A classic political polemic – ‘The Trial of Henry Kissinger’ by Christopher Hitchens

By James Moules


IT HAS been nearly 10 years since Christopher Hitchens passed away – and today would have been his 72nd birthday.

Never one to shy away from controversy, to many people under thirty (which, for now, includes the author of this piece), Hitchens was perhaps best known for two major stances – his fervent support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and his somewhat less favourable feelings towards organised religion.

But prior to his notoriety as a converted foreign policy hawk and professional atheist, Hitchens was one of the highest profile journalists on the left – and the author of scalding polemics against a number of revered and admired public figures.

These included classics such as his critiques of Bill Clinton called ‘No One Left to Lie To’ and of Mother Theresa (rather cheekily titled ‘The Missionary Position’).

But Hitchens himself made it clear that there were few men he loathed more than one of the most significant and controversial figures in the history of US foreign policy. Henry Alfred Kissinger.

His book takes a simple but effective format. Chapter by chapter, featuring case study after case study, he puts forward the argument that the former US Secretary of State should face trial for war crimes.

Hitchens hones in on several examples for his case against Kissinger – namely US policy in Indochina, Bangladesh, Chile, Cyprus and East Timor. Yet he also writes in the book’s introduction: “It will become clear, and may as well be stated at the outset, that this book is written by a political opponent of Henry Kissinger.”

He stresses that he is focused on the examples that he believes could be brought against Kissinger in a trial for war crimes or crimes against humanity.

While many observers will no doubt have little hesitation in condemning US foreign policy in these regions – perhaps most prominently Vietnam – the thesis of Hitchens’ book is that Kissinger bears direct complicity.

Christopher Hitchens was known for being an outstanding wordsmith and master of the English language, and ‘The Trial of Henry Kissinger’ showcases him at his acerbic best. Much of the evidence that he cites in the book is written in dense, bureaucratic language, but Hitchens never fails to illuminate these passages in both an eloquent and accessible manner.

Hitchens will likely always remain a controversial figure, both for the targets he picked for polemics such as ‘The Trial of Henry Kissinger’ and for his forthright political transformation in his later years. While he was rarely short of insight in his work, his support for the invasion of Iraq will always be a black spot on his record.

But agree with his conclusions or not, his writing never fails to engage. And if you can only read one of his books, it should without a doubt be this one.


Featured Image: U.S. Department of State @Flickr

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