From the mid-1960s through 1991, Cambodia suffered a devastating series of violent episodes. These included a civil war that pitted the Cambodian government against communist insurgents (the Khmer Rouge); heavy US aerial bombardment that killed thousands of civilians and destabilized the country; the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, which led to the deaths of some 1.7 million people (21 percent of the population); and a decade-long Vietnamese occupation that saw continuous fighting between the Vietnamese-installed government and Khmer Rouge guerrillas (who were supported by numerous outside powers, including the United States and China).
In his roles as national security advisor and secretary of state during the Nixon and Ford administrations, Henry Kissinger bears significant responsibility for the destruction of Cambodia. It was Kissinger who administered the bombing campaign, which not only killed thousands of people (and still kills people to this day through “unexploded ordnance” — bombs that did not detonate at the time), but also spurred the Khmer Rouge into power.
The devastation of Cambodia was intimately tied to the US campaign in Vietnam. The leader of Cambodia, Prince Sihanouk, was determined to keep his country neutral. This proved impossible. When Vietnamese communist forces began using eastern Cambodia in the mid-1960s as a staging ground to attack the US-backed government in South Vietnam, the United States began sporadically bombing Cambodia.
Sihanouk publicly denounced the bombings, though he did not favor a Vietnamese communist presence inside Cambodia, either. For a time, Sihanouk’s neutralism did spare Cambodia the worst of the violence raging in neighboring Vietnam. But this all changed in 1969 when Richard Nixon came into office and, with him, Henry Kissinger.
“Anything that Flies on Anything that Moves”
Nixon was elected on a promise to end the war — but his highest priority was to extract the United States from the conflict without losing face in the international community. As such, he wanted to take strong action against North Vietnam in order to force maximal concessions out of Hanoi. But bombing North Vietnam would prove difficult, as Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, had ordered a halt to the bombing in 1968 as part of the peace talks that were underway with Hanoi.
The solution in Nixon and Kissinger’s minds, then, was an illegal secret bombing campaign of Cambodia that would disrupt Vietnamese communist supply lines and bases located there. Secrecy was of the utmost importance — Cambodia was a neutral country, so any escalation there would trigger public backlash. Not even Congress would know, as Nixon and Kissinger were skeptical that lawmakers would authorize any bombing of Cambodia (by the time Nixon took office, most of the public had turned against the war and a substantial portion of elite opinion viewed the war as not worth the cost).
Kissinger was at the heart of these bombing operations in Cambodia. Historian Greg Grandin explains how the secret operation worked:
Sitton [Colonel Ray Sitton, a B-52 expert], based on recommendations he received from General Creighton Abrams, the commander of military operations in Vietnam, would work up a number of targets in Cambodia to be struck. Then he would bring them to Kissinger and Haig [Colonel Alexander Haig, Kissinger’s military aide] in the White House for approval. Kissinger was very hands-on, revising some of Sitton’s work. “I don’t know what he was using as his reason for varying them,” Sitton later recalled. “Strike here in this area,” Kissinger would tell him, “or strike here in that area.” Once Kissinger was satisfied with the proposed target, Sitton would backchannel the coordinates to Saigon, and from there a courier would pass them on to the appropriate radar stations, where an officer would make the last minute switch. The B-52 would be diverted from its “cover” target in South Vietnam into Cambodia, where it would drop its bomb load on the real target. When the run was complete, the officer in charge of the deception would burn whatever documents — maps, computer printouts, radar reports, messages, and so on — that might reveal the actual flight. Then he would write up false “post-strike” paperwork, indicating that the South Vietnam sortie was flown as planned. This way, Congress and Pentagon administrators would be provided “phony target coordinates” and other forged data, so as to account for actual expenditures — of fuel, bombs, and spare parts — without ever having to reveal that Cambodia was being bombed.
The bombing of Cambodia went on until 1973, when it was finally halted by Congress.
Over 500,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia between 1965 and 1973, almost all of it during Nixon and Kissinger’s time in office. In Kissinger’s words, the carpet bombings were supposed to be carried out against “anything that flies on anything that moves.” According to historian Ben Kiernan, the founding director of Yale University’s Genocide Studies Program and an expert on the US bombing of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge genocide, the bombings caused between 50,000 and 150,000 civilian deaths, though he believes “the actual toll is closer to the upper limit of that range.”
At the same time, Laos, just north of Cambodia, was also heavily bombed by the United States to disrupt Vietnamese communist supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Fred Branfman, a Laotian-speaking US aid worker in that country, heard reports of refugees fleeing the northern part of Laos to the capital, Vientiane. When he investigated why the refugees were fleeing, he was horrified to find out that intense US aerial bombardment had decimated entire villages, killing thousands and forcing others to live in caves for fear of the bombs. His collection of the refugees’ testimony, in Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air War, serves as one of the best records of what it was like to survive US aerial bombardment across Indochina.
As a thirteen-year-old Laotian explained:
My village stood on the edge of the road from Xieng Khouang to the Plain of Jars. There were rice fields next to the road. At first, the airplanes bombed the road, but not my village. At that time my life was filled with great happiness, for the mountains and forests were beautiful: land, water, and climate were suitable for us. And there were many homes in our little village. But that did not last long, because the airplanes came bombing my rice field until the bomb craters made farming impossible. And the village was hit and burned. And some relatives working in the fields came running out to the road to return to the village but the airplanes saw and shot them—killing these farmers in a most heart-rending manner. We heard their screams, but could not go to help them. When the airplanes left, we went out to help them, but they were already dead.
Giving Rise to the Khmer Rouge
Beyond devastating the population, the bombing of Cambodia had another effect: fueling the rise of the Khmer Rouge. In 1969, Khmer Rouge forces totaled fewer than 10,000, but by 1973 they numbered 200,000. As Kiernan argues, the Khmer Rouge “would not have won power without US economic and military destabilization of Cambodia, which… peaked in 1969–73 with the carpet bombing of Cambodia’s countryside by American B-52s. This was probably the most important single factor in [Khmer Rouge leader] Pol Pot’s rise.”
The bombings motivated peasants to join the Khmer Rouge’s insurgency. “The people were very angry with the United States, and that is why so many of them joined the Khmer communists,” explained one witness. The CIA’s Directorate of Operations reported in 1973 that Khmer Rouge forces were successfully “using damage by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda.”
The destabilization caused by the bombing was made worse by the US-backed coup in 1970 that overthrew Sihanouk. The United States immediately recognized Cambodia’s new government, led by the right-wing Lon Nol. This had the effect of driving Sihanouk and his supporters across the country — known as “Sihanoukists” — into the Khmer Rouge’s camp. North Vietnam and Vietnamese communist forces — which had previously accepted Sihanouk as the rightful ruler of Cambodia — now also fully allied themselves with the Khmer Rouge. Whatever neutrality Cambodia had maintained was gone.
The war in Cambodia came to an end in April 1975 when the Khmer Rouge seized control of Phnom Penh. They soon began emptying the cities and commenced their genocide. Kissinger’s involvement, however, was not over.
Giving Pol Pot a Hand
In November 1975, Kissinger explained to the Thai foreign minister that he “should also tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way. We are prepared to improve relations with them.” The geopolitical chessboard was in flux with the conclusion of the Vietnam War.
Kissinger wanted to use Cambodia as a counterweight to the victorious North Vietnamese, who were allied with the Soviet Union. At the same time, China also allied with the Khmer Rouge against its historical enemy, Vietnam. With the opening of relations between China and the United States, and the deteriorating relationship between the Soviet Union and China, a unique alliance was born: the United States and China both sought to bolster the Khmer Rouge against Vietnam (and, by extension, the Soviet Union).
Kissinger’s desire for closer relations with the Khmer Rouge foreshadowed policy during the Carter and Reagan administrations. After Vietnam invaded Cambodia in late 1978 and ousted the Khmer Rouge in response to repeated incursions into Vietnamese territory, the Khmer Rouge turned to guerrilla fighting against the Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh.
The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia is perhaps one of the very few interventions in the post–World War II era with genuine humanitarian consequences — that is, overthrowing the Khmer Rouge. But since the intervention was not carried out by a Western government, it is not regarded as such by elite Western figures who make it their jobs to justify Washington’s interventions on humanitarian grounds.
Determined to undercut Vietnam’s influence in the region, the United States, China and numerous other outside powers chose to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the rightful government of Cambodia, providing various mechanisms of support.
Zbigniew Brzezinski (Carter’s national security advisor), for example, explained that he “encourage[d] the Chinese to support Pol Pot.” Any attempts to describe the Khmer Rouge’s actions as genocide were thus regarded as “counterproductive” by US officials until 1989, and it was not until 1997 that the United States gave the green light to capture and prosecute Pol Pot. But it was far too late. The Khmer Rouge commander died a year later without ever facing justice.
A Murderous Legacy
Other than formulating policies that supported the rise and brutal operation of the Khmer Rouge, Kissinger’s legacy in Cambodia lasts in another horrifying way — unexploded bombs (UXO). Since 1979, 64,000 Cambodians have been killed or injured by unexploded bombs. While some of these remnants are landmines laid by the Khmer Rouge and other factions throughout several decades of war, the United States bears a substantial portion of the blame. Even the State Department acknowledges that the “eastern and northeastern areas of Cambodia are heavily contaminated with unexploded ordnance, mostly from US air and artillery strikes during the Vietnam War.”
By all accounts, the death and destruction Kissinger wreaked upon Cambodia never burdened him — his public statements about the war were always full of excuses and rationalizations. For example, he claimed in 2014 that “there were fewer civilian casualties in Cambodia [from the US bombing] than there have been from American drone attacks” (a calculation that is nowhere near accurate, no matter how one measures either).
Washington may mask its foreign policy objectives as noble initiatives meant to uplift the human species, but when the real result is immense suffering (as in Cambodia), figures such as Kissinger will always downplay such pain. Washington’s goal in Cambodia of subverting Sihanouk’s rule, bombing its countryside to weaken Vietnamese communist forces and exacting maximal concessions from North Vietnam, all in order to save face, was apparently more important in Kissinger’s mind than the millions who could — and did — suffer as a result of his actions.