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  July 23, 2001 This month in Lingua Franca  

Hitchens v. Kissinger

The Trial of Henry Kissinger
by Christopher Hitchens
159 pages, $22(hardcover)
Published by Verso

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS IS AT IT AGAIN. After excoriating Mother Teresa for being a toady to the rich and powerful, and savaging Bill Clinton for ungentlemanly behavior and all-around moral torpor, the bad boy journalist has now trained his sites on another rather formidable target - Henry Kissinger. Hitchens accuses the former Secretary of State of committing war crimes in Vietnam, Chile, Indonesia, and Cyprus, among other countries. But much of the mainstream press has shied away from reviewing his book (not the case in Britain, where it was widely noticed), which originated in a series of articles for Harper's magazine. In the few venues that did choose to review the book, Hitchens's allegations were often faulted for lack of substance and excess of rhetoric.

Writing in The American Prospect, Harvey Blume, while no Kissinger fan, frowned, "his book has serious flaws. It is among other things, force of personality that carries Hitchens into battle with the likes of Kissinger; in this book the author's personality gets in the way. Hitchens is usually a prose stylist and a good read. The Trial of Henry Kissinger is a bad read. That does not mean that it makes a bad case; it only suggests that if Hitchens wanted to reach a wider readership with the book than he did with the magazine articles, this may not be the book to do it."

The anonymous reviewer for The Economistcould not resist tweaking the British journalist for not living up to his reputation: "Mr Hitchens, on a good day, is one of the wickedest controversialists around. In The Trial of Henry Kissinger, he has barely grazed a formidable target."

In The Los Angeles Times Book Review, Warren Cohen, a prominent scholar of foreign relations, merely tip-toed around Hitchens's charges-instead concentrating on Kissinger's latest tome on foreign policy, also under review. All he could muster on Hitchens was that he does "a lawyerly job of demonstrating Kissinger's involvement" in the 1973 overthrow of Salavdore Allende in Chile.

Alfred Rubin, writing for the Times Literary Supplement, found the book more valuable as a polemic than as legal treatise: "There are repeated confusions of criminal law with civil law, and international law with municipal law, but those are confusions that reflect common misapprehensions. In sum, the book is not to be taken as a precise text in the technical areas it touches, but as a useful summary of the evils that can flow, and have flowed and continue to flow, from the otherwise admirable American democracy." Still, Rubin applauded Hitchens for giving new publicty to Kissinger's role in Indonesian atrocities in East Timor, and to his vendettas against those who have criticized him.

Meanwhile,in the Village Voice, Rick Perlstein, while conceding that Hitchens's arguments might not always stand up to fine-combed scrutiny, offered the most fulsome praise: "Even the most dull-witted of establishmentarians armed with a legal dictionary will be able to unravel much of Hitchens's prosecutorial gambit as rhetoric rather than a firm legal case. But it is the rhetoric of a blessed steam shovel, and I love it. Perhaps Hitchens's little book will actually inspire some brilliant and principled legal minds to array those hidden documents beneath Henry Kissinger's dangling feet as his funeral pyre. Words have power. If not, why would Kissinger be hiding away so many of his?"

Matthew Price

Critics cited:
Warren Cohen, The Los Angeles Times Book Review
Rick Perlstein, Village Voice
Alfred Rubin, Times Literary Supplement
Harvey Blume, The American Prospect

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