Why The #DemDebate Exchange Over Henry Kissinger Matters for Asian Americans

Henry Kissinger. (Photo credit: Unknown)
Henry Kissinger. (Photo credit: Unknown)

In a presidential primary cycle that has largely failed to acknowledge or address the growing AAPI electorate, last week the two remaining candidates for the Democratic party’s nomination appeared on-stage for their seventh debate appearance. Many have focused on the debate’s coverage of domestic issues – particularly on the answers by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders on racial justice – but few have focused on a crucial exchange between the two primary candidates that should have critical relevance for the Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.

In the latter third of the debate, debate moderators turned the attention of the candidates to foreign policy, and Sanders seized upon the moment to launch into an impassioned critique of former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (full video after the jump).

Sanders said:

I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive Secretaries of State in the history of the country. I’m proud to say that Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger.

Unfortunately, the momentousness of this statement went largely unnoticed by debate viewers; after all, it has been nearly forty years since Kissinger served any president in the White House. But, this rare example of a mainstream presidential primary candidate daring to speak out against Henry Kissinger – who remains a protected pillar of the foreign policy establishment in Washington – is noteworthy.

The AAPI community must, in particular, take heed.

Henry Kissinger served as National Security Advisor under President Richard Nixon, and was later appointed US Secretary of State under Nixon and his successor, President Gerald Ford. In those capacities, Kissinger singlehandedly masterminded much of the United States’ foreign policy between 1969 and 1977, a role that resulted in Kissinger being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his contributions towards negotiating a ceasefire in the Vietnam War between North and South Vietnamese troops earlier that year.

However, careful examination of Kissinger’s record during his White House years belies this honour. Documents released since he left office reveal that – rather than a man who promoted peace — Henry Kissinger was actually directly responsible for numerous immoral, and likely illegal, acts that resulted in the killing of thousands of innocents in this conflict – most of them Asian people.

Henry Kissinger represents a particular flavor of American foreign policy that posits that international relations should be framed solely through the lens of American political benefit. More simply, Kissingerian principles – which did not originate with Kissinger but which are certainly best exemplified by his term in office — assert that when it comes to American foreign policy, American political interests are more important than the preservation of non-American lives. In practice, Kissingerian principles has resulted in the shedding of non-American, and typically non-White, blood on an unthinkably massive scale.

My copy of "The Trial of Henry Kissinger". (Photo credit: Reappropriate)
My copy of “The Trial of Henry Kissinger”. (Photo credit: Reappropriate)

In 2001, essayist and journalist Christopher Hitchens penned “The Trial of Henry Kissinger”, an exhaustive discussion of the former Secretary of State’s blood-stained legacy; in this book, Hitchens supports his charges against Kissinger with numerous government records. The most serious allegations focus on Kissinger’s unecessary prolonging and exacerbation of hostilities between North and South Vietnam for an additional four years in the name of partisan politics.

The Vietnam War had raged for years, claiming thousands of military and civilian lives. By 1968, both sides were interested in a formal ceasefire. This was also an election year in the United States, yet President Lyndon B. Johnson anticipated being able to finally negotiate a peace agreement between representatives of North and South Vietnam in Paris. Kissinger, a loyal Republican partisan who was among the few privy to the details of these talks, notified the Nixon campaign and in conjunction with Nixon representatives secretly contacted the South Vietnamese delegation promising that if they waited until Nixon’s inauguration, the Republicans would broker terms more favourable for South Vietnam. This act not only sabotaged the 1968 Paris peace talks and embarassed the Johnson administration, but illegally undermined the role of the sitting president as being the sole representative of the United States in matters of foreign policy – all so that Kissinger and the Nixon campaign could score political points by allowing the Republican party to take credit for brokering peace in Southeast Asia.

When Nixon came into office in 1969 and appointed Kissinger National Security Advisor, Kissinger set out to obtain the promised favourable terms for South Vietnam by redoubling military efforts against North Vietnamese fighters, and increasing the death toll to such an extent as to force North Vietnam to sue for peace under less favourable terms for their side. Even while Kissinger began formally withdrawing American troops from Vietnam, he authorized nearly 3,600 B-52 bombing runs in the neighbouring countries of Laos and Cambodia – which were deliberately kept secret from the American public because no war had been formally declared in these countries — ostensibly to apply pressure to North Vietnamese military supply lines. In truth, these military actions amounted to the indiscriminate killing of hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian civilians in military actions unsanctioned by the American public, and they precipitated a civil war that resulted in the further deaths and displacement of thousands more.

Reflecting on how her own family’s history was indelibly altered by American military actions in Cambodia, Khmer American writer and activist Vanessa Teck wrote:

On April 17th, 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. Like many Khmer Americans, my family came to the United States as refugees from Cambodia in 1982. My grandparents reflect back on the day the Khmer Rouge scoured the city and announced over their loud speakers that the Americans were going to begin dropping their bombs. Greeting the citizens with smiles, they expressed that safety was their priority and all those living within the city should evacuate to the countryside. They promised that the invasion would be over and they would be able to return to the city. Yet, it would be four years of terror before any lucky survivors would be able to return to the remains of their homes. My family had no choice but to abandon all of their belongings and at that precise moment, their entire lives.

The B-52 bombing campaign of the Cambodian and Laotian countryside masterminded by Kissinger was nicknamed “Operation Menu”, with each phase given the deceptively innocuous names “Breakfast”, “Lunch”, “Dinner”, “Snacks” and “Dessert” – but these acts of military terrorism were literally carving up the Southeast Asian countryside for consumption by American political interests. These secret bombings began with the start of the Nixon administration and continued for years and into the Ford administration even after hostilities between North and South Vietnam had officially ceased in 1973.

After just a few years in office, Henry Kissinger had succeeded in devastating the lives of hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian Americans to delay a peace accord that could have been signed before he had ever entered office. By the time North and South Vietnam returned to the peace talks in January 1973, they agreed to peace on the exact same terms that had been negotiated four years earlier by the Johnson administration.

But, Kissinger’s deplorable legacy is not limited just to his actions in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In his book, Hitchens discusses how Kissinger directly planned, or indirectly sanctioned, massacres of civilians by foreign governments or violent military coups of democratically-elected government officials, including in Chile, Bangladesh, and East Timor. None of these examples stand beyond the scope of this post, but nonetheless each warrant more extensive discussion than can fit into a single blog post, and therefore I invite readers to read Hitchens’ book for more details.

In summary, virtually all of the incidents presented by Hitchens as part of the official record of Henry Kissinger’s legacy are immoral. Many are arguably illegal violations of international law governing wartime actions, state sovereignty, and human rights. Yet, Kissinger has never been held accountable for these alleged war crimes.

Bernie Sander’s courageous repudiation of Henry Kissinger represents a rare, but necessary and long overdue, criticism of Kissinger’s unconscionable sacrifice of civilian lives – including the lives of innocent people living in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Bangladesh and East Timor — in pursuit of a supposedly stronger standing for the American government in the international sphere (whether this was even achieved by way of Kissinger’s actions is itself debatable).

Meanwhile, we must also consider former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s response to Sanders’ criticism. Unlike Sanders, Clinton offered a triangulated defense of Kissinger, pivoting attention to his historic and laudable role under the Nixon presidency in opening China to trade relations with America. Clinton’s choice to defend Kissinger is not surprising: Clinton’s ongoing close personal and professional relationship with Henry Kissinger is well-documented. While we should draw no conclusions based on Clinton’s personal friendship with Kissinger, it is reasonable to question the degree to which Kissinger and his non-humanist approach to foreign policy influences Clinton’s own philosophies on the subject.

In her memoirs, Clinton writes about seeking out Kissinger for advice on international relations with parts of Asia. In a New York Times review of a book authored by Kissinger, Clinton wrote “Kissinger is a friend, and I relied on his counsel when I served as secretary of state”. One is compelled to wonder about the quality of foreign policy advice one might receive from someone who feels no qualms about bombing hundreds of thousands of innocent people to advance an American president’s political goals. One is compelled to deplore how, once again, this country celebrates the political triumphs of a historical figure while we paper over the atrocities they committed against people of colour.

I do not write this post to say that a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote to endorse Henry Kissinger or his alleged war crimes; Clinton is obviously not responsible for Henry Kissinger’s legacy nor could we conclude that she would commit similar acts against a civilian populace if elected to the White House, and it would be irresponsible to suggest as much. But, I would offer that a vote for Bernie Sanders is a clear vote to repudiate Henry Kissinger’s legacy of state-sanctioned terrorism committed by the American government in the 1970’s against numerous (often non-White) civilians. For the Asian/Asian American and South American community that continues to bear the scars of that violence, Sanders’ impassioned rejection of Henry Kissinger, and his challenge to the American people that we adopt a revolutionarily humanist, non-Kissingerian style of American foreign policy, is essential.

For far too long, the violence suffered by Southeast Asians and Southeast Asian Americans at the hands of American military operations has gone unnoticed. We owe our Asian and Asian American brothers and sisters our attention, and outrage, on this terrible period in American history.

Hitchens concludes his book with an important insight.

The burden [to disavow Henry Kissinger’s actions as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State] rests with the American legal community and with the American human-rights lobbies and non-governmental organizations. They can either persist in averting their gaze from the egregious impunity enjoyed by a notorious war criminal and lawbreaker, or they can become seized by the exalted standard to which they continually hold everyone else. The current state of suspended animation, however, cannot last. If the courts and lawyers of this country will not do their duty, we shall watch as the victims and survivors of this man pursue justice and vindication in their own dignified and painstaking way, and at their own expense, and we shall be put to shame.

On Henry Kissinger and his policies which lead to destruction and killing on a massive scale in South America, Southeast Asia, South Asia and other parts of the world, this country can no longer afford to look away.

Read More: Genocide of Genealogies: For Those Who Refuse to be Silenced

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