Monday, May 31, 2010

Review: The Trials of Henry Kissinger

Voltaire once described history as nothing more than a tableau of crime and misfortune -  a view the 20th century proved correct.  The Trials of Henry Kissinger is a polemical documentary that argues that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was guilty of war crimes perpetuated by the Nixon and Ford administrations.  Based on a book by the iconoclastic journalist Christopher Hitchens, the film has commentary from many former aides, journalists, and biographers.  I applaud the film's critical look at American foreign policy, but it betrays its premise because it resembles a show trial and not a fair trial.

For a time, back in the 1970s, Henry Kissinger made international diplomacy hip.  As National Security Adviser to Richard Nixon (1969-74) and later Secretary of State to Nixon and Ford (73-77) Kissinger literally shaped American diplomacy in the 1970s.  Before becoming an international celebrity who dated young actresses he was hardly known outside academic circles.  At the age of 13, Kissinger's family, being Jewish, emigrated from Nazi Germany and settled in New York City. After serving in the Second World War Kissinger studied international relations at Harvard and became an academic star. In the 1950s and 1960s wrote a few bestseller, most famously, Limited War and Nuclear Weapons  In 1968, the president-elect Richard Nixon appointed Kissinger as his National Security Adviser. 
In 1969, Nixon and Kissinger faced a daunting set of international and domestic challenges.  The Vietnam War topped the list.  By that point the war had created a rupture between generations that flared on college campuses.  From a military standpoint, the war was in a stalemate with 100 Americans being killed every week.  Nixon accepted the fact that victory in Vietnam was hopeless.  During the 1968 campaign Nixon stayed silent on his plans for Vietnam, only reassuring the American public he was committed to peace.  Nixon and Kissinger's plans, however, extended beyond ending the war.  They wanted to build a new international balance of power that included the Soviet Union, China, Japan, Western Europe - with the United States as the fulcrum.

The foreign policy accomplishments during the Kissinger years are substantial: negotiating an end to America's involvement in Vietnam (but not the Vietnam War), the opening of China, arms control with the still terrifying Soviet Union, and shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East in the chaotic months following the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  They called it detente, policies designed to reduce Cold War tensions.  The documentary focused on three specific areas: Cambodia, Chile, and East Timor.

Cambodia.  In early 1969 the Nixon administration began clandestine bombing campaigns on Cambodia, a sovereign nation, to strike at North Vietnam's supply line.  By 1970, with the peace negotiations going nowhere, Nixon announced on television a ground invasion of Cambodia by U.S. forces.  Members of Kissinger's staff resigned over the decision and the campuses went aflame.  Forty years ago this month four students were killed by the National Guard at Kent St. University.  The Cambodian invasion ended several months later with mixed results, but left conditions favorable for radical elements to take over the government - the Khmer Rouge.  They were a radical ultra left wing faction who seized power in 1975 and forced the entire population into the countryside.  Over one million died in the genocide.  The film places the blame squarely on Kissinger for creating the conditions for the atrocities in Cambodia. 

The other areas covered, Chile and East Timor, are far more complicated.  In 1973, military coup in Chile overthrew Salvador Allende, a Marxist who the administration viewed as another Castro.  Evidence that come clearly shows the CIA played a part overthrowing Allende, aided by American companies who were threatened by the regime.  East Timor, a former colony of the Portuguese Empire, was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and absorbed into that country (in 2002 East Timor gained its independence).  The Ford administration provided weapons to Indonesia in their brutal crackdown on East Timor.  For these crimes, should Henry Kissinger face prosecution from international courts for crimes against humanity?

These are serious charges revolve around complicated historical events.  The film view them as cut and dry cases, but the truth is far more elusive.  If the documentary is a trial as purports to be, it is a kangaroo court.  Most of the commentary comes from journalists that dedicated their careers to attacking Nixon and Kissinger.  The only defender from the administration, former Kissinger aide Alexander Haig, seemed oblivious to the consequences of past actions.  No historian who has studied the time period appears in the film to add some balance.  Was this simply an ego trip for Hitchens?

In saying that, I admire Hitchens.  He is one of the great commentators writing in the English speaking world today.  His frequent appearances in television contain more wit that all the godawful commentary infesting the cable news airwaves.  In the past, Hitchens has taken on Mother Theresa, Bill Clinton, and lately all organized religion.  The mainstream media's coverage of American foreign policy is banal and we need journalists like Hitchens to bring light to certain facts.  By his standards, however, every administration since Truman should face the docket.  It is unlikely that any American will in the near future, and that hypocrisy is a problem.  But for America to have a more democratic society, more discussion on foreign policy is something desperately needed.

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