The Obama Administration Just Granted Henry Kissinger a Distinguished Public Service Award

Historians in the News
tags: Henry Kissinger, Obama, Distinguished Public Service Award



Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University and is the author of Kissinger’s ShadowThumbnail Image -  By David Shankbone - David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0

Kissinger, again. Yesterday Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter honored Henry A. Kissinger at the Pentagon by presenting the former secretary of state with the Distinguished Public Service Award, apparently the highest award the Department of Defense has for private citizens. Carter himself deserves an award for understatement, calling the man who is responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of millions of people in Southeast Asia, East Timor, Bangladesh, and southern Africa, among other places—”unique in the annals of American diplomacy.” Kissinger, Carter said, “demonstrated how serious thinking and perspective can deliver solutions to seemingly intractable problems.” As to allegations of war crimes, “the fact is,” said Kissinger, he and Richard Nixon “were engaged in good causes.”

Where to start? It’s exhausting trying to keep track of what is now a quarterly celebration of the 92-year-old Kissinger. It was just six or so months ago when The New York Times Book Review assigned Kissinger’s preferred authorized biographer to review a Kissinger biography written by Kissinger’s second-choice biographer. A “masterpiece”! the first said of the second. And then, three months ago, Hillary Clinton, in a debate with Bernie Sanders, cited Kissinger’s recommendation as a referral for the White House.

At the time, Clinton’s remarks seemed a misstep, allowing Sanders an opening to criticize her catastrophic interventionism in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Now, though, it is clear that Clinton’s invocation of Kissinger wasn’t a fluke but rather a preview of a general election strategy to run to Trump’s right on foreign policy and win over the hawkish wing of the Republican Party. “The candidate in the race most like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from a foreign-policy perspective,” Republican strategist Steve Schmidt recently said, “is in fact Hillary Clinton.”

It would be pointless to provide yet another recitation of the many miseries Kissinger caused around the globe during his long run in public office from 1969 to 1977. By now, those who want to know his atrocities know his atrocities. Even his authorized biographer, Niall Ferguson, doesn’t deny that Kissinger is a criminal but rather mitigates the crimes by comparing them to other crimes: “Nearly a hundred times as many people,” Ferguson writes, “died” as a result of John Foster Dulles’s actions in Guatemala as “were ‘disappeared’ in Chile” after the 1973 coup vigorously encouraged by Kissinger, yet “you will search the libraries in vain for The Trial of John Forster Dulles” (Ferguson apparently hasn’t yet read the books by David Talbot and Stephen Kinzer). Kissinger is implicated in at least three genocides (Cambodia, Bangladesh, and East Timor) and, give or take, 4 million deaths.

Kissinger’s unusually high body count and singular moral imperiousness has the effect, among his critics, of obscuring his didactic utility. An outsized personality who has committed outsized mayhem, Kissinger eclipses his own context. Yet as animals were to the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, Kissinger is good to think with. ...




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