hen I told friends and colleagues that I was writing a book about the legacy of Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy, many made mention of Christopher Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger. But I saw my purpose as antithetical to Hitchens’s polemic, which is a good example of what the great historian Charles Beard, in 1936, dismissed as the “devil theory of war”—placing the blame for militarism on a single, isolable cause: a “wicked man.” To really understand the sources of conflict, Beard argued, you had to look at the big picture, to consider the way “war is our own work,” emerging out of “the total military and economic situation.” In making the case that Kissinger should be tried—and convicted—for war crimes, Hitchens didn’t look at the big picture. Instead, he focused obsessively on the morality of one man, his devil: Henry Kissinger. W
Aside from assembling the docket and gathering the accused’s wrongdoings in one place, The Trial of Henry Kissinger isn’t very useful and is actually counterproductive; righteous indignation doesn’t provide much room for understanding. Hitchens burrows deep into Kissinger’s dark heart: The statesman was implicated in horrors in Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, Vietnam, East Timor, Latin America, southern Africa, and Washington, DC (the assassination of Orlando Letelier), as well as against the Kurds. Readers are left waiting for Hitchens to come out and tell us what it all means (that is, besides the obvious: Kissinger is a criminal). But Hitchens never does. In the end, we learn more about the prosecutor than the would-be prosecuted; the book provides no insights into the “total situation” in which Kissinger operated, and makes no effort to explain the power of his ideas or how they tapped into the deeper intellectual currents of American history.