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Blood on hands: Kissinger’s shadow in US policy

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Abdullah Al Muntasir, TBH Desk

TA Sous, Cambodia— At the end of a dusty path snaking through rice paddies lives a woman who survived multiple U.S. airstrikes as a child.

Round-faced and just over 5 feet tall in plastic sandals, Meas Lorn lost an older brother to a helicopter gunship attack and an uncle and cousins to artillery fire. For decades, one question haunted her: “I still wonder why those aircraft always attacked in this area. Why did they drop bombs here?”

The U.S. carpet bombing of Cambodia between 1969 and 1973 has been well documented, but its architect, former national security adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who dies on his 100, bears responsibility for more violence than has been previously reported. An investigation by The Intercept provides evidence of attacks that have never before been publicized and that killed or wounded hundreds of Cambodian civilians during Kissinger’s tenure in the White House.

An exclusive archive of formerly classified U.S. military documents — assembled from the files of a secret Pentagon task force that investigated war crimes during the 1970s, inspector generals’ inquiries buried amid thousands of pages of unrelated documents, and other materials discovered during hundreds of hours of research at the U.S. National Archives — offers previously unpublished, unreported, and underappreciated evidence of civilian deaths that were kept secret during the war and remain almost entirely unknown to the American people. The documents also provided a rudimentary road map for on-the-ground reporting in Southeast Asia that yielded evidence of scores of additional bombings and ground raids that have never been reported to the outside world.

Not only in Cambodia, the late controversial US diplomat played the same way in many places of the world includs supporting the Pakistani genocide in 1971 in Bangladesh.

Role during 1971

Declassified documents from the archives of the United States government have uncovered the pivotal role played by Henry Kissinger, then the National Security Advisor, in shaping the geopolitical landscape during the 1971 Bangladesh liberation War. The documents, made public after decades of secrecy, reveal a complex web of diplomatic maneuvers and strategic calculations undertaken by Kissinger that had a profound impact on the conflict.

Kissinger, a key architect of US foreign policy during the Cold War era, had a deep involvement in managing the delicate balance of power in South Asia during the crisis. The 1971 War, marked by the creation of Bangladesh, was a significant turning point in the region’s history. The declassified materials expose Kissinger’s efforts to navigate the intricate web of alliances and interests, including his attempts to maintain a delicate balance between supporting Pakistan and avoiding a direct confrontation with India.

Documents now suggest in 1971, the then US administration was frantically trying to build relations with Peking, now Beijing, to negate Soviet Union influence in that cold war era in a bipolar world taking the advantage of the Sino-Soviet conflict though both the countries were communist ones.

It appears the state department, which is the US foreign office, was side-lined or kept in dark about the Nixon administration’s clandestine effort.

Pakistan’s support in the process visibly obligated the Nixon administration to take Islamabad’s side and even at the fag-end of Bangladesh’s Liberation War US sent its Seventh Fleets’ task force led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise to Bay of Bengal.

Kissinger, however, wrote the Seventh Fleet was sent to protect West Pakistan and ‘we have to prevent India from attacking West Pakistan; that’s the major thing’.

Yet, he commented, the US stance on Pakistan side ‘the outcome of an independent Bangladesh was foreordained’ but added that the events related to Bangladesh’s Liberation War were ‘perhaps the most complex issue’ of Nixon’s term in office.

Kissinger reiterated this view later as well in a conversation with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman when he said Bangladesh’s independence was virtually inevitable but he wanted to see it in a different circumstance.

According to a declassified US state department document Nixon, Kissinger and US attorney general Mitchell in a conversation among them on December 8, 1971 became sure that Pakistani army was set to concede defeat and Bangladesh’s emergence was inevitable.

Yet the US sent the Seventh Fleet in the pretext of evacuating American citizens from the warzone but Kissinger wrote ‘in reality, (it was aimed) to give emphasis to our warnings against an attack on West Pakistan’.

The declassified documents including those of the CIA cables suggested was aimed particularly to give a warning to Indian high ups not to invade West Pakistan after liberating Bangladesh.

A currently declassified CIA cable of December 6, 1971 leaked a briefing of the then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi that revealed the New Delhi had three war objectives.

Those were – quick liberation of Bangladesh, the incorporation into India of the southern part of Azad Kashmir for strategic rather than territorial reasons and to destroy Pakistani military striking power so that it never attempts to challenge India in the future.

The documents suggest the Nixon administration feared that Gandhi would wage a full-scale military attack on West Pakistan soon after Bangladesh’s liberation.

This apprehension prompted the US to exert maximum political pressure through the UN along with military movement to safeguarding its ally West Pakistan.

The declassified state department memo that transcript a conversation among president Nixon, Kissinger and attorney general Mitchell in Washington DC on, December 8, 1971, when Kissinger told Nixon’ ‘Well, then the Pakistanis are going to lose (in East Pakistan)’.

But, he said, ‘even then we are not that directly, that much involved. The carrier (Seventh fleet).’

In reply Nixon said, ‘Well, my point is they’re going to lose anyway. At least we make an effort, and there is a chance to save it (West Pakistan).’

Later, Kissinger wrote in his book – ‘We were doing our part by moving a carrier task force near the Strait of Malacca. We have to prevent India from attacking west Pakistan; that’s the major thing’.

He recalled when the US fleet passed through the Strait of Malacca into Bay of Bengal that attracted much media attention.

‘Were we threatening India? Were we seeking to defend East Pakistan? Had we lost our minds?’ he raised questions and gave the answer as well – ‘It was in fact sober calculation. We had some seventy-two hours to bring the war to a conclusion before West Pakistan would be swept into the maelstrom.’

The Nixon’s ‘Tilt toward Pakistan’ policy had not been supported by the state department or some senators including Kennedy as they would like to back a democratic India with 600 million people rather a dictator like the then Pakistani president Yahiya Khan.

As a consequence, Nixon had decided to order the aircraft carrier movement by keeping the state department in dark.

‘Keep as much of it under the hat as you can. What I mean is let’s do the carrier thing and I would tell the people in the State Department not a goddamn thing they don’t need to know,’ Nixon told Kissinger as per one of the declassified documents.

According to another declassified document on transcript of telephone conversation in Washington on December 16, 1971, the day Bangladesh was liberated, Kissinger informed to Nixon – ‘The Indians have just declared a unilateral ceasefire in the West.’

‘Congratulations, Mr president. You saved W Pakistan,’ Kissinger told Nixon.

The US aircraft carrier did not enter the Bay of Bengal and it returned to Subic Bay in the Philippines on January 8 in 1971 as Soviet Union as well sent warships as a counteraction visibly in line with its defence pact with India in 1971.

US foreign policy researcher Professor Garry Bass said Yahiya begged Nixon to send the seventh fleet to Pakistan’s shore to defend Karachi but Nixon, despite often sounding like he was on the verge of war with India, ‘had no intention of any naval combat’.

‘The USS enterprise carrier group was an atomic-powered bluff, mean to spook the Indians and increase soviet pressure on India for a cease-fire, but nothing more,’ he wrote in his book – The Blood Telegram.

Henry Kissinger, later called the stance ‘a case history of political misjudgment’. ‘The issue (Pakistan crisis) burst upon us while Pakistan was our only channel to China,’ wrote Henry Kissinger in his White House Years, where he served US President Richard Nixon’s national security assistant and subsequently as the secretary of state.

Killing in Cambodia

Survivors from 13 Cambodian villages along the Vietnamese border later told an interview about attacks that killed hundreds of their relatives and neighbors during Kissinger’s tenure in President Richard Nixon’s White House. The interviews with more than 75 Cambodian witnesses and survivors, published recently in The Intercept for the first time, reveal in new detail the long-term trauma borne by survivors of the American war. These attacks were far more intimate and perhaps even more horrific than the violence already attributed to Kissinger’s policies, because the villages were not just bombed, but also strafed by helicopter gunships and burned and looted by US and allied troops.

The incidents detailed in the files and the testimony of survivors include accounts of both deliberate attacks inside Cambodia and accidental or careless strikes by US forces operating on the border with South Vietnam. These latter attacks were infrequently reported through military channels, covered only sparingly by the press at the time, and have mostly been lost to history. Together, they increase an already sizable number of Cambodian deaths for which Kissinger bears responsibility and raise questions among experts about whether long-dormant efforts to hold him accountable for war crimes might be renewed.

The Army files and interviews with Cambodian survivors, American military personnel, Kissinger confidants, and experts demonstrate that impunity extended from the White House to American soldiers in the field. The records show that U.S. troops implicated in killing and maiming civilians received no meaningful punishments.

Kissinger’s shadow in US policy

Together, the interviews and documents demonstrate a consistent disregard for Cambodian lives: failing to detect or protect civilians; to conduct post-strike assessments; to investigate civilian harm allegations; to prevent such damage from recurring; and to punish or otherwise hold U.S. personnel accountable for injuries and deaths. These policies not only obscured the true toll of the conflict in Cambodia but also set the stage for the civilian carnage of the U.S. war on terror from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria to Somalia, and beyond.

“You can trace a line from the bombing of Cambodia to the present,” said Greg Grandin, author of “Kissinger’s Shadow.” “The covert justifications for illegally bombing Cambodia became the framework for the justifications of drone strikes and forever war. It’s a perfect expression of American militarism’s unbroken circle.”

Kissinger bears significant responsibility for attacks in Cambodia that killed as many as 150,000 civilians, according to Ben Kiernan, former director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University and one of the foremost authorities on the U.S. air campaign in Cambodia. That’s up to six times the number of noncombatants thought to have died in U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen during the first 20 years of the war on terror. Grandin estimated that, overall, Kissinger — who also helped to prolong the Vietnam War and facilitate genocides in Cambodia, East Timor, and Bangladesh; accelerated civil wars in southern Africa; and supported coups and death squads throughout Latin America — has the blood of at least 3 million people on his hands

All the while, as Kissinger dated starlets, won coveted awards, and rubbed shoulders with billionaires at black-tie White House dinners, Hamptons galas, and other invitation-only soirées, survivors of the U.S. war in Cambodia were left to grapple with loss, trauma, and unanswered questions. They did so largely alone and invisible to the wider world, including to Americans whose leaders had upended their lives.

In 1973, during his Senate confirmation hearings to become secretary of state, Kissinger was asked if he approved of deliberately keeping attacks on Cambodia secret, to which he responded with a wall of words justifying the assaults. “I just wanted to make clear that it was not a bombing of Cambodia, but it was a bombing of North Vietnamese in Cambodia,” he insisted. The evidence from U.S. military records and eyewitness testimony directly contradicts that claim. So did Kissinger himself.

In his 2003 book, “Ending the Vietnam War,” Kissinger offered an estimate of 50,000 Cambodian civilian deaths from U.S. attacks during his involvement in the conflict — a number given to him by a Pentagon historian. But documents obtained by The Intercept show that number was conjured almost out of thin air. In reality, the U.S. bombardment of Cambodia ranks among the most intense air campaigns in history. More than 231,000 U.S. bombing sorties were flown over Cambodia from 1965 to 1973. Between 1969 and 1973, while Kissinger was national security adviser, U.S. aircraft dropped 500,000 or more tons of munitions. (During all of World War II, including the atomic bombings, the United States dropped around 160,000 tons of munitions on Japan.)

“Anything That Flies on Anything That Moves”

One night in December 1970, Nixon called his national security adviser in a rage about Cambodia. “I want the helicopter ships. I want everything that can fly to go in and crack the hell out of them,” he barked at Kissinger, according to a transcript. “I want gunships in there. That means armed helicopters. … I want it done! Get them off their ass. … I want them to hit everything.”

Five minutes later, Kissinger was on the phone with Gen. Alexander Haig, his military aide, relaying the command for a relentless assault on Cambodia. “It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves. You got that?”

Two years earlier, Nixon had won the White House promising to end America’s war in Vietnam, but instead expanded the conflict into neighboring Cambodia. Fearing public backlash and believing that Congress would never approve an attack on a neutral country, Kissinger and Haig began planning — a month after Nixon took office — an operation that was kept secret from the American people, Congress, and even top Pentagon officials via a conspiracy of cover stories, coded messages, and a dual bookkeeping system that logged airstrikes in Cambodia as occurring in South Vietnam. Ray Sitton, a colonel serving the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would bring a list of targets to the White House for approval. “Strike here in this area,” Kissinger would tell him, and Sitton would backchannel the coordinates into the field, circumventing the military chain of command. Authentic documents associated with the strikes were burned, and phony target coordinates and other forged data were provided to the Pentagon and Congress.

Kissinger, who went on to serve as secretary of state in the Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom — America’s highest civilian award — in 1977. In the decades that followed, he has continued to counsel U.S. presidents, most recently Donald Trump; served on numerous corporate and government advisory boards; and authored a small library of bestselling books on history and diplomacy.

The chief architect of US war policy in Southeast Asia

Born Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Fürth, Germany, on May 27, 1923, he came to the United States in 1938, amid a flood of Jews fleeing Nazi oppression. He became a U.S. citizen in 1943 and served in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II. After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard College in 1950, he continued on to an M.A. in 1952 and a Ph.D. in 1954. He subsequently joined the Harvard faculty, working in the Department of Government and at the Center for International Affairs until 1969. While teaching at Harvard, he served as a consultant for the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson before his senior roles in the Nixon and Ford administrations. A believer in Realpolitik, Kissinger heavily influenced U.S. foreign policy between 1969 and 1977.

Through a combination of relentless ambition, media savvy, and the ability to muddy the truth and slip free of scandal, Kissinger transformed himself from a college professor and government functionary into the most celebrated American diplomat of the 20th century and a bona fide celebrity. While dozens of his White House colleagues were engulfed in the swirling Watergate scandal, which cost Nixon his job in 1974, Kissinger emerged unscathed, all the while providing fodder for the tabloids and spouting lines like “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

Kissinger was the chief architect of U.S. war policy in Southeast Asia, achieving almost co-president status in such matters. Kissinger and Nixon were also uniquely responsible for attacks that killed, wounded, or displaced hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and laid the groundwork for the Khmer Rouge genocide.

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge leadership cannot be exonerated for committing genocide on the Cambodian people, said Kiernan, the Yale scholar, but neither can Nixon nor Kissinger escape responsibility for their role in the slaughter that precipitated it. The duo so destabilized the tiny country that Pol Pot’s nascent revolutionary movement took over Cambodia in 1975 and unleashed horrors, from massacres to mass starvation, that would kill around 2 million people.

Kaing Guek Eav (known as “Duch”) who ran the Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng prison, where thousands of Cambodians were tortured and murdered in the late 1970s, made the same observation. “Mister Richard Nixon and Kissinger,” he told a United Nations-backed tribunal, “allowed the Khmer Rouge to grasp golden opportunities.” After he was overthrown in a military coup and his country was plunged into genocide, Cambodia’s deposed monarch, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, leveled similar blame. “There are only two men responsible for the tragedy in Cambodia,” he said in the 1970s. “Mr. Nixon and Dr. Kissinger.”

In his 2001 book-length indictment, “The Trial of Henry Kissinger,” Christopher Hitchens called for Kissinger’s prosecution “for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offenses against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture” from Argentina, Bangladesh, and Chile to East Timor, Laos, and Uruguay. But Hitchens reserved special opprobrium for Kissinger’s role in Cambodia. “The bombing campaign,” he wrote, “began as it was to go on — with full knowledge of its effect on civilians, and with flagrant deceit by Mr. Kissinger in this precise respect.”

Others went beyond theoretical indictments. As a teenager, Australian-born human rights activist Peter Tatchell felt greatly affected by the U.S. war — and war crimes — in Indochina. Decades later, believing that there was a strong case to be made, he took action. “It surprised me that no one had tried to prosecute Kissinger under international law, so I decided to have a go,” he told later.

In 2002, with Slobodan Miloševic, the former president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, on trial for war crimes, Tatchell applied for an arrest warrant at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court in London under the Geneva Conventions Act of 1957, an act of Parliament that incorporated some components of the laws of war as defined by the 1949 Geneva Conventions into British law. He alleged that while Kissinger “was National Security Advisor to the U.S. President 1969-75 and U.S. Secretary of State 1973-77 he commissioned, aided and abetted and procured war crimes in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.” Judge Nicholas Evans denied the application, stating that he was not “presently” able to draft a “suitably precise charge” based on the evidence Tatchell submitted.

When the arrest warrant was denied, Tatchell tried to engage international humanitarian organizations to help or take over the case, but as he said they “did not see it as a priority.” He tried unsuccessfully to contact potential American witnesses and engage US human rights groups.


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