In My Own Words: Kissinger and the Cambodian genocide

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

If you are an admirer of Henry Kissinger, you might not want to read this column because it will tarnish his image for you. But after his recent death, I feel compelled to share what I have long thought: Kissinger should have stood trial as a war criminal for the illegal bombing of Cambodia that he and President Richard M. Nixon authorized. The bombing was not an accident: they knew the destruction they caused was illegal. 

I first learned about this when reading “Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia” by William Shawcross, which was originally published in 1979. The Vietnam War was a formative event in my life. I was opposed to the war because it was a civil war between two dictatorships (no matter what they claimed). The French, who had previously had troops in Vietnam, were savvy enough to leave before they lost more lives. We Americans were not as smart. 

According to the in-depth research and numerous people Shawcross talked to, Kissinger admitted that the bombing was illegal, but didn’t care. Those bombings and American aid to overthrow the neutral government of Cambodia led to the Khmer Rouge government under Pol Pot and genocide. Estimates of the deaths Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were responsible for range from more than 1.25 million to as many as three million. The general consensus is that at least two million members of the Cambodian population (said to have been about seven and a half million at the time) were murdered by this government. 

From what I’ve read, President John F. Kennedy had planned to remove American troops from Vietnam after his re-election. Unfortunately, after he was assassinated, President Lyndon B. Johnson instead increased the number of troops and the U.S. became involved in a war it could not win. If not for the war, Johnson might have gone down in history as one of the greatest U.S. presidents for his work on civil rights. Unfortunately, his legacy was greatly tarnished by the huge waste of human life he caused. 

Yet, from 1969-73, it was Nixon and Kissinger who expanded the war to Cambodia – a war that was clearly illegal. Shawcross quoted fellow Harvard University professors who spoke to Kissinger because they could not believe he knew about the bombings. But he did and he approved of them. The president, the head of the executive branch and leader of our government, and Kissinger, his secretary of state, were fine with illegally carrying out a war and had no concern about its effect on the Cambodian population.

Why do I take this so personally? Because Nixon and Kissinger make me responsible for the deaths of at least two million Cambodians who were murdered by the Khmer Rouge government. Yes, we Americans are responsible for those deaths because we voted into office someone who allowed that to happen. Why am I more upset about Kissinger than Nixon? Because Kissinger was a Jew whose family escaped from Nazi Germany. He should have been different; he should have been better. 

For those who think this is ancient history, remember that we Jews carry our history and legacy with us, even centuries after events occurred, such as the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. The Vietnam War and the genocide in Cambodia are part of my American legacy, one of which I am not proud. That means I felt no sorrow when Kissinger died. What I still feel is sorrow for the country that was almost destroyed by his folly.