Welcoming War Crimes: The Normalization of Henry Kissinger

UPDATED: Jan. 31, 2017, at 9:19 p.m.

On Thursday February 2nd, the Institute of Politics will host “A Conversation with Henry Kissinger.” On its website, the IOP describes the controversial statesman with two titles:

“Henry A. Kissinger

Chairman, Kissinger Associates, Inc.

56th United States Secretary of State”

They neglect a third, more accurate label: War Criminal.

During his brief tenure at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy, Kissinger got a lot done. In his first two years in office, he helped Richard Nixon sabotage Vietnamese peace talks for his own political gain, expanded that war into Laos and Cambodia (the destabilizing effects of which would pave the way for the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the death of up to two million people), and advocated the bombing of, in his own words, “anything that moves.”

In 1971, Kissinger backed Pakistan in its war against Bangladesh despite evidence of massacre and rape. In ‘73, he orchestrated a military coup against the democratically elected Allende regime of Chile, installing in its stead the violently oppressive Pinochet dictatorship. And in ‘75, the then-Secretary of State lent his tacit support to President Suharto of Indonesia―himself a despot already responsible for the mass killings of hundreds of thousands―in the deadly conquest of East Timor. Kissinger himself, in proposing an intervention in Cyprus, summed up his philosophy best: “The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer.”

Appalling though this all may be, Kissinger’s most enduring legacy is subtler in its malignance. The foreign policy of Henry Kissinger is defined, above all, by an utter contempt for human life and absolute pursuit of “American interests.” For every one of Kissinger’s crimes that goes unpunished and for every bit of praise he receives, the belief that the United States can do whatever it wants with the rest of the world is further concretized. Behind every thoughtless, disastrous intervention since then―behind the mujahideen and the Contras, behind the Iraq war and the El Mozote Massacre―is the work of Henry Kissinger.

When the IOP invites Henry Kissinger to the Harvard Kennedy School with no representation of opposition views, they are doing more than “hosting a conversation.” They are providing a platform for the insidious belief that the lives of others, particularly those of poor people of color in the “developing” world, are mere pawns in the pursuit of American ends. Like telling a racist joke, the harm of this “conversation” is not merely in the act itself, but also in the seeds that it sows in our cultural consciousness―the legitimization that it confers.

That this legitimization is specifically for an audience of aspiring public servants, under the guise of a Harvard education, is all the worse. Student opposition to Kissinger, by now a 50 year old tradition, is not about quibbling over minor political differences or attacking the man himself. It is about resistance to a particularly pernicious ideology and our educational institutions’ roles in promoting it.

As virulent nationalism and disdain for foreigners reaches new heights, this resistance is now more important than ever. Decades before the phrase propelled Donald Trump to the presidency, Kissinger was in action, if not in words, a champion of the jingoist “America First!” doctrine. It is of little wonder, then, that Kissinger recently called Trump’s presidency “an extraordinary opportunity,” and believes Trump “has the possibility of going down in history as a very considerable president.”

Boston Magazine’s recent takedown of the Kennedy School admonished its “reverence for power.” HKS, it claims, and I have seen from within, is more interested in bringing in VIP speakers and churning out high-powered alum than in nurturing good public servants. What better example of this adulation of power, of the Kennedy School’s fetishization of “success,” than this.

In some ways, the deed is done for now. The IOP has already created the event, and it will, in all likelihood, be packed to the gills. So boycott if you’d like, or attend if you must. But whatever the choice, we must choose with an eye to the future.

We must arm ourselves with full knowledge of Kissinger’s legacy, not the sanitized version we will be presented with on Thursday. We must be wary of the discursive influence of the Harvard brand and the Forum’s platform. And above all, we must resist the normalization of his insidious brand of imperialist-infused Machiavellianism.

Henry Kissinger is the embodiment of all that Kennedy School students, aspiring public servants, should strive not to be. And the Kennedy School should not normalize his crimes.


Michael Galant is a first year Master in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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