Content warning: This article mentions death, rape, and descriptions of genocide. 

One of the last conversations I had with my grandfather was about the 1971 Bangladesh genocide. It was the first time I heard the name Kissinger. “He was a man who could have stopped a lot,” my grandfather said. “But chose not to.”

Henry Kissinger died on November 29. He was 100 years old, a veteran of the Second World War, and a juggernaut in Washington. His death garnered widespread reaction, with US Presidents paying homage to the late National Security Advisor and Secretary of State to the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations.

However, reactions to his death have been less reverent among the wider public.

Media reactions on his passing have largely ranged from BBC’s characterization of him as “pivotal and polarizing” to the Rolling Stone’s scathing condemnation of his legacy as a war criminal. I concur with the criticism — death appears to have caught up to Henry Kissinger before justice ever had the chance to.

Foremost among the litany of charges brought against him is the US’ carpet bombings of Cambodia, from 1969 to 1973, which killed tens of thousands of civilians and indirectly allowed dictator Pol Pot to seize power. Kissinger aided military regimes in Latin America by sharing intelligence as a part of Operation Condor and pursued foreign policies to undermine the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile, leading to the military regime of General Augusto Pinochet. During his tenure as Secretary of State, he backed US support of Argentina’s military junta in what Jon Lee Anderson refers to as its “‘Dirty War’ against leftists” and endorsed Indonesian dictator Suharto’s invasion of East Timor, informing the military strongman, “It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly.” 

There is a substantial body of evidence which supports the charges that countries affected by Kissinger’s actions have pressed against him. To many developing countries in the shadow of the Cold War, the figure of Henry Kissinger looms like a ghost.

As it does in Bangladesh.

Responding to genocide 

On March 25, 1971, the Pakistan Armed Forces launched Operation Searchlight as a response to growing unrest in former East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh. What followed was an eight-month-long war which resulted in a systematic genocide, which killed around three million people and involved the genocidal rape of 200,000 to 400,000 girls and women, according to Bangladeshi authorities. Bangladesh won its independence at a gruesome cost, leaving families broken in a nascent nation. For many Bangladeshis born after independence, first-hand recollection of that genocide remains between the silence and the stories of elders like my late grandfather.

Then-US Consul General to Dhaka, Archer Blood, identified the massacres as a genocide from the onset and dissented with 20 of his staff. Blood outlined the severity of the situation in a telegram to the Nixon administration from Dhaka. Despite clear warnings of a genocide, what eventually came to be known as the Blood Telegram was ignored. In a recorded transcript from June 1971, then-National Security Advisor Kissinger dismissed any notion of cutting military or economic aid to Pakistan. 

Genocide was a mere footnote to Kissinger’s antagonism toward the imagined possibility of Soviet influence in the region, evidenced by a conversation with Nixon. To Kissinger, if the countless Bangladeshis facing genocide were made independent, it would become “a cesspool. [It would] be 100 million people, [with] the lowest standard of living in Asia” and a “ripe field for Communist infiltration.”

Gary J. Bass’ The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide details the Nixon administration’s response to the 1971 genocide and shows how Kissinger was complicit in enabling the atrocities. His support for military dictator Yahya Khan’s government continued well until the end of the war, despite US intelligence estimating a West Pakistani loss as early as April 12, just six days after the Blood Telegram was sent. In the end, however, the newly independent ‘cesspool’ of 100 million never turned communist.

Remembering Kissinger 

Whenever I am in Bangladesh, posters, vigils, and news coverage ingrain Yahya Khan, Tikka Khan, and the Razakars as the symbols of oppression and tyranny, but there is little mention of Kissinger, the man who enabled them to carry out such horrors in the first place. Despite my years growing up in Bangladesh, watching the documentaries that air around Independence Day about its key figures, and despite all its patriotic traditions, I was unfamiliar with Kissinger for the longest time.

Kissinger’s image is a sanitized one outside of the Global South. World leaders reacted to his death with messages of sympathy and praise. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Israeli President Issac Herzog paid their respects, as did China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Kissinger occupies the imagination of leaders of dominant countries as a statesman who shaped an era.

To Kissinger, people, documents, and even countries were nothing more than chess pieces in a game against the Soviet Union. Millions of bodies halfway across the world mattered little if it meant stamping out the possibility of communism. It certainly seemed not to weigh on his conscience. His successes were built on the breaking of many impoverished countries around the globe — Bangladesh among them.

Yet, for all of his politicking, that work didn’t bear fruit. The détente he established to relax political tensions with the Soviet Union collapsed within a decade, and a deteriorating relationship with China is reflected in the trade war since 2018. His ‘shuttle diplomacy’ of playing the intermediary in Middle Eastern affairs lies in pieces amid the genocide in Gaza. For all he broke to build his masterpieces, many of them, too, broke within 20-odd years.

The legacy of Henry Kissinger is one of pain and suffering. I believe it is a legacy that must now be judged by history as the legal and political systems we have in place failed to deliver justice over the past five decades. The first step toward honouring the memory of those who suffered, like my grandfather, is the refusal to bury their stories under the altar of such a man. The first step toward justice is to know what happened and accept Kissinger for what he is: a war criminal.

Safwaan Shams is a third-year student at Woodsworth College, studying history, English, and digital humanities.