Former US national security adviser and secretary of state Henry Kissinger did not want to subject Cambodia to a devastating bombing campaign during the US war in Vietnam.
He wanted to use tactical nuclear weapons over the railway link from North Vietnam to China and to bomb the dikes that prevented North Vietnam’s irrigation system from flooding the entire country, according to former Kissinger aide Roger Morris.
But both these measures, reported in Tad Szulc’s book “Foreign Policy in the Nixon Years,” were rejected.
Kissinger was given the green light, however, for a substitute plan: The expansion and intensification of bombing campaigns into Cambodia to cripple North Vietnamese supply lines—nicknamed the “Ho Chi Minh Trail.”
Thus, according to several books written on Kissinger’s role in Indochina, began the 1969 secret bombing campaign, which had already been preceded by the spraying of toxic defoliants such as Agent Orange. It saw the dumping of hundreds of thousands of bombs over Cambodia, yet it was never authorized by the US Congress.
With Nixon’s de facto permission, Kissinger took it upon himself to initiate the series of illegal bombings that would take the lives of between 5,000 and 500,000 Cambodians, according to genocide researcher Peter Maguire, in his book “Facing Death in Cambodia.”
Between March 1969 and May 1970, 3,630 bombing raids were flown across the Cambodian frontier with full knowledge of the effect on civilians, Christopher Hitchens wrote in his book “The Trial of Henry Kissinger.”
The raids were carried out by the much-feared B-52s—bombers that flew at such high altitudes and dropped bombs of such massive tonnage that their pilots were incapable of discriminating between a Cambodian village and a Vietcong military installation, aviation experts have said.
The height of Kissinger’s bombings took place in the first eight months of 1973, when the Khmer Rouge launched their “two-year campaign toward total victory” and the government of Lon Nol accepted Kissinger’s offer to bomb communist positions in the countryside, according to journalist Elizabeth Becker, in her authoritative book “When the War Was Over.”
“The US dropped 257,465 tons of explosives on the Khmer countryside during the ‘200 nights of bombing’ in 1973—half as many as were dropped on Japan during the Second World War,” Becker wrote. “The effect was immediate and devastating.”
Over 500,000 refugees poured into Phnom Penh in this period, seeking safety from bombs that set their fields and hamlets ablaze; bombs so powerful that they blew out the eardrums of anyone standing within a 1-km radius.
Craters left over by these bombs dot the countryside. They can be seen, among other places, on the grounds of Kompong Thom province’s Sambor Prei Kuk archeological park. After more than 30 years’ exposure to the constant flooding and caking of monsoons, the smallest crater still cuts 2 meters deep and about 10 meters in diameter.
Historians and correspondents of the era agree that the bombing campaigns increased the strength of the Khmer Rouge to a level that seemed unthinkable prior to Kissinger’s attack on Cambodia.
“The bombs radicalized the people in the provinces and turned the countryside into a massive dedicated and effective revolutionary base,” according to Richard Dudman, quoted in Malcolm Caldwell and Lek Tan’s book, “Cambodia in the Southeast Asian War.”
Evidence of Kissinger’s direct involvement in the bombing raids over Cambodia can be found in hundreds of sources and documents, even in one of Kissinger’s biographies, “White House Years.”
In it, Kissinger boasts that he, with senior US defense officials like Colonel Ray Sitton, the top expert on B-52 tactics at the time, “worked out the guidelines for the bombing of the enemy’s sanctuaries.”
Sitton corroborated these comments in statements he made regarding Kissinger’s regular overruling in the selecting of targets. “Not only was Henry carefully screening the raids,” he said, “he was reading the raw intelligence” and doctoring bomb patterns.
In his book, “The Trial of Henry Kissinger,” Hitchens argues that, despite the moral and legal complicity of several former US presidents, “there is little difficulty in identifying individual responsibility during [the war’s] most atrocious and indiscriminate stage.
“Richard Nixon as commander in chief bears ultimate responsibility. But his deputy and closest advisor, Henry Kissinger, [who] forced himself into a position of virtual co-presidency where Indochina was concerned,” is the man who pulled the trigger, Hitchens wrote.
By Aug 15, 1973, widespread press coverage on the bombing campaign finally forced the US Congress to open its eyes and put an end to the madness.
In his defense, Kissinger said that everyone knew about the raids, including then-prince Norodom Sihanouk. Kissinger had to be reminded, Hitchens reported, that a foreign monarch cannot give a US bureaucrat permission to “slaughter large numbers of his own civilians.”
Kissinger today, the elder statesman, is a media darling who demands $25,000 per public appearance, Hitchens wrote.
“[And] that may be among the most nauseating reflections of all,” Hitchens wrote. “Kissinger is not invited and feted because of his exquisite manners or his mordent wit. No, he is sought after because his presence supplies a frisson: The authentic touch of raw and unapologetic power.”