History Lesson

The Trial of Henry K.

Was Kissinger a war criminal? A new movie can’t prove the case.

War criminal or overrated opportunist?

The director Stanley Kubrick had a gift for counterposing chirpy music with chilling violence to make you laugh and shudder at once. In Dr. Strangelove (1964), Vera Lynn croons “We’ll Meet Again” as a mushroom cloud engulfs Planet Earth; in Full Metal Jacket (1987), bedraggled Vietnam grunts march into the dusk singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme. The Trials of Henry Kissinger—a film whose New Left sensibility dates to the mad Kubrickian age of nukes and ‘Nam—opens with a montage in the same ironic vein: The documentary’s title villain, its real-life Strangelove, is dressed in his academic-issue black-rimmed glasses and drab suit and grins sheepishly. In the background, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartmann linger through a smoky romantic ballad, as if to swoon over Henry. Even as this documentary sets out to damn Kissinger in high moral dudgeon, we see that it also plainly means to have fun at his expense.

Unfortunately, the movie’s touch isn’t always so light. Based on a long Harper’s article (and later a book) by polemicist Christopher Hitchens, the film builds a case, often heavy-handedly, that for his deeds in Indochina, Chile, and East Timor, Kissinger should be hauled before a world court for war crimes, just like the murderous dictators Slobodan Milosevic and Augusto Pinochet. Leading leftist Kissinger critics, including Hitchens, Seymour Hersh, William Shawcross, and Roger Morris bear witness for the prosecution. In Henry’s defense we hear his former deputies Al Haig and Brent Scowcroft, his former Nixon administration colleague William Safire, and (via previously taped TV footage) Kissinger himself. Frustratingly, however, the defenders’ words are usually clipped or decontextualized, made to sound like idiocies instead of credible counterarguments—or so it seemed from the titters that their remarks drew from the graying lefties in the Greenwich Village theater where I saw the film.

Yet although the case is blatantly one-sided—it should have been called The Case Against Henry Kissinger, as was Hitchens’ original article—it’s still riveting and, within limits, persuasive. All the evidence presented here has appeared in fuller context and greater detail in Hitchens’ book and other places. Yet filmmakers Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecki do usefully hold up for display key documents that have been released over the years implicating the former national security adviser and secretary of state in dastardly deeds. With the emergence of FBI memos, for example, it has become increasingly certain that Kissinger, while advising President Lyndon Johnson on the 1968 Vietnam peace negotiations, secretly helped Richard Nixon scotch an accord that, if successful, could well have spelled victory in that year’s election for Democrat Hubert Humphrey. Also powerful is the case that Kissinger has lied to conceal his efforts to keep Chile’s elected Marxist leader Salvador Allende from taking office in 1970—efforts that led to the murder of a Chilean general and, ultimately, the coup that brought Pinochet and his thugs to power.

To review this material is to be reminded of America’s ruthless military adventurism during the late Cold War, actions all the more terrible because they occurred at a time when we should have known (and Kissinger and Nixon did know) that communism wasn’t going to subvert our democracy. Prolonging the Vietnam War (at the cost of 20,000 American and many more Vietnamese lives), overthrowing the Allende regime, and winking and nodding at Indonesia’s brutality in East Timor—the footage and discussion of these misguided policies makes palpable again the terrible tragedy of the Cold War; it also makes clear that Kissinger was a lying, coldblooded, immoral bastard. It doesn’t, however, prove the film’s key allegation: that he’s a war criminal.

The Trials of Henry Kissinger frames its case in the context of what is (was?) a new era of international law, with the new global criminal court as its centerpiece. In a post-Cold War age of reckoning, the bad guys can now be called to account. But, alas, while we hear many fine and exalted words about universal justice, the film never explores these tricky issues in any depth. Is supporting a corrupt or brutal regime ever legitimate, and, if not, how do we ever conduct foreign policy? Who is to judge such morally and legally gray zones as invading a country that’s neutral on paper but hostile in practice, as Cambodia was when it provided staging grounds for North Vietnamese attacks? Who, exactly, should be held responsible for bloody wars, coups, and revolutions? A vast corpus of theory has arisen to wrestle with these tough problems, but no discussion of it appears in the film.

Instead, Gibney and Jarecki apply to Kissinger the most stringent standards possible. In a perverse way, this actually disserves the movement for an international criminal court. Like the Israel-bashers and Jew-haters who would brand Ariel Sharon a war criminal and try him in The Hague, the indiscriminate lumping of Kissinger with men like Milosevic furnishes ammunition to critics of a world court who warn that anyone with an ax to grind might use it for political grandstanding.

At bottom, it never occurs to the filmmakers to ask why Kissinger of all people should be singled out for indictment. Setting aside malefactors all over the world whose barbarity far outstrips Kissinger’s, in the United States alone there were many other Nixon aides—as well as officials in the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations—who were party to heinous Cold War deeds. Why not The Trials of Robert McNamara or The Trials of the Dulles Brothers? (On the flip side, Gibney and Jarecki give shockingly short shrift to the one crime for which Kissinger should definitely have been tried: his illegal wiretapping of 17 administration officials and reporters during the Nixon presidency and possibly perjurious denial of it during his 1973 Senate confirmation hearings.)

Above all, Gibney and Jarecki don’t make clear why they target Kissinger and not the man who gave him his marching orders: Richard Nixon. Historians agree that Nixon, not his brainier adviser, devised and directed his administration’s foreign policy. From his opening of relations with China to his refusal to end the Vietnam War, Nixon called all the shots. Kissinger has admitted as much, disavowing the credit (or blame) that journalists once heaped upon him.

The difference between Kissinger and Nixon, of course, is that Kissinger got away with it. He escaped prosecution and even close scrutiny during Watergate mainly because the Senate feared American foreign policy would unravel without him. The Washington press corps and the Georgetown social scene coddled him. Unlike the socially inept Nixon, Kissinger was silkily deft at ingratiating himself with the right people. A high point of The Trials of Henry Kissinger is a second musical sequence, set to the 1971 soul hit “Mr. Big Stuff,” that mockingly celebrates Kissinger’s self-stylings as a “private swinger” (as he called himself)—his hobnobbing with the literati, his dates with starlets. The reason so many people loathe Kissinger, it becomes apparent, isn’t the particular blackness of his deeds but the brightness of his aura, and the discrepancy between them.

Understandably, the filmmakers and their talking heads seethe over Kissinger’s continuing untouchability. Despite the idealist rhetoric about world justice, we all know that Henry the K will never stand in the dock in The Hague or have his Nobel Peace Prize revoked. At the end of the film, Seymour Hersh proposes that Kissinger is suffering the punishment of having to live with himself and his conscience, but it’s unlikely that viewers will be consoled by that thought—at least to judge again by the firmly dissenting mutters from my audience.

No, for the rest of his days Kissinger will live high from his lucrative and morally dubious consulting career. He will relish the continuing wash of canned praise from Washington pundits. He will continue smirkingly to fleece book-of-the-month-club types who think they’re lapping up wisdom from the master when they buy extended op-ed pieces like Does America Need a Foreign Policy? In fact, Dr. Kissinger, though an intelligent man, never exerted much influence in academia. He has always been overestimated in the public eye as a scholar. His foreign-policy reputation has been inflated, too, by his boosters who wrongly see him, not Nixon, as the architect of detente and the China opening. The Trials of Henry Kissinger makes plain that the leftists resemble these Kissinger admirers more than they realize. For in working themselves into such a lather over the smart, opportunistic Harvard professor who cannily attached himself to Richard Nixon, they continue to wildly overrate Henry Kissinger as well.