Henry Kissinger, who died at 100 on Wednesday, achieved wealth, power and worldwide fame as the master of geopolitical chess who guided US foreign policy. The former secretary of state and national security adviser did it by claiming to protect American interests to contain communism while violating American values, which are supposed to respect life and liberty.
There are serious people who argue he should have been tried as a war criminal for the blood spilled by his efforts, largely hidden at the time from the public, via bombing campaigns in Southeast Asia, helping overthrow a democratically elected government in Chile and supporting genocidal dictators in Indonesia and Pakistan.
Those deadly operations and anti-democratic efforts were undertaken because Kissinger argued they served American interests, something historians can debate.
The National Security Archive, a nongovernmental organization at The George Washington University that obtains and publishes declassified US government documents, has its own Kissinger obituary, full of declassified material to remind the public what was done on its behalf and without its knowledge at the time.
Assessing Henry Kissinger’s legacy
There are larger questions about whether Kissinger’s geopolitical chess accomplished anything. Should he have gotten the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the war in Vietnam, or did he and then-President Richard Nixon help prolong it?
Did his efforts to contain communism help bring about the downfall of the Soviet Union or simply spill too much blood while the Soviet Union foundered on its own?
Regardless, today Russia has risen again as a threat, both in Europe and for its attempts to meddle in US elections.
Regarding democratic elections, one passage from David Sanger’s Kissinger obituary in The New York Times stood out to me. It comes after a description of the argument that Kissinger helped bring about the coup against the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende in Chile:
Mr. Kissinger, in his defense, said his actions had to be viewed within the context of the Cold War. “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its people,” he said, adding half-jokingly: “The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”
Opposing the spread of communism has receded as an animating force of US foreign policy.
Instead, the Kissingerian view of the world has been replaced by a topsy-turvy view among some on the political right who seem to be suspicious of democracy itself.
Motivated by fears of voter fraud – even though no large-scale fraud effort has ever been proven – GOP-controlled legislatures in multiple states have passed legislation making it more difficult to vote.
And as we’ve written in this newsletter, Republican politicians like House Speaker Mike Johnson and Utah Sen. Mike Lee have both argued that majority democracy is a threat to their view of American values.
It’s an important thing to consider after 2020, when former President Donald Trump is accused of breaking the law as he actively tried to stay in the White House despite losing the election. Rather than be cast aside in shame for that effort, his committed core of followers has placed him in position to again win the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
Now, voters will be given the choice of supporting someone who the Justice Department says interfered with everyone’s right to vote.
One argument is that people who oppose Trump should join together no matter what their view is on policy issues. That seems to be the view of former Rep. Liz Cheney, who has labeled Trump an existential threat to the country and is bent on his defeat.
Other Republicans who oppose Trump may finally be banding together behind an alternative candidate. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley now has the big-money backing of Americans for Prosperity Action, the political action committee backed by the billionaire conservative Charles Koch’s network.
Separately, the banker Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase said at The New York Times DealBook conference this week that non-Republicans should be propping up Haley.
“Even if you’re a very liberal Democrat, I urge you, help Nikki Haley too. Get a choice on the Republican side that might be better than Trump,” Dimon said.
He would not go the extra step of saying his view of the election is “anything but Trump.” Dimon said, “I would never say that, you know, because he might be the president. I have to deal with that too.”
Haley, who may need help from Trump Republicans in the future, has tried to make a case for her candidacy over Trump’s and says she would still vote for him over a Democrat.
President Joe Biden and his campaign have also argued Trump is a threat to democracy, and they have noted their policy differences with Trump – they immediately pounced on the former president’s recent threat to again try to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But Biden is also holding back on campaigning until next year. The political reality, at least according to current polling, is that Biden stands a better chance of winning reelection against Trump than he does against Haley.
Kissinger was asked by PBS last year about Trump and democracy.
“To try to overthrow the constitutional system is a grave matter, and I find no excuse for that,” he said, although he said he did not think Trump should be prevented from running again.
“If he runs, it should be weighed by people who vote,” Kissinger said.