excerpted from the book


Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia

by William Shawcross

Simon and Schuster, 1979



After the collapse of the American effort in Indochina in April 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Gerald Ford asked that there be "no recriminations." Perhaps because the war had drained from the United States so much energy, their plea was acceded to. A "great debate" about America's role in Indochina did not take place.

For a time there was a reaction in the press and in Congress against the Presidential uses of power and against Kissinger's style of conducting foreign policy. Congress turned down his attempt to thrust the United States into Angola. During the 1976 election campaign, Kissinger's record became an issue. Right-wing Republicans criticized him for his greatest success-the achievement of more rational relations with the USSR- and some Democrats for his expediency and disregard for human rights. Candidate Jimmy Carter promised that if he were elected there would be no more Cambodias.

This backlash was brief. By the middle of President Carter's first term, the facts were hard to recall in Washington, and Carter's approach to foreign policy was unfavorably compared with Nixon's and Kissinger's techniques. Many of Carter's difficulties, including the way in which Congress was then beginning to assert itself, stemmed from the manner in which his predecessors had used their power. But Vietnam and Watergate were frequently referred to as "traumas" or "tragedies" rather than as specific acts and decisions by officials. Kissinger established himself in a Washington exile, receiving statesmen and offering criticisms of his successors. His relationship with the press was even closer than when he had been in office. In Washington and in London, journalists wrote that if it had not been for Kissinger's brilliance, Carter's ineptitude would have resulted in chaos, and even urged Carter to invite Kissinger into his administration.

Neither Nixon nor Kissinger addressed the dimensions of the disaster in Cambodia. Nixon's memoirs, which were published in 1978, lacked understanding of the country at any time in recent years. He referred to the "highly organized" Khmer Rouge in March 1970 and to a close alliance between them and Hanoi throughout the war. David Frost, in his television interview, suggested to Nixon that American policy had brought Cambodia "into the holocaust which created the Khmer Rouge and destroyed a country which might otherwise have survived." He asked the former President, "Do you have, in a Quaker sense, on your conscience the destruction of this rather pitiful country?"

"If I could, if I could accept your assumption, yes," replied Nixon. "But I don't accept your assumption, I don't accept it because I know the facts. I think I know the facts, at least. I do know that without United States assistance, that instead of having a situation in which Cambodia is not neutral, in which Cambodia is one of the most ruthless, cruel, vicious communist dictatorships in the world-500,000 dead, a million and a half off to relocation centers-the country is in pitiful shape. But, for five years, from 1970 till 1975, Cambodia enjoyed, for whatever we may call it, at least had, 'enjoyed' is not the best word, it had what you called a flawed neutrality. But as far as that neutrality was concerned, yes, during that five-year period, lives were lost, but on the other hand, they, as far as this savage, cruel, a vicious extermination of a people that has taken place, of a class of people since the Communists took over. They avoided that and that was something."

Kissinger was equally unresponsive. His fullest statement on Cambodia was given to Theo Sommer, the editor of the respected West German paper Die Zeit, in the summer of 1976. Tales of Khmer Rouge atrocities were already widespread. The interview was conducted in English, and it bears careful reading.

Sommer asked Kissinger whether he had pangs of conscience at night about Vietnam or Cambodia. "What is there to have pangs of conscience at night about with Vietnam?" Kissinger replied. "We found 550,000 American troops in Vietnam and we ended the war without betraying those who in reliance on us had fought the Communists. And to remove 550,000 troops under combat conditions is not an easy matter."

"You don't think it took too long?" asked Sommer.

"It was important," Kissinger said, "that the war not be ended with the United States simply abandoning people whom we had encouraged to resist the Communists. No one could possibly foresee that Watergate would so weaken the executive authority that we could not maintain the settlement that was in itself maintainable. And if you look at what our opposition was saying during that time, their proposals were usually only about six months ahead of where we were going anyway. Some said we should end the war by the end of '71. Well, we ended it by the end of '72. After all, it took de Gaulle five years to end the Algerian war. And it was a very difficult process.

"Now, with respect to Cambodia, it is another curious bit of mythology. People usually refer to the bombing of Cambodia as if it had been unprovoked, secretive U.S. action. The fact is that we were bombing North Vietnamese troops that had invaded Cambodia, that were killing many Americans from these sanctuaries, and we were doing it with the acquiescence of the Cambodian government, which never once protested against it, and which, indeed, encouraged us to do it. I may have a lack of imagination, but I fail to see the moral issue involved and why Cambodian neutrality should apply to only one country. Why is it moral for the North Vietnamese to have 50,000 to 100,000 troops in Cambodia, why should we let them kill Americans from that territory, and why, when the government concerned never once protested, and indeed told us that if we bombed unpopulated areas that they would not notice, why in all these conditions is there a moral issue? And, finally, I think it is fair to say that in the six years of the war, not ten percent of the people had been killed in Cambodia than had been killed in one year of Communist rule."

Kissinger's argument, in its best light, is that his decisions were justified because the North Vietnamese were in Cambodia first; their presence there was causing American casualties; Sihanouk did not publicly object to their enclaves being secretly bombed; and more Cambodians had been killed since American policy collapsed than while it was being sustained.

Any American administration would have faced dreadful decisions in Vietnam from 1969 onward. It has not been the purpose of this investigation to suggest that there were any easy answers. But given what happened, the discussion cannot be confined as narrowly as Kissinger would seem to wish. At every stage of the war, choices-although difficult ones-did exist. The record shows that those choices that Nixon and Kissinger actually made were made wrongly.

Kissinger's defense ignores crucial issues. Sihanouk was in an impossible position. He was no more able to prevent the American bombing in 1969 than he was able to prevent the North Vietnamese from usurping his country in the first place. His collaboration with both powers, such as it was, was intended to save his people by confining the conflict to the border regions. It was American policy that engulfed the nation in war. That war did not end when helicopters lifted Americans out. It took another form.

Kissinger has said that he will deal fully with Cambodia in his memoirs. If the questions raised by the history of the last decade are to be answered, then more details on Sihanouk's attitude, on the unhelpfulness of the U.S. Congress, or on Kissinger's contacts with foreign governments will not alone suffice. The legality of the 1969 bombing; the way in which Menu and then the invasion spread the fighting; the deliberate extension of the war and the sustenance of Lon Nol; the indiscriminate bombing of 1973; the inadequate attempts to reach a peace settlement; finally, perhaps, the way in which the Khmer Rouge were born out of the inferno that American policy did much to create-these are just some of the issues which have to be addressed. Statesmen must be judged by the consequences of their actions. Whatever Nixon and Kissinger intended for Cambodia, their efforts created catastrophe.

No one could have foreseen the consequences at home and abroad of their decision to override the American Constitution and wage war in a neutral country. But constitutions are devised and laws are written to protect and guard against human frailty. For the highest officers in the land to abuse them is tyranny and encourages tyranny. There were achievements during the Nixon-Kissinger years. But just as their relations with each other and with their associates were often scarred by falsehoods, so were many of their relations with the rest of the world. Together they pursued ends that frequently had a tenuous link with reality, using means that were not merely disproportionate but counterproductive and untrue to those values they were meant to defend. In fact neither man demonstrated much faith in those values.

In Cambodia, the imperatives of a small and vulnerable people were consciously sacrificed to the interests of strategic design. For this reason alone the design was flawed-sacrifice the parts and what becomes of the whole? The country was used to practice ill-conceived theories and to fortify a notion of American credibility that could in fact only be harmed by such actions. Neither the United States nor its friends nor those who are caught helplessly in its embrace are well served when its leaders act, as Nixon and Kissinger acted, without care. Cambodia was not a mistake; it was a crime. The world is diminished by the experience.


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