As Henry Kissinger turns 92, the former uber-diplomat still enjoys international prestige for his many career accomplishments. Still, there are wide areas of the globe he steers clear of -- the better to avoid questioning in connection with war crimes.
As National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon and then Secretary of State under President Gerald Ford, Kissinger was known for his realpolitik approach to foreign policy. In the context of the Cold War, that often meant employing ruthless means to undermine perceived U.S. enemies and bolster allies. It is perhaps no coincidence that Kissinger has gone to great lengths to argue that countries cannot prosecute a world leader for crimes against humanity committed in a third country.
Below are some of the most glaring examples of foreign policy decisions Kissinger made -- from Vietnam to Chile -- that violated human rights.
Sabotaging the Johnson administration's peace talks with Vietnam
In the fall of 1968, Kissinger, then a key adviser to President Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam peace talks, informed candidate Richard Nixon that a truce between the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government and communist North Vietnam was near. Afraid that a breakthrough in the talks would harm Nixon's political prospects against Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, Nixon's campaign had Anna Chennault, a Nixon liaison to South Vietnam, advise South Vietnam's government that it would get better terms if it waited on a deal until Nixon was elected. The South Vietnam government obediently backed away from the talks. Nixon was elected soon thereafter and the war continued for four more years.
When the FBI notified Johnson that Chennault had contacted the South Vietnamese, he was furious and called it an act of "treason." In 1973, Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a ceasefire between the U.S. and North Vietnam, despite having torpedoed the peace talks years earlier.
The secret bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War
As National Security Advisor to Nixon, Kissinger spearheaded the United States' covert aerial bombing of Cambodia from 1969 to 1973, a country with which the U.S. was not officially at war. In a campaign aimed at cutting off North Vietnamese and Viet Cong supply lines, the U.S. dropped more bombs on Cambodia than the allies dropped in total during World War II. The bombings killed between 50,000 and 150,000 Cambodian civilians. Cambodia's bombing was kept secret; Congress ended the program in 1973, several years after the public became aware of it.
Worse still, the bombing is believed to have empowered the Khmer Rouge, which used civilian deaths at the hands of the U.S. to recruit new members. The Khmer Rouge's ranks grew from 10,000 in 1969 to 500,000 in 1973. The Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975 and killed some 2 million people before its ouster in 1979.
Kissinger has stood by the bombing of Cambodia and the management of the Vietnam War more broadly. He even suggested in a September 2014 interview with NPR that President Barack Obama’s drone strikes in the Middle East killed more civilians, a statement debunked by Politifact, which found that between 2004 and 2014, CIA drones strikes have killed at least 1,089 civilians -- a fraction of the number the U.S. killed in Cambodia.
Backing Pakistan in Bangladesh’s war for independence
In 1971, under the leadership of Nixon and Kissinger, the U.S. backed Pakistan’s brutal repression of the Bengali rebellion in the area then known as East Pakistan. Pakistan, a Cold War ally of the United States, received considerable U.S. military aid and training; reports of Pakistan's war crimes were routinely dismissed by U.S. leaders. After the U.S. Consul General in East Pakistan, Archer Blood, warned that a genocide of Bengali Hindus was underway, he was ousted from his post. Kissinger called Blood a “maniac” and complained about the people who “bleed” for “the dying Bengalis.” The Bengalis won independence thanks to the intervention of the Indian army in December 1971, but not before an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people died.
Thwarting Chilean democracy
Throughout the 1970s, Kissinger played a key part in U.S. government efforts to thwart the democratic will of the Chilean people. In 1970, when socialist Salvador Allende was running for president of Chile, Nixon and Kissinger ordered the CIA to prevent him from taking power, according to a 1975 report on covert U.S. action in Chile by the Senate’s special Church Committee. “I don’t think we should delude ourselves that an Allende takeover in Chile would not present massive problems for us,” Kissinger said. The CIA first tried “spoiling” Allende’s campaign by funding his political opponents. When Allende's election became apparent in late 1970, the CIA backed several failed coups.
Chileans had brought U.S. intervention upon themselves by electing Allende, Kissinger argued. "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people," he remarked.
The U.S. continued to provide covert aid to Allende’s opposition throughout his 1970-1973 term, the Church Committee report reveals. The government even tried to undermine Allende economically by reducing or denying credit available to the country through the Inter-American Development Bank, the Export-Import Bank, and the World Bank. Former CIA Director Richard Helms' notes from a 1970 meeting with Nixon about Chile say, "Make the economy scream."
Nixon administration documents declassified in the 1990s reveal that under Kissinger's leadership, the U.S. security and intelligence apparatus aided General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup that toppled Allende's government. When Nixon asked Kissinger if the U.S. had participated in the coup, Kissinger replied, "We didn't do it. I mean we helped them." Although it's widely rumored, there is still no decisive evidence that the CIA directly participated in Pinochet's coup.
Later, as the Ford administration's Secretary of State in 1976, Kissinger enabled the Pinochet government to assassinate political opponents abroad like Orlando Letelier, a former Allende government minister. The U.S. government had been in the process of reining in Operation Condor, a covert campaign to assist in the assassination of unfriendly Latin American political officials. Kissinger himself asked diplomats in September 1976 to inform Latin American allies to pull back "Condor activities" -- i.e., previously condoned political assassinations -- saying they "would undermine relations with the United States." But Kissinger called off the message before it could be delivered to Pinochet's government; Pinochet had Letelier killed shortly thereafter.
The Pinochet government detained and tortured more than 40,000 people from 1973 to 1990 and murdered over 3,000, according to estimates from the current Chilean government.
Kissinger's actions in Chile stand out because that is the example he used in arguing that international law gives countries too much latitude to prosecute war crimes. In his June 2001 essay in Foreign Affairs, "The Pitfalls of Universal Jurisdiction," Kissinger he claimed that a Spanish judge should not have the power to extradite Pinochet, then living in London, for war crimes Pinochet committed in Chile. Such a legal system, Kissinger wrote, risked "[arming] any magistrate anywhere in the world with the power to demand extradition, substituting the magistrate's own judgment for the reconciliation procedures of even incontestably democratic societies where alleged violations of human rights may have occurred."
Kissinger's argument presaged his own implication in the Spanish case against Pinochet. In 2002, Spanish authorities sought Kissinger as a witness in cases against South American dictators involved in Operation Condor. A Chile court went further, summoning Kissinger for questioning about his own role in the 1973 coup . That same year, Chilean human rights lawyers brought a criminal complaint against Kissinger. In response to legal pressure and the threat of mass protests, Kissinger cancelled a planned March 2002 trip to Brazil.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said a Chilean court brought a case against Kissinger for his role in the 1973 coup. The court summoned Kissinger for questioning as part of an investigation; separately, human right lawyers filed a criminal complaint against Kissinger that same year.