Statesman or war criminal? That's the question posed by The Trials of Henry Kissinger, a Sundance Channel documentary that looks into the controversy surrounding the career of arguably the most famous and influential U.S. diplomat.
The British Broadcasting Co. production, making its stateside TV debut as part of Sundance's "Doc Day" stunt, seeks to test the case made by writer Christopher Hitchens in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger.
Hitchens, who is interviewed throughout a film that splices archival footage with conversations with Nixon colleagues and detractors, makes no doubt of his stance, labeling Kissinger, among other things, "a war criminal" and "a liar." He also said Kissinger was "personally responsible for murder, for kidnapping, for torture." (Kissinger did not make himself available for either project.)
The film cites three incidents in making that case: the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the coup that ousted Chilean president Salvador Allende, both when "Dr. K" was national security adviser during the Nixon administration; and Indonesia's genocidal invasion of East Timor in 1975, when Kissinger served as secretary of state under President Ford.
Via interviews with human-rights activists and former Kissinger staffers who fell out of favor — as well as a few who didn't — the documentary paints a telling case for Kissinger's complicity, yet presents a pretty nuanced picture of the man.
And the film sheds light on at least one fact this reviewer wasn't aware of — how near the Johnson Administration came to reaching an accord with North Vietnam in 1968, and just how close the treaty terms would have been to the one Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize for five years later.
According to Roger Morris, a Kissinger staffer on the National Security Council, Kissinger was advising Johnson's administration on how to handle the negotiations while simultaneously sending information to the Nixon campaign — which was in turn sharing data with South Vietnam, not yet involved in the talks.
In Morris's view, without Kissinger's meddling, the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia — which set the stage for Pol Pot and his murderous Khmer Rouge regime — would never have happened.
The Trials of Henry Kissinger
is a complex look at one of the more complicated figures of the Cold War era.
The documentary bows Sunday, March 3, at 9 p.m. on Sundance Channel.