The Only "Lowlife Scum" in the McCain Hearing Was Henry Kissinger

The Only "Lowlife Scum" in the McCain Hearing Was Henry Kissinger
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

"Arrest Henry Kissinger for war crimes!"

The strained, sing-song chant that sent Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) into a twitching fit of rage on Thursday afternoon had died out by the time security escorted one last graying activist from the hearing room. For McCain, though, the quarrel never ends.

This was no ordinary disruption, and the man seated before the panel, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, was no ordinary guest. That goes to explain McCain's jarring choice of words when he finally, and now infamously, called the departing protesters "lowlife scum."

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If McCain was the pit bull in this setting, then Kissinger was the decaying clapboard chop-shop he was intent on defending. The intruders, in their defiance, were mauled for having attempted to carry out a "citizen's arrest" of the 91-year-old Nobel Prize winner for atrocities committed by the U.S. government during the 1970s in countries including Vietnam, Laos, East Timor and Chile.

The senator's resulting outburst, in its wild-eyed wonder, had the unfortunate effect of overshadowing the substance of the their charges: namely, that the bloated figure wheeled out before them had, in the course of an eight-year run as the chief U.S. foreign policy strategist, masterminded a series of violent overt and covert campaigns against civilians and democratic governments across Southeast Asia and Latin America.

Kissinger spent a little more than two of those years — beginning officially on Jan. 20, 1969, and ending on that same date in 1977 — serving concurrently as secretary of state and national security adviser to President Richard Nixon and, after his resignation, Gerald Ford. His power, and the seemingly counterintuitive respect he inspires, cannot be overstated, nor can it be rationally explained. There are hundreds of thousands of deaths on his crooked shoulders. Millions more were physically or psychologically wounded.  

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The secret bombing of Cambodia: The German-born "president whisperer" made his first dark mark on the planet in early 1969, when, confronted with continued advances by North Vietnamese fighters from bases in neighboring Cambodia, he and Nixon conspired to order a top-secret bombing campaign called Operation Breakfast, which turned into the longer-running Operation Menu.

It might seem quaint today, given the mind-bending frequency of executive power overreaches, but Nixon's authorization to strike inside eastern Cambodia and Laos would come to represent a then-unprecedented scale of wartime deceit and illegality. Over the next four years, the U.S. would drop millions of tons of explosives on the neutral countries, all the while denying the program's existence at every turn. 

"Estimates of the number of people killed begin in the low hundreds of thousands and range up from there," Henry Grabar wrote in the Atlantic, "but the truth is that no one has any idea." World Without Genocide, a watchdog organization, estimates that 750,000 Cambodians were killed between 1970 and 1974, most of them by "American B-52 bombers, using napalm and dart cluster-bombs to destroy suspected Viet Cong targets."

No one in the U.S. had anything more than a suspicion it was happening until May 9, 1969, when the New York Times published a story titled "Raids in Cambodia by U.S. Unprotested." Kissinger responded swiftly, telling aides and the president, "We must crush these [leakers and journalists]. We must destroy them." Infamous FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover was more than happy to oblige and, as told in Robert Weiner's Enemies: A History of the FBI, the two quickly set up wiretaps on the aides Kissinger suspected had leaked the story. Kissinger denied it all until 1992, when he conceded his part in the process of settling a related lawsuit.

The side effects from the Cambodian campaign were far more costly to the region that felt the brunt of the bombing. In Cambodia itself, the resulting chaos cleared the way for the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Their brutal regime is estimated to have killed between 1 million and 2 million people between 1975 and 1979.

Backing Indonesia's invasion of East Timor: Kissinger's role in Vietnam fills volumes, but it's his and America's ostensible absence in East Timor on Dec. 7, 1975, that speaks more directly to his malignant diplomatic tactics. 

Traveling alongside President Gerald Ford, Kissinger led a Dec. 6 meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, with Indonesian dictator Suharto. The focus was on East Timor, at the time a small Southeast Asian territory recently abandoned by the colonial Portuguese. With Ford concerned about regional Communists filling the vacuum and Suharto, an ally, with his eyes set on an invasion and occupation, Kissinger asked the Indonesians to wait until the U.S. delegation left to begin their assault. Additionally, he promised to supply Suharto with American arms, over the inevitable objections of Congress. 

"We will understand and will not press you on the issue. We understand the problem and the intentions you have," Kissinger told Suharto, the details emerging via transcripts released in 2001. "We would be able to influence the reaction in America if whatever happens, happens after we return. If you have made plans, we will do our best to keep everyone quiet until the president returns home."  

The transcripts also reveal Kissinger asking Suharto if he anticipated a "long guerrilla war." Suharto responded that it would be "small." 

And so the Americans left. The invasion of East Timor, carried out with a steady flow of American support, was swift. They waited one day. The fight lasted much longer, carrying on for nearly a quarter-century. The estimated death toll: 200,000. Suharto died in 2008 after stepping down a decade earlier, following the deaths of 500 student protesters.

Taking down the Chilean government: Sept. 11 means something very different, but just as painful, for the people of Chile. On that date in 1973, a CIA-backed coup ousted and assassinated the country's democratically elected President Salvador Allende. The socialist was replaced with Gen. Augusto Pinochet, a right-wing thug who would rule the country as a dictator for 17 brutal years.

After Allende was elected on Sept. 4, 1970, Kissinger declared in a memo to Nixon that the vote "poses for us one of the most serious challenges ever faced in this hemisphere." 

"Your decision as to what to do about it may be the most historic and difficult foreign affairs decision you will make this year," he wrote. U.S. businesses had hundreds of millions tied up in Latin America, which has been and remains a target for strategic American enemies. Kissinger decided that allowing Allende to remain in power would create an "insidious model effect." That is to say: Other countries under the American hemispheric umbrella might see that they could democratically elect a government and make decisions without the U.S. 

Soon after the Sept. 11, 1973, coup, Kissinger was quick to order his man in Santiago to deliver to Pinochet "our strongest desires to cooperate closely and establish firm basis for cordial and most constructive relationship." He did, and Kissinger's shop in Washington, D.C., working with the CIA began a long relationship with the regime. Chile's murderous National Intelligence Directorate was built by American agents. 

Pinochet's military dictatorship, one of a number of right-wing juntas that dominated, degraded and bled Latin America in the 1970s and '80s, killed thousands and tortured an estimated 29,000, according to a survey conducted by a government commission. The great majority of those crimes happened in 1973, with Kissinger in close contact the whole way. After he left, his Reaganite disciples supported the regime through its demise in 1990.

So what the fuck was Henry Kissinger doing in Washington, D.C., last Thursday?

On the face of it, Kissinger had been summoned to discuss foreign policy matters with the Senate Armed Services Committee. The hearing, called "Global Challenges and the U.S. National Security Strategy," was as inscrutable as the title suggests. In reality, Kissinger was on Capitol Hill because he, like so much "scum" before him, sticks to and feeds off all innocent life around him. He was invited because, to people like McCain, he represents the brand of blunt hegemonic history that Americans are (or at least should be) desperate to reclaim.

But Henry Kissinger's time is in the past. There are new "challenges." Many of them, like President Barack Obama's drone killing program, probably make the old man smile. Some day soon, Kissinger will die. If only his legacy could be buried with him.