Mao Zedong and Henry Kissinger in Beijing, November 1973 (Photo: Getty Images)
Most historians, intellectuals and strategic thinkers in India are likely to describe Henry Kissinger as an “evil genius” at best or a “warmonger” at worst. The opening up of the archives of the period before and during the Bangladesh war has exposed him as a foulmouthed, misogynist and insensitive person. A jurist regrets that the arms of justice will never reach people like Kissinger, whose hands are tainted with blood of innocent millions, who were butchered in foreign lands, though they posed no threat to Americans. But as he left this world after 100 years of intense activity, which took him to nooks and corners of the world and left his deep imprint for good or for evil, Kissinger will be remembered as having acted in the best interests of the United States. As a great believer in the dictum, “no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests”, he aligned himself with some and fought with others, but American interests prevailed in every case. A final judgment on Kissinger might come after several years of research, leading to an objective assessment in the light of new discoveries around the world. But he will not be forgiven or forgotten by history. All said and done, modern China may well be a monument for Henry Kissinger.
Much of the criticism of the man in India is on account of his first love, China. Whatever he did for China, including using Pakistan as an intermediary was a clever strategy to avoid a confrontation with China, if not a war. He may have strengthened China in the process and made it a formidable foe in later years, but he maintained till the end of his century that avoiding a war with China was important for the US. His tough line with India on Bangladesh was also to favour China. The despatch of the Seventh Fleet from Hawaii to the Bay of Bengal was a mere expression of solidarity to China and signal to the Soviet Union. That did not have any decisive impact on the war. In effect, Kissinger did not try to save Yahya Khan.
The evolution of Kissinger’s thinking on India has been lost in the cacophony about the expletives undeleted recordings of his conversations with Nixon. But, in fact, he was only echoing the hatred of his boss. In later years, even while retaining his positive assessment of China, he began stressing the importance of India in the new world. Ambassador Naresh Chandra had a good equation with Kissinger and it paid off during the nuclear winter in India-US relations following the Indian nuclear tests of May 1998. When most of the friends of India, including members of the India Caucus in the US Congress, repudiated India, the sole voice of understanding came from Kissinger. “India lives in a tough neighbourhood”, he said even though there was implicit criticism of China in the statement. It may be recalled that PM Vajpayee had tried to explain to President Clinton that our concern was China in a letter, but it made no impact on Clinton’s view. He merely leaked the letter to the press. Kissinger turned the tide in favour of India and soon Republican Senators began to ask for relaxation of sanctions against India. This was long before the Jaswant Singh-Talbott talks paved the way for normalisation of relations. The position taken by Kissinger at a critical time should absolve him of his actions and deeds in 1971.
Another change of heart of Kissinger, which seems to have been missed at the time of his departure is the statement he issued with three other “Cold Warriors” in 2007 on “A world free of nuclear weapons.” All of them, Kissinger, Schultz, Perry and Nunn were deeply immersed in the nuclear weapons establishment, but they united in a call to abolish the very weapons they once projected as their nations’ power. They argued that nuclear deterrence may have worked at the time of the Cold War, but in a unipolar world with multiplication of nuclear weapons might lead to unpredictable risks and increased unpredictability. “Does the world want to continue to bet its survival on continued good fortune with a growing number of nuclear nations and adversaries globally?” they asked. This may have encouraged President Obama to make his historic speech on nuclear disarmament in Prague in 2009.
When Kissinger visited India later, he was warmly received and he spoke at length on the rise of India. Of course he was received more warmly in China when he visited Beijing to celebrate his century in the presence of President Xi who enumerated the blessings he brought to China over the years.
An astute, but ruthless negotiator, for whom tactical successes were more important than moral or ethical questions, Kissinger will be remembered as a genius, evil at times, benevolent at times, but admired always even by his enemies. His Nobel Prize was in recognition of his exceptional abilities, not necessarily for Peace.