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Regarding Henry and His Deeds

A documentary takes a hard look at the extent of Kissinger's role in U.S. involvement abroad.

October 22, 2002|Nancy Ramsey | Special to the Times

When Alex Gibney reflects on his early memories of Henry Kissinger, who was then the national security advisor to Richard Nixon, his viewpoint is that of a child of the 1960s. There were the news reports of American forces invading Cambodia in May 1970, the ensuing protests on college campuses, the deaths of four students at the hands of National Guardsmen at Kent State University.

Gibney attended Yale in the mid-'70s; he marched on Washington with Vietnam veterans. And he watched newscasts of starlets attending glamorous parties on the arm of the decidedly unglamorous Kissinger. Power, Kissinger explained for the less enlightened, was the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Gibney is the co-producer, with Eugene Jarecki, of "The Trials of Henry Kissinger," a documentary that will open Friday featuring interviews with former Kissinger colleagues, prominent journalists and human rights lawyers.

"I grew up hearing that Henry Kissinger was the diplomat of his age, a model statesman," Jarecki, who was born six months after the 1969 secret bombing of Cambodia, recalled recently over coffee in a cafe near his office in New York City's TriBeCa. "I was never told that he was a principal actor in a questionable time in American foreign policy."

In spring 2001, Gibney and Jarecki independently approached the BBC about making a documentary based on Christopher Hitchens' "The Case Against Henry Kissinger," a two-part article that had recently appeared in Harper's magazine. (Later that year, it became a book, "The Trial of Henry Kissinger.") The account "took on Kissinger," Jarecki said, and questioned his role in the internal affairs of Indochina, East Timor, Cyprus, Bangladesh and Chile.

Last fall, the filmmakers received a green light from the BBC, which introduced them. Elaboration on the Hitchens account would include "human motivation, some sense of what made Kissinger tick," Gibney said.

The film opens with a montage of a smiling Kissinger in the limelight, meeting with world leaders, attending a dinner with Princess Diana, all set to the tune of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman's "Lush Life": "I used to visit all the very gay places, those come-what-may places, where one relaxes on the wheel of life, to get the feel of life."

"Kissinger's a witty guy, he's very smart, very charming," Gibney said recently, in his Manhattan office overlooking the Hudson River. "The music suggests that sumptuous, alluring world. It's playful, as if to say, 'This will not be an airless, windowless diatribe.' "

In the film, Alexander Haig says he has "deep respect" for Kissinger's "knowledge, his background, his philosophical outlook." William Safire calls him "a fascinating mixture of power and strategy." Television reporter Barbara Howar comments that he "used his flamboyant personal life to cover up his professional life," and adds, "He could go to secret meetings" at which "everybody is concentrating on Kissinger the swinger."

William Shawcross, author of "Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia," calls him "an extraordinarily brilliant man, but he did have this fatal flaw of preferring to act without public scrutiny." Seymour Hersh, author of "The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House," says, "The dark side of Henry Kissinger is very, very dark."

Kissinger was born in Germany and was 10 when the Nazis came to power. "I think you can come out of the Holocaust experience with many different outlooks," says Walter Isaacson ("Kissinger: A Biography"). Kissinger "believed that in the end what really mattered was power."

In the film, Hitchens minces no words: "I think he is a war criminal," and adds that he is also "a frightened man." In 1998, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Chile's former dictator, was arrested in London and charged with human rights violations at the request of Spanish authorities. The London magistrate was writing, notes defense lawyer Michael Tigar, "one law for one world." Hitchens surmises that "when the news of that hit, Kissinger instantly thought, Could I be next?"

For the film, Gibney and Jarecki chose three instances of Kissinger's part in the Nixon and Ford administrations' involvement in the internal affairs of other countries: the United States' secret bombing of Cambodia; Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975 using American weapons; and an alleged role in the 1970 death of Rene Schneider, a Chilean military commander some in Nixon's administration viewed as the obstacle to a military coup that would have prevented the leftist Salvador Allende from assuming Chile's presidency.

Kissinger, who declined to be interviewed for the film, has called the Hitchens book "contemptible" and did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article. A year spent figuratively living with Kissinger was, said Gibney, "interesting," but he found what he calls Kissinger's "naked ambition a little terrifying."

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