For U.S. mass media, Henry Kissinger’s quip that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac” rang true. Influential reporters and pundits often expressed their love for him. The media establishment kept swooning over one of the worst war criminals in modern history.
After news of his death broke on Wednesday night, prominent coverage echoed the kind that had followed him ever since his years with President Richard Nixon, while they teamed up to oversee vast carnage in Southeast Asia.
The headline over a Washington Post news bulletin summed up: “Henry Kissinger Dies at 100. The Noted Statesman and Scholar Had Unparalleled Power Over Foreign Policy.”
But can a war criminal really be a “noted statesman”?
The New York Times top story began by describing Kissinger as a “scholar-turned-diplomat who engineered the United States’ opening to China, negotiated its exit from Vietnam, and used cunning, ambition and intellect to remake American power relationships with the Soviet Union at the time of the Cold War, sometimes trampling on democratic values to do so.”
And so, the Times spotlighted Kissinger’s role in the U.S. “exit from Vietnam” in 1973 – but not his role during the previous four years, overseeing merciless slaughter in a war that took several million lives.
“Leaving aside those who perished from disease, hunger, or lack of medical care, at least 3.8 million Vietnamese died violent war deaths according to researchers from Harvard Medical School and the University of Washington,” historian and journalist Nick Turse has noted. He added: “The best estimate we have is that 2 million of them were civilians. Using a very conservative extrapolation, this suggests that 5.3 million civilians were wounded during the war, for a total of 7.3 million Vietnamese civilian casualties overall. To such figures might be added an estimated 11.7 million Vietnamese forced from their homes and turned into refugees, up to 4.8 million sprayed with toxic herbicides like Agent Orange, an estimated 800,000 to 1.3 million war orphans, and 1 million war widows.”
All told, during his stint in government, Kissinger supervised policies that took the lives of at least 3 million people.
Henry Kissinger was the crucial U.S. official who supported the September 11, 1973 coup that brought down the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile – initiating 17 years of dictatorship, with systematic murder and torture (“trampling on democratic values” in Times-speak).
Kissinger remained as secretary of state during the presidency of Gerald Ford. Lethal machinations continued in many places, including East Timor in the Indonesian archipelago. “Under Kissinger’s direction, the U.S. gave a green light to the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor (now Timor-Leste), which ushered in a 24-year brutal occupation by the Suharto dictatorship,” the human rights organization ETAN reported. “The Indonesian occupation of East Timor and West Papua was enabled by U.S. weapons and training. This illegal flow of weapons contravened congressional intent, yet Kissinger bragged about his ability to continue arms shipments to Suharto.
“These weapons were essential to the Indonesian dictator’s consolidation of military control in both East Timor and West Papua, and these occupations cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Timorese and Papuan civilians. Kissinger’s policy toward West Papua allowed for the U.S.-based multinational corporation Freeport McMoRan to pursue its mining interests in the region, which has resulted in terrible human rights and environmental abuses; Kissinger was rewarded with a seat on the Board of Directors from 1995-2001.”
Now that’s the work of a noted statesman.
The professional love affairs between Kissinger and many American journalists endured from the time that he got a grip on the steering wheel of U.S. foreign policy when Nixon became president in early 1969. In Southeast Asia, the agenda went far beyond Vietnam.
Nixon and Kissinger routinely massacred civilians in Laos, as Fred Branfman documented in the 1972 book “Voices From the Plain of Jars.” He told me decades later: “I was shocked to the core of my being as I found myself interviewing Laotian peasants, among the most decent, human and kind people on Earth, who described living underground for years on end, while they saw countless fellow villagers and family members burned alive by napalm, suffocated by 500-pound bombs, and shredded by antipersonnel bombs dropped by my country, the United States.”
Branfman’s discoveries caused him to scrutinize U.S. policy: “I soon learned that a tiny handful of American leaders, a U.S. executive branch led by Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger, had taken it upon themselves – without even informing let alone consulting the U.S. Congress or public – to massively bomb Laos and murder tens of thousands of subsistence-level, innocent Laotian civilians who did not even know where America was, let alone commit an offense against it. The targets of U.S. bombing were almost entirely civilian villages inhabited by peasants, mainly old people and children who could not survive in the forest. The other side’s soldiers moved through the heavily forested regions in Laos and were mostly untouched by the bombing.”
The U.S. warfare in Southeast Asia was also devastating to Cambodia. Consider some words from the late Anthony Bourdain, who illuminated much about the world’s foods and cultures. As this century got underway, Bourdain wrote: “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 [Slobodan] Milošević.”
Bourdain added that while Kissinger continued to hobnob at A-list parties, “Cambodia, the neutral nation he secretly and illegally bombed, invaded, undermined, and then threw to the dogs, is still trying to raise itself up on its one remaining leg.”
But back in the corridors of U.S. media power, Henry Kissinger never lost the sheen of brilliance.
Among the swooning journalists was ABC’s Ted Koppel, who informed viewers of the Nightline program in 1992: “If you want a clear foreign-policy vision, someone who will take you beyond the conventional wisdom of the moment, it’s hard to do any better than Henry Kissinger.” As one of the most influential broadcast journalists of the era, Koppel was not content to only declare himself “proud to be a friend of Henry Kissinger.” The renowned newsman lauded his pal as “certainly one of the two or three great secretaries of state of our century.”
Norman Solomon is national director of RootsAction.org and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. He is the author of many books including War Made Easy. His latest book, War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine, was published in summer 2023 by The New Press.