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'The Trials of Henry Kissinger'

Kissinger: Peacemaker or war-maker?

Friday, January 03, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

"Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," according to Henry Kissinger, which, for better or worse, would make him one helluva sexy guy. "Why don't you assume I'm a secret swinger?" he joked to an interviewer, back in the days when such dubious moths as Jill St. John were drawn to his celebrity flame.



RATING: Documentary PG in nature
DIRECTOR: Eugene Jarecki
Critic's call:


It was for worse, not better, according to documentarists Eugene Jarecki and Alex Gibney -- director and writer, respectively, of "The Trials of Henry Kissinger." They make the charge that the former Nixon-Ford Secretary of State is nothing less than a war criminal who, in the process of increasing his own power, was personally responsible for prolonging the Vietnam War, destroying Cambodia, supervising the 1973 military coup in Chile and approving the bloody Indonesian attack against East Timor in 1975.

The actual architect of that case is journalist Christopher Hitchens, an equal-opportunity investigative reporter whose past targets have included Bill Clinton and Mother Teresa. Hitchens has often been dismissed as a cranky gadfly, but -- with Jarecki's help and a boatload of recently declassified documents -- his case is carefully laid out here, with convincing chronological clarity:

It is not about Kissinger's "complicity" in the aforementioned international disasters, but about his active direction of them, in the service of a certifiably rogue president.

Nixon, it will be recalled, squeaked by the 1968 election on the claim of a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War -- a plan that turned out to be nonexistent. Hitchens and the filmmakers take us through a grim paper trail showing Kissinger's involvement (as National Security Advisor) in escalating rather than resolving the conflict -- postponing the inevitable outcome by five years, with hundreds of thousands of additional casualties.

Millions, if you count the full death toll in Cambodia, following America's illegal invasion of that country in 1970: 3,600 secret bombing missions that left 500,000 dead at the time and 2 million more in the resultant Khmer Rouge killing fields.

Not least of "Trials" ' services to history is providing us with a connection between -- and Kissinger's role in -- Cambodia and the fall of Nixon: It was in order to stop leaks about Cambodia that wiretaps of journalists were begun and the infamous White House "plumbers" were created. That, of course, led to Watergate and Nixon's forced resignation.

An intriguing, lesser-known incident explored in the documentary is the Indonesian case. Declassified documents show conclusively that Kissinger and Ford, contrary to repeated denials, provided "100 percent explicit approval" for the attack on East Timor -- using American ammunition, air power and supplies -- and misled Congress into resuming arms sales to Suharto "illegally and beautifully," to quote one secret memorandum.

Most damning of all, however, is the case for Kissinger's personal supervision of the 1973 military coup in Chile -- a response to the concerns of ITT and Pepsi over Marxist President Salvador Allende's threatened nationalization of the copper industry. Even in heavily censored form, the documents are incontrovertible in establishing Kissinger's authorization for the covert action (and well-tracked shipments of submachine guns and ammunition) to assassinate a democratic military leader and pay $35,000 to one of his killers -- paving the way for the overthrow and murder of Allende himself.

Kissinger would pen such foreign-policy treatises as "The Pitfalls of Universal Jurisdiction," articulating his view -- currently subscribed to by George W. Bush -- that international law, in general, and war crimes tribunals, in particular, are a fine thing for all countries except the United States. These days, in the wake of Chilean dictator Pinochet's belated arrest and trial, Kissinger entertains some real fears of war-crimes charges against himself.

For good reason. By the end of "Trials," we the jury are ready to convict -- although there's the little matter of the defense's arguments, which we haven't really heard.

On the other hand, we've heard the defense case on a daily basis for 30 years. It's the prosecution's evidence that's new.

Some say film critics shouldn't put political opinions in movie reviews. I wonder how you do that with a film like this? Perhaps with a final philosophical rather than legal opinion: Whether he broke national and international laws may be debated.

What is not debatable is the outrage of that 1973 Nobel Peace Prize he won: Henry Kissinger was a war-maker, not a peacemaker, from first to last, and this excellent "Trials" proves it.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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