1. In the future, there will be gaps among the errors and exaggerations in obituaries of Henry Kissinger — who turned 100 two weeks ago — or at least in a good number of them. Missing will be well-deserved criticism and the details of his crimes; there are credits and acknowledgements that also will be missing.
If, for example, Kissinger is an architect of anything, as Greg Grandin said years ago, it would be the sinister principle that “the actions of the U.S. and the chaos in the world are unrelated” — an orchestrated separation of cause from effect. To this day, it guides U.S. imperial policy (see “Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman,” 2015, p.15).* The blame is/was always on others: the Vietnamese, the Chileans, the Iranians, the Central Americans, the Afghans, the Iraqis and so on.
And Kissinger, along with Richard Nixon, should be recognized as one of the founders of “post-truth:” “when objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than are appeals to emotion and personal belief”* — when lying and denial of facts in politics are elevated to another level.
2. “Post-truth,” a term that became commonplace with Donald Trump and Brexit, was coined — in one of its versions — by Steve Tesich in 1992. It describes the American psyche after the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals evoked a paradoxical reaction, when people who, wearied by governmental lies, chose to disdain reality and “live in a post-truth world at the expense of democracy.” Tesich called it “the Watergate syndrome”: that eagerness to seek refuge in lying governments in order “to be protected from uncomfortable truths.”
And that is exactly what Daniel Ellsberg proved a year before Watergate with the Pentagon Papers. He gambled that “the truth would set Americans free”; yet, after the initial earthquake in Nixon’s cabinet, everything returned to normal, and Kissinger — with his twisted philosophy of truth — was central to this turnaround.
3. “Invariably, Kissinger is described as the quintessential realpolitik statesman.” A radical relativist and a proto-postmodernist, he believed in the ability to create his own truth. To have injected “relative realism,” with its disregard for facts and data, into the circuits of American power is — as Grandin insists — another of his long-term contributions. The principle of constructing its own reality and truths not only helped restore an “imperial presidency” and reinvigorate Washington’s militarism but also continues to inform its interventionism.
Another of Kissinger’s legacies is to normalize disregard for facts in domestic politics: After entering the Ford administration, Kissinger presided over Nixon’s immediate acquittal after he resigned to avoid impeachment. And, as Tesich pointed out, despite the fact that the entire Nixon cabinet was a bunch of crooks (don’t miss “White House Plumbers,” 2022), he made it appear that truth had prevailed and that the system had worked.
4. A characteristic of the shallow and often misguided invocations of Hannah Arendt — who had her own history with Kissinger, having been a victim of his censorship as the “theorist of the new post-truth era” — was that they both leaned toward post-truth: They emphasized the “novelty” of the phenomenon, thus introducing Trump to the code of “Nazi lies.”*
Yet for Arendt, lying in politics was nothing new — “For Arendt, we have always been post-truth.” Her analyses of lying were not written as sequels to “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” but rather a response to the impact of the Pentagon Papers, the weight of deception in American politics and, according to her, the personal experience of being attacked for telling the truth about Adolph Eichmann. In this sense, Tesich’s invoking of her was much more rigorous three decades ago: It (re)inserted Arendt in the American genealogy of post-truth and pointed out that lies were put to service in the “state of perpetual war,” another of Kissinger’s legacies.*
5. While the liberal commentariat has long insisted on analyzing post-truth and Fake News as Russian inventions taken up by Trump, at least Peter Pomerantsev, one of the mainstream theorists of disinformation, recently and correctly pointed to Nixon as one of its founding fathers.
However, he observes that, today, there is a “worrisome turn.” According to him, politicians, such as Vladimir Putin or Trump, “no longer fear the truth,”* while their predecessors did; but that hardly holds water. Nixon did not resign because of “fear of the truth,” but because he feared prosecution and conviction. Kissinger never feared the truth, because his version of it was always constructed according to his vision and interests.
Nixon did not pay for his lies, and neither will Kissinger. But there are a couple of things we can do to let truth prevail. For example, let us remember that Kissinger once embraced Trump — yes, that same Trump of a thousand and one lies — seeing him as “the perfect vehicle for the realization of [his] philosophy.”
Add that to his lengthy indictment (and future obituaries), as well as adding that he was one of the harbingers of post-truth.
*Editor’s Note: These quotes, while accurately translated, could not be independently verified.