by Jaid Jilani
Earlier this month, audio tapes from the Nixon White House were revealed to the public that captured a shocking exchange between Nixon and then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In the tapes, Kissinger responds to an appeal made by Israeli leader Golda Meir to Soviet leaders to allow the emigration of Russian Jews to her country. He tells Nixon that 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.”
Since these comments were revealed to the public, there has been an uproar in the media, with the New York Times writing that the tapes showed that Kissinger was “brutally dismissive” of human rights concerns related to Soviet Jews.
The former secretary of state has gone on a media offensive, attempting to save his public image among the media furor. In an op-ed piece published Sunday, Kissinger wrote that he was sorry he “made that remark 37 years ago,” and argued that it was taken out of context. Curiously, the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman, while condemning the comments, also rose to Kissinger’s defense, saying, “I think what Kissinger said is horrendous, offensive, painful, but also I’m not willing to judge him. The atmosphere in the Nixon White House was one of bigotry, prejudice, anti-Semitism, the intimidation of the anti-Semitism, the stories, the bigotry.” David Harris of the American Jewish Committee offered a similar defense: “Perhaps Kissinger felt that, as a Jew, he had to go the extra mile to prove to the president that there was no question of where his loyalties lay.”
But what both the press that is reporting about Kissinger’s comments and what his most passionate defenders are omitting is that these revealed remarks only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the former secretary of state’s complicity in human rights violations. The mentality revealed in his remarks about Soviet Jews are not an aberration but a major feature of his approach to foreign policy: disregarding human rights in pursuit of other strategic goals. Kissinger has a long history of complicity in major human rights abuses in every corner of the globe, one that is rarely reported on in the press in its reports on the former secretary of state. Here are just a few of these abuses:
- Bangladesh: In 1971, Bangladesh, which was at the time East Pakistan, declared its independence from Pakistan. The Pakistani military responded with a brutal military campaign that included massive killings and the estimated systematic raping of nearly 200,000 Bangladeshi women. When Daka Consul General Archer Blood and other American diplomatic staff began to protest the Pakistani army’s behavior to Washington, Nixon and Kissinger had him dismissed. During the height of the atrocities, Kissinger sent a message to Pakistan General Yahya Khan, congratulating him on his “delicacy and tact” in his military campaigns in Bangladesh. When Kissinger received word that massive famines were going to spring up in the country in 1971, he warned USAID to try to avoid helping, saying that Bangladesh was “not necessarily our basket case.” Soon after becoming secretary of state, Kissinger downgraded the American diplomatic staff who had signed onto a protest of Pakistani atrocities in 1971.
- Cambodia: Kissinger was one of the chief masterminds of the Nixon administration’s secret and illegal bombing campaign of Cambodia — he wanted the bombing of “anything that flies, on anything that moves” and warned that it must be secretly done to avoid congressional scrutiny — the extent of which was not discovered until President Bill Clinton declassified related documents in 2000. By the end of the American bombing campaign of Cambodia, the country was perhaps the “most heavily bombed country in history.” The bombings killed more than a half a million people, and were a major factor in the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
- Chile: In 1973, Kissinger aided and abetted a right-wing military faction that deposed the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. The faction then installed the dictator General Augusto Pinochet, who went on to torture and/or murder tens of thousands of peaceful dissidents in the country. “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its people,” Kissinger said in rationalizing his actions, falsely accusing Allende of being a communist and essentially declaring that the United States should have the power to decide Chile’s government. Due to his complicity in bringing Pinochet to power, Kissinger was summoned for questioning and has arrest warrants out in his name in Chile, Argentina, and France. Since the warrants were issued he has not returned to any of those three countries.
- Indonesia and East Timor: In 1975, President Gerald Ford and Kissinger met with Indonesian’s leader, General Suharto. During the meeting, Ford and Kissinger essentially gave “full approval” to Suharto to invade neighboring East Timor. In the resulting invasion, hundreds of thousands of Timorese civilians were massacred. Kissinger repeatedly denied that he had such conversations with Suharto, but these denials were found to be false after the declassification of government documents in 2001.
- Iraq: In 1975 Kissinger both encouraged a Kurdish revolt against Saddam Hussein and then abandoned the rebels to be killed following invocations from the Shah of Iran. Bob Woodward’s book State of Denial revealed that Kissinger was a major Iraq policy advisor to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. He warned Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson of the same analogy he used during the Vietnam years, that troop withdrawals would be like “salted peanuts to the American public; the more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded.” Woodward writes that when Gerson asked Kissinger why he supported the war, he replied, “Because Afghanistan wasn’t enough,’ … In the conflict with radical Islam, he said, they want to humiliate us. ‘And we need to humiliate them’ … In Manhattan, this position got him into trouble, particularly at cocktail parties, he noted with a smile.”
- Vietnam: Kissinger, in a possible violation of the Logan Act, helped scuttle peace talks in 1968, prolonging the Vietnam War to advantage Richard Nixon in the presidential election. This extension of the war cost thousands of American lives and those of more than a million people in Indochina.
Viewed with the context of Kissinger’s actions while he was a senior official in multiple American administrations, his comments about Soviet Jews are hardly surprising. Unfortunately, most of the major media’s reporting about Kissinger’s comments does not include this history of complicity in human rights abuses.
In fact, despite his complicity in these abuses, the former secretary of state continues to be a lauded public figure in the United States. He is regularly uncritically featured on major news programs, was recently honored at the State Department, and was even cast as a cartoon character’s voice on a children’s TV show. If history is any judge, this latest revelation about Kissinger will soon be forgotten by major media and elites in the public sphere. But that does not change the actual facts and Kissinger’s long, sordid history of human rights abuses.