“No hay mal que dure 100 anos, ni cuerpo que lo resista”, a famous saying in Spanish goes. It translates to “There is no evil which lasts 100 years, nor a body that can bear it”. The former US national security adviser and secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, may have tried to prove it wrong, making it past his 100th birthday, before finally meeting his maker six months later, on November 29.
Following his passing, there was a flood of obituaries and encomiums in media outlets around the world, some calling him “controversial”, others praising his legacy.
Amid these attempts to whitewash Kissinger’s atrocities, we must not lose track of who he really was.
This is a man, who, through his actions, was directly responsible for the murders of between three and four million people during his eight years in office between 1969 and 1977, according to Yale University historian Greg Grandin’s book Kissinger’s Shadow. The bloody policies he promoted paved the way for America’s never-ending wars in later years.
Kissinger was seen as the architect of the United States efforts to contain the Soviet Union and communist influence around the world. To achieve this, he introduced the “bombs over diplomacy” approach, pushing for some of the most brutal bombing campaigns in modern history.
This approach was first applied during the Vietnam War when the US was trying to stop communists from taking power. Kissinger, who at that time served as President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, pushed for carpet bombing not only Vietnam itself but also neighbouring Cambodia, where both Cambodian and Vietnamese guerrillas were operating.
In 1969, the military assault was approved secretly and proceeded without Congress being informed. In declassified Pentagon reports, it was stated that Kissinger personally approved 3,875 air raids which dropped some 540,000 tonnes of bombs in Cambodia within the first year of the campaign. To this day, innocent Vietnamese and Cambodians are being killed by remaining unexploded US ordnance.
Needless to say, the carpet bombing did not stop but rather facilitated the Vietnamese and Cambodian communists taking power. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge emerged victorious in the country’s civil war and went on to commit countless atrocities, including a genocide of between 1.5 and two million people. As TV chef, Anthony Bourdain, famously wrote, “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands”.
For his role in the war in Southeast Asia, Kissinger was abhorrently awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. A war in which he secretly helped Nixon sabotage peace talks between the US administration and Hanoi. A war, in which only regret was that he had not applied more brutal force to secure US victory.
The peace prize was a slap in the face for the victims of Kissinger’s brutality and has been yet another affirmation that the West refuses to hold its own war criminals to account.
Kissinger’s crimes stretch beyond Vietnam and Cambodia. In South Asia, worried about a Soviet-leaning India causing the collapse of Pakistan, a US ally, Kissinger gave support to Islamabad as its forces were carrying out a genocide against the Bengali population of East Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh in the early 1970s. Despite receiving multiple warnings from US diplomats about atrocities being committed, Kissinger approved shipments of weapons that perpetuated them.
In 1975, Kissinger also gave the green light for the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in order to topple the communist-leaning Fretilin government. In approving the unfolding genocide, which resulted in more than 200,000 slaughtered, Kissinger advised Suharto, “It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly.” It is estimated that up to a fifth of the Pacific island’s population perished in the Indonesian occupation which lasted until 1999.
Throughout Latin America, right-wing forces and coup plotters could also count on Kissinger’s support. In 1973, Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected president, was overthrown in a coup with full support from the US and its secretary of state. Three years later, after the army overthrew President Isabel Peron in Argentina and established military rule, Kissinger gave the green light for the horrific human rights abuses it perpetrated.
In 2016, then-US President Barack Obama expressed his regret over the US’s role in the “dirty war” in Argentina. But within two months of this shallow apology, his administration gave the chief architect of these policies a “Distinguished Public Service” award.
Kissinger also proved to be a spoiler for peace in the Middle East. He not only sabotaged proposals for a settlement between Israel and Arab states that came from Moscow, but undermined even those that came from within Washington.
While being a staunch supporter of Israel, Kissinger showed shocking disregard for Jewish life. In a conversation with Nixon, he was recorded as saying: “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.”
After he left office as secretary of state, Kissinger did not stop pushing for death and destruction across the world in books, interviews, articles and advice to US officials.
As an Iraqi, I find the criminal role he played in the Bush administration’s decision-making in the war on Iraq, particularly disturbing. Bush leaned on him as he rolled out his “shock and awe” strategy, deciding to carpet bomb Iraqi civilians, despite the bombing campaigns failing spectacularly in Cambodia and Vietnam.
Kissinger’s advice to the president in 2006 was simple, “Victory is the only meaningful exit strategy.” So Bush resorted to a US troop surge which led to a sharp spike in the number of civilian deaths. My own family in Baghdad had their homes raided by US troops in Baghdad and many of them had to flee to neighbouring Jordan and elsewhere.
Even while living his last days (peacefully, unlike his many victims) at his home in Connecticut, Kissinger could not stop himself from promoting war. In an interview with Politico following the October 7 attack in Israel, Kissinger proclaimed full support for the brutal Israeli war on Gaza, saying: “You can’t make concessions to people who have declared and demonstrated by their actions that they cannot make peace.”
The legacy Kissinger leaves behind is truly horrific. He shaped American politics and policy-making to entrench the belief that bloody and violent imperial policies pay off, that it is OK to defend the “national interest” at the cost of millions of lives. Today – as we are witnessing in Gaza – US officials continue to be convinced that carpet bombing and mass killing of a civilian population can yield the desired political results.
If Kissinger never faced justice, can we expect Israeli officials to ever be held to account?
Indeed, the real tragedy of his life and death is that he proved the powerful can get away with killing millions and still be celebrated after peacefully passing.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.