excerpted from the book
The Trial of Henry Kissinger
by Christopher Hitchins
Verso Press, 2001
Some statements are too blunt for everyday, consensual discourse.
In national "debate," it is the smoother pebbles that
are customarily gathered from the stream, and used as projectiles.
They leave less of a scar, even when they hit. Occasionally, however,
a single hard-edged remark will inflict a deep and jagged wound,
a gash so ugly that it must be cauterized at once. In January
1971, General Telford Taylor, who had been chief prosecuting counsel
at the Nuremberg trials, made a considered statement. Reviewing
the legal and moral basis of those hearings, and also the Tokyo
trials of Japanese war criminals and the Manila trial of Emperor
Hirohito's chief militarist, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, Taylor
said that if the standards of Nuremberg and Manila were applied
evenly, and applied to the American statesmen and bureaucrats
who designed the war in Vietnam, then "there would be a very
strong possibility that they would come to the same end he [Yamashita]
did." It is not every day that a senior American soldier
and jurist delivers the opinion that a large portion of his country's
political class should probably be hooded and blindfolded and
dropped through a trapdoor on the end of a rope.
In his book Nuremberg and Vietnam, General [Telford] Taylor
[who had been chief prosecuting counsel at the Nuremberg trials,
Military courts and commissions have customarily rendered
their judgments stark and unsupported by opinions giving the reason
for their decision. The Nuremberg and Tokyo judgments, in contrast,
were all based on extensive opinions detailing the evidence and
analyzing the factual and legal issues, in the fashion of appellate
tribunals generally. Needless to say they were not of uniform
quality, and often reflected the logical shortcomings of compromise,
the marks of which commonly mar the opinions of multi-member tribunals.
But the process was professional in a way seldom achieved in military
courts, and the records and judgments in these trials provided
a much-needed foundation for a corpus of judge-made international
penal law. The results of the trials commended themselves to the
newly-formed United Nations, and on December 11, 1946, the General
Assembly adopted a resolution affirming "the principles of
international law recognized by the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal
and the judgment of the Tribunal."
However history may ultimately assess the wisdom or unwisdom
of the war crimes trials, one thing is indisputable. At their
conclusion, the United States Government stood legally, politically
and morally committed to the principles enunciated in the charters
and judgments of the tribunals. The President of the United States,
on the recommendations of the Departments of State, War and Justice,
approved the war crimes programs. Thirty or more American judges,
drawn from the appellate benches of the states from Massachusetts
to Oregon, and Minnesota to Georgia, conducted the later Nuremberg
trials and wrote the opinions. General Douglas MacArthur, under
authority of the Far Eastern Commission, established the Tokyo
tribunal and confirmed the sentences it imposed, and it was under
his authority as the highest American military officer in the
Far East that the Yamashita and other such proceedings were held.
The United States delegation to the United Nations presented the
resolution by which the General Assembly endorsed the Nuremberg
principles. Thus the integrity of the nation is staked on those
principles, and today the question is how they apply to our conduct
of the war in Vietnam, and whether the United States Government
is prepared to face the consequences of their application.
General [Telford] Taylor described the practise of air strikes
against [Vietnamese] hamlets suspected of "harboring"
Vietnamese guerrillas as "flagrant violations of the Geneva
Convention on Civilian Protection, which prohibits 'collective
penalties' and 'reprisals against protected persons' and equally
in violation of the Rules of Land Warfare." He was writing
before this atrocious precedent had been extended to "reprisal
raids" that treated two whole countries - Laos and Cambodia
- as if they were disposable hamlets.
... very soon after the accession of Nixon and Kissinger to power,
a program of heavy bombardment of the country [Cambodia] was prepared
and executed in secret. One might with some revulsion call it
a "menu" of bombardment, since the code names for the
raids were "Breakfast," Lunch," "Snack,"
"Dinner," and "Dessert." The raids were flown
by B-52 bombers which, it is important to note at the outset,
fly at an altitude too high to be observed from the ground and
carry immense tonnages of high explosive: they give no warning
of approach and are incapable of accuracy or discrimination because
of both their altitude and the mass of their shells. Between 18
March 1969 and May 1970, 3,630 such raids were flown across the
Cambodian frontier. The bombing campaign began as it was to go
on - with full knowledge of its effect on civilians, and with
flagrant deceit by Mr Kissinger in this precise respect.
As a result of the expanded and intensified bombing campaigns,
It has been estimated that as many as 350,000 civilians in Laos,
and 600,000 in Cambodia, lost their lives. (These are not the
highest estimates.) Figures for refugees are several multiples
of that. In addition, the widespread use of toxic chemical defoliants
created a massive health crisis which naturally fell most heavily
on children, nursing mothers, the aged and the already infirm,
and which persists to this day.
Though this appalling war, and its appalling consequences,
can and should be taken as a moral and political crisis for American
institutions, for at least five United States presidents, and
for American society, there is little difficulty in identifying
individual responsibility during this, its most atrocious and
indiscriminate stage. Richard Nixon as Commander in Chief bears
ultimate responsibility, and only narrowly escaped a congressional
move to include his crimes and deceptions in Indochina in the
articles of impeachment, the promulgation of which eventually
compelled his resignation. But his deputy and closest advisor,
Henry Kissinger, was sometimes forced, and sometimes forced himself,
into a position of virtual co-presidency where Indochina was concerned.
For example, in the preparations for the invasion of Cambodia
in 1970, Kissinger was caught between the views of his staff-
several of whom resigned in protest when the invasion began -
and his need to please his President. His President listened more
to his two criminal associates - John Mitchell and Bebe Rebozo
- than he did to his Secretaries of State and Defense, William
Rogers and Melvin Laird, both of whom were highly skeptical about
widening the war. On one especially charming occasion, a drunken
Nixon telephoned Kissinger to discuss the invasion plans. He then
put Bebe Rebozo on the line. "The President wants you to
know if this doesn't work, Henry, it's your ass." "Ain't
that right, Bebe?" slurred the Commander in Chief (The conversation
was monitored and transcribed by one of Kissinger's soon-to-resign
staffers, William Watts.) It could be said that in this instance
the National Security Advisor was under pressure; nevertheless
he took the side of the pro-invasion faction and, according to
the memoirs of General William Westmoreland, actually lobbied
for that invasion to go ahead.
A somewhat harder picture is presented by former Chief of
Staff H.R. Haldeman in his Diaries. On 22 December 1970, he records:
Henry came up with the need to meet with the P[resident]
today with Al Haig and then tomorrow with Laird and Moorer because
he has to use the P [resident] to force Laird and the military
to go ahead with the P [resident]'s plans, which they won't carry
out without direct orders. The plans in question, involved . .
. attacking enemy forces in Laos.
In his own memoirs, White House Years, Kissinger claims that
he usurped the customary chain of command whereby commanders in
the field receive, or believe that they receive, their orders
from the President and then the Secretary of Defense. He boasts
that he, together with Haldeman, Alexander Haig and Colonel Ray
Sitton, evolved "both a military and a diplomatic schedule"
for the secret bombing of Cambodia. On board Air Force One, which
was on the tarmac at Brussels airport on 24 February 1969, he
writes, "we worked out the guidelines for the bombing of
the enemy's sanctuaries." Air Force Colonel Sitton, the reigning
expert on B-52 tactics at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that
the President was not at the meeting but had said that he would
be discussing the subject with Kissinger. A few weeks later, Haldeman's
Diaries for 17 March record:
Historic day. K[issinger]'s "Operation Breakfast"
finally came off at 2.00 PM our time. K[issinger] really excited,
as was P[resident].
The next day's entry reads:
K[issinger]'s "Operation Breakfast" a great success.
He came beaming in with the report, very productive.
It only got better. On 22 April 1970, Haldeman reports that
Nixon, following Kissinger into a National Security Council meeting
on Cambodia, "turned back to me with a big smile and said
'K[issinger]'s really having fun today, he's playing Bismarck."'
The above is an insult to the Iron Chancellor. When Kissinger
was finally exposed in Congress and the press for conducting unauthorized
bombings, he weakly pleaded that the raids were not all that secret,
really, because Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia had known of them.
He had to be reminded that a foreign princeling cannot give permission
to an American bureaucrat to violate the United States Constitution.
Nor, for the matter of that, can he give permission to an American
bureaucrat to slaughter large numbers of his "own" civilians.
It's difficult to imagine Bismarck cowering behind such a contemptible
excuse. (Prince Sihanouk, it is worth remembering, later became
an abject puppet of the Khmer Rouge.)
Colonel Sitton began to notice that by late 1969 his own office
was being regularly overruled in the matter of selecting targets.
"Not only was Henry carefully screening the raids,"
said Sitton, "he was reading the raw intelligence" and
fiddling with the mission patterns and bombing runs. In other
departments of Washington insiderdom, it was also noticed that
Kissinger was becoming a Stakhanovite committeeman. Aside from
the crucial Forty Committee, which planned and oversaw all foreign
covert actions, he chaired the Washington Special Action Group
(WSAG), the Verification Panel, which was concerned with arms
control, the Vietnam Special Studies Group, which oversaw the
day-to-day conduct of the war, and the Defense Program Review
Committee, which supervised the budget of the Defense Department.
It is therefore impossible for him to claim that he was unaware
of the consequences of the bombings of Cambodia and Laos; he knew
more about them, and in more intimate detail, than any other individual.
Nor was he imprisoned in a culture of obedience that gave him
no alternative, or no rival arguments. Several senior members
of his own staff, most notably Anthony Lake and Roger Morris,
resigned over the invasion of Cambodia, and more than two hundred
State Department employees signed a protest addressed to Secretary
of State William Rogers. Indeed, as has been noted, both Rogers
and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird were opposed to the B-52
bombing policy, as Kissinger himself records with some disgust
in his own memoirs. Congress was also opposed to an extension
of the bombing (once it had agreed to become informed of it) but,
even after the Nixon-Kissinger administration had undertaken on
Capitol Hill not to intensify the raids, there was a 21 percent
increase of the bombing of Cambodia in the months July-August
1973. The Air Force maps of the targeted areas show them to be,
or to have been, densely populated.
Colonel Sitton does recall, it must be admitted, that Kissinger
requested that bombing avoid civilian casualties. His explicit
motive in making this request was to avoid or forestall complaints
from the government of Prince Sihanouk. But this does no more
in itself than demonstrate that Kissinger was aware of the possibility
of civilian deaths. If he knew enough to know of their likelihood,
and was director of the policy that inflicted them, and neither
enforced any actual precautions nor reprimanded any violators,
then the case against him is legally and morally complete.
As early as the fall of 1970, an independent investigator
named Fred Branfman, who spoke Lao and knew the country as a civilian
volunteer, had gone to Bangkok and interviewed Jerome Brown, a
former targeting officer for the United States embassy in the
Laotian capital of Vientiane. The man had retired from the Air
Force because of his disillusionment at the futility of the bombing
and his consternation at the damage done to civilians and society.
The speed and height of the planes, he said, meant that targets
were virtually indistinguishable from the air. Pilots would often
decide to drop bombs where craters already existed, and chose
villages as targets because they could be more readily identified
than alleged Pathet Lao guerrillas hiding in the jungle. Branfman,
whom I interviewed in San Francisco in the summer of 2000, went
on to provide this and other information to Henry Kamm and Sydney
Schanberg of the New York Times, to Ted Koppel of ABC, and to
many others. He also wrote up and published his findings in Harper's
magazine, where they were not controverted by any authority. Under
pressure from the US embassy, the Laotian authorities had Branfman
deported back to the United States, which was probably, from their
point of view, a mistake. He was able to make a dramatic appearance
on Capitol Hill on 22 April 1971, at a hearing held by Senator
Edward Kennedy's Senate Subcommittee on Refugees. His antagonist
was the State Department's envoy William Sullivan, a former ambassador
to Laos. Branfman accused him in front of the cameras of helping
to conceal evidence that Laotian society was being mutilated by
ferocious aerial bombardment.
Partly as a consequence, Congressman Pete McCloskey of California
(a much-decorated veteran of the war in Korea) paid a visit to
Laos and acquired a copy of an internal US embassy study of the
bombing. He also prevailed on the US Air Force to furnish him
with aerial photographs of the dramatic damage. Ambassador Sullivan
was so disturbed by these pictures, some of them taken in areas
known to him, that his first reaction was to establish to his
own satisfaction that the raids had occurred after he left his
post in Vientiane. (He was later to learn that, for his pains,
his own telephone was being tapped at Henry Kissinger's instigation,
one of the many such violations of American law that were to eventuate
in the Watergate tapping-and-burglary scandal: a scandal that
Kissinger was furthermore to plead - in an astounding outburst
of vanity, deceit and self-deceit - as his own alibi for inattention
in the Cyprus crisis.)
Having done what he could to bring the Laotian nightmare to
the attention of those whose constitutional job it was to supervise
such questions, Branfman went back to Thailand and from there
to Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia. Having gained access to a
pilot's radio, he tape-recorded the conversations between pilots
on bombing missions over the Cambodian interior. On no occasion
did they run any checks designed to reassure themselves and others
that they were not bombing civilian targets. It had been definitely
asserted, by named US government spokesmen, that such checks were
run. Branfman handed the tapes to Sydney Schanberg, whose New
York Times report on them was printed just before the Senate met
to prohibit further blitzing of Cambodia (the very resolution
that was flouted by Kissinger the following month).
From there Branfman went back to Thailand and travelled north
to Nakhorn Phanom, the new headquarters of the US Seventh Air
Force. Here, a war room code-named "Blue Chip" served
as the command and control center of the bombing campaign. Branfman,
who is tall and well-built, was able to pose as a new recruit
just up from Saigon, and ultimately to gain access to the war
room itself Here, consoles and maps and screens plotted the progress
of the bombardment. In conversation with the "bombing officer"
on duty, he asked if pilots ever made contact before dropping
their enormous loads of ordnance. Oh, yes, he was assured, they
did. Worried about hitting the innocent? Oh, no - merely concerned
about the whereabouts of CIA "ground teams" infiltrated
into the area. Branfman's report on this, which was carried by
Jack Anderson's syndicated column and also in the Washington Monthly,
was likewise uncontroverted by any official denial.
One reason that the United States command in Southeast Asia
finally ceased employing the crude and horrific tally of "body
count" was that, as in the relatively small but specific
case of Speedy Express cited above, the figures began to look
ominous when they were counted up. Sometimes, totals of "enemy"
dead would turn out, when computed, to be suspiciously larger
than the number of claimed "enemy" in the field. Yet
the war would somehow drag on, with new quantitative goals being
set and enforced. Thus, according to the Pentagon, the following
are the casualty figures between the first Lyndon Johnson bombing
halt in March 1968 and the same date in 1972:
Americans - 31,205
South Vietnamese regulars - 86,101
"Enemy" - 475,609
The US Senate Subcommittee on Refugees estimated that in the
same four-year period rather more than three million civilians
were killed, injured or rendered homeless. In the same four-year
period, the United States dropped almost 4,500,000 tons of high
explosive on Indochina. (The Pentagon's estimated total for the
tonnage dropped in the entire Second World War is 2,044,000.)
This total does not include massive sprayings of chemical defoliants
and pesticides, the effects of which are still being registered
by the region's ecology. Nor does it include the land-mines which
detonate to this day.
It is unclear how we count the murder or abduction of 35,708
Vietnamese civilians by the CIA's counter-guerrilla "Phoenix
program" during the first two and a half years of the Nixon-Kissinger
administration. There may be some "overlap." There is
also some overlap with the actions of previous administrations
in all cases. But the truly exorbitant death tolls all occurred
on Henry Kissinger's watch, were known and understood by were
concealed from Congress, the press and the public by him ...
Trial of Henry Kissinger