won the Cold war, imposing capitalism on the world, not because it was morally, politically, or economically superior, but because where it could not terrorize its opponents into submission, it simply wiped them out. That process neither began nor ended with Kissinger. Vincent Bevins encapsulates this succinctly in a dialogue with an Indonesian survivor of genocide: “I asked him how America won. He answered quickly. “You killed us.”
The Unctuous Butler of Empire
In this deadly war of Empire, Kissinger was not some diabolical rule-breaking genius or puppet master; he was simply a competent functionary, foot soldier, and facilities manager. He did not create new policy tools of criminality and violence; he merely applied the existing murderous toolbox with vicious, sycophantic aplomb.
There are a host of scolding obituary articles that pretend otherwise. They are pulling the wool over the public eye, the better to assuage conscience, dull critical thinking, and divert away from the genocidal crimes the White House is currently enabling and perpetrating in Gaza as we speak.
With or without Kissinger, the genocides continue, and Kissinger-bashing serves as a sanctimonious diversion for a moral holiday, even as the dying Empire pulverizes and grinds Gaza and its innocent denizens into rubble while preparing, Western, Central, Northeast, and Southeast Asia for one final omnicidal war against China and the Global South.
Kissinger scolds beware: yes, the butler did it, but he did it for Empire and Capital.
Even as Kissinger roasts in infamy, the Empire and its Imperial Hawks are driving the world straight to Armageddon. Scapegoating Kissinger in the rearview mirror is to conveniently blind yourself to the nuclear car wreck rapidly approaching the windscreen right before your eyes.
This coming war in Asia may turn out to be war beyond the wildest, wickedest dreams of the Wicked Butler of Empire, Heinz Kissinger, for whom eternal damnation is still too good.
K.J. Noh is a journalist, political analyst, writer and educator specializing in the geopolitics and political economy of the Asia-Pacific region. He is a member of Veterans for Peace and Pivot to Peace.