by John Catalinoto, published on Workers World, December 5, 2023
When a leading political figure of U.S. imperialism, someone hated by hundreds of millions of people, if not billions, dies — as Henry Kissinger did last week — writing an analysis of their role presents a challenge. This challenge does not regard repeating the details of this individual’s life. It’s in explaining the relation between Kissinger and the class and system that he served, the billionaire Western ruling class and world imperialism, led by the United States.
Anyone reading comments in the major corporate media following Kissinger’s death could sense that challenge. On his 100th birthday last May the media treated Kissinger as a major U.S. statesperson and political intellectual, with minimal criticism. After he died, however, and could no longer respond, many analysts admitted that much of the world considers him a top war criminal.
The world has good reason: While a top official of the U.S. government, Kissinger provided the intellectual framework for mass murders in Bangladesh and the carpet bombing of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. He gave a green light to the Indonesian military dictatorship to slaughter 20% of the population of East Timor. Decisions he helped make and carried out killed millions of people in Asia.
Kissinger also helped plan pro-fascist military coups in Chile and Argentina. In an editorial last spring, Workers World wrote, “To expand the interests of a tiny class of billionaires, Kissinger provided the strategy for carrying out war crimes and crimes against humanity.” (workers.org/2023/05/71210/)
Kissinger and the imperialists
By commenting on a major opinion piece in the New York Times — and there were similar ones elsewhere in the corporate media — we can answer the question of the relationship between Kissinger and the class he served.
Ben Rhodes, a former national security adviser during the Barack Obama administration, wrote a lead opinion piece in the Dec. 1 print edition of The New York Times — the edition containing five pages of text for Kissinger’s news obituary. In an additional three-quarters of a page, Rhodes makes an argument, highlighted in a callout quote, that Kissinger was “a practitioner of a foreign policy at odds with U.S. concepts of human rights and international law.”
Rhodes adds, “Over the decades, our [the U.S.] story about democracy has come to ring hollow to a growing number of people who can point to the places where our actions drained our words of meaning and ‘democracy’ just sounded like an extension of American interests.” Indeed.
Rhodes writes that Kissinger, by his actions and ideology, undermined the U.S. story, what Marxists more accurately call the myth of U.S. democracy. Rhodes omits explaining that the largest propaganda machine in human history sells this myth along with the illusion that everyone in the U.S. has access to an upper middle class standard of living or more.
In brief, Rhodes argues that by coddling obvious dictators and killers and by committing war crimes himself, Kissinger has destroyed the credibility of the U.S. story of democracy. Without this myth, U.S. foreign policy has less worldwide support and is weaker.
In reality, U.S. class society favors the wealthy, the capitalists, against all working people, and its ruling billionaires rob the resources of the people of the planet. This system depends on its ideological domination and its ability to divide the working class using racism, misogyny and anything that keeps them from uniting against the rich.
Kissinger understood his bosses
Where Rhodes’ argument is weakest is where it overestimates the wisdom and charity of the U.S. imperialist ruling class. Judging by how he acted advising Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Kissinger had a lower estimation.
The U.S. ruling class, with few exceptions, mistrusts politicians and generals who show the capability of thinking, of appreciating the many facets of subtle relations of human society. They mock intellectuals, real or self-appointed. They apparently prefer leaders who decide without thinking, who never read books and who will commit any crime in the interest of the ruling class.
If the profits for this quarter fail to gain 50% over last quarter, the capitalists want to know why, and they want those profits increased, no matter how many human lives have to be sacrificed, no matter how much of the earth is laid waste. Kissinger had to know that, and his was a hired brain in their service that wanted to stay hired. Someone too dedicated to democracy, human rights and international law was less likely to keep that job.
If you look up Ben Rhodes with a search engine, you read that as deputy secretary he played a role in two significant foreign accords during the Obama administration. One was the joint pact involving relieving the sanctions against Iran in exchange for that country’s not building nuclear weapons. The other was to slowly lift the blockade against Cuba in return for more access to Cuba’s economy, more contact with dissidents, that is, counterrevolutionary Cubans.
Both these pacts, while easing international tensions and relieving the lives of millions of Iranians and Cubans, represented another strategy that might expand imperialist interests in the long term. But it wasn’t a path that pleased the ruling class.
Donald Trump was elected and quickly sabotaged both pacts. His is a more accurate face for the U.S. imperialist ruling class. Throughout his adult life, Kissinger played to that face.
His ruthless policies were no anomalies. They expressed the short-sighted avarice of the U.S. billionaire class and the drive of capitalism toward war. Not only is Kissinger a war criminal, so is the class he served.
John Catalinotto is a journalist and lecturer at City University of New York, who has represented the International Action Center at tribunals in the U.S.