Paul Anderson, review of The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens (Verso, £12.99), Tribune 25 May 2001
In recent years, Christopher Hitchens has made a speciality of polemics that puncture the reputations of public figures — most notably, his books on Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Bill Clinton. The latter, No One Left To Lie To, caused outrage among American Democrats and their friends abroad.
Hitchens, they spluttered, had had the temerity to attack the president from the left when – horror of horrors — the right was also having a go. But no one ever convincingly answered his indictment of Clinton as a right-wing sleazebag, and the bOok remains the best short introduction to American politics in the 1990s.
Now Hitchens has turned his fire on Henry Kissinger, and it is the turn of American conservatives and their friends abroad to froth at the mouth. In the Spectator last week, Conrad Black, the magazine’s proprietor, described The Trial Of Henry Kissinger, whose subject was “one of the 20th century’s great statesmen”, as “so contemptible that it almost makes the case for judicial bookburning”. Similar sentiments have been expressed in several other reviews in the right-wing and liberal press.
It is not surprising that Kissinger’s friends and admirers are upset. Hitchens’s book is an extended argument for the prosecution of Kissinger for war crimes and the crimes against humanity that it says he committed when he was running the United States’s foreign policy in the late 1960s and 1970s.
This is not the sort of thing that should happen to “great statesmen”. What’s more, Hitchens makes his case with considerable verve, marshalling his evidence with skill and relentlessly piling on the invective. It is very easy to read this book in a single sitting and hard not to be swayed by it.
Many of the episodes described by Hitchens will be well known to Tribune readers, at least in outline — the mass killings of civilians by American bombing and other military action in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the US administration’s role in the murderous coup against Salvador Allende in Chile and its encouragement of the bloody Indonesian annexation of East Timor.
But there is plenty of telling new detail, much of it culled from recently released official documents, even where Hitchens is travelling a well-trodden path. And there are several points where he examines allegations that will be unfamiliar to anyone but aficionados of modern American history about Kissinger’s role in undermining a possible peace deal in Vietnam in 1968, for example, and about the American government’s part in assassinations in Bangladesh and Cyprus.
The book is not perfect. It could have done with footnotes so that anyone who wanted could check Hitchens’s sources independently.
And it doesn’t quite persuade on every single detailed charge. But it is wholly convincing in its central argument that, in crucial respects, US foreign policy during the Kissinger years was criminal, and that the chief architect and executor of that policy should be held responsible for his actions. Which is, of course, rather unlikely, but that is one reason that Hitchens was right to write this book.