A People’s Obituary of Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger, who was born in Weimar Germany in 1923, is dead. He made it to 100, and in the last years of his life, politicians, writers, and celebrities feted him as if he were the American Century incarnate. In a way, he was.

Earlier, during more critical times, he had been accused of many bad things. Now that he’s gone, his critics will get a chance to rehearse the charges. Christopher Hitchens, who made the case that the former secretary of state should be tried as a war criminal, is himself dead. But there’s a long list of witnesses for the prosecution: reporters, historians, and lawyers eager to provide background on any of Kissinger’s actions in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, East Timor, Bangladesh, against the Kurds, in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Cyprus, among other places. 

There have been scores of books published on the man over the years, but it is still Seymour Hersh’s 1983 The Price of Power that future biographers will have to top. Hersh gave us the defining portrait of Kissinger as a preening paranoid, tacking between ruthlessness and sycophancy to advance his career. Small in his vanities and shabby in his motives, Kissinger, in Hersh’s hands, is nonetheless Shakespearean because the pettiness gets played out on a world stage, with epic consequences.

Kissinger has many devotees, and many of his obituaries will no doubt urge balance. Transgressions, they’ll say, need to be weighed against accomplishments: détente and subsequent arms treaties with the Soviet Union, opening up Communist China, and his shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East. It’s at this moment that the consequences of many of Kissinger’s policies will be redefined as “controversies” and consigned to opinion rather than to fact. In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, with the world convulsed by new wars of conquest, Kissinger’s “sober” statesmanship is, several commentators have recently claimed, needed more than ever.

Read the full piece in The Nation.