From Cambodia to Chile, a brief history of Henry Kissinger’s alleged war crimes


In his eight years at the helm of US foreign policy, Henry Kissinger’s unique brand of realpolitik diplomacy was blamed for genocides, massacres, rape and torture on an industrial scale.

The architect of US efforts to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War prioritised ideology over morality, and was responsible for the deaths of three to four million people between the years of 1969 and 1976, according to experts including Yale University historian Greg Grandin, the author of Kissinger’s Shadow.

Henry Kissinger, America’s most famous diplomat, dies aged 100

As Secretary of State under the Nixon and Ford administrations, he pursued an interventionist approach to world affairs that shaped the thinking of a generation of neocons who would come after him.

In his 2001 book The Trial of Henry Kissinger, legendary British author Christopher Hitchens methodically laid out the case for the grand old US statesman to be prosecuted for conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture.

Hitchens wrote that the US could “either persist in averting their gaze from the egregious impunity enjoyed by a notorious war criminal and lawbreaker, or they can become seized by the exalted standards to which they continually hold everyone else.”

US President Nixon’s special advisor Henry Kissinger laughs during a press conference, after the implementation of the Paris Peace Accords, with North Vietnam in Paris on June 13, 1973

(AFP via Getty Images)

Kissinger, who died aged 100 at his home in Connecticut on Wednesday 29 November, leaves behind a tainted legacy as national security adviser and secretary of state that would only emerge years after the fact, as US records were declassified, dictatorial regimes removed, and reckonings established.

His world view was shaped by his experiences growing up as a Jew under the Nazis in Germany. That prioritised his need to project American strength towards its communist adversaries and led to disastrous consequences for countries caught in the crossfire of his machiavellian strategies.

In his latter years, Kissinger reportedly had to avoid travelling to countries where he may summoned to account for his record.

Despite his blood-soaked record, he remained a revered figure within US foreign policy circles until his death.

Cambodia

Nowhere has the impact of Kissinger’s influence been more keenly felt than in Cambodia, where his role in expanding the Vietnam War through a “secret bombing” campaign in 1969 and ground incursion by US forces the following year leaves a festering wound on the Southeast Asian nation to this day.

The United States dropped over 540,000 tonnes of bombs in a campaign known as Operation Menu, which he and then-president Nixon pursued without the backing or knowledge of Congress in an effort to destroy the Khmer Rouge.

The aftermath of heavy bombing in Snuol, Cambodia, during the Cambodian Campaign of the Vietnam War, in May 1970

(Getty Images)

The US was not at war with Cambodia, but Kissinger felt the barbaric operation was needed to prevent the Khmer Rouge from supporting the communist North Vietnamese army.

The fissures from the disastrous military campaign led to an eight year civil war between the Cambodian government and the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot. The war killed an estimated 275,000–310,000 people, displaced millions, and destroyed a fifth of the country.

In declassified transcripts of telephone conversations from 1970, Kissinger spoke to Nixon about the situation in Cambodia before relaying the following order to his deputy Alexander Haig: “He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia… It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies, on anything that moves. You got that?”

At the age of 90, and in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Kissinger maintained that the US aerial bombardment took place in parts of Cambodia that “were essentially unpopulated”.

Kissinger was later found to have sabotaged peace talks between the US and the Vietcong while advising the Lyndon B Johnson administration during the Paris Peace Talks of 1968 by passing confidential intelligence to the South Vietnamese government.

President Richard Nixon, right, offers his congratulations to his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973

(AP)

Many thought it grotesque that Kissinger was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for negotiating the end of the war.

After visiting the country, the late chef, author and TV icon Anthony Bourdain wrote in his 2011 book A Cook’s Tour: “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands”.

“Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.”

Speaking to the New Yorker in 2017, Bourdain said he was “sickened” by how New York society had embraced Kissinger.

Senator Bernie Sanders said that Kissinger “created one of the worst genocides in the history of the world”.

East Timor

Kissinger’s bloody role in the massacre by Indonesian forces of the East Timorese people would only emerge decades after the fact.

He and President Gerald Ford met with the Indonesian dictator Suharto in December 1975 where they gave him the greenlight to invade East Timor, sparking a civil war that left as many as 200,000 people dead, according to documents that were declassified in 2001.

“It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly,” Kissinger told Suharto during a brief visit to Indonesia, according to telegrams obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

The next day, Indonesia invaded the fledgling former Portuguese colony, resulting in a decades-long conflict that continued until 2002 when Timor finally gained independence.

President Bill Clinton, left, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger laugh at a national policy conference, March 1, 1995

(AP)

Asked about the tacit approval in 1995, Kissinger flat out denied he had discussed the invasion with Suharto, who was viewed as a bulwark against communist expansion in the region.

“Those who follow history, who follow international politics — they know about this past, which was tragic and ugly,” East Timorese president José Ramos-Horta told the Washington Post in an interview after Kissinger’s death.

Mr Ramos-Horta told The Post that he felt Kissinger and other US officials were “embarrassed by what they did”, but in numerous face-to-face meetings he had never acknowledged his role in the massacre of the East Timorese people.

Chile

Salvador Allende had been viewed as a threat to US hegemony in South America long before he was elected as Chilean president in 1970, at a time when much of the continent was ruled by military dictatorships propped up by American support.

The socialist leader implemented wide-ranging reforms to nationalise the country’s copper mining industry, provide free health care and education to help lift the poorest out of poverty. He also re-established diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

Declassified reports would later show that Kissinger led the Nixon administration’s efforts to destabilise the country, and spent millions on covert activities to undermine his government and protect US business interests.

Chilean President Salvador Allende salutes from an open vehicle as General Augusto Pinochet rides on horseback alongside him in Santiago, in May 1972

(Associated Press)

Three years into Allende’s rule, with the country facing record inflation and widespread strikes (which were in part funded by the CIA) a coup led by General Augusto Pinochet saw the overthrow of the democratically-elected government.

Kissinger denied any involvement or knowledge of the coup, although declassified documents later showed that he and Nixon had branded Allende as a dangerous communist and laid the seeds for his overthrow

Allende was killed in the presidential palace on 11 September 1973, in what came to be known as the “other 9/11”.

A report by the Chilean government later found that 40,018 people were killed, tortured, or imprisoned on political charges during Pinochet’s regime.

Historian Peter Kornbluh, author of The Pinochet File, wrote that under the “narrow definition  of ‘direct role’… the CIA does not appear to have been involved in the violent actions of the Chilean military on September 11, 1973.”

But he continued that the Nixon White House had undoubtedly “embraced the coup”.

In a recorded conversation with Nixon five days after it, Kissinger confessed: “We didn’t do it. I mean we helped them… (inaudible) created the conditions as great as possible.”

Pinochet’s military junta was immediately recognised by the United States, and the dictator ruled the country with an iron fist until 1990.

Argentina

Kissinger provided US support to the military junta of General Jorge Rafael Videla after he overthrew President Isabel Perón in March 1976, according to State Department cables.

This led to the infamous Dirty War between 1976 to 1983, where Argentina’s military rulers killed or “disappeared” between 10,000 and 30,000 citizens, many of whom were never heard from again.

Secretary Kissinger secured $50m in funding for the Argentine dictatorship from Congress. After leaving the White House, he attended the 1978 Football World Cup as a personal guest of Videla.

The horrors of military rule were exposed after Argentina elected democratic leaders again in 1983. Many political prisoners were dropped from helicopters into the Atlantic Ocean.

Videla was later convicted of torture, kidnapping, and murder, and died in prison in 2013.

Bangladesh

When war broke out in what was then known as East Pakistan in 1970, Kissinger and Nixon backed the military government of West Pakistan in its genocide in what would become Bangladesh.

At the time, East Pakistan was a key US ally in its geopolitical struggle against the Soviet Union and communist-leaning India.

As the war spread and India became involved, the White House opted to back the slaughter by illegally transferring military hardware to the East Pakistan government.

Henry Kissinger during a White House news briefing in October 1972

(AP)

Independent researchers put the death toll at between 300,000 to 500,000 people, while Bangladeshi officials placed it as high as five million.

In the 2013 book The Blood Telegram, Gary J Bass wrote that Kissinger had called Indians “bastards,” and Nixon said they needed “a mass famine.”

Mr Bass recounted a conversation between the pair where they compared Pakistan’s genocide to the Holocaust, and yet still decided that any US intervention would be unwise.

Kissinger reportedly felt that it was more important to secure Pakistan’s help in diplomatic efforts to woo China.

After Kissinger’s death, Bangladesh’s foreign minister AK Abdul Momen condemned his role in violating “all American laws, international laws to support Pakistani military junta and also supplied weapons to illegally occupying forces of Pakistan”.



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