The Trials of Henry Kissinger
dir. Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecki
Fri Dec 6-Thurs Dec 12 at the Varsity.

If there was any question that Christopher Hitchens is the social critic of the moment, it should be dispatched by the release of this documentary. Based on Hitchens' journalism, The Trials of Henry Kissinger is a compelling indictment of the actions and character of the most famous and best regarded diplomat of the late 20th century. The film, like the book and magazine articles that inspired it, publicly accuses Kissinger of crimes against humanity on four separate counts. And though the evidence for the charges is presented methodically, the larger argument suggests that Kissinger's violations, far from being isolated acts, were a matter of moral policy for a master powermonger. If this sounds severe, you should read Hitchens' writing on the subject, which is marked by absolute certainty and motivated by blood-level contempt.

Hitchens arouses real venom from his enemies (when Alexander Haig leans forward to declare that Hitchens "sucks the sewer pipe," it sounds like a death threat), and he conspicuously delights in their hatred, because he knows he's right. And nothing energizes him more than a political figure with a shining reputation.

Like the book from which it takes its name, Trials is structured as a legal brief, detailing four incrementally severe accusations against the subject supported by government documents; interviews with the likes of Hitchens, Seymour Hersh, Michael Tigar, and William Safire; and rebuttals by Alexander Haig and Brent Scowcroft. The defendant declined to appear in the film--just as he has refused to honor subpoenas in six different countries--but is represented in documentary interview footage.

The case centers on events in Vietnam, Cambodia, East Timor, and Chile. According to the film, Kissinger sabotaged the '68 Paris peace talks in order to secure a job with the incoming Nixon administration, thus ensuring another seven years of unwinnable warfare and hundreds of thousands of deaths. He then used his power as Nixon's national security advisor to order illegal secret bombings of Cambodia, establish illegal secret relations with the North Vietnamese, and engineer the brutal Christmas bombings of 1972 to appease the South Vietnamese. Perhaps most damningly of all, Kissinger then accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the war three years before it actually ended. Treason, mass murder.

Which brings us to East Timor, the tiny half-island in the Indonesian archipelago. The film argues that in 1975, Kissinger, then secretary of state under Ford, approved the sale of U.S. arms to Indonesia's President Suharto with the knowledge that they would be used in the mass slaughter and torture of rebels and civilians, in a campaign that eventually claimed a third of the small country's population. Genocide.

Most incriminating are the charges concerning Chile, where Kissinger is accused of engineering a coup against a democratically elected government and ordering the CIA to carry out the abduction and murder of both General Rene Schneider and President Salvador Allende. Kidnapping, political assassination.

This last incident strikes a deeper chord of injustice because it was undertaken primarily to protect corporate interests, so that even Kissinger apologists can scarcely pretend that "national security" was at stake.

If doubts persist--as they do for some--in the wisdom or value of going after a figure like Kissinger, who hasn't been in power for 27 years, there are two defining moments in the film that answer them. The first is provided by Harper's editor and publisher Lewis Lapham, who states, rather cagily, that he ran Hitchens' accusations knowing Kissinger would never sue for libel, because such a lawsuit would require a degree of legal disclosure that no diplomat would ever subject himself to. The second and far more chilling example comes from Kissinger himself, who tells a TV interviewer that holding "statesmen" accountable to the same moral codes as regular people is not just impossible, but absurd.

At the very bottom of Trials, and the entire crusade against Kissinger, is the demand that statesmen be held to an even higher moral standard than the rest of us, because they are supposed to be acting on behalf of the rest of us. As the evidence mounts, you can feel the creeping awareness of justice on the verge, of a political manipulator about to be called to answer for his power games. Whether or not this actually happens remains to be seen. But just the thought of it--and the measured, intellectual fervor (as opposed to stock liberal passion) with which the prosecution proceeds--lends a sense of hope to those of us who have been conditioned to expect the worst from our leaders, and to assume they will always get away with it.

If nothing else, it makes the president's decision to appoint Kissinger as lead investigator into 9/11-related U.S. intelligence failures resound with painful irony.

Support The Stranger