Articles and Commentaries |
April 16, 2024

Kissinger: Amorality as Realpolitik

Written By: Sandhya Jain


The opening to China, détente and arms control talks with the Soviet Union that resulted in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in 1969 and later the Helsinki Accords (1975) that secured Europe’s borders, and the bombing-cum-secret negotiations with Vietnam that won the Nobel Peace Prize, secured Henry Kissinger his place in history. President Richard Nixon’s decision to end the convertibility of the US dollar to gold to cope with domestic economic problems in 1971, while the dollar remained the fiat currency for buying oil, strengthened US dominance in world affairs.

Kissinger’s assiduous diplomacy in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War (1973) coaxed Egypt-Israel talks and paved the way for a peace agreement between the two countries. More pertinently, his Middle East diplomacy elbowed Moscow out of the region for decades, until President Vladimir Putin deployed the Russian air force in the Syrian civil war in 2015. Moscow has since taken a high profile in the Gulf and in Africa.

Kissinger’s amoral foreign policy initiatives were often stiffly opposed by his State Department colleagues, but his proximity to Nixon helped him overcome all resistance. Under his direction, the United States supported brutal dictators in Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia, East Timor, and West Pakistan, and turned a blind eye to Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus. At the same time, he cynically crafted “human rights” as a tool to hound third-world nations to conform to US expectations.


The desire for an opening to Communist China has long been cited to explain Kissinger’s unwavering support to Islamabad in the slaughter of nearly three million East Pakistani civilians by the Army in the spring of 1971. Gen. Yahya Khan was secretly helping the Nixon administration to establish contact with China to create a schism between Moscow and Beijing, and create a rival Asian power on Russia’s southern border. Fifty years later, this seems less impressive as successive crises have forced Russia to rediscover its Asian roots; the Moscow-Beijing relationship is tighter than ever; and China has emerged as a formidable rival to the United States with its ambitious Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).

Ironically, the Pakistan crisis was triggered by Gen. Yahya Khan presiding over the fairest election in Pakistan in December 1970, whereby the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman won the majority of seats. The results were rejected by foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; the subsequent crisis led to a massacre of Bengalis in East Pakistan, war with India, and the emergence of a new nation: Bangladesh.

The crisis saw the Nixon administration “tilt” toward Pakistan; the US aircraft carrier Enterprise was sent to the Bay of Bengal and China was nudged to make military moves against India, with the promise of US support if the Soviet Union came to India’s rescue. But Chairman Mao refused the bait, and the wider confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union failed to materialise.

In East Pakistan, the army’s rampage against Bengali dissidents and civilians alarmed the US Consulate General in Dacca (Dhaka); most notable was the shooting of unarmed students at Dacca University. But Nixon and Kissinger were unmoved, even though most members of the Consulate General in Dacca signed a dissent channel message to Washington on April 6, urging the US Government to condemn the genocide. Consul General Archer Blood endorsed the dissent; he was later transferred from Dacca. Archer Blood’s warnings to Washington were documented in Gary Bass’ book, The Blood Telegram (2013), which exposed the devious calculations of President Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.

As millions of refugees from East Pakistan poured into India, the State Department suggested exerting pressure on Islamabad to restrain the army and set up a regional civil administration to check the flow of refugees and calm Bengali sentiments. Nixon responded with handwritten instructions: “To all hands. Don’t squeeze Yahya at this time.” On May 7, Kissinger met the US ambassador to Pakistan, Joseph Farland, in Palm Springs, California, and informed him about the opening to China, including Kissinger’s proposed trip in July 1971.

Washington was unmoved by India’s concerns. In June, Nixon and Kissinger met Foreign Minister Swaran Singh in Washington and urged non-intervention in return for USD70 million in humanitarian assistance to compensate for the refugees. Singh responded that the fundamental question was how to stop the flow of refugees (eventually estimated at ten million).

Kissinger again pressed for Indian restraint in his meeting with Prime Minister Gandhi in New Delhi on July 7. He then went to Pakistan, from where he made his legendary trip to Peking (Beijing) on July 9. In China, Chou En-lai told Kissinger that China would support Pakistan in a confrontation with India.

Washington viewed the India-Soviet treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation (August 9) as open support to New Delhi. In a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko in Washington on September 29, Nixon urged Moscow to help restrain India from war. Gromyko opined that Pakistan needed to be curbed. In November, Prime Minister Gandhi visited Washington and other foreign capitals to garner support for India’s position. Nixon informed her that war between India and Pakistan was unacceptable to the United States. Gandhi denied sponsoring Mukti Bahini guerrillas and dismissed suggestions that Indian forces were poised for conflict. Despite two meetings, she did not respond to Nixon’s proposal for a mutual withdrawal. Exchanging views on the visit, Kissinger said, “the Indians are bastards anyway. They are plotting a war.”

The war began on November 22 but was formally declared on December 3,  when Pakistan opened a front from West Pakistan, attacking six Indian airfields in Kashmir and the Punjab and shelling border areas. Nixon withheld USD90 million in pending aid to India. Kissinger urged Soviet chargé d’affaires Yuli Vorontsov (December 5) to restrain India. He said the United States viewed the situation in South Asia as a “watershed” in US-Soviet relations. Nixon underlined these points in a letter to Brezhnev on December 6, warning that if India achieved its ends militarily, with Soviet support, it would adversely impact US-Soviet ties. Kissinger believed India intended to break up West Pakistan. Eventually, Pakistani forces surrendered in East Pakistan on December 16 and India announced a cease-fire, which was accepted by President Yahya Khan.

Vietnam and Cambodia

The Vietnam War was a legacy of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Democrat). Kissinger was negotiating peace with North Vietnam in Paris, but delayed the accord to help Richard Nixon (Republican) win the election. When Nixon became President in 1968, Kissinger changed sides and became Nixon’s most important foreign policy adviser. He carried on the negotiations while the US was still bombing North Vietnam.

Kissinger informed Melvin Laird, Secretary of Defense, that President Nixon had ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia (March 15, 1969), in the belief that the shock would force North Vietnam back to the Paris peace talks (March 18, 1969). South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu had already agreed to private talks (March 17, 1969). The secret bombing raids continued for a year.

After Seymour Hersh of the New York Times broke the story of the secret bombing of Cambodia, Nixon and Kissinger directed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to begin telephone surveillance on four US officials suspected of the leak (May 12, 1969). Hoover provided information on three persons, viz, London Sunday Times reporter Harry Brandon; Kissinger’s former aide Morton Halperin, and State Department official William Sullivan. However, the source of the leak was never identified.

Harry Brandon’s wife was taped speaking about opposition to Kissinger’s Vietnam policies among his former Harvard colleagues. Morton Halperin was planning to quietly resign from the White House staff after stepping down as a top specialist on Kissinger’s NSC. William Sullivan’s phone taps revealed that Ambassador Averell Harriman was planning to host a gathering at his home of State Department officials who had signed a letter of protest against the secret bombing of Cambodia. The FBI used this information to spy on the meeting at Harriman’s house; this was revealed in congressional hearings on the wiretap scandal four years later.

The Peace Agreement won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for Kissinger and North Vietnam leader Le Duc Tho. But the war did not end and Le Duc Tho refused to accept the prize because Kissinger had violated the truce he had agreed to when Hanoi was bombed on Christmas 1972.

Interestingly, Kissinger’s secret taping system recorded a late-night call from wire service reporter Ken Fried who informed him about the fall of Saigon and General Duong Van Minh’s unconditional surrender to the Viet Cong (North Vietnam’s People’s Liberation Armed Forces). Kissinger instinctively asked, “Is it true?”, and then tried to disguise the fact that he was unaware that the Vietnam War had finally ended in Washington’s defeat and the victory of the Viet Cong Communists (April 29, 1975).

The Vietnam War had a host of critics. Seymour Hersh, who won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, noted that Kissinger never hesitated to dump those who “did dirty work for him” and became inconvenient. John Lavelle, a four-star Air Force general, was publicly sacked and demoted after he admitted authorising Air Force crews in Thailand to conduct bombing missions on unauthorised targets in North Vietnam.

Urged by Otis Pike, a New York Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, to seek Lavelle’s version of events, Hersh met the general in Maryland. During their discussions, Hersh concluded that Lavelle had been given backchannel orders for the illegal bombing from Kissinger and Nixon because they wanted to covertly expand the war against North Vietnam.

Lavelle (d. 1979) never spoke on record and remained loyal to the White House. Later, Kissinger’s White House tapes revealed chats between Nixon and Kissinger about Lavelle’s plight. Nixon expressed unhappiness, “I don’t want him to be made a goat,” while Kissinger urged Nixon to stay out of the controversy. Nixon agreed but showed remorse, “I do not want to hurt an innocent man.”

Not everyone admired Kissinger or his grandiose views on shaping the world. President Barack Obama said he had devoted much of his tenure trying to repair the world Kissinger had left. “We dropped more ordnance on Cambodia and Laos than on Europe in World War II,” (The Atlantic, 2016) “and yet, ultimately, Nixon withdrew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaughter and authoritarian governments that finally, over time, have emerged from that hell.” Obama said that while in office he tried to help countries “remove bombs that are still blowing off the legs of little kids.” Quite an indictment.


Kissinger’s intolerance of democratically elected communist governments led him to plan the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile. CIA documents reveal that in the weeks preceding Allende’s swearing-in, Kissinger supervised covert operations for a military coup that resulted in the assassination of Chile’s army chief, General René Schneider, on October 25, 1970.

Unfazed, Kissinger coaxed President Nixon to reject the State Department’s advice to build bridges with Allende and to authorise covert intervention to “intensify Allende’s problems” so that his government collapsed. “It was vital,” Kissinger wrote in a memorandum, “that the world’s first freely elected Marxist government must not be allowed to succeed”. Eventually, Allende was overthrown on September 11, 1973.

When Gen. Augusto Pinochet took over, Kissinger moulded US policy to help him consolidate his brutal regime. On complaints by his deputies of human rights atrocities, Kissinger retorted, “I think we should understand our policy – that however unpleasant they act, this government is better for us than Allende was.” Privately meeting Pinochet in Santiago at a conference of the Organization of American States in June 1976, Kissinger said, “You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.”

Raul and Rene Schneider, sons of Gen. Rene Schneider, filed a civil lawsuit against Henry Kissinger and the US government for the “wrongful death” of their father on September 10, 2001. The suit was amended in November 2002, citing declassified US records as evidence of liability in the case. But, the judges ruled that Kissinger had immunity for actions undertaken as part of his official responsibilities as national security advisor to the President.

Kissinger was adamant that the US should not berate friendly military regimes for their human rights record, including assassinations abroad. This gave immunity to Gen. Pinochet in Chile, Gen. Videla in Argentina, and junta officers in Uruguay. Soon afterwards, former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and his young colleague, Ronni Moffitt, were killed in a car bomb planted by Pinochet’s agents in downtown Washington, D.C.


Kissinger’s distaste for human rights grew in proportion to the US Congress passing laws restricting US aid to regimes that violated human rights. He rebuked Assistant Secretary Harry Shlaudeman on learning that the State Department’s Latin America Bureau had issued a demarche to the Argentine military junta for growing death squad operations, disappearances and reports of torture after the March 1976 coup (June 30, 1976).

The demarche contradicted Kissinger’s message to Foreign Minister César Guzzetti during a private meeting in Santiago on June 10, to act “as quickly as possible” to repress leftist forces in Argentina. At a secret meeting with Guzzetti at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, in October 1976, Kissinger reiterated his support for the action against the left: “The quicker you succeed the better.”

East Timor

Kissinger supported Gen. Suharto’s decision to invade East Timor in December 1975; between 100,000 to 180,000 Timorese were massacred. On the eve of the invasion, Kissinger accompanied President Gerald Ford to Jakarta to discuss US-Indonesia security cooperation with Suharto.

There, amidst a discussion on guerrilla movements in Thailand and Malaysia, Suharto mentioned his plans for “rapid or drastic action” against the newly independent country. Both Ford and Kissinger supported the invasion. Kissinger stressed, “It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly.” (December 6, 1975)


A great admirer of Bismarck and Metternich, Kissinger respected American statesmen and diplomats such as Dean Acheson and George F. Kennan. He said Kennan had all the conceptual tools for shaping American foreign affairs, but lacked the ability to translate them into action. This was a gap he aspired to bridge, according to Jacob Heilbrunn, editor, The National Interest and non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Kissinger rose to the peak of power in Washington, a testimony to the rise of Jews in the Protestant establishment after World War II. He went to Harvard, joined the Council on Foreign Relations, and was an adviser to Nelson Rockefeller, the titular leader of the Eastern Establishment wing of the Republican Party.

His policy of amoral realpolitik in Vietnam, under Presidents Nixon and Ford, was widely despised by the right and the left. However, the Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente served to erode Soviet power. The notion that the arms race must be limited was very sound. Without détente, the Soviet Union may not have collapsed peacefully between 1989-1991. Kissinger dubbed it an “indispensable prelude” to the Reagan era.

Henry Kissinger maintained an exhaustive record of the memos and memcons he wrote or read regarding the secret deliberations, operations, and policies of his time at the White House and Department of State. He marked the voluminous telcons (daily transcripts of conversations he secretly recorded and had his secretaries transcribe) as “personal papers” and took them with him on demitting office in 1977. Careful selections were used to write his memoirs. The National Security Archive pursued these records for several decades and finally compelled the US government to recover them by drafting a lawsuit. This made a major repository of records of US foreign policy in the 20th century accessible to scholars. The documents reveal a different facet of Kissinger’s legacy and its appalling impact on the lives of peoples of Southeast Asia and Latin America.

As the first quarter of the twenty-first century comes to a close, a multipolar world order seems irreversible. The growing axis of Iran, Russia and China indicates the emergence of a new anti-NATO grouping. North Korea’s joining this ‘bloc’ could produce a formidable military alliance with an impressive array of weapons, advanced technology and military experience. China and Russia are already committed to jointly developing high military technology. Iran has received advanced Su-35 warplanes from Russia, and North Korea received its first satellite with Russian help. Russia, with 60 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons, will be the fulcrum of this group.

The emerging world order is thus a far cry from the one envisaged by Kissinger and his patron-President, Richard Nixon, in which Pax Americana was to rule the waves far into the foreseeable future.

Author Brief Bio: Sandhya Jain is a political analyst, independent researcher, and author of multiple books. She is also editor of the platform Vijayvaani



  • Henry Kissinger: The Declassified Obituary. The Primary Sources on Kissinger’s Controversial Legacy. Edited by Peter Kornbluh, William Burr and Tom Blanton, Published: Nov 29, 2023.

  • Henry Kissinger Is Dead at 100; Shaped the Nation’s Cold War History, New York Times, David E. Sanger, Nov. 29, 2023.

  • Foreign Relations, 1969-1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971. Released by the Office of the Historian.

  • Henry Kissinger Was the Right Man for the Moment, National Interest, Christian Whiton, November 30, 2023.

  • Henry Kissinger Was a Legend for a Reason, National Interest, Jacob Heilbrunn, November 30, 2023.

  • Henry Kissinger: ‘If it were not for the accident of my birth, I would be antisemitic.’

Benjamin Ivry-November 29, 2023

  • How Henry Kissinger tricked the world, Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, December 1, 2023.

  • Henry Kissinger’s (Maybe) Last Interview: Drop the 2-State Solution, Politico, Rolf Dobelli, December 2, 2023.

  • KISSINGER, ME, AND THE LIES OF THE MASTER, Seymour Hersh, Dec. 6, 2023.


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