The Trial of Henry Kissinger Summary (8/10)

Sud Alogu
4 min readDec 1, 2023

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In “The Trial of Henry Kissinger,” Christopher Hitchens plays the role of prosecutor, historian, and moralist, weaving a narrative that is as much an indictment of a man as it is of a system that allowed, and perhaps encouraged, his alleged transgressions.

The Litany of Charges

Hitchens’ primary accusations against Kissinger are not merely the pedestrian failings of policy but grave breaches of international law and morality. These include the mass killings in Indochina, collusion in murders in Bangladesh, orchestrating political assassinations in Chile and Cyprus, abetting genocide in East Timor, and even plotting the murder of a journalist on American soil. To Hitchens, these are not mere footnotes of a bygone era but emblematic of a man who viewed the world as a chessboard, unmoved by the pawns he sacrificed.

The Erosion of Sovereign Immunity

Central to Hitchens’ argument is the notion that the shield of ‘sovereign immunity’, once the bastion of state actors, is now perforated. He draws upon international precedents, like the Pinochet verdict, to argue that the once-unquestionable protection for state-sanctioned actions is crumbling. Kissinger, in Hitchens’ view, is not just a man of his time but a harbinger of an era where leaders could no longer hide behind the veil of statehood to justify their actions.

The Kissingerian World

The world according to Kissinger, as painted by Hitchens, is one of realpolitik, where moral absolutes are subservient to national interests. Hitchens delves into anecdotes, such as Kissinger’s interaction with the publishing magnate Michael Korda, to illustrate his pervasive influence. This is a man who, even in retirement, remains deeply intertwined with the global power matrix, from Washington D.C. to Beijing.

The Washington Secret

Hitchens uncovers the ‘open secret’ within Washington’s political circles, a secret so monumental yet so bipartisan that it remains hidden in plain sight. He refers to this as akin to Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘purloined letter’, a truth so blatant yet unspoken, involving the complicity of successive administrations in controversial statecraft.

Vietnam and the Seeds of Doubt

Hitchens revisits Kissinger’s early involvement in Vietnam, emphasizing his role not just as a participant but as a key architect. He highlights Kissinger’s negotiations and backchannel communications, often in stark contrast to the public narrative. In Hitchens’ portrayal, Kissinger emerges not as a peacemaker but as a man whose hands are indelibly stained with the blood of the conflict.

The Echoes of Nuremberg

Hitchens invokes the Nuremberg Trials, drawing a parallel between the post-WWII prosecution of war crimes and the actions of American statesmen like Kissinger. He cites General Telford Taylor, equating the American conduct in Vietnam with the war crimes of the Axis powers, a comparison that is as shocking as it is deliberate.

Beyond the Legalistic

However, Hitchens’ critique is not merely legalistic. It is deeply moral. He questions not just the legality of Kissinger’s actions but the moral vacuum in which they were executed. To Hitchens, Kissinger is the epitome of a moral relativism that justifies any means for an end, often obscured in the language of national security and diplomatic necessity.

The Consequences and the Legacy

What are the consequences of such actions, and what legacy do they leave? Hitchens argues that the impact of Kissinger’s policies reverberate well beyond the immediate horrors they produced. They set a precedent, a dangerous blueprint for future state actors, validating duplicity, and covert aggression under the guise of diplomacy.

The Question of Accountability

Hitchens does not just accuse; he demands accountability. He posits that the absence of legal recourse for Kissinger’s actions is a damning indictment of the international justice system. It’s a system, he suggests, that is all too often swayed by politics and power, rather than the principles of justice it purports to uphold.

The Role of the Public and Historical Memory

Finally, Hitchens turns to us, the public, the keepers of history. He implores us not to view Kissinger as a relic of a bygone era but as a living testament to the perils of unchecked power. He urges a re-examination of history, not through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia but through the harsh light of moral scrutiny.

In conclusion, Hitchens’ “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” is more than a book; it is a treatise on power, morality, and the often-uncomfortable intersection of the two. Hitchens, with his characteristic erudition and acerbic wit, challenges us to question not just the man but the system that forged him, reminding us that the price of forgetting is, all too often, repetition.

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