Stephen Colbert's one mistake: The monstrous Henry Kissinger shouldn't get to laugh his sins away

Henry Kissinger is not a cute pop-culture prop. He's got more blood on his hands than perhaps any other American

Published December 22, 2014 3:41PM (EST)

  (Comedy Central/Reuters/Pascal Lauener)
(Comedy Central/Reuters/Pascal Lauener)

As part of Stephen Colbert’s "Sgt. Pepper's"-style finale -- an odd, all-star performance of “We’ll Meet Again,” the British World War II-era song that also concluded "Dr. Strangelove" -- who should pop up (truly Dr. Strangelove style!) but everyone’s favorite should-be war criminal, Henry Kissinger. He's a man whose very celebrity undercuts one of President Obama’s favorite locutions — “That’s not who we are.” Au contraire, Mr. President. Celebrities are who and what we celebrate. Henry Kissinger is a celebrity. War criminals R us, like it or not. Especially if you refuse to indict them.

But did we really need Colbert, of all people, to further that disturbing reality, rather than mocking it?  It’s not the first time Colbert has palled around with Kissinger. This was, after all, a reunion ensemble piece, and Colbert’s earlier musical encounter with Kissinger, back in August 2013, drew some pointed criticism, from Asawin Suebsaeng at Mother Jones and Zachary Lipez at Vice News (“Hey Stephen Colbert, Maybe Don't Dance with Mass Murderers"), for example. Here’s some of what Suebsaeng had to say:

At the 2:44 mark, Colbert enters Kissinger's office and proceeds to groove around his desk. Kissinger's segment ends with the former secretary of state and national security advisor picking up the phone and calmly calling "security" on the dancing comedian. The video is, of course, all in good fun, and many American political figures (some of whom have appeared on The Colbert Report) are criticized for U.S. foreign policy decisions. But Kissinger's reputation is unique, and now is a good time to revisit why. Here are just some of the reasons why Colbert and Co. should have thought twice before making Kissinger seem like an aging teddy bear in a five-minute dance video:

Various human rights groups and journalists, including Amnesty International and the late Christopher Hitchens, have highlighted Henry Kissinger's alleged complicity in major human rights violations and war crimes around the globe, in Chile (murder and subversion of democracy), Bangladesh (genocide), and East Timor (yet more genocide), to name a few. Perhaps his most notorious alleged act was taking part in the sabotage—on behalf of the Nixon presidential campaign—of the 1968 Vietnam War peace talks (secret diplomacy that quite possibly constituted a violation of the Logan Act). Subsequently, the Vietnam War was prolonged well into the Nixon years, allowing the U.S. ample opportunity to do things like carpet-bomb eastern Cambodia.

Of course, the genocides in Bangladesh (300,000 to 3 million killed, 200,000 to 400,000 women genocidally raped) and East Timor were horrific enough on their own, but they were also part of a larger geopolitical strategy supporting key authoritarian client state/allies to both counter and reach out to  China, which in turn developed from the frustration and failures of the Vietnam and Cambodia mass-murder fiascos. That’s why Kissinger’s role in world genocide is so unique—and so troubling to our national good-guy self-image.

Lipez kept it shorter, but in a similar vein:

Here’s the thing: Henry Kissinger facilitated the brutal suppression and genocide in East Timor on the part of the Indonesian army. Henry Kissinger helped bring Augusto Pinochet to power. Henry Kissinger is—at very least—partially responsible for the savage and needless murder of between 150,000 to 500,000 innocent Cambodians. Henry Kissinger is a war criminal and a monster. This all part of the public record. Stephen Colbert basically put Pol Pot in a skit about Daft Punk canceling on his show.

Given that the whole rationale for Kissinger’s long and bloody history is that it was all a matter of necessity for the Cold War triumph of “freedom,” it’s particularly damning to consider how he retroactively excuses the Communist’s brutal crackdown in the Tiananmen Square Massacre:

This is not the place to examine the events that led to the tragedy at Tiananmen Square; each side has different perceptions depending on the various, often conflicting, origins of their participation in the crisis ... The occupation of the main square of a country's capital, even when completely peaceful, is also a tactic to demonstrate the impotence of the government, to weaken it, and to tempt it into rash acts, putting it at a disadvantage.

With statements like that, one might almost believe that Kissinger himself was a Stephen Colbert creation—except for the millions of corpses he’s left in his wake.  So what was Kissinger doing on Colbert’s show, not just once, but several times?

Back in 2006, for example, Kissinger appeared as the judge in Colbert’s "Guitarmageddon" special, which pitted Colbert [for a millisecond] and Peter Frampton against Chria Funk of the Decemberists. Kissinger only had a few lines—“It’s time to rock” to kick things off, and “I think the American people won” to decide the winner—which served to promote his Santa Claus-ification. More problematic was how Colbert introduced him, as “arbiter of the Paris Peace Accords, winner of the Nobel Prize, and advisor to seven presidents and friend of the show, Dr. Henry Kissinger."

This is not a simple rap at Colbert, however. Lipez notes that both the politically powerful and the entertainment elite have long embraced him:

Power forgives power, and whenever a Katherine Graham or elder Bush passes away, all the powerful men and women (of both parties) gather together to pat each other on the back for being important. I get it…. That’s fine. There’s enough blood on the hands of the upper echelons to go around.

Kissinger has also always gotten a bit of a free pass from the entertainment industry. From Studio 54 to Woody Allen, his cute accent, contrived self effacement, and unabashed delight in celebrity has ensured that entertainers often put the “how bemusing” factor of associating with him over the inarguable fact of him being one the most horrific killers of the second half of the 20th century. I don’t expect people in the entertainment industry, generally, to be anything other than power worshipping vacuous pricks. Also fine.

I think it’s fair to expect, however, in 2013, a little more from Stephen Colbert.

While I’d agree with Lipez, the problem is not simply Colbert’s.  It’s a problem about the limits of satire—limits that Colbert has, in many respects, pushed remarkably far—and deep, as Leslie Savan summarized well for the Nation. It’s a constant inherent challenge, if not problem, for satire to avoid a kind of moral leveling: If you make fun of everyone, they can all come to seem the same.  Sometimes that’s a definite advantage, when deflating a would-be towering figure to the same level as a common schoolyard bully. But other times, not so much—when that would-be towering figure is named “Adolf Hitler,” say.

Things are made even harder if the satire is all done through the lens of a single character, who has to remain substantially within the same behavioral range in order to remain convincing. All of which is to say that there’s simply no good way for someone like Stephen Colbert to bring Henry Kissinger into his satirical universe without functioning, at some level, to whitewash him, whatever his intentions may be.  And, of course, Colbert could never make any attempt to differentiate Kissinger from anyone else, presumably since doing so would have broken Colbert’s character. And so we got Kissinger in a dance video, we got him judging a guitar solo contest, and we got him interviewed, being introduced as “Nobel Prize-winning,” and called a “grandpa figure.”

Clearly Colbert was going much farther than not differentiating Kissinger from anyone else. After all, he did call Kissinger “a friend of the show” in a respectfully lowered-voice-register tone. So one has to wonder if there’s not something deeper going on, given Colbert’s undeniable genius, and the depth at which he’s willing to strike—made classic in his roasting of everyone involved at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner.  Perhaps he’s saying, “OK, there’s nothing I can do with this.  America’s made one of history’s bloodiest mass murders into a grandfatherly pop icon, fine. I’ll just play it straight. Whatever.”

In one sense, this echoes a familiar aspect of his show—some conservatives have always insisted on seeing his character as sincerely one of them, an ever-present reminded of Poe’s Law. His in-character parody of right-wing blowhardism virtually had to have this effect, if it was to be good enough to be truly mind-blowing—which it most certainly was. So is his embrace of Kissinger actually a sly way of showing us that virtually all Americans are, at some level, in the same shoes as those conservative viewers?

If so, it’s a rarefied way to go about things, and leaves us a long way removed from Kissinger’s actual horrific legacy.  Particularly given that the show is over, there’s less to be gained by fretting over Colbert’s treatment of Kissinger than by filling the void that treatment left with a reminder of just who Kissinger is, and why we should utterly despise him.

We’ve already been presented with a damning list of his crimes above, but more is needed to distinguish Kissinger from your run-of-the-mill state-employed war criminal. We can do this by focusing on two different episodes in particular.  The first is his sabotaging of the 1968 Paris Peace Talks, the first crime, from which all others flowed. The second is the Chilean coup, when U.S. policy shifted decisively into pro-dictator, pro-oligarchy mode, a mode that made Kissinger’s Tiananmen Square apologetics perfectly in character, not just for him, but for America’s foreign policy elite in general, and which firmly established the supremacy of paranoid ideology over facts. Let’s consider both these examples in turn.

First, Kissinger’s involvement in sabotaging the 1968 Paris Peace Talks was arguably not just a violation of the Logan Act, as Suebsaeng put it, but an act of treason (as LBJ labeled it, though without knowing of Kissinger’s involvement) leading to deaths of more than 20,000 U.S. troops, which also 1) effectively helped steal the 1968 election—which in turn set a precedent for both 1980 and 2000—and 2) helped  fundamentally alter the operating principles of U.S. foreign policy, shifting them in a dramatically more bloody and depraved direction, encompassing all the other examples cited above.

The fact that Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize in the first place was disgraceful on its face, just given the open public record at the time. The prize was for negotiating the end to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, but Kissinger’s contributions to prolonging the war were already quite evident.  Then, in 1983, Sy Hersh’s book, "The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House," Kissinger’s key role in sabotaging the peace talks in 1968 was revealed.

The whole book laid bare how Nixon, aided by Kissinger, had prolonged the war—not least with his “madman” theory, that  wildly threatening to use nuclear weapons (itself a war crime), among other threats, could be used to force North Vietnam to capitulate. But it also included the first information about Kissinger’s role in sabotaging the talks before 1968—the key act which made the Nixon administration and all its dark deeds possible in the first place. In his 2004 book, "Secrecy and Privilege," investigative journalist and author Robert Perry, summarized what came out via Hersh and afterward:

According to Hersh's book, Kissinger learned of Johnson's peace plans and warned Nixon's campaign. "It is certain" Hersh wrote "that the Nixon campaign alerted by Kissinger to the impending success of [Vietnam] peace talks, was able to get a series of messages to the Thieu government making it clear that a Nixon Presidency would have different views on the peace negotiations.

Nixon's chief emissary was Anna Chennault, an anti-communist Chinese leader who was working with the Nixon campaign. Hersh quoted one former official in President Lyndon Johnson's Cabinet as stating that the U.S. intelligence "agencies had caught on that Chennault was the go-between between Nixon and his people, and President Thieu in Saigon . ... The idea was to bring things to a stop in Paris and prevent any show of progress."

In her memoirs, The Education of Anna, Chennault acknowledged that she was the courier. She quoted Nixon campaign manager John Mitchell as calling her a few days before the 1968 election and telling her: "I'm speaking on behalf of Mr. Nixon. It's very important that our Vietnamese friends understand our Republican position and I hope you have made that clear to them”….

In The Price of Power, Hersh quoted Chennault as saying that after the election, in 1969, Mitchell and Nixon urged her to keep quiet about her mission, which could have implicated them in an act close to treason.

Perry goes on to explain how Nixon/Kissinger defenders tried to paint Chennault as an independent lone operative, and how successive waves of new information have wiped those defenses out. More recently, tapes from the Johnson White House have removed all doubt on the matter. In early 2013, on the occasion of Nixon’s centennial, Perry wrote an updating article, in which he pointed out how the more recently discovered evidence of Nixon’s stealing the 1968 election was connected to Watergate:

[W]e now know that President Johnson ordered his national security aide Walt Rostow to remove from the White House the top secret file on Nixon’s sabotage of the Vietnam peace talks and that Nixon – after learning of the file’s existence from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover – ordered Kissinger and White House chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman to conduct a search for this missing file….

But Nixon knew something that few other people did, that there was a sequel to the Pentagon Papers, a file containing wiretap evidence of what Johnson had called Nixon’s “treason,” i.e. the story of how the war was prolonged so Nixon could gain a political advantage over Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968. If the missing file surfaced prior to Election 1972, Nixon almost surely would have faced defeat if not impeachment.

So, according to Oval Office tape recordings – released in connection with the Watergate scandal – Nixon on June 17, 1971, ordered a renewed effort to locate the missing file.

Of course, Nixon was the prime mover in all this. But none of it would have been possible without Kissinger’s vital assistance—Kissinger, who had been working for Lyndon Johnson at the time of his treasonous betrayal.

Now to the second key example, Kissinger’s role in the overthrow of the elected Chilean government, and the installation of the Pinochet dictatorship in its place. Previous to this, we had claimed the Cold War was about democracy, while the Soviets had claimed it was about class struggle. This hadn’t always been true, of course—particularly on Eisenhower’s watch (Iran, Guatemala)—but at least we had seemed somewhat troubled by those “lapses.” With the overthrow of Allende, it was as if we’d crossed a tipping point. We tacitly said, “OK, the Soviets are right,” and a whole host of interrelated brutal policy shifts followed as a result, even though, of course, we continued to deny what everyone knew we had done.  The difference lay in how  methodically the consequences followed, for all the world to see. What’s more, in combination with his first crime, the cumulative impact of Kissinger’s time in power was to so debase the policy process and political culture that he helped pave the way for the rise of the neocons after him, who have made him look good by comparison in some respects, but who absolutely could not have arisen without his role in paving the way for them.

Naturally, we need to acknowledge that in both these key cases Nixon was the man at the top. That does not excuse Kissinger in any way, however. It’s not just that he willingly, even enthusiastically went along. Nixon was deeply insecure for a man of his power and position, the resentment of privilege that burned deep within him was fed, in part, by his own insecurity in brushing up against it, and Kissinger, as a former Harvard professor—even though a Jew—was psychologically very important for Nixon, a fact that Kissinger seemed keenly aware of.  Put simply, the two men enabled one another. Nixon’s id was a kind of malevolent energy source for Kissinger, while Kissinger’s intellect was a reassuring source of justifications for Nixon.

In October 1998, after former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London on orders from a Spanish court, Peter Kornbluh, of the National Security Archives, posted an article at Robert Perry's Consortiumnews website, "The  Chile Coup—The U.S. Hand," which provides a helpful framework for understanding what happened there, including Kissinger's role, which is also a blueprint for subsequent top-down subversions of the foreign policy process—including the neocons' launching of the Iraq War in 2003. Here’s an excerpt of what he wrote:

Newly declassified U.S. government records put Washington’s role in the Chilean coup in sharper focus than ever before. The papers also shed light on corners of the story that previously had been suspected, but not proven….

The documents describe how an angry Nixon demanded a coup, if necessary, to block the inauguration of Marxist Salvador Allende following his victory in the 1970 Chilean elections.

The documents reveal that an early coup plan -- known as "Track II" -- continued through the assassination of pro-constitutional Chilean Gen. Rene Schneider, who was gunned down by military plotters on Oct. 22, 1970.

The fuller documentary record contradicts the long-standing claim by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that "Track II" was shut down a week before Schneider's murder.

After Allende’s inauguration, Nixon did not give up. The documents detail what his administration did to make the Chilean economy "scream," how the CIA spread "black" propaganda, and how Washington finally goaded the Chilean army into the coup of 1973….

Yet, at the start of the Chilean tragedy almost three decades ago, the U.S. government wasn't even sure that Chile was important to American national interests….

[T] he State Department questioned the alarmist fears. State reported to the White House on Aug. 18, 1970, that "we identify no vital U.S. national interests within Chile."

In a 23-page report, State added that Allende's election did not even present a unique set of problems.

Though not the prime driver, Kissinger was intimately involved at the heart of developing and driving this policy—as well as denying it afterward. He both “demanded tight secrecy around the coup plotting” and “went to great lengths to distance himself from the assassination, both in testimony to Congress and in his memoirs”—which we now know to be a lie. To summarize some key points in what Kornbluh said above:

1.  Non-politicized government experts not only saw no dire threat to America, they weren’t even sure a worst-case scenario in Chile could possibly even pose such a threat.

2.  Despite that, Nixon’s political team decided that Chilean democracy could not be allowed to operate, since it did not accord with Nixon’s wishes.

3.  So multifaceted plans were developed to overthrow the elected government,

4.  Which included executing a top military general, when he refused to subvert his country’s constitution,

5.  And which were subsequently covered up and repeatedly lied about.

While points 2-5 are important for understanding how the Nixon/Kissinger foreign policy team operated, it’s points 1 and 5 that are most significant for the pattern they established, which went so deep that it survived even beyond when Kissinger’s specific geopolitical ideology was muscled aside by even more paranoid offspring.

First, the triumph of paranoid political ideology over sober professional judgment was seen in the infamous “Team B” exercise approved by George H.W. Bush as CIA chief, when outside “analysts” were used to attack the CIA's accurate appraisals of Soviet military strength, and generate a foreign policy panic. This episode ironically played a key role in muscling aside Kissinger’s more balanced, but still intensely brutal policies of détente, and lead to a massive military buildup under Ronald Reagan, based on the false premises that the Soviet Union enjoyed a significant military advantage over the U.S. The mendacious practices involved in this episode remained hidden from public view for years afterward.

The exact same sort of triumph of paranoid political ideology over sober professional judgment was also responsible for the Iraq War in 2003, when the sober judgments of intelligence professionals as well as bona fide regional experts—not to mention career military leaders like Gen. Anthony Zinni—said that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, posed no immediate threat to America, and was a distraction from the very real, very substantial problems that America faced in the region at that time. Once again, the key role of multiple forms of deception involved in this episode were suppressed and lied about for years afterward—and even continue through the present day.

All this is to say that Kissinger’s crimes cannot simply be reduced to the hundreds of thousands, or (more likely) millions of victims of war and genocide directly attributable to policy decisions and actions he was involved in. He is no ordinary war criminal, or even master war criminal. He has helped to systemically derange the entire world order in ways so profound and far-reaching that it will probably take another 50 years or so until they are properly understood.

So when Henry Kissinger sings “We’ll meet again,” you’d just better hope that he’s lying one last time.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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