War Crimes and Misdemeanors

Christopher Hitchens, in this illuminating assessment of Henry Kissinger's war crimes, reports on a filmed 1998 interview with Michael Korda, senior editor of Simon and Schuster. That morning The New York Times had reported on a Spanish court's indictment of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the announcement that the Clinton administration would, however reluctantly, release secret documents on the killings and torture under Pinochet. The article added that some U.S. officials were worried about the implications for American leaders who might someday also be accused of war crimes by foreign countries.

During the interview, Korda was interrupted by a message that Kissinger had called. With the cameras still running, Korda immediately returned the call, jokingly saying the number he was dialing was 1-800-BOMB-CAMBODIA. Korda's side of the conversation made it clear that, as Hitchens put it, "sitting in his [Kissinger's] office at Kissinger Associates, with its tentacles of business and consultancy stretching from Belgrade to Beijing, and cushioned by innumerable other directorships and boards, [Kissinger] still shudders when he hears of the arrest of a dictator."

And well he should. With the spring 2001 arrest and trial of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and the opening of war crimes proceedings against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by a Belgian court in July 2001, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Henry Kissinger could be indicted at some point on the grounds of crimes against humanity by any number of countries. At least that is the case that Hitchens tries to make. The prospect could be made more likely by the forced release in August of Kissinger's so-called Dead Key Scrolls-transcripts of Kissinger's phone conversations; the recordings were made when a secretary held down a "dead key" on an extension so as not to be heard.

HITCHENS DOES NOT hide his disdain for Kissinger, and some of his examples of Kissinger's misdeeds are overwrought. Nonetheless, he builds a strong case of indictable international war crimes under which Kissinger could be prosecuted. They include the deliberate mass killings of civilian populations in Indochina; intentional collusion, mass murder, and assassination in Bangladesh; personal suborning and planning of the murder of a senior constitutional officer in a democratic nation (Chile) with which the United States was not at war; personal involvement in a plan to murder the head of state in the democratic nation of Cyprus; the incitement and enabling of genocide in East Timor; and personal involvement in a plan to kidnap and murder a foreign journalist (from Greece) living in the United States. (On September 10, a federal lawsuit against Kissinger and other Nixon officials was filed in Washington, D.C., for their role in "summary execution," assault, and other civil rights violations leading up to the coup in Chile. In May, the Washington Post reported, Kissinger declined to appear before a French judge who wanted to question him about allegations of human rights violations in Latin America during the 1970s.)

If a war crimes trial of Henry Kissinger ever materializes, support for such an indictment would likely come not only from those who suffered the consequences of his foreign policy. In January 1971, U.S. Gen. Telford Taylor, the chief prosecuting counsel at the Nuremburg trials, made a striking statement. After reviewing the Nuremburg transcripts, as well as those concerning Japanese World War II war crimes, Taylor concluded that if the same standards were applied to American leaders who designed and implemented the war in Vietnam, "there would be a very strong possibility that they would come to the same end [Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita] did"-that is, guilt and punishment.

A war crimes trial of Henry Kissinger may not be likely, but without a doubt it should take place. As Gen. Taylor wrote, "the United States government stood legally, politically, and morally committed to the principles enunciated in the charters and judgments of the [World War II] tribunals.... The integrity of the nation is staked on those principles, and today the question is how they apply to our conduct of the war of Vietnam, and whether the United States government is prepared to face the consequences of their application."

Joe Roos is former publisher of Sojourners.

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