Kenneth Maxwell: Did Henry Kissinger Do Him in?

Historians in the News

Scott Sherman, in the Nation (Dec. 6, 2004):

Last year Kenneth Maxwell, a soft-spoken 63-year-old historian of Latin America, published a review of Peter Kornbluh's The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability in the November/December 2003 issue of Foreign Affairs, the influential journal of the Council on Foreign Relations. As The Nation reported in June [see Sherman, "The Maxwell Affair," June 21], Maxwell's essay enraged two former statesmen with deep connections to the council--Henry Kissinger and his longtime associate, William Rogers. Indeed, Maxwell was soon confiding to close friends, "I have clearly trodden on the tail of a very nasty snake here." On May 13 Maxwell resigned from the council, where for fifteen years he had served as the chief Latin Americanist, and from Foreign Affairs, where he was the Western Hemisphere book reviewer, a perch from which he had published more than 300 reviews. What triggered Maxwell's resignation was a smoldering exchange with Rogers in Foreign Affairs--an exchange, Maxwell insists, that was abruptly curtailed after Kissinger applied direct and indirect pressure on the editor of the journal, James Hoge. "The Council's current relationship with Mr. Kissinger," Maxwell wrote in his resignation letter to Hoge, "evidently comes at the cost of suppressing debate about his actions as a public figure. This I want no part of."

Now, after months of silence about that suppressed debate, Maxwell has emerged with a 13,000-word essay about the affair, "The Case of the Missing Letter in Foreign Affairs." His treatise, which is based on e-mail correspondence and a detailed personal diary he kept throughout the controversy, has been published as a heavily footnoted working paper by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University, where Maxwell is currently a senior fellow and visiting professor of history. (The paper can be viewed at the center's website, "The Case of the Missing Letter" is a riveting account of a row that has generated headlines throughout Latin America; it is also an unprecedented X-ray of power politics, cronyism and hubris inside the country's pre-eminent foreign policy think tank. That Maxwell's document should carry the imprimatur of the Rockefeller Center at Harvard is an exquisite coincidence, since David Rockefeller himself was chairman of the council's board from 1970 to 1985.

Maxwell's review of Kornbluh's book, "The Other 9/11: The United States and Chile, 1973," was not a fiery polemic but a measured assessment of US intervention in Chile in the early 1970s. Leslie Gelb, who was president of the council from 1993 to 2003, told Maxwell that he read it three times and felt that, politically, it was "straight down the middle." Halfway through the piece, Maxwell criticized the Nixon-era policy-makers--primarily Kissinger--who contributed to the toppling of Chilean president Salvador Allende. "What is truly remarkable," he wrote, "is the bring a Latin American democracy down, and the meager efforts since to build democracy back up."

Kissinger, who has been affiliated with the council off and on since 1955, and Rogers, who served three terms on its board of directors, reacted swiftly to an essay that might have otherwise generated little notice on its own. Rogers, who worked with Kissinger at the State Department and is currently vice chair of Kissinger Associates, dispatched a furious letter to Foreign Affairs, which appeared in the January/February 2004 issue. "The myth that the United States toppled President Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973 lives," Rogers wrote. "There smoking gun. Yet the myth persists." Rogers also endeavored to minimize Kissinger's involvement in two highly controversial matters that figure prominently in Kornbluh's book: the murder of Chilean Gen. René Schneider in 1970 and Operation Condor, a state-sponsored terror network set up by General Pinochet that from 1975 to 1977 targeted critics all over the Western Hemisphere and Europe. Among Condor's victims was Orlando Letelier, Pinochet's most prominent opponent in the United States, who was murdered, along with Ronni Moffitt, by a car bomb in Washington, DC, in 1976.

Round one of the exchange ended with a rejoinder by Maxwell in the same issue, in which he expressed incredulity at Rogers's assertions and proceeded to interrogate a very delicate matter: Kissinger's response to Operation Condor in general and the murder of Letelier in particular--a tragedy, Maxwell wrote, that might have been prevented had Kissinger maintained a less protective attitude toward General Pinochet. Closing his reply, Maxwell upped the ante and suggested "a way to clear the air" on Chile: "Some countries have established 'truth commissions' to look into such matters. In the United States, however, the record has been extracted painfully, like rotten teeth." Rogers immediately fired off a second letter, which would appear in the March/April issue, in which he accused Maxwell of "bias," denied that Kissinger bore any responsibility for Condor and ominously declared: "One would hope...that Maxwell's views are understood to be his own and not those of the Council on Foreign Relations, where he is a senior fellow." Curiously, Hoge promised Rogers--and not his own book reviewer--the last word in the exchange. (Maxwell writes that in his eleven years at Foreign Affairs, not a single angry author was ever accorded the last word that was given to Rogers.)

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