It is 1988, Santiago. Chile is on the cusp of a popular repudiation of the world that Henry Kissinger helped to make scream. Throngs of international observers have come to witness the plebiscite on Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. I am part of the US delegation organized by the National Lawyers Guild. At the first meeting in our precinct, local people introduce themselves by name and political identification, too many socialist tendencies to remember. They are good-humoured, optimistic, organized for getting out the vote. As has been said ever since mass protests began in the capital, ‘the people have lost their fear’. A cinema in the city centre is showing Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, the marquee illuminating the title in large letters.
Pinochet’s collaborators have been defecting by the day. None of this was supposed to happen. The 1973 coup against Salvador Allende – backed by the United States, fortified by international lenders and elaborated by the Chicago Boys’ economic violence programme – had been engineered for permanence. State terror was supposed to take care of internal opposition. The plebiscite itself – Yes or No, do you approve of our handiwork? – was intended as a bit of legitimating latticework. But after years of murder, disappearance, imprisonment and torture, the right’s plans have fallen to history’s penchant for surprises. ‘Joy is coming!’ announces the slogan of the No campaign.
I am staying with a working-class family involved with one of the socialist parties. Every night the power goes out. Every morning a little girl named Alejandra comes to my room, disciplined, intent on teaching me Spanish. She climbs onto my bed and points to the pictures in her primer, instructing me to sound out the words for animals, cooking utensils, common things. In the afternoon her grandmother takes me downtown on public transit. These tracks, she says, lie over mass graves.
In the aftermath of the coup, armed men came to her home one night and dragged her son away. Right there, in the kitchen, through the same door we use to enter and leave the house, in the same blackout conditions that now seem a reminder or a threat whenever the lights go out. For a long time, he was a desaparecido. For a long time, his mother haunted the entrances of police stations, prisons, hospitals, morgues. Eventually a prison sentry – sick of seeing her? moved by pity? – handed her a list of inmates. She found her son, alive but scarred by torture. Somehow she got him out; somehow he fled the country.
In 1975, Pinochet’s foreign minister visited Kissinger to discuss a problem. The junta had released a couple of hundred prisoners, trouble-makers, but couldn’t find countries willing to take them off Chile’s hands. ‘You will know what to do’, Kissinger said, as memorialized in official documents declassified years later. My host doesn’t need to know the numbers – which by 1990 will total 3,216 people killed, 38,254 imprisoned or tortured by official count, thousands more exiled. Somehow, she saved her son. Somehow other women and men like her mustered the courage for defiance. Alejandra’s grandmother has her outfit planned for October 5, the day of the plebiscite, the red and black of her party.
In his memoir, White House Years (1979), Kissinger describes early 1970 – the year Allende’s election accelerated Washington’s counterattack on the Latin American left, Nixon invaded Cambodia, and the National Guard shot student protesters dead at Kent State – as ‘those faraway days of innocence’. Oh, there was a bit of ‘propaganda’ and ‘spoiling activities’ in advance of Allende’s election. Not enough: ‘I should have been more vigilant.’ Naturally, the US did some sniffing around among the Chilean military to test the feasibility of a coup before Allende’s inauguration, but it was slapdash. In any case, ‘we played no role whatever’ in the ‘conception, planning and execution’ of the coup three years later. Really, the US is a victim of its own benign incompetence:
Of course, covert operations have their philosophical and practical difficulties and especially for America. Our national temperament and tradition are unsuited to them. Our system of government does not lend itself spontaneously to either the secrecy or subtlety that is required. Those eager to dismantle our intelligence apparatus will have little difficulty finding examples of actions that were amateurish or transparent.
In Santiago, no one we meet has illusions about US innocence. An American warship is cruising off the coast. ‘Jakarta’, some say, has begun to appear scrawled on city walls, as it had in 1973, though I haven’t seen this prophecy of extermination myself. At a press conference at the US Embassy, The New York Times’ Shirley Christian, prototype media quisling of US policy in Latin America, asks a question about possible Cuban-backed plans to sabotage the referendum. On cue, other scribblers demand, Just what do we know about Cuban saboteurs? This happens to be the scenario that the former mistress of a general close to Pinochet related breathlessly the night before to a room of anti-Pinochet organizers in a middle-class high rise: if the outcome is looking bad for him, Pinochet will create some type of explosion, blame Cuba and Chilean leftists, and cement his position as supreme leader. Former exiles, recently returned, are popping tranquilizers at a luncheon with Bianca Jagger. Some are staying in safehouses guarded by men in sunglasses who lead us through confounding passageways to meet them.
There’s just one problem with Pinochet’s scheme, to which the working-class people who’ve lost their children are savvier: conditions have changed. In virtually every sector of the population there is opposition to the junta, including within the junta itself. The military is fractured. Reagan is a lame duck, his administration still reeling from the Iran–Contra scandal. The likely inheritors of the Chilean government are not radical. The global neoliberal order has constricted the room for economic manoeuvre, for now anyway. Early that morning, the White House summoned the Chilean ambassador; Pinochet appears to be done for. If not, militants in La Victoria and other precincts of the poor have been preparing Molotov cocktails.
Years of Upheaval, volume two of Kissinger’s memoirs, was published in 1982. It was five years since he left government, and Kissinger busily made the rounds, proffering his views on world affairs. Alexander Cockburn wrote in The Wall Street Journal at the time: ‘I had thought Mr Kissinger’s chosen mode, that of international superstar, café society’s preferred oracle would not for long endure; that the decline would be rapid, from special adviser to NBC, to guest on the Johnny Carson show, to final apotheosis on the Hollywood Squares. Not so.’ Volume three, Years of Renewal, arrived in 1999. Its publication may well have been the occasion of my only encounter with Kissinger.
It is night-time in front of the Barnes and Noble on Union Square in downtown Manhattan. Kissinger is to be interviewed, on camera, by Charlie Rose. A call has gone out for the indignant to distribute flyers. We are a small but peppy band. The flyers are brightly coloured and provide a counterpoint to Kissinger’s deceptions about US foreign policy. As the show begins, we figure it is foolish to stand in the dark talking among ourselves and head in to watch.
Inside, the store’s second floor has become Rose’s stage set: a round table with chairs on a riser; the two men under bright lights; some rows of chairs below for the audience; and, surprisingly, a substantial crowd of people seated on the floor and standing among the long bookshelves. I take up a position among the books, stepping up onto the lowest tier of a shelf so that my chin just clears the top.
The cameras roll and Rose leans in, unctuous as ever. Kissinger is absurd. He has been out of the game too long – there’s no inside baseball, none of the winking, I’m loathe to discuss covert ops but just this once, for you… (though that hasn’t stopped the obsequious entreaties from candidates, presidents and their advisers, ‘humanitarian interventionists’, even supposed policy rivals, seeking his counsel). Every answer is a platitude or the mumbo-jumbo of phony statecraft. Every question is inane. I feel a rumbling coming from my toes, an electric, involuntary quiver rising.
And then Kissinger says something akin to America is the most honourable country in human history, and as if in a slow-motion movie I have raised my hands to form a megaphone around my lips, and now I am raging: What about Chile… Vietnam… Cambodia… Laos… What about… What about… Bangladesh… East Timor… Argentina … Angola… What about…? I’m citing dates and statistics and bloody incidents in an unbroken chain of What abouts.
I’m hard to spot, with my head barely visible, and among so many other heads along so many rows of shelves. Another voice, coming from somewhere else in the room, begins chanting low and steady, like a death drum, ‘War Criminal… War Criminal…’ Only as the security guards have escorted me, still ranting, to the escalator do I realize that the bass line to my treble of indictment came from a friend, who is also being removed and didn’t know the other voice was mine.
Protest politics, whether heroic or, in the scheme of things, paltry, merited two phrases in the front-page obituaries that The New York Times devoted to Kissinger on successive days: ‘Hey, Hey, Henry K, how many kids did you kill today?’; and ‘While protesters at his talks dwindled…’ Daniel Ellsberg gets no mention. The newspaper’s own publication of the Pentagon Papers serves but to illustrate Kissinger’s fury and obsession with leaks. Third World peoples count only in bulk: 300,000 killed in what would become Bangladesh; 10 million refugees driven into India; 100,000 East Timorese killed or starved to death; 50,000 Cambodian civilians killed by carpet-bombing (silence on the genocide it sparked); 3 to 4 million dead Vietnamese, whose armies and determination, at least, the paper cannot ignore. ‘I can’t believe that a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point’, Kissinger is quoted as telling his staff.
‘Critics’ abound in these tributes, to comment on the man’s ‘defects’ as well as his ‘brilliance’, on his strategies for supposedly managing the Cold War, and on ‘everything else’ – that is, the world beyond superpowers. ‘It was the everything else that got him into trouble’. This isn’t surprising (though an editor might have anticipated readers cringing over who was in trouble), but it’s nevertheless important to acknowledge that, loathsome as he was, the man was never the principal target of his opponents on the left, just as the Cold War wasn’t ever primarily about superpowers but about that ‘everything else’. Kissinger was a symbol, a servant, a latter-day ‘racketeer for capitalism’, in the words of Marine general Smedley Butler. He was also a failure. The objective of his foreign policy approach, he boasted, was order not justice. The world he’s credited with shaping has neither.
Read on: Marco D’Eramo, ‘American Decline?’, NLR 135.