Kissinger’s Legacy in Latin America

Henry Kissinger is thought of mostly in relation to his role in the wars in Southeast Asia (and his questionable Nobel prize for “ending” one of them). Perhaps people also remember his role in negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union (détente) and China (“ping-pong diplomacy”), and maybe for his role in supporting the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. But the U.S. public today very rarely discusses Kissinger’s role in U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. Yet, as historian Stephen G. Rabe notes in the introduction to his 2020 book, Kissinger and Latin America: Intervention, Human Rights, and Diplomacy, “Kissinger directed inter-American relations between 1969 and 1977”—the entire terms of two U.S. Presidents.

“There’s a paradox in that Kissinger considered Latin America of little significance in the balance of power, and certainly in terms of his priorities [it] was really low,” Rabe tells The Progressive in a telephone interview. “But the paradox is that I found that he spent more time on Latin America than his predecessors or his successors because he works so hard. He works all the time, but he also wants to be in control of everything.”

While serving in the Nixon and Ford Administrations, Kissinger spent significant time with dictators, oligarchs, and military generals. At the height of the Argentine dictatorship, he even traveled to Buenos Aires to attend the 1978 World Cup as a special guest of General Jorge Rafael Videla, who was later convicted of crimes against humanity. The Argentine dictatorship participated in the deadly Operation Condor with other countries in the region. As journalist John Dinges writes in the newly updated version of his 2004 book, The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents, “Henry Kissinger didn’t become one of the most powerful men in the world as an advocate of human rights.”

As Dinges tells The Progressive in an email, “It is a speculative but fair statement to say that the mass killings in South America during the 1970s would not have occurred without the green light Henry Kissinger gave to the brutal tactics of the military regimes, especially Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay,” For example, he adds, “Long after it became clear that thousands of dissidents were being killed and that torture and secret kidnappings were the order of the day, Kissinger told Chile’s dictator, Augusto Pinochet, in 1976, ‘In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here.’ He sent similar signals to Argentina’s military leaders, where the killing was even worse than in Chile, suggesting that the leaders take care of the ‘terrorist problem’ quickly.”

While Kissinger, and his boss, President Richard Nixon, sought to keep this support of dictatorships out of the public eye, as Rabe tells The Progressive, “The most interesting thing is that the most secretive of administrations ultimately became the most transparent because of the 3,700 hours of White House tapes and the 15,000 Kissinger telephone conversations, all of which are [now] available to us, which simply belie what they would later say.”

One of the people who has done the most to collate and make available many of the documents from the Kissinger years is Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba and Chile Documentation Projects at the National Security Archive. Kornbluh’s book, The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, gathers many of these documents and makes them easily available. When the book first appeared, it was reviewed in the journal Foreign Affairs, prompting a pressure attack by Kissinger and his former subordinate, then Assistant Secretary of State William Rogers, in an attempt to thwart discussion of the book and to silence its revelations about Kissinger. The author of the book review, Kenneth Maxwell, ultimately resigned from the Council on Foreign Relations over the way he was treated by the magazine’s editor, and the magazine further refused to print Kornbluh’s letter of response.

“Henry Kissinger will go down in history as the architect of U.S. intervention to overthrow democracy and embrace dictatorship in Chile. In Latin America, his shameful legacy is a U.S. policy of coddling repressive military regimes while disregarding the human rights atrocities they committed during his tenure in government,” Kornbluh writes in an email to The Progressive.

Kissinger’s hand was not only visible in his role in the Southern Cone, but also in Central America. “I think most people don’t realize that the United States played a role in destabilizing the governments in Bolivia and Uruguay, working with the Brazilians. And I don’t think most people realize that [Kissinger] was told directly that the Brazilian leaders carry out summary executions of people,” Rabe says. “And he was also told the Guatemalan leader carries out summary executions of people. All that just does not move him.”

“Henry Kissinger will go down in history as the architect of U.S. intervention to overthrow democracy and embrace dictatorship in Chile.”

The question of whether Henry Kissinger has a conscience comes up often. It was the title of a 2016 article by Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker. “Thirty years on from the end of the Cold War, Latin America remains the world’s bloodiest region outside of the Middle East’s war zones, fraught by endemic injustice, corruption, and a lack of the rule of law. In sum: Kissinger’s merciless dirty war stratagem to counter communism may have been successful in the short term, but in the end, it left behind an unreconciled charnel ground in which democracy, and indeed, freedom itself, remain abstract concepts,” Anderson writes via email to The Progressive.

Yale University history professor Greg Grandin, author of the 2015 book Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, argues that the legacy of Kissinger, even at just shy of 100 years old, still ripples through American foreign policy today. “Kissinger generally treated Latin America as inconsequential, within the sphere of U.S. influence and almost outside of history . . . . Such disregard let him easily visit terror on the region’s people, in his active encouragement of anti-communist dictatorships to murder and torture as needed to keep order in Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and other nations,” Grandin tells The Progressive in an email.

In 2001, the late journalist Christopher Hitchens released a small but powerful book titled The Trial of Henry Kissinger. The purpose of the book—later also made into a film by Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecki—was to lay the groundwork for a potential prosecution of the former statesman. “The United States faces an interesting dilemma,” Hitchens writes in the book’s final pages. “At any moment, one of its most famous citizens may be found liable for terrorist actions under the Alien Tort Claims Act, or may be subject to an international request for extradition, or may be arrested if he travels to a foreign country, or may be cited for crimes against humanity by a court in an allied nation.”

In Latin America, Rabe tells The Progressive, “he’s just simply perceived as a war criminal.” Anderson concurs: “Kissinger’s decision to covertly deploy U.S. resources to assist the military overthrow of the Allende government in Chile was a hallmark moment in modern Latin America . . . . Pinochet’s bloody takeover in Chile helped create the stage for a gruesome period of rightwing terror and military dictatorship across the hemisphere that lasted for an entire generation, and which cost the lives of tens of thousands of people. The legacy of this savage campaign is still visible today.”

But perhaps the last word will go to folk singer Tom Paxton, who in 1976 sang, “Oh the white bones of Allende and the scattered bones of Chile / Are not silent, they are screaming, they’re your peace prize, Doctor K.”