There’s no doubt that Henry Kissinger was a complicated man, as shown by the torrent of fierce opinions published since his death.
I worked for the man and Vietnam was where I first began to hate him. A young US diplomat, I was a civilian adviser to the Mayor of Hué, one of the most dangerous places in the country during the last years of the war, at a time when any American there still in control of his senses knew we’d lost the war.
Kissinger and Nixon knew this too, and had begun to rapidly withdraw US troops soon after I arrived there in January, 1971. But the two men also knew they could not admit defeat. Both were concerned about America’s image—Nixon mindful of his own political fortunes and Kissinger more concerned that America’s global rivals would see a US defeat in Vietnam as proof of America’s weakness.
So the two launched a strategy called “Vietnamization” to promote the fiction that the South Vietnam could win the war without American boots on the ground. It was never more than a PR ploy to divert attention from the fact that the US has just gotten its butt kicked by a small, poor nation few Americans had even heard of when we began fighting there.
A major “proof” that the strategy was succeeding was to leave civilian advisers like me in place, but with minimal, if any, protection by the rapidly disappearing US military. The aim was to get media images of American advisors in rice paddies, surrounded by happy peasants so thankful for our presence.
I was ordered to be unarmed for the photo-ops, but, a foot taller than most Vietnamese, I was an obvious target for snipers and assassins. The reality was the M16 and .45 in my jeep, and at my house a case of grenades, a field radio, and four bodyguards.
Vietnamization prolonged the war by four years at a cost of another 10,000 American lives and many more Vietnamese lives—all for a PR gambit that was swiftly exposed when the North Vietnamese overran Saigon in May 1975.
Henry Kissinger had a chessboard instead of a heart and, in Vietnam, I was just another one of his pawns in perhaps the most evil game he ever played.
Three years later, I was working at the State Department headquarters in Washington DC in an office down the hall from Kissinger’s. My job at State was as a liaison between Kissinger and James Schlesinger, the Secretary of Defense. The two men hated each other so my job was tricky.
My office was close enough to Kissinger’s that I could regularly hear secretaries running past my door in tears after having been eviscerated by Kissinger for a misplaced comma or cold coffee. The man delighted in being cruel; punching down was a sign of the bully he was.
In early 1976, the day before an important cabinet-level meeting between the US and the UK in Washington to iron out sensitive issues regarding nuclear weapons, my job was to synchronize the briefing books that Kissinger and Schlesinger would be using. I was appalled to see that the talking points in those two books were substantially different. The two rivals apparently had failed to coordinate and were about to severely embarrass the United States in front of our British allies. So I got Kissinger’s briefing book to Schlesinger, who predictively hit the roof. Aides calmed the two men down and synchronized the books
.I wasn’t there, but friends who were said that Kissinger, at 3 AM on the day of the meeting, thinking that some over-zealous subordinate had caused him to lose face to his archrival, was literally running up and down the hallway screaming that Graham be fired.
I survived. A few months later, I had just finished drafting a policy paper for State that argued that the United States should cut back its sales of battlefield weapons to Third World nations, if only because, in the chaos that always surrounded conflicts in the Third World, nobody could be sure that our weapons would not be used against us in another time or place. But I’d made one mistake in the text that went to Kissinger for his approval. In two sentences I’d argued that the United States had a moral obligation to stop shipping M16s and napalm to warring countries who, a few generations before, had made do with spears. The new weapons made violence far more lethal—while making fortunes for American arms dealers.
That paper came rocketing back to my desk from Kissinger’s office and on the page where I had discussed “moral obligation,” Kissinger has had scrawled “BS HK” with such force he must have almost broken his pen.
Morality had absolutely no place in Henry Kissinger’s soul and in his worldview. “Human rights” had no place in his priorities, evidenced by his roles in calling for the secret bombing of Cambodia and creating fascist dictatorships, most famously in Chile, that would support American interests.
I do recognize the positive side of Henry Kissinger. He had a superb grasp of the subtle interplay between interests, values, and the use of force. He correctly argued that global stability required states to tolerate each other’s differences. And I think he was right that tolerance toward adversaries only works when backed by a strong military deterrent. These principles led him to perhaps his most signal achievement, the rapprochement with China.
But Secretary of State Blinken’s recent comments that Kissinger was a model for all future Secretaries of State to follow was an extraordinarily ignorant and foolish statement. God help us if anyone should take him seriously. Blinken should wince that Kissinger became the face of American arrogance in foreign affairs, a legacy, as Heather Cox Richardson has noted, that Blinken’s State Department is still working to overcome.
Henry Kissinger was a moral defective. It is this fact that should be the way he’s remembered, not as a role model. His triumphs, like the opening to China, will not be forgotten but within 50 years they will be overwhelmed by his legacy as a cruel, amoral and insecure man whose brand of power politics resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and intense pain and suffering for millions more; their misfortune was to live in nations that Kissinger never saw as more than pawns, never important enough to merit the compassion and respect so lacking in his makeup.