War Criminal Henry Kissinger, First Jewish Secretary of State, Had a Lengthy History of Antisemitism

President Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1973. Image: Flickr/Central Intelligence Agency

Henry Kissinger, war criminal, opponent of democracy, and architect of genocide, died this week. Depressingly, though not a surprise, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) rushed to praise him, tweeting that he was a “towering intellect…[who] helped shape American foreign policy”—all of which is, in a manner of speaking, true. They go on to note that the man who became “the first Jewish Secretary of State…was unapologetic about his heritage and his embrace of the importance of American global power and democratic values.”

As the above quote suggests, the ADL’s enthusiastic whitewashing of Kissinger’s legacy is linked to his ethnicity. The ADL, a Jewish organization, ignores his violent legacy, and celebrates his career because he was Jewish and because he wielded a great deal of power. They do concede that his diplomatic tenure was “not without controversy,” of course, using the word author Steve Silberman wryly jokes “is going to do so much heavy lifting in the coming days it’s gonna need a jockstrap.”

On closer investigation, the ADL’s Kissinger partisanship isn’t just morally bankrupt, it’s actively nonsensical. According to its website the ADL is devoted to fighting antisemitism and “to stop[ping] the defamation of the Jewish people.” Yet Kissinger, far from being “unapologetic about his heritage,” deliberately distanced himself from other Jewish people, and he did so using antisemitic rhetoric. 

Twitter’s community notes even added context to the ADL’s tweet, noting that it’s misleading and that: “Nixon’s WH Counsel recalls Kissinger assuaging Nixon’s rants about ‘dirty rotten’ ‘Jewish traitors’ protesting Vietnam by assuring him he was one of the ‘good ones’.” [Editor’s note: the context note has since been removed, likely due to a change in the ADL account’s settings, but we’ve included a screenshot below.]

None of this should be surprising. Kissinger’s legacy is one of blatant disregard for the vulnerable and oppressed. Numerous obituary writers have been chronicling his horrifying history, including his most famous atrocity, the secret bombing campaign in Cambodia which led to at least 150,000 deaths and the horrifically bloody regime of the Khmer Rouge. 

Rather than an example of Jewish excellence, Kissinger is a much better illustration of the kind of global powermonger who has historically targeted marginalized and colonized people, including Jews.

As Benjamin Ivry at the Forward has chronicled, Kissinger made numerous ugly comments about Jewish people, the worst of which are probably those found in State Department documents from 1972. At that time Kissinger was angry about American Jewish advocacy for Soviet Jews, who were facing systemic government discrimination and persecution. He said American Jews (advocating, again, for Jews overseas) were “self-serving bastards.” In another meeting he said, “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” The ADL is, then, endorsing a man who actively fantasized about ignoring a second Holocaust.

Kissinger summed up his attitude to Jewish people by blandly and directly admitting his own prejudice. “If it were not for the accident of my birth, I would be antisemitic,” he said, adding that “Any people who has been persecuted for two thousand years must be doing something wrong.”

Kissinger implies that being Jewish means he can’t be antisemitic. But in fact, Jewish people can and do sometimes say antisemitic things. And blaming Jews for their own persecution—including the persecution by Nazis which occurred during his own lifetime, and from which he escaped—is definitely, and even definitionally, an example of prejudice against Jews.

Inevitably, perhaps, Kissinger also compared Jews to other people he despised. Kissinger had sabotaged 1968 peace talks in Vietnam in an effort to help Nixon win that year’s presidential election, ensuring the war would grind on, leading to tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of more Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian deaths. Of course, Kissinger refused to take any responsibility for this, and instead blamed the people whose country he had personally worked to shatter. In 1973 he told Brent Scowcraft that he found American Jews and Israelis to be “as obnoxious as the Vietnamese.” 

The ‘obnoxiousness,’ in both cases, consisted in the fact that each group advocated for itself, rather than simply acquiescing to Kissinger’s grand plans for them. Kissinger summed up his contempt for the self-determination of anyone who was not Henry Kissinger when he advocated for a coup in Chile to overthrow the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people,” he said. “The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

In the early 60s, Kissinger wrote that “The West requires nothing so much as men able to create their own reality,” a vaunting empowerment fantasy inseparable from the implicit colonialism and nationalism. Kissinger imagined great statesmen imposing the triumph of Western civilization upon the globe through sheer force of will and personality. Marginalized or colonized people who attempt to oppose the righteous march of power—like the Vietnamese, Allende, or yes, even American Jews—are irritants to be swatted aside or (if they’re lucky) ignored.

Empowerment fantasies are popular, as any number of successful superhero franchises will assure you, and Kissinger has many admirers and apologists. These include Hillary Clinton, the New York Times (whose obit tellingly praises him as “the most powerful Secretary of State of the postwar era”), and of course the ADL. Killing people, toppling democratic governments, and immiserating millions is, for many, an imprimatur of influence. You must be important, thoughtful, and cool if you’re able to affect so many so profoundly. And if that effect were for the worse—well, the people hurt are far off, over there, and unimportant anyway. They needn’t trouble us too much.

For the ADL, praising Kissinger is a way to praise a powerful Jewish person; a man who succeeded and, by so doing, the ADL hopes, associates all Jews with success. This is arguably, and painfully, analogous to the ADL’s own embrace of an unquestioning Zionism, which has led it to praise Elon Musk for censoring pro-Palestinian speech even as Musk has consistently made egregious, dangerous antisemitic statements

As for Kissinger himself, his comments make it clear that he didn’t want to elevate Jewish people, he wanted to separate himself from them. For Jewish people to embrace an ethos of amoral power means turning their back on their own history—and for that matter on much of their community, Jewish and otherwise, in the present. 

This isn’t to say Kissinger hated himself. On the contrary, he appeared, by all accounts, to have an extremely high opinion of one Henry Kissinger. He hated, or simply had contempt for, other people who were not Henry Kissinger—Jewish people, Vietnamese, Chileans, Cambodians. Rather than take pride in that record of cruelty and bile, Jews might take it as a reminder that we have a responsibility to, and common cause with, all those targeted by the Kissingers of the world. Not least because, no matter their background or ethnicity, they will target us too.