The Case for Henry Kissinger

By Horne, Alistair | The Independent (London, England), August 18, 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Case for Henry Kissinger


Horne, Alistair, The Independent (London, England)


The man who ran US foreign policy from 1969 to 1977 is loathed by liberals as a ruthless practitioner of global Realpolitik. Yet Alistair Horne, his biographer, believes that there is also a great deal about him to admire

There is a widespread view among the liberal intelligentsia to the effect that Henry Kissinger, US National Security Advisor from 1969 to 1975 and Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977, was a bad man. That may even be an understatement. In this fashionable consensus, he is not just a bad man: he is a war criminal.

His alleged crimes are numerous: the bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia; covert support for the coup against Chile's President Allende in 1973; support for assorted other obnoxious right-wing regimes; and alleged involvement (no charges for which have ever stuck) in the campaign of murder and kidnapping known as Operation Condor. His most vociferous critics, such as the journalist Christopher Hitchens, have explicitly called for him to be tried, while in 2001 a French judge tried to get him to give evidence in relation to the disappearance of civilians in Chile.

Although he remains highly respected in the corridors of global power, and in the boardrooms of multinational corporations, in the salons of the chattering classes he is little better than a pariah. Yet is this reputation actually deserved?

After some four years researching an authorised biography of Henry Kissinger, I came to the conclusion that fashionable opinion may be doing him an injustice.

What was obvious from the start was that no Americans - and few Europeans - could be neutral about him. They either loved him or hated him. For everyone who would happily have seen him arraigned on war crimes charges there were others who applauded his contributions to the cause of world peace.

I think I have come out with the latter group. This is not to say that I consider his record irreproachable. It is just that, on balance, I cannot avoid the conclusion that he is a great man.

A distinguished British biographer, Philip Ziegler, closes his official biography Mountbatten with the admission that, when enraged with his (posthumous) subject, he would have to set in front of himself a notice reminding himself: "Remember, in spite of everything, he was a great man." With Kissinger, I never felt a need for this reminder. In the first place, while I may have infuriated him during our many interviews, he never enraged me. But also the tribute, in his case, should surely have read not "in spite of" but "because of" everything. The very circumstances that have made him notorious - Watergate, Nixon, the Yom Kippur War, Vietnam - were those that define his greatness.

When, in 2005, I was working on the Kissinger papers at the Library of Congress, the Librarian, Dr James Billington, a distinguished scholar seldom given to hyperbole, mused to me how new leaders tended to be either "show horses" or "work horses". "But," he added, "Henry was both, and he deserved full credit." Speaking particularly of detente - and of the fact that Kissinger was working under the shadow of Watergate and a mortally-impaired president - Billington continued: "The period which Henry had to deal with was an extraordinarily difficult one - because of the cards that were dealt him."

This, to me, was the essence of his greatness. Kissinger was surely one of the very few statesmen to try to do something positive to break the log jam of the Cold War; to try to end the war in Vietnam; to bring a halt to the cycle of war in the Middle East. But his was a role of not just reacting - or of rolling with the punches. If circumstances were indeed "extraordinarily difficult", with Watergate frustrating him from attainment of his ultimate objectives, such as "peace with honour" in Vietnam, then it could be said that, at least, because of the straitjacket it imposed on his president, Kissinger was granted opportunities and powers never given to other mere secretaries of state before or after.

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