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Movie Review: The Trials of Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger embodies the stereotype that Jews have too much power. In a way, it’s easy to see why paranoid racists think this way. There are only 14.5 million Jews worldwide, compared to two billion Christians and over one billion Muslims.

It probably stumps the racist to understand how Kissinger became one of the most influential policy makers of all time. Upon Hitler’s rise to power, Kissinger’s family fled Germany to New York. Thirteen of his family members perished because of the Nazis. Despite these circumstances, Kissinger excelled at Harvard and eventually became National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford, respectively.

The Trials of Henry Kissinger examines if Henry Kissinger should be tried as a war criminal. Directed and produced by Eugene Jarecki; co-produced by Alex Gibney, The British film documents the political decisions and direct involvement of Kissinger, which led to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia (East Timor), and Chile.

So why should Kissinger be considered a war criminal? According to the film, he ordered the U.S. military to conduct illegal air raids in Cambodia in 1969, without Congressional knowing or approval. The secretive operation was implemented to repel North Vietnamese forces, which were advancing over into Cambodia, forming an alliance with Cambodian leftists. Some of the targets that were picked were civilian. Over 500,000 people were killed.

Kissinger convinced Nixon to bomb Hanoi, Vietnam in 1972, the film also asserts. Known as the “Christmas bombing,” the action was taken to strengthen the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese, non-communist President. Thousands of North Vietnamese civilians were killed (for those who are squeamish, there is some gruesome war footage in the movie). This occurred four years after Kissinger, while working for President Johnson’s foreign policy team, leaked secret South Vietnamese negotiating positions to Nixon, before Nixon was elected. Nixon would hire Kissinger as his top diplomatic consultant. This chain of events led to the collapse of the 1968 Paris peace talks. The film suggests that there could have been an end to the war in 1968, several years before the official ending of the Vietnam conflict. Perhaps if Nixon’s and Kissinger’s political ambitions were not so sellfish, many thousands of deaths on the American and Vietnamese sides could have been prevented. The film would like you to believe so.

Despite all this, Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, after the conclusion of the Vietnam conflict. Kissinger was embarrassed to discover that his Vietnamese counterpart, who was also named Nobel Prize winner refused the award saying, “How can I accept this award? There is no peace in Vietnam.” Kissinger did not have such scruples. The movie features one former Kissinger aide who resigned as a result of the Cambodia bombings. “Kissinger is a war maker not an ender,” says the aide.

Former aides acknowledge in Trials that Kissinger, along with President Ford, met with Indonesian President Suharto in 1975, on the same day that Suharto would give orders to end communist aggression on the Indonesian island of East Timor via a brutal campaign. Indonesia purchased American weapons and committed genocide against the East Timorese, killing 100,000.

Kissinger also ordered the CIA to instigate a coup of the democratically elected government of Chile’s Salvador Allande (who made American policy makers and companies like Pepsi Cola and ITT nervous by his cozy friendship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro). This led to the 17-year dictatorship by Pinochet, a right-wing general who killed over 3,000 Chileans.

The movie, 80 minutes long, doesn’t even mention Kissinger’s involvement in Bangladesh, Greece and Cyprus, which created upheaval in those countries, too. Jarecki and Gibney’s film was influenced by a book written by journalist Christopher Hitchens, somebody who unequivocally thinks Kissinger deserves to be punished before an international court, much like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and Serbia’s Slobodan Milosovic. Hitchens, though thorough in his research, is considered a kook by some because of his criticisms of, of all people, Mother Theresa (Her anti-abortion stance contributes to India’s poverty, Hitchens believes.).

“I think he’s a war criminal and a liar,” says Hitchens of Kissinger in Trials. “He’s responsible for murder and kidnapping.”

Kissinger became a rock star politician. There is footage of him describing himself as a swinger. Set to the pop-disco tune of “Mr. Big Stuff (Who do you think you are?)”, the film features montages of his affairs with gorgeous celebrities. His likeness appeared on an episode of the Simpsons. John Belushi satirized him on Saturday Night Live. Kissinger declined to be interviewed by the film makers; He also refuses to debate Hitchens, reasons for which are mentioned in the movie.

If Kissinger were to appear at a fundraiser, the place would be sold out and Kissinger would gladly accept his $25,000 speaking fee. People still admire him, despite his controversial status. They admire his intelligence, his celebrity status and his charm. Kissinger admits in the movie’s footage that “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

The movie is more balanced in examining Kissinger’s actions than Hitchen’s book. Trials is successful in forcing the viewer to think whether if one day our collective consciousness will realize that we were lulled by Kissinger’s charm and wit. Much like the world realized that Germans were brainwashed into believing their clan was superior to all others, Americans may one day support the International Justice Community’s belief that Kissinger’s policies served in the interest of America’s global dominance over communism and America’s economic viability, no matter the human death toll. The seed has already been planted thanks to Trials and declassified government documents.

Over 130 countries have signed a pledge to join the International Court of Justice; The U.S. has not. Kissinger walks as a free man, consulting powerful business leaders. He was recently named by President Bush to lead the accountability investigation into the 9/11 hijackings.

The documentary features both Kissinger’s supporters and detractors. His former aides, including Brent Scowcroft and Alexander Haig present their case as to why Kissinger is such a fascinating mix of power and strategy; One Kissinger biographer says, “Kissinger’s dark side is very dark.”

The proof in linking Kissinger to the many deaths in Southeast Asia and South America seems convincing. Still, much more could have been said about the good that Kissinger did in serving his country. He masterfully balanced Soviet and Chinese influence. Had his policies not balanced the Soviet and Chinese threat, would we all be forced to idolize Lenin, living in a Marxist regime? Or worse, would inaction have led to nuclear holocaust? Had Kissinger not done what he did, would virtually all of Southeast Asia be communist today, as would South America? Would inaction have actually led to hundreds of thousands of more deaths?

What would be the implications of this? The film makers should have extended the movie to full-run feature length. At least 10 minutes should have been devoted to actually defending Kissinger and examining the what-ifs. Long before the end of the documentary, the viewer is led to believe that the verdict on Kissinger is already out: guilty.

Can any international power broker be expected not to be involved in decision over life and death? Can any superpower be expected to make decisions that never inadvertently cause suffering?

The film does Kissinger a good service by stating that it would be unfair to blame Kissinger for the deaths of three million Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge. Kissinger’s actions may have led to Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship; should Kissinger be held accountable for Pinochet’s killings? Was Kissinger really the one who picked the civilian targets in Cambodia? If so, the film does a poor job proving that unequivocally.

If you’re Jewish, should you defend Kissinger’s name because you share in common with him the bond of being a minority that has been persecuted and pushed to all corners of the world? How could someone who escaped the ashes of the Holocaust be responsible for policies that led to such enormous suffering? As a Jew, should Kissinger not even have put himself in such a moral dilemma? Should he have decided to keep his position as a Harvard professor and book writer, instead of being concerned with advancing his own interests to the inner sanctum of power in Washington, D.C.?

Even though Kissinger thought he was doing the right thing by picking the lesser of two evils, will most Americans be ashamed that their most influential policy maker was awarded the Nobel Prize, much like we cringe at the fact that Yassir Arafat was awarded his Prize? The verdict is still out.

 

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