The realist murdered many more people, but he was no more successful than the idealist
By Herbert Rothschild
Our nation will soon observe milestones in the lives of two giant figures from the 1970s. President Jimmy Carter, who entered hospice last month, will pass away at age 98. It’s likely that Henry Kissinger will live on and reach age 100 in May. Both events will prompt an outpouring of assessments of their accomplishments. Here is a sketch of mine.
Empires require blood. Like the hands of every U.S. president since World War II, Carter’s were stained with it despite his predilection for decency. The largest source was East Timor, a legacy of Kissinger’s power games that Carter didn’t abjure.
As Secretary of State, Kissinger had given Indonesia the green light to annex East Timor after Portugal gave up its remaining colonies in 1975 and despite the Timorese vote to become independent. But the takeover didn’t go as planned. The resistance moved into mountainous terrain and was holding its own when Carter took office in 1977. The U.S. then supplied Indonesia with new weapons, including OV-10 Bronco aircraft. The Bronco was specifically designed for counter-insurgency operations in difficult terrain. The stalemate was broken. By the time the fighting stopped, between 60,000 and 100,000 civilians had been killed.
Carter announced in his inaugural address that human rights would be a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Under President Gerald Ford, the position of Coordinator for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs had been created. Carter expanded the position into the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs run by an Assistant Secretary of State.
The bureau championed human rights, but selectively. It emphasized the USSR, nations in the Eastern bloc, and those like Uganda where we had no major geopolitical interests. By contrast, in El Salvador, for example, the Carter administration armed and supported the murderous ARENA government. Regarding East Timor, I remember writing to the bureau and receiving a letter that admitted there hadn’t been “a genuine act of self-determination” but, essentially, it is what it is.
While the demands of running an empire compromised Carter’s commitment to wed human rights to foreign policy, Kissinger could see no place for them at all. When asked in 1971 whether the Nixon Administration should press for domestic reforms in Pakistan, he replied, “Why is it our business how they govern themselves?” He and his family had fled Nazi Germany in 1938, but it didn’t prevent him from saying to Richard Nixon in 1973, “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
Kissinger never has lost his reputation as a “statesman” despite his well-established record of horrific and illegal efforts to advance by almost any means what he regarded as U.S. interests. He and Nixon prosecuted the war in Vietnam for five years, all the time knowing it was unwinnable. They secretly widened the war by bombing Laos and Cambodia, which did nothing to turn the tide of the war but opened the way for Pol Pot to take power in Cambodia and institute his reign of terror. Thanks to intensive bombing meant to compensate for the U.S. troop withdrawals necessitated by domestic politics, more people died in Vietnam on Kissinger’s watch than on Johnson’s. Even so, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, to which neither the North Vietnamese nor the U.S. puppet regime in Saigon adhered.
After Vietnam, the 1973 coup in Chile is probably Kissinger’s best-known crime. When Salvador Allende became president in 1970, he and Nixon resolved to remove him because he committed the cardinal sin of a Latin American leader — he tried to use his country’s resources to help his own people. That Allende had been popularly elected made him only more dangerous in their eyes. “I don’t see why we have to stand by and watch a country go Communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people,” Kissinger observed.
The CIA helped elements of Chile’s military topple Allende. Thus began Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 18-year reign of terror. Much later, prosecutors in Chile, Spain and France tried to call Kissinger to account for his complicity in the hundreds of murders immediately following the coup, including that of Charles Horman, a U.S. journalist and filmmaker. But Kissinger has escaped any reckoning for his crimes, which are multitudinous.
Perhaps the biggest death toll was in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. I won’t recount the history of the tensions between the two widely separated parts of a country created when the British left in 1947, but in 1971 West Pakistan invaded the East and perpetrated enormities against the Bengalis. Knowing that it was against U.S. law, Nixon and Kissinger approved arms transfers to the Islamabad government. On the White House tapes, released in 2010, Kissinger can be heard sneering at Americans who “bleed” for “the dying Bengalis.”
Like almost all Kissinger’s actions on the global stage, the blood he helped spill there (the government of Bangladesh puts the death toll at 3 million) didn’t accomplish his objectives. Faced with 10 million East Pakistanis fleeing across its border, India intervened, West Pakistan was defeated, and Bangladesh was born as an independent country.
Kissinger and Nixon have been praised for their opening with China, and it was an important policy change. Developments in the UN, however, had already created pressure for change. The General Assembly was on the verge of recognizing the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate representative of the Chinese people. The U.S. tried hard to keep Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China as a separate UN member but lost the vote. The real China could no longer be ignored.
With some justification, Kissinger has been labeled a foreign policy realist and Carter a foreign policy idealist. The record of the realist, however, was no more successful than that of the idealist. Ultimately, the defining difference may be that the realist will die with no regrets.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at firstname.lastname@example.org.