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Historian Greg Grandin: Glowing Obituaries for Henry Kissinger Reveal “Moral Bankruptcy” of U.S. Elites

StoryNovember 30, 2023
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Image Credit: Kai Mörk (photo right)

Henry Kissinger is dead at the age of 100. The former U.S. statesman served as national security adviser and secretary of state at the height of the Cold War and wielded influence over U.S. foreign policy for decades afterward. His actions led to massacres, coups and and even genocide, leaving a bloody legacy in Latin America, Southeast Asia and beyond. Once out of office, Kissinger continued until his death to advise U.S. presidents and other top officials who celebrate him as a visionary diplomat. Yale historian Greg Grandin says those glowing obituaries only reveal “the moral bankruptcy of the political establishment” that ignores how Kissinger’s actions may have led to the deaths of at least 3 million people across the globe. Grandin is author of Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Henry Kissinger has died at the age of 100. To many in the Washington establishment, Kissinger will likely be remembered as one of the most influential diplomats in U.S. history. But around the world, including in Chile, East Timor, Bangladesh and Cambodia, Henry Kissinger is remembered as a war criminal whose actions led to massacres, coups and even genocide.

Kissinger, who was born in Germany, served as U.S. secretary of state under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford from 1973 to 1977. He also served as national security adviser from 1969 to 1975. He’s the only U.S. official to ever simultaneously hold both posts. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 with his North Vietnam counterpart Le Duc Tho.

During his time in office, Henry Kissinger oversaw a massive expansion of the war in Vietnam and the secret bombings of Laos and Cambodia, where as many 150,000 civilians were killed in the U.S. strikes, as Kissinger told the military, quote, “Anything that flies or anything that moves.”

In South Asia, Kissinger backed the Pakistani military genocidal war against East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh.

In Latin America, declassified documents show how Kissinger secretly intervened across the continent, from Bolivia to Uruguay to Chile and Argentina. In Chile, Kissinger urged President Nixon to take a, quote, “harder line” against Chile’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. On September 11th, 1973, Allende was overthrown by the U.S.-backed General Augusto Pinochet. Kissinger once said, quote, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”

AMY GOODMAN: In 1975, Henry Kissinger and President Gerald Ford met with the Indonesian dictator General Suharto to give him the go-ahead to invade East Timor, which Indonesia did on December 7th, 1975. The Indonesian military killed a third of the Timorese population — one of the worst genocides of the late 20th century.

Kissinger also drew up plans to attack Cuba in the mid-’70s after Fidel Castro sent Cuban troops to Angola to fight forces linked to apartheid South Africa.

At home, Kissinger urged President Nixon to go after Pentagon Papers whistleblower Dan Ellsberg, who Kissinger called “the most dangerous man in America.”

The historian Greg Grandin once estimated Kissinger’s actions may have led to the deaths of 3 million, maybe 4 million people. While human rights activists have long called for Kissinger to be tried for war crimes, he remained a celebrated figure in Washington and beyond, serving as an adviser to both Republican and Democratic administrations.

We turn now to Greg Grandin. He’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of history at Yale University. His books include Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman. His new piece for The Nation is “A People’s Obituary of Henry Kissinger.” He also wrote the introduction to the new book, just out, Only the Good Die Young: The Verdict on Henry Kissinger.

Greg, welcome back to Democracy Now! So, give us this people’s history of Henry Kissinger, as we see in the mainstream media he’s hailed as the man who opened communication with China, led to a détente with Russia. What is your version of events?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, I think you summed up very well the version of events, the number of war crimes that he was involved in. You know, Kissinger’s life is fascinating, because it spans a very consequential bridge in United States history, from the collapse of the postwar consensus, you know, that happened with Vietnam, and Kissinger is instrumental in kind of recobbling, recreating a national security state that can deal with dissent, that can deal with polarization, that actually thrived on polarization and secrecy and learning to manipulate the public in order to advance a very aggressive foreign policy.

I mean, we can go into the details, but I do want to say that his death has been as instructive as his life. I mean, if you look at the obituaries and notes of condolences, they just — I mean, they just reveal, I think, a moral bankruptcy of the political establishment, certainly in the transatlantic world, in the larger NATO sphere, just an unwillingness or incapacity to comprehend the crisis that we’re in and Kissinger’s role in that crisis. They’re celebratory. They’re inane. They’re vacuous. They’re really quite remarkable. And if you think of — just think back over the last year, the celebrations, the feting of his 100th anniversary — 100th, you know, birthday, his living to 100 years. I think it’s a cultural marker of just how much — how bankrupt the political class in this country is. So his death is almost as instructive as his life.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, we had you on, Greg, when he turned 100, when Kissinger turned 100.

GREG GRANDIN: Right.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In that interview, you said that the best way to think about Kissinger isn’t necessarily as a war criminal. Could you explain why?

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, because that is the way — I mean, Christopher Hitchens popularized thinking about him as a war criminal, and that has a way of elevating Kissinger, in some ways, as somehow an extraordinary evil. And it’s a fine line, because he did play an outsized role in a staggering number of atrocities and bringing and dealing misery and death across the globe to millions of people. But there’s a lot of war criminals. I mean, you know, this country is stocked with war criminals. There’s no shortage of war criminals.

And thinking about him as a war criminal kind of dumbs us down. It doesn’t allow us to think with Kissinger’s — use Kissinger’s life to think with, to think about how the United States — for example, Kissinger started off as a Rockefeller Republican, you know, a liberal Republican, an adviser to Nelson Rockefeller who thought Nixon was far out of the mainstream and a dangerous sociopath, I think, as he put it. And yet, when Nixon won — and he actually helped him win by scuttling a peace deal with North Vietnam — he made his peace with Nixon, and then went on, you know, into public office. And he thought Reagan was too extreme, and yet he made his peace with Reagan. Then he thought the neocons were too extreme, and he made his peace with the neocons. Then he even made his peace with Donald Trump. He called Donald — he celebrated Donald Trump almost as a kind of embodiment of his theory of a great statesman and being able to craft reality as they want to through their will. So, you see Kissinger — as the country moves right, you see Kissinger moving with it. So, just that trajectory is very useful to think with.

If you also think about his secret bombing of Cambodia and then trace out that bombing, it’s like a bright light, you know, a trace of red, running from Cambodia to the current endless “war on terror,” what was considered illegal. I mean, Kissinger bombed Cambodia in secret because it was illegal to bomb another country that you weren’t at war with in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s his old colleagues at Harvard, who were all Cold Warriors, none of them peace liberals, who marched down to Washington. They didn’t even know about the bombing. They went to protest the invasion of Cambodia. And now, you know, it is just considered a fact of international law that the United States has the right to bomb countries that — third-party countries that we’re not at war with that give safe haven to terrorists. It’s just considered — it’s just considered commonplace. So you could see this evolution and drift towards endless war through Kissinger’s life.

You can also — Kissinger’s life is also useful to think about how, you know, as a public official, first national security adviser and then secretary of state to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Kissinger created much of the chaos that would later necessitate and require a transition to what we call neoliberalism. But then, out of office, as the head of Kissinger Associates, Kissinger helped to broker that transition to neoliberalism, the privatization of much of the world, of Latin America, of Eastern Europe, of Russia. So you see that, you know, that transition from a public politician or public policymaker and then going on to making untold wealth as a private citizen in this transition.

So, you know, there’s many ways in which Kissinger’s life kind of maps the trajectory of the United States. You know, they celebrated him at the New York Public Library as if he was the American century incarnate. And in many ways, he was. You know, he really — his career really does map nicely onto the trajectory of the United States and the evolution of the national security state and its foreign policy and — you know, and the broken world that we’re all trying to live in, as your last two segments —

AMY GOODMAN: Greg, I — 

GREG GRANDIN: — showed so —

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Henry Kissinger in his own words. He’s speaking in 2016, when he defended the secret bombing of Cambodia.

HENRY KISSINGER: Nixon ordered an attack on the base areas within five miles of the Vietnamese border, that were essentially unpopulated. So, when the phrase “carpet bombing” is used, it is, I think, in the size of the attacks, probably much less than what the Obama administration has done in similar base areas in Pakistan, which I think is justified. And therefore, I believe that what was done in Cambodia was justified.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Henry Kissinger in 2016. He was speaking at the LBJ Library. The late celebrity chef 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 Milosevic.” If you can just respond to that? And for a —

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah. Well, that quote contains more moral and intellectual acuity and intelligence than the entire political establishment, both liberal and — both Democrat and Republican. It’s morally correct. It’s intellectually correct. And, you know, it’s more accurate than most diplomatic historians, who trade on making Kissinger more ethic — morally complicated than he was.

In terms of Kissinger’s quote himself about Cambodia, there he’s playing a little bit of a game. So he’s lying. I mean, he carpet-bombed Cambodia. The United States massively bombed Cambodia and brought to power within the Khmer Rouge the most extreme clique, led by Pol Pot. You know, when you massively bomb a country and you destroy a whole opposition, you tend to bring to power the extremists. And that’s exactly why Kissinger is responsible, to a large degree, for the genocide that happened later on under Pol Pot. The bombing brought to power Pol Pot within the Khmer Rouge, which previously was a larger, broader coalition.

But Kissinger isn’t wrong when he links it to Obama’s bombing of Pakistan. That was the point I was trying to make earlier. You know, Kissinger just had to do it illegally back — covertly back then, because it was illegal. It was against international law to bomb third countries, you know, in order to advance your war aims in another country. But now it’s accepted as commonplace. And it is true, he’s not wrong, when he cites Obama’s drone program and what Obama — and, you know, the continuation of the logic in the “war on terror” that started under George W. Bush. He’s not wrong about that. And that’s the line that — that’s one of the lines that you can trace from Vietnam and Cambodia and South Asia to today’s catastrophe that we’re living in.

AMY GOODMAN: Greg Grandin, we want thank you so much for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of history at Yale University. He’s author of Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman. We’ll link to your article in The Nation, “A People’s Obituary of Henry Kissinger.”

Happy belated birthday to Deena Guzder! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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The Case Against Henry Kissinger: War Crimes Prosecutor Reed Brody on Kissinger’s Legacy of “Slaughter”

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