Henry Kissinger, the dark lord of foreign policy

Declassified transcripts of conversations between Nixon and Kissinger highlight the US president’s views of Mrs Gandhi.
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. (AP)
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. (AP)

Few in India will lament the passing of Henry Kissinger, who presided over foreign policy-making during the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and used his position of power to slander the prime minister and people of India. The current ties between Washington and New Delhi may be enjoying an upward trajectory, but none can forget the contempt with which Indians were once treated by American policy makers headed by the likes of Kissinger.

Their derogatory slang, coupled with a sense of racial and intellectual superiority, invokes comparisons with British colonials such as Winston Churchill, for whom Indians were a “beastly people with a beastly religion” and who said, “All Indian leaders will be of low calibre and men of straw.” Kissinger used similar language more than 25 years after the end of the Second World War when he described Indira Gandhi as a ‘bitch’ and Indians as ‘bastards’. The context was Mrs Gandhi’s November 1971 visit to Washington, when she tried to head off the looming Bangladesh liberation war in East Pakistan.

Declassified transcripts of conversations between Nixon and Kissinger highlight the US president’s views of Mrs Gandhi. “We really slobbered over the old witch,” Nixon is recorded as telling Kissinger on November 5, 1971. “While she was a bitch, we got what we wanted too,” Kissinger responded. “She will not be able to go home and say that the United States didn’t give her a warm reception and therefore in despair she’s got to go to war.”

In another response to Nixon’s description of Indians as “a slippery, treacherous people”, Kissinger replied, “The Indians are bastards anyway. They are the most aggressive goddam people around.” It was Kissinger and Nixon who dispatched a US aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal in 1971 to prevent a “Soviet stooge (India), supported by Soviet arms” from overrunning Pakistan.

In December 1971 it was Kissinger once again who encouraged China to take action against India. “If the People's Republic were to consider the situation on the Indian subcontinent a threat to security, and if it took measures to protect its security, the US would oppose efforts of others to interfere with the People's Republic,” he is recorded as saying.

For Indian policy makers, US support for the Pakistani military regime of General Yahya Khan was a by-product of the Cold War theology that emerged after the Second World War. Yahya, his predecessors and successors were all too willing to embrace close ties with Washington in exchange of generous military and financial aid. For their part, the Americans were prepared to overlook persistent human and civil rights violations, including the 1971 reign of terror in East Pakistan, just so long as they could retain their military bases and continue relying on Islamabad as an anti-Soviet ally.

What Indians didn’t grasp was how the US was also using Pakistan as a secret back channel to open up ties with Beijing. Starting in July 1971, five months before the Bangladesh war, Kissinger repeatedly stopped over in Pakistan en route Beijing where he wooed the Chinese and prised them away from Moscow. The results of these efforts resulted in Nixon’s official visit to China in February 1972, the first by an American president. Acknowledging Pakistan’s key role, Nixon wrote to Yahya, ”Without your personal assistance the profound breakthrough in relations between the USA and [China] would never have been accomplished.”

These secret, back room manoeuvres prompted Kissinger’s detractors to portray him as a Dark Lord more suited to the secretive worlds of Rasputin and the hunchback of Notre Dame. Satirists mocked his thick reading glasses and deep guttural, German-accented English that they compared to the gruntings of a wild hog.

The reality was more prosaic. Heinz (later adapted to Henry) Kissinger was a German Jew who escaped the Nazis and arrived in New York with the rest of his family in 1938. During the Second World War, he served as an interpreter for the US army before returning to the US where he graduated from Harvard and subsequently specialised in the impact of nuclear weapons on foreign policy.

His work with Washington-based think tanks earned him part-time consultancies with the White House, culminating in his appointment as National Security Adviser to Nixon. Both he and Nixon worked tirelessly to extract the US from the deeply unpopular Vietnam War, resulting in the Nobel Peace Prize for Kissinger and the North Vietnamese chief negotiator Lê Đức Thọ, who refused to accept it.

Less well known is Kissinger’s endorsement for the US carpet bombing of Hanoi in 1972 and the bombing of secret Viet Cong sanctuaries in Cambodia that resulted in the rise of the demonic Khmer Rouge. Asked later years whether he was guilty of war crimes, Kissinger arrogantly responded, “Why is it a war crime to bomb people who are killing your military units?”

Kissinger is also remembered for negotiating strategic arms-limiting talks with the Soviet Union and his key role in bringing an end to the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the rapprochement between Israel and Egypt and the Camp David Peace Accords of 1978.

Before he died, Kissinger tried backtracking on his remarks about Mrs Gandhi, saying he had “high regards” for the late prime minister, explaining that his one-time “strong remarks” had to be seen in the context of an older “cold war atmosphere.”

(The author is a foreign policy commentator and author of Brighter than the Baghdad Sun, Goodbye Shahzadi and a forthcoming book about the colonial era)

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