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Henry Kissinger’s legacy is best measured in bodies

The elder statesman died at the age of 100. He never showed remorse for the thousands upon thousands whose lives he helped cut short.

Henry Alfred Kissinger died Wednesday. The years were kind to Kissinger, who was the secretary of state under then-President Richard Nixon. He died at the age of 100; if his influence waned over the years, it never fully evaporated. History, however, may be less kind. The outpouring that accompanied his death was not so much grief as recognition that the end had finally come for a man who eluded death in a way that defied karma or cosmic justice.

Kissinger shaped decades of U.S. foreign policy. He was a refugee who climbed the ranks of power in a way few before or since have managed. He was a diplomat who helped negotiate the end of the Yom Kippur War, the architect of relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for ending the Vietnam War. He received that award after greenlighting the deaths of, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of civilians — a cruel irony that has only recently come to be acknowledged in the popular imagination.

Kissinger was a man for whom power and influence were resources for achieving his goals and, ultimately, goals unto themselves.

Kissinger was a man for whom power and influence were resources for achieving his goals and, ultimately, goals unto themselves. As an academic at Harvard University in the 1950s, he embraced the theory of realpolitik: the idea that a state should act with its pragmatic interests at the forefront of its policies. Concepts such as “human rights” and “democracy” could be weighed against whether a state was stronger or weaker than its peers. It’s not hard to see how he applied that maxim in his own life, as he sought to attach himself to those who could turn his theories into reality.

When Nixon won the presidency in 1968, Kissinger had spent the last several election cycles as a foreign policy adviser to Republican Nelson A. Rockefeller. But Nixon named Kissinger as his national security adviser, despite his bitter denunciations of Nixon after Rockefeller’s loss. It was emblematic that Kissinger would shed his misgivings for a chance to position himself as Nixon’s right-hand man on foreign policy. Kissinger later served as Nixon’s secretary of state after his re-election in 1972, the first and only person to wear both hats. After Nixon resigned, Kissinger stayed on as secretary of state for Gerald Ford, as well.

It was Kissinger who championed détente with the then-Soviet Union in Nixon’s first term, pumping the brakes on any possible escalation in the Cold War. That eventually led to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, slowing the nuclear arms race. Kissinger also succeeded, after months of secret talks, in achieving Nixon’s goal of restoring relations with China as part of a strategy to pressure the Russians.

Those achievements would have headlined his obituaries had he died several decades earlier. But in the intervening years, as records of his time in office have become more accessible, it’s become harder to ignore the blood on his hands. “The Yale University historian Greg Grandin, author of the biography Kissinger’s Shadow, estimates that Kissinger’s actions from 1969 through 1976, a period of eight brief years when Kissinger made Richard Nixon’s and then Gerald Ford’s foreign policy as national security adviser and secretary of state, meant the end of between three and four million people,” journalist Spencer Ackerman wrote in Rolling Stone’s scathing obituary

That tally includes the results of both direct American action and Kissinger’s willingness to stand aside when America’s allies were doing the killing. Kissinger had long been lobbying for the U.S. to support Pakistan as a counterbalance to Soviet support for Indira Gandhi’s India when Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan) sought independence in 1971. His position didn’t change even as U.S. diplomats warned of a military crackdown against civilians, including one diplomatic cable that foresaw a “selective genocide.”

More overtly, on Kissinger’s advice, the Nixon administration helped engineer a coup in Chile in 1973 to overthrow the country’s elected left-wing president. As Kissinger wrote in one 1976 memo to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who later tortured and executed thousands: “My evaluation is that you are a victim of all left-wing groups around the world and that your greatest sin was that you overthrew a government that was going Communist.”

Most damning of all, Kissinger was a leading voice calling for the expansion of the Vietnam War in 1970. On the grounds that it would provide space for American troops to disengage, Kissinger advocated a secret bombing campaign against neighboring Cambodia, where North Vietnamese communist forces were camping and receiving aid. By 1973, the carpet-bombing had expanded to cover half of the country. Though no firm numbers exist, anywhere from 150,000–500,000 civilians were killed as a result of that campaign. The devastation was still apparent in 2001 when the late chef and author Anthony Bourdain wrote “A Cook’s Tour,” which has supplied one of the most apt epigraphs for Kissinger:

Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia — the fruits of his genius for statesmanship — and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.

Anthony bourdain, "A COok's Tour"

But that reckoning never came for Kissinger, despite his complete and total lack of remorse. In 2014, while promoting his book “World Order,” Kissinger claimed — falsely — “I bet if one did an honest account, there were fewer civilian casualties in Cambodia than there have been from American drone attacks.” He seemed amazed that the topic was still up for discussion.

That reckoning never came for Kissinger, despite his complete and total lack of remorse.

His amazement demonstrates just how well Kissinger understood the power that comes from personal influence, as he managed his own ties to the upper crust more effectively than any statecraft on behalf of his country. Decades after his run as America’s top diplomat, politicians seeking easy foreign policy credentials still sought his blessing as a mark of their seriousness. His 100th birthday fete in New York City was attended by a staggering number of well-connected figures, from current officials like Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director William Burns to the New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and fashion magnate Diane von Furstenberg. None seemed particularly willing to explain what they liked about Kissinger when asked.

In the last years of his life, Kissinger had become a conduit for power rather than someone able to wield it. His birthday was more an excuse for the powerful to see one another and to be seen than a celebration of the man himself. But if he was disturbed by this turn of events, that should be nothing compared to the horror that he wrought when he was younger. Because despite all the death for which he is manifestly accountable, he died in his own home, wealthy and well-connected. The screams of those long dead that still echo through history may never be truly put to rest but, at least now, if the universe is at all just, Kissinger can hear them himself.