Henry Kissinger, who served as national security adviser and secretary of state under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald Ford, will turn 100 years old on May 27, and to mark the occasion, he recently sat down for an interview with CBS “Sunday Morning” senior contributor Ted Koppel. The segment was largely friendly, save for a testy exchange midway through. “There are people at our broadcast who are questioning the legitimacy of even doing an interview with you,” Koppel said. “They feel that strongly about what they consider, I’ll put it in language they would use, your criminality.”
“That’s a reflection of their ignorance,” Kissinger replied. Koppel brought up Kissinger’s role in the U.S. bombing campaign in Cambodia, which ran from 1969 to 1973, killing perhaps as many as 150,000 civilians and hastening the Cambodian government’s overthrow by the genocidal Khmer Rouge. After some back and forth, Kissinger said, “This is a program you’re doing because I’m gonna be 100 years old. And you’re picking a topic of something that happened 60 years ago. You have to know that it was a necessary step. Now, the younger generation feels that if they can raise their emotions, they don’t have to think. If they think, they won’t ask that question.”
Kissinger’s centennial has been greeted by the laudatory op-eds an elder statesman might expect — his biographer Niall Ferguson argues that “events over the past decade … have brought us back, with a series of sobering jolts, to Kissinger’s world.” But the younger generation — or at least, the left-leaning among them — is indeed letting its own thoughts (and, yes, emotions) be known on the internet. There, making light of Kissinger’s eventual death — and remarkable longevity — has been a popular meme for years.
There are several novelty Twitter accounts that provide updates on whether Kissinger is still drawing breath, and the death of a major public figure often makes Kissinger’s name trend on the platform. The general sentiment — why not Kissinger? — is perhaps best captured in a visual meme portraying the grim reaper scooping up a person in an arcade claw machine; one iteration is captioned “Queen Elizabeth II?! Is Henry Kissinger even in this thing?”
The passage from the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s 2001 book “A Cook’s Tour,” that begins “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands,” is also frequently shared on Twitter and other social networks. (In addition, Kissinger has been accused — perhaps most famously in the late Christopher Hitchens’ fiery 2001 book “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” — of war crimes in Vietnam, East Timor and elsewhere.)
When a Vox writer tweeted about the Economic Club of New York’s 100th birthday celebration for Kissinger on Tuesday, asking “What would you ask Dr. Kissinger?,” the responses were withering. “Can he feel the flames of hell gently tickling his toes yet?” read one. On Thursday, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) chimed in with “Which war crime weighs on your conscience more?” (The Wiley Agency, the literary firm that represents Kissinger, did not respond to emails seeking comment on the meme.)
And then there’s the Kissinger Death Tontine, an online charity death pool thought up by a group of Bay Area socialists over drinks in 2018, whose prize is a “selection of liquors from countries where Kissinger has overthrown the democratically elected leader.”
Shanti Singh, a 32-year-old tenant organizer from San Francisco who was unapologetically involved in the creation of Kissinger Death Tontine, has some theories as to why Kissinger remains the object of such intense fascination on the left. “He’s one of the most decorated war criminals in 20th century history,” she said, citing his 1973 Nobel Peace Prize win. “I think he captures the imagination because there were absolutely no consequences for him. If anything, he’s elevated by both parties. We saw in the 2016 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton said, ‘He’s a really good friend of mine,’ and Bernie Sanders was like, ‘Are you sure you want to brag about that?’”
Alex Turvy, a Tulane University PhD student who researches memes, said that the dark jokes have a strong emotional component. “Kissinger’s firm refusal to die represents something bigger to people, like that there are evil forces bigger than you that you don’t have power over,” Turvy said. “And the memes are a way of sort of releasing some of that pent-up energy.”
He explained that very online Gen Zers and millennials, who weren’t even close to being born during the Nixon administration, have “a lot of comfort with irreverence and joking about someone’s death that doesn’t play as well offline. You know, if you repeat some of these jokes to your mom, whether she likes Kissinger or not, it’s not going to seem as funny.”
Millennial conservative commentator Ben Shapiro once tweeted that those who wish death upon Kissinger are “simply a mob in search of a victim.” But even among young progressives, not everyone is comfortable with the fixation on Kissinger’s demise. Take Sam Weinberg, the 22-year-old executive director of the D.C.-based Path to Progress, a Gen Z-focused think tank. “Henry Kissinger is not someone whose legacy is admirable — far from it,” Weinberg said. “But at the same time, I feel like as progressives and leftists, we’re supposed to be compassionate and loving. We’re supposed to be tolerant and support restorative justice and oppose the death penalty. So when I see people online spending so much time basically just wishing for one person’s death — it’s strange, it’s off-putting, it’s a little bit gross.”
Discourse Blog editor Jack Mirkinson, a 35-year-old from New York who writes an occasional obituary series called “Henry Kissinger Is Right There,” dismissed the idea that his work is offensive, given the amount “of blood on [Kissinger’s] hands.” He added, “I would consider the things that he has done and the crimes that he’s guilty of to be a little more tasteless than people making jokes about him and about the end of his life.”
The 26-year-old Peruvian law student (who spoke on the condition of anonymity) behind the small Twitter account Is Henry Kissinger Dead? was even more blunt: “I think Americans in particular are very susceptible to this very stupid idea that is bad to celebrate the death of an evil person,” he wrote in a Twitter direct message.
One thing that these observers can agree on is that when Kissinger does die, it will be a raucous day on Twitter for his detractors. Miles Klee, a 38-year-old Los Angeles-based culture writer for Rolling Stone who has written on why Kissinger always trends on Twitter, anticipates “a ton of memes and dunks and funny Photoshops,” even if “it won’t be a totally joyous thing, because he did live to be a hundred years old.”
Klee sees the inevitable Twitter reaction to Kissinger’s death as a kind of counterprogramming to predictably evenhanded mainstream media obituaries. Greg Grandin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Yale University history professor and the author of 2015’s “Kissinger’s Shadow,” concurred. Kissinger’s actions, he said, “will be dismissed as controversial, but you know, he’ll be held up as a great statesperson. You can already [predict] the New York Times obituary.”
When the big day finally arrives, the creator of Is Henry Kissinger Dead? said he would simply tweet “Yes” and “enjoy the jubilation.” He also noted that Kissinger had outlived several other Twitter accounts reporting on the current state of his existence.