Fifty years after Henry Kissinger drove American foreign policy in Southeast Asia, the region continues to live with the fallout from the bombing and military campaigns backed by the former secretary of state, who died last week.
In Cambodia, unexploded ordnance left over from Vietnam War-era carpet bombings, orchestrated by Kissinger and President Richard Nixon, are among the remnants of war that continue to kill and maim adults and children, year after year.
The country of roughly 17 million is also still recovering from the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, the brutal, ousted government that experts say gained recruits buoyed by desperation in the country after the relentless American assaults.
“(Before the Americans) the countryside of Cambodia had never been bombed out … but (then) something would drop from the sky without warning and suddenly … explode the entire village,” said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Phnom Penh-based Documentation Center of Cambodia.
“When your village is bombed and you were told that it’s some Americans that dropped the bomb and when you lost your sister, your brothers, your parents … what is your choice? Be a victim and die by the bomb or fight back,” said Chhang, himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious “killing fields,” whose organization now documents the legacy of the genocidal regime.
Even today, the generation born after the Khmer Rouge may largely not be aware of the names or legacy or Kissinger and Nixon, Chhang added, “but (they know) the history of the B52 (bombers) and the American involvement in Cambodia.”
Kissinger’s death at the age of 100 last week has placed back into the spotlight the actions of the controversial titan of American diplomacy, with some of the starkest critiques coming from Southeast Asia, where the US was already at war when Nixon took office in 1969.
Kissinger, who served as his national security advisor and later secretary of state, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his role brokering a ceasefire that ended US involvement in the war in Vietnam – and came on the heels of heavy US bombing across northern Vietnam.
But documents declassified in recent decades have shown an unvarnished picture of the closed-door calculations that saw Kissinger and Nixon ramping up covert bombings across Cambodia and extending a secret war in Laos as they sought to choke off North Vietnamese supply lines and quash Communist movements in the countries.
It’s not known how many people died during this time in Cambodia and Laos, which were officially neutral in the war, but historians say the number could be well over 150,000 in Cambodia alone.
Documents have also revealed what analysts say was the role of Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford and Kissinger in signaling America’s approval of Indonesian President Suharto’s bloody 1975 invasion of East Timor, estimated to have left at least 100,000 dead.
“Kissinger and Nixon saw the world in terms of getting the kinds of outcomes that they wanted – people who were in weaker or marginalized positions, they didn’t really matter that much. So the fact that they were made unwilling pawns, the fact that they became literally cannon fodder, was of no consequence,” said political scientist Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.
“This sort of action does have a cost on the US more broadly – a lot of the continuing skepticism and suspicion about the US and US intentions was born out of actions such as what Kissinger and Nixon had engaged in.”
From October 1965 to August 1973, the United States dropped at least 2,756,941 tons of ordnance over Cambodia, a country roughly the size of the US state of Missouri. That’s more than the Allies dropped during World War II, according to an account by Yale University historian Ben Kiernan.
Such ordnance in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, as well as landmines and other explosives from the decades of conflict that followed in the destabilized region, continue to pose a grave risk to people living there.