Yesterday, an infamous and controversial figure in American history passed away at age 100.
Henry Kissinger was born in Germany, fled with his family from the Nazi’s in 1938, came to America and began an academic, military, and political career that is both praised and vilified by scholars and the public at large.
This is not the place to get into all of the details and try to determine if he was net good or bad for the world, but just to demonstrate the spectrum of events he participated in, he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a ceasefire in the Vietnam War, negotiated the Paris Peace Accords (which ended US participation in Vietnam), eased tensions between the US and the Soviet Union, and was integral in ending the Yom Kippur War, while also overseeing and greenlighting policies in Cambodia, Chile, Indonesia, and Bangladesh that lead to the deaths of an estimated 3 and 4 million people.
So yeah, there’s good reason to see him in both positive and negative light.
Many people have taken to the internet to both praise his effectiveness as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor and vilify his actions abroad and brand him as a war criminal, but an excerpt from a book written a few years back by a beloved cultural figure has resurfaced and is going viral online and I highly believe it’s worth reading.
Anthony Bourdain was a chef by trade but became famous for his writings which spotlighted the culture, people, traditions, and longing for more felt both in the restaurant industry and in the world at large. His book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly became a bestseller in 2000 and remains a cult favorite to this day.
That success lead to a number of other books and shows, including what he’s probably best remembered for: No Reservations and Parts Unknown.
His first TV show was called A Cook’s Tour which was an account of food and travel adventures throughout the world. It’s where he began taking his culture first, food second approach to storytelling and he wrote a book in conjunction with that show by the same name.
It was the book A Cook’s Tour where he visited Cambodia for the first time and saw first hand the fall out from Cambodian Civil War, which was effectively a proxy battle between the Viet Cong of North Vietnam and the United States.
Hundreds of thousands of people died, millions more were displaced, and the fallout from this war lead to the Cambodian Genocide, where some 2 million Cambodian citizens were eradicated by the Khmer Rouge. While it’s very complicated and I don’t have nearly a good enough grasp on the conflict to say anything with certainty, the US involvement with the Cambodian War and a massive bombing campaign that followed have been blamed for destabilizing the region, destroying what little infrastructure remained after the war, and bolstering support for the Khmer Rouge.
As you may have guessed, many if not all of these policies were crafted and directed by Henry Kissinger.
When Bourdain visited Cambodia for the first time in 2002, he was confronted first hand with the brutal reality of just how devastating that Civil War and bombing campaign were for the country, which still was dealing with the consequences over 20 years later.
This is what he wrote:
“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.
You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking.
Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.”
Here’s the only eulogy to Henry Kissinger worth reading.
If one thing and only one thing is certain, the world lost a great mind when Bourdain committed suicide in 2018. He was fearlessly outspoken and principled yet open minded and empathetic. A man of the world but not entirely ruined by it.
I think we can all learn quite a bit by reading more of what Bourdain wrote.
Here’s his A Cook’s Tour Episode where he visits Cambodia. I can’t recommend it enough.