On tour to promote his provocative new book The Trial of Henry Kissinger (Verso; 159 pages), Christopher Hitchens, 52, arrived at Britain's Hay-on-Wye literary festival the day after a judge in Argentina ordered the former U.S. Secretary of State to testify in a human-rights trial. Two days later Hitchens delivered an anti-Kissinger diatribe to an audience of nearly 1,000, refreshing himself with the last drop of Johnnie Walker Black in town. Even as he was speaking, Kissinger was being served a summons at the Ritz Hotel in Paris to testify before a French judge investigating the disappearance of five youths during the 1973 Pinochet coup in Chile.
Kissinger declined both judicial requests, which were not legally binding in any case, but the British author was no doubt pleased at the timing: he has been out to nail the Nobel-winning statesman for some time. The thrust of Hitchens' case against Kissinger is that in 1968 he and the staff of then Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon interfered with the ongoing peace talks to end the Vietnam War, allegedly promising the South Vietnamese they could get better terms from Nixon than from the incumbent Democrats. That purported effort, and the seven subsequent years of war, amount to both treason and crimes against humanity, argues Hitchens. Kissinger believes otherwise. Says he of the Hitchens book: "I find it contemptible."
Though some critics suggest the paper trail for Hitchens' allegation is thin, the author counters: "Are there any links in the evidence which seem to break the chain? No one has made that assertion." Nor has anyone ever accused Hitchens of being dull. Oxford-educated, he started his career at the left-wing New Statesman and made his name writing in defense of the Marxist left. Today he contributes to U.S. publications like the Nation and Vanity Fair and is a familiar figure on U.S. political talk shows. He lives in Washington with his wife Carol Blue, and he includes Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie among his closest friends. Hitchens recently published a book on the politics of famous writers and plans a volume on George Orwell, the ultimate politically engaged writer. Yet he himself no longer avows much interest in the ideological wars of his youth. "I'm not a figure for the left now," he says. "I have no definable political allegiance." Hitchens does, however, have an aversion to sacred cows. Among the subjects of his previous literary attacks: Mother Teresa and Princess Diana.
Q & A
Q: Is a Kissinger trial ever really going to happen?
A: There is now so much evidence in the public domain that it would be possible for relatives of disappeared people in Chile to bring a case under the Alien Tort Claims Act in the U.S. A civil suit, yes, but it would produce very damning evidence which a district attorney would be hard-pressed to ignore. If the U.S. is not going to do this, it can't go around the world demanding speedy trials of other war criminals.
Q: Wouldn't anyone else in power then have done what Kissinger did?
A: By the middle of 1968, we now know, the cold war Establishment knew the war with Indochina should stop. So for Nixon and Kissinger to intervene both in the peace talks and in the '68 election to prolong the war for domestic political purposes counts as a fantastic crime against humanity.
Q: Why did you do a book on Bill Clinton?
A: I was at Oxford with Bill for years. We had a girlfriend in common. If there was ever going to be a member of my class who was going to be in power, well, that's the one.
Q: You're British. Why focus so much on the U.S.?
A: Who cares who is going to be deputy leader of the Labour Party? Who cares about William Hague? Even the people who are paid to care don't care.
Q: If you're not a voice for the left, what are you?
A: I'm still most of the things I was when I was a Marxist: an internationalist, an atheist, a humanist.
Q: Has there been a U.S. President in your lifetime whom you respect?
A: Eisenhower. By far.
Q: But he ordered the '61 assassination of the Congo's Patrice Lumumba.
A: Did I say he was perfect?