And his conduct raises even more fundamental questions: to what extent can leaders who act secretly ,illegally and unconstitutionally, lying to their citizenry and legislature as a matter of course, legitimately claim to represent their people? How much allegiance do citizens owe such leaders? And what does it say about America’s elites that they have honored a man with so much innocent blood on his hands for the past 40 years?
Mr. Kissinger’s most significant historical act was executing Richard Nixon’s orders to conduct the most massive bombing campaign, largely of civilian targets, in world history. He dropped 3.7 million tons of bombs** between January 1969 and January 1973 – nearly twice the two million dropped on all of Europe and the Pacific in World War II. He secretly and illegally devastated villages throughout areas of Cambodia inhabited by a U.S. Embassy-estimated two million people; quadrupled the bombing of Laos and laid waste to the 700-year old civilization on the Plain of Jars; and struck civilian targets throughout North Vietnam – Haiphong harbor, dikes, cities, Bach Mai Hospital – which even Lyndon Johnson had avoided. His aerial slaughter helped kill, wound or make homeless an officially-estimated six million human beings**, mostly civilians who posed no threat whatsoever to U.S. national security and had committed no offense against it.
There is a word for the aerial mass murder that Henry Kissinger committed in Indochina, and that word is “evil”. The figure most identified with this word today is Adolph Hitler, and his evil was so unspeakable that the term is by now identified with him. But that is precisely why it is important to understand the new face of evil and moral depravity that Henry Kissinger represents. For evil not only comes in the form of madmen dreaming of 1000 year Reichs. In fact, in our day, it is more likely to be committed by sane, genial and ordinary careerists waging invisible automated war in far-off lands against people whose screams we never hear, whose faces we never see, and whose deaths go unrecorded and unnoticed. It is critical to understand this new face of evil, for it threatens not only countless foreigners but Americans in coming years. And no one has embodied it more than Henry Kissinger.
The planes he dispatched came by day. They came by night. Remorseless. Pitiless. Relentless. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Most of the people below had no idea where the bombers came from, why their lives had been turned into a living hell. The movie “War of the Worlds”, in which Americans are incomprehensibly slaughtered by machines is the closest depiction of what the innocent rice-farmers of Indochina experienced.
Hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam were forced to live in holes and caves, like animals. Many tens of thousands were burned alive by the bombs, slowly dying in agony. Others were buried alive, as they gradually suffocated to death when a 500 pound bomb exploded nearby. Most were victims of antipersonnel bombs designed primarily to maim not kill, many of the survivors carrying the metal, jagged or plastic pellets in their bodies for the rest of their lives.
Fathers like 38-year old Thao Vong were suddenly blinded or crippled for life as they lost an arm or leg, made helpless, unable to support their families, becoming dependent on others just to stay alive. Children were struck, lying out in the open, screaming, villagers unable to come to their aid for fear of being killed themselves. No one was spared – neither sweet, loving grandmothers nor lovely young women, neither laughing, innocent children nor nursing or pregnant mothers, not water buffalo needed to farm not the shrines where people had for centuries honored their ancestors and hoped one day to be honored themselves.
A farmer on the Plain of Jars in northern Laos wrote of being bombed by the U.S. in 1969 that “every day and every night the planes came to drop bombs on us. We lived in holes to protect our lives. I saw my cousin die in the field of death. My heart was most disturbed and my voice called out loudly as I ran to the houses. Thus, I saw life and death for the people on account of the war of many airplanes in the region of the Plain of Jars. Until there were no houses at all. And the cows and buffalo were dead. Until everything was leveled and you could see only the red, red ground.”
A 30-year old mother wrote that “at that time, our lives became like those of animals desperately trying to escape their hunters. Our lives were confided to the Lord Buddha. No matter when, all we did was to pray to the Lord to save our lives.”
A 39 year old rice-farmer wrote of the aftermath of a bombing raid: “The other villagers and I got together to consider this thing. We hadn’t done anything, nor harmed anyone. We had raised our crops, celebrated the festivals and maintained our homes for many years. Why did the planes drop bombs on us, impoverishing us this way?”
Mr. Kissinger exulted to President Nixon over this bombing, telling him that “it’s wave after wave of planes. You see, they can’t see the B-52 and they dropped a million pounds of bombs … I bet you we will have had more planes over there in one day than Johnson had in a month … each plane can carry about 10 times the load of World War II plane could carry.”
Although Mr. Kissinger claimed he was only bombing enemy troops, guerrilla soldiers were largely undetectable from the air. Investigating the bombing of northern Laos, the U.S. Senate Refugee Subcommittee concluded that “the United States has undertaken a large-scale air war over Laos to destroy the physical and social infrastructure in Pathet Lao (i.e., guerrilla) areas. Throughout all this there has been a policy of secrecy. The bombing has taken and is taking a heavy toll among civilians.” These words apply to Mr. Kissinger’s bombing throughout Indochina. The villagers of Indochina were not “collateral damage”. They were the target.
Those who praise Mr. Kissinger for the opening to China but ignore his mass murder in Indochina shame human decency itself. By honoring Mr. Kissinger they dishonor themselves. And they are also blind to the careerist “Executive Branch mentality” he embodied, which poses a clear and present a danger to foreigners and Americans alike today. Adolph Hitler dreamed of conquering and Stalin of communizing the world. Mr. Kissinger destroyed millions of lives primarily to further his career by preventing a communist takeover while he held office. And it is this kind of institutional, bureaucratic mentality, combined with new machines of secret war, which threatens the humanity today far more than the crazed ideologies of the past.
In the end Mr. Kissinger failed, as the communists took over Indochina in the spring of 1975. The Thieu, Lon Nol and Royal Lao government regimes, which Mr. Kissinger propped up with so many tens of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, evaporated. The genocidal Khmer Rouge took over in Cambodia, which would not have occurred had Mr. Kissinger supported the neutralist Sihanouk and not illegally invaded Cambodia. But though Mr. Kissinger failed miserably in Indochina, he did in the end succeed in his principal goal. He emerged from the wreckage of Indochina with his reputation intact.
Even critics of Mr. Kissinger tend to use euphemisms about his actions for fear of losing their “credibility.” But facts are facts. The truth is the truth, and euphemisms obscure it. It is a matter of fact not rhetoric that Mr. Kissinger bears a major responsibility for murdering masses of people in Indochina. He is a mass murderer.
What is most important about his mass murder, however, was not only that his order to Alexander Haig to undertake “a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves” was clear evidence of criminal intent to avoid the laws of war protecting civilians, and that he would have been executed had the Nuremberg Judgment been applied to his blanket bombing of civilian targets.
It was that he conducted a new form of automated, secret and amoral warfare previously only imagined by George Orwell in 1984 when he described war as fought by machines waged by “very small numbers of people, mostly highly-trained specialists (waging war) on the vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average man can only guess at.” When Richard Nixon decided, and Henry Kissinger executed, a plan to withdraw U.S. ground troops but seek to win by escalating war from the air, they brought into being a new age of automated war that inevitably, and cold-bloodedly, wound up killing large numbers of civilians.
Previous war-makers fomented hatred against the “Jewish scum”, “gooks”, or “Huns” they massacred. But neither Mr. Kissinger nor his subordinates had anything against the countless Lao, Cambodian and Vietnamese civilians they slaughtered. They simply did not regard them as human beings. They had no more significance for them than cockroaches or ants. It was not immorality but amorality, the murder of countless “non-people” whose existence as human beings was simply ignored. Though the people of the Plain of Jars wanted nothing from America except to be left alone, even this simple wish was denied them, as they were extinguished like flies out of indifference not malice.
An August, 1945 editorial in the London Observer eerily foreshadowed what Mr. Kissinger represented, and what such successors as David Petraeus and John Brennan embody today: “Albert Speer symbolizes a type which is becoming increasingly important in all belligerent countries: the pure technician, the classless, bright young man, without background, with no other original aim than to make his way in the world, and no other means than his technical and managerial ability. It is the lack of psychological and spiritual ballast and the ease with which he handles the terrifying technical and organizational machinery of our age which makes this slight type go extremely far nowadays. This is their age. The Hitlers and Himmlers we may get rid of, but the Speers, whatever happens to this particular special man, will long be with us.”
Although Mr. Kissinger failed so miserably in Indochina, he did indeed display great ability in handling the “organizational machinery” of the U.S. Executive Branch — so much ability in fact that his actions have become the template for most U.S. war-making today. This war-making is:
— Undemocratic: Mr. Kissinger not only failed to obtain permission from Congress to bomb Laos and Cambodia, he did not even inform it he was doing so. The incredible fact is that a handful of U.S. leaders unilaterally dropped 3.7 million tons of bombs on Indochina entirely on their own initiative – as have U.S. officials today assassinated thousands of unarmed suspects throughout the Muslim world.
— Unconstitutional: The very foundation of the Constitution is the principle that leaders may only legitimately rule with the “informed consent” of the people. But Mr. Kissinger not only failed to inform the American people or Congress about his bombing of Indochina. He has lied about it from the day he took office until today. Between January 1969 and March 1970, as he leveled the Plain of Jars, Mr. Kissinger’s State Department denied it was even bombing Laos. And when reports from refugees made it impossible to deny the bombing, Mr. Kissinger’s and his representatives continued to lie, denying that they bombed civilian targets. William Sullivan, close Kissinger ally and the former U.S. Ambassador to Laos, testified to Senator Edward Kennedy on April 22, 1971 “the policy of the U.S. is deliberately to avoid hitting inhabited villages.”
— Illegal: By failing to even notify Congress of his massive bombing, Mr. Kissinger broke domestic law. By systematically bombing civilian targets and refusing to observe laws seeking to protect civilians during wartime, he violated international law. Both conditions are true for U.S. drone and ground assassinations today.
— Secret: The bombing of Laos and Cambodia, like that in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia today, was conducted in secret. Even as U.S. officials first denied they were doing any bombing at all, and then that they were only bombing legitimate military targets, they refused to allow journalists to go out on bombing runs. The information about the bombing of civilian targets was classified and kept out of the hands of Congress, the media, and the American people.
— Amoral: Like Mr. Kissinger, President Obama lied when he recently described his drone assassination program as “a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases, and so on “. In fact, U.S. officials have admitted that most of their victims are unarmed suspects killed in “signature strikes” against people who names are not known. And the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has documented that hundreds of those killed by U.S. drone strikes are civilians. The victims of drone strikes are simply labeled “militants”, denied their humanity as well as their lives.
What is most troubling to anyone with a conscience about Mr. Kissinger’s new form of warfare is that, from a bureaucratic perspective, it worked. By keeping the human consequences of their war-making secret from Congress and the American people, the Kissingers, Petraeuses and Brennans have had a free hand to kill, torture, imprison and maim anyone they wish. They not only need not fear punishment for their illegal acts. Like Mr. Kissinger, who has grown wealthy on the blood of the innocents of Indochina, they can even look forward to being rewarded for them. We are taught as children that crime does not pay. Mr. Kissinger, who has earned tens of millions since the war ended on the blood of innocent Indochinese, is living proof that this is untrue.
The big question for Americans today is the degree to which this “Executive Mentality” will be directed against American citizens in the future. The prospects are not promising.
The U.S. Executive today has not only obtained permission from Congress to kill or imprison any American citizens they wish without due process. They have done so – murdering not only Anwar al-Awlaki but his 16 year son, also a U.S. citizen, while sitting in a café. The Executive under President Obama has undertaken unprecedented prosecution of U.S. whistle-blowers and journalists alike for revealing information officials have arbitrarily classified. Never before has the U.S. had an Executive Branch “Department of Homeland Security”, which routinely spies on millions of Americans, and is working to paramilitarize police departments around the nation.
On a human level it is possible, even appropriate, to sympathize with Henry Kissinger. German Jew Heinz Alfred Kissinger was only 9 when Hitler took office, and only escaped at age 16 shortly before Kristallnacht, One can only guess at the multiple traumas and psychological damage he suffered. It is entirely understandable that he would develop a cynical view of the world and devote himself solely to gaining and holding power devoid of moral or ethical concerns.
But Mr. Kissinger is more than an individual. He is also a political and historical figure.
Future historians, public intellectuals and journalists who have nothing to gain by flattering Mr. Kissinger and ignoring his crimes against humanity will likely have a very different view of his legacy than today’s opinion-makers.
They will likely see the U.S. opening to China as inevitable and pay relatively little attention to Mr. Kissinger’s role in it. As the historian Gareth Porter has documented in detail, they will also see clearly that the terms of the Paris Peace Agreement he signed in 1973 were no different than what he could have obtained in 1969 – thus saving tens of thousands of American, and countless Indochinese, lives. And his winning the Nobel Peace Prize will be seen less as an honor he deserved than an indelible stain on those who awarded it to him.
No, what Mr. Kissinger will be most remembered for is cold-bloodedly ushering in a new age of undemocratic, unconstitutional, secret, criminal and amoral automated warfare, by a U.S. Executive Branch constrained neither by law nor elemental human decency.
After the war ended, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara made a good-faith effort to understand what he did in Vietnam, issuing a mea culpa of sorts in his book In Retrospect. By contrast PBS Journalist Steve Talbot reported the following when he interviewed Mr. Kissinger: “I told him I had just interviewed Robert McNamara in Washington. That got his attention. He stopped badgering me, and then he did an extraordinary thing. He began to cry. But no, not real tears. Before my eyes, Henry Kissinger was acting. ‘Boohoo, boohoo,’ Kissinger said, pretending to cry and rub his eyes. ‘He’s still beating his breast, right? Still feeling guilty.’ He spoke in a mocking, singsong voice and patted his heart for emphasis.” As the Khmer Rouge were conducting genocide in Cambodia, Mr. Kissinger told the Thai Foreign Minister on November 26, 1975 that “how many people did (Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary) kill? Tens of thousands … you should tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in the way. We are prepared to improve relations with them. Tell them the latter part, but don’t tell them what I said before.”
Future historians will not only marvel at the depth of his pathology, but ask a basic question: what does it say about America and its elites that they honor such a man?
They will likely not have much interest in the man himself who was indeed, after all, little more than the man foresaw by the London Observer, a “classless, bright young man … with no other original aim than to make his way in the world”characterized both by a “lack of psychological and spiritual ballast” and a skill in handling “the terrifying technical and organizational machinery of our age.”
Kissinger the man will likely be remembered, if he is remembered at all, as the fellow best described by the novelist Joseph Heller in Good As Gold:
“It was disgraceful and so discouraging … that this base figure charged with infamies too horrendous to measure and too numerous for listing should be gadding about gaily in chauffeured cars, instead of walking at Spandau with Rudolf Hess … Asked about his role in the Cambodian war, in which an estimated five hundred thousand people died, he’d said: ‘I may have a lack of imagination, but I fail to see the moral issue involved.’ Whereas another State Department official, William C. Sullivan, had testified: ‘The justification for the war is the reelection of the President.’ Not once … had Kissinger raised a voice in protest against the fascistic use of police power to quell public opposition to the war in Southeast Asia.
“In Gold’s conservative opinion, Kissinger would not be recalled in history as a Bismarck, Metternich, or Castlereagh but as an odious shlumpf who made war gladly.”
But what this insignificant man symbolized for future war-making will be of great significance to future historians. For, as the London Observer also correctly predicted Mr. Kissinger did indeed go far – taking America on a dark journey of war-making characterized by mass murder by machine, secrecy, lying, manipulation, betrayal of democracy and the U.S. Constitution, international criminality, overthrowing democratically elected governments and support for some of the world’s most brutal and savage dictators. Yes, as he joked, he was skilled at engaging in “illegal” and “unconstitutional” activities. But the rest of humanity, and this nation, will be paying the price for this skill for generations to come.
** “Dollars and Deaths,” The Congressional Record, May 14, 1975, p. 14262.