Skewering Henry


By Christopher Hitchens

Verso -- 159pp -- $22

Christopher Hitchens doesn't like Henry A. Kissinger. Hitchens lets readers know how he feels about the former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser in the first sentence of The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a book written as a multicount indictment of Kissinger for war crimes and other offenses. And the columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation doesn't let up throughout the slim but saucy volume.

What are the alleged offenses? They range from mass killings of civilians in Indochina, Bangladesh, and East Timor to involvement in plans to commit murder in Bangladesh, Chile, Cyprus, and Washington. In a rare act of charity toward his subject, Hitchens says he left out of the bill of particulars conduct that falls into the category of merely "depraved realpolitik," such as the betrayal of Iraqi Kurds who were invited by the U.S. to rise up against Saddam Hussein in the mid-1970s. Such behavior, the author says, doesn't seem to violate any laws.

A quarter of the book is devoted to Kissinger's machinations during the Vietnam War. They start with what Hitchens contends is Kissinger's role as a double agent during the 1968 Presidential campaign. The book alleges that then-Harvard professor Kissinger used his contacts with the Johnson Administration's negotiators to alert Richard M. Nixon's campaign to developments at the Paris peace talks. He says the Nixon team then persuaded the South Vietnamese to pull out of the negotiations on the eve of the election to deprive Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey, the Democratic nominee, of a coveted peace plank. After Nixon was elected, Kissinger counseled against any U.S. troop withdrawal before the autumn of 1972 to avoid possible negative fallout in that year's U.S. election. Hitchens blames countless resulting deaths on Kissinger.

Assuming the facts are accurate--and Hitchens relies on memoirs of participants--does this amount to a war crime? It would not be the all-too-familiar crime of genocide, but rather the misdeed of continuing aggression. International-law experts have long struggled unsuccessfully to define that one.

Other incidents Hitchens cites include the assassination of Bengali leader Sheik Mujibur Rahman, which the author believes had backing from Washington. But he admits that subpoena power is needed to prove it. "The task of disproving such a connection, meanwhile, would appear to rest on those who believe that everything is an accident," he writes. Not quite: In courts, the burden of proof is on the prosecution, not the defense.

Similar problems surround Hitchens' discussion of the assassination of Chilean General Rene Schneider. Schneider opposed military meddling in elections, and his death paved the way for the 1973 coup against President Salvador Allende. But Hitchens' proof of Kissinger's involvement is hardly ironclad. While Washington was involved with Chilean coup plotters, it also voiced objections to a coup just before it took place. Hitchens dismisses the notion that the evidence is exculpatory as "logically feeble" and "morally contemptible."

Often Hitchens' book is far better written than argued. It is always deliciously cheeky if not totally persuasive. There is somehow a line between despicable behavior and a war crime. We're all still struggling to discover where that line is.

By Stan Crock

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