US foreign policy under Henry Kissinger cost thousands of lives

Ryle Dwyer looks at the legacy of destruction and chaos left behind by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and the lessons it has for us today 

Figure of controversy: Henry Kissinger was secretary of state from 1973-77. Picture: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

THIS week I was asked to speak at University College, Cork, on the development of Irish sovereignty. It reminded me of how I became interested in history at university in Texas 50 years ago.

Two courses in history were required of every student at the university and I took a course on European history between the world wars. We had to write a paper and I wrote on the cause of the Irish civil war.

I was stunned to learn that partition had essentially nothing to do with the controversy at the time, though Éamon de Valera later pretended that it was the major issue. The controversy really revolved around the sovereignty issue. Michael Collins admitted that the Treaty did not confer the national freedom that all nations desire, but it did contain the freedom to achieve it.

De Valera contradicted this at the time, but it was he who proved that Collins was right. The Long Fellow did this by leading the country to full sovereignty. It was surprising to learn that we had been so ignorant of our history in the 1950s and 1960, but it soon became apparent that the American people were ignorant of what was behind their involvement in the war in Vietnam.

An iconic image from the Vietnam War

On March 16, 1966 a history professor recommended that we attend an address on the Vietnam War that afternoon by the eminent Harvard Professor Henry Kissinger. He gave a fascinating justification for American involvement, before taking questions from the audience.

One person asked if the United States was supporting a government, which had refused to hold free elections. It seemed like an absurd question, because this would betray the sacrifices of those Americans, like my father, who were killed in the Second World War.

Kissinger ignored the question and answered several others before somebody else asked that question again. He tried to ignore it a second time but the next person asked him to answer the previous question first.

He said that those asking the question knew he could not answer it truthfully because of his position. He had been an adviser to Henry Cabot Lodge, who had been Richard Nixon’s running mate in 1960 and had since become the US Ambassador in Saigon. Kissinger’s response really answered the question.

In 1954, the French agreed to withdraw all their forces in Vietnam south of the 17 parallel and the Vietminh agreed to go north of the line, which was strictly a military demarcation line to facilitate the French in withdrawing completely from what had been their colony of Indo China. Vietnam was to be fully re-unified after free elections by July 1956.

President Dwight Eisenhower explained in his memoirs that the United States blocked the elections, because “80% of the population would have voted for the communist Ho Chi Minh”. The Americans had shamelessly trampled on democracy in Vietnam.

There was a frightening level of ignorance in the US about that conflict, just as there was in Ireland about the real cause of civil war here.

As the son of an American soldier killed-in-action in the Second World War, I had a grant to go to university in the United States. I had long been convinced that fighting the Nazis had been a virtuous cause, but what was happening in Vietnam made a mockery of it.

Although I grew up in Ireland and considered myself Irish, I was an American citizen and had registered for the draft. I felt, however, that I could not in conscience serve in American forces while the United States was engaged in the Vietnam War, without betraying that for which I felt my father had died.

The Americans were behaving worse in Vietnam than the Black and Tans had ever behaved in Ireland. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, I went straight on for a master’s — to avoid the draft, more than anything else.

While I was in graduate school, Henry Kissinger became National Security Council Adviser and then Secretary of State for Richard Nixon. He may have inherited the Vietnam War but he was one of the architects of the undeclared war that Americans waged on Cambodia between 1969 and 1973.

They wrecked Cambodia with a huge bombing campaign in which some 100,000 civilians were killed, and they opened the way for the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

I watched with a particularly jaundiced eye as Kissinger went on to subvert democracy in Chile, which had been the most stable democracy in Latin America. My father was actually born in Valparaiso, Chile, where his father was the US Consul during the first world war. Of course, it was no surprise that things turned so sour in Chile while Kissinger was influencing American foreign policy. With the blessing and financial support of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Augusto Pinochet and his thugs overthrew the democratic government of Salvador Allende in Chile.

The Americans turned a blind eye to the murderous regime in which at least 3,197 people were executed without trial, and more than 25,000 others were tortured and maimed.

“In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do,” Kissinger assured Pinochet. “You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.”

The Americans had clearly learned nothing from trampling on democracy in Vietnam, and they learned nothing in Chile. In 1975, Portugal announced it was withdrawing from its colony in East Timor and granting it independence.

When President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Jakarta afterwards, President Suharto of Indonesia told them that Indonesian forces planned to invade East Timor.

“We understand and will not press you on the issue,” Ford told him. Since the Indonesians were using Americans arms specifically provided for defensive purposes only, Kissinger warned that this could cause legal difficulties with the US Congress.

“It depends on how we construe it, whether it is self-defence or is a foreign operation,” he said. “It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly.”

The Indonesians wasted no time. Next day before Ford and Kissinger reached Hawaii, Indonesia invaded East Timor. An estimated 200,000 Timorese people died as a result.

During a televised debate last month former secretary of state Hillary Clinton questioned Senator Bernie Sanders’ command of foreign policy issues. “Journalists have asked, who do you listen to on policy and we have yet to know who that is,” Clinton said.

“Well, it ain’t Henry Kissinger, that’s for sure,” Sanders replied. He accused her of being influenced by Kissinger.

“I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country,” Sanders explained. “I’m proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger.”

“His opening up China and his ongoing relationships with the leaders of China is an incredibly useful relationship for the United States of America,” Mrs Clinton argued with justification.

Surely, however, this does not excuse his outrageous behaviour elsewhere.

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