From The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens:
His own lonely impunity is rank: it smells to heaven. If it is allowed to persist then we shall shamefully vindicate the ancient philosopher Anacharsis, who maintained that laws were like cobwebs: strong enough to detain only the weak, and too weak to hold the strong. In the name of innumerable victims, known and unknown, it is time for justice to take a hand. (p. XI)
Four more years of an unwinnable war and undeclared and murderous war, which was to spread before it burned out, and was to end on the same terms and conditions as had been on the table in the fall of 1968. That was what it took to promote Henry Kissinger. To promote him from being a mediocre and opportunist academic to becoming an international potentate. The signature qualities were there from the inaugural moment: the sycophancy and the duplicity: the power worship and the absence of scruple: the empty trading of old non-friends for new non-friends. And the distinctive effects also were present: the uncounted and expendable corpses: the official and unofficial lying about the cost: the heavy and pompous pseudo-indignation when unwelcome questions were asked. K’s global career started as it meant to go on. It debauched the American republic and American democracy, and it levied a hideous toll of casualties on weaker and more vulnerable societies. (p. 15–16)
Christopher Hitchens is the author of the recently published The Trial of Henry Kissinger and Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, as well as, among others, Hostage to History, The Elgin Marbles, Prepared for The Worst: Selected Essays, Blaming the Victims, For The Sake of Argument: Essays and Minority Reports, The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family.
He was born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, into the family of a British naval officer and received a degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970. He began his career at the New Statesman, then went on to the Evening Standard and migrated to the United States in 1980. He has been the book critic for New York Newsday, the Washington editor for Harper’s, a long-time contributor to The Nation (Minority Reports…"with his trademark savage wit he flattens hypocrisy inside the Beltway. Laying bare the ‘permanent government’ of entrenched powers and interests").
Christopher Hitchens also regularly writes for Vanity Fair and contributes to such publications as Granta, The London Review Of Books, The New York Review Of Books, The Los Angeles Times, Dissent, New Left Review and The Times Literary Supplement. He has taught at the University of California at Berkeley, University of Pittsburgh and is currently on the faculty of the New School of Social Research in New York. He has won a Lannan Literary Award for nonfiction, and his Letters To A Young Contrarian is to be published in the Fall of 2001, to be followed by a biography of George Orwell. Christopher Hitchens lives with his family in Washington, D.C.
Robert Birnbaum: The Trial of Henry Kissinger originated with two serialized articles that appeared in Harper’s Magazine. Did your writing the pieces on Kissinger originate with you looking for a place to publish them or with Lewis Lapham [Harper’s editor] encouraging you to write them?
Christopher Hitchens: Well, I have been, for more than two decades, determined to write a book about Henry Kissinger, and I chose to start doing it properly last year…to collect all the material I already had, in one place and work it up. Because of the Pinochet trial and because of the Milosevic warrant, I thought that this changed the context. The first person to whom I mentioned this project was Lewis Lapham at Harper’s Magazine, who said, “Do it now. We’ll print it.” I barely had time to say, “Are you serious?” He said, “Get on with, too. It’s high time.” So, I knew I had a receptive editor, and I suspected I could probably expand it into a book as well. I wrote it for Harper’s, and then I updated it a bit, added a certain amount, and then it was published by Verso. I’m very much in Lewis Lapham’s debt because it’s the first time Harper’s has ever, he tells me, run two successive issues.
RB: Barbara Ehrenreich says when she had a discussion with Lapham about the article(s) that led to Nickel and Dimed, “an insane little smile” came across his face when the question of who would do them [came up] and he said, “You.” When you were having the conversation, did something like that happen?
CH: No, it was more like a peremptory gesture saying, “Why haven’t you done it already? Do it now, we’ll print it.” Then it was followed by a number of nudging calls to say, “Have you done it yet?” keeping me up to the mark. It’s nice to know that you have demand in that way. I’ll tell you something interesting. Neither he nor Rick MacArthur, the publisher, who jointly took the decision to put it two months running on the front page and promote it and so on, imagined that it would sell at all. They thought they ought to do it. They thought it was high time someone did do it. But they didn’t think of it as a commercial proposition. As it happens, the magazine almost sold out of the newsstands both times. Which is quite rare for a monthly.
RB: Especially that monthly.
CH: Yes, so they tell me, I’m not an expert on circulation, but apparently it was a hit at the newsstands. What I wanted to draw attention to is that they didn’t have any motive of that kind. They anticipated that more people than really do believe this, would say things like, “Oh well, that was a long time ago.” Or, “Isn’t this rather old stuff?” They still thought, no, we do have some sense of responsibility to history and society, and after all here is the outstanding case of an American who has an undeserved impunity or immunity, or both.
RB: I did not read the Harper’s articles. In those, did you offer the Pinochet Trial as the reason for resurrecting the issue of Henry Kissinger’s war criminality?
CH: Yes, I did. Because if I was to propose a book to an editor of a magazine or an editor of a publishing house that said, "This book is about all the nasty things you don’t know about Henry Kissinger, but should," it would be a very, very, very large book or an incredibly or impossibly long series. I said the organizing principle is this: the international context has changed with the arrest of Pinochet and the warrant for Milosevic — the whole context in which a wanted war criminal or committer of high crimes and international misdemeanors, violator of human rights — the whole context is altered now. So, the thing to do would be to confine it merely to the areas where Henry Kissinger is legally vulnerable. Then it’s a manageable proposition. If you just say, “Let’s tell all the nasty things about him that are true,” you’d never get to the end of it. So, it’s very self-limiting in that way.
RB: You constructed it as a legal brief?
CH: It’s not the case for the prosecution. And some people have rather pedantically reviewed it as if it was supposed to be a legal brief. I would say that it was the case for the case for the prosecution. And if I can say this, for myself, the closing chapter, which is probably played from my weakest hand — since I did not go to law school and never wished that I did, and I’m not an attorney — did predict that there would be a number of civil and international suits that would be likely to be brought. And have now, since the book came out, there have been three of these. One in France, one in Argentina, and one in Chile, and there will be from now until Kissinger either dies or is brought to justice, continuous reminders provided to him by the international legal system that what he did was not just immoral but also broke the customary laws by which we judge these things. Yes, and that’s important, I think. So I’m glad I did it that way, though it’s not my nature at all to argue as if I was a lawyer.
RB: What struck me about the response to your position is that there is such contentiousness about the case, as if to say, "Let’s not consider a trial." But within in the legal system, as I understand it, your book would act as an indictment, which would warrant a trial. You need not prove Henry Kissinger’s guilt but that there are good and sufficient reasons for considering it.
CH: No, though I believe I could discharge that burden if it was laid upon me.
RB: Right, but what’s the objection to having a trial?
CH: It’s funny. You’re partially right. People either say, “Oh come on, you can’t be serious? He’ll never stand trial.” Or they say, “Don’t be ridiculous, all this was far too long ago, and anyway it’s all old hat.”
Now, not both those things can be true. One of my reviewers, in fact in the National Review, Mr Buckley’s magazine, began by saying, “This is a load of huey by Hitchens, a ’60s leftism kind of thing.” And then ended by saying, "And there is a clear and present danger that people like Henry Kissinger will be inconvenienced in their movements by international courts. And that he’s pointed to a very serious danger."
So, I thought, well, make up your mind, which is it? I think that the case is the following: As to how utopian my proposal is, well, you be the judge. I personally, I must say, would never have believed that the British Special Branch, a very conservative politicized branch of the British police system, would be ordered to go around with a warrant issued by a post-Franco Spanish magistrate to Pinochet’s clinic in London and say, “If you are General Pinochet of Santiago, Chile, you’re nicked. We’ve got you.” And disconnect his phone and place him under house arrest. And permit him visits only from Baroness Thatcher, which if not cruel is certainly fucking unusual.
Nor would I have believed that the British House of Lords would confirm that in very round and adamant terms, by saying his defense — if these crimes were committed, they were committed under color of state as president and therefore have sovereign immunity — is void — that’s the crucial moment. Because we not only now have universal jurisdiction for courts to consider these matters and these people, wherever they can be found. In other words, to try them where they are held. Or to repatriate them to where they can be tried.
But, second and probably more important, the defense that “Well, yes I did kill all those Chileans" — if this was Kissinger speaking — "but I did it in the hope of impressing Richard Nixon” would never work. I never thought it was a very strong defense. In other words, I don’t think that anyone in the United States wants to claim that we should be less vigilant in these matters than the British House of Lords was.
RB: They don’t?
CH: Well, I hope they don’t. I should say as a patriotic immigrant, that I would hope that remark would have its point, would reverberate a little bit. So, what they are saying, if they say it’s obviously impossible to have a trial of such a man is, “Well, we’ve all come to admit for our own reasons that yes, that are some Americans that are above the law.” Well, very well. I want to hear them say it. And I want to have it taught in school, and I want to have it preached in church, and I want to have it announced in Congress, and I want to have the President say it, in his State of the Union speech, “Just forget it, there are some Americans who are above the law. So that stuff that you hear, about no one being above it, isn’t true.” Fine, if they don’t say it, there are also consequences.
RB: And then there is also the rebuttal that says, “Kissinger is not the only practitioner of such things, realpolitik. These are things that have taken place under many administrations, under many circumstances.”
CH: Yes, there is no reason not to say that that’s true. Though there are some reasons why mentioning in that way is a means of trying to change the subject. I would say that there are two considerations. One, we now know for an extraordinary number of reasons, with an amazing amount of evidence, that the Nixon Presidency had the US as a rogue state. The US was a rogue state. Some people say it’s a rogue state all the time. You can argue that for and against. But you can’t argue that it wasn’t a rogue state during the Nixon Administration. In every possible definition of the term. An unstable corrupt leader, using violence overseas to try to solve his domestic problems and using coercion against dissent in both cases. And willing to go to the brink with it. Well, Henry Kissinger, partly because of the implosion of that regime, was for its closing years, the president as far as foreign and defense and security policy was concerned. Thus, the opportunities he had to commit crimes on the international stage and of an international global scale was very great. I don’t believe there’s ever been a Secretary of State or National Security Adviser with the scope of that sort. Not Dulles, not McNamara (who was, of course, not Secretary of State, but you know what I mean).
RB: And sat on the 40 Committee [the semi-clandestine body of which Kissinger was the chairman from 1969-1976]…
CH: And chaired all the covert action committees, as well. So there was a long period of a one-man-sponsored, rolling, international crime wave, which also violated the US Constitution, the letter and the spirit of congressional resolutions, and all the rest of it. There is no parallel or comparable case as far as I know. That’s the first point. The second is, most of the other guys are dead; he’s alive. And the third point is, we have all the evidence in this case. We have an extraordinary dossier of evidence. Of course, it is true that for every person arrested for burglary or mugging or white-collar crime, there are a thousand others who could be arrested, that’s the one who did get arrested. When someone is shouting at the top of his voice, “Hey watch me. I’m doing white-collar crime,” then if he’s not arrested you begin to wonder if there isn’t something rotten in the system of law and order. You also begin to wonder about the motives of people who say, “Why pick on him?” Because they invite the answer, "Well, why not?" Given that he did do it, we have the evidence, and he is available. So I have to return to the obvious, I’m afraid.
RB: Can you speculate about why there appears to be a need to refrain from this investigation? Or to reject anyone who suggests the need for this examination?
CH: If what I say is true, and I might say, though I have had a lot of very hostile reviews, I have had nobody make any factual challenge. Or, shall I say, any challenge to my factual assertions. I have not made a factual claim that’s been contested, let alone rebutted. And I don’t expect that I will. If, therefore, what I say is true, the consequences are quite grave. Among them, from the point of view of your question, would be two things. One, it would mean the press had missed rather a large story or series of stories. Now I know my own profession very well. I’ve been making a reasonably good living out of it for many, many years. I know all the people who practice it, know most of them anyway, and I have worked with or for a lot of them. And I know one of the things they least like to do is admit that they missed a story. Especially if, as in this case, they missed because they were taken into confidence or otherwise given privileges by the person who was the perpetrator…
RB: That used to be called co-optation…
CH: …and Henry Kissinger was an absolute genius at spinning the press, partly invented the idea of "spin doctoring." So, there would be that. And then to move it beyond the journalistic culture, to the wider North American one. There is only one culture in the world, I think probably in the history of the world, where the words "you’re history" are an insult. And it’s for good reason. Gore Vidal calls it “The United States of Amnesia.” We hear all the time, like a mantra, that whatever we’re confronted with, whatever it might be, the main responsibility is to move on. Put this behind us. It’s literally become a social, cultural, almost a moral injunction. The best thing to do is to forget it. Well now, that’s not the language in which we address, in the New York Times, the people of Germany, for example. We say, “It may seem to you a long time ago, but we insist you revisit your past and do it responsibly, and look at the documents, and live up to the obligations that you incurred, and do so in hard cash terms, too." We insist that this also be true of the people of Serbia and of Japan and of many other societies. In my view, that insistence on the part of the United States and its establishment is not morally wrong on its face and in fact in all the cases I just mentioned, I think to remember and to take account and to live up to and to be responsible for, are all correct. Well, you can see where I’m going with this. You can’t have that both ways. If this is a proper injunction, it must apply to the United States as well.
RB: How much respect is there for Telford Taylor’s view of the Nuremberg precedents and their current application to war crimes?
CH: Well not everybody knows who Taylor was. He was the senior US military prosecutor at Nuremberg and wrote a wonderful book later which I make a lot of use of, about the possible extension of the Nuremberg precedent to the American war in Indo-China. But even if you had never heard of Telford Taylor, it is or should be taught in schools that the United States staffed the prosecution and the bench at Nuremberg. Nuremberg Chief Justice Robert Jackson — he nearly became Chief Justice of the United States — gave up the one to do the other, did say the United States was setting the standard by which it was itself was prepared to be judged. That these principals were written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which then was incorporated in the founding charter of the United Nations, of which the US is the founding and host and senior and dominant member and signatory of. In other words, this is as near as you could make it internationally possible in law, to a constitutional amendment. The United States is multiply, deeply, fundamentally committed to the observance of these standards.
There is no possible way — it would take years even if they wanted to — for the American establishment to withdraw from these agreements. They are completely binding. Multiply binding. The Taylor example actually is only the smallest one. Almost every subordinate institution in the United States is itself a signatory to the Universal Declaration. And this was made binding on others by the United States. And it is an inescapable responsibility and a very good thing that it is, too. That is taught to the school children. So the crevice that is opening before our very feet of people saying, “Yeah well,” either “We didn’t really mean that…” Or “It’s true, but it’s only supposed to apply to foreigners…” cannot be stated explicitly. It couldn’t, in fact be preached in the church. It can’t be said in Congress. It can’t be affirmed by the President. It can only be said surreptitiously.
Though nobody knows it, in the sense that it hasn’t been reported in the mass media, Henry Kissinger is wanted for questioning at the moment by magistrates in three democratic countries: France, Argentina, and Chile. He’s been served with summonses just to answer questions about his guilty knowledge of Pinochet’s death squads and the internationalization of the death squads of South America. And he’s refusing to answer the questions and is backed by the US government in refusing to answer. But that can’t be said proudly. It can’t be said openly. So the challenge remains. They have to give up one claim or the other. But the two are negations of each other.
RB: Is Kissinger traveling outside the country?
CH: Not without taking advice. That was true before he went to France. Now, for example, if he went back to France that summons is still extant. He wouldn’t be able to go back to Paris without being asked to the Palace of Justice. If an American can’t go to Paris, I think we’ll agree that there is a new development in international relations. Now a lot of people say, “Hah! So now we wouldn’t be able to have a foreign policy without consulting a lot of lawyers?” Well, partly that is also an attempt to change or cloud the issue. Actually, if you went back to recent foreign policy, you wish that more human rights attorneys had been consulted before a lot of it was implemented.
RB: Are those summons valid in countries other than in which they were issued?
CH: There will be more in my judgement…
RB: The Spanish summons to Pinochet was served in England…
CH: These summons to Henry Kissinger are only to be a witness, mark you. It makes it even more grave that he refuses to answer questions, even as a witness, and that the US government says that he doesn’t have to answer, as a witness. Now if he was to be summoned as a defendant, in other words, if he was indicted, that would be a different matter. There would have to be a request from a third country, second country for extradition. And there the United States government might well say we don’t extradite Americans. Some countries have refused on principle to extradite any of their citizens. Among other things, it’s the law of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Though the United States as we are sitting here is saying, “Well, that may be your law, but we still insist that you do extradite Mr. Milosevic to the Hague.” That is, of course, not to another country. It’s to an international court. In my opinion, it’s right to press this claim. But I do see that there are issues of sovereignty involved. However, this principle either applies [to all] or it does not. Before the technicalities kick in. One way of summarizing my answer to several of your questions would be that I’ve come to distrust those who immediately intrude the technicalities before they will discuss the principles. I notice this is a tactic in a lot of the people who oppose my campaign and my book and in a lot of the people who are around Kissinger, and certainly those people are in love with international lawyers and international technicalities.
RB: In your opening chapter you describe Kissinger’s editor, Michael Korda, having a phone conversation with Kissinger…
CH: I do have a wonderful videotape of Mr. Korda on the phone with Henry Kissinger. Actually, calling him back. So we have the phone number and all of that. And it’s quite clear that Kissinger is very upset by that morning’s New York Times. I know the date of the interview. When I looked it up, it was very clear that there was an article by Jim Wyner, the national security correspondent of the New York Times saying, that the new disclosures about American complicity with Pinochet’s death squads and the knowledge of their activities and support of those activities, could put a number of high American officials in great legal jeopardy, as the Pinochet trial went on.
And Kissinger was very quick to notice this, quicker than most human rights activists were. He was much, much swifter to see. This also helped me to make up my mind to write the book in the way that I did, which was a legal matter. It’s not just a matter of saying — because many people have said it, so to speak morally or metaphorically down the years — “Yeah, Henry Kissinger, that war criminal.” I say, “Why not stop saying it rhetorically or metaphorically?” In fact, it’s literally true that he’s a war criminal, and he is guilty of crimes against humanity, and he can be held accountable for them. And if he cannot the consequences are even graver.
RB: Why did you choose this title for the book [The Trial of Henry Kissinger]?
CH: Well, originally I had a picture of him that made it look like he was sitting in the dark. Which we no longer use.
RB: The photograph on the cover is quite suggestive of a serial murderer….
CH: This looks more like a mug shot of a wanted mass murderer, it’s true. It was originally a photograph that looked as if he was sitting in the dark. Which we toyed with using. It also had him, hugely picking his nose. In the end, we decided it was probably too puerile or at least it was too satisfying for us to be sure that it was kosher to use such a picture. I wanted it to appear as the case for the prosecution, and I wanted to make it plain that justice would be pursued and now is being, and I more pleased than I can say that my last chapter turns out to be prescient.
Though, of course, I should add that I think it’s a disgrace that the pursuit of justice should be left to the families of victims in other countries. Painfully, going first to local magistrates, then looking for possibilities of pursuing it in America, using their savings. These people have already lost their families and their loved ones. They’ve already been through hell. There surely ought to be some decent district attorney or public lawyer or indeed some Congressional committee in the United States that would say. “No, this is our responsibility, to do justice here. We’re not going to leave it to the victims.” It would be as if it was only Nicole Simpson’s family who prosecuted O.J. Simpson. And only when they brought the evidence to the LA County district attorney…it’s really appalling that it should be this way. But, it is creeping nearer. And after all, if a French judge serves you a summons on Memorial Day in the Ritz Hotel in Paris, it must make you realize that there is such a thing as the finger of justice, and it can even reach someone as celebrified as yourself.
RB: What would your idea of justice in the case of Kissinger be?
CH: Well, I think he should be…I’ll take a step back. When the articles of impeachment were being drawn up against Richard Nixon, they originally included — in fact, the first article was — an indictment for the carpet bombing of Cambodia and the conduct of this horrific bombing being kept secret from Congress and the American people. If that trial had gone ahead. And remember it was decided in the end, let’s have a pardon and let’s put all this behind us and move on…it was the origin of “there are some bits of justice that are too awkward for us.” We’d rather have a quiet life than justice. Which I think is a bad precedent. I think Nixon should have stood trial. Did I say should? I’ll say it again. I believe Richard Nixon should have stood trial and, of course, if that indictment had been brought against him, he could not have stood in the dock alone. That that trial was aborted and due process was spared is now seen by many, many people as a great mistake. Which it was.
So, justice for me would be reopening that case. Solemnly and with the will and power of Congress. It appears that it didn’t work; we tried to bury the Viet Nam episode and the Nixon episode, it keeps coming back. You can’t open a newspaper without it coming back one way or another. Either it’s Senator Kerrey, a much beloved liberal Democrat is found to have been cutting children’s throats with a knife in the dark. Or it’s a historian inventing his own record. It’s quite clear that it — Henry Kissinger, incidentally, was the one to christen the Viet Nam syndrome — never went away. Can’t be buried.
Very well then, let us do what we ask other societies to do. Have a Truth and Justice Commission, organized by Congress, bring it to light, investigate it. Punish the guilty. Do justice to the victims. It’s not to ask very much. This is a rich society that won the Cold War. It has nothing to fear from this inquiry. That’s what justice would look like.
I also believe that since Kissinger has gone on to make two successive fortunes: One from peddling stolen documents that he took from the State department into a three-volume blockbuster bestseller consisting very largely of fabrications or destructive and misleading editings of those documents — of the scale of David Irving’s [Holocaust denier] falsification — I can show in my book, you put together the documents we now have of his time in office and the use he’s made of them in his book, they’ve been mutilated, falsified. He made a fortune out doing that with public property. And a second fortune out of setting up a consulting firm, which franchises the connection between corporations and overseas dictatorships. I think he should be made to pay all that money back to the victims.
I think there should be civil suits against him as well. He should be forced to disgorge ill-gotten gains and pay back the families of people in Chile and Cyprus and Bangaladesh and Cambodia, until he has no money left. We quite rightly have laws in many states that a criminal can’t benefit from relating the story of his crime. A version of this should be adopted for him. He should, as well as standing trial for his crimes, be made to pay direct compensation.
RB: And if Kissinger stood trial and was found guilty of aggressive pursuit of war and war crimes, what would be the just sentence?
CH: I am still a principled root-and-branch opponent of capital punishment. And I wouldn’t make an exception in his case. For one thing, I’d want him to sit in his cell and think about it. And maybe not for pay and not by Ted Koppel or any of his usual sycophants, be interviewed properly and have his real evidence and recollections taken down. It’s always worth studying the personality of characters like him, Timothy McVeigh, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and people of this kind. It’s worth knowing what they are like.
RB: Curious company you placed Henry Kissinger in.
CH: It’s an insult to them. If you look at the gravity of what he’s done, there’s no doubt that the rest of his worthless life should be served in the joint.
RB: Is there an endgame here, for you? Bringing him to justice?
CH: By the way, if people could see the faces of some of those victims who long ago gave up on the very idea of justice. If we had, as has happened in South Africa, in Chile, in Czechoslovakia and in Serbia and elsewhere, the unbelieving look changed to a look of hope, on the faces of those who thought, “No, the whole world is unjust. The big fish, the murderers always get away with it.” Just for once, to see that that’s not true, it would help the dissolve the cynical, tired, affectless objections that people make here. “Oh well, why rake all that up again?” That’s the day I’d really like to see. I’ve seen some of those faces already. That would do it for me. But it’s not my campaign.
I haven’t suffered from this guy’s depredations. And indeed I’m not the author of most of the evidence that I adduce. I should say that there are people in Washington, who for the last quarter century at least, certainly since the vile murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronnie Moffit in downtown DC, in the fall of 1976, have never let a day go by without doing justice for that family and for the people who murdered Orlando. And we’ve got — I say we, because I would count myself as junior member of this community — we’ve got to the stage now where we are quite likely to achieve at least vindication. We’ll be proved right. We will get the evidence out. We’ll make it public. It will be known, who those responsible are. And it will be known who is responsible for delaying justice as well, and obstructing it.
RB: One of them [Manuel Contreras, former head of Pinochet’s secret police] is sitting in jail in Santiago, Chile…
CH: Yes, indeed. Actually, the Justice Department, at the moment, the Criminal Division of the US Justice Department, has enough evidence itself to indict, or seek an indictment of Augusto Pinochet. Which would be quite something. Now if they don’t do that I think the Attorney General should be impeached. It’s his job to defend the United States from enemies, foreign and domestic.
RB: Yes, it would be that…
CH: In everything I say, however implausible or utopian or far-fetched it may sound, I insist there is a corollary in the other direction. If these things are not done, then we have to live with the admitted, acknowledged, public unashamed assertion that, “Okay, a little injustice isn’t all that bad” if it allows a quiet life for politicians and people in power. If they don’t want my assertions, then they must the corollary or something like it. I shouldn’t say it’s my assertion either, perhaps. But something like it. But you see what I mean. If they won’t accept the one thought, then they’ll have to face the other one.
What I’m trying to do is make people face that and my hope — and actually my confidence — is that people know that it’s put in that way. They know that that’s the choice. Faced with it, and if it can be made material to them, as I think these series of demands for Kissinger’s testimony from other countries now do, that they will opt for doing the right thing. There is, in fact, quite a reservoir of willingness to do that in this country. Presently and historically. I’m not convinced as some are that everyone is infected with beltway cynicism. Though I do have days, as we all do, when it seems as if it could be that way.
RB: As you tour for your books are you seeing evidence of this willingness?
CH: Well, allowing for the fact that people who don’t like Henry Kissinger are more likely to come to readings or public events that I do, I’d have to say I’ve been impressed by how many people have come. And by how feeble the arguments put by his defenders have been, by the absence of a factual challenge to what I say and by the reluctance of the mainstream media to give this argument a fair hearing or given its existence a fair account.
In other words, you always know you are on to something when there appears to be a reluctance to discuss it. If they had the answer to what I was saying they would smearing it all over me and making me look a fool. They are not doing that. So that gives me the feeling that probably the trail is still quite hot.
And, of course, the hysterical and demented irrational reactions of Kissinger himself are very interesting. In one case, to run away from the Ritz Hotel in Paris rather than answer questions from a judge. In another to cancel, now three appearances, rather than be in the same town as me — who is only a humble scribbler with a very small impecunious publisher — and then when finally for months having pretended he’d never heard of me or the book, to admit that he had, now read the book, to have no response to its charges, when asked in round terms by interviewers, “What do you say to the charge you subverted the Viet Nam peace negotiations in 1968? Or were complicit with the Indonesian genocide in East Timor? Or suborned murder in Chile…” Grave accusations! Not one response to any of them. And finally to try a very gross and ill-advised tactic of defamation of the author…
CH: …shoot the messenger, that’s me, yeah, by saying that of all things, I am a Holocaust denier, which is — it’s difficult to know where to start — I probably shouldn’t. It’s pretty wild groping and flailing on his part. Which has already earned him a very bad press, if only for its evident bad faith in trying to…
RB: Smear you…
CH: And in doing so, avoid, after all, a fair question. Did you, Dr. Kissinger, do any of the things I say or didn’t you? Now if he’d said, "Now on page 90 of his book you don’t have to take Hitchens seriously at all because he says I was in Bucharest in 1968 and in fact I was in Brazil or Orlando. Who can take seriously a guy who can’t get his facts right?" Nothing of the sort. Nothing even remotely of the kind. Instead a hysterical charge of defamation for which I am seriously considering taking him to court in my own right, just to add to his legal delights.
RB: Prior to the recent British elections I discovered, on television, Tony Blair being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman. What struck me about this interview was that Paxman — asking about the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots — when he did not get an answer to his question, kept asking it, five and six times. And he persisted on other questions as well. I was struck by Paxman’s dogged pursuit and the feeling that an American journalist would not have persisted. And for all appearances — maybe it was some kind of parlor game — it was affable, quite civil ,and the lack of answers notwithstanding, enlightening. Assuming that you agree that such an exchange would not take place in the US, between a journalist and a high official, how is it possible in Britain?
CH: Well, I know that it wouldn’t take place in the United States and, indeed, I even think I know why, from the point of view of the press. One step back from that, again. There is in Britain a parliamentary tradition where the political forces in the assembly sit opposite one another and it’s designed for antagonism, not consensus. So, for a Prime Minister to be subjected to rude and insistent questioning is supposed to be part of his job and those who can’t take it don’t stay Prime Minister for very long.
Harold McMillan, supposedly one of the most imperturbable patrician conservative Prime Ministers, used to always vomit briskly in the men’s room before facing parliament at Prime Minister’s question time. He knew that he couldn’t anticipate what the questions would be. There were no rules. You couldn’t have it prearranged. Interestingly enough, Mr. Blair has tried very hard to limit the amount of time allotted…he would like to make this a shorter experience. And [he] doesn’t show up well under consistent or any other kind of questioning and doesn’t relish it. But nonetheless, he would never dream of complaining, he knows those are the rules.
In Britain — I hate to sound condescending, I hope no one will take this amiss — a slightly higher value is places on literacy, among journalists. The ability to be rhetorical and to be fluent is more highly prized there. If you care to turn up the New York Times, the day after a Presidential press conference — the Times maintains this fatuous ritual — but I’m glad it does it — of always giving the full transcript. Of course, everyone, especially recently, has gotten used to looking at the President’s answers and slapping their brow with frustration and incredulity, thinking, “How can any adult human being utter anything so illogical, so ungrammatical, unsyntactical?” But just you do yourself a favor and look at the questions that are asked. Stumbling, unsyntactical, semi-literate, pointless, unsystematic. No consistent line of questioning, no consecutive questions, no follow-up of any kind. Usually taking it for banal invitations to say a little more about something or other. Full of elementary verbal howlers. Yet there isn’t one of those hacks who wouldn’t have his own string of Bushism jokes to tell about the President’s latest grammatical train wreck. Garbage in, garbage out. If you want a banal answer, ask a banal question, and that’s what public figures in this country are generally used to. The same is true when they go on television. It’s quite extraordinary to watch someone like Charlie Rose or Ted Koppel interviewing someone like Henry Kissinger. You only hope that while they are down on the floor they are cleaning it. Getting something useful done for their labor.
RB: While I don’t have a high opinion of Charlie Rose, I saw an interview he did with Henri Cartier Bresson and it was splendid and wonderful…
CH: I dare say that I’ve seen Charlie Rose get quite good responses out of actors and performance artists and showbiz people and things like that. A certain amount of geniality and even naivete is pardonable is those situations because you do well if you get the person to talk well about themselves. That’s fine. This simply can’t work as a way of interrogating a politician. It always has the dreaded temptation of sycophancy. The fear if you are not this way the politician won’t come on your show and will go on someone else’s instead. You don’t have this calculation with a photographer or a theater writer.
RB: If you develop reputation as a tough interviewer — like Larry King is not — you may still face that?
CH: Well, this proposition remains to be tested. No one has attempted to develop such a reputation…
RB: Well, let’s see…
CH: No, no, I can be firm with you on that. There is no such thing as a tough interviewer on American television. And I don’t, myself, believe there ever has been one. There are people who are able to ask sycophantic questions in a rude and hectoring tone of voice. Sam Donaldson would be preeminent there. This has the awful effect of giving the public the impression the politicians are being badgered all the time, rudely. When nothing of the kind is in fact the case. So that’s the worst of both worlds.
Look, for example, it doesn’t take long to answer the following, to revert to my favorite subject, “Mr. Kissinger, you were in the room with the Indonesian General Staff, the General Staff of the Indonesian dictatorship, on the day the order for their invasion of East Timor was given. What did you say to them?” Doesn’t take long to ask. It isn’t very hard to understand. I happen to know what the answer is by the way. As does Henry Kissinger. He’s never been asked.
RB: At the end of The Trial of Henry Kissinger, you refer to a public speaking engagement…
CH: A few brave souls have managed to get themselves into the question period of public events of his. But they get cut off and thrown out. And the answers he gives are flat-out lies that can be tested. But he’s never been asked them in any forum where there would be consequences. Where anyone could say, “Mr. Kissinger, I have the research here on my lap, on my clipboard. It isn’t true is it, what you just said, that the invasion of East Timor came to you as a complete surprise? Now here’s what you said in the State Department at a private meeting. It wasn’t a surprise and you knew it was coming and you approved of it didn’t you?”
It didn’t take long to do. Never been even attempted. “Mr. Kissinger, when you decided to remove physically General Schneider, the head of the Chilean Armed Forces, because he was opposed to a military coup, did you believe you had Congressional authorization?” would be a good question. Never been asked anything remotely like that. “When you designed the bombing of Cambodia, did you think Congress knew or did you take steps to make sure it didn’t know? And did you take legal advice about that?” Never been asked. These are questions that, I think, could be reasonably said, need to be asked in the public interest. In no journalistic forum has he ever been asked any such thing. He’s asked at the National Press Club as recently as next week, questions like, “Do you think ever think there will be a lasting peace in the Middle East?” A subject upon which his opinion is about as valuable as mine. I’d actually say, less so.
RB: We’ve talked about a certain literary bent in Britain that extends to journalism…
CH: I really don’t want to be thought of as over-stating that…
RB: I don’t think you did…
CH: People in the country of my birth, some of them are anyway, at university and elsewhere, trained in the idea of debating, in rhetoric, and in elementary logic. In my opinion these arts in the American culture have fallen into disuse.
RB: Okay. So examining American journalistic history. Current and recent past, besides I.F. Stone, can you identify anyone who has done good and worthy work?
CH: Well, if I just think of the acknowledgements to my current book. I’m standing on the shoulders of Seymour Hersh, in particular. Scott Armstrong late of the Washington Post and then founder of the National Security Archives, Peter Kornbluth and number of people…actually, I give it a name in my closing pages. Henry Kissinger is one of the great exemplars of celebrity culture, he was one of the founders of the idea of celebrity culture. My definition of "celebrity culture" is one where people’s actions are judged by their reputations and not their reputations by their actions.
The first person to do the elementary journalistic job of measuring Kissinger’s reputation against his actual deeds was Seymour Hersh, and we are all hugely in his debt. For that and other investigations, that he’s conducted, too. His method is simply pragmatic. He says, “Well, here are the facts.” He’s not an interpreter and he’s not a historian. I’m not sure he would even represent himself as an intellectual. He simply says, “This is a country that is founded on documents and has to produce a number of them, which are public property. You have the right to see them. They ought to be given to you but they have been withheld. I can find out what they say on your behalf. What they say contradicts the official lie.”
It’s amazing how much distance you can get out of just doing that. The gap now is so great it had to be given a name during the Johnson years. The Credibility Gap, which is, of course, the wrong name for it. Now credibility simply means can you tell a lie with success. Literally means that. ‘Credibility’ has nothing to do with ‘veracity’ or ‘truthfullness’ or ‘accuracy’. It has to do with skill in getting yourself believed.
RB: How about ‘deniability,’ when did that become part of public discourse?
CH: Deniability came about when it was decided that accountability would be too troublesome as a principle. Accountability would be hell, let’s have deniability instead. Amazingly, again the press took up the cry. Well this was ‘plausibly deniable.’ They borrowed the actual rhetoric of the conspirators. You notice now people also hopelessly confuse the words ‘credulity’ and ‘credibility.’ Things will be said to strain credibility instead of credulity. The whole language in which truth is discussed has undergone a great debasement as well. And again, not enough people are there to point that out. So discourse itself has become a servant of power.
RB: You have been insistent about not wanting to appear to be a chauvinist for British education and literacy, but you have presented no evidence for any hope that if such an impulse ever existed in America that it will be resurrected, especially in the practice of journalism.
CH: Well the British press doesn’t do much…I didn’t want it to be thought that I thought that British press did very much of that. The British press, among other things, doesn’t have the benefit of a First Amendment. And it is crippled by a very repressive law of libel. And it is owned by a very small number of rich men whose main interest is entertainment and propaganda.
RB: Unlike the United States?
CH: Yes, the New York Times does not bear the marks of Murdoch in the way — or of any ownership — the London Times bears the paw prints of Rupert Murdoch. That’s just a fact.
Look, if you want me to talk about the cultural transatlantic dialectic, I would say that what upsets me is that the two countries admire the wrong things about each other. In other words, there’s a lot of Anglophilia in the United States, a lot of snobbish feeling of admiration for Britain but they don’t admire the right things. They don’t admire the broadcasting standards of the BBC. Which are not bad, they are not as good as they were, but they are pretty good. Or the National Health Service, for example. Or one or two other things I could mention. The same way the British don’t tend to admire the right things about the United States. Such as the Bill of Rights. Britain being a country that doesn’t have any rights, only traditions.
I’m a member of an organization that tries to get the United Kingdom as we still call it — though it would cease to be that, if it took my advice — to adopt a bill of rights, written guarantees of what is owed the citizen. One of the things I do as a cultural critic is to try and redress that imbalance or mutual distortion across the Atlantic…and I do it in what I suppose is still an English accent. I am very acutely aware of superiority and inferiority complexes on both sides, and I try not to play to either of those.
After all, there isn’t anyone in British cultural life that I can easily think of who would equate, say, to Gore Vidal. Someone who is a great literary figure and considerable historian and also public intellectual, television performer, general Cassandra of cultural state of affairs but who is second to none in his command of the language. Not only that but his knowledge of European and other cultures, I absolutely don’t want to make any concession to the idea that they do these things better in Britain.
I suppose that when I go and speak on college campuses or when I teach as I do, here, in that world, I am appalled at the way no one is trained in the elementary rules of debate. That a panel supposedly designed to elucidate a question by disagreement is actually just a series of prepared statements followed by about five minutes of deferential questions. There is actually no format in which a clash of ideas and opinions or evidence can take place. I think that is why the courtroom is the great cultural resort in America. Both for entertainment and drama and movies and so on and also for the settling of disputes. Because it’s one of the very few things that isn’t fixed. Where there is a diametrical opposition, an argument, a clash. Which is what people want…and need. Though they always say they wish for consensus. In fact, what they want and need is much more polarization.
It’s only in that way — I say it in my collection, somewhere, I think, anyway, if I didn’t I meant to — you hear people saying things like well, “This controversy generates more heat than light.” Well, that’s a stupid thing to say. Heat is the only source of light. That’s a law of physics, among other things. You don’t expect to get light except from heat. Generally you always get applause in this country if you can say, “Well, let’s try and find common ground. Let’s begin the healing process.” A word that you can’t be accused of favoring is the word ‘divisive.’ Or to be seen to be divisive.
Unopposed, people will get up and get applause, including on liberal and left platforms, saying, “We’re opposed to the politics of division.” Well, politics is division by definition, thanks all the same. There is no other definition of it. It’s the definition of differences. People say, “Let’s all unite.” So, there’s a huge linguistic and cultural prejudice in favor of a lowest-common-denominator, mediocre agreement. I think one can say, at least in European culture, that the parliaments are arranged with a left and a right wing and opposing benches. We don’t assume agreement to begin with. Agreement may be found but only through argument. In other words, to coin a phrase, the dialectic.
RB: I read somewhere that you didn’t want to be known as some kind of pit bull, attack dog, curmudgeon…
CH: I don’t mind the curmudgeon…That’s fine. I don’t mind that in the least. I suppose I’ve become bored with the idea that, “Oh Hitchens just looks for some targets to attack. Well, he even attacked Mother Theresa. Even Princess Diana.” The fact is, though I spend only a tenth of my time on it, I am an opponent of the celebrity culture. Every now and then I decide to demonstrate that it’s false by showing that what everyone thinks they think or know about some bloatedly famous inflated reputation is false…is based on a misreading or misinformation. And yes, of course, that you tend to take the more popular ones. In some cases they are forced on you. Princess Diana forced herself on us. With Mother Teresa, because I am a great opponent of religious fundamentalism, I decided to attack, not Pat Robertson, who is generally speaking not liked in the areas in which I move, but to attack a religious fundamentalist everyone thought was great. Thus, to show how these things happen.
RB: The ghoul of Calcutta…
CH: In this case, the death cult leader of Calcutta, who is not a friend of the poor but a friend of property. And a friend of the rich and of dictatorship. And of strict moral teaching to the helpless and strict moral indulgence to the well off. I can prove it. And I will say again, if I don’t sound too dogmatic in this mode, that no factual challenge to anything I say in that book [The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice] has ever been made either.
RB: And you have been invited to the Vatican.
CH: I’ve been asked by the Vatican to give my testimony in her case, or her cause, as they put it — her sainthood cause, her canonization. I’m flattered to say that my deposition was taken at length by three senior gentlemen of the clergy and is going to form part of the argument about whether she should be a saint. So they took it seriously, yeah.
RB: From what I know about you, you have always wanted to be a writer and you spend a lot of time on literary matters. Unacknowledged Legislation, a book of literary essays, would be evidence of that. In the scheme of things, are you being acknowledged for that?
CH: As I have been touring with my Kissinger book, I have also been touring with my essays. Actually, in some places [they] have sold better, I’m proud to say, because among other things Unacknowledged Legislation is a much better book and involved a great deal more work and is about much more intricate and interesting subjects: The relationship between literature and the good society, and the good life and its consideration of authors, mainly in the English-speaking world, and mainly men. Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, T.S, Elliot, Shelley, after whom the book is implicitly named, Anthony Powell, Eveyln Waugh, PG Wodehouse, George Eliot, one of the few women, Dorothy Parker another one. Rudyard Kipling. That’s what I’d far rather be doing and am probably better at. I probably should never have stopped doing it because that’s what I wanted to do when I was younger.
As I also say in the book, the Greeks have a word, ‘idiotus,’ for those who showed no interest at all in politics. It wasn’t considered in ancient Greece an insult. It was just what you said about someone who didn’t bother to come to the relatively few meetings that Athenian democracy involved. Those who were totally indifferent were thought of as the idiotus. Quite a bland term. Interestingly that it should have translated for us, the way it does. I don’t want to be an idiot in that sense. Any more than I want to be one of the idiots that are totally politicized and can only think of things ideologically, even if they are architecture, music or writing. The totally politicized, professionally politicized type and the class of people who they make up are a great danger to politics as well as to culture.
So the project is to see if one can’t have a literate democratic citizenry in a proper republic. And there are all kinds of ways of trying to make people see the chance for themselves in that. One [way] is to point to the successful examples, like George Orwell, who were great citizens. Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass. It’s very useful in America, because America is a written country. It’s the only country in the history of the world that has been proclaimed by documents. It’s a work-in-progress. These documents can be reread, revisited and revised and reconsidered. So there is a special place for the writer here. So that’s one way to point out the importance of the literate citizen. The other is to show how wicked and corrupt and brutal and stupid and potentially lethal the alternatives are: the power-worshipping pseudo-intellectuals and kept men like Henry Kissinger. Basically, it’s the same project. Whatever form of it one’s pursuing.
Copyright 2001 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing