When we left off our discussion of Niall Ferguson’s introductory chapter to Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist, the former Harvard professor had just finished making his case that Henry Kissinger is subject to a degree of criticism well beyond that encountered by other major political figures. As evidence, he noted that Kissinger had been described in disparaging terms by Hunter S. Thompson, who wrote about pretty much every major political figure in disparaging terms, and that he’d been denounced as a practicing Satanist by David Icke, who’s denounced pretty much every major political figure as a practicing Satanist; rather inexplicably, Ferguson himself even provided an incomplete list of over a dozen other prominent men and entire family dynasties against whom Icke has made this exact charge. It’s the first time I can recall having seen someone actually screw up anecdotal evidence, and I’ve read pretty much everything Martin Peretz used to write for the New Republic back when he still owned it and no one could stop him. Speaking of which, I certainly hope the New Republic is doing okay.
Having returned from his cherry picking expedition with a basket full of rocks, Ferguson told us of the structural violence to which Kissinger has been subject at the hands of “the conspiracy theorists of the left.” “In his People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn argues that Kissinger’s policies in Chile were intended at least in part to serve the economic interests of International Telephone and Telegraph,” Ferguson writes. As we saw last time, Zinn argued nothing of the sort — and neither did the section of the Senate committee report that Zinn had actually been closely paraphrasing, which merely provides examples of ITT’s involvement without making any suppositions about anyone’s motivations whatsoever. This didn’t stop Ferguson from rather weirdly going on to denounce Zinn’s dry restatement of the Church Committee’s findings as numbering among the “diatribes” in which Zinn and his ilk provide “gratuitous insults” against Kissinger “in place of evidence;” the “insult” in question turned out to have been made years later, in another book. Then he did some other odd and dishonest things as well, all in the space of a single paragraph. Go back and read the full account if you haven’t already; I’ll be sitting here worrying about the New Republic, for without TNR, where will our nation’s center-left hawks hammer out dynamic new solutions to the Arab Question?
But Ferguson, for one, is satisfied with his airtight case of self-contradictory selective evidence and demonstrably false necro-libel, so he invites us to share in his amazement that Kissinger, alone among men, has been insulted in the course of his public life even though anyone can see that he’s a special, special princess about whom no ill must be uttered; and that Kissinger, and only Kissinger, has been made to figure into various conspiracy theories even aside from the one that Ferguson fabricated and attributed to Howard Zinn. “All this vitriol is at first sight puzzling,” he writes. A bit later: “How, then, are we to explain the visceral hostility that the name Henry Kissinger arouses?”
In a comparatively extraordinary show of good faith, Ferguson now considers the possibility that there exist people who honestly disagree with some of the things that Kissinger did and some of the ways in which he did them. Just as remarkably, he engages on this point with Christopher Hitchens rather than David Icke or Lyndon LaRouche and refrains from lying about him even though he’s dead. Hitchens’ argument — which he put forth in detail in his 2001 book The Trial of Henry Kissinger, and which has of course been made elsewhere many, many times — is that Kissinger oversaw and sometimes directly committed war crimes and other misdeeds in half a dozen countries. And it is not a case that can be easily dismissed on its merits. Ferguson seems to realize this and wisely refrains from making any direct refutation. Instead, he appeals to our sense of fairness:
This volume covers the first half of Kissinger’s life, ending in 1969, at the moment he entered the White House to serve as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser. It therefore does not deal with the issues listed above. But it does deal with the foreign policies of Nixon’s four predecessors. As will become clear, each one of these administrations could just as easily be accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. There is no doubt whatever, to take just a single example, that the Central Intelligence Agency had a direct hand in the coup that overthrew the elected government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in Guatemala in 1954. It also played an active role in the subsequent campaign of violence against the Guatemalan left. Nearly a hundred times as many people (around 200,000) died in this campaign than were ‘disappeared’ in Chile after 1973 (2,279). Yet you will search the libraries in vain for The Trial of John Foster Dulles. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, the United States used military action or threats of military action three times more often in the Kennedy years than in the Kissinger years. Interventions ranged from an abortive invasion of Cuba to a bloody coup d’etat in South Vietnam. And yet no great polemicist has troubled to indict Dean Rusk as a war criminal.
This is the sort of paragraph that reminds me of why I got into the mean-spirited essay business to begin with. Note that Ferguson starts by comparing casualties between Guatemala and Chile. Kissinger would indeed seem to come off better in this reckoning, because Chile resulted in fewer casualties, and surely casualty counts are as good a field of comparison as any, but of course what’s important is that we stick to a single method of accounting and not just jump around from measurement to measurement willy-nilly whenever it suits our purposes, because that would be dishonest, and — oh, look — here comes the next sentence and now we’re suddenly comparing rates of “military action or threats of military action” because that happens to make Kissinger look better in this particular instance, oh me oh my!
And amusing as it is to speculate over how many ways of measuring war criminality Ferguson must have considered and rejected in hopes of somehow making Rusk look worse than Kissinger before settling on some throwaway barometer that actually depends on “threats of military action” to accomplish its purpose, it’s even more telling that this sort of quantitative switcheroo is still insufficient to rescue Ferguson’s argument from Kissinger’s record — because in that examination of Kissinger and Dulles, Ferguson compares Dulles’s highest casualty operation, Guatemala, to Kissinger’s lowest casualty operation, Chile, rather than to, say, Cambodia, where Kissinger’s actions directly led to the death of several hundred thousand people. What Ferguson has proven here is that if you compare Kissinger’s least murderous act of secret foreign intervention to Dulles’s most murderous, Kissinger comes out as less murderous. This does not even rise to the level of trickery; Ferguson has here managed to invent some lesser, baser thing.
Screw it, though; let’s follow Ferguson down his disingenuous little rabbit hole and pretend that Kissinger didn’t kill far more people than did Rusk or Dulles, and let’s forget for a moment that Kissinger tended to be much more heavily involved in the atrocities that occurred under his watch. For Ferguson is absolutely correct that this sort of thing preceded Kissinger, even if his own grand attempt to portray him as the lesser predator fails on its own terms (while the effort itself constitutes an implicit admission that a difference in degree does matter; he would have done better not to invite the comparison in the first place, as Lloyd Bentsen once explained to Dan Quayle). And Ferguson is undoubtedly correct that there is no such book as “The Trial of John Foster Dulles.” Ferguson believes this to be strong evidence of a “double standard” and hops off to look for dark motivations ranging from “professional jealousy” and “grudges” to the more generalized “envy of Kissinger’s contemporaries” and onward and forward to “anti-Semitism.”
But perhaps you and I can find some other explanation — that is, aside from the other entirely adequate explanations we’ve already noted (plus the fact that Guatemala, for instance, was less the work of John Foster Dulles than it was of his brother Allen, of whom of course plenty has been written, including David Talbot’s extraordinarily important recent work The Devil’s Chessboard). After all, before 2001 there was no The Trial of Henry Kissinger either. Can you think of any reason, other than professional envy or Jew hatred or possession by demons, why someone might have been more inclined to spend time and effort arguing for Kissinger, rather than Dulles, to be put on trial back around 2001? Because I think I may have thought of one possibility, but I want to just run it by everyone here first before I send it off to the Journal of the Proceedings of the Harvard Society of Disengenous Socio-Historical Meta-Analysis for peer review since, again, this is all rather preliminary. Are you ready, though? Are you ready to hear my initial hypothesis regarding why Hitchens advocated for war crimes prosecution against Kissinger rather than Dulles? Here goes, then: I would submit that perhaps Hitchens chose to focus on arguing that Kissinger should be put on trial in 2001 rather than arguing that John Foster Dulles should be put on trial in 2001 because John Foster Dulles died in 1959.
Meanwhile, Ferguson has sniffed out further instances of anti-Kissinger microaggression: “To say that American Jews have been ambivalent toward the man who is arguably their community’s most distinguished son would be an understatement.” Here he actually has a point. Daniel Ellsberg in particular has always struck me as being ungrateful to Kissinger, but this may also be one of those “professional jealousy” things, too, since both started at Harvard, whereas only Kissinger would rise to such heights of success that he could get Nixon himself to help destroy Ellsberg, and you can see how that might have made Ellsberg envious.
Ferguson is also saddened to note that Kissinger is sometimes accused of not respecting the popular sovereignty of the voting public from which he once tried to hide the fact that he was personally using its military to bomb a country with which the U.S. was not at war. “A favorite theme of Kissinger’s critics was that he was fundamentally hostile, or at least indifferent, to democracy. … Why a man who had fled the Third Reich and found success in the United States should be adverse to democracy is not immediately obvious.” Nor is it immediately obvious why a reluctance to be killed by the Nazis or to live unsuccessfully in Brunei should inoculate someone from suspicion as to their democratic credentials, particularly when the someone in question played a central and cheerful role in the overthrow of an actual democratic government in Chile — an effort for which, as he complained at the time in a phone call to Nixon that was recently made public, the administration was not given what he believed to be its fair credit. This “favorite theme” may also have something to do with the various things Kissinger is known to have done to subvert democracy in the U.S. itself, such as participating in a plan to murder a Washington journalist, or convincing Nixon to have administration thugs do things like break into the office of the ungrateful Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in a bid to dig up dirt on him and perhaps also figure out if they’d gotten to the root causes of those jealousy issues. Not that there aren’t very good reasons to despise modern American democracy and most every institution with which it’s become intertwined, but chief among them is that people like Ferguson remain unfired and people like Kissinger remain unhanged.
It has now been over a month since I demonstrated that Ferguson lied about Howard Zinn and then compounded the lie in such a way as to eliminate the possibility that it was merely an error. But it is, at the very face-saving least, clearly an error — and proof that it is also very much more than an error is that it remains unacknowledged. Ferguson knows about my accusations, after all, even if he’s left my questions unanswered, and even made a vague sort of non-reply after the column appeared, as we’ll see in a moment. And either he himself or his publisher would appear to have corrected his online bibliography shortly after I made note of a certain irregularity, as the then-broken bit.ly link which was supposed to lead to the allegedly “influential,” “left-of-center” website that he strangely declined to name either in the text or the endnotes now goes to the homepage of presstv.ir — confirmation, then, that Ferguson tried to pass off an obscure and goofy Iranian outlet as something akin to the New Republic (which reminds me that I’m still worried about the New Republic).
A plainly willful misrepresentation such as this should itself be enough to prompt an explanation from a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution who until recently held a chair at Harvard. That Ferguson nonetheless continues to stonewall constitutes another distinct act of dishonesty altogether. An error one refuses to fix becomes a lie. And if it was already a lie to begin with, then it becomes a lie squared, and presently mutates into a sort of giant lie monster that runs off to gobble up the fairies of truth and concord. Why are you killing the fairies, Professor?
Anywho, here’s what Ferguson wrote shortly after several people tweeted my last column at him, rather microaggressively:
Always good to read a review by someone who has actually read the book and given it serious thought.
This was followed by a link to a positive review posted on some random WordPress page. The remark has been understandably taken as a reference to my column by a couple of my colleagues who have forwarded it on to me. As we prisoners lack access to Twitter — which, incidentally, is why we have so much spare time with which to check up on bibliographies and worry about the moral health of the nation at large — I’ll simply provide a 140-character response here and perhaps someone out there can send this reply to him for me:
@NFergus Congrts on good review in WordPress :) Didnt finish ur book cuz sucked. Sad news Dulles died :( Im in prizn plz snd $
He probably won’t send any money. At any rate, the fellow needn’t sound so pissy; it’s not as if he’s going to suffer any real consequences for his misdeeds. He need merely continue to refrain from directly acknowledging that he libeled another historian and intentionally misled his readers on several points, as the Hoover Institution will of course refrain from taking any action so long as the clamor for them to do so does not reach the threshold at which continued silence on their part begins to do more damage than would come from addressing the misconduct. This is how most of our institutions work, whether state or corporate or academic; each is aware of a ceiling of wrongdoing under which anything is effectively permitted against anyone. It is a realist position.
“In truth the rain falls and the sun shines equally upon the just and the unjust.”
—John Quincy Adams
Read more by Barrett Brown, whose column received the 2016 National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary:
I Do Not Care to Finish Reading This Mediocre Kissinger Biography by Niall Ferguson
The Government Explains Why It Took My Email
Drawing by Paul Davis. Fee donated to Barrett Brown’s legal defense fund.