'Pretty horrific mistakes:' Democrats have few nice things to say about Henry Kissinger following his death

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont notably criticized Henry Kissinger during his 2016 presidential campaign.Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images; Thomas Peter - Pool/Getty Images
  • Henry Kissinger's death has led some lawmakers to air critiques of his record.

  • He's long been closely associated with excesses of US foreign policy during the Cold War.

  • "I never understood why people revered him," said one House Democrat.

Typically, when a former leading statesman dies, members of Congress only offer glowing tributes.

Not in the case of Henry Kissinger.

"There's not much about Kissinger that I've heard that I think is particularly good," Democratic Rep. Greg Casar of Texas told Business Insider on Thursday.

The former Secretary of State's death at the age of 100 has spurred yet another round of reflections on Kissinger's legacy, which is largely intertwined with the height of America's Cold War foreign policy.

Kissinger, who served as both the National Security Advisor and secretary of state under Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, has been lauded for his effectiveness in opening up relations between the US and China and pursuing a policy of detente with the Soviet Union.

But he also had a hand in foreign policy decisions that hurt and killed millions of people, including supporting repressive right-wing regimes in Latin America and planning indiscriminate bombing campaigns in Southeast Asia. Some have even argued that Kissinger should have been prosecuted for perpetrating war crimes.

"I think it's an incredibly complicated legacy," said Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, summing up what may be the mainstream Democratic viewpoint. "There are some pretty horrific mistakes that Henry Kissinger made that have taken the United States a very long time to recover from."

Murphy added that Kissinger "cared deeply about the nation's security," had "significant foreign policy victories," and is "a big man with a big legacy."

Casar, who traveled to Brazil, Chile, and Colombia with other progressive lawmakers in August, said they've been "working really hard to undo" the harms of Kissinger's policies in Latin America, which included supporting a coup by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973.

"If you ask people in Chile, there are still lots of people who are looking for the bodies of their family members that were taken and disappeared by the Pinochet regime that the United States supported," said Casar.

Other Democrats have issued similar critiques of Kissinger's legacy in the wake of his death.

"I never understood why people revered him," Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts wrote on X. "I will never forgive or forget."

Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, a senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote on X that Kissinger's "indifference to human suffering will forever tarnish his name and shape his legacy."

Kissinger has also become an issue in recent Democratic presidential campaigns.

In 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont famously criticized Hillary Clinton for seeking foreign policy advice from the controversial former secretary of state.

"I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country," Sanders said at a February 2016 debate. "I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger."

At the time, Sanders specifically cited Kissinger's masterminding of a carpet bombing campaign in Cambodia during the Vietnam War, which paved the way for the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the mass killing of more than 3 million people.

"Count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger," Sanders added at that debate.

Sanders later re-upped that criticism during his 2020 presidential campaign, when he criticized then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for meeting with Kissinger.

On Thursday, Sanders told Business Insider that he had no reflections to offer on Kissinger's death.

"Nope. I don't," said Sanders. "He died. Let him rest in peace. I've had my statements."

Despite criticism from Democrats, plenty of Republicans have offered warm tributes to Kissinger, including former President George W. Bush and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"Today, the world Henry Kissinger leaves behind bears his indelible mark," McConnell said on the Senate floor on Thursday. "The nation he served — the global superpower he helped create — owes him our gratitude."

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