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, said]

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 ...

The Trial of Henry Kissinger

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