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Henry Kissinger (1923-2023): Grandmaster of diplomacy who overlooked genocide of Bengalis in East Pakistan, won détente with China

Considered the most powerful US secretary of state in the post-World War II era, Kissinger was hailed as an ultra-realist who reshaped diplomacy. He advised 12 presidents — more than a quarter of those who have held the office — from John F. Kennedy to Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Henry A. Kissinger, the grandmaster of diplomacy, is dead at 100. Few diplomats have been both celebrated and reviled with such passion in history as Kissinger. He famously used every arrow in his quiver — cunning, ambition and intellect – to see American interests are best secured.

Considered the most powerful US secretary of state in the post-World War II era, he was hailed as an ultra-realist who reshaped diplomacy. He advised 12 presidents — more than a quarter of those who have held the office — from John F. Kennedy to Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Kissinger, a scholar, statesman and celebrity diplomat held unparalleled power over US foreign policy especially during the administrations of US Presidents — Richard M Nixon and Gerald Ford and afterwards as a consultant and writer, shared opinions that changed global politics and business, according to The Washington Post obituary.

He was born as Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Germany’s Furth on May 27, 1923. He was 12 years old when the Nuremberg Laws stripped Germany’s Jews of their citizenship. Sponsored by a relative in New York, Kissinger and his family left Germany and moved to the US in August 1938. He became Henry in the US.

As the only person ever to be White House National Security Advisor and US Secretary of State at the same time, he had control over US foreign policy that has rarely been equalled by anyone who was not the President, The Washington Post obit said.

Kissinger’s secret negotiations with what was then still called Red China led to Nixon’s most famous foreign policy accomplishment. Intended as a decisive Cold War move to isolate the Soviet Union, it carved a pathway for the most complex relationship on the globe, between countries that at Kissinger’s death were the world’s largest (the United States) and second-largest economies, completely intertwined and yet constantly at odds as a new Cold War loomed.

For decades he remained the country’s most important voice on managing China’s rise, and the economic, military and technological challenges it posed. He was the only American to deal with every Chinese leader from Mao to Xi Jinping. In July 2023, at age 100, he met Xi and other Chinese leaders in Beijing, where he was treated like visiting royalty even as relations with Washington had turned adversarial.

His visit to Beijing came amid the strained ties between the US and China. Notably, the ties between the US and China became strained after the then-US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, which China claims part of its territory.

His latest writings on managing a rising China — including On China (2011), a 600-page book that mixed history with self-reverential anecdotes, is considered a classic.

He drew the Soviet Union into a dialogue that became known as détente, leading to the first major nuclear arms control treaties between the two nations.

Through tireless shuttle diplomacy at the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Kissinger was able to persuade Egypt to begin direct talks with Israel, an opening wedge to the later peace agreement between the two nations.

However, his role in the Vietnam War and his support for anti-communist dictatorships, particularly in Latin America, remain divisive. Kissinger and Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho shared the Nobel Peace Prize for the secret negotiations that led to the 1973 Paris Agreement and ended the participation of the US military in the Vietnam War.

However, critics called him unprincipled and amoral. He refrained from visiting Oslo to accept the Nobel award over fear of hostile protests.

Similarly, he has been accused of breaking international law by authorizing the secret carpet-bombing of Cambodia in 1969-70, an undeclared war on an ostensibly neutral nation.

His objective was to root out the pro-Communist Vietcong forces that were operating from bases across the border in Cambodia, but the bombing was indiscriminate: Kissinger told the military to strike “anything that flies or anything that moves.” At least 50,000 civilians were killed.

During the Cold War, Pakistan was a vital ally of the United States because of its strategic location and counterbalance to India, which had built a special relationsship with the Soviet Union. Nixon’s NSA at the time, Kissinger, also wanted to use Pakistan for diplomatic openings to China as part of his broader strategy to combat Soviet influence.

Nixon and Kissinger had a vested interest in supporting Pakistan, an American ally that was covertly helping to bring about their historic opening to China. Throughout Pakistan’s atrocities, their biases and emotions contributed to their excessive support for its murderous dictatorship.

When Pakistan’s US-backed military was waging a genocidal war in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971, he and Nixon not only ignored pleas from the American consulate in East Pakistan to stop the massacre, but they approved weapons shipments to Pakistan, including the apparently illegal transfer of 10 fighter-bombers from Jordan.

At least 300,000 people were killed in East Pakistan and 10 million refugees were driven into India. According to Kissinger, the Indians were responsible for the refugee flow by sponsoring the Bengali insurgency covertly.

In The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (2013), the Princeton scholar Gary J. Bass depicts Kissinger ignoring warnings of an impending genocide, including those from the American consul general in East Pakistan, Archer Blood, whom he punished as disloyal.

In the Oval Office tapes, “Kissinger sneered at people who ‘bleed’ for ‘the dying Bengalis,’” Professor Bass wrote.

“At this point, the recklessness of Nixon and Kissinger only got worse,” Dexter Filkins, of The New Yorker, wrote in discussing Professor Bass’s account in The New York Times Book Review in 2013. “They dispatched ships from the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal, and even encouraged China to move troops to the Indian border, possibly for an attack — a maneuver that could have provoked the Soviet Union. Fortunately, the leaders of the two Communist countries proved more sober than those in the White House. The war ended quickly, when India crushed the Pakistani Army and East Pakistan declared independence,” becoming the new nation of Bangladesh.

According to a taped conversation, Nixon cited a meeting with then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi the previous day.

“We really slobbered over the old b*tch,” he told Kissinger, as quoted in a report by The Guardian.

“While she was a b*tch, we got what we wanted too,” Kissinger replied, as quoted in the report. “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.”

“The Indians are b*stards anyway,” he added. “They are the most aggressive goddamn people around,” as quoted in the Guardian report.

Despite his controversial record as top American diplomat, Kissinger remained a towering figure in the field of international relations. He was sought after consecutive US Presidents for his counsel on knotty world affairs and students of geo-politics as a walking encyclopaedia who churned out books like On Diplomacy and World Order that will continue to guide both seekers and peddlers of diplomacy forever.

To his admirers, he was the brilliant architect of Pax Americana, the chess grandmaster who was willing to upend the board and inject a measure of unpredictability into American diplomacy.

To his detractors — and even some friends and former employees — he was vain, conspiratorial, arrogant and short-tempered.

But both the admirers and critics agree on one conclusion – Kissinger defined American diplomacy that seeks no friends or foes, only interests that serve the superpower to be the only superpower of the world.