An Intercept investigation, years in the making, reveals previously unpublished, unreported, and underappreciated evidence of hundreds of civilian casualties that were kept secret during the conflict in Cambodia and remain almost entirely unknown to the American people. This week on Intercepted, host Murtaza Hussain talks to Nick Turse, an investigative journalist and contributing writer for The Intercept, about his work to uncover the mass violence Kissinger ordered and oversaw in Cambodia while the U.S. carpet-bombed the country between 1969 and 1973. Turse’s investigation, “Kissinger’s Killing Fields,” is based on previously unpublished interviews with more than 75 Cambodian witnesses and survivors of U.S. military attacks in 13 Cambodian villages so remote they couldn’t be found on maps. Their accounts reveal new details of the long-term trauma borne by survivors of the American war.
“It was very hands on. Kissinger was picking where bombs would be dropped in Cambodia,” Turse says. “The authentic documents associated with these strikes were burned and phony target coordinates and other forged data were supplied to the Pentagon and eventually Congress.” Experts say Kissinger bears significant responsibility for attacks in Cambodia that killed as many as 150,000 civilians — six times more noncombatants than the United States has killed in airstrikes since 9/11.
[Intercepted intro theme music.]
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Murtaza Hussain: Welcome to Intercepted. I am Murtaza Hussain.
Ted Koppel: The consequences in Cambodia were particular – no, no, no, were –
Henry Kissinger: This is a program that needed doing. Because I’m going to be a hundred years old.
Ted Koppel: Right.
Henry Kissinger: And you’re picking a topic of something that happened 60 years ago. You have to know that it was a necessary step.
MH: There is perhaps no man more emblematic of the dark side of American empire than Henry Kissinger.
This week, the former Secretary of State, whose role in grotesque human rights abuses across Asia and Latin America has made him a figure of revulsion to millions, will mark his hundredth birthday. Though Kissinger has never been held accountable for atrocities he committed as a powerful U.S. official during the Cold War, that has not stopped journalists and historians from documenting and uncovering the long list of crimes for which he is responsible. And that list is still growing, even today.
Nick Turse, a contributing writer and investigative reporter for The Intercept, has spent decades researching and writing about Kissinger, including in the book, “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.” Nick has published a new trove at The Intercept of previously unreported evidence showing hundreds of civilian casualties that were kept secret during the war and that remain almost entirely unknown to the American people.
Nick joins me now to talk about Kissinger and his foreign policy legacy. Welcome to Intercepted, Nick. Great to have you back.
Nick Turse: Thanks for having me on.
MH: So, Nick, first: can you start by telling us a bit about your work? In 2013, you published a book about war crimes and survivors in Vietnam and Cambodia, and interviewed the victims of many U.S. attacks, during the period of the U.S. War in that region. How did you develop an interest in this issue, and what led you towards the subject matter?
NT: Yeah, this goes back a long way. It began when I was a graduate student many, many years ago at Columbia University. I was working on a project on post-traumatic stress disorder among U.S. Vietnam veterans. I used to go down to the National Archives on a regular basis to find documentary materials to match up to interview material that we had, to place a veteran at a specific time, a specific place in Vietnam, to verify what they were doing at the time.
And on one of these research trips to the National Archives, I was searching for several different data sets of documents, and I came up empty on every one of them, and I knew I couldn’t go back to my boss empty handed. So, like many historians before me, I threw myself on the mercy of an archivist there and said, “I have to have something to bring back. Is there anything you can think of that would help me out here?” And he asked me a question that ended up changing my life: he asked me if I thought that witnessing war crimes could cause post-traumatic stress.
I told him that was an excellent hypothesis. I asked what he had on war crimes. And, within an hour, he had delivered to me about 30 archival boxes filled with the U.S. military’s own investigations of massacres, murders, assault, mutilation — horrific crimes committed by U.S. military personnel. And, also, these allegations were made by recently returned veterans or currently serving U.S. military personnel. They were collected by a secret Pentagon task force, and that launched me on my research.
That was about ten years of work going through those documents, writing a dissertation from them, and then – with The Los Angeles Times and, later, on my own – going to Vietnam to track down witnesses and survivors to get the fullest sense I could of these cases.
MH: Many of our listeners probably have some understanding of Henry Kissinger’s role in the U.S. War in Vietnam and broader Southeast Asia during the period of the Cold War. But, you know, he’s turning 100 years old this weekend, and every generation needs to have a bit of a refresher, or at least underlining some of the key points of his involvement in some of the war crimes we’ll be talking about, and which you wrote about in your recent story.
Can you tell us in brief a bit — for those who may not know, or those may want to be reminded – who Henry Kissinger was during this period, and what role he played in the White House’s war policy in Southeast Asia?
NT: Henry Kissinger served as President Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor. And Kissinger was – by his own admission, if you listen to him talk about the war, read his writings on it – the chief architect of U.S. war policy in Southeast Asia; that’s Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
It was unprecedented, before or since, for a national security advisor to have this type of sway, to wield this much power, but he really achieved almost co-president status alongside the actual president Richard Nixon. So, Kissinger was uniquely responsible for attacks that killed, wounded, or displaced hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, and destabilized that country, laying the groundwork for the Khmer Rouge genocide that followed.
For people who don’t know the story: Nixon had won the White House promising to end America’s war in Vietnam but, instead, he expanded the conflict into neighboring Cambodia. Fearing a public backlash and believing that Congress would never approve an attack on a neutral country, Kissinger and his deputy Alexander Haig hatched a plan.
A month after Nixon took office in 1969, they came up with an operation codenamed “Menu” that was kept secret from the American people, from 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.
There was a colonel named Ray Sitton who served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he would bring lists of targets to the White House for approval. Kissinger would tell him, “Strike here, strike there,” it was very hands-on. So, Kissinger was picking where bombs would be dropped in Cambodia, and then Colonel Sitton would backchannel the coordinates into the field, circumventing the military chain of command.
And, then the authentic documents associated with these strikes were burned, and phony target coordinates and other forged data were supplied to the Pentagon and, eventually, Congress.
MH: So, a kind of interesting detail of history is that Richard Nixon himself wanted an honorable end to the war in Vietnam, or his political career responded to the frustrations of many Americans with the way the conflict was going. And, in many of his public statements, he seemed to reflect those frustrations, and talked about the need to end the war.
I want to play a clip for you, it’s from the 1968 presidential campaign ad for Richard Nixon. And here’s the clip:
Richard Nixon: Never has so much military, economic, and diplomatic power been used so ineffectively as in Vietnam. If, after all of this time, and all of this sacrifice, and all of this support, there is still no end in sight, then I say the time has come for the American people to turn to new leadership, not tied to the policies and mistakes of the past. I pledge to you, we shall have an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.
MH: A lot of Nixon’s rhetoric around this time reminds me a bit of Iraq War-era U.S. politicians who often reflected or spoke about Americans’ frustrations with the Iraq War, and the war on terrorism, generally. And yet, they didn’t seem to be able to deliver any promise of winding it down, or bringing it to quote-unquote, “an honorable conclusion.”
So, in the case of Nixon, I’m very curious. After he was elected on this promise, what happened thereafter which halted any attempt to end the war? And can you tell us about Kissinger’s role in the prolongation of the war and, particularly, in his position as National Security Advisor to Nixon?
NT: Yes. You know, Nixon came to office, as we heard in the clip, promising peace with honor. But, really, what Nixon and Kissinger at his side did was expand the war, from Vietnam into Cambodia. There had been limited, U.S. covert actions in Cambodia. There had been numerous airstrikes, but nothing like what would follow.
You know, Kissinger, along with Haig, designed this secret bombing that went on at Cambodia beginning in 1969. It was carpet bombing, B-52 strikes. A tremendous tonnage of bombs dropped on a neutral neighbor of Vietnam. Nixon and Kissinger also launched a process known as “Vietnamization,” where they would allegedly turn the war over to South Vietnam. This led to, also, a ground invasion by South Vietnamese of Laos. It led to the Cambodian Incursion, which was U.S. and South Vietnamese troops invading Cambodia, but they avoided that particular language, called it an “incursion.”
So, in every aspect, Nixon widened the war. And, you know, if he was truly interested in peace with honor, I mean, they could have wound up the war when he first took office. Instead, about the same amount of Americans died under Nixon’s watch as had died from 1965 till 1969, when he came to office.
So, prolonged and expanded the war, is really how it turned out in point of fact, although his rhetoric often talked about achieving peace, and also turning the war back over to the Vietnamese.
MH: So, Nick, another person who, like you, spent a lot of time in Cambodia going over the legacy of this conflict was Anthony Bourdain, who you also quote in your recent story. The late chef and television host wrote in his 2001 book: “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag, sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a glossy new magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia, the fruits of his genius for statesmanship, and you’ll never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Miloševi?.”
NT: I included the Bourdain quote in my article, because I thought it was exceptionally eloquent. It’s very difficult to put it any better. I certainly understand where he was coming from in this.
You know, I traveled through the borderlands of Cambodia talking to people, and the trauma that they experienced during those times, during the war, is profound. And it’s something that, you know, even though they survived the bombing, you had to then live through a genocide by the Khmer Rouge. But the visceral response to the bombing had never left these people. They were still exceptionally traumatized, and they had so many questions for me, because they didn’t understand why this had happened to them.
They weren’t involved in the Vietnam War in any way, it was exceptionally foreign to them. These were rural farm folk who, you know, they didn’t understand what was happening. One day, helicopters just appeared in the skies over their homes. They’d never seen machinery like this, they didn’t know what it was, you know?
It just came out of the sky, and they didn’t know what to make of it. And then, very soon, the machine guns opened up and rockets were fired. And they didn’t have any frame of reference for what was happening, or why. And these were the questions that they asked me.
You know, when I think about the Bourdain quote, I also think about one particular case that I found in the U.S. records that really drives home what the American war meant for Cambodians. In one case that I chronicle – and this one is from U.S. records – Americans shot up a village with helicopters using machine gun fire and rockets. Then U.S. and allied South Vietnamese forces landed and looted the village. An American officer stole a motorbike and hauled it onto a helicopter.
But there were two dozen wounded Cambodian civilians on the ground, including children. The Americans saw, in particular, one young girl, she was shot and bleeding. Some of the Americans wanted to take her for medical care, but the officer who dragged a Suzuki motorbike onboard the helicopter said, “negative,” that they were weighed down by the bike and they had no room.
So, this little girl, maybe about five years old, shot, in desperate need of medical care, was left to die, so that he could bring back this looted motorbike and then present it to his commanding officer.
You know, when you read accounts like this, and you listen to testimony of Cambodians who lived through these types of events, it’s perfectly understandable where Bourdain was coming from, and the visceral reaction that he had.
MH: You know, Nick, I think a lot of people – well, some people will know this but, for background for those who don’t know – obviously, the U.S. was involved in a very intense war in Vietnam, but how did that war expand to Cambodia, and what was the background to U.S. involvement in Cambodia, which Kissinger was such a strong advocate for?
NT: So, from the very earliest days of the Vietnam War, long before most Americans knew that the country was at war in Vietnam, the war led across the border in Cambodia. There were quote-unquote, “accidental airstrikes.” There were also covert cross-border raids. The first airstrike, I think, that I remember finding in the records, was in 1962. Most Americans think that the Vietnam War began in 1965.
But, you know, there were these various incidents throughout the 1960s in Cambodia – covert cross-border raids, errant air attacks, or maybe ones that weren’t so errant – but it was very small scale. And, officially, the United States treated Cambodia as if it was neutral. But both the United States and their foes in Vietnam — the North Vietnamese and revolutionaries in the South — used Cambodia in various ways, and the war bled over, but it was exceptionally different once Nixon took office in 1969.
As I mentioned, Henry Kissinger and his deputy Alexander Haig designed this so-called “secret bombing,” these high-impact B-52 strikes in border areas. The idea was to attack enemy sanctuaries, North Vietnamese troops, Southern Vietnamese guerillas who were using Cambodian territory.
For years, Henry Kissinger said that the U.S. wasn’t bombing Cambodians, they were bombing North Vietnamese in Cambodia. And he told the U.S. Senate this during hearings in 1973. But, decades later, in one of his books, there’s a footnote that says he admits that the United States killed 50,000 Cambodians in the bombing. This was a question that I had for Kissinger, that I took to him. You know, how could you not be bombing Cambodians and kill 50,000 of them?
So, there was this major expansion of the war once Kissinger had become its architect, as far as the bombing goes. Then, instead of just cross-border raids, Nixon and Kissinger planned this Cambodian incursion. Which, you know, it was a euphemism for an invasion by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. Again, the idea was to attack enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia.
The Nixon White House was obsessed with this idea of something they called COSVN or, the terminology at the time was “The Bamboo Pentagon.” The idea was that the South Vietnamese guerillas had something akin to The Pentagon in the United States. Americans have this problem, the American military, they can’t conceive of anyone else operating in a different fashion than they do.
You know, the high command of South Vietnamese guerillas was likely several guys with a radio. But, you know, the U.S. military was looking for some sort of massive base complex with an array of officials in it. And the idea was that they could find this place, capture or kill all the people in it, and destroy the South Vietnamese revolutionary effort.
All they did was just push North Vietnamese troops back further into Cambodia, destabilize Cambodia, and set the stage, eventually, for the Khmer Rouge to take over Cambodia. The U.S. War, expanding into this neutral nation, completely destabilized it, and ultimately undermined U.S. efforts in Southeast Asia.
MH: So, Nick, one of the things I found very impressive about your reporting, and I found quite unique when reporting on stories which are often treated as historical interests, whether they’ve been addressed or not in any other fashion, is that you’ve surfaced some really new information in the story, in the form of documents and transcripts.
Can you tell us a bit about your reporting and what you uncovered, and how it shed more light on Nixon/Kissinger’s role in Cambodia?
NT: You know, I think the main takeaways of this story, the reporting from the ground at Cambodia and also the documents, they show that Henry Kissinger is responsible for more civilian deaths in Cambodia than was previously known. The exclusive archive that I was able to put together offers previously unpublished, unreported, and underappreciated evidence of hundreds of civilian casualties that were kept secret during the war, and remain almost entirely unknown to the American people.
This includes previously unpublished interviews with more than 75 Cambodian witnesses and survivors of U.S. military attacks, and it reveals new details about the long-term trauma that’s born by survivors of the American war there.
And, yeah, I was able to get this material by traveling to Cambodia. I searched the borderlands with Vietnam, looking for villages that were mentioned in U.S. military documents. I was carrying binders filled with photos of U.S. helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, asking villagers to point out the military hardware that killed their loved ones and their neighbors. My interviewees were uniformly shocked that Americans knew about attacks on their villages, and that one of them had traveled across the globe to speak with them.
You know, I’ve spent a career reporting in far flung conflict zones – South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Somalia, on and on – and I’m used to challenging reporting but, even though Cambodia was no longer a war zone when I went there, it was a real challenge. Just finding the villages was difficult work.
We would roll through thick, unruly forests, and rubber plantations, and rice fields, and then turn off paved roads onto red dirt paths, looking for villages that were unknown even to local officials. These tiny border villages weren’t on maps. Oftentimes, the names had changed since the early 1970s, so younger officials didn’t know the older names. But, if you actually found the village, people there didn’t know the new name.
You know, there was one village in the military documents that I had, it just had a phonetic spelling, something like, “Moroan.” There was no village in Cambodia called Moroan, but there was one called Morone. The trouble was, nobody knew how to get there. So, you know, we got fairly close, and spent two days driving around local roads, asking for directions, going this way and that. And, eventually, we turned off onto a red dirt track that ended up dead-ending to just a footpath, and walked about a mile or so, and found a village of simple wooden homes on stilts, and found the village chief.
I pulled out my documents. I described a particular attack that happened on May 1st, 1970, when U.S. helicopters attacked the village, killed 12 civilians, wounded five others. And the documents noted that, after the assault, the survivors fled the village, to a place called Con Tut.
And, in all the Cambodian border villages I visited, focusing on a lone attack from the U.S. documents just left people baffled. They’d endured so many airstrikes, so many attacks by helicopter gunships, that one attack never stood out to them. But, you know, as I was describing it, the date, the village chief gestured towards the far edge of the village, and he said, many people died in that area at that time. And then he said, afterward, the people left this village for another called Con Tut. So, I knew I had the right place.
And that’s how the reporting went. A lot of driving around, trying to triangulate locations from these decades-old, fractured, and imperfect information. And in each instance I came searching for one violent incident but, in almost every case, I heard accounts of relentless attacks, and years and years of trauma.
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MH: You know, one thing I’ve noticed from reporting in areas where conflicts have taken place previously — sometimes years or even decades, but the survivors are still there — is that the trauma and memories really do linger, and leave a very indelible mark on the people who continue to live in those areas. Family members were lost or wounded, or merely were witness to what took place in their communities.
Can you tell us a bit about the interviews you had with these Cambodian survivors, and the legacy that this violence has left on their communities?
NT: The trauma that people experienced during the war was palpable, and whenever I went to one of these villages and talked to people, I would tell them that, you know, I knew that it was very, very difficult subjects talk about. And I understood if they didn’t want to delve into that history, but that, if they were willing to, I wanted to listen.
And you could see it in the face of people, and if you do this kind of interviewing, this kind of work, you can see the signs of decompensation, and people re-experiencing trauma, and, you know, as a reporter, as an interviewer, try to manage that as best as possible. Give people a chance to take some time, process it.
But, generally, even people who had a difficult time talking about this, at the end, you know, they would thank me. One, it’s part of the culture, but two, you know, people would go further, and say that they were grateful for the opportunity to speak about this. That, you know, they had lived through all of this trauma, and then the Khmer Rouge genocide that followed.
And because they stayed in these villages with all the same people, they all experienced it, it wasn’t something that they revisited. And after all those years of war and trauma, they weren’t eager to at the time. But yeah, they never had a chance to really process it or talk about it. And they said that my showing up and asking about it gave them an opportunity to, you know, finally – you know, it was, in many cases, I think, an excuse to talk about these things, confront them, bring them back up, and share these memories. With an outsider like me, but also with each other.
And, generally, there would be a lot of children from the village who would crowd around, and I asked my translator, who was with me, was it appropriate to have the children there listening to this? And he and the adults there thought it was. That the children didn’t know these stories, you know? People in the village just didn’t bring these things up, but they thought it was important for their children to hear about it.
And, because I would bring binders with photos of American aircraft, they could point out to them what each aircraft did, and their memories of it. This one flew exceptionally high, this one at a middle level, this right above the rooftops. And explain what life had been like during the war, and how they’d lived through it.
MH: I want to pivot back to talking about Henry Kissinger, specifically in his role and his legacy related to Cambodia.
But, before I do that, one thing I want to ask you very quickly about two particular incidents you reported on in your story. One was a looting incident of a village that took place in Snuol, Cambodia, in 1970. Another was a bombing attack in Neak Loeung, Cambodia, which took place three years after that.
For the case of this looting, it’s very interesting, because there was some reporting about at the time, if you look back in The New York Times and a few other places, it was somehow documented that this took place by the U.S. media contemporaneously. But the reporting was sort of – I wouldn’t say antiseptic, but it sort of just raised questions without pointing fingers, per se. It was like a neutral report about what, objectively, seems to be a very grave crime.
And, likewise, the bombing of this village as well. You know, it was so many villages bombed at this time, and the attention given to it did not seem commensurate in the U.S. press to the actual human impact on Cambodians.
Can you talk a bit about these two incidents? Just, first, what took place, specifically? And then, if you had any context or perception of how deep the impact was on these people, and how different it was from the U.S. press reporting at the time that existed.
NT: Yeah. The case that you mentioned, the looting of Snuol. Now, that was, as you say, it was reported at the time. What I think my story brings to bear is that there was an official U.S. military investigation of this, basically because U.S. troops were caught looting red-handed. The commander on the scene, someone that I talked to for the story, named Grail Brookshire. He was a colonel at the time, he retired as a one-star general.
He came out and told television crews who made it to Snuol as part of the Cambodian incursion – they went to this town – that his troops, unequivocally, were not looting. And these television crews had shot footage of U.S. troops smashing open Cambodian shops, stealing alcohol, soda, batteries, radios. They stole a motorbike from that area, too. I think farm equipment, like a tractor, tied it to a tank and hauled it out of there. It was clear at the time that the U.S. was lying about this, the military was lying to the press, even though U.S. troops were on camera looting this village, this town.
But what hasn’t been reported on is that the results of this U.S. military investigation, it was a complete whitewash. Or, rather, they said that looting took place, but instead they shifted the blame to civilian reporters who were on the scene, and said that if any looting took place, it was the reporters there.
And, you know, there’s absolutely no basis for this, it’s just conjured out of nothing, they were just looking for someone to blame. And they didn’t appear to have interviewed anyone but high-ranking U.S. military personnel.
One person they could have talked to – and one that I did talk to – was a man named Jack Fuller who, at the time, was serving in the Army and working for Stars and Stripes, the venerable U.S. Military newspaper. He was in Snuol, and his report in Stars and Stripes documents this, the looting taking place and U.S. soldiers carrying out this looting. They apparently never thought to speak with him.
I called him up – he’s passed away in the time since I spoke with him – but he laughed when I told him the allegation that was in the U.S. military documents. He said he saw no reporters on the scene looting, and he found it farcical that reporters would need to steal alcohol, since he said civilian reporters had easy access to it, it was cheap and available, and he’d never seen anything like that. So, I mean, that’s, I think, the main takeaway of my reporting on the looting of Snuol.
The bombing of, of Neak Loeung, that also was heavily reported on at the time. This was a case where a Cambodian town was hit by a devastating B-52 strike. Due to an accident or carelessness on the part of an American bombardier in one of these B-52 Stratos Fortress aircraft, 30 tons of bombs were dropped right on this Cambodian town, they hit the downtown squarely, and it was devastating.
I spoke to a survivor, someone who was living on the outskirts of Neak Loeung, who lost relatives there, and she told me that she had experienced her house shaking from bombing before, but this, she said, was like nothing else she had ever experienced. It was devastating.
And, yeah, the U.S. had no way to cover this up at the time, they tried to manage the story as best they could. And they came out and said that 137 Cambodians were killed in this, and that they were going to pay reparations to them, about $400.
It really wasn’t a lot of money. A lot of the people that died were the sole breadwinners for their family, and $400 was about four years’ salary for Cambodians at the time. So, you lost the lifetime earnings of someone and got a four-years’ term. What I found, the two major findings of my reporting, is that this was actually a tremendous undercount of the number killed. The U.S. actually knew that they had killed or injured many more people. The number was about 85 percent higher than the official number that they announced, but they kept this a secret.
They also paid out far less money to the Cambodian survivors than they had publicly announced. In classified State Department cables, I found that they paid about only half the amount. About $218 was paid to the survivors of this airstrike, even though they had announced that they’d paid $400.
So, you know, I found two major lies where the U.S. had manipulated the press and the public, and had kept the secret for decades.
MH: You know, I’m sure it’s something that you encountered, and it’s part of the difficulty of reporting and creating a robust historical record in areas where the U.S. carries out military operations, but, you know, it’s underdeveloped civil service and press and statistics, generally.
But what can we say, what do we know about the number of people who were killed in Cambodia during the period that this Kissinger-directed military operation was taking place? Is there an accepted figure, or a ballpark figure, or are there figures out there which you believe are not representative but commonly believed? What can we say about, uh, the actual scale?
And the reason I ask the question, too, is because we’re looking back on Kissinger’s legacy. And oftentimes when we think of the great criminals – no other word to put it – in history, we think about the number of people they killed, and oftentimes we have to estimate that. But I was curious, Nick, of your perspective, if there is one we can grasp onto. What was the actual human toll, in numbers, of people who lost their lives as a result of these operations?
NT: Yeah, I mean, it’s very difficult. I spent a lot of time trying to wrap my head around this, speaking to experts on it.
You know, there are numbers that range from the one that Kissinger gave, which is an exceptionally lowball estimate of 50,000 Cambodians killed. Which, you know, he takes some responsibility for. And there are estimates that range as high as half a million Cambodians killed by the bombing, which I think is probably on the high side.
What I ended up coming up with as a conservative estimate, and it’s not my estimate, it’s by Ben Kiernan, formerly the Director of Genocide Studies at Yale University, and one of the foremost authorities on the U.S. Air Campaign in Cambodia. He estimated that as many as 150,000 civilians in Cambodia were killed during Kissinger’s tenure, that Kissinger bears significant responsibility for attacks that killed 150,000 civilians or so.
Put that in context. That’s six times the number of non-combatants that are thought to have died in U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, during the War on Terror, according to an estimate by Air Wars, the UK-based airstrike monitoring group. So, you know, I think that’s a fair estimate, and 150,000 civilians, it might be a little bit low.
I talked to Greg Grandin, who’s a biographer of Henry Kissinger, and he estimated that, overall, Kissinger – who helped prolong the Vietnam War, facilitate genocides and Cambodia, East Timor, Bangladesh, accelerated civil wars in southern Africa, and also supported coups and death squads throughout Latin America – had the blood of about 3 million people on his hands in total. So, when you’re talking about the biggest criminals in modern history, this is a significant number of civilians that Henry Kissinger bears significant responsibility for their deaths.
MH: You write in your story, actually, that Kissinger helped prolong not just the Vietnam War, but also helped facilitate genocides in Cambodia, East Timor, and Bangladesh, accelerated civil wars in southern Africa and supported coups and death squads throughout Latin America. Of course, a whole episode about Kissinger’s crimes beyond Southeast Asia would take quite a bit of time to go over, because of the breadth of them.
But it’s interesting that, despite this very well documented track record – which I think is not really disputed by many people about Henry Kissinger’s legacy of human rights abuses – he’s still a member in good standing, even quite respected, of the U.S. foreign policy community, for lack of a better term. And, not only that, he was celebrated contemporaneously to many of these events.
In 1973, some of our listeners may know Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And, in 1977, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He’s still pretty much a regular, or is considered a wise elder of the foreign policy circuit. Hillary Clinton said that he was one of her mentors.
Can you speak a bit, given how much you know intimately about Kissinger’s actions and the human consequences of them, of what you make, or how you interpret, these efforts to not just sanitize, but actually glorify his career and legacy?
NT: Yeah, Henry Kissinger is the ultimate political survivor, you know? And you can go back to the Nixon White House. Almost that entire White House was consumed by the Watergate scandal, but Henry Kissinger was able to come out unscathed and, actually, was lauded at the time, and was not only held over by Gerald Ford, but promoted then, to Secretary of State. So, you could see that Kissinger has, has, has found ways to survive, and a lot of that has been through courting the press.
You know, Henry Kissinger had always, for lack of a better term, manipulated the press. Had contacted key members of the press behind the scenes, drew them in, became a trusted source. And he was able to, for decades, just massage and manipulate his public image, and sell this idea of a great statesman, a great thinker.
And, you know, he was able to convince the media and the public that he was an exceptionally wise man, and able to brush off and dismiss claims even though these allegations of war crimes have dogged him.
When confronted, he generally shakes these things off. He will, when asked to address crimes, he’ll say that it’s actually those who call him a war criminal that are the problem, have the problem. That they are using this terminology in ways that demean and diminish the idea of war crimes, and he just dismisses it out of hand. And so many in the media elite have bought into this, and that it’s overblown or hyperbole, but I imagine that most of these people have never gone out and talked to, visited the people that Henry Kissinger’s actions have affected so intimately.
MH: Yeah. That’s interesting, you mentioned that he’s crafted this image of himself as this great foreign policy thinker, whereas his track record, actually, in foreign policy accomplishment seems to be very mixed at best, and very, very poor on human rights concerns. I actually read a few of his books, and I found that the vast majority of them were quite basic, and I didn’t find that he was quite the genius that he made himself out to be.
But I digress. You actually spoke to, or you attempted to speak to Mr. Kissinger some years ago, and to confront him about some of these very, very negative and dark aspects of his record. What was his response, and what was that encounter like?
NT: I confronted Henry Kissinger about my findings back in 2010, just after I had reported in Cambodia. You know, it wasn’t easy to get to him. Kissinger isn’t a shrinking flower, but we don’t exactly run in the same social circles. You could find him at black-tie dinners, and Tony restaurants, and invitation-only events, but I had a real tough time getting to him.
You know, I’d call Kissinger Associates, the international consulting firm where he was the chairman, but he was never in. I emailed his representatives and it always went unanswered. I sent an interview request by certified return-receipt mail, but it went unacknowledged. I tried to gain an audience with him any way I could think of.
I have a PhD from Columbia University, and I was on faculty there at the time, and I requested permission to sit in on a lecture of his at Columbia, but one of the heads of the seminar series that was sponsoring his talk told me that Kissinger’s office had given explicit instructions not to allow any outsiders in. I would call his offices once a week, and they always told me that he wasn’t adding interviews to his calendar, he was writing a book. And then, a couple weeks later, I’d see the Financial Times or some other publication run an interview with him. So, I knew that he was specifically ducking me.
So, I came up with a plan. There was a state department conference on the Vietnam War back in 2010, and Kissinger was giving a keynote address, so I knew he’d be out in the clear and I’d have a shot. I decided I’d do an ambush interview.
And he gave a talk there, it was vintage Kissinger. I will always remember that he said that the great tragedy of the Vietnam War was that Americans lost faith in each other. You know, this is a war that killed millions of people in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, but this sort of tells you the Kissingerian mindset.
After he finished his talk, he took questions, so I was able to ask him one, publicly and on the record. I asked him to square public comments that he made to the U.S. Senate in 1973, that the U.S. didn’t bomb Cambodians, with the admission found in one of his books that his war had killed 50,000 Cambodians. And, you know, I said, “How can you kill 50,000 people, if you’re not bombing them?”
And, you know, Kissinger is a pro at obfuscation, and he responded with a wall of words that was designed to misdirect the audience and confuse the question. And I kept following up, but he had the advantage of having a microphone, and mine was taken away. You know, I couldn’t let it end there.
So, after the talk, I rushed down, and pushed myself into a scrum of Kissinger sycophants who were there waiting to shake his hand and take photos with him. And I’ll never forget, there was a guy in front of me, a State Department historian who had been listening to recordings that Kissinger had made while he was in the White House. And he told Kissinger that it was so sexy – those were his words – to listen to him, that the recordings had such sex appeal.
And when I got to Kissinger, I was the next one up, and it got less sexy real fast. And I took another shot at getting an answer from him. And, you know, I pressed him about the substance of my question, that Cambodians were bombed and killed, and he became visibly angry, and he asked me what I was trying to prove.
And, you know, I’ll never forget. He said – it was such an odd phrase – he said, “play with it,” to me. “Have a good time.”
But I still couldn’t let it go. So I asked him to answer the question that one of the Cambodian survivors had asked me. It was a woman named Mis Lauren, who had lost an older brother to a helicopter gunship attack, and an uncle and cousins to other attacks. And, for decades, this question haunted her. She said to me, “I still wonder why those aircraft always attacked us. Why did they drop the bombs here?”
You know, Kissinger was the architect of this American war, and I asked him to answer her question. But he came back to me with a sarcastic reply, and he said “I lack your intelligence and moral quality.” And he stomped his cane on the floor, and he stalked off, left the auditorium. And, the next two days, at the conference, I never saw him again. That was it, you know?
He was lucky, because the Cambodians in the villages I visited didn’t have the luxury of such an easy escape.
MH: So, Nick, Kissinger is about to turn 100 this week, and he remains a figure who was never held accountable for his many crimes. He remains someone who’s consulted by U.S. elites when they have questions about political and military strategy in the present day. He’s far from a pariah among the U.S. policymakers.
What can we say about the legacy of Kissinger? Not just in the areas where his own actions and views impacted people directly, but also in the later conflict, when he was not in government, particularly the War on Terror conflicts. How did his own ideas or ways of doing business, ideas of how to use U.S. military force shape and influence wars more closer to us in the present?
NT: I think my reporting in this story, the interviews and the documents, demonstrate a consistent disregard for Cambodian lives. A failure to protect civilians, to conduct post-strike assessments, to investigate allegations of civilian harm, and to prevent this damage from occurring again and again.
There’s also this consistent failure to punish or hold U.S. personnel accountable, from those in the field who carry out attacks, to those at the highest level of government, like Henry Kissinger. These policies not only obscured the true toll of the American war in Cambodia, but they set the stage for the civilian carnage of the U.S. War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and beyond.
I spoke with Greg Grandin, the author of “Kissinger’s Shadow,” a biography of Henry Kissinger. And he said – and this is something I agree with – that you can trace a line from the secret bombing of Cambodia to the recent and current U.S. wars. He mentioned that the covert justifications for illegally bombing Cambodia became the framework for the justifications of drone strikes and forever war. And the way he put it is that it’s “the perfect expression of American militarism’s unbroken circle.” So, I think this is the legacy that we’re talking about when we talk about Henry Kissinger.
It’s all the people that he killed in Cambodia; 150,000 as a conservative estimate. And then, his legacy is also all the lives that have been lost in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, during the 20-plus years of the War on Terror. In many ways, he facilitated all the carnage that came after.
MH: Nick, there’s so much more we could say about Kissinger and his terrible legacy, but we’ll leave the conversation here for today. Thanks for this excellent piece, and thanks for joining us today on Intercepted.
NT: Thanks so much, Maz.
MH: That was Nick Turse, a contributing writer for The Intercept, and an investigative reporter focusing on national security. His latest series on Henry Kissinger can be found on theintercept.com.
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