In 2010 I wrote an op-ed expressing pleasure that Henry Kissinger had teamed up with Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Schultz to plead actively for the abolition of nuclear weapons. I called my piece “Kissinger’s Truth,” implying that while he might not always have been the most truthful of statesmen, it was not altogether bad that he had arrived, even if only in retirement and old age, at a more dove-ish position, at least concerning nukes. The possibility of nuclear winter rubs even the faces of pitiless realists in the gigantic performative contradiction of modern war: the potential for absolute destruction upon which international security depends leads only to absolute destruction.
When my op-ed was published on line, it inspired a spew of vitriolic comment that took me to task for holding Dr. Kissinger up as anything more than a war criminal. In that regard the record is indeed troubling, including the Cambodian bombing, unwarranted interference in Chile and East Timor, even the possible undermining of the Vietnam peace talks to advantage Mr. Nixon politically, unnecessarily extending the war into further years of horror and pain.
Whether he is a war criminal or one of the most brilliant statesmen of all time or both, for decades he was at the center of global power politics. People who have been that close to nuclear decision-making represent a kind of dark priesthood. The rest of us, because it’s our planet too, want to know what such people may have learned as they tried to move themselves and their nations safely through that darkness.
In the case of the tragedy of Vietnam, perhaps Kissinger did indeed realize that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist whose people had hated the Chinese for a millennium, but went ahead anyway with the bombing because at root it was a matter of maintaining credibility against the Soviets, in a cruel but wholly unnecessary proxy for nuclear war that “could not be won and must never be fought.”
In the eyes of the powerful, Robert McNamara’s bitter public tears of remorse about the Vietnam War constituted a dangerous aberration, a threat to the complacent façade of establishment toughness and righteousness, though in my judgment the tears represented a redemptive moment of contact with reality. Meanwhile, in our own time, so much deception, meddling, blood and torture goes not only unpunished, but also apparently unregretted.
Though he speaks of anguishing decisions, we should not expect to see Dr. Kissinger shed remorseful tears any time soon. When Scott Simon interviewed him on NPR in September of 2014 on the occasion of the publication of his new book “World Order,” (http://www.npr.org/2014/09/06/346114326/henry-kissingers-thoughts-on-the-islamic-state-ukraine-and-world-order), Kissinger lamely rationalized the U.S. carpet-bombing of Cambodia by saying that Obama’s drones had killed more than those B-52s a half-century ago. Still, in that very need to rationalize, so human, one felt a tiny lifting of the veil covering Kissinger’s conscience. How different another Nobel prize winner (Literature, 1960), the poet St. John Perse, who once occupied a position equivalent to Kissinger’s in the foreign office of France. The last line of Perse’s Nobel acceptance speech goes: “And it is enough for the poet to be the guilty conscience of his time.” Perse helped Aristide Briand author the text of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand treaty outlawing war—a treaty still in effect, to which the United States is a signatory.
Much ink has been spilled on the issue of whether Dr. Kissinger ought to be or could be indicted and tried by the International Criminal Court. Most of the ICC trials that have taken place so far concern alleged criminals from African nations and Serbia. Once again, as in so many cases concerning differences between the dominators and the dominated, a double standard is apparently at work.
The existence, however tentative their present effectiveness, of the ICC and the International Court of Justice, surely points toward a world where men and women of power will be constrained in their use of the law of force by the force of law—a world where endless warring parties, your tribe and my tribe justifying futile patterns of revenge, will look up and see they inhabit one earth, menaced a hundred times less by each other than by the dying oceans, the thawing of frozen methane long trapped under polar ice, the decimation of the forests that make possible our very breath. How strange we humans are, that so many remain blind to that truth.