AFTER MY FIRST VISIT to Cambodia and Vietnam, which came 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, people asked if I’d visited any sites associated with the Khmer Rouge. And I had: both the S-21 Phnom Penh prison torture center and the “Killing Fields” monument outside the city, each of them perhaps as profound a reminder of human depravity as any on the planet. But although no one asked a comparable question about Vietnam, I actually found the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) a far more disturbing experience. In fact, the only other museum that ever hit me that hard was the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I suppose the common element was my feeling that I knew the subject personally: we all “know” Anne Frank because we’ve read her diary, and as an American of a certain age I feel that I know the Vietnam War — it was “our” war, including those of us who weren’t there.
A majority of Americans seem to know of the Khmer Rouge and their relation to the deaths of an estimated one to two million Cambodians. Fewer seem aware that reasonable assessments of the number of civilians killed by American government action during the Vietnam War runs higher than that. The Vietnamese government estimates three million killed in the war, two-thirds civilian — and that doesn’t count the Cambodians or Laotians. (In case you think those numbers might be “enemy propaganda,” a 2008 joint Harvard Medical School-University of Washington study put the number dead at 3.8 million.) As to the breakdown of responsibility for civilian casualties, the fact that “our side” flew 3.4 million combat sorties in Southeast Asia and the “other side” flew none may give you some sense. The means of death, of course, were different. The Khmer Rouge’s victims were mostly killed by individuals, by hand. Our victims were bombed by B-52s, shot from helicopter gunships, napalmed, blown apart by fragmentation grenades: all of these weapons US government–inspected. Plus it’s not over: Agent Orange and undetonated antipersonnel weapons continue to inflict casualties to this day.
Appropriately, the Killing Fields museum includes an exhibit on Cambodian war crimes trials, the first of which dealt with Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, commander of the S-21 prison, considered responsible for the torture and execution of over 12,000 men, women, and children. Sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2010, his sentence was extended to life in 2012. Obviously, there is no comparable exhibit at the War Remnants Museum because Vietnam war crimes trials have never occurred, and never will.
If they had held them, one name that surely would have come up is Henry Kissinger’s, if only for his role in the secret bombing of Cambodia, the maelstrom in which the Khmer Rouge grew. In Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, New York University history professor Greg Grandin writes that Kissinger actually “approved each of the 3,875 Cambodia bombing raids in 1969 and 1970 as well as the methods for keeping them out of the newspapers.” But even though Grandin makes a strong case that Kissinger’s face should be on Wanted posters on the walls of the post offices of the world, that’s not primarily what this book is about. What he really wants us to think about is “the outsized role” Kissinger “had in creating the world we live in today, which accepts endless war as a matter of course.”
Nixon’s idea in bombing Cambodia was to destroy supply lines running from North to South Vietnam and force concessions at the Paris Peace Talks. But the fact was that the United States was not at war with Cambodia (or Vietnam, for that matter), so the newly elected president somewhat logically assumed that Congress and the general public might not approve. Hence the secrecy: American planes taking off on missions to bomb South Vietnam were rerouted in midair to their real targets in Cambodia. Records were altered to show that the sites authorized to be bombed actually were bombed, while evidence of the real bombing runs was destroyed. General Creighton W. Abrams, commander of US forces in Vietnam at that time, told Congress that a furnace dedicated to the destruction of this evidence “burned probably 12 hours a day.” One particular area known to contain “sizable concentrations” of civilians was bombed at least 247 times, Grandin reports. When antiwar Republican California Congressman Paul McCloskey visited Cambodia subsequently, he concluded that what the United States had done “is a greater evil than we have done to any country in the world.”
Kissinger, fresh from the Harvard University groves of academe, eagerly took to putting his political theories into real world operation as President Richard Nixon’s national security director. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, report that he expressed “enthusiasm at the size of the bomb craters” when the United States later resumed bombing North Vietnam.
Nixon and Kissinger’s strategic goals were not met. What did follow instead was the overthrow of the Cambodian government in a right-wing military coup; a direct invasion of the country by the United States; massive antiwar protests across the United States, which precipitated the killing of students at Kent State University; the unraveling of the Nixon administration; and the eventual defeat of the Cambodian military government by the Khmer Rouge. Grandin writes that their forces “increased from about 5,000 [at the start of the bombing] in 1969 to more than 200,000 troops and militia in 1973,” a rise to power that William Shawcross writes in Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia was “born out of the inferno that American policy did much to create.” Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, died unrepentant in 1998, maintaining to the end that “we had to defend ourselves.” At 92 years of age, Henry Kissinger currently lives the life of a wealthy and highly honored American citizen. He feels much the same about his own actions.
And why wouldn’t he? After all, as Grandin writes,
Today in the United States, a shared and largely unquestioned assumption, irrespective of political affiliation, holds that Washington has the right to use military force against the “safe havens” of terrorists or potential terrorists, even if those havens are found in sovereign countries we are not at war with. This assumption was the premise of George W. Bush’s 2002 invasion of Afghanistan and Barack Obama’s expansion of drone attacks in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, along with his most recent military operations against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. This reasoning was not widely held in 1970.
Henry Kissinger, along with Richard Nixon, changed the world.
In reading Grandin’s overview of his subject’s career, it’s difficult to avoid concluding that the man is fundamentally a nihilist. Although he apparently privately told top officials in Lyndon Johnson’s administration that “we couldn’t win” following his first visit to Vietnam, he continued to publicly support the war and eventually played a major role in pursuing it. Why? Grandin’s conclusion is that the “purpose of not questioning the projection of American power in Vietnam was to avoid weakening American purpose.” Killing a million people was just the sort of thing a superpower had to do.
And Kissinger himself did the sorts of things that a superpower-enabler had to do. Crushed by the failure of his mentor, liberal Nelson Rockefeller, to win the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, he declared, “That man Nixon is not fit to be president.” But in little more than a month, he was in contact with the nominee’s campaign and passing on information about the Paris Peace Talks that he acquired from contacts in the Johnson administration. The Nixon campaign convinced the South Vietnamese government to balk at an arrangement that would have ended the bombing of North Vietnam in exchange for their agreement to negotiate with what they considered to be the US puppets in Saigon. The idea was that the Republicans would get them a better deal. Although sitting President Lyndon Johnson found out about this through wiretaps and probably could have destroyed Nixon’s chances of winning a very close election, “Johnson hesitated,” because, Grandin writes,
[h]e feared that “Nixon’s conniving” was just too explosive. “This is treason,” he said. “It would rock the world.”
Johnson stayed silent, Nixon won, and the war went on.
While this may now seem something of an obscure historical footnote, Grandin points out that “the very first impeachment resolution against Nixon, introduced in the House by Massachusetts representative Robert Drinan, focused not on the [now much-better-remembered] Watergate break-in but on the illegal war in Cambodia.”
The Kissinger story is a nasty business that goes on to include the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, and other horrors that shaped the modern world. But it’s one we need to understand if we ever hope to escape the cycle of ever-broadening war in the supposed pursuit of peace.
And oh yes, Grandin mentions that Kissinger has an admirer you might not expect. In 2014, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reviewed Kissinger’s book World Order for The Washington Post. “Kissinger is a friend,” she wrote. She “relied on his counsel,” she says, and he “checked in with me regularly, sharing astute observations about foreign leaders and sending me written reports on his travels.” She found his vision “just and liberal.”
Tom Gallagher has been a voter registration and election supervisor and observer in Bosnia and Macedonia. He is the author most recently of The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes on the Military Industrial Complex.