The Architect Of Carpet Bombings

What Kissinger Wrought

Dylan Matthews

One of America’s most important statesmen gave the world a series of diplomatic breakthroughs, and hundreds of thousands of bodies. Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state who crafted foreign policy for Presidents Nixon and Ford, with an eye toward supporting friendly dictatorships that could help the US balance Soviet power, and helped direct a massive bombing campaign killing tens of thousands of Cambodians and Vietnamese, has died. He was 100. His carpet bombing campaigns in Cambodia caused untold suffering and misery for hundreds of thousands of people. Yet, instead of being considered a war criminal, he is remembered as a Nobel laureate.

As Richard Nixon's national security adviser in 1971, Kissinger was the prime mover behind the US's choice to quietly back West Pakistan in its campaign against the people of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), which would claim hundreds of thousands of lives.

After Bengali Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won the country's elections on a platform of autonomy for the East, Pakistan's military ruler Gen Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan launched a vicious crackdown that included genocide against Bengali Hindus and Muslims seen as sympathetic to India. Kissinger did not urge Yahya to respect the election results, or complain about the use of US weapons against civilians, or threaten to pull aid to Pakistan.

Instead, he and Nixon conspired to illegally transfer arms to Pakistan, once India entered the war in defence of East Pakistan in December 1971. Kissinger recalled Archer Blood, the top US diplomat in East Pakistan who criticised US backing of Pakistan's mass slaughter, and sent him office to a personnel in Washington, DC, effectively ending his career as punishment for caring about civilian lives. Throughout the conflict, Kissinger urged inaction, warning internal critics of US policy that even the slightest pressure on its allies in Pakistan would backfire.

Midway through the slaughter, the CIA privately estimated that 200,000 had been killed. A later study using world health survey statistics puts the total at 269,000 violent war deaths. Some 10 million Bangladeshis were forced into India as refugees, and over 200,000 Bangladeshi women were raped as part of an organised campaign of intimidation and terror.

Nixon and Kissinger faced huge pressure to act from Democrats in Congress (notably Sen Ted Kennedy), from the press, from advocacy initiatives like George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh, from the State Department, and from some of Kissinger's own aides. They still did nothing, a favour that did not go unnoticed by Yahya. "Yahya was effusive in his gratitude to Nixon," Bass writes. "In a warm letter, he sympathised about the American public pressure that Nixon was withstanding, and insisted that reports of atrocities were Indian-inspired exaggerations.”

Apologists for Kissinger's support of genocide—like the Bush administration's ambassador to India Robert Blackwill—argue that standing idly by was necessary because Pakistan helped America's opening to China. But America's support for Pakistan preceded its use as a secret back channel to China, and was not the only such channel that existed.

As Ford's national security adviser and secretary of state in 1975, Kissinger gave Indonesian dictator Suharto an explicit green light to invade East Timor, an action which resulted in the deaths of at least 100,000 civilians.

East Timor, which shares the island of Timor with Indonesia, was a Portuguese colony when Portugal's right-wing Estado Novo dictatorship collapsed. That caused instability and a brief civil war on the island, won by the leftist party Fretilin, which then unilaterally declared independence. Indonesia shortly thereafter decided to invade and annex the territory. The US, which had partnered with Suharto a decade earlier when he overthrew a president viewed as too communist-sympathetic, was willing to play along to stabilise the region and assist a loyal ally.

The Indonesian military at the time was heavily supplied by the United States through Military Assistance Programme (MAP) authorisa-tions. University of Connecticut historian Brad Simpson, in conjunction with the National Security Archive at George Washington University, filed FOIA requests for relevant documents around the East Timor invasion, and found a telegram from American diplomats in Jakarta to DC reporting that roughly 90 percent of the weapons Indonesia used to take East Timor came from the United States.

 “As the Vietnam War wound to a close, the Ford Administration possessed an unusual degree of influence over Suharto, who remained committed to military modernisation using US equipment, anxious to forge closer ties to Washington, and concerned about international opinion. There is no evidence, however, that the Ford Administration even considered exerting any pressure on Indonesia not to invade.”

Many of Kissinger’s and the Nixon and Ford administrations’ worst offenses were conducted through brutal allies, like Suharto and Yahya. But one notable mass casualty event was carried out on their direct orders: the mass bombing of Cambodia.

Bombing missions in Cambodia were not an invention of the Nixon administration. The US was dropping bombs on the country during Lyndon B Johnson’s tenure commanding the war as well. “From 1965 to 1968, 2,565 sorties took place over Cambodia, with 214 tons of bombs dropped,” historians Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan write in their groundbreaking article on the Cambodian air war. “These early strikes were likely designed to support the nearly two thousand secret ground incursions conducted by the CIA and US Special Forces during that period.”

But the air war under Johnson and the air war under Nixon were of completely different scales. Johnson dropped 214 tons of bombs on the country; the total payload dropped on Cambodia from 1969 to 1973 was on the order of 500,000 tons.

For the first two years of the Nixon bombing effort, Owen and Kiernan explain, the campaign was mostly limited to the Vietnamese border area, albeit with much larger payloads than under Johnson. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had substantial presences in the area, and Nixon and Kissinger viewed them as a legitimate military target despite a lack of congressional authorisation.

Then the effort truly ramped up in December 1970 on direct orders from Nixon, who told then-National Security Adviser Kissinger he wanted more bombing, deeper into the country, with “no limitation on mileage and … no limitation on budget.” Kissinger dutifully passed along the order, telling Gen Alexander Haig, “He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies, on anything that moves. You got that?”

In humanitarian terms, these bombings were a disaster. Kiernan’s preferred estimate is that Nixon and Kissinger’s policy killed between 50,000 and 150,000 civilians directly through the bombings, with the high-end figure more likely. Other estimates run even higher, up to 300,000 or so.

Kissinger’s record influencing Vietnam policy began even before he joined the Nixon administration. While serving as an adviser to the Johnson-Hubert Humphrey administration in the Paris Peace Talks of 1968, Kissinger fed confidential information from the proceedings to Nixon's campaign, which in turn passed the intelligence along to the South Vietnamese government. This contributed to the scuttling of the talks, and the continuation of the war for seven more years.

As Nixon biographer John A Farrell has recounted, the plot centered on Anna Chennault, a Republican fundraiser and ardent anti-communist. Chennault met with Nixon, his campaign manager John Mitchell, and South Vietnamese ambassador to the US Bui Diem in 1968, where they arranged for Chennault to work as a conduit between the campaign and South Vietnam. Kissinger was aware of this connection, and that conversations with Mitchell could get back to South Vietnam.

In “late September, and again in early October 1968,” Kissinger (still working for LBJ at this point) leaked to Mitchell that there was “a better than even chance” that the Johnson administration would halt air strikes on North Vietnam in hopes of reaching a peace deal. The Soviet leadership, which as the North’s military and financial backer had deep influence over its government, had informed Johnson that a halt to bombings would “contribute to a breakthrough.”

“On October 31, Johnson announced his bombing halt,” Farrell writes, “But South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu dragged his feet, announcing his reluctance to join in peace talks. … Without Thieu’s support, the bombing halt looked like a cheap political trick, employed to get Humphrey elected.”

Chennault, it turned out, had passed along Kissinger’s intelligence to the South Vietnamese, convincing them to hold out for a better deal under Nixon rather than come to the table under Johnson (and his preferred successor Humphrey).

The Paris talks would drag on for four more years before ending on January 27, 1973, with a deal that provided for the removal of all US troops; Kissinger shared a Nobel Peace Prize for finalising talks he had sabotaged over four years and at least 21,126 American combat deaths earlier (not to mention the untold tens of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao deaths that took place in those years). Within months, though, North and South Vietnam began fighting again, and two years after the accords North Vietnam invaded and annexed the South.

Kissinger reportedly tried to return the Nobel Peace Prize he won for negotiating the treaty when Saigon fell in 1975; his North Vietnamese counterpart, LêÐ?cTh?, refused the prize in the first place, as no peace had been won.

[Source: Vox]

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Vol 56, No. 25, Dec 17 - 23, 2023